Back to the Future: A Review of Barbican’s Digital Revolution

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This interactive exhibition promises to unite artists, designers, musicians and developers who are pushing their fields using digital media – so I went along to see what, if anything, libraries could learn from it (and to play with some cool stuff).

If you can’t get down there to see it yourself then here’s the lowdown.

What should I pay attention to?

Firstly, it was RAMMED. I probably chose the worst weekday outside of school holidays to go, because there was a teachers’ strike on, but it was really busy.

The demographic was interesting – it was full of dads and sons aged about 7+. Lots of library services have mentioned to me their hopes that featuring more ‘gadgets’ and a bigger tech offer will bring in precisely that demographic. And from this highly unscientific study it does appear to work. But there were also loads of women and girls there – proving that those of us with ‘XX’ chromosomes love tech too.

Secondly, there were some interesting and thought provoking exhibits that libraries would/should love to get their hands on:

  • e-textiles, including a dress with flexible LEDs that respond to your mood, a solar dress that generates renewable energy and a sculpture dress made with a 3D printer (by a company based in London – I will be contacting them but here is a showcase of their work)
  • e-makeup with LED lights on the face and a headdress that light up when you blink
  • thought controlled gaming – it’s basic but it can detect brainwaves to let you shoot moving spaceships with your mind
  • Cyborgs – tech that modifies human perception/capabilities (although this part of the exhibition was extremely limited)

All of these could/should be able to be exhibited and played with in libraries without too much trouble.

I’ll get on the case…

There were other things that people seemed to love and which libraries could probably source from their own communities such as retro hardware and 70s/80s/90s computer games.

What could be done better?

What disappointed me was the lack of depth and participatory activity throughout this ‘interactive’ exhibition. It was possible to set off pre-programmed art works that used motion sensors (and they were often very beautiful) and play games but there was no sense of getting underneath this digital revolution and understanding how it happened or how you could do it yourself. Fundamentally it was engaging the consumer rather than the citizen or citizen-artist. That was disempowering – the opposite of what the digital revolution should all be about.

I think the programme of workshops and school activities may be trying to remedy this, but for the basic punter there wasn’t much for me to do except watch and wave my arms occasionally.

I also thought that the majority of the stuff there fitted a futuristic/sci-fi aesthetic – none of it would have been out of place on the decks of Babylon 5. As such it didn’t really challenge anyone’s perceptions of what the digital future might look like or our role in it – for me that borders on the negligent.

And lots of the tech didn’t work – I tried engaging via social media, listening to audioguides on a downloadable app (too loud in there to hear anything) and either I don’t have any brainwaves or the thought controlled gaming wasn’t working.

I liked this about the exhibition though – one important aspect of the digital revolution is that it has been/will be glitchy and imperfect. Freak occurrences and malicious human actions may mean it doesn’t work at all. I wanted to ask ‘why isn’t it working?’ as a genuine and interested question.

So what?

I came away thinking ‘libraries could totally do this!! And they could do it better!”

So now we just need to get started.

I have some thoughts on that, apart from contacting some of the exhibitors to see if they’d like to partner with libraries. Here are some Digital Revolution-inspired activities libraries could take on:

  1. crowd-source a retro-tech exhibition of old mobile phones, working computers and retro games (there has to be a Meetup group for that)
  2. Display the visual markers from the Gibson-Martelli artwork MANA around the library with details of the app which will allow people to experience this augmented reality art
  3. Encourage your coding groups to do some DevArt by contributing to the Google-sponsored DevArt platform looking for coding-inspired artists
  4. build your own e-textile – here’s how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbdvrfwr6S

But then you can make it even better  – include how-to diagrams and Youtube videos; host coding workshops and maker sessions where people take apart old computers and figure out how they work; ask people’s opinions, host a programme of talks, forums and discussions about the digital revolution.

Get people really thinking. Isn’t that what we’re all about?

(Image: Barbican)

Ready, steady CODE!!!

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Ok I sound a bit like a broken record already, but I have been doing a bit of research on free coding resources for a library service I’m working with and I thought I’d share the love.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Why All Library Professionals Should Learn to Code, coding is going to become part of the core business of public libraries. But it’s also a way for the public to benefit from and contribute to the developing hi-tech economy.

From September all primary schools will be teaching children how to code, and libraries should be doing it too.

So there are 2 kinds of free coding courses: online and face-to-face.

Libraries can signpost people to the online courses (some for adults, some tailored to children) and they can offer to host the face-to-face ones.

Getting involved with established free code courses brings in audiences, cuts down on set up costs and lets you put your toe in the water. You can do your own stuff later once you’ve decided the best way for your service to own these kinds of sessions.

This blog just signposts the nationally organised free coding classes but I’m sure there are more happening in your local area that aren’t national. To find them, look on Meetup and/or contact your local HE and FE institutions. They are often looking for convenient venues and like-minded people.

Kids/young people

Code Club https://www.codeclub.org.uk/  Free coding club for children aged 9-11

Khan Academy  https://www.khanacademy.org/ Free online tutoring in a range of subjects, including coding

Coder Dojo http://coderdojo.com  Youth club where you can learn to code

Adults/anyone

Codecademy http://www.codecademy.com/ Online free coding courses

Code First:Girls http://www.codefirstgirls.org.uk/ Free coding courses on university campuses for women/teenage girls

(Image: Coding is the New Literacy, Michael Pollack)

This is our new reality

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This blog is going to be peppered with jargon, so I thought I’d start by explaining what I mean.

Perhaps the most prevalent bit of technospeak being used in the cultural sector at the moment is “Augmented Reality” and “Virtual Reality” (AR/VR).

Augmented Reality

There are lots of ways of thinking about Augmented Reality – and not all of them are helpful in designing engaging and relevant services. So I thought I’d go back to the (online) Oxford dictionary.

Augmented (adjective): 1.Having been made greater in size or value

Reality – well I’m not sure anyone has ever really got to the bottom of what that is and the OED doesn’t clarify things much if you’re feeling philosophical. But I’d say that in this instance what we’re talking about is your experience through your original five senses. This is only going to get more complex as new devices and applications come on the market and become ubiquitous filters for ‘reality’, but we can start with that.

So augmented reality is something that makes your lived experience of the world greater in size or adds value to it.

Mainly these days that is understood in a visual sense – overlaying digital images or animations onto ‘reality’ via applications on your smart devices. This could be a smart phone or a tablet and soon will include the range of wearable technologies (glasses, watches etc) that are coming onto the market. A really good example of this is the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum App.

However, it can apply to sounds and data as well. An example of this is the Courtauld’s Beyond the Label app, which provides background information about the collection to viewers in the gallery and then also for reference at home.

There is a very erudite description of Augmented Reality and its application in the British Museum here which helps you understand the technical aspects of it and also, crucially, how these experiences are anchored in ‘reality’ through the use of visual markers to trigger the content.

In the future we can expect to see encyclopedias where the content ‘comes to life’ on the digital or real page once the visual marker is triggered by a smart device – such as T-Rexes roaring at you or volcanoes exploding. Or multi-layered texts where the author invites people to respond to their work and these responses are accessible via smart devices while reading the original.

How can I have a go?

InviteFront

Excitingly enough, there is a really good opportunity for libraries to get involved in playing with Augmented Reality this summer via the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge which has an AR app triggered by posters that you put up around the library.

Children can download the app and go on an AR treasure hunt where the characters on the poster come to life on their smart devices. It’s really worth building this into your summer reading offer this year as a toe in the water because it’s free for those signing up to the Summer Reading Challenge. Check out the app here: http://sol.us/mythical/

Virtual Reality

Typically, Virtual Reality is much more immersive than Augmented Reality and tends to be more influenced by gaming culture.

These days you would tend to put on a headset, such as Oculus Rift, and experience an immersive virtual environment.

Gateshead libraries have partnered with local tech companies and universities to provide free access to Oculus Rift headsets for library users in special workshops targeted at young people.

However, advances in projection technologies and movement sensors mean the boundaries between AR and VR will probably be coming down over the next 10-20 years. Although, for the moment, this will be confined to specific environments (such as rooms or gallery spaces), you will be able to literally ‘be’ in a virtual reality space.

Again, (as we all seem to want to go back to Prehistoric times via these futuristic technologies), I’ll use the example of dinosaurs – you’ll be able to ‘walk with the dinosaurs’ – seeing three dimensional projections all around you as you walk through the Natural History Museum.

Any issues?

One big gap in this work in the cultural sector is any systematic assessment of whether these cool things do actually ‘augment’ people’s reality.

It would be good to get people together who are doing these things and see if we could evaluate whether people used them, how they used them and what they liked about them.

Opportunities?

I think we could create a real niche for public libraries in providing access to things like AR and VR without extensively productising it – providing a beta test experience for people where they are encouraged to play, wonder and get involved in shaping the future of these kinds of applications.

Libraries should also be a place for debate – what do these new ideas and technologies mean for our society? What will change? What will stay the same? What do we all want our new reality to be?

(Header image: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift, Sergey Galyonkin)

Why all library professionals should learn to code

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To be honest, the title of this post should really be “why everyone should learn to code”.

I know everyone is busy, everyone has their day job and it’s hard enough just getting all the things you have to do done, let alone setting yourself another seemingly impossible task. But the more I think about it, the more important it is.

Coding is the new literacy we all need to learn

Firstly, coding languages unlock the secrets of the digital age. Unless you can code, you can’t have a say in the way things look, the way they work or what they do. As a library professional, you can put down a specification in a tender document but how do you know if you will actually get what you want? And what if what you want changes before the app/library management system/website is finished, but you can’t do anything about it because it’s not in the tender specification?

And because you’re a service manager you’ve got a lot more control than the average member of the public, who just buys or consumes, or is given this stuff to use (for example, by their library service). This may seem like a relatively small problem now, but Universal Credit is moving all benefit recipients online, in the future there may be no actual Post Offices or banks you can go to – services may only exist online, and the gadgets we keep in our pockets, on our wrists, in our glasses or even contact lenses will frame and colour our world in ways we can’t even imagine now.

Are we really saying that we don’t want to have some control over that?

Data IS information

(Some) Library staff are often described as ‘information professionals’. But how can this continue to be the case if library staff can’t understand, organise and manipulate the big data that is the information which is increasingly used by commercial firms and governments to make decisions that affect us? The public need to be able to use this data too – and public libraries are the obvious place where this can be enabled.

If we are on top of it.

And to be on top of it we need to be able to code.

So what?

A lot of people say they ‘don’t do’ technology – and I get that I really do. It’s tempting to make it one person’s job and to just go and ask them slightly bemused questions or get cross with them when it doesn’t work. And I’ll be honest, I am really not the most natural technologist in the room. I like my Roberts Radio and my hob top kettle. I used to let my friends/partner/family tell me what tech I should buy because I really didn’t care. And I’m not very good at coding. But I’m learning. And I’m not even a library professional 🙂

Sue Lawson, from Manchester LIbraries, recommended https://dash.generalassemb.ly/ and I’ve completed the first two levels – it’s actually really fun! She also recently posted this link from Chattanooga Libraries on Linkedin http://www.nooga.com/166141/learning-to-code-all-it-takes-is-a-library-card/ which shows an exciting and simple way that libraries can help their staff and users get better at coding.

(Image: Highway Code, Beverley Goodwin)

4 ways you should use Meetup

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Meetup is a free online resource that allows people to publicise self-organised groups of any kind. You can find it at http://www.Meetup.com

There are lots of reasons that cultural organisations should be interested in Meetup – all kinds of people self-organise to meet and share interests, business ideas and to showcase new things. You can find out a lot about hidden communities in your local area by taking a look on Meetup.

I mainly use Meetup to find out about developer groups that are meeting all over London – particularly those who are interested in wearable tech (e.g. Google Glass, Oculus Rift), augmented reality (Star Wars Holodeck anyone?) and smart technologies (think fridges talking to your local supermarket when you’re out of milk).

Companies often showcase their new ideas to Meetup groups, host meetings and set developer challenges so it’s a great way to find out what might be round the corner. It’s also a wonderful way to make links with developer communities who are often more interested than you’d think in volunteering and partnering with libraries and cultural institutions.

But there are also meetup groups for knitters, DIYers, cooks, beer enthusiasts… you name it there’s a meetup group for it. A friend uses a meetup boot camp in a local park to get fit for free.

So here are 4 ways cultural organisations should use meetup:

1. Join some groups, meet some people, make contacts

2. Contact some groups, offer your space for meet ups

3. Start some meet up groups of your own

4. Help the public join and start their own groups

I have found that the time it takes to get involved in Meetup groups is really worth it – both in terms of the new ideas you find out about and in terms of the quality of contacts you can make.

One really easy way for libraries and cultural organisations to become part of the developer/maker movements in towns and cities around the country is to offer to host meetup groups who are often looking for a home. You can also use it as a really good online portal to publicise your own groups and boost attendance. Even if you decide not to do any of these things, you should be able to tell the public about meetup (and other similar online resources) so that they can join in and start their own groups if they want to. You’ll find that you’re the hub of hundreds of vibrant online/real world communities before you know it.