Sean Clark's Blog
I can't believe it's been over a month since I've posted to my blog! It must be the longest break I've had for years. Still, while I may have been quiet here I've been quite busy over at the new Interact Labs site. This new project officially launched on the 26th October and is starting to take off nicely.
Here's a summary of what has happened at Interact Labs over the past month. The Creative Manifesto group are now meeting at the space fortnightly and used it as a base for the construction of their lights for their Light the Night project. Leicester Hackspace is also meeting there fortnightly and is making moves towards setting up it's own space in the new year. We've also had Steve Mills making use of the 3D printer as part of his residency at Two Queens and Esther Rolinson visited to work on her installation for next year. The Digital Makers Group has had an event, Martin Rieser gave a great Computer Arts Society talk and various other meetings and visits have taken place.
The next activity will be the launch of the new St Georges iPhone and Android app on Friday 29th November. This is the result of a collaboration between Cuttlefish, Phoenix and Leicester University and will give users a new way of exploring Leicester's Cultural Quarter. We also have a talk by Antipodes artist Layla Curtis on the 10th December.
I normally try to write a blog post once a week. But I've been a bit slack recently, not through lack of activity, but through business with a new project - Interact Labs. What's this about I hear you ask? Well, to quote from the new interactlabs.co.uk website:
"Interact Labs is a new programme designed to encourage people to be creative with digital technology. Equipped with everything from DIY hardware kits to a state of the art 3D printer, Interact Labs provides a space at Phoenix in Leicester dedicated to learning, experimentation, creative collaboration and making new things."
Basically, it's a new physical space at Phoenix in Leicester that is going to be focussed on getting more people creative with technology. It's something of a follow-on from The Interact Gallery that I ran at Fabrika in 2011 and 2012, but with a stronger emphasis on making things.
Go to the interactlabs.co.uk website to find out more.
On the 3rd October 1993 I sent out an email announcing the opening of my first website. At the time there were about 250 websites in the world and in a pre-search engine world the way to the get world out about your site was to post a message to the Usenet forums. Other website owners would link to your site and you would return the favour. In this way the early Web began to grow in to what we have now.
My first site was about the topic of Virtual Reality (part of it is still available online here). Both VR and the Web arrived in the public mind around the same time, and both were seen by many as the "next big thing". Interestingly, VR - the "sexiest" of the two technologies - stuttered over the next few years and failed to catch on, where as the Web... Well you know, you are using it.
The early Web was an exciting thing to be part of. The journey from geek to ubiquity was an incredibly fast one and people now find strange to think that there was a time when it didn't exist.
In those early days, together my my colleagues at Loughborough and Derby Universities, I would run "cybercafes" and internet show-and-tell events at night clubs, public events and conferences to show people how the Web worked. For many of these people it was the first time they had seen the technology.
These days there is a similar feeling to the interest surrounding 3D printing. Just like the early Web, I demonstrate it to people who've heard about it but have never seen it. I encourage it's use and try to get people to think about how it will affect their lives. I do wonder though if over the next 20 years it will go the way of the Web, or remain a specialist niche like Virtual Reality.
The next Bring Your Own Beamer event in Leicester will be taking place on Saturday 12th October at The Salon in Highcross, Leicester. This is the second time BYOB has come to Leicester and the first time we will have used this new (temporary) art space in the Highcross shopping centre. As before, the event is free and open to anyone with something to show. There will be workshops during the day - with topics being covered including Quartz Composer and LED lighting.
Thomas Dolby came to the Phoenix in Leicester tonight to kick off the UK tour of his film The Invisible Lighthouse. I say 'film', but it was more of a live performance than a typical film showing - with Dolby delivering most of the spoken word and music live from the stage.
The film is centred around the closure of a lighthouse in Suffolk near where Thomas Dolby grew up and has now returned to live with his family. Backed by both documentary and more abstract film sequences, he delivers a narration that reflects on his memories of the lighthouse and the area. On the top of this he adds live music, lighting and the wearing of various hats to produce something quite unique - true live 'multimedia'.
I found it highly absorbing. I liked both the subject of the story and the way it was performed. As a child growing up in Selsey I can remember looking out to the Nab Tower at night and being fascinated by the flashing light (and the booming of the horn in the fog). I realised that this was something I hadn't thought about in years.
As well as performing, Thomas Dolby also filmed most of the video footage himself - sometimes using a camera mounted on a small quadcopter to get aerial shots.
Being the first night of the tour I spotted a few little glitches in the show, but these didn't distract from the performance at all. The film was followed by a Q&A session and then a couple of songs for the fans. The tour continues across the UK and then goes to the US. See thomasdolby.com for details.
I've just received my Flashforge Creator II 3D Printer from the iMakr shop in London. This is a Chinese version of the classic Makerbot Replicator 1 open source 3D printer with a few improvements and a much more attractive price than the original. The machine is going to form part of the equipment available in the soon-to-open Interact Labs workspace at Phoenix in Leicester and I was looking for something that was easy to use, reasonably well-specified and reliable.
So far it's been working well. I've completed over 5 hours of print time with no mistakes and the ReplicatorG software it uses has worked flawlessly. I will report back on it in more detail when I've had a chance to explore it more, but things are looking promising. For now, you can see how it got on printing the mug I designed in Tinkercad a few weeks back in a set of pictures here on Flickr.
I love Kickstarter. You get to support some really creative ideas and occasionally get a bargain or something unique as part of the deal. One project I supported recently was the ARKYD publicly accessible space telescope. This is a sort of Hubble for everyone - a telescope in space that the general public can make use of.
For my $25 pledge I helped the project reach its million pound funding goal and in return get to upload an image to an LCD screen on the outside of the telescope and have it photographed with the Earth as a backdrop! I haven't yet decided on the image I will use (the mission won't actually happen until 2015) but I'm pretty sure it will be a digital artwork of some sort.
Now, I'm sure some of the other 17,614 supporters will be doing similar such things for their 'space selfies', but I wonder if those of us who use it to have artworks photographed in space will be the first such artists to have their work 'exhibited' in space? One for the CV I think :-)
Almost exactly 20 years ago I organised an exhibition of Virtual Reality technology at the HCI'93 conference at Loughborough University. On display were input devices such as hand tracking gloves and 3D mice and various 3D displays, most notably the classic VR headset.
At the time VR was 'the next big thing', and it was assumed that we would soon all be be sitting around with VR headsets on whilst living and working in'virtual worlds'. Of course, this didn't actually happen quite as predicted. Instead, the other 'next big thing' of the time - the World Wide Web - ended up changing the world instead, and the 'virtual worlds' we live in tend to be accessed through smartphones, not 3D headsets.
Roll on 20 years, though, and we might possibly be on the verge of seeing the VR headset enter the mainstream. I've just had a play with a new Virtual Reality headset called the Oculus Rift. The device is aimed at gamers and improves on the old VR technology in a number of ways. Firstly, the pixel resolution is reasonable. Meaning that the images it display actually resemble the real world (although there is still a long way to go before we reach 'retina' levels). Secondly it is lightweight. Improvements in optics and screen technology over the years have led to something that weights a few hundred grams, not the kilograms of the original headsets. The head tracking is fast and light too and does not require a large sensing rig to make it work. Finally, it is cheap. At around £200 it is a hundredth of the price of professional VR headsets in 1993 and it will probably be possible to reduce this price even further. These factors, combined with the widespread support for the project in the huge gaming industry, mean that it just might take off.
Of course, it still may not be a technology ready for everyday use. 3D TV has been something of a mixed success, and I think VR is still likely to appeal more to a niche audience, better suited to certain types of gaming rather than general computer use (I don't think Virtual Reality supermarkets are on the cards). Plus, what will the ergonomic effects be when people start to use these devices for hours on end? Headaches? Vision problems?
I'm sure we'll know the answers to these questions in another 20 years.
Information about my HCI'93 exhibition, with photographs and the original website, can be found in my archive at http://www.seanclark.me.uk/virtual-reality.html. More information about the Oculus Rift (including how to order a developer kit) can be found at http://oculusvr.com.
It was the official opening of Penn Fields school in Wolverhampton on Wednesday. Last year Geoff Broadway and myself developed a multi-screen digital artwork for the school called Interactive Welcome. The piece was part of a number of art commissions for the school by Project Dandelion that included sculptures, coloured glass windows, large-scale images and other multimedia works.
It was great to go back to the school after all this time (we actually installed the work last September!) and to see it full of busy pupils. Our artwork seems to have settled in nicely and is now very much part of the building. You can find out more about it here and my pictures from the opening on Flickr.
There is a nice exhibition on at Phoenix at the moment that lets you go digital kite flying. The idea is that you first visit the web site at digitalkites.indiansummer.org.uk and design your kite. Then you visit the Cube Gallery at Phoenix and use the installation to "fly" your creation. The installation uses a Microsoft Kinect to track your movements in a way that is quite effective at simulating the act of kite flying. As you look over and Indian city skyline tugging on the kite's line every now and then the whole effect is rather relaxing.
I really liked the work, but think it needs a bit more refinement to really make it work well. I enjoyed the kite flying part, but found that the mechanism for selecting the kite designs a bit clunky. It involved using a computer keyboard - which to me is a no-no in an interactive artwork like this. I think some sort of gesture or touch interface would be better. Perhaps the ability to do the kite design on your mobile device would be nice too.
These are by no means major criticisms and I would encourage people to create a kite and go and fly it at the Phoenix. The exhibition runs until the 20th July, so you still have a few days to go. See my pictures of the work on Flickr.