The line between the digital world and the physical one is imaginary

There have been some really interesting projects spring up recently that make use of physical objects in three-dimensional space to negotiate or interact with digital media. This seems important.

It’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to recently – and I’ve been paying close attention to this development, especially with respect to music making and music consumption – but it applies right across the realm of things we like to think of as ‘creative’ or ‘playful’.

To show you what I mean about the erasure of the line between digital and physical, take a look at Osmo – an iPad toy that uses wooden puzzle pieces to engage children in creative play and group activities.

As you see from the video, users arrange the wooden shapes on a table in front of the iPad and get instruction and feedback to let them know when they have it right. It puts the play in physical space rather than simply on the screen, but also uses the intelligence of the iPad to make the experience entirely interactive.

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Music Technologism

I’m really proud to have been involved with the drafting of the Manifesto for Music Technologists, or #MusicTechiFesto, as it’s being called on Twitter.

Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a group of world leading academics from a wide range of different disciplines at Microsoft Research on the Monday after the Music Tech Fest we held there in March. We called it the ‘Afterparty’.

We discussed and debated what we thought to be the most important things about music and technology – and we came up with a declaration that reflects what we believe and what we hold to be important. Things like:

“We call on companies to produce music technologies that matter, that foster meaningful communities, that consider musical culture and user bases as much more than cash registers.”

While not all of us make things with tech, all of us work in an area of intersection between music and tech in some way. That makes us music technologists – not as an occupation, necessarily – but as a movement.

“We are Music Technologists. We work in science, art, engineering, humanities, activism, social science, policy and industry. We believe in music technology and we want to build better worlds. We invite you to join us.”

Read and sign the Manifesto for Music Technologists.

Manifesto for the future of Music Technology research

New technologies for producing and circulating music have led many to question the status and purpose of music.

At Microsoft Research New England on Monday this week, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a fantastic group of leading academics from around the world and from a wide range of disciplines at the intersection of music and technology for a one-day symposium which addressed the fertility of music as a subject that bridges computational, social scientific and humanistic approaches.

The symposium followed and developed ideas from the three-day Music Tech Fest (for which I am Festival Director), hosted at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) Centre in Cambridge, MA.

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Talk about social change…

I spoke at Music Tech Fest in May.

I met the festival’s founder Michela Magas at the London blogger’s meetup I spoke at back in April, and she asked me to come along and simply talk about what it is I do. I decided that since everyone else at the event would probably be talking about music and digital media, I would focus on the other stuff I do. The “music as a tool for social change” stuff.

It seemed to go down well, and they filmed it for posterity (see above). There’s a lot of really fascinating presentations on the Music Tech Fest YouTube channel, so if, like me, you have an interest in that intersection of ideas between music and technology, I’d suggest spending quite a bit of time there.

Since I did this talk, not only have I been over to Brazil to work on Occupy Music (the film I discuss in the video), but Michela is now the executive producer of that film, and I’ve become one of the organisers of Music Tech Fest.

So that all worked out rather nicely.

Hacking music radio

Logo orangeI decided to stay on at Music Tech Fest after my presentation yesterday, and ended up joining in with the hack challenges. There were plenty that I had nothing to contribute to, as I can’t write code or programme in any way – but one of the hack challenges caught my attention: “reinvent music radio”.

In fact, the brief was actually posed as follows:

Radio is crucial to the music industry. It promotes music to the masses and largely determines the taste of the public. The problem is that the channel to make and promote music is controlled by a few large stations. Can you develop an alternative to radio that allows independent labels to promote their music to the public?

I asked if anyone in the room was keen to work on this, and had no response. Most people wanted to invent new musical instruments, design a “3D playlist”, create a software oscillator, build a hardware drum trigger, hack the robot bartender – that sort of thing. Sexier projects where you get to make things, in other words.

However, once I finally decided to tackle the radio problem myself, I was quickly joined by a designer by the name of Jedediah.

Between us, by about 2am, we had come up with the core concepts for RADIATR: a mobile platform that aims to solve some of the problems discussed in the hack challenge above. Here’s the document I wrote, with some of Jed’s mockups in the mix.

ЯADIATR by adubber

Later today, I’m giving a presentation that outlines some of the key ideas. It’s not perfect, of course – it was created in less than 12 hours in an all-night brainstorming and development session fuelled by junk food and Red Bull (perfect hacker sustenance, apparently…), but I think there are some interesting concepts in here.

Here are the slides from this evening’s presentation. There are prizes at stake.

Interested to hear your thoughts. Whether we end up doing something with this remains to be seen – but I think we could stand to kick it around a bit more before we abandon it. I may be utterly sleep deprived, but I feel like there’s potentially something worthwhile in here somewhere…

On being on the computer

There’s a kind of a revelation moment that hits you when you suddenly realise that you experience the world in quite a different way to other people. Where you see things from their perspective just for a moment, and something that was baffling to you suddenly makes sense. I just had one of those.

A friend of mine that I talk to online quite a lot (which actually describes most of my friends, come to think of it) referred to our conversation as ‘being on the computer’.

It had never occurred to me that this is what we were doing: being on computers. I thought we were hanging out and talking. Complete perspective shift.

I’m never ‘being on the computer’. I’m working, or I’m talking with friends. I’m writing or I’m listening to music. I’m watching videos or I’m reading. I’m learning about something, or I’m making a call. I use the computer to do all those things, but the computer is utterly transparent to me.

And so, of course, I thought it was the same for everyone else.

But some people have ‘real life’, and then they have ‘being on the computer’. It’s an experientially different thing. Not that ‘being on the computer’ is a negative thing for them, necessarily – but rather that it doesn’t really count in the same way that real life does. For them, getting to know someone happens in person. Whereas for me, getting to know someone doesn’t depend on being in the same room at the same time. It’s better that way, of course – but they both work.

Perhaps it’s because I spend most of my life in my head, knowing other people has to do with opening up a channel of communication for thoughts and ideas, wordplay and trivia, memories and feelings. Whereas for others, getting to know other people is mostly about having shared experiences. Neither of these things are wrong, of course, unless you fail to factor in that the other person might not do this the same way you do.

I have a friend that I met online in the late 1990s, and we used to talk all the time (email and IRC mostly, if I remember correctly). Similar interests and life experiences. Teaches radio at a university. Comes from a production background. Has kids a similar age to Jake’s…

A few years back he invited me to come and do some external examining at his university, and I stayed at his house. At that time, the answer to the question ‘how long have you two known each other?’, I now realise, has two answers: ‘well over a decade’ was one possible answer. The other: ‘we’ve only just met’.

I’m sure there’s a spectrum between those two ways of interpreting the world, and that I’m probably at one extreme end of that spectrum, and the only reason I’ve noticed that this is even a thing is that I’ve encountered someone at the other end of that spectrum. But it’s a totally different way of experiencing life in the 21st century, and I hadn’t considered it. And now I am.

And like all things that have to do with how different people perceive the world, it gives people different understandings and expectations about how the world works and how people should behave and think. And not considering it can cause problems.

I’ll be watching out for that one in future…