Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Bang bang hammer hammer (2014 edition).

Rabbit rabbit!

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s been a few months since I’ve posted an update about what all I’ve been up to. The short answer is, a lot. As for a long answer…

Life at USC has been wonderfully, delightfully hectic this past semester. As I said back in September:

I believe that there is a place in the future of transmedia entertainment for big businesses (obviously), but there is also a sustainable future for independent creators. There is a sustainable future for people who want to teach in this space, for people who want to tinker in this space, for people who want to keep pushing things forward. The transmedia storyteller of 2023 is going to have a really interesting set of narrative tools in their toolbox. 3D printers, wearable devices, virtual reality and augmented reality and so on, those are the new tools of 2013 – and my new lab gives me the opportunity to explore those, to play with those, and, to some extent, to learn and play and create in public.

A lot of this philosophy is reflected in the lab’s Edison Project, which was unveiled at the end of September. As David Bloom described it in Deadline Hollywood:

USC will launch a three-year research effort called the Edison Project to figure out key issues of the emerging entertainment economy surrounding new creators of content, new platforms and distributors of that content, new business models to finance their work and new metrics to measure success.

…The entertainment business is showing signs of trouble, from the long-staggering music industry to a movie business that launched numerous bombs this past summer, to an ad business that’s consolidating and automating. These problems are happening even as the world’s entertainment-consuming middle class is booming, and creation of digital media has jumped nine times. Traditional entertainment, meanwhile, is seeing revenue growth barely keep pace with inflation. [And] new ways of thinking about entertainment are needed to deal with such issues as piracy.

[Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplin said the time has come to see the challenges of an Internet-driven economy as “signposts of opportunity,” beginning with a new way of thinking about traditional distribution windows as more online-video distributors and creators such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Intel come into the market. “I think you should just regard these guys as stores,” Taplin said. Current exclusive deals are “silly. They’re just storefronts. Everybody should just have access to every movie. This whole (distribution) windowing thing has got to go out the window. If you do that, you can reach the 3 billion (entertainment consumers worldwide) that’s growing to 4 billion and will become 5 billion.”

Researchers will focus on four areas:

  • the impact of new ways to consume content, such as the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, Google Glass, high-resolution 4K TV screens and Samsung Gear watches, and what those mean for creating, distributing and consuming content.

  • new business models that can make money for creators and distributors while also slaking the fast-growing world consumer demand for entertainment that helps drive piracy.

  • new creators and producers, such as YouTube-based video stars, some of whom are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the material they create for little or nothing in their back bedrooms, and the companies that help them find and build audiences.

  • new kinds of metrics and analysis that can better measure what’s working in the new entertainment environment. Taplin said as one example that no good metrics exist to track and understand the impact of ‘super fans,” the ardent followers of a show who blog about every plot twist or bit of news, create and share all kinds of related content and promote it to others.

Those of you who have been following my work for a while should notice some of my favorite themes here: much of this Edison Project stuff is similar to the work we were doing at the Convergence Culture Consortium back at MIT, and at least part of it is akin to the future-of-entertainment work we were doing in J Allard (and Ray Ozzie)’s think tank at Microsoft. This is no accident – my position as Technical Director at the lab is much more of a “what are the new technologies reshaping the future of media and entertainment” gig as part of the Edison Project than it is a “fix the server!” kind of gig. (Luckily, I have a great team to help fix the servers!)

Some of this is already trickling out. We held a big Think & Do event on the first of the four Edison Project focus areas, “The New Screens”, on November 20 at the lab. That event, which we called “Re-Envisioning the Home TV Experience,” is recapped in the following video (which includes an incredibly cheesy ending from me, but hey, that’s how I roll):

As suggested in the video, the big things I explored during my first semester at the lab include:

  • 3-D printers. Our lab procured a MakerBot Replicator 2X a few months ago, and I immediately started tinkering with how to print things like 3D snowflakes. I’ve been thinking a great deal about tangible storytelling, and I’m convinced that 3D printers will play a vital role in this moving forward. As will…

  • Arduino / Raspberry Pi / etc. Whatever you want to call this space, the rise of (relatively) easily-accessible custom hardware is going to be a huge boon to storytellers, artists and other creative technologists. I’ve been exploring what’s possible when you bash these together with some of the new pieces on the market, especially things like Bluetooth Low-Energy (as seen in things like Estimote and Apple’s iBeacons), which gets super interesting when you combine them with…

  • Unity. This has been a beast of an undertaking, but the more I play with it the more convinced I am that the video game development app Unity is basically becoming the new Adobe Photoshop. So many people are doing so many interesting things with Unity that it’s jaw-dropping – and, much like Photoshop, it’s the “plug-ins” that make it such a world-changer. Case in point: the Uniduino asset that connects Unity to Arduino boards. It’s this mash-up of the digital and the physical that seems like the clear Next Big Thing – especially in conjunction with…

  • Wearables. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this whole space is even called, to be honest, because it keeps changing. The idea of “wearable computing” is solid enough – and I became a Google Glass Explorer back in November – but what do you call storytelling experiences created for such devices? Wearable stories? Ubiquitous stories? Immersive stories? I’m tinkering with storytelling for the Google Glass and things like the Fitbit Flex or the Jawbone Up, and those stories will be immersive in different ways, but the term “immersive storytelling” may be better applied to…

  • The Oculus Rift. Another reason Unity may be becoming the new Photoshop is the (relative) ease with which projects done in Unity can be ported to virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. I’m writing this just as CES 2014 is kicking off, and I can’t wait to see what Oculus has in store this week. I’m hoping it’s an announcement of when the headsets will be publicly available, and their intended price point. As it is, the dev kits are astonishingly cheap for as much amazement as they deliver. VR experiences will be brilliant new extensions into transmedia storytelling experiences, but I’m not sure yet how they’ll serve as the primary hubs for such transmedia stories – especially for truly indie transmedia storytellers. For that, I’m currently still focusing on…

  • E-books. Or dBooks, or whatever the proper terminology is for this stuff. This is an area I’ve been exploring for yearsremember this? – and it’s STILL not where I thought it would be by now (how many of Kevin Rose’s ideas from four years ago have actually come to fruition at scale?) but it’s still gloriously evolving. Every time I pick up my iPad mini and open Comixology, the Kindle app or one of the scores of e-book apps that I’ve been enjoying (particularly those from Mirada, like Cornelia Funke’s amazing MirrorWorld, or from Moonbot Studios, like William Joyce’s Oscar-winning The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) I’m convinced that this is where the future of publishing is going. Or at least, it’s the area of the future of publishing where I want to be going. 🙂

I’m chugging away at all of this stuff at the lab, with each of these areas reflecting a quadripartite area of work for me: first, the actual learning of the technical how-to-do-it-ness; second, applying it to the lab’s projects; third, applying it creatively to my own storytelling projects; and fourth, attempting to apply a critical making perspective to the whole schebang, which will (hopefully) result in more academic publications. At last count, I had over twenty-five creative/writing projects in the works, depending on how you count (one of them is a 13-part project), so it’s taking me significantly longer than I’d hoped to bring these projects to market, but I’m still hammering away. I’ll try to do a better job of posting here as I go this year, but sometimes it’s hard to remember to blog when you’re up to your ears in books, code, art supplies, and – oh yeah, being a new daddy. There’s no place I’d rather be, though. (And hey, if Neil can find the time to blog again, so can I…)

Again, Happy New Year, everybody! May all your projects be crazy-wonderful, learn something every day, and, as a wise man has been known to say, make good art and new mistakes!