Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Local Convention

I've been thinking more about augmented reality. In a sense it's difficult to do, because we haven't come up with any good way for the digital world to communicate with a human in a way other than them staring at their phone.

However, what if we turn the idea on its head? Instead of giving humans the ability to see the digital world, what if we focus on letting the digital world see the humans?

Augmented reality can be roughly divided into two parts.

The first is "helping people traverse the area". This is what I would call "slow AR". This is putting up a blue line guiding you to your destination, pointing you to a tasty restaurant, helping you find a hotel - all the things phones do today, basically.

The second is an important but underrated concept: "helping people interact with people". This is what I would call "fast AR". Fast AR is largely unexplored because of technical difficulties: it requires people to be in contact with AR basically all the time, and it requires a large number of people to be that way.

Let's talk about an example. Let's imagine a futuristic anime and comic convention. It has no set showings, only a few set events. Instead, it has a list of all the things it has a right to show. It's configured around many small, multi-purpose rooms instead of large theater halls.

When a group of a few people decides they want to watch a particular anime that the convention has the right to show, they tap their phones against the door of a theater and reserve it starting in half an hour.

On the walls all around the convention, that anime pops up as "showing in XXX in 29 minutes", with an arrow pointing the way. If you miss it because you're doing something else, no biggie: get together with some people who want to see it and show it again.

Seem limited? It's a simple example. Let's kick it up a notch: the whole point is to connect people to people. So let's do that more directly.

Let's say that some artists are chatting and get into a conversation about the topic of tangent lines in comic art. One pulls out a sketchbook and starts to draw an example. Well, the other can tap his phone against the door of a conference room and register a "workshop" - these artists, this topic. Even include a tag or avatar that allows people to see the level of artist they are. And now there's an impromptu, loose workshop for artists to discuss a technical point that is surprisingly interesting.

People can wander in and get involved, watch from a distance, whatever. You can even record the meeting for playback later if people want to see it after it happens, or catch up with it if they are coming in late. (Recording is, of course, a touchy subject that would need to be addressed well ahead of actually having the conference.)

These impromptu affairs would initially probably clash a bit with the old way - the idea of having a specific event at a specific time. Planning is a key component of today's conventions. And some things do require planning, such as the keynote speaker, or the big contest.

However, as most experienced con-goers can tell you, the real meat of a con is the meets of the con. The people you talk to, the things you talk about on the fly. Obviously, not all of those are suitable to become a recorded public meeting, but a surprising number are.

In addition, some conventions have roaming points of interest, such as cosplayers, and those could be tracked using a switch-onnable RF card. Switch it on, and now you're added to the wall maps as a point of interest, and if there are photographers whose video/photos are being CCed to the con as they are being made, you can find yourself on the walls...

I can definitely see a time where the convention staff are actually taking part in the con - stirring up interest in a particular topic or thing in order to get the events flowing smoothly. However, they wouldn't be trying to set it up using some kind of official meeting-maker system: they would simply be drumming up interest and then letting the interested parties use the scaffolds provided to self-organize.

If you think this is pure fantasy, well, there are a surprising number of unconferences already being run, including at least one in Boston - my turf. This is not a fantasy, it's just one baby step further than what we're already seeing.

The reason I used cons as examples is because a conference/convention is a lot of people interested in more or less the same thing all in the same place. It's very dense compared to, say, walking down a city street.

Start with the easiest targets - the ones that offer the most calories per bite. And that's probably conventions. Or unconferences/unconventions.

What do you think?

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