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by 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 MediaPost.com, 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, asb.tv, 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.

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