dConstruct09—Designing for Tomorrow


Once again, I made the trek down to Brighton for the annual dConstruct conference. This years theme was Designing for Tomorrow, and while not based in current day, hands on skills, I think it’s aimed at setting your mind free and letting you daydream a little, aside from your daily grind. Heni said it best, dConstruct is a little more esoteric than most other conferences.

The long drive down flew by once again, due to great music and greater chat. Chris Mills and Rob O’Rourke accompanied me, and we spent Thursday afternoon driving. Arrived, met Heni Swann and went to register. Next up, burgers at GBK. Nice. Time for drinks.

The pre-party at Po Na Na wasn’t quite as good as last year, and that’s attributable to no free drinks. Simple equation. Most of the crowd relocated to the bar in The Ship Hotel, which is where we were staying, so it was a late nighter in there, catching up with Twitter acquaintances and mailing list buddies.

Anyway. Friday morning, with a hangover, Mills and I headed to the conference.

Elements of a Networked Urbanism – Adam Greenfield

First up was Adam Greenfield, a recognised consultant for issues with design and technology, currently at Nokia in Helsinki. Adam’s motivated by cities, space, and our interaction therein, assisted by technology. He explored a lot of potential ideas about how the switch to IP v6 address spacing will allow everything within a city to have an address and be queryable. Everything from lamp posts to kerbs. This will help us with things like traffic flow and city monitoring, allowing crowds to follow crowds, routes be plotted during rush hour via traffic redirects. A lot of sci-fi style thinking, which was cool by me.

Though Adam’s delivery was measured, it was a little slow and repeated one or two points, but as he was the first up, he was going to have a hard job. I really enjoyed Adam’s talk as I’m a sci-fi nut and my brother-in-law is an architect, so I was happily imagining the possibilities of working together on urban spaces.

As much as Adam warned this technology could be used for evil, he only alluded to it, and I’d have liked to have seen some more solid end conclusions of how this application of technology for a fully wired city could lead to splits in society, such as cities set up specifically not to be wired and a haven for those not wanting monitoring, or a plain old Judge Dredd/Mega City 4 style future. Maybe that’s just the anarchist in me…

Let’s See What We Can See (Everybody Online And Looking Good) – Mike Migurski and Ben Cerveny

Next up we had some data visualisation porn from Staman guys Mike and Ben. Plenty of data sets turned pretty, showing how access to near realtime data and the manipulation of will influence decisions such as which was to walk home (crime hotspots at certain times of day plotted on a map) to where to go on holiday (hurricane predictions!)

Some beautiful map/data integration with nice UI elements, made me want to get into the problems of displaying such massive amounts of data in an attractive and useful way.

What’s Next? How mobile is changing design – Brian Fling

Brian’s a designer whose leapt from plain websites into mobile design, and I really enjoyed his talk, as it’s very relative to things we’re doing at JP74 right now. Brian was sure that everything we’re doing today would form the basis of the delivery of information technology tomorrow, through HTML5, CSS, XML and Javascript. I like this hard link to things pretty much 99% of the audience will have been practising.

While some people, like my Finnish friend Teppo said, maybe it was a bit obvious, but I think it also had to be for some people, as too often developers are looking for the next best thing, when they already have the tools and knowledge to hand.

Brian was also gutted due to the lack of flying cars in our current society, and has resigned himself to never seeing one in his lifetime. A recurring theme of his speech, flashing up the Jetson’s car, and “still no flying cars”, very funny.

Make It So: Learning From SciFi Interfaces – Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel

Another on topic, free-your-mind talk, and another that I enjoyed. These two guys explored how sci-fi interfaces have been picked up and integrated into our everyday lives, the methods of feedback from sci-fi devices, and occasionally the instances where they fail.

Nicely presented, with lots of culturally on-point visuals and movie clips, especially for the geek nature of the audience, it reminded me of the days of Flash interface design, where you could go a little crazy. Personally, those days are long behind me, with UI and usability being key, not redesigning a Rubik’s Cube for each new interface, still, nice to day dream!

Loving Your Player with Juicy Feedback – Robin Hunicke

Ah, unfortunately in every set of talks, one of them has to suck when compared with the others, and for me, it was this one. Robin’s delivery was saccharine sweet, the point laboured and I just feel she didn’t do herself any justice.

Interestingly, last year’s conference had a talk on video gaming, given by a girl, which again, I didn’t feel managed to completely succeed. Certainly nothing about women speakers, possibly more that it’s about video games, which I’m uber-geeky about and positively anal with details…

Her talk was about how you go about rewarding a video gamers interactions with your game (or online project, we’re not limited to straight forward interactions online). You know, how the feedback system gives you a nice warm glow and keeps you coming back as you feel that it understands you?

Robin apparently was on the team at TGC Games who made Flower for the PS3, and was correct in how she extolled the virtues on how relaxing and free the game is. You can do very little and fly around, and she says there are no goals to the game, as having goals is “Gameist”. I don’t know the last time Robin played Flower, but I’m damn sure the aim of the game is to collect petals to open up the other levels. The whole word game is about performing your actions in a defined universe to a defined set of limits, and doing it better (or good enough) to progress and be rewarded. Any other thinking is just kidding yourself.

One part of Robin’s talk used the film Moon as it’s subject, which she warned to cover your ears as her part contains spoilers. This film is barely out in the UK and a lot of people ended up covering their ears so’s not to spoil the story…

Robin also utterly destroyed the word juicy, by overusing it (and spelling it wrong on her slides, consistently!) in her squeaky, girly presentation style. Sorry Robin, I’d happily chat about games with you, as it’s obvious you know a lot, but it didn’t quite come off at dConstruct.

Experience and the Emotion Commotion – August de los Reyes

August is head of Microsoft’s Surface user experience team, and an assured presenter. Nice and punchy, well design slides, good delivery and interesting subject media meant that his presentation, if anything, went too quick!

August’s talk shared elements with Robin’s, about games mechanics, feedback and reward systems, but was only part of his set. He waxed about the emotional connection that people imbue on and into electronic devices, which is something I like and believe in. I think that if your user invests in your product at an emotional level, through it’s use of feedback amongst other things, they’ll use it and love it more.

August also showed the full reel of Microsoft’s future vision of interface devices and design, which is very nice, but they’ve got their work cut out to convince a sceptical audience.

Materialising and Dematerialising A Web of Data. (Or What We’ve Learned From Printing The Internet Out) – Russell Davies

Wow. Didn’t see this coming. Russell’s talk was awesome. He kicked off with a suitcase of props on a chair and the 21st Century movie intro music. He was witty, quick, ever-so-slightly flustered or nervous, which was reassuring to see, but generally brilliant.

His talk was about transferring the online medium to real world and tangible objects, like printing blogs that no-one’s got the time to read in their entirety, but in newspaper form, people will sit down and spend quality time reading. To this end, he and a few friends put together a newspaper of articles from their acquaintances, for a very minimal cost, and had a ball doing so. His message to The Guardian was “We have broken your business, now we want your machines”!

One of the props he pulled from the suitcase was Kinder Eggs, bloody loads of them, and he was throwing them out to the crowd. I can’t even remember why, but it was a great move!

Russell’s presentation was also updated with images from the earlier sessions, and answers or comments to previous speakers, including a clip of Thunderbirds, which he paused just as the Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls was taking off and simple said “Flying car” in riposte to Brian Fling’s “still no flying cars”. Awesome.

In conclusion

I enjoyed another dConstruct, through both the conference talks and the social side. I’m glad the event isn’t grounded in practical take aways, as there are loads of barcamps and conferences for that. It’s great to free the mind and think about things that aren’t revolving around your next project, but about what you might be doing in three or five years time.

Thanks once again to all the speakers and Clearleft for putting on a great event. But next year, can you choose somewhere closer to the centre of the UK? That six hour drive home with a brooding hangover is a killer…