Over the last couple of weeks I have been revisiting my old MAAP player project, bringing it up to speed to take advantage of some new technologies that flash player 11 offers. Mostly, this was an exercise in keeping up with my talented team and exploring some possibilities for the Flash platform for some upcoming project work, but I also do like to set myself a challenge every once in a while to stop my code chops from atrophying too much in my largely management and creative role here. Since the MAAP project seems to have fizzled out, I thought I would purpose it to my own musical project, Digitonal. I’ve been doing quite a lot of ambient stuff recently and thought it would be fun to write something specifically for it.
The primary technologies I’ve used in this rebuild are listed below and it’s been interesting working with these new frameworks which I think offer much to the flash platform.
Starling: A fantastic framework for gpu-accelerated 2D animation, which makes use of the new Stage3D access (formerly known as Molehill). The smooth animation of the orbs that I’m getting here, and the effortless particle system are both based in Starling and, whilst it has some quirks (largely due to it’s insistence on mirroring the normal Flash display stack) the results you get from it are stellar. This is pretty much always hitting 60fps without blinking and I know that my previous implementation of this idea had a performance way, way below that.
NAPE: A very promising new physics engine. I’ve always struggled with the more or less standard Box2D framework and so this is a refreshingly useable alternative which has been a joy to work with. Strongly recommended for your physics modelling needs.
Tonfall: Andre Michelle’s fantastic as3 audio framework which I’m using here for the sample-perfect looping, pitch control (couldn’t even have conceived of coding something like that myself) and support for WAV samples (which, whilst it obviously places a huge burden on filesize for online delivery, helps raise this into the realm of something approaching what I’d envisage as an artist).
The whole thing took about 2 days to code and I’ll make the source code available on this post as soon as I have some time to refactor so you can point and laugh. I’m also keeping a very close eye on AIR’s forthcoming Starling support for iOS and I’m hoping to do an iPad port of the application at some point in the near future.
>> Launch the Digitonal Ambient Box (N.B. – the site uses high quality audio samples about 11Mb in total – fast connection and a little patience required!)
It’s been hard to avoid the piracy debate this week with the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Once again, the sheer amount of misinformation is staggering. This was summed up for me this morning by an ill-judged article on tmz which not only breaks Godwin’s law but also basic common sense. The claim that “Both ISPs and search engines are profiting from the raping and pillaging of the content creation businesses” is, assuming it’s not grade A link-trolling (oops I’ve fallen for it haven’t I), tea-party-esque insanity. What most angers me about this article though, and similar responses to the blackout, is the lack of positive vision provided by the incumbent companies who have had ample opportunity to innovate through the cultural changes in media consumption.
In replying to a facebook thread about the article, I wrote this:
“Can we stencil this on the CEOs of all these media companies: “For the millionth time, build a better bloody service.”
People do not value individual pieces of content anymore, but they do, massively, value service provision. Instead of wasting all this time bringing about legislation to restrict innovation that will do nothing less than help bring your business models into the 21st century, just build a better service. There is a massive appetite for the consumption of digital content at a fair price, delivered on demand without restriction so that it can be used on all of the amazing toys from the future that we all own these days.”
The way to get through this “crisis” for rights holders, artists (and I am a signed musician whose work is all over the torrent networks myself) and media distributors is to innovate our way through it, providing a service with value. If the mediacos spent the same amount of money and effort on research and product development as they allegedly do on lobbying and lawsuits, they would find that they have a motivated consumer, eager to spend what little disposable income they have in the current economic climate on quality entertainment, delivered swiftly and conveniently. This has ALWAYS been the promise of the digital revolution and it makes me very sad that we are 15 years into it and are still bitching about our goddamn percentages instead of building better worlds.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at the Promax 2011 conference on the subject of how our use of social media has changed the way we consume, and potentially even create, television. The opens up a massive subject area for me – everything from what a broadcasters business model should be, to how people in the UK are now consuming media as a whole. Working in an environment which is resolutely anchored in broadcast media, I have many challenges simply communicating the cultural shifts in how we consume and value media that are, without a doubt, occurring.
Below is a bit of a braindump (so apologies if it’s a little verbose in places) that I mailed the other members of the panel the evening before the event to try and capture some of my observations in how changing technology and cultural attitudes toward media might affect our work and provide new opportunities for us to explore.
Platforms for marketing
One thing that is very clear to me, and that is that social media is still regarded as another message publishing channel (with “viral” sidebenefits). Indeed, most of the marketing-orientated talks I’ve seen about the social networks seem to talk about the opportunities of leveraging them to this purpose without fully taking into account what they are. What this typically leads to in large organisations is “social” being another line on a media plan, instead of it being approached as an emerging medium. By the time this reaches the creative agency, there is often no choice but to simply execute the creative within that medium – effectively just publishing it there. The vast majority of facebook “apps” are not applications at all, but web content published within that website, using a couple of internal facebook functions to spam people’s profiles. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that users are tiring of this pointless, transparent activity. The best uses of social media (e.g. Intel Museum of Me) use the technical mechanisms of the social networks to deliver unique creative experiences that become inherently viral. What is important to remember is that social networks are not publishing platforms (or if they are, then they are strictly personal publishing platforms), but actually services, and that they live or die on the service they provide their userbase (as MySpace found out when their inability to restrict signal to noise ratio meant that it became inherently unusable). Facebook’s innovations are all about allowing people to connect with each other better, to share content, to maintain (and control) personal relationships and to stay in touch. It’s the 01′s equivalent of the text message in the 00′s or the pub in the (16)90′s!. Anyway, I could rant about this all day….the gold is in making your content or creative useful for people, leveraging the network to do it. Simply having it as a bullet point in your media plan is NOT good enough and I see broadcasters doing this far too often. Great integrated campaigns like Nike’s Live Strong robot simply used the social network as a a technical conduit for interaction, nothing more…and yet the impact that it has is huge, simply by virtue of how engaging ideas spread.
Viral, memetic content spreads irrespective of the publishers intentions. There is no such thing as “viral” content, only content which has spread virally.
One of the things that the above leads to is unrealistic metrics being used. I think that many marketeers are asking the wrong questions a lot of time. KPI’s around social media should be around how people respond to social activity ( which is hard to measure) rather than interaction per se. To fully make use of this emerging medium we need to look more carefully at what we’re trying to achieve and measure our success or failure differently. This will be particularly important when we’re talking about actual content (and not just messaging). I don’t have answers on this, but might be an interesting thing to canvas opinion on it. To still talk of clickthroughs and page impressions seems positively medieval to me – just as BARB ratings shortly will. Most of us working in creating online content know exactly how these analytics are implemented and manipulated – we need a better system and to be clearer about our goals.
Applications are not content. “Apps” are tools and services. They are useful. They enable the user to achieve a goal. We should look more carefully at what the opportunities of technologies, platforms and emerging services offer (particularly those that are programmable – which, btw, EVERY service should be. Seriously, screw IP – if facebook worried about closing off their service like some content creators do we wouldn’t even be having this conversation) rather than how we can make them another channel for distribution or publishing. Zeebox etc are promising in terms of experience, but they are shallow at present, partially due to their lack of integration with the core broadcast service. It’s all going to be about what you do with them…how do we make those services useful for our customers, to enhance their viewing (and thus engage them further with our business)?
Blurring the lines
We reference HBO quite a lot in our work, mostly for their success in treating premium content with impact, whilst maintaining a useable and browsable site. Their approach to social content has been no less creative, with teh HBO Connect site making engaging content out of social activity. From the opening page where you are seeing who is interacting with what content on the site in real time (which is actually a bit brilliant when you sit with it a while) to the social visualisers (branded contextually for some shows like True Blood), this turns social interactions and interactions with the site (and thus the brand) into further premium content and experience – I can’t say what it’s impact in marketing terms is of this decision, but creatively it puts the brand experience at the heart of the social engagement and this is, imho, full of win.
There is evidence to suggest that young people consume campaign content with no differentiation to the primary content. Buzzwords such as transmedia storytelling have been coined to describe this, and much of Channel 4′s recent youth-orientated output has clearly had considerable effort put into it to blur the lines between the show diegesis and the campaign and supplemental material. This not only requires considerable collaboration between marketeers, planners, creatives, production companies and networks, but also requires a leap of faith that “content” doesn’t exist purely in self-contained media types, but is an entire ecosystem of materials which, as long as a coherent creative strand is present, will offer great new opportunities for broadcast television networks.
I’ve attended every one of the 6 Flash on the Beach conferences. It has been a yearly fix of inspiration, connection to an industry which I’m often isolated from in the corporate environment and straight up good fun. This reached it’s zenith in 2009 where I came out of the Brighton Dome hypnotised and dizzy with the possibilities of the medium. I’ve often equated it to the first time I encountered the web in 1994 which fueled a passion for the creative opportunities for technology that I carry with me now. That was an incredibly important event for me and it also marked the point at which Flash on the Beach had ceased to become purely a technically-focussed exchange of techniques and practices in Flash development, and instead became a creative propagator – a shot in the arm for a jaded developer.
Fast forward to 2011 and it’s very obvious that, a: we’ve come a long way baby and b: that FLASH on the beach is a definite misnomer. For instance, Flex is notable for it’s absence (I don’t think there’s a single session on it in fact) and the talk of RIA’s and the Flash Platform which were in vogue until the Jobsian witch hunt kicked in is not to be found. Flash is talked about only in terms of enhancing web content, and gaming, which is clearly the technology’s stronghold. HTML5, design principles, type, motion graphics, filmmaking, Processing, ofx all merit focus and one gets the impression that showrunner John Davey has been steering towards this point all along. It’s of no surprise to me then when he announces at the end of the conference that this will be the last event under that title.
I did make extensive live notes which I publish here in full (strictly only for the very curious and more for my own record than as a public-facing document), but here are some highlights, links and salient points.
Continue reading »
My team at work have been watching the developments in Adobe’s AIR platform with interest for some time and this week we ran our most comprehensive test of the system yet to port a Flash microsite over to Android and iOS.
What you’re looking at below is the forthcoming Sky Living Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model flash magazine (launching in August!), running on, from left to right, bottom to top:
Apple iPad 1 (iOS)
Samsung Galaxy Tab (android 2.2)
Apple iPhone 4 (iOS)
Samsung Galaxy SII (android 2.3)
HTC Desire (android 2.2)
Sony Vaio laptop (Win XP, flash player 10/google Chrome)
This flash application has been ported out as a native application (this is not running in browser, except on the laptop for comparison), thanks to the new build of the Adobe AIR runtime and packager (v2.7). Although the packager has been running stably for a while, the last two releases have really optimised the experience, making more fully featured applications doable for the first time. Greg Fleming and Jason Langdon from my team ported these applications out over the course of a couple of days, including adding quick swipe support. Performance is pretty good on the whole (particularly on the iPad 2 and the dual-core galaxy SII), and this is with no optimisation in terms of assets or code at all – literally just a straight wrapping of the flash application with a few tweaks.
Whilst it’s still early days and there is much to learn about optimising the experience, the rate of development is rapid and I think that this approach has potential as a companion to native application development for appropriate content. I did a brief overview of the process for my department this morning and it’s very clear that designers and UX professionals in particular are going to have to become more comfortable with working with design concepts that are adaptable across a variety of platforms (rather than being built with one use-case in mind). I can particularly see scalable applications becoming commonplace where, for instance, a complex, experiential web application (in Flash perhaps) can be scaled and refactored for packaging out to devices from a common code and asset base. In our example above, for instance, the navigation system aimed at browsers/desktops is clearly not fit for purpose on devices and this abstraction of form and function is something that, oddly, few digital designers I know are massively comfortable with.
New methods will have to be found to communicate how dynamic interfaces will look or work to clients and stakeholders – a wireframe is becoming an even more meaningless document when the very nature of a contemporary, cross platform interface will be to alter with it’s context…but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation and one for a time when I’m being braver with my (excellent) UE colleagues )
I have been invited to speak at the grandly named Interdisciplinary Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice next week at a research day they are doing which sounds fascinating. The department is an adjunct of City University that I wasn’t aware of until a colleague mentioned their lecture program to me and I’m very much looking forward to both speaking and experiencing the extremely diverse program they have planned. Far too often these things become tech or media industry focused and I’m looking forward to the sessions from people outside of my sphere of experience.
I’ll be talking about my experiences of research within the corporate media environment, expanding on some of my TEDx talk themes.
It’s free to register and open to all:
So here it is finally, my talk for TEDx Teeside. Looking back on it now I naturally wish that I’d applied some judicious personal editing and kept a slightly tighter focus. That said, this talk covers quite a lot of ground and has formed the basis of most of the last 6 months of my work at Sky. In this respect alone, I have a lot to talk about and this normally takes the form of a conversation rather than a lecture. Nonetheless, it’s been a privilage to be involved in the TEDx programme and to share a little of why I remain, despite the struggles and challenges, optimistic and excited about my industry.
To clarify a few points: The title for the talk was actually “Research and Creativity in the Corporate Media Environment”. I suspect the editor has mixed up the title with the Hillel Cooperman TED talk on Lego which they showed that evening at Teeside and to which I refer at the end.
The Kinect work that I showed was mostly done by other people, with the exception of the Sky News explorer which was coded by Jason Langdon in my team. I am indebted to the entire OpenKinect community for their excellent groundwork and for the two engaging examples (and apologies that I couldn’t get the model to work – the kids earlier in the day flipped for it though!), and to USC’s MxR Lab for the FAAST toolkit which we used to power a number of the demos. We await the official Microsoft SDK with baited breath.
Lastly, I could really use a decent stylist and sorry for the shot of my bum…occupational hazard ;o)
I am actually developing this talk a little further at the moment so if any readers are interested in me speaking at their conference or organisation in the future, please get in touch.
I have a massive backlog of posts to get up on this blog which I’ll address after the much needed holiday I have coming up. Things on my mind include the inaugaral Digital Shoreditch festival and summit which was brilliant, some new flash work which I’m hoping will be the seed of a great idea (btw, if there are any Children’s artists/designers reading, get in touch) and some thoughts on the new 3D technologies that are coming to your browser soon.
In the meantime, I meant to get this complete for my TEDx demonstration, but ran out of time…but couldn’t resist it. It’s not big or clever (was coded in about an hour, if that!), but it does fulfil a childhood urge which I just couldn’t resist!
This was the closing image of my TEDx talk at Teesside University last week. I think it’s one of the most beautiful images I know. It actually brings a lump to my throat when I see it. My talk will be published in full soon – it was an incredible experience. Daunting, especially being the closing act after so many great ideas had been communicated, but exhilarating as well. I hope that I managed to impart some of the spirit of what I’ve found in my experiments in creative research at Sky. As a notorious master of the tangential ramble, it was a challenge to keep to 20 mins whilst remaining focussed on what I wanted to say.
My takeaway message, which is encapsulated neatly in the image above, from a Lego print campaign in 2006, is that in the corporate environment, we often rush toward an end product, locking it down, planning it, concerning ourselves with the minutiae of it’s execution. Letting your imagination run free, expending company time and funds on frivolous explorations of creative ideas, technology and the very nature of your organisation’s products or brand bring nothing but benefits to you in the longterm. By abstracting the central ideas from the deliverable product, we energise our teams, create better environments and workflows, and, at best, allow new paradigms for our work to emerge.
Basically, have fun again and don’t worry if your timesheet has unaccountable holes within it. One cannot quantify the experiential.
Massive thank you’s to all at Teeside University and the awesome Institute of Digital Innovation for hosting the event, and in particular to Jane Henderson who is always a pleasure to work with.
I’m very happy to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at TEDx Teeside on the 6th of April at the Institute of Digital Innovation. I’ve spoken at the IDI before and they’re an amazingly forward thinking and creative institution and I’ll be looking forward to returning immensely.
My talk will be on Research and Development within the corporate environment – something which has been my primary focus at Sky over the last 6 months. I’ll be demonstrating some of our recent work and talking about the opportunities that the leftfield can bring.
Tickets and further details can be found here: http://www.eventbrite.com/event/1000908745/efblike
Andrew Dobson has been building websites and interactive applications since 1996 and is Technical Director at Grand Union.
Andy regularly lectures on creative technology and other geek matters and writes, records and performs as Digitonal
He lives in North London with his family, the world of cat, and a righteous collection of classic electronica records.
The opinions expressed on this site are the authors own and do not state or reflect the views of his employer or clients.
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