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The most fun to be had in the whole of Europe

17 Oct 2014 / in News

When you make a noise into a little cone, the rope light that comes out the other end turns your sound into a moving rhythmic heartbeat of lights and then, where it touches the wall, those lights explode out into geometric patterns in direct correlation to the sounds you made.

When you peer through the hole in a birdbox you see a little animated story being told through the mossy fluff of the internal world of the box.

When you put the Oculus Rift headset on, after clambering up onto a chair on top of some boxes, you are transported to an incredibly high tower, miles in the air, surrounded by the flutter of birds and tufty white clouds.

At Cinekid, doing is believing.

In Amsterdam, for the last 28 years, thousands gather in a cluster of beautifully designed buildings in a park on the north side of the city. There is a vast hall, with a high beamed ceiling, full to bursting with interactive exhibits and games that take perspective way beyond just sight and sound. If you want innovation in the kids media industry, this – the Media Lab at Cinekid – is where you find it. It’s also where lucky kids get to taste what’s new and exciting and made especially for them. Over the week, the festival as a whole has over 50,000 visitors.

As well as the exhibition, a conference and media market is held and this was the inaugural year for the New Media Conference – a coming-together of artists, producers and thinkers on playful interactivity. Called “How artistic research contributes to tools & technologies for a young audience”, the afternoon was populated by a series of speakers from Golan Levin and Chris Sugrue to Zach Lieberman and Molmol Kuo of YesYesNo in New York, followed by break out sessions and a drinks reception for the usual chatter. Anagram decided to attend for some well-timed inspiration and playtime.

The most striking thing about the afternoon was the range of skills and ideas at play – and the breadth of vision. Interestingly, none of the projects presented by the speakers were for the home; visionary artists in their own right, each duo talked through different installation projects. From Chris Sugrue’s beautiful “Delicate Boundaries” to Lab212’s delightful “Appel D’Air”, YesYesNo’s brilliant “Drink Up Fountain” to Anna Dumitriu’s “Superorganism” – this was a day of big ideas, beautifully realised. At the end of the presentations in the dimly lit and packed auditorium, a room full of long-legged Scandinavians unfolded themselves out of the seating rack and strolled through the rest of the festival to a building full of break-out sessions.

I attended the ones about new Oculus Rift projects – one in development, called Deep, and one in the exhibition, called Birdly. Birdly is great – you get to swoop around and be a bird, by lying on a specially built and modular table that responds to your arms as if they were wings – but it was the more lo-fi Deep that has stayed with me. Being made by Owen Harris (Ireland) and Niki Smit (Netherlands), it is a game that relies on deep breathing. Before you put on the Oculus Rift, Owen velcroes on a strap around your torso where your diaphragm is, and as you take a deep breath, the strap reads the expansion of your lungs through the movement you make. When you put on the headset, you enter a virtual underwater world. It was only half built but the functionality was all there; just like scuba diving, when you breathe in and out, you rise up and down. A small and expanding white circle visualises the size of your breath and gives you a point to focus on which enables slow and floaty exploration of this underwater scene.

Owen and Niki are not just motivated by a gimic that could leave you breathless. When introducing the talk, they emphasised their interest in the meaning of embodied actions. With Zelda, for example, the Wii game where you swipe the air to wield a sword when fighting your enemies, there is a mismatch between what you’re doing and the real meaning of the game and the story. Can you encounter a story about a quest for love if what you’re doing is fighting in the air? Where is the meeting of mind and body? Owen’s alternative interests in meditation and mindfulness have informed the creation of an experience that is about a state of mind/body contemplation, and together with Niki’s background in “free play” – unstructured and playful environments with as little scripting or direction as possible – this project has a solid background in thoughtful experience and the impact of sensory awareness.

Back in the Church-like hall of the Media Lab, the mixture of grand spectacle, pieces that are big, visual and able to be enjoyed by many at the same time, and the Robocop-reminiscent Oculus Rift, which is totally solitary but had the longest queues in the room, makes for an interesting clash.