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Helvetica: The Movie

Castposterdetail I finished out my stay in Austin yesterday with a slightly different rendition of what was, in many ways, the overriding SXSW Interactive theme: an idea crazy enough that it just might work. This time we were talking not about music-making dot-matrix printers or the next mind-blowing Web app but about a feature-length documentary on. . . a typeface.

Helvetica, which had its world premiere at the conference, presents the life story of something all of us encounter on a daily (or even hourly) basis. Created in 1957 by the Swiss modernist designer Max Miedinger as a response to the cluttered typography and design of the postwar era, Helvetica's clean neutrality and balanced use of the empty space surrounding letters quickly made it a go-to font for public signage, advertising, corporate logos and works of modernist design around the world. When it was licensed as a default font on every new Macintosh (itself a tool that revolutionized the design field), its position as the world's most ubiquitous typeface was solidified. In fact, saving any custom browser tweaks, you're looking at Helvetica right now on this blog (as well as the majority of all other sans-serif text on the Web).

An interesting story, to be sure, but worthy of an entire 80-minute documentary? Really? Yes.

Filmmaker Gary Hustwitt revels in his fascination with something so commonplace that it blends almost entirely into a context-less background, becoming a detective of sorts to unveil the myriad everyday places Helvetica is hiding (“It's a disease,” Hustwitt said of his obsessive font-spotting). And he's clearly not alone. He has assembled a laundry list of heavy hitters in the graphic-design world to wax poetic on Helvetica—and we're talking extremely poetic: One describes experiencing Helvetica as “like crawling through the desert, having your mouth full of dust and dirt, and suddenly being presented with a cold, clean glass of water”; another accuses its corporate sameness of playing a role in the Vietnam War. And they're only sort of joking. The film treats all of this with earnestness but without forgetting the fun, revealing something I never assumed most graphic designers would have: great senses of humor.

Helvetica begins its international screening tour this month. —John Mahoney

Dan Rather at SXSW: “What a Steaming Blob of Horsehockey”

D_rather1 This afternoon's keynote speaker was none other than fearless newsman and recently converted HDTV acolyte Dan Rather. Forgive the length of this post, but I'm going to just put up a transcript of a segment of the discussion that I think was particularly important.

In other words, we interrupt PopSci's regularly scheduled technology blog to bring you "The Future of Journalistic Integrity," after the jump. —Megan Miller

Continue reading "Dan Rather at SXSW: “What a Steaming Blob of Horsehockey”" »

So, Like, When Is the Matrix Going to Be Real?

Google_earth_4 Sunday's afternoon seminar, "Toward a Spatial Reality," delved into the mysteries of geo-tagging and included several instances of semantic amazingness. (At a certain point, one panelist complimented another's idea by remarking that he was "riding on a fascinating tiger," and at another point, an apparent lunatic in the audience started screaming about how the GeoWeb was soon going to be in the hands of mastermind criminals: Wa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

The room was filled with engineering whizzes and other people really excited about modeling a virtual 3D version of the real world and layering it on Google Earth's satellite maps in order to see every building in every city in eye-popping, textured detail. There was also much talk about the use of ComStat by police departments to track the location of cop cars.  ComStat basically allows police to be held accountable when crime rates don't seem to be going down, say, in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, because all the officers are clustered around the Dunkin' Donuts on Howard Street. (You watch The Wire, right?) The big idea is that ComStat could be used in lots of cities for lots of problems, in a way similar to New York's use of 311, the municipal help line. But instead of dialing up on the telephone to report rats in your neighbor's trashcan, or a big pothole on Broadway, users would upload photos or stories about their issues to ComStat-like Google Earth layover software, and this would be monitored by city officials.

This sort of real-time information layover is being used right now by CBS to mashup breaking news reports with maps, so you can see exactly where in the world all the trouble is happening, and avoid those places. (Kidding, sort of.)

The seminar wrapped up with a Utopian vision of a future, maybe just a few years away, when cell phone GPS systems will not only act as map-based mobile Web browsers that give you (or allow you to submit) news and information about what's going on around you, but also act as negotiators on your behalf, pinging nearby businesses you might be interested in to get the best deals on products and services. In this future, we'll always be interacting simultaneously with the world around us, and with the reflection of the world displayed on our GPS systems and enhanced with user-submitted info. The upshot? We're getting closer and closer to entering the Matrix. —Megan Miller

The Nintendo DS Gets Artistic

Image042_small Lots of cool stuff here this morning at the Game Perverts session, all focused on hacking videogame hardware and software—everything from using a Gameboy Advance's processor to control robots to altering the frequency of an ancient dot-matrix printer's shriek to make music. Most impressive and surprising, though, was artist and software designer Bob Sabiston's still-under-development paint and animations application for the Nintendo DS.

Sabiston is most famous for designing Rotoshop, the software used to digitally create the distinctive rotoscoping animation used most prominently in director Richard Linklater's   Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Also an accomplished illustrator, Sabiston saw unused potential in the Nintendo DS, with the device's dual screens and touch-sensitive, stylus-based interface naturally positioning it as a great platform for drawing.

If you remember Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo, Sabiston's project will be right up your alley. Not only can you use it to create pixel- and vector-based illustrations; it also supports flip-book style animations and a sort of vector-graphics sequencer used to make more fluid animated works. No part of the DS's unique hardware is overlooked, as users will also be able to add recorded sound effects via the built-in microphone and upload their creations to the Web via Wi-Fi, providing near-infinite storage. Sabiston used the software to create the  pixel illustration seen above (printed on a large canvas after additional image processing), with the DS's top screen showing the overall workspace and the bottom providing a zoomed workspace (more images are available on his Web site).

As of now, there are no finite plans for release. The project is on Nintendo's radar, but failing a commercial release, Sabiston mentioned the possibility of making it available to homebrew hackers on the Web. Here's hoping this powerful DS app makes it to the stores, though; after today's demo, I can't wait to get my hands on it. See below for a video of the app in action. —John Mahoney


That's a Lotta Schwag


Schwag bags--single-handedly filling conference goers' hotel Dumpsters with reams of unnecessary papers since, well, the beginning of conference-going time. You can't go to a conference of any decent size without seeing them. Today, looking for the one actually useful piece of paper within (an hour-by-hour session schedule), I stumbled upon the schwag queen's hive. O the amount of wood pulp sacrificed to bring you these images!

Check out a few more after the jump.. --John Mahoney

Continue reading "That's a Lotta Schwag" »

"Web 2.0 Is Toxic and Needs to Die"

Bingo Andy Budd and Jeremy Keith, of the U.K.-based superstar Web-design firm Clearleft, led a rousing and rather subversive seminar at SXSW Interactive this morning (which included the buzzword bingo game pictured at left—I didn't win) called "Bluffing Your Way through Web 2.0." The point was basically to make fun of the widespread abuse of the term "Web 2.0." What the hell does that mean, exactly?

The term connotes different things to different people, depending on whether they work in the areas of business, design or development. To business people, it means the functionality of communities: getting users to rate stuff and comment; creating cool apps that you can sell to Google for millions of dollars. To designers, it means a certain style defined by bright colors, reflective surfaces, "lickable," candy-like logos, rounded corners and modern fonts. To developers it means API mashups and AJAX.

Budd and Keith proposed abandoning the term altogether, since, though it was useful when it was introduced two years ago, it's actually becoming a hindrance to design firms like Clearleft, who now have to field requests for proposals that say things like "we want a total Web 2.0 site that operates according to all the Web 2.0 design standards." (There are standards for Web 2.0? Who knew?)

More useful is to think of Web 2.0 in terms of social media. In fact, maybe we should all just start saying "social media" instead, since the main point is to involve the community and provide a platform for user participation.

My favorite takeaway from the panel—apart from the "toxic and needs to die" statement, from Mr. Budd—came from the development angle, however: "Don't ever learn any code if you can help it," Keith suggested. "Just copy someone else's. That's Web 2.0." —Megan Miller

PopSci @ South by Southwest Interactive

Interactive This weekend, team PopSci.com is temporarily relocating to warmer climes down south for the great digital mind-meld that is South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas—the nerdier stepchild of the definitive SXSW music conference happening later this month. We're dusting off our conference caps to soak up anything and everything from keynote speakers including MAKE's Phillip Torrone, Dan Rather and the godfather of Spore, Will Wright, as well as sessions from just about anyone who's anyone in the Internet game. Chances are, if it's going to define the way we use technology and the Web in the next few years, it'll be talked about by someone in Austin this weekend. So obviously, we're pumped. Watch this special category page for our blog updates from the conference. —John Mahoney

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