It was the eclectic range of speakers and associated subject matters that convinced me to return to Brighton having attended dConstruct in 2007.
If you didn’t know dConstruct was a conference aimed at web designers and developers you certainly wouldn’t have gleamed that from looking at this year’s schedule. We were to have talks on subjects such as urban planning to computer games, sci-fi to emotion theory. Although these seem to have nothing directly to do with design, they are relevant – and not just to web design in some cases. Of course, the more unexpected ones weren’t the only thing on the menu – there were some more on-brief discussions about design for mobile and information visualisation, but it was these seemingly tangential presentations that interested me the most – even if it was to find out their relevance.
Elements of Networked Urbanism – Adam Greenfield
Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, kicked things off with his passionate vision of the future. His talk, titled Elements of Networked Urbanism initially sounded like it was to be lecture in town planning. However, when he got further in, it was apparent that he had a much deeper understanding of where the cities of the future are heading. He spoke of ubiquitous computing – the proliferation of devices that now dominate so many facets of urban life. He believes the future will be a place where every single object will be a “device” – streetlights, cars, rubbish bins, etc. In turn these objects would be addressable resources, much like mobiles and computers are today, and would be query-able, scriptable and programable. This would lead to a massive change in the way we live and use the places we inhabit. You can see elements of this today with systems such as Oyster, the London Underground’s ticket-less travel system.
Adam had much bigger ideas than the present-day examples though. He spoke of a move from object to service, saying that we may see the day when no one owned a car – where everyone moved to a zipcar service model. After all drivers owned cars that they only used for a few hours a day and the remaining 20-odd hours the vehicle sits redundant in a driveway. Adam saw this as a bit of a waste – which you can’t argue with.
However, the really exciting stuff he discussed was the move from passive to interactive. He spoke of a transition from way-finding to way-showing – smart cities that would show you the way rather than you having to rely on signage and maps. This concept was illustrated towards the end of the day with August de los Reyes’ presentation of Microsoft’s vision of the future. The theme of ubiquitous computing, although not really ever alluded to explicitly again, was touched upon throughout the day.
Let’s See What We Can See – Michal Migurski and Ben Cerveny
Next we heard from Michal Migurski and Ben Cerveny with what you may call, by comparison, standard design conference fare – a talk and walk-through of some information visualisation that they had created at Stamen. The work they had done on visualising hurricane paths, particularly the predicted paths of current hurricanes was interesting and reminded me of the “tubes of fluid light” from the movie Donnie Darko in which they also showed the future path of the subject.
How Mobile is Changing Design – Brian Fling
After being told right at the start of the day that mobile wasn’t the future, Brian Fling was here to tell us How Mobile is Changing Design. He started with a nostalgic view of the mobile web starting with the Nokia “Matrix” phone from 1998 – how things have changed in the last decade! Fling believes that we are in the midst of a new industrial revolution and that the current generation are best placed to drive this – free from a lot of the baggage that made generation X a little less future-focussed. He blamed the cold war amongst other things for causing us to take our eyes off the ball. His talk was frenetic and interesting.
Make It So: Learning from Sci-fi Interfaces – Nathan Shedoff and Chris Noessel
Nathan Shedoff and Chris Noessel were up after lunch with Make It So: Learning from Sci-fi Interfaces – an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between science fiction and design. A bit like Fling’s talk, we got a retrospective view of sci-fi and the interfaces used right back in the 1900s through to present day. Then they showed an example of sci-fi actually influencing a real-world solution in the shape of the 3D topographical map table from X-Men. Douglas Caldwell, who was with the U.S. Army Topographic Engineers, saw the film and subsequently his department built the Xenotran Mark II Dynamic Sand Table.
The duo then went on to explore the use of anthropomorphism and it’s various uses in sci-fi and real-world interfaces – with it’s power most evidence in the use of simple sounds to evoke human emotion such as R2-D2’s bleeps and whirrs.
Loving Your Player With Juicy Feedback – Robin Hunicke
Then it was time to get juicy! Robin Hunicke was here to talk about juicy feedback in gaming. First she formalised the game process – what makes a good game – and went through what is known as MDA – Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. She was suggesting that there is a third element that can be described simply as “juicy”. She gave the real-world example of bubble-wrap as being juicy.
Experience and the Emotion Commotion – August de los Reyes
Then came the guy from Microsoft, which normally would mean time to switch off, but we had August de los Reyes, creative director for the Windows Platform Core Innovation team. His talk, Experience and the Emotion Commotion, was an entertaining walk-through of how important emotion is to experience. He kicked off with an amusing video called Prickles & Goo that was, incidentally, put together by the South Park guys and based on the recordings of Alan Watts. It’s a great video about how people can be split into two distinct groups, prickly and gooey.
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Reyes rounded off with Microsoft’s vision of the future, which was mostly believable and quite exciting.
Dematerialising a Web of Data – Russell Davies
To round off the day we had the only Brit amongst today’s speakers – Russell Davies – and it was a perfect final talk for a mentally exhausted audience. Davies presentation was Dematerialising a Web of Data (or What We’ve Learned From Printing the Internet Out). It had echoes of Greenfield’s talk from way back at the start of the day, talking of everyday objects becoming digital objects. However his examples were a little more light-hearted such as Bubblino – a little bubble machine that responds when it gets a mention on Twitter by blowing bubbles. Davies had witnessed Bubblino at a previous conference and said it had drawn larger crowds that a Microsoft Surface as people tweeted to get the little fella to blow bubbles.
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But the crux of his talk was around the premise of getting beyond our infatuation with technology – particularly the notion that digital is always better than analogue. He illustrated this point by showing us how he and a few of his friends had paid a relatively small amount of money to get use of a newspaper press and ran out several articles as newspapers for their acquaintances to read. His message to the newspaper industry – “We have broken your business, now we want your machines”. Davies was a pleasant, amusing and interesting closing act to what was an excellent roster of speakers.
So the future of the web, it seems, won’t be on the web. I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s conference, with discussions concentrating on these distinctly non-web subjects and objects, it made for a thought-provoking day – something that often lacks from the nuts & bolts approach to web design conferences usually employed.