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March 29, 2002 | I didn't have much in the way of expectations going in to Digifest 2002; pretty pictures, glitzy art/advertising pieces, and possibly some cool tech. I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of the presentations.

Wednesday night.

Hit the media session and got to see some graphics on a really big screen. The theme of this international digital media festival was the "4-D challenge", to go beyond the third dimension. I would deem this festival to be a success overall, as by the end of the festival it would be apparent that there was much speculation on what constitutes this fourth dimension. Now that I've spoiled the ending and gotten that out of the way, on with the festival itself.

The original vision was for local (Toronto) participation, but it quickly expanded in scope with the arrival of international submissions. There was a soirée before the keynote where attendees could snack on catered food and mingle. Quite a few people were there, many of them either dressed hip or stylishly. I almost felt that I was underdressed, but I just put on my best casual face and it was all cool. Business cards flowed like water.

Derrick de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto, was a lively keynote speaker. His fourth dimension was time, in particular our experience of it. We have mastered space, but we have yet to master time. One of his most recent projects involves connecting one major public forum in each of Napoli and Toronto with an always-on video link and a communications zone to allow people to be heard on the other side. His goal is ambitious, to hack our perceptions of time, to make such realtime distance connection mundane and push it into the background of the world we take for granted, and see what emerges.

His presentation was thought-provoking, though it was apparent that people are are still digesting the perceptual consequences of special relativity and dealing with spacetime as a unified concept, as there is talk of whether time contains space or space contains time. Einstein's theory also pointed out the breakdown of the concept of simultanaeity, that the sequence of events is not absolute.

Joe Davis and the DNA twisted pair.

Joe Davis was a wildcard. His take was to join the micro scale with the macro scale. Communication with aliens is a challenging endeavor, because unlike the classical framework for encryption, you want the recipient to be able to break the code as unambiguously as possible. He turned to bacteria as the most durable medium for sending a message to possible alien civilizations. He also noted that Greek sculptors and NASA omitted any depiction of external female genitalia (in statues and encoded messages sent into space respectively), but didn't delve into the semiotics of that. His bit of ingenuity was to encode a message within the noise that normally occurs within DNA, subcoding within the amino acids. His presentation was chaotic, divergent, twisting, turbulent, and ultimately convergent. A Star Trek:TNG episode ripped off his concept without credit. For shame! I suppose the worst case scenario would be an Andromeda Strain accident from the aliens' point of view; conversely we may already be getting messages and not realizing it.

Thursday night.

I arrived at 7, missing some earlier presentations. Still, there was much left to see. Immersive space.

A lot of pretty pictures, but they tended to leave me with more questions than answers. In the end I am a technologist at heart, wanting to see stuff happen. I do have some aesthetic sense, however. The first lecture I saw was by an architect and artist, Schawn Jasmann, who was investigating the embodiment of the fantastic into virtual landscapes in a presentation titled Landscapes for Digital Dwellers; he showed fascinatingly textured spaces and objects, but I wasn't in a mood for induced introspection or psychoanalysis at the time. I do him a disservice, as his work has a subtle edge. Vexingly, he doesn't seem to have a web presence.

The second lecture, by Michael Jenkin, was about some experiments into perception, particularly involving the visual sense and the interaction with gravity. You can fool the inner ear. Motion sickness, that nauseous feeling, is your system feeling conflict between its visual sense and its proprioceptory sense (balance/acceleration). There are reasons we are not so good at telepresence involving remote movement.

Landscapes for Digital Dwellers.

Together, these two presentations made a nice counterpoint of the arts and sciences, tackling the issue of disassociation, a prerequisite for immersion. It ranged from inner space (imaginary space of artistic vision) to outer space (microgravity).

Bryce Miranda, an architect, showed his proposal for Toronto in 2008, had they won the Olympic bid. Scaling down the stadium would still allow an intermediate step. I didn't feel his visualization was immersive enough, but the hardware he was stuck with just wasn't capable of the framerates. He did demonstrate that visualization can be a useful tool to assist with public policy, allowing people to see the consequences of their decisions.

The final speech was by another architect, David Serero. His showed conceptual visualizations of an LCD-shuttered glass house and a virtual museum. The latter seems to flirt with David Brin's Transparent Society, as the LCD panels would be opened or closed according to the desire of the occupants.

I asked him about navigation within his immersive visualization of/as a virtual museum. He said he didn't want to get too deep into that, but the concept was that search engines would be hybridized and provide different paths through the collection; they might even shift paths as queries got tuned. I noted that by fixing an item in the collection with a coordinate that by repeated navigation one could gain familiarity with its location.

Friday night.

Web space. The hall was packed. No time to attend the earlier sessions again.

One fellow's presentation riffed off Buckminister Fuller. He focused on the glitzy side of's work, using a sphere instead of a window as a model. Perhaps his work wasn't quite as a revolutionary as he'd hoped, or at least not obviously so. I noticed that some presentations seemed to suffer from their emphasis on appearance rather than substance, even though the material has depth. Underlying the surface were the presentation and searching techniques employed along with his sphere concept. I got the sense that much was left unsaid.

There's some geek content tucked away behind the scenes of Titled fractal stream of consciousness, it's really a shared web toy where everyone can type and contributes to the vocalizations. The speech synthesis isn't the most advanced, but it's definitely novel way to apply the technology. Type phonetically and you'll be on your way.

Two presentations covered web sites that accompanied television programming. Among other things, they used community (bulletin boards and webmail) to generate more interest, thus tying virtual community to marketing. It would appear that fan (and thus common interest) communities seem to be among the most successful online. You can check the sites out at and Both sites had a gaming aspect to them, actually. Ranging from a content management system unfolding a story via messages to online games one could play with. A caveat: mind the androcenrtism on the latter link.

Video jockey software in action.

Nils Roeller, from the University for Art and Media, Cologne, Germany, entertained us with several videos, including a piece on the Painstation, essentially a game of Pong where the loser gets zapped with electrical shocks. It's not likely to be a web feature aside from the site, though he mentioned the creators were currently seeing a future for it at high society parties. The themes in his presentation touched on the web being used as a means of control, juxtaposed by the potential of artistic collaboration. Some were taken aback by the seriousness and dark undertones of the work shown.

The finale was a cool presentation where a fellow showed off some software that allowed one to add 3D visualization to soundtracks, mix it like a DJ (a VJ in the non-MTV sense), and share the results on the web. Useful for showing off at clubs or raves too. Check the gear out yourself at

Saturday afternoon.

Film space. The big screen.

Maria Grazia Mattei showcased Italian digital animation. They're still getting ramped up there. I was particularly struck by the visualization of La Città Nuova, the work of Italian futurist Antonio Sant'Elia dating from 1912-1914. It was fascinating to see still images brought to life, with airplanes flying and people milling about; his future city was a place meant to be lived in, not a static piece to be admired.

Saw a gorgeous piece, Le conte du monde flottant, featuring Japanese actors and dancers, an award-winning piece directed by Alain Escalle. The digital compositing of many rich elements gave a surreal feel to the world rendered. He promised that a DVD is eventually forthcoming.

Vincenzo Natali, director and writer of Cube, showed how digital effects were enabling conventional films to be done faster and cheaper. He warned that photographs were no longer trustworthy, thanks to seamless effects. I'd have to conclude that if sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then sufficiently advanced magic is invisible.

The finale was a presentation by David Rokeby. His projects appear to fuse technology and art in novel ways. He presented a video of his piece n-Cha(n)t 2001, which slaps together voice recognition, grammars, speech generation, and AI into a novel art piece which has this disturbing tendency to achieve a dynamic equilibrium state of chanting in unison. A true synthesis.

Sunday afternoon.

There were fewer people today. The theme: game space. I'm not sure how much is to due to the stigma of games, or to exhaustion from a party held last night which I skipped out on. Loads of geeky stuff.

Eric Zimmerman gave an introduction to the design of play. Just what makes a game fun? Games are defined by rules and restrictions. The fun happens in the play around those rules. Meaningful place requires that one be able to make choices and anticipate outcomes. Immersion isn't the end of things, as to have meaning we must become involved with the game. He disagrees with the immersive fallacy, a common technofetishist conflation of realism with from increased CG screen resolution. There's more to a good game than high frame rates and high resolution, as anyone who enjoyed a game on an obsolete system can attest to. You can find out more about his games and his direction at

One presentation featured some interactive visualization tools brought together by, but I think it should have been categorized under immersive space or web space. I disagreed with a fellow from the MZTV museum who said that computers were an extension of television technology. He was way too embedded in the entertainment mindset. Wireless isn't shaping up that way at all.

Robyn C. Pacific presented a feminist culture-jamming game titled Babes in the Woods. In one of the parodies of gaming quest structure tucked within, B*rb*e begins a quest to seek out pubic hair.

A piece titled Pax Warrior is an ambitious project by Sean Hoppen and Andreas Ua'Siaghail. Self-billed as a "simu-doc", it's a hybrid of simulation and documentary where you play the role of UN Force Commander during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It's consciousness raising on multiple levels and an exploration of conflict resolution. It's still in development, but their demonstration was intriguing.

Lars Erik Holmquist of the Future Applications Lab at the Viktoria Institute in Goteburg, Sweden gave the final presentation. His projects involved experimenting with wireless and seeing how people used the technology. People are crafty at coopting tech for their own ends. The most recent experiment in mobile gaming was Pirates!, where each player had a wireless PC and a radiolocator. It was a social game to be held in an enclosed space. Certain radiotransmitters would indicate islands where one could seek treasure and encounter dangerous inhabitants. If you got within 2m of another player, you could engage in ship-to-ship combat. Sometimes the loser would literally be forced to run away. He considered the experiment to be only a partial success, although the technology worked fine. The game was too complex, and caused players to focus a lot on the screen instead of their surroundings; it did not help that the audio cues were drowned out by the noise typical of large parties.

Nothing at all like Quake appeared.


There is a lot of talent out there exploring how we relate to and, more importantly, via technology. They explored the dimensions of time, perceptual scale, and interactive depth. Art is another means of questioning how we engage technology. Gaming can rise to the challenge of being art, if it can escape the limitations of the dominant genres.

On occasion I sensed an unease with technology, while at other times it was embraced and transcended. Any spectre of disassociation from the world that matters, the so-called real world, was dispelled by the clarity of a few sombre moments. Technology allows us to relate to the world and each other in novel ways. While the distorted mirror fascinates us as it did Narcissus, the world at large offers much in complexity and richness. Communication is vital for understanding and ultimately survival.

Jim Lai is currently a senior programmer. His first encounter with computers was around 1980. Since then he has developed many geekly talents and skills in his quest to be a modern day Renaissance man. Still not King. His physical presence is located in Toronto, Canada

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