Immersive VR Education – Culture File

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A few months ago, Irish company Immersive VR education ran a successful kickstarter to create a virtual reality simulation of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon. Put like that it sound kind unbelievable – we actually built a craft that travelled to the moon! Sure, we haven’t gone back in forty three years, but it’s damned impressive all the same.

If you’re lucky enough to own one of the oculus rift developer kits (consumer versions still haven’t hit the market), you can download a demo of the experience at Immersive VR’s site.

I sat down with Immersive’s founder David Whelan to try out this epic voyage, all from the comfort of a swivel chair in his Waterford based home office.

Download: ‘Immersive VR Education’

Toys – Episode 3 – Mad Scientists of Music

Episode three takes a journey into the underground world of circuit bending. Circuit benders hack children’s toys and dissect cheap archaic electronics, to produce strange new instruments. Circuit bending lies at the intersection of instrument building, grass roots activism and psychedelia. Listeners will learn about the history of circuit bending, a hobby that grew out of the the microprocessor and psychedelic revolutions in the 1960’s; and how these technological and cultural movements fused into a kind of activist musicianship.

From the work of Reed Ghazala (creator of Circuit Bending) on, musical tinkerers have been antiestablishment figures – taking technology beyond its intended uses and in the process becoming outsider artists.

Andrew Edgar explains how geographical differences in the history of consumerism influenced the musical cultures of different countries – and how he views taking toys apart as a sort of ‘sound archaeology’. Andrew introduces us to his collection of unique circuit bent instruments. Artist and VJ MarQu Vr situates circuit bending in the history of electronic music. John Leech gives us a live ‘cartridge ripping’ demo, which involves tricking a classic megadrive into producing chaotic musical sequences. We begin though, in Berlin, where writer and one time rock star Julian Gough, is making his own weird and wonderful instruments.

Download:
Episode 3 – ‘Toys

About the Series

BAI logo mark colourMad Scientists of Music is a six part, BAI funded documentary series on Near FM. The show explores the world of Circuit Bending, Chip Tune, and Electroacoustic music in Ireland. Low cost technology, recycled instruments and a new attitude to tinkering embodied by the ‘maker movement’ are helping to reinvent music. A new generation of Irish musicians raised around computers, the internet and video gaming, see noise as something to be hacked, taken apart, and reconstructed. These artists build their own instruments, whether by recycling toy keyboards, modifying video game consoles, or attaching electronics to traditional stringed instruments. They often share their music online for free, and in doing so challenge our ideas about copyright and ownership. Their playful attitude to technology finds new uses for obsolete devices and brings the collaboration of musicianship to engineering and the arts.

Credits

Sounds used from – Gamepak circuit bending bloof

Part 1 – Julian Gough in Berlin
Part 2 – Andrew Edgar & Gamepak collective
Part 3 – John Leech (of Siam Collective)

Also featuring MarQu Vr of Gamepak collective.

Tracks used: Cartridge rip by John Leech, improvised performance jam by MarQu Vr & Andrew Edgar.

Facebook just became relevant again

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Facebook has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, first with it’s mammoth WhatsApp purchase (really they payed all that money for an audience of ‘feature phone’ users in the developing world), and then it’s shocking entry into VR with the Oculus takeover. Today Facebook announced something that, at least in the short term, could have more impact than either of those investments. The service is called ‘Nearby Friends‘. Nearby friends lets you turn on an ‘I’m here beacon’, (with all the ordinary Facebook group and list privacy features) that says ‘I’m around’ (to anyone you’d trust enough to tell).

To understand why this is important, you have to go back in time. Location aware or geosocial networks are nothing new. Almost a decade ago, a few early social networks gave a preview of the potential of this technology. Services like Jaiku (bought and abandoned by Google) allowed users to indicate their location, in a way friends could see without actively checking in. Dodgeball, another service bought and extinguished by google, offered a more sophisticated version of the same thing (it’s frustrated founder left Google to create Foursquare). Essentially (with your consent) you could share your location with others following you. This way, you could easily see when real world friends were near. Since converting this into advertising venue was too complex (local advertising, beyond ‘which Starbucks is close’ requires a massive sales infrastructure); and since user numbers made the feature ineffectual, it quickly disappeared.

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But the promise of location awareness was obvious even then. Before Bebo had been superseded on campuses by the all consuming network effect of Facebook, I wrote about it’s potential (and potential dangers). In the years since, passive location awareness has been used primarily for dating – most notably the gay hookup app ‘Grindr’ lets users arrange casual assignations with nearby strangers. Last year Foursquare launched a passive location service. Relative to Facebook, nobody uses Foursquare – and the usefulness of location awareness is all about network effects.

The potential of the technology is enormous. If Facebook can navigate users likely fear of the downsides of location awareness – stalking, association based inference of infidelity etc – this technology could have a profound impact on how people associate in the real world.

You may have had the experience of running into a friend or acquaintance in a strange city, or even a foreign country. Instantly your previous connection is magnified by familiarity – proximity is a large part of why we enjoy the company of others. Moreover similarity (the other reason we choose friends) is relative – in a strange place we suddenly have much more in common with those from home.

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Now imagine your phone letting you know automatically when an old friend is in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps you and a neighbour from home are visiting a distant country at the same time. Beep! Your favourite cult musician / writer / storyteller / artist, is having a show down the street. Coincidences are common, but most often invisible. When they appear our perception of the size of the social world contracts. We’re all seen speculative visions of ‘google glass’ style augmented reality displays that will tell us the names of people at a party, show how we’re invisibly connected. The ability to inform others passively of ones location is potentially even more powerful. It will allow us to better connect with the people we already know. The worth of that – given Facebook’s ubiquity, is incalculable.

In the same way that the mobile phone freed us from the necessity of carefully coordinating social events like military exercises, and email shattered forever the disconnect between home and office; location awareness could change the way we relate in the real world. Will I bother going to the pub? John’s there, great. Should I pay into the gig, ah Killian’s here, it’s worth it. Damn, I’m having lunch and I didn’t think ahead, oh great Emily’s around the corner in the Deli…

Online social networks are frequently derided for promoting lots of shallow meaningless connections. It’s hard to believe now, but Facebook’s initial selling point was that it (unlike MySpace and previous social networks) better connected us with people we actually knew. Moving these increasingly tenuous connections into the real world could serve to strengthen them. Social networks – well really ‘the’ social network, since it seems impossible any company could replicate Facebook’s popularity, could finally become sociable.

Addendum: There is reason to fear however, as Facebook’s core business is no longer connecting people (if it ever way), but rather artificially keeping them apart.

New Live Show – Threat Detection

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Radiomade is a facinating web based Dublin radio station. They ‘hit the headlines’ as they say in the yellow press, late last year with a successful effort to beat the world record number of consecutive interviews. Last July a similar stunt saw station proprietors Jack & Dan host 24 DJs in 24 hours. Point is they’re doing something new, capturing the imagination of a generation disillusioned with Ireland’s utterly terrible and inexplicably popular commercial and semi-state radio offerings.

Just before Christmas I got in touch with Radiomade and suggested a couple of shows to the guys. One is an ambitious monthly culture / comedy offering that it looks like we’ll be debuting in the near future. The other, a weekly discussion about videogames, technology and interactive entertainment kicked off last night. Threat Detection features myself and Exchange Dublin veteran James Van De Waal. Each show starts with a monologue to kick the discussion off, followed by an in-depth dissection of a trend, issue or incident in gaming. To start the series, we felt is was important to address the issue of games as a medium – specifically a growing and ferociously compelling form of immersion.

Here’s the first episode’s opening monologue…

‘There was a general air of disrepair. Shops were boarded up. The pavement was broken and potholed. A few automobiles traveled on the broken streets. They, at least, appeared to be of a slightly advanced design, but they were dented, dirty and noisy… Clothes had not changed nor had the common speech…. It appeared that in four hundred years nothing at all had been accomplished. Many familiar buildings had collapsed. Others still stood. He looked in vain for a newspaper or magazine’.

An excerpt from John D MacDonald’s short fiction ‘Spectator Sport’, published in 1950. In the story a time traveller visits an America three hundred and fifty years hence, discovering a society that has chosen to focus its energy entirely on the creation of ever more compelling interactive dreams. Dreams a man may labour his whole life to permanently inhabit.

Videogames terrify me, not because I dislike them, but because I find their dizzyingly abundant fantastical worlds so all consuming. The great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott came up with a word for finding one’s life satisfaction in an uncreative imaginary avoidance: He called it ‘fantasying’, the act of escapist self-delusion. At their worst videogames offer the most compelling opportunity for fantasying possible. Let me read you something else…

‘I think the twenty first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios and TV combined… The exodus of people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup’.

Thus begins the introduction to Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book ‘Reality is Broken’, with a quote from Edward Castronova’s ‘Exodus to the virtual world: How Online Fun is Changing Reality’. McGonigal attempts to refute this dire warning, suggesting that since games really do provide a more compelling experience than reality, harnessing their power can incentivize social goods and reinvigorate democracy.

Videogames let us embody avatars, alternative versions of self in worlds unbound by our physical limitations. We can experiment with gender, escape into empowerment fantasies or wreak death and destruction on distant or fictional opponents. Games give vent to our secret impossible dreams and desires; they can enlighten us, enervate us, sate us or drain us. Games combine narrative storytelling, music, theatre and with the added lure of interactivity. They are perhaps the ultimate human form of entertainment, and it’s time we took them a little more seriously.

Is Castronova with his dire warnings of a polis abandoned by its citizens a Cassandra, doomed to be ignored as we sleepwalk into a brave new world of dulling distractions? Is McGonigal right in seeing games as a new freedom to extinguish the unpleasant and mundane, a tool to solve our most intractable problems? This is Threat Detection, a new show about videogames.

You can catch Threat Detection live each Tuesday at 6PM GMT on Radiomade, or catch up with past shows here.

Image: Logo based on four hyperboloid bundles in a tetrahedral like intersection by Fdecomite. Used under – Creative Commons Attribution Licence.