Weirdos and What-Nots at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab Summit 2012

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

On Friday, March 30, the Cooney Center-partner USC Annenberg Innovation Lab held its annual Innovation Summit.  The day-long event brought together the sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent worlds of academia, private sector, non-profits, and artists to play hands-on with new prototypes and applications from the Lab.  We had the pleasure of having JGCC Director of Research Lori Takeuchi join us for the event.  Besides the Cooney Center, the Lab’s collaborators include IBM, DirectTV, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and international partners such as France Telecom-Orange and transmedia producers The Alchemists.

The Summit focused on two themes: Rethinking Urban Settings (led by Prof. Anne Balsamo) and Experiments in Participatory Cultures (led by Prof. Henry Jenkins.)  The projects presented reflected Annenberg’s interdisciplinary work in communication, journalism, engineering, cinema, art, education, business, and music.  Much of the “playful” work the Lab is conducting intersects with the Cooney Center’s research on children, youth, media, literacy, gaming, and civic engagement.

Ernest Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, spoke about valuing team members that play and think in sometimes unorthodox ways.  He advised the attendees in his opening address that, “one of the keys to creating innovative environments: hire weirdos.”  I immediately thought about some of the great Muppet weirdos and what-nots, and how we can all draw a lot of inspiration from the Muppet Labs.  At the Lab, we try to avoid the hazardous-yet-hilarious explosions like the ones set off Bunsen and Beaker.  We do though throw a lot of stuff on and at the wall (including full wall projects of Twitter data sets, colorful Post-It notes, and sometimes squishy magnets.)

Muppet Labs with guest star Gilda Radner.  Gotta love Jim Henson for imagining a world with no IRB approvals necessary to superglue Gilda’s head to a rope.

We believe that the scientific method is inherently playful, and the Lab often invites outside social scientists, researchers, and designers to challenge and play with us in exciting ways.  One such person is Kati London, the Lab’s new Innovator-in-Residence.  Kati is a social and civic game developer and executive producer for Zynga New York.  Last year, Fast Company named her the “24th Most Creative Person in Business” for her work in making human-computer interaction seamless, screenless, and social through games.   Kati also teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.  At Annenberg, Kati will be lecturing and leading workshops on autonomous objects, networked data, participatory design, and assessing learning outcomes from games.

I was fortunate to be involved in two presentations at the Summit, as a research assistant for the Lab’s area of research in children, youth & media and as winner of the Lab’s CRUNCH Design Challenge competition.  In the morning, I helped lead a project demo through the conceptual design of our Flotsam Transmedia Play Experience, based on the Caldecott Medal-winning wordless picture book by David Wiesner.  Our Lab’s Managing Director, Erin Reilly, has written a great blog post on our work-in-progress, which has brought together undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. students across the communication, music composition, marine biology, engineering, and interactive media departments at USC, as well as educators, parents, and children from the LA area.  This summer, we plan on writing up a white paper framing new logics of transmedia by sharing our working definitions for transmedia play and learning, and it’s complementary nature to transmedia storytelling.  Other lab research in the area of children, youth & media include development of the PLAY! (Participatory Learning and You) framework and spreadability of its approach through The PLAYground, a transmedia learning platform.

In the afternoon, I was honored to present on behalf of my partner (Saranyaraj Rajendran, a USC M.S. student in electrical engineering) and myself on our project, the Theia Handheld Braille Aid, which won this year’s CRUNCH Design Challenge.  The competition brings together interdisciplinary teams to design creative technological solutions for pressing human needs.  Raj came to the project through his work in India, home to the world’s largest population of blind people at 15 million.  I approached the project though my interest in literacy, assistive technology, and accessibility.  Here’s a short concept video on Theia, and you can find out more about the project here.  As the Lab’s new Startup-in-Residence, we hope in the future to work in partnership with readers and teachers of Braille to develop a device that supports real-time interaction, inclusion, independence, and increased research towards putting “reading within reach” for learners with visual impairments of all ages around the world.

Lastly, I wanted to reflect on a quote from the Summit that I find helpful for framing the innovative research that the Cooney Center supports around digital media and learning for diverse learners.

Amy Heibel, LACMA’s Associate VP for Technology and Digital Media spoke about how museums are “public places for people to engage with ideas that are longer lived than themselves.”  Museums around the world are at the forefront of developing immersive educational media experiences for all children across social class, race, ethnicity, language, gender, and ability. Through these public spaces and the communities that gather there, children have the potential to participate in constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing ideas that came before them and ideas they will leave behind for future generations.  (Speaking of artifacts from past generations, does anyone else remember the Sesame Street 1983 classic, Don’t Eat the Pictures, shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?)

As we move into the summer and next school year, we at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab are excited to continue our collaboration with the Cooney Center and blend our shared interests in participatory practices and transmedia play and storytelling in relation to learning.  Look out for many more new developments at next year’s Innovation Summit!

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