Digital Economy All-Hands Meeting

The conference began on Tuesday evening at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab with an opening reception and technical demonstrations. The following morning John Baird began proceedings with a welcome talk which focused on work conducted under the Digital Economy theme. He began this talk by making a comparison between the aims of the Digital Economy and the philosophy of Steve Jobs, who he quoted as saying:

“technology alone is not enough … its technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

The first talk of the day was by Professor Jim Hollan from the University of California, San Diego, who had been invited to the conference as a keynote speaker. Jim spent the first half of his talk discussing how the traditional form of computers was rapidly disintergrating into a variety of new forms. He suggested that one of the most exciting things about this development was that it was providing new opportunities for social scientists to capture genuine ‘real-world’ activity. The second half of his talk focused on what he referred to as ‘history-enriched digital computing’. Jim has published numerous papers on this concept, the most notable being ‘read wear’ and ‘edit wear’. Jim also presented some software he has developed called ‘ChronoViz’. ChronoViz allows multiple chronological data sources to be visualised alongside one another and annotated, a task which is currently very difficult for most social science researchers.

Tom Frankland discussing his PhD research poster

The next session was a series of talks by a panel of industry experts. These were Gary Bolton from Microsoft, Ian Marshall from the financial services, Dave Sharp, a games developer from Binary Asylum, Alan Whitmore from medical science and Aart van Halteren from Philips Research. Each speaker was asked to identify their top challenges for the Digital Economy in respect to their specialist areas. While each of the speakers presented relevant and challenging issues for the Digital Economy, it was the issues raised by Dave Sharp that promoted most debate from the audience. His speech critiqued the relationship between the creative industries and academia, and he suggested that there needed to be more emphasis on turning good academic ideas into commercially viable solutions. He stated that academia moves too slow for the creative industries, and that academia left graduates ill-prepared for jobs.

After lunch we headed off to smaller workshop sessions. The workshop I attended focused on the use of game engines to support academic research, which offers numerous advantages over other tools including reliability and the availability of numerous pre-built libraries. We also talked about ‘gamification’; the process of turning mundane tasks into ‘games’ which are fun for the user.

The next session I attended was about music and sound. The first presentation in this session examined how families or groups of people in the same household use and consume music. The speakers had found that new technologies have energized opportunities for sociality in the home and have enriched social interactions around music. The next talk examined the potential of musicological tools in two contexts – in the British Library and in secondary school music classes. Based on ethnographic studies conducted in schools the speakers had developed a tool built around YouTube, which supported students by indicating which chords to use to play along with a video clip. The final presentation in this session was given by a curator from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers museum has a large and relatively unknown archive of sound recordings, and this talk explored how this archive of sounds was being put to use in the museum to improve the visitor’s experience of their collections.

Given my interest in archaeology I attended the cultural heritage session next. The first talk in this session was about an exhibition hosted at Doctor Johnson’s house in London. This exhibit consisted of a pen and paper interface which allowed visitors to invent their own word for a dictionary. Once a visitor created a physical entry into this dictionary it was automatically transferred to a digital exhibit and website. Overall visitors input 742 original and innovative words into the dictionary! The second talk examined Scottish heritage sites that are currently unstewarded and have few visual remains. To address this the speakers described a location-based system they had developed which augmented the environment using audio. Among the teams’ findings was the discovery that some features in an open environment can constrain where visitors move, whereas others encourage further exploration. The final talk in this session examined how community cultural heritage can be supported by technology. Their work lead to the creation of CURIOS, an open source website and data management system.

The final talk of the day examined how the concept of ‘futures’ could be used to develop new ways of thinking about the digital economy. The speakers gave examples of how predictions of the future have helped to shape new technologies, and suggested that we could perhaps use ‘futures’ as creative spaces for design, helping us to escape present-day constraints to thinking. The day ended with poster presentations and dinner, which were held at the Great North Museum in the evening. Both myself and Ramine from Southampton University presented posters in a lively and stimulating session.

Don Marinelli gave a hugely entertaining and persuasive keynote presentation at the beginning of the final day of the conference. His talk focused on the ‘Entertainment Technology Centre’ that he and Randy Pausch set up at Carnegie Mellon University. Despite having an academic background and working in academia, Don became disillusioned with it for many reasons and therefore decided to try out a new style of student program focusing on interactivity and group work. There are no structured modules taught on this course, except for in the first quarter. Don emphasises links to industry on the course and companies pay to have work done by the students. The ETC is so respected commercially that students are guaranteed a job in industry on graduation. My favourite aspect of the ETC was the effort Don and Randy had put into making the facilities ‘cool’, and there was a definite focus on fun in the department.

Overall the Digital Economy all-hands meeting was an excellent conference to attend with many fascinating talks, especially from the keynote speakers. For a longer version of this report complete with social media commentary, please visit Storify.

The next conference will be hosted on the 23rd-25th October 2012 in Aberdeen.