BAVC’s Producers Institute kick-starts innovative online documentaries, serious games

Events, Games

BAVC logo

I was recently invited to be a mentor at the Bay Area Video Coalition’s Producers Institute, a week-long intensive workshop in which teams of independent documentary producers are immersed in interactive technologies and techniques and then develop pitches for interactive projects based on their work. At the end of the week the project teams pitch their ideas to potential funders and hopefully get a kick-start on the path to getting their proposals underway. Though I was only able to help out for two days towards the end of the workshop, it was still a pretty amazing gathering to see and be a part of.

The main project I was involved with at the Institute was the forthcoming work from Take Action Games (TAG), the company best known for Darfur Is Dying, a game about the crisis in Sudan which received a lot of media attention and helped to put serious games on the map for many people. I’ve had the pleasure of consulting with TAG team members Susana Ruiz and Huy Truong before, and have found their professional style to be a wonderful mix of a strong vision combined with a genuine excitement about the medium and an openness to new ideas. Looking forward to finding out more about their latest project, In The Balance: The Death Penalty Game, I wasn’t disappointed, as Susana, Huy, and Ashley York are again bringing their talents to bear on a challenging social issue and stretching the boundaries of the medium in the process (the project was recently written up in the Washington Post).

I met with a number of project teams while at BAVC—the whole atmosphere of the gathering had a lot of camaraderie and intensity as the various groups, flush with new information from the Institute’s various speakers and events about leveraging documentary content online, sought to assemble compelling pitches for a host of fascinating projects. For a taste, check out the following video from The Drax Files, whose creator Bernhard Drax was documenting the goings-on. This clip touches briefly on In The Balance during a chat with Tony Walsh, a veteran BAVC mentor and founder of the game development firm Phantom Compass. Drax filed a number of reports from the Institute, so check out The Drax Files if you want to see more.


An inspirational gathering for lovers of electronic literature

Electronic Literature, Events

I’ve had peripheral contact with the Electronic Literature Organization over the years (including a public reading of unpublished chapters of Chroma at the Hammer Museum which was a blast), but never attended one of their conferences until this year. Blue Velvet was accepted in to the Media Art Show at this year’s Visionary Landscapes conference at Washington State University Vancouver, which afforded me the opportunity to attend. I’m glad I did—it was a wonderful experience.

The 'Early Authors of Electronic Literature' exhibit at the Visionary Landscapes conference.

The ‘Early Authors of Electronic Literature’ exhibit at the Visionary Landscapes conference.

Having so many luminaries in the field in one place was enlightening in and of itself, especially because the attendees were a mix of both scholars and artists, making for a lively interplay between theory and practice. In many cases, I ended up meeting people for the first time whose names I’ve been aware of for years. Gratifying as well was the chance to connect with a number of folks who were early fans of The Lair of the Marrow Monkey and Chroma. New faces were abundant as well—people excited by the potential of the medium who were either taking their first steps in this world or doing important research to push the form ahead.

I was particularly impressed by the work being done in generative narrative by D. Fox Harrell, Kenny K. N. Chow and Jichen Zhu at Georgia Tech. The GRIOT system originated by Harrell and Joseph Goguen takes what I found to be a very refreshing approach to dynamic narrative—I can’t say that I have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of the engine, but there was a kind of fluidity of scale and affect involved in the formal elements the system generates that felt far less “brittle” than other generative approaches I’m familiar with. The fact that GRIOT immediately appeared in my mind to be well-suited to cinema, poetry and comics simultaneously was an intuitive whisper for me that Harrell and his collaborators are moving in a very productive direction.

The recent release of the Electronic Literature Collection: Volume One also seemed to mark a milestone for the field, being the first of a proposed series of collections of seminal e-lit works. Each volume is published on DVD and online under a Creative Commons license to encourage the widest dispersal possible. The conference at times felt like an implicit celebration that e-lit has managed to survive long enough to make such collections possible. While the boundaries defining exactly what e-lit is remain porous and will rightly continue to be so, the fact that a gathering dedicated to the field could engender the sense of cameraderie that it did is certainly something to celebrate. Thanks to Dene Grigar and John Barber for putting on such a great event.


Viewfinder, Precision Targets shown at HASTAC II Conference

Digital Humanities, Events, Flex, Viewfinder

HASTAC II, the second annual conference of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, was held at UC Irvine and UCLA on May 22-24. The theme? “Technotravels.” Unfortunately scheduling conflicts prevented me from checking out many of the sessions (would love to have seen Brenda Laurel’s provocation, as her book Computers as Theatre was an early inspiration for me), but happily I was able to attend Curtis Wong’s presentation entitled “From Beethoven to Betelgeuse, 20 Years in the Quest for the Holy Grail of Interactive Storytelling.” It was great getting to hear about what Curtis has been up to since the Voyager days, and to get an introduction to his latest project, Worldwide Telescope—a kind of Google Earth for the sky that seamlessly integrates astrophotography from a variety of sources into an experience with lots of hooks for user-generated content.

Viewfinder on the HIPerWall'

The scene at HASTAC II; getting the Viewfinder presentation set up on the HIPerWall.

I presented two projects at HASTAC II, the first of which was Viewfinder. The presentation was done on UC Irvine’s HIPerWall, the extremely high resolution display consisting of 50 30-inch Apple Cinema Displays linked together. I was able to distribute the presentation materials (slides, two videos, the Viewfinder web interface, and Google Earth itself) across the width of the screen, and while we weren’t running at the native resolution of the display, it was still pretty cool to be able to play with a visual field of that size. During the show I was able to give a look at the evolution of the Viewfinder web application UI since our initial release—in this version, we had the complete workflow running as a Flex application using the new Flash Google Maps API released the week before. The first session was very well attended, and I’m told there was some lively discussion afterwards. Thanks to David Theo Goldberg for inviting me to present on the HIPerWall, and Sung-Jin Kim for invaluable help with the presentation logistics.

Caren Kaplan and I presenting Precision Targets

Caren Kaplan and I presenting Precision Targets at HASTAC II.

The following day, Caren Kaplan and I presented our upcoming piece Precision Targets as part of the demo sessions at UCLA. Precision Targets combines six narratives about GPS and its movement from military to civilian use in a comic-book-inspired format (featuring art by Ezra Claytan Daniels) that places the narratives inside a navigable 3D cube with commentary written by Caren. The work was very well received—we got a lot of great feedback that we aim to translate into momentum to complete the project in the next few months.

Next up: A report on the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Vancouver, Washington…


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