Thursday, November 30, 2006

Job Vacancy - Permanent Instructor - Interaction Design

The Alberta College of Art + Design is one of only four publicly
funded Canadian post-secondary institutions devoted exclusively to
the advanced education of visual artists and designers. The college
has recently entered into a vital new phase in its development and
embraced a new mandate and vision that endorses a model of the
institution as a laboratory for experimentation and as a catalyst for
research, discourse and international impact in the arts and emergent
cultural fields.

The college welcomes applications for the following full time
permanent faculty position commencing in the fall semester 2007:

Permanent Instructor - Interaction Design
Media Arts & Digital Technologies is seeking an interdisciplinary
instructor with a focus on interaction and interaction design and a
commitment to novel syntheses of new media, fine art and design. The
successful candidate is expected to teach specific skills including
prototyping, electronics, and programming in combination with theory,
seminar and studio courses to a wide range of undergraduate students
at all levels. While initially teaching through existing courses,
this position will be expected to develop new curriculum and course
offerings with innovative curricular interactions between majors.

Qualified candidates will have a terminal degree in interaction
design or a related field, or an equivalent combination of education
and practice. Additional qualifications and experience will include
the development of tangible interfaces for objects and spaces and a
strong grounding in perceptual and cognitive human factors; visual
interface design; ethnography; and the politics of design.
Demonstrated experience in one or more of gaming; information
visualization; wearable computing; or art and science or other
collaborative environments is expected. Post-secondary teaching
experience is an asset. The successful candidate will have a dynamic
and active practice in Interaction Design and is expected to maintain
a high level of research and practice and disseminate results regularly.

Please submit applications by February 23, 2007 including; a
portfolio of your work, letter of application, the names of three (3)
referees, a current curriculum vitae, statements outlining
philosophies and models of teaching and practice, and examples of
current and past research examples of your students’ work and where
possible, evaluations of teaching performance to::

Alberta College of Art & Design
1407 – 14th Avenue, Calgary AB Canada T2N 4R3
Attention: Manager, Human Resources
Fax: 284-6236; E-mail:

For further information about the college, Calgary Alberta and this
position please visit our web site at

The Alberta College of Art + Design is an equal opportunity employer
and welcomes expressions of interest from all qualified applicants
for consideration for this or other suitable vacancies. While we
thank all applicants in advance for their interest please note that
only applicants selected for an interview will be contacted. In
situations with several qualified candidates, preference will be
normally given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
Submitted materials will only be returned if accompanied by
appropriate self-addressed envelopes/containers with sufficient
Canadian postage or prepaid courier shipping forms.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Long Tail and a Steep Learning Curve

I am always amazed at how my working life veers between chasing work ( like a sad-eyed dog outside a butcher's shop) and having too much on. Last week was an example of the latter. I delivered three different presentations, at three different institutions over the course of five days. This week I blog!

I enjoy giving presentations and I also enjoy all the feedback from fellow participants. However, I also find that I am often rushing around ("like a witch's maracas") and so miss out on the chance to mull over what has been said; to cogitate on how it fits in with my wider understanding of what is going on in the world of the digital writing. However, I could not help in noticing a running theme last week between the plenary session at the NAWE conference (my contribution was called Good Grief not Games...) and the 'So You Want to be a New Media Writer...' session I gave to the undergrads at NTU. In both sessions, there was an exploration of the impact of digital technology on publishing. This is a subject I have been giving some thought to of late, mainly, as the result of reading 'The Long Tail' by Chris Anderson.

I would recommend that any writer get hold of this book. Not so much because it provides a bible or even a blue-print of how to tackle the issue of publishing in the digital age but more because of its many provocations and its easily absorbed case studies, drawn from companies as diverse as amazon, e-bay, rhapsody, iTunes , lulu and booksurge , which flag-up some of the economic issues driving current changes in our industry.

'The Long Tail' of the title is in reference to a graph that plots sales revenues (on the y-axis) vs sales rankings. Traditionally, this graph shows that 80 percent of retail revenue is generated by 20 percent of the products. These 'hit' products (on the left hand side of the graph) are the stars of their industry, and they are the products that you will see on shop-shelves. However, to the right of these hits is a long tail of products which are ignored in traditional retail economics ( generally these are the sort of thing that I am interested in). Basically, one does not get to see these products in shops because the 'hits' outshine them in the competition for shelf space. This is why, for example, when I walk into my local Blockbuster video rental store there are only about 200 titles available in shop. The hits are on the shelves and the long tail products are excluded.

Anderson's thesis is that the composition of sales has changed as a result of digital distribution and retailing from likes of amazon. He argues that:
"new efficiencies in distribution, manufacturing, and marketing were changing the definition of what was commercially viable across the board."
What is striking in the statistics he quotes is that a much wider variety of products sell in the digital world. He describes this as the 98 percent rule because almost every thing in the catalogue will sell at least once. Anderson argues that the range of products that it is economic to distribute is no longer defined by competition for shelf spaces and that digital distributors , therefore, are able to sell a much wider variety of goods from much further down the long tail of the sales curve.

I believe that this is important for writers because, with some honourable exceptions we are all part of the long tail. This means that for the most part we are excluded by the cost of distribution and retail. We are seen as low-volume writers and denied access to the shelves, which by self-fulfilling prophesy, guarantees that we are turned into no-volume writers. This is culturally significant because it denies us the chance to have our voice heard. However, by contrast our inclusion in the amazon database will greatly improve the chances of finding our readership (even if it is very small and geographically fragmented).

Digitization also alters the economics of book production. In the traditional model there is a high element of risk because a book must be printed before it can be sold. This risk is greatly increased for an unknown author working in a poorly understood niche market. This, in turn, impacts on cash flow and profitability because traditional publishers are routinely required to produce books that they are unable to sell. It makes them cautious! However, in contrast print-on-demand technology makes it viable to sell the book first and then print it. As Anderson notes:
"the production and inventory cost of a print-on-demand book that is never bought is zero"
Service such as Lulu and Booksurge allow individual authors to have access to this technology. Booksurge, a subsidiary of Amazon, also provides a tie-in to the amazon store so that you can market your book to the world before it is even printed. In some cases these services are cheap. Booksurge's author express service is just $99 for a black and white text with a colour cover.

For many, this vision of the future of publishing will sound like vanity publishing. It is certainly worth considering the role played by an editor in the production of a book. I have had a number of positive experiences working with editors who have worked hard to add value to the final draft ( Let's face it I am a lousy proof-reader). Similarly, it is worth thinking about the role played by agents in the success of a publication. They can add valuable to your book by placing it with a publisher with an appropriate list who will have an in-depth knowledge of your sector. However, on occasions the professionals do not have all the answers and an author has a better handle on their niche.

In the end the choice is going to be yours. However, I would argue that it is nice to have that choice...though exercising it might involve you in a long, steep learning curve.

Gavin Stewart - RIMAD research seminar

Gavin Stewart giving 'My Practice-led PhD?'.
A talk at the University of Bedfordshire 23rd November 2006.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pod Pod Pod

I was interested to read on the BBC technology website this week that the number of people listening to podcasts is still relatively small ("12% of US people online had downloaded a podcast"). This surprised me, firstly because that makes me an ‘early adopter’ of this technology, and secondly because podcasting has made positive difference to my life.

The first thing I like about my engagement with podcasting has been how cheap this revolution has been. I bought an old-style iPod shuffle (for my birthday) at a rock bottom price in June. To give you an idea of how unfashionable (and discounted) this pod was at the time the little pack of condom–like cases that protect the Apple-white wonder were the same price.

Initially, I had thought of my present as a good way to listen to music. Like many people, I set about recycling my CD collection into my hard drive. I also bought a few tracks from Apple of embarrassing 'old stuff' that I thought I had in my collection but it turned out that I didn’t. However, one fine day about a week after buying my iPod I decided to browse around the ‘podcast’ directory. I have to be honest and state that I nearly didn’t go any further because the directory took ages to load on to my computer (and I was also somewhat put off by the word 'podcast' itself). However, I did persist and what I found has opened my ears to a number of new opportunities.

Back in June the podcast directory on iTunes appeared to be dominated by US-based technology podcasts. This was not really that surprising because this community are always early adopters and so make a good audience for new platforms. However, I got lucky with my one test subscription because I listened for free to an episode of ‘Inside the Net’ by Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur that spoke directly to some of the issues raised by the social software session at NLab back in May. However, there was also a human dimension to the interview in this podcast that helped me to engage with the subject.

One of the real strength of podcasting is that you don’t have to miss out on content ( as with most broadcasting models). For example, when I discovered that I enjoyed ‘Inside the Net’ I went 'back in time' and downloaded all the previous episodes. Similarly, you don’t have to miss out on programming going forward in time either. For having subscribed to ‘Inside the Net’ one week, I was delighted to find that he next episode of this podcast plopped into my hard drive the following Tuesday without any effort on my part.

Over the next couple of weeks I noticed a marked change in my behaviour. I started to bookmark my favourite websites with I listened to a cornucopia of new music on and I added a baroque range of extension to my firefox browser. In short, I began to be excited by the web again. However, I also became more productive in my peripatetic working life (as I had found an number of tools that helped to turn the 'media-lab' internet browser into a desktop)

I got lucky with my second subscription as well. I had set my heart on listening to a UK-based podcast and boagworld leapt out of the technology listings.

This is a podcast aimed at website managers etc. Now I am not a website manager. I am also not a website designer. However, I do have a website which serves both as research tool and as a gateway to some of my work. Until recently, I enjoyed website design as a 'hacker' hobby. Honestly, I liked web designing. However, recently I have become aware that there are not enough hours in the day to keep abreast of all the changes in web technology. Similarly, I am not sure that this hobby it is a productive use of my time. Web design has become a specialist activity. However, I am in an economic bind because I can not afford to get some one else to maintain my site. It has become a bit of an digital albatross. Worse still, it has begun to look rather old–fashioned in places (it commits the sin of having a ‘table-based design’ with ‘spaceer gifs’). Rather than serving as ‘shop front’ for my writing it has become a bit of a liability. The challenge now is to keep it up to speed with minimum effort.

I spend far too much of life behind a computer screen. Worse still, I also spend a lot of time reading books and journal articles for work. To be honest, I find myself all 'read-out' by the end of the week so that I don’t even bother to take a printed newspaper anymore because I know that I won’t want to find time to read it. I want to spend what free I have with my child (either that or sleeping and taking vigorous exercise). This is a shame because I find that I miss the shower of serendipity that you get from newspaper or a general interest journal like the Economist. I don't take specialist magazines either. Similarly, I do not get many opportunities to listen to BBC Radio 4 anymore so that I miss the warmth of the well-read word. However, podcasting has changed all that. Now, I go out running with the BBC world service in my ears. I can negotiate the hazards of the M25 with some wise words by Paul Boag about the CSS and web accessibility. This is wonderful because I am getting interesting, focussed content when I want it and in a manner that allows me to get out and about.

Boagworld was also a lucky find because it demonstrated the power of show notes. I can listen to the podcast while out on the road and can then dip into the show notes to make links to the various books or sites that struck a chord. Web links and a life? Is this possible?

More recently, I have become more ambitious in my podcast listening. I am taking conference podcasts from d.construct (care of a boagworld link) and I am enjoying popular science news from the Guardian. I am also subscribing and unsubscribing to free podcasts as I refine my own understanding of my listening tastes. In short, I am browsing the podcast world in a manner similar to my RSS-driven engagement with the world wide web. Even better, I am enjoying having a light-weight, mobile and aural interface with a wide, wide world of content.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

'Writing for Videogames' by Steve Ince

One of the more interesting things that I got to do this year was to work with members of the UK Games Industry. This opportunity came about because of involvement with the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab). I got to interview a number of insightful individuals such as Michael Powell of De Montfort University, Jolyon Webb (who was working for Codemasters at the time) and Toby Barnes of Pixel-Lab. I also got to take part in a one day seminar at which Ernest Adams was the keynote speaker. These contacts were made all the more interesting because there a number of writers involved in the project, such as Kate Pullinger, who had experience of developing narratives with a wide variety of technologies, including print.

One of the most interesting things to arise out of this meeting of talents was the realization that the Games Industry was crying out for the abilities demonstrated by (for want of a better term) ‘conventional’ authors. Almost all of the representatives of the Games World felt their industry and their art form could benefit from writers skilled in producing affective as well effective dialogue, characters and scenarios. However, it was clear, from the frank but generous contributions made by the contributors to the panel that there was a gap (both in terms of skills and awareness) between these kinds of writers and the industry. There was also the issue of where to get started and how a writer (or their agent) might tackle the task of getting a foot in the door. I was pleased to read, therefore, that the games producer and designer Steve Ince had produced a book called ‘Writing for Video Games’.

One of the most interesting things about this book is where it is positioned in the market. I think that it is a smart move that A & C Black have placed this book in their catalogue with practical texts aimed at ‘conventional’ writers. I believe that this will give the book an audience that might not, in the first instance, order a game book from New Riders. Similarly, it is written as an introduction and this allows it to be quite user-friendly which will be re-assuring for anyone like me who is simply dipping their toe into the industry to test the waters. There are no tech-minotaurs lurking in this labyrinth.

However, there are, of course, pitfalls associated with generalised introductions. This book tries to cover masses of territory and sometimes trips over its own ambition. The author, for example, squares up to the Sisyphean task of describing the genres of contemporary games but then gets into a bit of knot with his own cataloguing method. Ince argues that game genres are defined by “the style of play”. He then starts classifying by describing about action, adventure and fighting games. However, he rather trips over his own definition by separating out children’s games as genre and then arguing that “games aimed specifically at children are usually games that would fit other genres which have been adapted to appeal to the target audience.” Personally I would have preferred less classification and simple sidebar to a text such as ‘Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Games Design’ which tackles this thorny issue in a design context.

What I really liked about this book was it conveys a real sense of what it like to be a writer in an industry that is not particularly writer-centric. Ince, for example, observes that “a writer could be invited to join a project at virtually any point in its development.” This might make the Games Industry sound unattractive to a creative writer used to working on their own projects. But I basically believe it is better to approach these kinds of writing opportunity with the rosy-tinted glasses left in the desk drawer. I don’t think that a writer used to advertising or TV industries would, however, find this kind of working experience entirely alien. Being a word-slinger for hire can offer its own rewards.

This book, by design, has little to say about the craft of writing. It leaves the art of dialogue and narrative to other texts. This means that it will not be your only purchase if you are a less-experienced writer looking to break into Games. However, it does cover some of the nuts and bolts of applying writing skills to games designs. My favourite chapter in this book dealt with dialogue and logic. It felt to me that this was the meat of the task and I would have liked to have more on this subject.

If I had to make one quibble with this book it is with its bibliography, which seems to be singularly lacking in design texts. It is, however, quite possible to supplement this text with Rollings and Adams. It might also wise to take in Chris Crawford on Games Design, as Crawford provides a truly unique introduction to the Games Industry. However, this text more than makes up for its lack of books with its website recommendations which will provide bed-time browsing for many a year to come.

Happy reading!