USEUM on TV

A few days ago I was invited to present USEUM on the Greek television channel SKAI. As I was in London and couldn’t make it to the studio, I gave the interview over Skype from the CASA where I am doing my PhD. I was a bit nervous, but it all went well in the end!

 

PhD Candidacy

USEUM and I, a few weeks ago we upgraded! That means that my PhD project (USEUM) and the research associated with it, passed the upgrade phase, which makes me now a Doctorate Candidate at UCL! It required amongst other things, a lot of writing and a 50′ examination-like presentation (see photo).  In a nutshell, the essence of the “Case for Upgrade” is for the academic institution to see whether your PhD is worth continuing. For full-time PhD students the upgrade takes place 1 year after they started, however since I am part-time I had to do my upgrade only a couple of months ago i.e. 2 years since I started. The research I have done so far for my PhD focuses on crowdsourcing; its origins and how it has been utilised in various projects, focusing on those ones that deal with the accessibility of art.

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Studying crowdsourcing proved challenging, mainly because I was frequently coming across contradicting literature. For example, although the phenomenon has been out there for years, 1 prominent definition for it, has yet to emerge. The paper Towards an Integrated Crowdsourcing Definition by Estellés-Arolas and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara brought to life 40 (!) original definitions for crowdsourcing. Thankfully it was not the first time I was doing research on a phenomenon that lacks a definition widely accepted by the academic community; that was no other than games! I have covered the (large) debate around what a game is, in my MFA Thesis.

However if there is one reason I enjoy doing research in leading edge subjects is for the very fact that the literature is very young – and yes there may be contradicting bibliography and little given data that you can rely on, but the way I see it and how I have experienced it firsthand, is that my work achieves bigger impact. I was impressed to see one day, that a document on Augmented Reality (AR) I had published online, which I would consider of minor importance, had reached thousands of views, without me promoting it whatsoever. Why? Because there is not much out there for AR despite its high demand.

In my mind, this is quite similar to what is happening nowadays in tech entrepreneurship: it may be a tough environment to be in, but it offers countless opportunities. In this booming industry it is indeed harder for a project to stand out, because of the global competition and as a friend told me the other day on the subject “For people your age it is much harder to make your first million, than it was for us back then (i.e. 90’s)“. But on the other hand, because the industry is growing so fast, everyday there are more and more opportunities to take advantage of. As Larry Page puts it in an interview he gave to Wired “there are all these opportunities to make people’s lives better. Tech companies are attacking 1 percent of them. That leaves 99 percent virgin territory”. So it is always a give and take.

The abstract of my PhD has come to be the following:

Crowdsourcing refers to the process during which a task is outsourced to the crowd, whilst augmented reality is the technology that superimposes computer-generated imagery on a user’s view of the real world, so that it appears to the user that virtual and real objects co-exist in space. Despite the wealth of literature and practice around both of these phenomena, there is only a limited number of research projects involving both of them. USEUM is one of these projects, utilising crowdsourcing and augmented reality in an attempt to make art more accessible, not only on the digital domain, but also in the physical space by taking advantage of mobile augmented reality. USEUM as a platform (http://useum.org) is defined as The World’s Museum of Art, featuring today nearly 10,000 artworks by hundreds of artists from 90+ countries worldwide.

In terms of juggling a part-time PhD and a start-up venture it is tricky at times but it is certainly possible. As of now at least, so far so good.

USEUM

It’s been more than a year now that I have been running USEUM LTD the company built around http://useum.org; by definition the first social network for art built upon the concept of crowd-sourcing. It started off from my PhD in the broader field of new media for cultural heritage and I was lucky enough to have an open-minded supervisor in regards to the practical aspect of the PhD. So when the question came “Foteini, what do you want your PhD to be on? And beware, you will get very sick of it, so make sure it is something you are really fond of” I did some talking and then some more with one of my life-long mentors and now co-founder, my sister. And then the answer was “USEUM!”.

USEUM Black Logo

Being encouraged to transform my PhD into a start-up by my supervisor and having some experience on start-ups myself, I took advantage of UCL’s centre for entrepreneurship and of England’s simplified legislation regarding new companies and decided to found USEUM and properly register it at Companies House. Then, in February ‘12, so many things came back-to-back from the win at the Athens Startup Weekend 2012 to the largest presentation I’ve given to date to 100+ attendees at Telloglion Institute of Arts in Thessaloniki to the numerous Greek publicationssupporting our vision. The most important event of all of course will probably be considered the funding we got, which helped us the last few months develop USEUM to the platform of 5,786 artworks by 484 artists from 76 countries that it is today.

A big challenge is how I personally see USEUM, as the statement “I could have done so much, if I only had some money for my company” is no longer there for me. I was lucky enough to have a co-founder gifted in fundraising, some great investors, who believe in USEUM and to be surrounded by a great team of people, who are all, as Guy Kawasaki wisely insists, better than me. Thankfully today, several months after this moment of “No excuses for you anymore” occurred to me, I am optimistic, as all these months since the funding, I have experienced firsthand, step by step the development of a concrete company and of an even more concrete platform; but! Only time will tell.

USEUM is very much still at its infancy given that we are working very hard to launch in the summer a core aspect of the platform i.e. the “USEUM Shop”, the gift shop where all artists can seamlessly design and sell merchandise items; right after it we are planning to launch USEUM’s iOS app, whilst some major visual improvements are underway in a parallel trajectory… There are so many interesting things from USEUM to come that I, a pessimist deep-inside by nature, am almost excited. 🙂

Augmentarium

In the summer of 2011 a friend and I we founded Augmentarium, a venture that was built around the homonym software. Augmentarium aimed to become the Photoshop of Augmented Reality (AR); easy and inexpensive design and implementation of AR applications. My friend undertook the development of the software, whilst myself taking advantage of the fact I was in London I gathered plenty of feedback from my network in the AR industry and I conducted the business plan. Augmentarium not only was accepted to be incubated by the UCL Advances but also won a mentorship through the Business Bootcamp from Rapid Innovation Group.

The business idea behind it, was to take advantage of (1) the fact augmented reality and in particular mobile augmented reality is a booming industry and (2) the options for the design and development of AR where inefficient at the time; very expensive solutions for what they had to offer. The thinking was that sooner or later the AR industry would follow the way of other similar niche markets, such as photo manipulation, 3D modelling and more, where the software solutions do not exceed a couple of thousand pounds. The feedback and traction we gathered was very encouraging, however communication issues within the team where enough to give an end to this venture. Looking back I can only repeat the words of my business tutor in my masters: “It’s a learning process”. Indeed Augmentarium was the first real motive that pushed me in the deep waters of entrepreneurship or whatever running-a-rather-unsuccessful-company-and-never-giving-up is called.

MFA Dissertation (A+)

I would like to start this article with a tribute to Raph Koster the genius, who managed to bridge the gap between happiness and successful game design based on empirical research. My MFA thesis awarded with A+ accompanies “Shakespeare’s Hunt” the iPad game for The Globe Theatre and its focus was mainly research on games and game design. I have to admit I found the subject fascinating.

Below is the chapter that refers to game design cover the following subjects:

  1. Defining games
  2. Endorphins, pattern recognition and learning
  3. Game mechanics (motivators and demotivators).

The taste left in my mouth from all that experience of learning about games and how deep they go into how we, humans, function is summarised in the epilogue of my thesis below:

Game design studies refer to research on positive psychology and in practical terms on ways to trigger human happiness. As a subject of research, it may not be included in my future work (i.e. augmented reality for cultural heritage), however the knowledge I gained from working on this theme is invaluable. Firstly, I personally found stunning the fact that it is simple, at the level that it can be documented, to make one, anyone, feel happy. It was also of my surprise to realise that regardless of personal taste and things people like or dislike, up to a point we are all the same; we think, act and react in the same way much more often than one would reckon. Researching game design was of great benefit for myself, as I came to understand better the behaviour of people around me and more importantly my own behaviour as well. The knowledge gained from this year’s research, will follow me for all my life and it already does, as now every time I reactively smile I immediately try to see the pattern that made me do that; like I am playing a game of my own.

Guest Lectures

For the first term of the academic year ’11-’12 I was given the chance to do the lectures for the Communication and Visualisation unit of the BA Sound Design course at Ravensbourne College. I face this ‘task’ as a challenge; if there is a perfect presentation, i.e. one that achieves communication through meaningful visualisation, where else should it be found, if not at the lectures of the homonymous unit? Whether I made it or not, it’s your call.

In practical terms the unit’s goal is to offer the know-how to the students for making an online portfolio of their work. That will enable them to communicate who they are and what they do in a professional way. The unit’s curriculum covers some theory on user interface design, however the majority of the lectures is live demonstration of tools and methodologies for building an electronic portfolio. The free service offered by wordpress.com is demonstrated as a starting point.

The presentation below is from the first lecture of this unit, which was an introduction of the goal of this unit, the importance of having a website and a critique on portfolios of sound designers and music composers that are already out there. The first half of the slides is covered with notes of the talk that accompanied them.

The second lecture covers some fundamental user interface design principles and recommended methodologies. Hyperlinks to the resources used, are mentioned on the respective slides, through which more details about every ‘prinicple’ can be found. Simplicity is also one of these principles and at that point I felt obliged to make a tribute to John Maeda’s work on the subject. His book ‘The laws of Simplicity’ is one of my favourites and for that lecture I extracted from this book the laws that could also be appropriated on web design.

There is another lecture to follow, which will also be the last one. Due to the large number of students I was asked to give each lecture twice as the students are split into groups. The third and final lecture will be ammended on that blog-post as well.

Shakespeare’s Hunt (Video)

Shakespeare’s Hunt is a pilot of an alternate reality (also known as treasure hunt) iPad game for the exhibition of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I worked on the project as a partner of Metavore London, developing the software, designing the interface and contributing to its game design aspect. My contribution to this project is also my thesis for the second year of my MFA studies.

In the beginning of the last academic year I had as a personal goal, for my final project to work closely with a cultural institution and develop a piece of work that would serve a purpose set by the professionals who work there. Given that last year my prototype applications were designed to fulfil needs that I had only come across through my research, I got the feedback that some assumptions of mine don’t stand for the majority of the cultural heritage institutions. In particular, during a conference earlier in the year I had the chance to discuss with Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy for the Smithsonian Institution,  and commenting on my work, she made the point that some of the material ARS:CI is aiming to take advantage of, can be provided only by a small minority of museums that can afford it e.g. under-drawings of paintings, or 3D reconstructions of damaged sculptures.

For Shakespeare’s Hunt we had the chance to work closely with people from Shakespeare’s Globe, hence it was a great pleasure for me to have their insight and be influenced during the design phase of the project by the objectives that the Globe itself follows when it comes to matters such as the use of new technologies in exhibition spaces and education.

For my studies I have been writing a document about this project, which I am planning to circulate to a few conferences on the topic and hopefully get it published. I am still working on it, however the synopsis as of today is the following:

Museums’ missions are stated as providing education through the exhibition and interpretation of their collections [1] and for the vast majority of cultural heritage institutions the interpretative material is static, constituted by long pieces of textual or audio information. According to Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager for the Smithsonian Art Museum “The twenty-first-century audience has an increasingly short attention span, extremely high expectations when it comes to finding and engaging with information, the ability to communicate with friends and strangers quickly and on multiple platforms, and a very open approach to learning”. [2] This paper argues that as audiences evolve, so should exhibition spaces and Shakespeare’s Hunt is an attempt to exploit the benefits emerging technologies have to offer and provide an experience designed according to the audience of our era as described by Goodlander above.