Spending time with a new generation of digital creators

It was a real privilege to be asked back to judge the awards for the Goldsmiths Computing Undergrad Show 2016. I’ve done a few now and it is definitely one of the highlights of the year.

Unthinkable have a close working relationship with the Creative Computing team at Goldsmiths, having worked together on a few big collaborative projects like the Dean Rodney Singers and SoundLab projects. But one of the things I most enjoy is spending time with their excellent students who really do represent a rosy future for digital creativity. I have been in and out over the years, doing ad hoc tutorials, helping students think through their next steps, but also providing an industry perspective on their work.

So it is a fantastic opportunity for me to get to see some of their work culminate in the end of year show, which I have to say gets me very nostalgic for my college days at Ravensbourne and Central St. Martins. Creative education in the UK is a superb thing and when I see the commitment, pride and ingenuity of our best tutors I tend to get a bit teary.

The level of inventiveness and craft skills was fantastic throughout the show, and it gladdens my heart to think of many of those students taking their idiosyncratic approach to digital creativity out to meet the world.

We got to award four prizes this year and I thought I’d just describe the winning projects here. Of course many of the other projects I saw blew me away too.

Best product idea: UN-REACTABLE

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If anyone knows the REACTABLE project, they would see the similarities instantly. REACTABLE is a highly engineered and rather beautiful physical device for digital sound synthesis and music making originally created by a research team at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. The main challenge with it is that it’s quite expensive to set up and has a fairly complex user interface. It seems to me what Leon Fedden and George Sullivan, the team behind the UN-REACTABLE, were looking to achieve was the fun and immediacy of the collaborative sound making experience but at a fraction of the cost. I think they are on to something.

The table can make use of black and white printed shapes on paper or a mobile phone showing the shapes to control the sounds. As you rotate the pieces of paper or move them across the glass table you can easily manipulate the sounds. This can of course be done solo, or better still with a group all handling different shapes. Everything about the project felt “quick and dirty” in the best possible sense. One can imagine knocking up new sounds and new shapes quickly and being able to get right to making sounds together. Personally I like creative experiences where the maker does not need to be overly reverential to the tools and this certainly did it for me and the other judges.

Best game: Perfect Angles

When I played this game I knew we needed to create a new category just for it. When I caught up with the other judges they had all had the same thought!

Anyone who plays computer games know that it is a strange and elusive quality that marks out the best games. It doesn’t seem to be a repeatable formula, but a set of highly connected experiential factors that when working well can produce joy or satisfaction or amazement.

From only 20 seconds of playing Perfect Angles I was there. It felt solid, inventive and deeply satisfying. The task is as old as the hills – guide your character to the end of the level without dying – but the method felt fun and deeply logical. Your character is blessed with the ability to change shape, from tall and thin to short and fat and this is something you will need to do a lot to navigate the environment.

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The team behind the game had clearly worked very hard to get the play experience feeling immediate, fun and fair – truly not an easy thing to do. I genuinely wanted to see how each level became more complex and convoluted. Well done Huseyin Geyik, Owen Robinson and Luke Marchant, I look forward to buying Perfect Angles for PS4 very soon.

Best performance: ADDA

The great thing about the Goldsmiths computing courses is that they are not interested in boundaries. It is almost a silly anachronism to talk about multi-disciplinarity there because that is the default – of course everything should be blended.

That is why I really like that digital performance is increasingly just a part of the bigger set of possibilities. And in performance the digital is truly blended with the human.

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ADDA was that perfect blend, and although it was beset with some technology challenges, the strange new possibilities were clear from the start. The performance took the form of a sole human, centre stage, wearing some kind of glove controllers and probably some other stuff hidden away. The performer slowly contorted in front of us, summoning surges of noise and giving me the impression of some lone individual trapped under a storm trying to control the forces of nature with their cryptic gestures. More peculiar still was that at certain unpredictable moments the technology seemed to be fighting back – electrocuting the user, sending him jumping and shuddering.

The whole thing felt unnerving at a number of levels and gave me sense of what some of the more violent action art of the 70s must have felt like to watch. I think there is more to explore with this performance approach, it feels like a very rich seam to tap into for William Primett and Vytautas Niedvaras.

Most creative project: Meet the Watsons

Speaking of unnerving, this was another project that was a strange combination of fascinating and fearsome. On a plinth four sculptures make up the family Watson, the two parents in the middle, their kids on either edge. A projector in front of them projects their colourful faces onto the white busts.

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The creator, Joe McAlister, explained to me how the project worked. You visit a website and enter in your Twitter name. Not long after the family come alive, starting to tell you snippets of your life, mostly this is done by mum and dad with the rabbit eared baby staring on uncomfortably. Before long they are starting to tell you off for being unkind and cynical about the word, all of which they have gleaned from your Twitter stream.

Joe pointed out that he wanted his audience to feel a sense of discomfort as your once ephemeral tweets are voiced and used against you as evidence by your new family.

It was clear that this project had a solid conceptual centre but also a really robust delivery method made up of layers of different technologies that remarkably coalesced into a single engaging experience for the audience. And all this from someone at the end of his first year!

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