Medical data in the cloud, gathered constantly by a smarter phone?
Monster spider so big that it could wrap an adult human in webbing?
Man moving a cube with his mind?
And a joke-telling, dancing robot?
It could only be the Thinking Digital 2011 conference.
I am more used to academic conferences, and public services unconferences. Thinking Digital is a different kind of conference. The setting is fabulous (I am totally biased when it comes to the quaysides of Newcastle and Gateshead!). The welcome is warm. There is an interesting mix of people attending. It is a technology-focused conference that includes the arts as much as science and engineering. I doubt that many conferences are more friendly or upbeat than Thinking Digital.
The conference programme seemed to run smoothly, even though we knew it had been affected by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud causing airports to close so some speakers could not get to Newcastle.
Herb Kim asked me as I was leaving the after-party which speaker I had enjoyed most. That was a difficult one to answer because there was so much that was very good. Being asked unexpectedly, when I was still mentally digesting it all, the ones who really stood out for me were Conrad Wolfram, Heather Knight, Tan Le and Atau Tanaka. These were the ones whose presentations not only excited me and caused me to think most, but also made me want to know or do more afterwards.
Conrad Wolfram was such an most engaging speaker that I found myself wanting to learn more about maths. At school, about the only time I took an interest when I was allowed to experiment with doing arithmetic in ancient, non-Arabic numbering systems.
Like many, I had played with Wolfram|Alpha when it first became available to the public (I loved the fact that it had been programmed with some humour, and soon discovered that it did a HAL impersonation). I still use it occasionally, especially when writing or researching. Conrad Wolfram showed us something of the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. I had not heard of this and look forward to exploring it more.
What really interested me more specifically was the prospect of a new digital document format: Computable Document Format. It seems to incorporate what I could only describe as live data. I am very curious about how that might work. My first thought was ‘how easy will it be to archive such a document?’ I look forward to finding out more about it.
In the meantime, you may well find me playing with things on the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. I have also just spotted that Wolfram claim Mathematica 8 can do something that is of very great interest to me. I think that I need to spend quite a lot of time reading the content on one or two of their websites.
Heather Knight and Data the robot
Ok, so the hall was full of adults – properly grown-up adults, many in their 30s or 40s or older – and eyes were glued on the smooth, shiny figure initially seated on the table. We heard the young woman talking, but what everyone was really watching and listening for, waiting with bated breath, was for the pale, curvy figure on the table to move or make a noise.
When it did, there was a quiet but audible simultaneous exhalation as everyone very quietly went “Ohhhhhhh!”
There was a ripple of laughter as Data the robot told jokes. Eyes shone, and people grinned delightedly as the robot did a dance that was perhaps a little more tai chi than jazz.
Heather also showed us the OK Go This Too Shall Pass video that she had worked on with lots of others. The video of Adam Sadowsky’s TEDx talk explains a bit more about how the video was made – and how one of Heather’s shoes became part of it. The audience at Thinking Digital was totally captivated by the video below, and at particular points, as if there were a mind connection between all, there were spontaneous ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ and ‘wows’ from all parts of the hall. I think that everyone was grinning broadly throughout.
But back to the robot… It is a Nao Series robot created by Aldebaran Robotics, a company based in France. You could tell that people were keen on the robot because someone asked Heather if it is possible to buy one, and if so, how much it would cost. I wanted to borrow Heather and arrange for her to do a tour round some UK schools. Her enthusiasm and sense of fun is infectious, and I think that she might make a few more girls think that science or engineering is for them.
It would be really interesting to try having scientists/engineers-in-residence like Heather in schools and communities, doing projects in a similar way to how artists/craftspeople-in-residence do. I had a look at the Aldebaran Robotics website and noticed that they have more than one type of robot, and the aim is for them to be used in education. They would be very expensive pieces of kit for UK schools to purchase, but what if a project bought one or a few and a suitable engineer/scientist took it on a road tour, working with schools or youth organisations to provide opportunities for all kinds of young people to have a go at learning to programme such a handsome robot? Would children find it a bit boring because they’re used to computer game images that can do more than a live, 3D robot? Or would they find it an inspiring experience that encouraged them to aspire to make something even better?
Tan Le and the mind-moving matter
Another great interactive presentation was by Tan Le, with Rob Collings (aka @subtitling on Twitter) as
victim stooge volunteer.
Do read Tan Le’s brief bio on the Thinking Digital website. Her achievements are extraordinary.
She gave a quick history of mind reading – in the scientific sense, of course – and how the technology developments means that it is becoming easier and much cheaper to detect brain activity. This means that it is beginning to be possible to create applications that could control computers and machinery through thoughts.
Some of the potential benefits for people with impaired mobility are obvious. Tan Le showed us a video of someone trying driving a car using their mind only. It was not done on the public highway, of course. I did wonder what would happen if one’s attention is distracted momentarily, or has one of those ‘what if I accidentally moved/braked/steered/increased speed wrongly?’ thoughts. I am not sure that I want to be on a road where there could be angry people controlling cars very directly with their minds.
Most impressive was the live demonstration on stage. Under the bright lights and the gaze of hundreds upon him, Rob had to wear a spider-like sensor device on his head and to try to visualise moving a cube. Tan Le asked him to do it a couple of times so the software knew what patterns his brainwaves make when visualising that. We then saw on the screen a cube dropping down as Rob thought of that shape making that movement.
It’s a long way off being able to read people’s minds, but it does raise so many fascinating possibilities. Passing thoughts in my mind included could this be helpful in some way with helping people with Alzheimer’s; and could it help with treating long-term depressions, for example, being useful in cognitive behavioural therapy? There are also discussions about the ethics of such technology that we should be having now. So much about how the brain is still not known.
I suppose that the commercial prospects of this technology will be seen initially as being in its application in games. Games are certainly a good way of getting people used to using a new type of technology but its potential could be so much greater. Perhaps this is technology that could be developed for use in particular emergency situations, or where fine control of robotic equipment is required in conditions too hostile for humans?
One of the best places to read a bit more about Steven Bathiche’s work is on Microsoft’s website. He is currently the Director of Research in Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group.
The screen he showed us on video is able to be an clear input and display device simultaneously. It can also read the touch of an object such as a paint brush so one could paint with virtual paint but a real brush.
The aim is to create a surface that enables more intuitive and responsive human computer interaction, and thereby make the computer less of a barrier or obvious intermediary between people. I would love to put together a team to play with what they are developing and seeing what we could create that would work on it.
I could see that it has great potential within cultural institutions and in the hands of creative people. I suspect it will be some time before we do get a chance to play with such things. It tends to take quite a few years for the price of hardware to come down enough for museums, galleries and the like to consider trying it. Microsoft, if you should happen to be reading this, I think that we could do some fun and interesting things in public culture with such technology if you ever want to test it in the wilds of the UK.
Atau Tanaka and Culture Lab
I have to admit that I had not kept up-to-date with what the Culture Lab people have been doing over the past 2 or 3 years, so was very interested to see that the Director, Atau Tanaka, Professor of Digital Media, would be talking at Thinking Digital 2011. When it had opened, the Culture Lab seemed to me to be more about performing arts of a storytelling or dancing type which had little to do with my professional work then.
Atau Tanaka told us of how they had taken new types of electronic instruments, digital cameras and laptops into rural areas of Africa. The intention was not to give the equipment to people but to give them the opportunity to see it, experience it, maybe try creating something with it themselves for a short while.
As I saw on the video the smiling faces of African children photographing their world and each other with digital cameras, I thought back to a project that Newcastle Libraries had done some years ago. They had worked with young asylum seekers and loaned them cameras to capture their new world in Newcastle. These young people had probably undergone disturbing or very traumatic experiences and were in a strange place, trying to communicate in a foreign language and different customs. The project intended to show them that their views were, literally, appreciated and that there was a space in the community for them.
Atau Tanaka mentioned very briefly the work that they were doing in the East side of Newcastle, and how they were aiming to encourage aspiration in the area. It remains one of the poorest areas in Europe, and is the same area in which the young asylum seekers photography project took place.
I am extremely interested in such projects, and am very keen to find out more about what the Culture Lab people have been doing. I am hoping to be involved in a little work to scope a project involving culture and digital technology in another local area with some similar challenges. My own work for some years has focused on the developing use of digital technology in cultural heritage; using it both to widen engagement with culture (especially with the cultural heritage and the built environment), and to encourage people to use digital technologies.
Finally, in brief
I could write a lot more, but nobody wants a book on one conference. So, just a few sentences about some of the other speakers at Thinking Digital 2011.
Christian Payne aka @Documentally
I have been following Christian on Twitter for a couple of years (a long time in social media), and met him briefly in real life at Thinking Digital 2010 (one day, maybe we will have a proper conversation). During his talk in the State of Social Media session during Thinking Digital University on 24th May, it was quite odd to hear him describe some things that I had experienced ‘first-hand’ on Twitter.
He led the session very well, of course. It was interesting to hear the more commercial angle on social media. I am usually focused on its use and potential for not-for-profit use. From what the panel said in that session, it seems that many big commercial companies still do not understand the shift in thinking required to get the best out of social media. From what I was hearing, I am not sure that all have realised that their audiences have moved on since the 1970s. I was highly amused to hear that some big corporations still think that they can be control freaks in the 21st century.
Dan spoke via a video link. Even though most people were just listening, there was a cosy sense of all being sat round a table together, with friends, enjoying a good gossip about people and things we all had in common. It was fun.
I expected Nancy Duarte to be a slickly professional speaker, as American speakers can be. She was certainly professional but she was a great deal more engaging than I expected. Her personal story surprised me, and did make me admire her achievements all the more.
Even though she explained in some detail how she had used oratorial devices to attract and hold our attention, to gain our sympathy, her methods still worked. She was an animated speaker, using physical gesture as much as words and images.
Sam talked about Manspaces. I think that this is more of an American concept. I really wanted to ask questions about the concept. If Americans had a middle class (one of my American friends insists that social classes do not exist in the United States), I would say that ‘manspaces’ are a very middle class idea. I think that they were called ‘dens’ in old American films.
I am curious about why American men should feel that their homes are female spaces and that they need to have their own masculine spaces. Do women have ‘womanspaces’ in the domestic space?
This gendered domestic spaces idea seems strange in the 21st century, even though we have it to some extent in the UK as well. I remember in the late 20th century occasionally going into bars that were decidedly male spaces, and that men-only clubs were common. I do still see spaces in Britain that seem often to be regarded as more masculine than feminine spaces, such as garden or allotment sheds and pigeon crees. Sam Martin was describing a space that seemed more domestic.
I am especially curious because, traditionally, most historical and archaeological environments have been (and mostly still are) interpreted as masculine spaces.
Chris Hatala and Wesley Burt, Massive Black Inc
These guys made animated images look so easy to do. Right in front of our eyes, on stage.
I did feel rather sorry for any arachnophobes in the audience as Chris explained in detail how a scene was created in which a monster spider wrapped up her human prey. He also showed us many stages in the development of one movement in the Lord of the Rings movie, and how the virtual reality Orlando Bloom was blended seamlessly with the real Orlando Bloom in the finished version.
I am still trying to get my head round the idea that someone could spend their working life just drawing fabric. I did wonder whether the division of labour leads to less sense of achievement ultimately.
Jer talked about what would be a very difficult commission for any artist: the 9/11 Memorial. He was involved with creating a programme to work out the placing of the names on the parapets around the memorial pools. The names are grouped in complex ways that provide some kind of visual representation of people’s connections.
Jer had had to keep his work on it and any knowledge of the project totally secret until three weeks before the Thinking Digital conference. Understandably, he was still finding it difficult to talk about that commission. I admired him greatly for undertaking such a sensitive and emotionally-difficult piece of work.
Amongst digital media folk, there is a saying ‘Never do live demos using the Internet.’ Of course, many ignore this because we’re adrenaline junkies really (or suffering from so much sleep deprivation trying to finish that website/presentation/whatever that all sense of risk is forgotten). Tom Scott, however, went headlong towards embracing the danger with a big manhug that left most of us gasping at his derring-do approach.
He set out to demonstrate that you really should be careful in checking your privacy settings in Facebook (and other social media web tools). The live demonstration culminated with him ringing someone. The call went through to voicemail. Tom revealed what he knew of him through publicly accessible information on his Facebook pages and got the audience to make a big noise to prove he was doing it with hundreds of witnesses.
It was done with humour, but was edge-of-the-seat stuff, and made everyone twitchy to check their own privacy settings.
Thinking Digital 2012
Herb Kim ended with inviting everyone to come back in 2012. Do. You will enjoy it. It is likely to make you think.
Thank you very much to Herb and the Thinking Digital team for putting together such a good event; and thanks to everyone else involved with making it such an enjoyable event, especially the lovely staff at the Sage Gateshead and the Baltic.
There has been a suggestion by Dave Thackeray (aka @thepodcastguy) of a Web badge for Thinking Digital 2011 attendees:
I would also suggest a range of T-shirts, mugs, and laptop backpacks:
Rocked by the Robot at Thinking Digital 2011;
Brainwaved at Thinking Digital 2011;
Thinking Digital 2011: the Herb v the Volcano edition.
Do look at the Thinking Digital website for the full list of 2011 speakers and more information about them.
Thinking Digital on Twitter as @ThinkingDigital
Herb Kim on Twitter as @herbkim
‘Stephen Wolfram Discusses Making the World’s Data Computable,’ 24th September 2011, Wolfram Data Summit, Washington DC <http://blog.wolfram.com/2010/09/24/stephen-wolfram-discusses-making-the-worlds-data-computable/> Last accessed 3rd June 2011.
Atau Tanaka and Culture Lab
‘Culture Lab’s Director [Atau Tanaka] interviews published ahead of Thinking Digital’ <http://culturelab.ncl.ac.uk/news-and-events/2011/05/23/culture-lab-directors-interviews-published-ahead-of-thinking-digital> Last accessed 2nd June 2011.
Dan Lyons is @realdanlyons on Twitter.
Alan Cohen, Cisco.
Heather Knight and Data the Robot
Heather Knight is @heatherknight on Twitter.
Data the robot is @robotinthewild on Twitter.
Video of Adam Sadowsky’s TEDx talk , in which he explains how Heather Knight’s shoe became part of the machine in ‘This Too Shall Pass’ video (amongst other things) <http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_sadowsky_engineers_a_viral_music_video.html> Last accessed 4th June 2011.
Tan Le (and
stooge volunteer-from-audience Rob Colling)
Tan Le page on the Thinking Digital website <http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk/speakers/tan-le/> Last accessed 4th June 2011.
Tan Le is @TanTTLe on Twitter.
Rob Colling, ‘Mind over matter,’ internetsubtitling.com Rob wrote about the experience of being the demonstration model during Tan Le’s talk about brainwaves being able to move virtual objects or control machines via computer <http://www.internetsubtitling.com/index.php?option=com_easyblog&view=entry&id=15> Last accessed 1st June 2011.
Rob Colling is @subtitling on Twitter.
Steven Batchiche profile on Microsoft’s website. <http://www.microsoft.com/appliedsciences/content/team/StevieBathiche.aspx> Last accessed on 4th June 2011.
Jer Thorp <http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk/speakers/jer-thorp/> Last accessed 4th June 2011.
Tom Scott is @tomscott on Twitter.
Christian Payne is @Documentally on Twitter.
Links to the websites of venues
Other blog posts or image sets relating to Thinking Digital 2011
Ian Forrester (aka @cubicgarden) Thinking Digital 2011: touching the emotions <http://cubicgarden.com/2011/05/30/thinking-digital-2011-touching-the-emotions/> last accessed 4th June 2011.
David Coxon TDC11 set on Flickr <http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidcoxon/sets/72157626801324998/with/5759177309/> Last accessed 4th June 2011.