FITC Amsterdam 2014 Review

The 2014 FITC conference was held in Amsterdam last February 24–25. As expected, the worlds leading technologists and designers provided two days of inspiration, insight, and ingenuity. Clear patterns could be seen running through many of the presentations. I was pleased to be able to attend, made the easier since the venue was just around the block from my office! Here are some of my takeaways:  
 

Challenges

All of the speakers seem to be grappling with the same issues we all face — how can we spark delight and engagement for the user through innovative and rich design. The rise of big data and wider technologies provide many avenues to create engagement. What is possible, and how it can be used both now and in the near future is very much to be determined. Another rising challenge is integrating physical and digital user experiences.

 

An age of generative data-driven design

Stefan Wagner (Let ‘em Explore) told us that social media is full of utopian data, i.e. a users best presentation of themselves. The challenge then is to sift through that data to see what the user is really thinking and doing. His ‘Generating Utopia’ app is a fascinating real-time visualisation of Foursquare checkin data, reimagining real world maps with mountains in a users most popular places. Leveraging realtime user data to change an interface is a really interesting idea. It could be used to create a highly user-centric navigation, or context-specific site content for example. 

 

In the same vein, FIELD (Forms of Inquiry) showed us how they’ve used big data to create generative art and graphics. Their work to showcase GF Smith papers involved creating 10,000 illustrations, giving each poster and brochure a unique illustration as its central design element. They’ve also created visually rich digital installations for GE, Nike, Deutsche Bank among others, using javascript and Houdini to self-generate realtime video artworks.  

This technique is also used by Mario Klingemann (Finding Dragons). Working under the name Quasimondo, Mario writes scripts that generate real-time words, art and music. Not all are beautiful in the traditional sense, but this is of course a subjective criteria. He creates filters to comb large data/content sets (e.g. UK digital image archive on Flickr) to unearth interesting or overlooked pieces, and create new artworks combining these illustrations. While Mario keeps his work at an experimental level for maximum creativity, one can easily imagine such scripting being used on a site to generate unique content and experiences for each visitor.

 

Overcoming obstacles through play and exploration 

Several speakers showed how introducing simple and playful elements can help users to gain self-confidence in engaging with and exploring more complex UIs and content. 

This also applies on the design process side. Susan LK Gorbet (Facilitating Business & Design Collaborations) showed us her approach to facilitating workshops, largely by getting business people to step out of their comfort zones to think like designers. Encouraging participants to stop using their phones was an important first step! Her approach to workshops is familiar, but she has proven its effectiveness in many countries and cultures worldwide. In essence, she pointed out that people are people, with the same concerns and desires, regardless of where you go. Thus, the methods for facilitating collaborative thinking and engagement also work widely. 

Susan promotes standing workshops, working shoulder-to-shoulder and using simple tools (such as lego, popsicle sticks, string, paper pads, markers etc) to help break through the self-seriousness barriers, encourage play and rapidly iterate ideas. She also gave the excellent tip to define ‘Who–Do’ lists at the end of each workshop. Assignees do not have to be participants in the workshop itself.

This will ensure that the ideas from workshops / creative process are followed up and completed by the appropriate project team member or stakeholder. 

Similarly, Thomas Joos of Little Miss Robot (Making Products Happen) gave an in-depth presentation of their creative process. He told us that the key is to iterate ideas and designs as much and as thoroughly as possible, without waiting for them to be perfect. This enables a quick and efficient review, learning and improvement cycle. One great aspect of the process was keeping the inspiration and exploration tracks alive alon xgside the production and development tracks. This helps to maintain team motivation and project freshness, especially on longer projects.

We also saw the creative processes of Irene Pereyra and Anton Repponen of F-I (Wacom site redesign), Gavin Strange of Aardman Studios and JamFactory, and Kim Pimmel


All promoted using play and exploration of the different possibilities in unusual ways to find the best solution. Each strongly promoted bringing enthusiasm and passion to every project that you do, and to not let apparent obstacles block creative possibilities. Gavin Strange showed us throughout his work that if you always look for opportunities to make a project better, more immersive and generally ‘cooler’, then good things will lead from that. 

 

Moving beyond the screen to the real-world

Undoubtedly the central story of the conference was how the speakers are using cutting-edge technology to create immersive digital user experiences. This was mostly done with haptics, augmented reality, projection mapping, and motion tracking. Interestingly, these technologies were often combined with unassuming and whimsical physical objects to build the actual interactive pieces, creating a sense of familiarity for the user despite the newness of the experience.

Jason White of Leviathan (The Future of Experiential Media and Projection Mapping) showed us his work for leading artists and companies. It was quite impressive to see the results of whole spaces being transformed by user-controlled projection mapping. It is a short leap to see how this can lead us to real-world instances of GMUNK’s futuristic interfaces. Jason told me afterwards that environmental UI’s are already in development, so I guess the future is now after all!


Stefan Wagner also showed an augmented reality project for surgeons, with a patients spine being fully 3D modelled by their software. This model is then used as part of their interface to determine where implants can be best placed along the spine. The software was shown with an elegant interface design that encouraged the surgeons to interact and play with it, thus making complex data accessible. He also showed an augmented reality catalogue designed for a manufacturers expo. The interactive exhibit showed massive machinery up close on screens and, it encouraged much more engagement than when the machines were physically present.


Eric Brockmeyer of Disney Research (Fairytale Interactions) told us how they base all of their work on the characters/users. They focus on stories that can be told by use of technology, rather than letting the tech drive the concept and narrative. There are a lot of really interesting haptic-based projects being developed (or imagineered as he put it) at Disney Research, which are worth a look. This characters eyes are ‘real’, following and interacting with the user and environmental context. The possibilities are endless. 


It was a pleasure to hear from renowned motion graphics and UI designer GMUNK. Chances are, your idea of futuristic user interfaces are largely formed by his work on movies like Tron and Oblivion. He gave many insights to his design approach and thinking, which  come down in many cases to experimentation and having fun with the work. Naturally his work is at the vanguard of technological possibilities, both real and imagined. It was cool to see his progression from UI design for the movies to real-world robotic precision projection mapping. He’s currently working with Bot and Dolly, and it’s really amazing to watch.  


Daito Manabe showed us his related work tracking dancers movements with floating objects and laser lighting. It was quite interesting to see such new technology in use, albeit challenging to think of its application to current UX design! Environmental interaction might largely relating to the impending Internet of Things era. Either way, we will have to consider the challenge of helping users to interact with non-screen based technologies over the coming years. 

 

Conclusion

On the whole it was great to spend two solid days immersed in leading current and futuristic design and technology. Having the space and inspiration to consider its meaning and relevance to the user experience challenges was equally invaluable. We are part of an age of unprecedented data and technology, and seeking ways to harness them to aid user experiences in new and engaging ways is something we will have to consider even more in every project. 

However, finding opportunities to do so can seem limited. Not all of our current clients are ready to incorporate such new techniques to their projects. A final takeaway was echoed by several of the speakers, notably GMUNK, Irene Pereyra, and Gavin Strange, can perhaps provide a path — Don’t wait for someone to hire you to do the work you want to do, create a project you’re interested in and the right clients will find and hire you for doing something you love.

Thanks FITC, see you next year!

– Niall O’Kelly