So long, and thanks for all the flash

fotb 2011

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.

Adobe’s keynote is the standard trawl through features and things cooking in the labs. It’s always a non-event since it’s a few weeks until their own conference, but Edge looks like it’s becoming a valid tool and AIR continues to impress. I am particularly happy to learn that Machinarium for iPad is a direct AIR port of the flash game. To drop an Appleism, this changes everything! What is clear is that Stage3D (or molehill as it was known) is going to be a turning point for the Flash runtime. Whilst the early 3D work on display throughout the conference is impressive, the thing that gets most attention is the announcement of a 2D, GPU accelerated API based on the current display list which will allow acceleration of 2d games and other visually intense applications. Lee Brimelow demos it fully in a later session and it elicits woops of delight from the casual game devs in the room who can see that they are about to have a very useful tool to play with. No name yet, but a release is expected very shortly. Learn your blitting techniques now!

The only other thing worth a quick mention in the keynote is that Adobe, as part of their open source committments, have contributed a spec for a text layout framework to webkit which will finally allow fluid text layouts in webpages. As anybody that has had to deal with multi-column text spans will attest, this is major and I hope that it is taken up by browser vendors soon.

On the whole, the event gets the balance right, although the near complete absence of flash in the first day is unnerving and the techies are getting anxious as sessions on design and conforming by a magnificent Elliot Jay Stocks fill the dome. Actually, they should have stuck around for that one if only to hear the definitive word on “Should digital designers code” (hint, yes). HTML5 poster boy Remy Sharp won’t make friends waxing lyrical about flash’s demise (erroneously as it happens and I’m greatly amused to challenge him on the thorny subject of geocoding and DRM in the HTML5 Video element). Gmunk blows minds with his Tron graphics work, particularly amazing me with the intricacy of how he uses influence and source material..the gradual iteration, the careful sampling and remixing – the difference between influence and lazy copying.

The spotlight “inspiration” sessions are entertaining, but, with the strong exception of Joshua Davis, fail to be massively insightful this year. Particularly disappointing is James Vitorre who, whilst being a fantastic showman, fails to explore his creative process in any greater detail than a show and tell. This is also true of the unhinged pair of Han Hoogerbrugge and Cyriak Harris, who also entertain without enlightening, beyond a shallow interest in their work and the revalation that Cyriak likes to animate farm animals because they come with their own green screen ;o). One thing that is clear from their work is that a client really has to trust a creative when they ask for something off the wall, and that that few are capable of dealing with that unstructured, risky process. Perhaps that explains why there is so little risky work and the impact that it makes when a client does extend that trust to an artist like Harris or Hoogerbrugge.

I am, sadly, hungover on day 3 and, due to this and a hotel checkout nightmare, I miss the first half of the always fantastic elevator pitch, including someone showing off Ableton connectivity (please drop his name in the comments if anybody knows!). Graham Odds stands out with a spot-on analysis of the use of gestalt behaviours (love that expression) to group and layout content on the page and why we should drop our obsession with boxes and lines. I can think of a few internal design teams that need to see those slides and he has kindly provided them here. Bit101 deserves a mention for a great talk on tools that make tools – that dude gets a pass for life for minimalcomps – coming soon to Javascript as well btw.

I’m aware that this could be getting needlessly verbose so I’m going to finally mention my utter, standout highlights of the conference and the reason why this event is so special. Jer Thorpe, Jared Ficklin and Joshua Davis I have seen before and knew what to expect. Joel Gethin Lewis I had not, and was unprepared for a talk so vital, so honest and inspirational in it’s purest sense. Not just “oh that’s pretty” but “oh my fucking days I have to quit my dayjob right now so that I can spend the rest of my life doing this”. A truely creative coder, he is using technology in the way it should be, not just to deliver “functionality”, sadly the limited role in which most developers find themselves in creative agencies, but to elicit emotional responses. His work with children and adults on the autistic spectrum was inspiring, his advocacy for opensource and his exploratory passion even more so.

“It’s not where you take things from…it’s where you take them to” Jean-Luc Goddard

Long will his talk stick in my mind, and particularly this piece of very simple, but devastatingly effective dance performance. Hellicar & Lewis will be ones to watch.

It’s hard to get across the impact that Jer Thorp’s work has on me, other than to acknowledge his special ability to get across complex concepts easily (something he shares with Lee Brimelow – both born educators). His work on the 9/11 memorial shows the impact that good software invisibly makes upon our world and what creative technology can offer us as human beings, rather than marketing targets. His explorations of twitter activity around New York Times stories is, naturally, beautiful, and further fuel for my passion for abstract views of complex data sets. More importantly though, it surfaces human interactions which enhance the original journalism tenfold.

The combination of technologies with emotional response is something all four of these top rate speakers share and Jared Ficklin – a Texan Emo Philips and the best science teacher you never had – introduces a sense of mischevious fun to his discussion around research and play. My TEDx talk touched greatly on themes of play and the importance of not taking our jobs or our tools too seriously and i’ll be referencing Jared’s work a lot in the coming months – a diversion into the history of the moustache leads to high end interactive installations based around the goal of getting drunk and having a good time (something that the myHotel whiskey collection had already helped with the previous night). His work at the frog design SXSW party this year (particulalry the AR toilet) is reference material for anyone wanting to make large scale impact, and it’s lovely to see personal passions combine with his work. Client work, particularly in my environment, is draining and spirit-crushing, and a sense of fun not only gets you through your week, but opens up new frontiers in your work which churning out another banner campaign is not likely to for you.

Josh Davis needs no introduction and I won’t dwell on his work which is self-evident in it’s quality. His title is “The Unknown Journey” and lists his failures, his learnings, his journey through creativity which resonates with me hugely. My constant inferiority complex that I don’t have a degree, i’m not smart enough, not technical enough, not cool enough, not young and good looking enough to contribute slips away as Davis forces me to acknowledge where I’ve come from and that it’s ok to not know where I’m going. As I sit on the train writing these notes up, it’s something that is sinking deeply into my subconscious and, once again, flash on the beach gives me something that I know will pilot me through the next year of work and creative passion.

Whatever the future of this particular conference, it is vital that you get out and go to these things. They not only are interesting and entertaining, but they could actually push you into a whole new direction creatively, professionally, emotionally. It’s like oxygen to me and I wish the organisers and speakers all strength for it’s future. I will certainly be there.

title /via @antifuzz

About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.

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