A short aerial hop returned me home last night from Las Vegas and the human anthill that is CES. It’s been 15 years since my last visit to the show (for Inscape and Time Warner, promoting alternative graphic adventure CD-ROMs—DEVO Presents Adventures of the Smart Patrol anyone?), and while the technology on view has obviously changed, the experience of attending the show itself seems largely the same.
Trade shows are always 10,000 decibels of noisy bluster, but while E3 and Comic-Con at least have a general theme (video games, geek culture), CES is so expansive as to be nearly incomprehensible. Obviously I’m missing something, but I have never understood the utility of having such a broad swath of vendors under one roof. How does anyone find anything?
Some of my favorite booths, however, were those for international concerns whose messaging wasn’t as finely attuned to American eyes and ears as that of the typical booth barketeers. The pleasure of ingesting content not engineered precisely for you is one I’m learning to appreciate more as I get older, I think.
Browsing time was limited, however, as my main reason for attending the show was not to buy, but to sell. For the last two years I’ve been working with a startup called TunesMap, brainchild of longtime music supervisor G. Marq Roswell and a small team of music and media professionals, developing UX for a music discovery engine with two main differentiators: 1) delivery of cultural context with music search, in the form of audio-visual search results that integrate the requisite artists, albums and songs with the films, fashion, news, literature, art and comedy that were contemporary with the music’s creation and 2) a deep editorial bench of music experts who can help weave this cultural tapestry out of their own expertise and personal experience (the stories one hears from these guys is one of the most fascinating perks of the job).
Gracenote, creators of CDDB (which is the reason why iTunes magically knows all about the tracks on that CD you’re ripping), is expanding their already impressive reach providing metadata for the worlds of music and entertainment. Seeing TunesMap as complementary to those goals, they kindly invited us to share their booth. As of this writing CES is still ongoing for two more days, but already the response has been very strongly positive.
For me personally the show has also been a great experience—the TunesMap team has been working in largely virtual fashion and it’s always great to see everyone in person. In addition, we’ve been showing the extensive mockups I’ve helped put together for TunesMap and received many positive comments on the UI, which is encouraging. During my last really sustained run at the tech trade shows I was also at a much more junior phase in my career, so it has been fascinating to see the phenomenon this time from a “back room” perspective. The ritualistic nature of deal-making never ceases to fascinate.
I think ritual also holds the key to some of the strangeness CES holds for someone working in the world of UX, which has been so profoundly shaped by Apple over the last decade. As Apple’s dominance in digital culture has increased, so too has it’s particular sheen of design, marketing and presentation. On the dog-eat-dog world of the CES show floor, both the foreign feel of alternate marketing styles and the incessant copycatting of Apple’s recent successes points up exactly how much we’ve been entrained to step in time with the rhythms of the makers of “those fruit computers.”
Moderated by Freewaves founder Anne Bray, the Digital Studies Symposium at USC (open and free to the public on Thursday evenings) has been hosting weekly conversations between pairs of digital designers about the myriad, ever more swiftly flowing currents of the digital humanities. Anne was kind enough to invite my Vectors collaborator Craig Dietrich and myself down to the Zemeckis Center to speak on February 11th, and video of the talk has been posted to Vimeo (see below). There’s also a video archive of all the prior speakers on the DSS site.
LAFlashapaloozastock III was another well put-together event—I enjoyed Ralph Hauwert’s talk on Flash effects and 3D as it was one of the best at bringing some perspective outside of the immediate world of Flash. Hauwert wove Escher, Pink Floyd, and the Amiga demoscene into the mix in a talk that otherwise would have just been a sequence of “ooh, cool!” demos (though they were quite cool… fluid dynamic bump maps on 3D objects, for instance...).
It was a challenge getting people comfortable enough with “Swing” to try it out—I had only one song request ("This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan) and that came early in the day, before a lot of folks started showing up. Over the course of the day I started calling the piece “karaoke for introverts” since no singing was required, but all the same people seemed reticent to pick a song and give it a go, just as if I had brought a real karaoke machine to the proceedings.
A student asked if I had considered adding greater variety to the visuals (color, etc.)—a valid question, given the apparent simplicity of the display. I explored this both during the original development of the piece and for this new version, but in both cases found that adding additional visual elements or processing made the experience too complex cognitively. While the YouTube video makes it look easy, trying to synchronize motions, syllables and pre-recorded music is actually a pretty challenging task for a novice, and glitz just makes it harder.
All in all, I came away with three keys to a successful “Swing” experience:
- You’ve got to feel comfortable
- You’ve got to love the song you’re performing and know it inside and out
- You’ve got to be tuned into the rhythmic implications of whether your text is broken down into words or syllables
All of these things are easier to realize at home than in an installation space, so I’m planning to post the new version of Swing (which will now run in a browser for both Mac and PC users) soon, probably after Ruben & Lullaby is released.
Speaking of which, I met a lot of great folks during the event and got a lot of interest in Ruben & Lullaby (my upcoming iPhone/iPod touch game). I’ll be putting the finishing touches on over the next week or so, so stay tuned…
For those in the Los Angeles area, stop on by LAFlashapaloozastock III in Venice this weekend for a full day of Flash goodness, including the debut of a new version of Swing. Swing has evolved into a typographic karaoke experience—we’ll use online services to stream your choice of song, download the lyrics, and get you waggling your way to Wii happiness. I’ll also have a number of “tuned” song/lyric combinations for you to play (yes, your dream of finally seeing a type animation of every single “ee-oh-oh” in Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic is about to be realized).
I’ll also be handing out postcards and generally talking up my upcoming iPhone game “Ruben & Lullaby,” which should be released in the next few weeks and has already garnered notice in TouchGaming. For more information visit opertoon.com.
Hope to see you there at LAFLashapaloozastock!
Since the iPhone 3G was released and the developer program opened to the general public, I’ve been cramming—learning the ins and outs of the SDK (not to mention C, Objective-C and Cocoa) in the hope of developing an original application by year’s end. Progress has been good so far, in that wonderfully frustrating way that happens when you’re really stretching your skills. Painful happiness!
I’ll be releasing more info about the project as time goes on, but there’s two things I can report now: the first is that I’m working again with comic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels, who is doing some really wonderful illustrations for the piece. The second is that I’ve finally caved and started a Twitter account for the purposes of keeping a micro development diary on the project. So, if slightly vague descriptions of programming tasks and other minutia are up your alley, then you’ve come to the right place. Must remember not to violate NDA…