Fast Forward: Reality Check

Fast Forward-Joe Mandese

This column is labeled "Fast Forward," but all too frequently, I feel like I'm stuck on pause. That's the way I felt recently when I paid a visit to Muncie, Indiana. What's that you say, "Muncie?"

Yeah, well, if you don't recall, or never read the story I wrote about my first visit to the media visionaries on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, you can find it on our magazine archives page on, but let me remind you now that the school is the home to some really smart people and forward-thinking media research and experiments, especially the emerging kind. In fact, the Center for Media Design that I visited four years ago has actually morphed into an array of "Emerging Media Initiatives," some of which I got to see firsthand as a fly-on-the-wall of a recent meeting in which the university was exploring "commercializing" some of its classroom and faculty projects. I just want to share with you that some pretty advanced thinking about the future of media is taking place there.

People on Madison Avenue, of course, already know this, because of the university's ties to some high-profile industry research, especially its patented "observational research" techniques, which have been used by the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence, and a few less publicized projects for some individual big media companies.

But my recent visit was actually a double treat, because Ball State was also hosting the International Digital Media Arts Association's annual conference, where I got to sit in as an embedded reporter as some of the academic and artistic worlds' leading digital media gurus talked -- and demonstrated -- some remarkable advances, including the revelation by Dale Herigstad, the chief creative officer of wpp interactive media agency Schematic, that he is close to deploying the kind of sci-fi "gesture-based interface" for the TV industry, that he developed for Steven Spielberg's cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report -- you know, the one where Tom Cruise simply moves his hands in front of a computer screen to make things happen.

As remarkable as that breakthrough may seem, I got to see prototypes and betas of other breakthrough media design interfaces and platforms, including one called Black Box that was developed by Herigstad's former partner, Kurt Kratchman, who left Schematic as chief strategy officer after it was sold to WPP, and began dabbling in the aeronautical air show community with something called Air Buzz Show. You can see Kratchman's handiwork on the community's Web site,, and you can even link to a beta download of Black Box, which is probably just as well, since I could not possibly do a reasonable job of explaining it to you in this short space. Just go, download, and take it for a test drive.

But the best part of my trip to Muncie wasn't all the new gizmos -- it was about the rapid speed with which academic thinking about media is evolving, and that's not something that is always evident in the sometimes cloistered confines of Madison Avenue, and even some of the biggest media companies in the world. To get it, you simply have to step out of our "real" world, and step into an academic way of thinking. And in the few days I did that, I got my mind recharged, and re-opened to all sorts of new possibilities. I also had some of my most fundamental precepts about media -- and even reality -- challenged by it.

Let me just leave you with a question and an anecdote. Has anyone ever looked at you like you were a lower life form -- an insect, perhaps? Well, if not, I can tell you that it is a disconcerting feeling to realize that you may be part of the wrong side of some evolutionary gap. That's the way I felt while chatting about virtual reality and augmented reality with a couple of academics, including John Fillwalk, director of the Institute of Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State. It was like many conversations I had while in Muncie, talking about the "tradeoffs" for humankind as we move increasingly into digital and virtual world. But looking into the eyes of Fillwalk and some of the other artists and faculty there, I realized that they had already moved way beyond that philosophical discussion, and have evolved to another place, and perhaps, another time.

2 comments about "Fast Forward: Reality Check".
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  1. Mark Avnet from VCU Brandcenter, December 16, 2009 at 10:33 a.m.

    Excellent post. As someone who straddles advertising and academics, I've often described the movement of time this way - in advertising, you'll figure out how to get something done in an impossibly short period of time since no one's going to postpone the Superbowl just because your ad isn't quite ready yet. Then there are glaciers. Then there's academics, where people can spend a year deciding what day of the week a committee should meet.

    What you described is something I'm seeing more often, though - that at schools focused enough on innovation to build a structure to support it, not only are amazing things being done very quickly, but they're no longer content simply publishing a peer-reviewed article and moving on. They're taking these ideas and turning them into something usable and useful, often much faster than we hear about them.

    And for all the nimble-ness that agencies would like to claim, it often plays out as a mad rush to offer the latest buzztech, snake-oil-like, as the cure to what ails the client. The result - all the "something jumping out of my screen woo hoo look we get augmented reality too we're so cool where's my award" AR junk that cluttered the landscape last year (or the mobile apps that exists only to be a mobile app, or the flavor of the week that's merely buzz). Occasionally, someone figures out something useful to do with the technology, and that's really good. But for the most part, there's a race to do anything, claim innovator status, and move on.

    Students at schools like Ball State, NYU's ITP, VCU Brandcenter (where I head up the new Creative Technology track), and many others, are working on things that could blow some minds - not just technology, which is what we most often hear about, but approaches to branding, business, research, culture, and commerce that could be truly game-changing, especially in partnership with some of the more forward-thinking agencies and brands. Not as tools to change the status of the agency, but as tools to transform their clients' business, and to create new business models.

    There are many ways for interested companies to be involved with this sort of academic innovation, from investment, to sponsorship, to working cooperatively with curriculum development, to licensing, to... you tell us.

    The important thing is to become involved. If your agency or brand wants to be a leader, and not just chasing the latest buzztech, give us a call, send an email, and get involved. Everyone benefits.

    Mark Avnet
    Professor, Creative Technology
    VCU Brandcenter

  2. Gabe Samuels from Gabe Samuels, Media Consultant, December 16, 2009 at 10:38 a.m.

    Permit me to voice a (only very slightly) cynical idea. Although, I have not been privileged to visit Ball State – I have been to the MIT Media Lab in 1980 or so – arguably the first serious effort to assess media’s future. I certainly agree with you that you -- but also The Whole World -- are stuck in Pause.
    And here comes the Cynic: It’s OK!! Advances in science and Media take an awfully long time to take root – if ever.
    The father of Television, The CRT was patented by Vladimir Zworikin, working for GE in Atlanta, in 1926. And when did TV go live in this country? The MIT media lab had a working model of (more or less) Google Earth in 1979. Additionally, The MIT group boldly assured us (and you were there) about ten years ago that “wireless” is the future of all media.
    So please don’t feel so bad. Some of the ideas currently floating will never happen and other will take a long time to materialize.

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