When I heard the word-of-mouth that there would be something called The Minitek Music and Innovation Festival happening in NYC over the weekend I was intrigued. Music and innovation – sounds right up my alley. Evidently a group of individuals that usually throw parties in NYC were attempting to go one step further with an actual festival. Their thesis was that highly motivated electronic music consumers & producers alike would congregate for a weekend-long festival, experimenting with cutting edge technology enhancing/extending the audio experience and otherwise enjoying a great lineup of DJs.
Albert Hwang’s 3D Light Projections
Lofty goals yes, but there was something in their intent that I latched onto – something floating in the ether about a musical/social/visual/interactive experience attended by individuals interested in realizing those goals. On the musical side of things, the lineup was supposed to include Francois K, Ritchie Hawtin, Alexi Delano and many more – not small-time DJs. And as for the Innovation lineup many names jumped out at me: Owen Valis and Jordan Hochenbaum’s Interactive Multi-Touch interface, SENSEable City Lab (we all remember being impressed by at Design and the Elastic Mind), James Patten’s composition and performing instrument, Percussa Audio Cube demonstrations, Marius Waltz’s beautiful code-generated visuals, Paul Prudence’s Processing Visuals and Albert Hwang’s 3D Light Projections among many more. On the face of things we were in for a special treat, a look at the first iteration of what a future-state music festival might look like – an alpha demonstration of how to combine new and innovative technologies to enhance the user’s experience of gathering socially and collectively enjoying sight and sound. The reality was quite different.
An Empty Innovation Tent
Without turning this into a review of Minitek’s failings (which could go on for quite some length), I’d instead like to talk about some of the future possibilities that were ever-so-slightly illuminated by Minitek’s attempt at a proof of concept.
Marius Waltz’s Visualizations
Finding a beautiful evening space (Penn Plaza) and distributing RFID bracelets wired to the concession booths was a great place to start. There was other RFID technology present in the Innovation exhibits, but sadly they weren’t configured on a unified system. This represents the single biggest missed opportunity, a central theme I’ll return to again and again, which was that there was no unifying system/platform to integrate all of the disparate moving parts. And in the wake of that lack of unification, the crowd was neither engaged nor challenged to become part of a shared experience in any meaningful way. This is a very important aspect of what went wrong and points to the lack of understanding of good User Experience on the curators’ part. Wherever people and technology converge, a well planned and disciplined User Experience is essential to creating a meaningful experience.
Percussa’s Audio Cubes
What I witnessed at the Friday night Minitek opening was a series of independent systems with no central coordination. Putting aside the fact that many of those systems failed over the course of the evening, the real shame is the fact that they were never intended to “talk” to eachother. The visuals being projected on the screens in the main dance-floor were not reactive and had nothing to do with the music being played. They were certainly beautiful: Marius Watz is an artist I highly respect (generatorX is on my morning-read list). And the onus shouldn’t have been on him to deliver to Minitek a proper vision and creative direction. But the fact still remains that I was looking for not just generative art, but reactive art as well. Art that doesn’t deny the human, eye-of-the-beholder aspect of things. Could there have been a component to his presentation that sensed the music volume or beat and reacted accordingly? Could there have been some element of the overall experience that reacted to or represented the physical locations of the party-goers, turning them into generators and data points for visuals and sound? I’d like to think so on both counts, but again – that’s on Minitek to envision and execute.
Albert Hwang’s 3D light projection was also very beautiful and captivating. The way the shapes and colors danced in 3D on the fiber-optic cables and played with space and rhythm had me captivated for quite a while. However, whether 1 or 100 people were observing, two facts remained: 1) the piece was not reactive to sound, user-input was required to generate the visuals to the beat 2) the role of the RFID-enabled onlooker was totally ignored.
What I’m driving at is that when your user-base is microblogging on Twitter, keeping profiles on Facebook, using music creation iPhone applications (such as Piano Chords and Beat Maker) and you give them all RFID bracelets you also need to challenge them. You need to offer them an opportunity to generate something emergent that is greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. In Hip Hop culture you have B-boys, writers, bombers, DJs, MCs, poets, etc. and when parties really get good, invariably all of them are contributing in some way shape or form. I don’t see why creating a multi-channel, multi-participant experience isn’t on the to-do list of every electronic musician and artist. Here’s what I’d like to see:
Beat Maker on the iPhone
Your taking everyone’s money and assigning that “account” to an RFID bracelet. Why not allow them to fill out that account in advance with other information like profile details, YouTube videos and anything else they want to share (think Deviant Art meets MySpace meets YouTube). Then create an area of the festival that encourages the interaction of the participants – an area where their RFID tags trigger visuals (projected or on screens) that other users can interact with. If you’re “friends” with another partygoer, when you are near them the floor should light up with the same color for you and them – a visual extension of your social network. You should be able to take videos and pictures of the event and assign them to an RFID tag – instantly distributing those memories to interested parties. And lets not forget that the majority of the attendees are amateur or semi-professional musicians as well. Why are there no publically available collaborative music-making devices? Ones that allow us to take out our iPhones (or just use our RFID wristbands) and jam – think neo-hippie drum circle with no petrouli and lots of beats. Or if I’m a graffiti artist – use my RFID wristband to “bomb” a perfectly white wall with digital paint.
PianoChords for the iPhone
The bottom line is that people want to star in their own movies one where they never leave the camera’s frame. If social media has taught us anything it’s that regardless of how low-fi the content is that users create, they enjoy the process of creation and that appreciation is usually rewarded with unique visitors and return customers. Innovation festivals such as Minitek would do well to learn the lessons of other technology-driven experiences and give the user more of a role in creating the overall experience. And maybe, just maybe, if it’s done right, the festival experience may transcend into something emergent and great.
Here’s some video of the visuals in action and the outdoor event on Saturday: