Earlier this month I attended my first FMX conference, an annual event focused on animation, effects, games and transmedia. Here’s my detailed wrap-up of my awesome time there.
This post’s a bit long, so if you’re pressed for time, skip to the topics below:
- The Transmedia Panel Track
- State of the VFX Industry
- Necessity is the Mother of Innovation
- That Guy Who Got That Job at That Other Guy’s Awesome Video Game Company By Making an Original Game Inspired by That “Monkey Island” Game and Submitting That As His Application? Yeah, I Met That Guy.
- Interactive Installations and the People Who Made Them
- Sights and Sounds of Stuttgart
Transmedia is Dead. Long Live Transmedia.
After following the transmedia community for three years, I can almost set my watch by the cyclical waves of anti-transmedia sentiments (sometimes within the transmedia community itself). Yet, for every “transmedia is an empty buzzword!” post I read, I’m reminded that many folks around the world still embrace the term and the practice. The transmedia track at FMX was just such a reminder.
The track took place in one of the larger rooms in Haus de Wirtschaft, a lovely building with three conical towers that made it easy to spot on the way over from my hotel.
I had the honor of kicking off the transmedia panel track, and I spoke about co-creating value with audiences and shared story worlds. The rest of the afternoon included a great mix of practitioners and academics:
- Femke Wolting (Submarine Channel)
- Nuno Bernardo (beActive)
- Dr. Henry Jenkins (University of Southern California)
- Alex McDowell (5D Institute)
- Shekhar Kapur (director and producer)
Femke gave a sweeping overview of Submarine’s 10+ years of interactive experience design, including a recent one aimed at raising awareness of Alzheimer’s called “Alzheimer’s Experience.” The short video Femke showed was arresting, compelling, and haunting – a testament to Submarine’s storytelling capabilities and their production skills.
Next, Nuno provided a similar overview of his company’s projects, including their recent “Final Punishment” project, which splintered across a dizzying array of platforms and user experiences. Nuno also talked about a new platform beActive is currently producing in-house to assist with content production, scheduling, distribution, and consumption (he said it’s about a year from completion).
Henry then spoke about his take on the state of the media nation and transmedia, sharing his thoughts on how the concept has evolved over the years. Henry also touched on several media-related topics, including digital piracy (“calling your customer “pirates” probably isn’t the smartest approach for media companies”) and the increasingly participatory culture we live in.
“The best tool for a transmedia project is a great team of people.” – Inga von Staden
Wrapping up the afternoon was a panel discussion moderated by Inga and including Henry, Alex and Shekhar. The discussion ranged far and wide, but I was struck by the inability of the three panelists to definitively agree on the elusively simplistic terms, “story,” and “world.” If these talented, smart folks failed to reach consensus on the most fundamental concepts, little wonder the rest of us are still struggling to wrap our arms around more elaborate concepts such as transmedia!
The afternoon was a reminder of how far we’ve come in transmedia but also how many opportunities still lie just over the horizon. Kudos to Inga von Staden, who curated the FMX transmedia track – she managed to assemble a diverse group of speakers and engaging speaking formats.
The “FX” in “FMX”
Although FMX has included transmedia programming for many years, most of the attendees and much of the conference focuses on animation/effects. As a result, many of my conversations and much of what I saw at FMX were geared towards those activities. I learned a lot of about the state of the VFX nation, something I know very little about.
My initial take on it? Based on the comments I heard and the people I talked to, the VFX industry is facing the same challenges as many other industries: commoditization of their services, increasingly global competition, technological changes at an ever-increasing rate, and lower hurdles to entry (resulting in yet more competition). From a purely business standpoint, I see a classic scenario where increased supply is creating downward-pressure on prices, even as demand continues to rise.
There are attempts to streamline, compress, and move the VFX work further upstream in the overall production process. Based on some of what I saw of the new nCam service (I got a sneak preview from Nick Davis and Martin Chamney of Nvisage-FX), we certainly seem to be heading towards a world where pre-viz is giving way to real-time integration of effects “on set.”
Yet, while this sounds great, not everyone cheerfully embraced what this heralded for the future of VFX, nor did everyone seem to think incorporating effects in real-time would be as easy as it sounds. Time will tell how this will all shake out.
“They didn’t come, so I built it.”
A recurring theme I noticed was, “I couldn’t find the technology I needed/wanted, so I built it.”
For example, Nuno Bernardo talked about his company’s efforts to develop a content delivery system for developing and distributing the various assets for their experiences. Although it’s still about a year away from being rolled out, based on Nuno’s comments and the slides he showed, it appeared to be a multiple-interface system. Nuno’s team would use one interface to upload, format, schedule, etc. content that would then be accessed by users via other interfaces (presumably browsers and/or apps).
Moment Factory also made the same statement in their talk and described their in-house solution: the X-Agora system, which they use to organize, develop, produce, and implement their highly interactive and technical experiences.
“I couldn’t find the sports car of my dreams, so I built it myself.” – Ferdinand Porsche
This is not really surprising, as it’s often a common refrain from creatives pushing at existing boundaries and searching for innovative experiences. Mainstream tools are not likely to be found when you’re trying to build a new kind of experience.
And even when you do have some off-the-shelf options, the answer for which is best for your particular experience is often, “it depends.” What tool is best for your project? Well, it depends on your goals, your resource limitations, and your vision for the kind of experience you wish to share with audiences.
And I only had to venture across town to the Porsche museum (sadly, I did not make the trip in a Porsche!) to be reminded of how compelling this need to create can be. In many cases, the drive to build your own solution can lead to amazing results.
But perhaps Inga von Staden captured it best during the Q&A portion of my talk when she asked for my thoughts on the best tool for transmedia storytelling. I responded, “it depends.” She countered with, “I believe it’s a great team of people.” I think Inga got it right – well said!
Of course, as it is with all great conferences, it’s not just the presentations or talks that offer value. Sure, it was great to hear from the leading practitioners and see the new technologies, but what made the trip so enjoyable was making new friends.
Everyone connected with FMX was incredibly friendly and helpful, but I was equally struck by the creativity and passion of the many students who found themselves in Stuttgart for the conference.
“I didn’t think it was genius when I did it.” – Marius Fietzek
One of the students who volunteered to help with the FMX conference, Marcel Durer, kindly offered to be my FMX guide for the week.
One of the slides from my presentation showed a Dr. Who fan how had the Tardis tattooed on the top of her back. Not to be outdone, Marcel proudly demonstrated his equal devotion to all things Cthulhu.
Marcel shared his background in RPG, his love for horror films, and the vision for a game he’s been working on as part of his studies (still under development, but I can share that Marcel has married the visual experience of the “Doom” video game with his vegetarian lifestyle – the resulting game will definitely make a statement!).
Not only did we have some awesome conversations about co-creation, shared story worlds, and fandom, Marcel also made sure I met some amazing people and saw some incredible things.
Over lunch one day, Marcel and I somehow wound up talking about the person who secured a position on the new “Double Fine Adventure” game from Tim Schafer by submitting his application in the form of a video game inspired by Schafer’s own earlier game, “Monkey Island.”
“Yeah, I heard about that, it was awesome!” I said. “Wish I could meet that guy.”
Marcel smiled. “I know him. He’s here at FMX.” And within an hour, I was face-to-face with Marius Fietzek, soon to be the newest member of the Double Fine team. He’s a humble, funny, and intelligent person, and he seemed bemused by all of the hoopla over the novelty of his application.
“I didn’t think it was genius when I did it,” Marius professed. “I just thought if I was applying for a job to work on a video game, I should make a game of my own and send it to them. I thought everyone would be doing that.”
Clearly, they didn’t. And as is often the case with moments of genius, the insight seems trivial, obvious, if not uninspiring, at the time. Only on reflection does the import of the insight reveal itself. I’m looking forward to hearing about Marius’ adventures at Double Fine later this year when he starts his internship. In the mean time, you can check out his latest project: RocketMen
More People, More Awesome
Marcel also made sure I met Lea Schönfelder, a student who co-designed the “Hunt” installation with Jonas Kirchner. “Hunt” provided a seemingly simple task: capture a moving blue shape projected onto the floor.
The only problem: the shape doesn’t want to be caught, and the installation senses your movement. As I found out, that blue animal really doesn’t want to be caught, and I gave up after a minute or so.
Marcel then gave it a shot.
(scroll to the bottom of this post for the video of Marcel solving “The Hunt!”)
Marcel also introduced me to Benjamin Rudolph, whose “TOTAL-AR” installation was up and running on the exhibit floor. I donned a pair of AR goggles, picked up a controller, and found myself ported into a seemingly innocent living room occupied by a friendly robot. Then things got…interesting.
Later, I began asking Benjamin about his interest in AR, and we exchanged emails about how he found himself working in this field. Here’s what he said:
Why are you attracted to the field of augmented reality (AR)?
I believe that sometimes the picture of a technology is strong enough to characterize the paradigm of a time and shape the human consciousness. Like in the age of gears and steam engine,s it was obvious the big questions of time were about determinism. Or like the understanding of our brain changed from the image of a library to the modern structure of a computer. Explanations need illustrations, and if a new technology delivers a strong picture, we sometimes change our perspective on the world. So it happened with the Internet. The picture of a spirit emerging as wired thoughts out of the globe made us more than ever feel as one humanity with the responsibility for the complex system of our planet. Now imagine the potential impact if we share a view in which is no screen between us and the virtual worlds we create. To see and study this possible future view was what attracted me to augmented reality.
What was the inspiration for your installation, “TOTAL-AR?”
I was in a local theater, which was located in an old industry building. Before the show started, the audience was able to walk through the setting and the actors were already playing their roles in some rooms and corners. I soaked up the experience of the dilapidated environment, as well as the strong intensity of sharing this real and walkable space with a story. At that time I was working on a paranoia universe and my mind was totally focused on concepts like perspective and reality. So I started to think about truthfulness as a powerful medium itself. LARP players know what I mean, when I say strength is not the inherently best graphic or the most intuitive interface – rather, it’s more the natural continuity in time and space identification.
So, you draw your circle around an area, define it as playing field, respect it as medium, and ask yourself “Where is my dragon? Where are the killerdrones, the explosions and the hundred-meter-high lavamonster breaking out of the underworld?” Two years ago they were still behind the screen, and I was standing in this industry buildling, planning to smash the barrier between us.
How long or how much time did you spend making “TOTAL-AR?”
Realising the technology with my team took us a year, but the research on AR already started a year earlier (plus, the backround about perspective and reality has been a personal hobby for over ten years). I think if I am allowed to release the codes, any dedicated person could rebuild the project in one week with less than $300.
How do you see AR being applied in the future?
It’s very difficult to predict all the different aspects that correlate with the future of AR. I prefer to separate different segments of it.
If a thoughtful and sexy head device reaches the mass market, overlayed information-AR (like the “Google glasses project”) could make every consumer’s life easier as early as 2015.
The full augmented 3D room interaction, what I call TOTAL-AR, could start next year with less qualitative prototypes in research labs and make its way from ambitioned do-it-yourself groups to artist, beta-gamers and the porn industry. By 2015, it could reach a quality level for first uses in education, training scenarios and arcade-halls.
But all that is just guessing, and maybe AR will mainly be used in therapy for meeting persons who were digitalised before their death. Or maybe for viewing a concert of the Rolling Stones in 2050. In times of technological progress where progress happens at an increasingly faster rate, we are not really able to accurately predict the next twenty years. The only thing I measured in my surveys is that the people have a need for merging with virtual worlds.
How do see AR being related to storytelling? What is the connection between the two?
In storytelling I see the difference between good content and what is just a visualisation. In my diploma thesis I wrote that I hope technology will be used to give people narrative experiences and not only to show something impossible. That’s why I don’t like it so much, and I hope people see TOTAL-AR as more than just a tool for previsualisation on a filmset or a method to train engineers on machines. Sure, all of that is possible with the technology, and it will generate a whole segment of valuable AR-tools, but when I defined the conditions for the “TOTAL-AR” experience, I specifically excluded non-narrative tools.
You spent most of FMX at the “TOTAL-AR” booth. Did you have any time to see the rest of the conference? Did you see anything that really sparked your imagination?
No, unfortunately there was no time for me to do much besides be at my booth. But I really like the FMX trailer, which was done by my friend Sasha. He perfectly illustrated the spirit of our time and how the Internet brings us hope for a new cultural state in which we can solve the big problems of our planet.
What kind of projects would you like to work on next?
We live in such an awesome time and the possibilities to create or change something are endless. But first I have to find a job that fits my ambitions, or leaves me enough freedom to follow my personal interests. At the moment I think a lot about developing video games which are playable together with my dog. But on a bigger scale I am interested in changing the education system and building a more stable and fair society grounded on digital possibilities. I know it sounds megalomaniacal, but TOTAL-AR also did, and today dreamers like me are less alone than ever! : )
If you’d like to learn more about Benjamin and his projects, check out the links below:
Sights and Sounds of Stuttgart
Of course, there was a lot to see outside the FMX conference, and I had the good fortune to do a bit of a walk-about to see what Stuttgart had to offer. Quite a lot, as it turns out…
And in conclusion…
In short, my experience at VFX was certainly defined by the people I met there, and the people were awesome!
“The Hunt” – Solved!
Here’s Marcel catching that elusive blue animal: