Sunday, June 9, 2013

EyeO Recap[0]

    My brain is COMPLETELY full.  I mean, honestly I don't even know where to begin, there were so many great presentations, and so many awesome conversations about random cool things, and so many good ideas tossed around, and...I took a bunch of notes on individual sessions, which I'll toss up on the google drive at some point, maybe in about an hour when I go sit down for lunch (aside, MSP is one of the most connected airports I've ever been in.  Seriously SFO and SJC, step up), and once some of the noise dies down I'll put up my actual thoughts.  I'd started some posts about each day, but eventually it just got to the point where I couldn't digest things fast enough to come up with coherent thoughts on a nightly basis.  Granted, there were open bars involved too, but i didn't really stay out that late, something I plan to remedy next year.

This guy is a genius, listening to him talk, you can totally see how he would build something like Hypercard. Photo by Charlie Cramer

    If I had to pull out one takeaway right now, Bill Atkinson (of Hypercard fame) said it best.  Learning to code is cool, but take a different approach.  There's the approach that says "I want to learn how to code", and there's the approach that says "I want to do something cool, and I'll need to learn how to code to make it happen", or alternately expressed, forget about how you want to do something and focus more on what you want to do and why you want to do it.  That's not to say that tools, frameworks, languages, etc don't matter, but I've always held that application is the best way to learn something, learning through doing, learning through projects, that sort of thing.  So often, I hear people say, well, why would I need to learn to code or, ok, I know some basics, but what do I do next?  Answer that problem first, and learning to code becomes easy.  Learn the things you need to learn for this project, then build off of them for the next project (or shoot off in a different direction and learn new things, either way is a great approach).  But don't get so caught up in learning how to code or learning every particular of a language, framework, paradigm, or process that you forget to make something beautiful.  As I ranted to a co-worker a little while back "There is no perfect tool or SDK/API.  Unity, UDK, Max, Maya, Cinder, ofx, processing, Windows, Mac OS, they ALL suck."  But I'm going to append that with they all make beautiful things.  So quit whining and make cool shit.

    My other takeaway is that Memo Akten is in fact a machine, but his talk was probably the most personally inspiring.  More on that later, but suffice it to say, I used to think I was crazy until I heard his talk.

    EyeO this year definitely struck me as more about experience than technology.  I think this is both good and bad.  Good because experience is really what matters at the end of the day, bad because so many people now are talking about experience, moreso than the people building experience.  It would be really sad to see EyeO become a glorified UX/HCI conference, and I really hope they keep to the trend of only recruiting speakers who have actually MADE stuff.  I don't see that trend changing, and I really hope EyeO continues to feel the way it did this year.  Sometimes it takes a long journey fraught with setbacks, delays, time spent wandering the wilderness, time spent off the trail for a bit, or time looking at the map trying to remember where it was you were going in the first place, before you reach home.  I'm not there yet, but after EyeO this year, I feel like I'm passing the last few mile markers.  GDC had been home of sorts for too many years, really looking forward to this new place.  It feels real.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

EyeO Festival, Day 0

    I'm not even going to try and quote Zach Lieberman's excellent keynote, it'll be up on Vimeo anyway.  I can't do it justice, but he really did say some things that lit a fire under me, especially when he called out people who spend their time building corporate demos for tradeshows and posited that CEOs shouldn't be the ones onstage telling the world what the future's going to be.  It's true, and I urge everyone, especially any of my colleagues in Perceptual Computing to keep an eye on Vimeo for when it's released (or just my facebook, since I'll be posting and reposting it probably a few times an hour).

    Watching the Ignite talks at EyeO tonight, I realized a few things:
  • I'm total weak-sauce for not submitting an Ignite talk, since I wouldn't have been the only first time speaker.
  • I haven't really given a talk on anything I REALLY care about since I spoke at Ringling.
  • If I want to do an Ignite talk next year, I need to start prepping now.  Holy jeebus those speakers were GOOD.
In fact, the last sorta public speech I gave, I was doing the exact opposite of that, i.e. I was being made to champion a cause I absolutely didn't believe in and tell a story that...wasn't really a story.  Seeing all those folks just KILL IT during the Ignite presentations really reminded me of what I love about public speaking, and that's telling stories I care about that give me an opportunity to connect with my listeners and inspire them.  I need the opportunity to do that again because, "Without Change, Something Sleeps Inside Us and Seldom Wakens."

I feel like I've been sleepwalking for the last month at least

    But enough positing!  There was actual content today, so let's talk about interesting things instead of listening to me spew opinion.  The first of two workshops today was a great intro to D3 from Scott Murray.  I'd been looking at d3 earlier this year and getting to play around with it reminded me of why I liked d3 in the first place and why I wouldn't mind doing a bit more javascript work.  I don't know if it's proper to say I want to do more javascript work, I think it's more that there are certain libraries that let me do certain things that just happen to be javascript, so really what I want to do is more work with said libraries and if that means a particular language, I guess that's it.  I mean, if it were about a particular language/toolkit's available libraries, by that logic I'd be much more of an ofx fan than a Cinder fan, yeah?  I'm really excited about the idea of using d3 and Three together, hadn't really thought much about that but the idea popped up today.  Could be fun.

It's kinda nuts how easy it is to make these in d3, even with animation and interactivity

    The second workshop was an applied math tutorial from the man himself, Memo Akten.  This course just reinforced to me how we really need to rethink the way we teach math in this country.  It also confirmed my suspicion that Memo is a machine.  Seriously, the way he talks about numbers and math, you can just tell he processes all that stuff differently than normal humans do, like...he SEES in linear algebra and trig.  I'm totally jealous, hopefully it'll come with practice.  The two things that I feel made this class work were a) the fact that the information was presented in such a way that concepts either built on top of each other or were otherwise shown in relation to each other and b) PRACTICAL EXAMPLES!  Honestly, I've always been comfortable-ish with Trig, but seeing some practical examples, like projector-to-camera mapping, for example, really just locked it in.  I put some notes online, they're probably only useful to me, but you're welcome to take a peek anyway: EyeO 2013 Applied Math Notes

...they're useful and make sense!

    Day 0 wrapped up with Zach Lieberman's amazing keynote and an incredible round of Ignite talks.  I really can't do them justice, so keep checking Vimeo for them, they're all worth watching.  Onto Day 1 for talks and hack-a-thons!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Eye-O Festival, Day -1

    I came to a really interesting realization this morning over some incredibly hot coffee (plus, Dunn Bros coffee on 15th? Yes, just, yes) that this may be the first time I've gone to a conference where I'm actually NOT interested in networking.  I mean, don't get me wrong, it'd be great to get my name out into the space a little, but I'd rather do it through real work.  Putting a few samples on github doesn't really count as compelling work, no matter how extensive the development might be (for the record, it's not much at this point).

    In all honesty, my interest lies in mapping the space, and again, not for a networking standpoint, I'm very interested just to see who's doing what in general, mainly because I think all this stuff is really cool (oddly enough, what brought me to intel).  I think if I had meant to network really hard, I would've tried a bit harder to make sure I brought business cards, so maybe my brain just knows things that I don't.  Yeah so, really excited to get a look at what people are working on, and just spend a few days writing code.  Workshops start tomorrow, first up D3 with Scott Murray, followed by Applied Math with the man himself, Memo Akten.  Mind preparing to be...expanded at least, probably blown.

My God, It's Full Of Code...

    So, here's a subject I don't talk about a whole lot, but it's definitely something I think about, for one reason or other.  This particular thought thread stems from my reading of this article: Intel Capital creates hundred million dollar Perceptual Computing fund.  Now, aside from this reinforcing my belief that it's time for me to go independent, a few things caught my eye.  First, there was the opening statement:

"That’s a lot of money, tech-art fans."

Second, the term "Tech Art" appeared in the Categories list for this article.  So of course I had to click on it and see what other articles fell under that category.  Quite an interesting list, one of them being an article highlighting the release of processing 2.  Being here at Eye-O festival, now somewhat surrounded by people who make art by writing code, really makes me ponder that term "Tech Art" and what a "Tech Artist" really is.  I'm probably not very qualified to speak on what the future of "Tech Art" as a game development discipline is, but ultimately, I'm not really sure there's such a thing as a Tech Artist in games anymore.  Well that's not true, but I definitely think they're becoming fewer and further between.

When code meets art (or at least my feeble attempt)...

    You see, somewhere back up the line, Tech Artists became much more specialized, almost to the point where I'm not sure the title "Tech Artist" was really applicable anymore.  All of a sudden we had riggers, technical animators, dcc tools developers, shader programmers, even physics artist, but to me, a proper Tech Artist was all of these things.  I wrote my first auto-rigging tool in 2002, and I wrote my first Cg (proper Cg, not CgFX) shader not much later, and you know, back then that was the job.  When that "normal mapping" thing started to be whispered in games circles (a lot longer ago than most of you kids think), I was one of the first people to write a normal map extractor from Maya and a Mental Ray shader to test it.  Yep.  And again, that was just the job?  A Tech Artist was rigger, dcc tools programmer, shader writer, fx artist, jack of many different languages, and sometimes even modeler and renderer.  I feel like nowadays, that original diversity and spirit of exploration that defined tech art once is gone, and now the extent of it is finding new ways to solve the same old problem inside whatever tech art sandbox you've chosen.  Sheesh...borrow someone else's solution and use all that free time to learn something NEW, trust me, your pipeline isn't that complex, and your toolchain requirements aren't that special.  Your production process is not a unique delicate flower, for shame.

    I can't really say if the current trend of specialization is going to continue, I imagine it will and people will make the argument that the increasing complexity of AAA game content will require it, but you know, I went from PS2 and low spec PC all the way to the dusk of the 360 and PS3, and I think I chose to work faster and smarter, rather then continue to add complexity to my chosen sandbox (or job security, whichever you want to call it).  I think it's that approach to Tech Art that continues to serve me well in the world of RED, and just to get a little sentimental, it warms my heart to see that original spirit of Tech Art continuing to live on as Creative Coding.

    Andrew Bell said it best at Eye-O last year, TDs (and of course, TAs) are Creative Coders for games and film.  I think this was much more true back in the day (FUCK ME I'M OLD), and I'd like to see Tech Artist return to that original spirit of exploration and diversity, rather than continuing to play "how many ways can i make up to solve the same maya problems everyone else has already solved?".  That said, tomorrow is Eye-O!  Time to shut my mouth, open my eyes, and engage my brain.  This should be awesome.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Eye-O Festival, Day -2

    I think I've aged about 20 years in the last month or so because I feel like I've just gotten super preachy, which is somewhat annoying, though probably less to me and more to the people to whom I've been preaching.  I don't know, I feel like all these thoughts, observations, and opinions have sorta been brewing over the last while and I've decided I need to start recording more of my internal monologues, not that they're any good, but it gives me some talking points if in the future I ever end up talking to anyone who's listening.  So that said, you can probably guess this isn't going to be a very technical post, but hey, I'm at Eye-O!  Trust me, there will be tons of technical musings coming...Plus, I'm going to use a lot of marketing/businessey terms, for which I am also truly sorry...don't hate me, my friends (or do, i suppose).

We deliver all three, yo...

    You get to that point sometimes where you've had a bunch of related conversations with different people and it all adds up to one conversation, or at least, it would be more efficient and probably effective to just have the whole conversation rather than have bits and pieces with different people.  It's definitely been that kind of week/month/year/etc.  I've been thinking, talking, trying to practice, etc what being a rapid experience developer, interaction prototyper, interactivist, whatever you want to call it, etc, and I don't think I've quite succeeded yet.  Most of that is probably due to the fact that I've spent more time being an evangelist, educator, excel jockey, etc, otherwise not really an experience developer.  That said, the one really useful skill I took from my time in the games industry was learning to observe and analyze process, learning what was and wasn't important, and I gotta say I got pretty good at it.  So that said, here are my own thoughts on being a Rapid Experience Developer...(I'm probably 100% wrong).

    I think a big part of this thought thread started quite a while ago (well, as the internet goes anyway) when a friend of mine was pitching a hardware device to me and I kept interrupting and asking what the experience was.  When developing experiences, especially for mainstream consumption, it all starts with the approach.  I've noticed that here in tech-land it's all too easy for us to fall back to things like features and implementation details, or presentation and visual details, you know, the things we're good at, but let's be honest, only the pundits, marketers, and people who need techno-babble to sound intelligent care about individual features, and of those people, an even smaller slice care about anything lower level than that, algorithms and optimization details, for instance.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm a developer/geek (seriously, don't let the powerlifting and MMA fool you, that's just my security blanket) at heart, I can go on about that stuff all day and then a few more, but in the right company at the right time.  So mastering the art of the pitch?  Crucial to rapid experience developers (henceforth, RED).

Everything in its place...

    First off, there's the overall mindset that comes with delivering a successful pitch.  When we realize that we only have a very set amount of time to make people "get it", we really start to focus in on what our overall messaging has to be, so it goes with RED.  Our experience has to communicate its essence to either an uninformed user, or even worse, a user who thinks they're informed, both of which are uphill battles.  Nowadays, most people have...what I'll call a latent knowledge of experiences, that is, we're so inundated with interactive technology that we know what we DON'T like.  If you've ever been in a production job, you know how annoying it is to work with creative leads who pull that stuff (oh, I'll know it when I see it), and while it's acceptable to not put up with that garbage in that situation (I mean really, that's just unprofessional), we can't really hold our target audience to that same standard, so the onus is really on us to...not really know what they want end-to-end, but at least put something in front of them that gets them in.  We don't need to sell someone a product, but we do need to make sure it stays with them (no easy feat given today's short attention spans.  I blame internet.)

    Another crucial element of the pitch process is that it puts us into the role of storytellers, and as any good storyteller knows, we have to be able to connect with our audience.  A big part of that is being able to put ourselves into the mindset of said audience.  You know, in that way, RED is a lot like being an artist, in that the best artists are those who can see through their audience's eyes and know what they'll be looking for/at.  Ok, I know that's a little hippy/new-agey, but I think it's a valid idea, and ultimately, I think it's the closest we're going to get to getting any sort of an indicator as to what our audiences are going to want from our experience (see, again, the onus is on US).  Additionally, telling the experience as a story is a great tool for how to structure the experience overall.  What's the introduction, i.e. what's that hook that's going to get the user engaged initially?  Next, what's the "meat" of the experience, that is, the body of the story?  What is it that's going to keep the user around for a bit?  Lastly, how do we resolve the experience and give the user some impetus to at the very least stay tuned to see what's in store for either the next iteration or the next story we choose to tell?  That's quite a bit to think about, and when we consider we may only have a few weeks to put all this together, well...are we starting to think a little differently about how we approach development?

    The last thing I'll touch on here about the pitch process is that it teaches us really quickly that we CANNOT fall in love with our pitch, our product, and most especially, our process.  The same goes for an experience, especially when it comes to RED.  Now, I realize that strikes a bit counter to what I'd previously said about RED being like art, but make no mistake, while we borrow tenets and process from art, we are NOT making art.  At best, we're creating a beautiful corpse, and at worse, we're creating a trinket or a bauble to fill some space.  Hopefully not too much of the latter, but it will happen, and when that order comes down, crap it out, flush it down the pipe, and get back to what matters.  When we start developing an experience, we've got all these great ideas about all the features we want to include, an all the cool things we're going to write into it, and all the great infrastructure we're going to build, but you know what?  The minute that stuff starts throwing up walls, trash it and move through.  Coding style?  Screw it.  Properly modeled and textured meshes?  Save that noise for polycount.  Here's the question we should be asking ourselves at every step: If this experience were being demoed for 60 seconds (which is probably longer than it will be demoed in actuality), would it totally suffer if I didn't implement this feature that's had me stuck implementing for the last week?  If I were to just fake it, would anyone care?  Answer is probably not, unless it's some sort of interaction model we're trying to work through.  Now, I know at this point someone wants to make the argument that "Presentation Counts!  Visuals Matter!".  That may be true, but I wonder what a little company called Rovio thinks about that, and the same goes for technical details.  You probably get my point, but if you don't let me summarize by paraphrasing Einstein, "visuals, presentation, and code should be as aesthetically pleasing and functional as they need to be, but no more."  Focus on what matters, forget what doesn't, and who cares if you're embarrassed to show someone your code or source files at the end?  Chances are, no one's even going to ask, so...check it in and call it good.

Seriously, just put it in a private repo, i don't wanna know, it's cool

    I think i'll leave this with one of my favorite creative coding projects, Red Paper Heart's Golden Clock.  I like this for so many reasons (Cinder represent!!), but the main reason I like it is because it was developed by four people in 10 days.  And this wasn't a prototype, mind you, this was a mission critical application, in front of hundreds of people, with different degrees of interactivity that had to run the duration of a party with it being the backdrop for the evening's main event!  If this can be done in ten days by four people (albeit four kick ass developers and artists), imagine what one really capable RED could do in a month...There's your brass ring.

A Golden Clock from Red Paper Heart on Vimeo.