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.
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
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.
Davis and the DNA twisted pair.
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.
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.
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.
Web space. The hall was packed. No time to attend the earlier sessions
One fellow's presentation riffed off Buckminister Fuller. He focused
on the glitzy side of vizible.com'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 zarinmedia.com.
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 degrassi.tv
and undergrads.tv. 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
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 derivativeinc.com
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
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
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.
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
One presentation featured some interactive visualization tools
brought together by diginiche.com,
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
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
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.
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,