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ETA 2012 – A Branding Singularity

ETA 2012 – Ray Kurzweil

Last Friday saw the latest instalment of FITC’s Emerging Technology & Advertising (ETA) event series touch down in Toronto. While labelled rather dryly as a “one day conversation on how technology will impact brands”, ETA 2012 brought together an improbably diverse selection of speakers to think out loud about design, emerging trends in interaction, engagement and commerce in an intimate and conversational setting. With a speaker roster starting with Ray Kurzweil and finishing with Golan Levin, this might have been one of the more ‘out there’ events one could dream up for an agency-centric audience as the assembled presenters served up inspiration and provocation (more of the latter, actually) across many domains. CAN was on scene to document the proceedings and I’ve prepared a summary with some accompanying remarks.

ETA 2012 opened with a bang with an appearance by futurist, inventor and ardent singularitarian Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil opened his presentation with some ad-libbed commentary about how expensive advertising used to be and how unpredictable the field is now as “it is [near] impossible to design virality.” To illustrate the unpredictably of technological shifts he cited two examples, first describing Google’s search engine as a “late night dorm challenge” with legs and the pointed out that a child with a smartphone in Africa now has more access to more information than the president of America did 15 years ago. Drawing on dozens of graphs charting the adoption rates, processing power and global bandwidth, Kurzweil argued that technological progression was never ‘sudden’ and that it could always be read as occurring on a smooth, exponential curve; His trump card to illustrate this point was the arc of processing power connecting his 1950s era “room-sized” student computer, his present-day smartphone and the “blood cell-sized devices that we could expect in 25 years”. This bold prediction served as a segue into an overview about the intersection of information and health sciences that zoomed through gene-hacking, 3D organ printing, neural implants and the cloud – apparently the future just beyond the perceivable horizon is quite rosy.

Kurzweil’s techno-optimism was nicely contrasted by Boing Boing science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker who, while no less excited about innovation, used her talk to celebrate the primacy of failure in researching and implementing new technologies. Focusing on a singular case study, Koerth-Baker humorously described the many “faceplants” that occurred in order for electric lighting to become wildly successful. While we are familiar with the mythos surrounding Thomas Edison’s prowess as an inventor, lesser known figures like H.J. Johnson and his Vulcan Street Plant (the world’s first Edison hydrolectrical station) get swept under the rug in favour of more simplistic historical narratives. Koerth-Baker urged creatives, designers, hackers etc. to resist the urge to buy into popular ‘genius’ narratives and embrace failure as a vehicle that gets us places. This tongue-in-cheek critique of linear narratives was a welcome counterpoint to Kurzweil’s deterministic drumbeating.

If there was a device and paradigm that came up unexpectedly often at ETA 2012 it was the Kinect and gestural interfaces. Interknowlogy CEO Emilie Hersh described the range of services provided by her company ranging from custom app/informatics development (e.g. a workflow for managing voting and providing real-time analytics at the most recent DNC convention) and spent a good portion of her presentation musing about the future of retail, wondering what exactly ‘retail’ meant in 2012, given that she personally “did most of her Christmas shopping on her phone”. Hersh anticipated that Kinects could be deployed in store windows to allow people to browse or purchase goods, even when stores were closed. She also made it clear that there is an emerging zone of branded interactions that need to be considered outside apps, websites and standard retail expectations.

Jared Ficklin from Frog dove deep into gesture and devoted his entire presentation to situating Room/E, a speculative ‘smart space’ controlled by voice and gesture. Ficklin described this project as a logical progression from the “sophisticated tricorders” that mobile computing has yielded and wryly described compulsive tablet and phone-based tendencies as “device babysitting” and “heads down computing”. So, in moving well beyond pictures under glass, Room/E proposes a Kinect-driven spatial interface for everyday tasks, where information is projected onto available surfaces. The above video illustrates the many challenges associated with this kind of sophisticated context-aware computing, apparently voice-based interactions are problematic for both machines (to ‘hear’ the nuance of language) and humans alike (people feel weird about barking orders at inanimate objects, go figure). This presentation was followed by the most compelling conversation question of the day: “How will you answer if people want to talk to your brand?” – with Room/E in mind, that standard query is complicated considerably.

The day closed out with a pair of strong presentations by Steve Mason from Obscura and artist and CMU Associate Professor Golan Levin. Mason provided a very ideas-focused rundown of the undercurrents at play within Obscura’s varied interactive and media architecture projects. It was a pleasure to hear him situate large-scale projection mapping in a chronology that extended back to the origins of perspective in architectural representation and painting. Additional links to bygone eras were forged when Mason described advertisers as contemporary patrons, “brokers of perception for modern royalty – corporations”. Mason inferred that the era of passive cinema was drawing to an end and pointed to a recent projects including Tupac Shakur’s ‘appearance’ at Coachella 2012, Amon Tobin’s ISAM and Recombinant Media Labs CineChamber [covered on CAN here] as evidence.

Golan Levin’s talk, “The Unofficial R&D” was a sustained critique of unscrupulous digital agencies who appropriate and/or steal techniques and aesthetics from the media art sphere to be deployed in commercial contexts. This is a topic of longstanding interest to Levin so it was great to see him stand in front of a room of executives and creative directors and wag his finger at them (while offering concrete guidelines to avoid future misunderstandings). Given Golan has put his slides and notes online, I’ll let them speak for themselves. I’d definitely call his presentation a professional practice ‘instant classic’ worthy of being filed alongside Andrew Bell’s Eyeo talk from this past June.

In the introductory remarks that kicked off ETA 2012, Scott Suthren described the goal for the day as being to escape the industry echo chamber. FITC definitely programmed a dynamic and challenging space for considering ever-shifting consumer expectations and the marketplace, no doubt all who attended left with much to think about.

FITC | ETA 2012 event page
Photos: Kristin Foster Photography

ETA 2012 – CrowdETA 2012 – Maggie Koerth-Baker