24 March 2010

MEndicott Meets STELARC & The Thinking Head Project

The adventure continues... at the end of 2008 I moved from Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, where I had been living for some years, to Sydney. Too young to retire, there is only so much beauty and tranquility one can take before going to where the action is; it was Sydney or the bush. I moved to the city hoping to get back into IT work and make some money to continue my research and development; instead, I ended up working in a warehouse for six months unloading trucks in order to afford a flat in the picturesque suburb of Manly on the north shore of Sydney harbor - a short ferry ride from the scenic Sydney Opera House.

I worked eight hard hours a day in the warehouse, then came home to work another eight hours every day on the Internet, mostly exploring the Twitterverse. Just as I arrived in Sydney, a clever geek girl, friend of a friend, insisted the best way for me to break into the Sydney digital world was to meet the Sydney Twitterati at a "Tweetup". I had no idea what that might be but went along anyway. I asked the geek girl what Twitter was, and she said "I don't know exactly what it is, but I've learned a lot from it.” So my journey into the Twitterverse began.

About this time I read a news story, "NASA spawns smart twin in Second Life", and made contact with John Zakos, CIO at Australia-based start-up MyCyberTwin, inquiring about opportunities - to no avail. Later I discovered that Liesl Capper, CEO of MyCyberTwin, lived in Sydney, but was unsuccessful in arranging a meeting despite a number of tries.

Early in 2009, I resolved to shake off the high maintenance big city life and head back to the bush. First Tasmania and then Melbourne, Victoria, the city of my birth. As a result of my Twitter bot @LonelyPlanetBot, built in Sydney burning the midnight oil, I came into contact with the "Innovation Ecosystems Manager" of new Lonely Planet Labs, who came down from BBC Research & Development subsequent to the acquisition of Lonely Planet by BBC Worldwide.

I had arranged to meet with Lonely Planet in March to discuss a proposal, but in February, while I was holidaying in Tasmania, the new owner, BBC, laid-off 10% of their workforce, replacing both the Lonely Planet CEO and Digital Director. Suddenly my contact was out of the country and unable to meet; it wasn't to be…

Since I was in Melbourne anyway, I started looking around for other avenues, other ways, to get my foot in the IT door. I had found the AGENTS-VIC Google Group; so, I contacted one of the moderators and was invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Intelligent Systems Agents Group at RMIT in Melbourne.

There I had a pleasant meeting with Lawrence Cavedon and his associate, Carole Adam, originally from France and who had helped organize the “WACA´ 2006 Second Workshop sur les Agents Conversationnels Anim├ęs” in Paris. They told me something about their work in pursuit of emotional expression in toys.

Almost simultaneously I read about the Melbourne performance artist STELARC and his work with robotics installations; so, I contacted him and he arranged a meeting for the next week after his return from Paris. We met for coffee at Druids Cafe on Swanston Street, more or less across the street from RMIT.

STELARC, despite a reputation for being provocative, was a gentleman and as modest and down to earth as could be. Only at the end of our conversation did he roll up his sleeve and show me the ear grafted to his arm, to my relief telling me it wasn't working right at the moment.

STELARC told me about his project, using AIML with the Prosthetic Head; but, more importantly, he told me of how it had lead to his being hired as something like the artistic director for a five-year nearly $5 million project called The Thinking Head funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council. Only then did I find out that Lawrence Cavedon was Chief Architect of The Thinking Head project.

STELARC put me in contact with The Thinking Head Project Leader, Denis Burnham, who was based at the University of Western Sydney MARCS Auditory Laboratories. I subsequently followed-up with STELARC; this time he gave me a tour of his "Virtual STELARC Initiative" space in the RMIT Creative Media region of SecondLife.

After I left Melbourne, a friend put me in contact with David Powers of Flinders University Informatics and Engineering School in Adelaide and a Chief Investigator of the Thinking Head project. His group is apparently working with the Melbourne Museum developing The Thinking Head into a museum guide.

As a result of my contact with The Thinking Head project team, I discovered the Australasian Language Technology Association (ALTA), before leaving Australia….

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