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Music for the A.D.D. Generation

by on Jan.27, 2006, under geek culture, new media

If you are like me and enjoy blippy, boopy, synth-generated music inspired by videogames and sometimes (but not necessarily) sharks, FreezePop might be just for you! Check out their o.fi.cial Site and some samples. Their claim to fame is a few game soundtracks, so its nice to see them break out into the analog world.

My favourite of the moment is “I am not your Gameboy” but that may change in the next five minutes.

This is fun music for the distracted. Ooh, love the battery-powered sequencer! 🙂

(Thank-you pandora.com)

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Pixar Swims With the Sharks

by on Jan.25, 2006, under moviez, new media

After two weeks in a media spin-cycle, the latest rumours finally circled around the truth. The Disney shark has gulped down Pixar for a cool 7.5 billion dollars. Wow.

I’m quite sure this has been tried many times in the past, but while a potential acquisition unquestionably benefits Grandfather Disney, its always been a dubious deal for Pixar. Thus, the answer from Jobs has always been a flat “no”.

So whats changed? Well, there is one big reason that I can think of.

This new development would never have happened if it weren’t for the iPod and its software sister, iTunes. Yes, one can talk about better Pixar relations that Disney has cultivated with new CEO Igor, or that Pixar should sell while they’re still on top, etc. But the real deal is this : Jobs is changing his Disney song for iTunes.

This is huge. Big media is finally going to pay attention to online distribution in a big way. With Pixar, Disney, iTunes (and their subsidiaries which include ABC and ESPN) doing it, its now a competition. Thats the only thing that will move those guys into the 21st century. Competition is the ultimate wake-up call.

The specifics on how this will play is anyone’s guess. I suspect that it will be somewhat organic; they’ll see what works for them (and the video-ipod-downloading consumer) and go with it. Will iTunes become the primary mechanism for watching media? I have no idea. But this will open the sluices for online media purchases, and it won’t just be television shows and movies. This will change what television essentially is.


So this is how the merger benefits Steve Jobs. How will it benefit a culturally sensitive Pixar? Well, I’ll leave that question for the experts. 🙂

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Have you been Simucated lately?

by on Nov.02, 2005, under education, new media

hawt4teach3r

When the U.S. Army wants to teach you something, they don’t arbitrarily push you into a classroom to listen to a two-hour lecture. When they need to teach you something, they simulate. They exact the essential details of a subject, create its environment, and then put you right into it. Sometimes, they spend a lot of energy to motivate you properly. Life and death, reward and punishment, esprit de corps, and so on.Makes sense doesn’t it? From basic training to air combat, they’re reproducing the environment to ensure that you know what you need to know. As an example, if I need to understand how jetfuel loaders work, am I jammed into a room with 45 other jetfuel technicians and then graduate with a head full of knowledge? Sounds like a ridiculous way to learn anything, really. But the U.S. armed forces does it all over the map, changing difficult machine parts, flying extremely expensive aircraft, all that. Combat, non-combat, you name it, they do it, and they do it very well.

So why then, do today’s high schools operate identically to the old one-room schools of over half a century ago? If we have so much knowledge and experience teaching, why does it look and taste exactly the same as it always has? Does it work? Is heads-down, obedient learning still considered a virtuous rite of passage?

Nope. Its not working. Its done. We simply do not live in the same world anymore.

Allow me to frame it like this. think of the universe of distractions that clamour for the attentions of every student. IM, cellphones, TiVO, videogames, CDs, flash jokes, advertising, email, etc. etc. How can one ensure the success of a growing mind in the face of this endless sea of fireworks and fun?

We can’t. We lost. The battle is already over.

As my teacher friends tell me : students today learn things differently than they did before. Why is it that so many highschoolers and young people grab hold of new technologies like its nothing, and then learn it better than their teachers? Its because of the world they live in, steeped in a daily deluge of information and exchange.

The current debate surrounding technology in schools sadly revolves around how to teach technology to students. Unfortunately, people don’t get that this problems is a sideshow. The students already get it – in fact, they get it better than you or I. Its time to stop oohing and ahhing over the tech, and just bury it into the lessons themselves. Don’t teach it. USE IT to teach.

The U.S. Army has proven to be very accepting of simulation and gaming as a means of conveying information. This is presumably because they are highly motivated! We need to be, and could conceivably benefit by taking a page from their book.
Some Ideas on Motivation

How do we get kids interested these days? Do we keep telling them that getting proper grades is necessary so that they can graduate, go on to graduate again, and then go and get a job…blah blah. Does it work? We need to understand what advertisers have known forever : For kids, Friday night is the most important thing on their mind. Why fault kids for not getting the lesson of “why should we learn?”. I realise that I am no expert, but I wonder what would happen if we tried :

  • Create immediacy around their actions : by a proper and convincing reward and punishment scale. Grades work, yes. But what about rewarding negatively – like, detention for failure? No more Friday night? Or weekend study camp? Don’t like that? How about rewarding positively closer to the vein of companies that want the goldmine that is teenagers’ wallets : Free, paid cellular hours? Starbucks dollars? How about earned “time off”? Or more choices?These are “new world” rewards. The advertisers are doing it, so why can’t highschools?
  • Collectivize students’ fate : create an esprit de corps between students. One student helps another in a crowded class and you both do better? Reward. Don’t help anyone? Then the whole class suffers. Teachers are already stretched too thinly in the class, so shifting learning to group learning is a natural consequence.

Simulating Lessons

Nothing compares to actually doing the work. But to augment and explain in a world where there are less teachers and more students, retention and understanding can be gained through simulation and characterization. I don’t necessarily mean via a videogame, but an “un-game” that so happens to be running under the Quake 3 or Source engines. Take any topic. Create a lesson that demonstrates in 3d space, with interactivity and characterization, the whys, hows and whats of what you’re trying to convey. The content need only be limited by your imagination, i.e. complex, visually oriented ideas can be effectively demonstrated within a simulation. More specifically (as some examples) :

  • Physics – incline on a plane; the step-by-step introduction of the theories of friction and force vectors. If the students can see and play with this in a 3d “un-game”, does it not seem completely obvious that this is a better demonstration? Its repeatable, its cheaper than experimentation, and allows the un-game to link in ancillary information that may benefit the “lesson” (i.e. the math!). Once the theory/formula is demonstrated, I’d bet they’d get it easily and be more engaged.
  • History – a complex series of events detailed within a simulation. Have the students interact or witness the acts of historical figures. Meet them. Fight in their wars. Build their houses. Set up the motivation and the implications of history, and you’re effectively channeling a student’s uncanny ability to memorize all of the names of their favourite bands, videogame characters and moviestars. If they practically lived in a period as part of the history lesson, well you can be sure they’ll know history better than anyone else in, well, history. As an example, Age of Empires III has the promise
    of demonstrating and motivating history within the confines of its simulation.
  • English – playacting shakespeare in a virtual drama. Let the student experience shakespeare as if they were there. Great works of literature could be reinterpreted in a “place”, and thus their own lessons of language and expression.
  • Chemistry – prompting discovery within a simulated world. Find elements and combine them with varying technology to create new substances, discover new elemental properties. Motivate them with in-game rewards and challenges to keep them moving forward. This is the future of experimentation and education, without schools having to buy 100 bunsen burners.

As I said, these are just examples of ways in which simulation could augment education (but not replace old-fashioned homework). Doesn’t it make sense? Can you think of other examples? Its heartening to see how some progress – my brother-in-law is working on the beginnings of new ways of testing and teaching. Check it out over the next few months as he rolls it out. Its great stuff.

Remember, its not about the technology, but what we do with it. We need to face the stark, staring truth that the world is changing. Now is the time for schools to be there when it does. If we don’t do it, someone else will (and sell it back to us).

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Bye bye, Disney…

by on Aug.03, 2005, under games industry, new media

RoyDisney_RIP.JPG

When you think of Disney, what do you think about?

Most likely, the characters. Cinderella, Bambi, Snow White, and so on. Its easy to think of half a dozen or so, all lurking in various parts of our memories. There are so many, and they evoke certain emotions in all of us, whether we like it or not. Starting in the 1920’s, Disney was the big rock dropped into our cultural pond, creating waves that lasted through our parents’ generation, and into our own adulthoods. No one quite did it like Disney. And no one ever will. So why goodbye?

Well, because of our parents.

OK, its not our parents’ fault that Disney is dead. Its simply a matter of how we learned about the world from our parents. They shared their values, shared what they knew. And so, we understood it readily. And to this day some of our best cultural memories revolve around the experiences that Disney provided.

Cue the realities of media. Like many large corporations, Disney looks to the future based on the parameters of the past. That is their mandate – profit predictability. They know the formula, because they pretty much invented it. So that gives them an edge in their domain. Everything you see come out of the Disney corporation is a mechanical variant of what succeeded in the past. I’m not saying its bad – they are truly masters of their craft…

The only problem is that a new craft is coming to the fore.

The ground underneath the behemoth has now shifted. Smaller and lighter media companies are right now moving the playing field – either through a natural evolvement or through sheer invention. Scurrying underfoot of the beast, moving faster and faster until… the giant is forced to play catchup. But by then, its too late. The little guys were there first, and they handle their domains better than Disney does.

And its already happened.

Nintendo, I’m not the first to say it, but I would still like to welcome you to your new domain.

We, as the parents of today, get video games. They are worlds. They are interactive. They weave living, breathing, memories for the children of today. The kids can watch them, play them, carry them around, read them, or listen to them. Think about the difference in experiencing a static character on a movie screen with a character that interacts with you, that you can not only watch and get to know, but play with? A heady experience, for sure! And when our kids grow up, what memories will they be sharing with their children?

See you at the next Nintendo theme park!

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Wired 1.3

by on Jun.02, 2005, under geek culture, new media


Digital Anthropology

Wired Magazine, circa 1993. I’m not sure what possessed me to fetch this from my shelf. Looking at it now feels like trolling the depths of an ancient tome. Pages and pages of fantastic art and layout, rife with electronic activism, the odd political opinionati, new music, gadgets, terms… this magazine was the true harbinger of change! The buzz in those pages was palpable, the atmosphere hopeful.

They felt like a nimble and progressive business, publishing email addresses of its writers and staff before anyone else. They even filled the pages with “hot links” that took you to gopher sites and newsgroups. Even before the Mosaic and the WWW, it was a literal deluge of the new, and Wired helped to usher it in.

I kept reading and reading and reading, flipping through the ads, the art, the letters…all frozen in 1993. I wanted to challenge the predictions, seeing if they withstand the test of Now. Twelve years later. Ancient history indeed!!

“Much enjoyed reading your magazine – but I am getting really worried. Who’s going to run the world (or even learn how to run it) with all these wonderful toys to distract everyone from the cradle to the grave? All good wishes.Arthur C. Clarke

Sri Lanka

I liked that, but I’m tempted to respond. There is no question about it, Sir Arthur… but remember that the people that grow up in the culture of distraction grow up with much better filters than you.

I curiously stumbled upon the article, “The Dragon Ate My Homework“. Story of MUDs and MOOs and Mucks and kids who should have been doin’ calculus. My story was that I did have accounts smattered here and there, mostly in the UK (University of Warwick IIRC), using my university’s free connection to my own entertainment. I was more interested in the sociological aspects than I was in the actual games of the time. The mere fact that I was conversing realtime with people around the world was almost good enough. And the experiences with my online gaming buddies shaped who I am today. It was highly addictive. But back then, there were truly stunning game ideas propogated through the hallways of those dungeons, feats of programming and user-created worlds. Where the world would react to you and your deeds. Your reputation and actions, etched digitally into the framework of the server database, allowing the world to shape and bend to your behaviour. Eventually to your desires. Wicked stuff back in the day, and all done with a text UI and a relational database. Certainly not the stuff of worlds today, that remain hopelessly inert.

The story of id Software’s masterpiece, “Doom”. The growth of the Internet. The rise of Quake and Internet gaming. Wired documented and oversaw these truly great things, extolling how they could be done from the so-called “bottom” of the heap. It needn’t be pushed into our worlds by large organizations bent on profit. The Really Good Games (and other forms of entertainment were ostensibly created from a spirit of individuality and unfettered creativity. Not written by a committee. Not approved by the board. They were just done because they had to be. And done by you and me.

Just like Wired.

The first, First Post! 🙂

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