Tip of the Quill: A Journal

I’ve just returned from O’Reilly’s inaugural SOLID conference in San Francisco. Here are 10 of the cool things I found, plus one bonus fascinating turn of events…

  1. Noam.io from IDEO. This could be crucial for an upcoming version of LIGHTHOUSE IN THE WOODS…
  2. MOMA’s Paola Antonelli. One of the best talks at SOLID was from MOMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture & Design + Director of R&D, who gave us a snapshot of the fascinating being done by modern artists with smart objects and cultural commentaries.
  3. Matthew Gardiner. In a similar vein, Ars Technica’s Matthew Gardiner is “an artist most well known for his work with origami and robotics. He coined the term Oribot 折りボト in 2004, and since works in the field of art/science research called Oribotics: a field of research that thrives on the aesthetic, biomechanic, and morphological connections between nature, origami and robotics.”
  4. EVRYTHNG. “EVRYTHNG is a Web of Things software company, making products smart by connecting them to the Web. Companies use EVRYTHNG’s software-as-a-service to manage their connected products, make product operations smarter with real-time tracking analytics, and help their customers connect to products in a smarter way.”
  5. littleBits. I was aware of littleBits before, but their demo of their upcoming cloud module changes everything. I’ve got to get some of these for the lab.
  6. Anki beyond DRIVE. The cars I knew about, but when Mark Palatucci admitted that similar technology could be used in other toys, like dolls, I sat up and took notice. Keep an eye on these guys.
  7. Marcelo Coehlo Studio. Crazy interesting artist + Media Lab alum who’s doing fascinating stuff with 3D printers.
  8. NYT Labs. “The New York Times Research & Development group looks beyond the next product cycle, identifying trends and technologies that will emerge in the next three to five years. We develop applications and prototypes that imagine the impacts these changes will create, and we share those prototypes to facilitate innovation and thoughtful consideration of the future of media.” Noah Feehan’s talk about making Blush, a wearable device that listens and lights up when particular topics are mentioned in conversation, was particularly intriguing given my recent research into wearable storytelling.
  9. Hiroshi Ishii and TRANSFORM. “TRANSFORM fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. Created by Professor Hiroshi Ishii and the Tangible Media Group from the MIT Media Lab, TRANSFORM aims to inspire viewers with unexpected transformations, as well as the aesthetics of the complex machine in motion.” I’d so love to mash this up with a puppet show. I was scribbling in my notebook the whole time Professor Ishii was talking.
  10. Astro Teller and Google[x]’s focus on the physical world. I may have a bit of a geek crush on Astro Teller, but Jesus, who wouldn’t? “Dr. Astro Teller currently oversees Google[x], Google’s moonshot factory for building magical, audaciously impactful ideas that through science and technology, can be brought to reality. Before joining Google, Astro was the co-founding CEO of Cerebellum Capital, Inc, an investment management firm whose investments are continuously designed, executed, and improved by a software system based on techniques from statistical machine learning. Astro was also the co-founding CEO of BodyMedia, Inc, a leading wearable body monitoring company. Prior to starting BodyMedia, Dr. Teller was co-founding CEO of SANDbOX AD, an advanced development technology incubator. Before his tenure as a business executive, Dr. Teller taught at Stanford University and was an engineer and researcher for Phoenix Laser Technologies, Stanford’s Center for Integrated Systems, and The Carnegie Group Incorporated. Dr. Teller holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science from Stanford University, Masters of Science in symbolic and heuristic computation, also from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a recipient of the Hertz fellowship. Though his work as a scientist, an inventor, and as an entrepreneur, Teller holds many U.S. and international patents related to his work in hardware and software technology. Astro is also a successful novelist and screenwriter. And he makes a mean margarita and other memorable potions.” See? SEE?

Finally, I was thrilled to discover that my old colleague Tobias Kinnebrew from Microsoft has become head of product strategy for Bot & Dolly. Yes, that Bot & Dolly. I can’t wait to see delightful oddities Tobias cooks up there…

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It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I have a ton of open tabs I need to close and I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s ben on my mind lately. In no particular order…

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futurecomics

Yesterday afternoon my friend Joe LeFavi and I were invited to present futurecomics1, a conversation about what’s next in the art and business of comics, in Henry Jenkins' “Comics and Graphic Storytelling” course at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. It was the last course of the year, so Henry thought it’d be fun to get a couple of us forward-thinking comics geeks together to talk about where things appear to be going. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we had a blast.

Joe shared lessons from his work with the Jim Henson Company, Archaia, Welcome to Night Vale, and, most recently, the Thrilling Adventure Hour graphic novel – which netted him an Eisner nomination! I gave a version of the talk that I gave last fall at the grand opening of OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Research Library and Museum, only with even more futuristic comics stuff and with a heaping pile of insight from the business side of things from Joe. Henry stitched it all together, weaving our random bits of geekery back into the larger tapestry of what the students had been discussing all semester.

Some of the things we yakked about:

  • Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics, which is coming up on its 15-year anniversary (!)
  • Image Comics, Jeff Smith, the 90s indie comics boom, and the new indie webcomics boom
  • Russell Monroe’s xkcd, especially his 12,636 x 6,084-pixel “Click and Drag” and his ~3,100-panel “Time”
  • The Watchmen motion comics (and whether motion comics are even comics)
  • Mark Waid and John Roger’s Thrillbent
  • Marvel Infinite Comics
  • Dan Burwen’s Operation Ajax
  • Simogo’s Device 6
  • Moonbot’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore
  • The Ryse digital comic I did with Microsoft Studios
  • Marvel AR
  • Anomaly Productions’ Anomaly
  • Brian David Johnson and will.i.am’s Wizards and Robots and its stunning 3D-printed case from struck
  • Opertoon’s Breathing Room
  • The impact of Amazon’s acquisition of Comixology
  • Possible futures for comics on Google Glass and in the Oculus Rift

The 90 minutes flew by, and we still only scraped the tip of the iceberg! There’s already chatter afoot to do something bigger and bolder, perhaps as soon as this fall, and one of these days, I’m going to write up a Futurecomics book on all this stuff – and of course I have some ideas for some more prototypes of my own… Too much fun!

1 Why yes, that title was an oblique Italo Calvino shout-out. Nice catch!

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How cool is this? And yes, it’s that Orlando Jones. Who, yes, I have had the privilege of meeting, and yes, he is very awesome.

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A few weeks ago, my friend Noam Dromi asked me if the Annenberg Innovation Lab could host a group of schoolkids that he was mentoring via his jrCEOs project. Specifically, he asked if I would be willing to play host, showing off the new techno-toys that we’ve been tinkering with in the lab. The thinking was to get these next-gen proto-entrepreneurs thinking about what new opportunities would be opened up by 3D printers like the Facebook Oculus Rift, 3D printers like the Makerbot Replicator, and wearables like Google Glass. Since Noam knows that I’m a very, ah, enthusiastic kind of guy, he figured I was the perfect dude to instill these kids with excitement about all these new technologies.

I, of course, was more than happy to do so. I recruited my peers Aninoy Mahapatra and Francesca Marie Smith as my partners-in-crime, and the next thing we knew we had somewhere around thirty-odd brilliant young kids running amok in the lab. As it turned out, we didn’t need to instill any additional enthusiasm into these kids – this was a pack of kids after my own heart. I loved hearing them shriek with delight as they played with the new toys, raving to each other about what they were experiencing, and seeing their eyes light up with the possibilities. That was a very good day.

Oh, and also, this happened:

I meant every word of what I said. These folks are where the next boom is going to come from. Getting them thinking creatively, imaginatively, and entrepreneurially as soon as possible is going to be key to reinvigorating the global economy. I’m so proud and honored to be a part of it.

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One of the most interesting new friends I’ve gotten to make during my time at USC so far has got to be Aaron Koblin, this year’s innovator-in-residence at the Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at Google. Aaron’s just unveiled his latest work, a collaboration with textile sculptor Janet Echelman done in conjunction with the TED 2014 conference that they call “Unnumbered Sparks“.

“Unnumbered Sparks” is an absolutely massive interactive fabric sculpture, which Aaron and Echelman describe as “a monumental interactive sculpture in the sky. Choreographed by visitors in real time through their mobile devices, the sculpture is a crowd-controlled visual artwork on a giant, floating canvas.”

Here, have another YouTube video on the tech powering it:

That’s right. That thing’s a giant web site.

Freaking mind-blowing, that is.

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A few weeks ago, the Annenberg Innovation Lab held our Spring 2014 Think & Do event. Much like the “New Screens: Re-Envisioning Home Entertainment” Think & Do we held back in the fall, this one focused on one of the four core areas of the lab’s Edison Project. This time around, the focus was on New Funding + Business Models, specifically on the new possibilities that start to appear in an all-mobile environment.

Here, have some videos. First, the preview of the event:

Think & Do Preview from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

And here, the recap video of the event:

AIL Think & Do Workshop: Recap – Business Models in an All Mobile Environment from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

“But wait,” I hear you saying. “What do you mean by an all-mobile environment?”

I’m so glad you asked! If the numbers we’re seeing bear out, there will be a whopping five billion smartphone users worldwide by 2016. Billion. With a B.

To put that into perspective, the entire world population as of July 2013 was 7.149 billion. That means that 70% of all human beings on the planet will be smartphone users within 24 months.

Further, some (admittedly slightly older) additional research from Forrester predicts that by 2016 the tablet market will only have an install base of 760 million, and the total number of PCs in use will be only 2 billion.

This is because a lot of places, especially such “next markets” like Africa and Asia, are going straight to mobile phones, and not bothering with PCs or even tablets at all. And why would they? Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone is aiming to start at $50, in 2012 Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales pointed out the huge disruption of the $50 smartphone in Africa, and in 2013 Manoj Kohli, CEO of big-in-India-and-Africa carrier Bharti Airtel, called for a $30 smartphone.

“Ah, but that’s just in emerging markets,” you say. Not so fast. Those of us that were born in the late 1970s and early 1980s are considered the first generation of digital natives, but the kids I’m meeting now are the first generation of mobile natives, who grew up not just with the Internet, but with smartphones and tablets. To some of these kids, laptops look as archaic as mainframes do to us older folks.

Yes, screens on these mobile devices are tiny, but they’re about to get even smaller, and that’s how they get REALLY BIG – according to Google, the screen on Glass is equivalent to a 25 inch high definition screen from eight feet away. (As a Glass Explorer, I can testify that it doesn’t exactly feel like that, but it’s pretty damn impressive.)

Long story short, it took 10 years, but the Personal Communications Network I predicted back in 2004 is finally – finally! – coming into play. We’re going to surrender our laptops for tablets – and then those tablets are going to shatter into multiple wearable components: ocular devices, wrist devices (which will offer a simple input device) and then, perhaps, a more complicated but more elegant, likely AR-driven input system akin to Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense prototype from the MIT Media Lab. We’re already seeing the first prototypes in products like Meta’s SpaceGlasses. The biggest limitations on these experiences are cost and battery life, and folks are scrambling to crack those problems as we speak.

OK, so I called the emergence of the wearable computing space 10 years ahead of schedule. Want my next prediction? It’s even simpler, because it’s already happening right now.

I think the rise of the wearable computing space is only feasible courtesy of the co-development of the Internet of Things. We’re seeing the long-awaited emergence of the “Connected World” – by which I mean the Connected Home + the Connected City + everything else, similar to what Adam Greenfield predicted in his terrific 2006 book Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing.

It’s possible that we’ll see the rise of “frame computers“, as Forrester predicts, but I’m more convinced that we’ll see even those go away. Sure, we’ll have Bluetooth keyboards that sync to our ocular devices (I haven’t tried it, but I’d be hugely surprised if someone hasn’t already hacked this together to work with Glass using an Android phone or tablet as a CPU), but I’m more convinced that we’ll see the perfection of VUI (vocal/voice user interface) systems like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or IBM’s Watson, and we’ll simply speak to the world. And, through our AR lenses and emotion-sensing (and subtly-nudging) wearable devices, the world will reply. We’ll walk through the world and it’ll whisper tales to us, and we’ll experience the real world differently in real time, the way that we now experience the world differently after we’ve seen a particular movie or read a particular book about a place.

The age of context is upon us, and in this age of wearables + the connected world, everything will be more immediate. More personal. More transformative. More hyperlocal and just in time. More social, damn near telepathic.

We’re laying the groundwork for this as we speak, and I’m increasingly convinced that this is the Next Boom. According to Credit Suisse, the wearables market could generate $30B – $50B globally in the next few years alone.

This is the world that storytellers, media makers, entrepreneurs, and innovators can play with now. Many of them already have been! Check out the forward-thinking experiences from experience designers like Six to Start or Eric Klopfer, Cristobal Garcia and Michael Epstein, or the scores of ARG designers who have been looking at the world differently for years. Look at things like the Disney StoryLight, and other experiments with the Connected Home, or experiences like Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure at EPCOT that show how a Connected City might tell you a story. And that’s just the start.

Some possible additional perks of the all-mobile, or mobile-centric, environment? Fewer couch potatoes. More tourists. More family walks. More exploration. Want to get truly hyperbolic? The world has grown too sedentary and too complacent because media has become too “anything you want, anytime you want it”. In this new world, when we ask for something, the world will be able to say, “Here, get up and come with me, and I’ll show you.”

Yeah, it might take another ten years. (I seem to be good at that, having essentially predicted Skylanders and Disney Infinity by 10 years too.) But this time around, I really, really doubt it. There’s too much on the line, there are too many people who really need there to be another boom, and the technology is coming together to make this happen very quickly. Google’s $3.2B acquisition of Nest was a big step, Apple’s inclusion of iBeacons in iOS 7 (and its boost in 7.1) was another big step, and if Apple does debut an iWatch this year, that’ll be huge. Imagine if Apple were to truly pull a Jobsian “one more thing” and unveil a Google Glass-style ocular device at the same time: that would be a truly seismic change. I hate the phrase “paradigm shift,” but here it might be applicable.

Me, I’m starting to tinker with experiences for these kinds of platforms. I’ll share more later in the year, as I have more to show off, but that’s what I’m thinking a lot about these days. (Well, one of the things I’m thinking a lot about these days. 🙂 )

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Awesome-looking new movie from Robyn Miller (of MYST fame) and BOING BOING, released as VOD on Vimeo, purchasable directly through embedded trailers like the one above. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love the future.

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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!

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From Metropolis’The Year in Review“:

Entrepreneurship is endemic to designers. They make things, and there are many things, from books to apps, from the quirkiest to the most mainstream, being created by designers who now see ways of marketing them directly to an audience through the Web. Unit Editions in London is on the top of this list. They’re working in books, but with a totally new, designer-driven business plan. And let’s not forget Etsy, making it so easy to make, test, and profit. Designers need more revenue streams. Businesspeople may have a good idea for a product; the designer with the same idea simply will make it happen. The distribution networks have changed as radically as they did a century ago with the establishment of interstate roads and railways. Design entrepreneurship is not new, but it’s more accessible because of technology and the new business models it enables.


Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Design: Design as Author & Entrepreneur program.

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