Bull Session

Putting the E in Sports

April 21, 2016          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life podcast this week, we chat about the ever changing world of eSports and how it's evolving.

Esports are becoming increasingly important and varied. For instance, at the collegiate level, the Big 10 Network is broadcasting the League of Legends invitational event at PAX East, the major gaming conference.

And new, virtual sport platforms are gaining in prominence as well. ESPN recently signed a multi-year deal with the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA to bring races to a mainstream audience, beginning with the US National Drone Racing Championships in New York City. In drone races, operators see a first-person view of the action, via goggles streaming video from a camera positioned on the front of the drone.

Resources
Big Ten Enters Esports: Spartans Buckeyes Set to Clash in BTN Invitational
Drone Races Are Coming to ESPN Thanks to "Unprecedented" Popularity

Jon:
Welcome to episode 152 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I am your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Howdy, Jon.

Jon:
Howdy yourself, Dirk. For our topic this week we are going to chat a little bit about the growing world of eSports, and virtual sports, which seems to be grafting geeks on to I don’t know, the sporting world but we’ll dig into that a little bit because all of this is opening up in a big way.

Dirk:
Bernie told me that geeks don’t like sports, so what’s up with this?

Jon:
I’m not sure. I think we’ll start with the Big Ten is apparently going to have an eSports …

Dirk:
What’s the Big Ten? Is it a clothing brand?

Jon:
Yes, the Big Ten, which of course is the marketing juggernaut, which is a collection of colleges, which basically have …

Dirk:
Universities.

Jon:
Universities, of course, which has the devotion of some very rabid fans, probably rivaled only by professional sports in sort of it’s adherence, its disciples, and this brand is not satisfied with just the sporting events that we are familiar with like football. It’s now expanding into the world of video gaming, I guess. I’m not as familiar with this as you know perhaps other people are but at PAX East, which is in our home town of Boston here there’s going to be a show down I believe between the Spartans and OSU, and what is it? League of Legends, you’ll have to tell me more about that game. I’m not familiar but apparently there’s teams from both of these universities, and they are going to try to kick the crap of each other, virtually I suppose. Is that your understanding of it?

Dirk:
Yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s eSports sort of reaching a different level of mainstream, and PAX East, the Michigan State and Ohio State doing battle in League of Legends. eSports has a long history. It’s a former Involution client. Dennis Fong was considered the first Michael Jordan of video games back in 1990s we did a product for him called Raptr but he famously won a Ferrari in playing competitive video games.

Jon:
That’s not a bad takeaway for playing some video games.

Dirk:
Not a bad takeaway. That’s in sort of the nascent stages of eSports, and of course, now with fast internet, and you know, easy streaming, and ubiquitous online video content eSports has become a relatively big deal, relatively meaning it’s still niche and small, sort of an X Games level, sort of at the skate boarding level but it’s a thing. It’s a real thing now, and real money is being won in the tens or even in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by teams that … The way it works is you’ll have a team that trains as if it’s an Olympic team, which is to say they are full time. They are all sort of living together. They are playing these games and training, you know year round basically in order to go and compete. I’m not talking about these university teams now. I’m talking about eSports in a more general way.

That’s been happening for some years, and we’ve seen media coverage for eSports expanding over time. ESPN has been covering it for at least a couple of years now. Again, it’s sort of a skate board-y level but carrying it nonetheless. You know, different publications. I won’t go quite so far as to call them mainstream but you know, for example Video Game Publications now give a significant amount of coverage to eSports, which in the past would have been just totally silly. Good publications, publications like Polygon have really made an investment in that direction. Journalists like Rob Zacny would be an example of someone who has moved from more traditional video game journalism into dedicated eSports coverage.

That’s definitely been an evolving space but one that even though it’s sort of cresting relatively mainstream media now, you are talking 20 years in the making basically.

Jon:
Yeah. There’s a whole culture around that that I’m less familiar with. When I was at the age where you might participate in this sort of thing I was mostly falling off my skateboard, no X Games for me unfortunately but this seems like it’s a generational thing, and it seems like many aspects of the Digital Life you know, coming into the mainstream, you know often hides a very strong, underground following. Same thing happens of course, on the music side, which I’m more familiar with. Electronic dance music underground thing when I was in my twenties. It’s huge now, festivals everywhere. It’s a very mainstream electronic music is just the rock and roll for the millennials I think much the way that eSports must be, you know seem like basketball, or football, or whatever.

Something that really raised my interest was that ESPN this week signed a deal with the IDRA, which is the International Drone Racing Association. So we are talking about eSports as this up and coming thing. Apparently, the first person view of drone racing is now becoming a sport in of it itself so you see these guys who are wearing these huge goggles. I guess they are getting the feed from the drone camera, and the national championship is going to be in New York in August, apparently, and that’s going to be the first thing that ESPN is going to put on television.

That seems you know kind of intense. You are going to be getting this real time information from your drone, while flying around, I don’t know, the Stature of Liberty, or flying through the streets of Manhattan. Who knows what they are doing?

Dirk:
There might be some FAA regulations.

Jon:
I would think so flying into, you know, a helicopter when you are not supposed to perhaps but it’s interesting there’s the physical aspect to the drone racing that’s you know, the object that’s going through the air, and then there’s the virtual aspect, which is similar to the eSports that we are talking about. There’s the information that’s being digested digitally while the physical object is sort of happening in real time. What do you make drone racing. We’ve had a number of conversations about how we think drones can be good but also could be horribly dangerous.

Dirk:
Yeah, I think drone racing is fine. Drone racing in of itself the potential is somewhat limited, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. I mean, one, and I mean this from a viewer’s perspective, I guess we are talking about ESPN televising this stuff. One is if you look at the videos, and go into the first person drone races, it’s disorienting. It makes you feel a little sick, or at least it made me feel a sick, and I’ve read accounts of other people feeling that as well. In that way, it’s somewhat similar to VR, virtual reality, which is also taking off, and also can make people feel sick but being that the first person view makes you feel sick, and frankly, the amount of surrounding context you could get from first person view wasn’t great.

It was sort of an exciting whizzing ride around but in context of the race, you weren’t getting a whole lot of data about what the hell was going on, and the nature of the way that these fly around it doesn’t lend itself to … I guess television is an obsolete way to refer to it but it doesn’t lend itself to television. These things are moving really freaking fast. They are pretty small. They are hard to see in detail. It’s hard to make out differences between them in meaningful ways like as you get to like information chunking, and information sort of parsing perspective. It just this particular technology doesn’t lend itself well to great television, and like a really compelling spectator platform. However, it is you know, another step down the path of our celebrating performances that are more based on machine performance as opposed to human performance.

I first wrote about this in the context of Oscar Pistorius back in 2008 how we’ve started down that slippery slope from you know the sort of perfect human, non-modified, non-drug enhanced competition into something that is inevitably headed towards killer, death robots killing each other.

Jon:
Right.

Dirk:
That’s the conclusion in some way point far down the road but this is just another step toward it like these little drones zipping about. It’s not the right technology. It’s not going to take off and be this super popular thing but the question is what’s the two or three generations of technology down the road? What is that thing, and that will then become a spectator sport that is popular, is interesting, lends itself well to representation in like a virtual reality environment, which is I think where we’ll be for consuming that kind of content two to three generations down, and that will be interesting.

This is like the little baby steps out like the crummy, not working that well for being a spectator sport manifestation that will evolve into something provocative, and exciting in the 2020s basically.

Jon:
Right, so you don’t see a drone racing as being the NASCAR of I don’t know, this decade. We’ll have to wait another decade at least before we start seeing branding on these things, and start seeing the kind of sponsorship and popularity.

Dirk:
It’s just the form factor doesn’t lend itself to it because they are too small. They move too fast. It’s like … To get the scale right they’d have to be these massive ships so they were big, that you could tell by the very shape and form factor of them you could tell some degree of difference, color, advertising, giant things plastered on them and blazing down on them. Then their movement, it doesn’t just seem like this little thing zipping around. It was like a craft that your eyes can understand. It’s like if you think about Formula 1 racing, for example, there’s a lot of things that go into that being something that you can watch, and be interested in whether it be sitting in the grand stand, or watching on television. This little drone racing has absolutely none of that.

Jon:
Sure. Yeah, to speak a little bit more about the correlation between something like Formula 1 or NASCAR, we do have that, and these other types of eSports and drone racing. You do have the machine performance there, right in Formula 1 and NASCAR where there is this relationship between the driver, and the machine as well as certain types of strategies for how you manage the amount of fuel, or your tires, or when you pit, and when you don’t, and how you approach different areas of the track.

I imagine as you start peeling back the onion of whether it’s drone races, or larger craft races, or fighting killer robots, which I would definitely pay money to see. I think that that intimate relationship between the person and whatever that machine performance is. I think people can lock on to that. It’s just sort of a matter of you know, understanding the sport, right in more depth. On the eSports side, I imagine that will happen as well as we start to you know, understand that team training thing I had no idea that that was happening. That’s a very sort of you could see a behind the scenes kind of eSports how we train to PAX East, right, and HBO specials sometime in 2020.

I suppose it’s all coming but it’s definitely strange to see the transition now between you know, the sporting events that we’ll call more traditional, and then there’s grafting on of seriously high technology, and then watching the culture change about you know, about those things as well.

Dirk:
Yeah, and you know I like how you mentioned the technology aspect in Formula 1, and one of the things that’s important in that context is for people watching on television or in the stands 99% the particulars of the technology aren’t important. However, what they are aware of are the human aspects of the technology. It’s meaningful that Michael Schumacher was driving a Ferrari, and Jacques Villeneuve of to date myself when I was paying attention to these things was driving a Williams. The brand names mattered A, and B, the engineers mattered. Like Formula 1 fans know who Ross Brawn is. Ross Brawn is a bad ass who makes cars that win world champions. You know, Formula 1 fans know who Adrian Newey is.

There’s these human aspects to it, and when you look at the televising of it, Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey were sitting there with their headsets on, at the thing, part of the story. The story remains very human. It’s about Schumacher, and Brawn, and these different people, and at this point with what they are forwarding with drone racing to the degree that I’ve looked into it, and paid attention to it myself, first of all, the brand names of the drones are totally unheard of by anybody. They are definitely not being leveraged much by the commentators either. There’s that lack of like brand name technology that a user can get some kind of emotional identification with.

Then there’s certainly is a total lack of the engineering side. It’s not like, “Oh, you know Jones is there overlooking his model Z, blah, blah.”

Jon:
Sure.

Dirk:
There’s none of that. All you have are these guys wearing these goofy glasses, you know, moving around a control pad of these drones that you can’t make sense or difference of. It’s just sort of stupid in a sense that the technology is at a point where it’s consumable in so very many ways, and yet it’s an important baby step toward whatever that final form factor will be that really is revolutionary. This ain’t it though.

Jon:
Yeah, that’s going to be an evolution that’s worth watching though, I think. Listeners remember that while you are listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resources to take advantage of while you are listening, or afterwards if you are to remember something that you liked, and if you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 152 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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Jon Follett
@jonfollett

Jon is Principal of Involution Studios and an internationally published author on the topics of user experience and information design. His most recent book, Designing for Emerging Technologies: UX for Genomics, Robotics and the Internet of Things, was published by O’Reilly Media.

Dirk Knemeyer
@dknemeyer

Dirk is a social futurist and a founder of Involution Studios. He envisions new systems for organizational, social, and personal change, helping leaders to make radical transformation. Dirk is a frequent speaker who has shared his ideas at TEDx, Transhumanism+ and SXSW along with keynotes in Europe and the US. He has been published in Business Week and participated on the 15 boards spanning industries like healthcare, publishing, and education.

Credits

Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit@ebenoit

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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A Programming Language for Living Cells

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Resources
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In a Huge Breakthrough Google AI Beats a Top Player at the Game of Go

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Resources
Inside the Cloning Factory that Creates 500 New Animals a Day