Mobile app development competitions are two a penny; it seems like every smartphone platform is offering coders money and fame to write apps that will make particular devices stand out. Microsoft and Nokia ran a ‘hackathon’ at Nokia World just last month – the winning apps included a Pictionary-style game and a social network tool to encourage blood donation. The Alphalabs.cc contest that Nokia just announced is a bit different.
For one thing, it’s a collaboration with digital art experts Onedotzero who have been behind experiences like the video wall on U2’s 360 tour, the Decode exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum and the Adventures in Motion digital arts festival at the British Film institute this month. Onedotzero is all about re-integrating art and technology, creative director Shane Watson told Recombu; “bringing together beauty and code” not just for galleries and one-off projects but for mass production. “And you can’t get more mass than mobiles,” he points out; “they’re filled with great design stuff”.
Watson is excited about the clean design of Metro; “Windows Phone needs to have its own identity. They’ve genuinely come up with something different.” And he sees an advantage over platforms that try to make apps look like familiar objects. “There’s a real digital culture now. We don’t have to emulate things to help you understand it, you don’t have to make it act or behave like a book. Let it act and behave like what it is; it’s a device!”
Code is the new clay
But all too often, it’s only big-name brands and advertising agencies that have designers involved in making mobile apps. For many developers, design is an afterthought or doesn’t involve much more than picking an icon for their app. On the other hand, there’s an increasing number of designers who work with technology – “there’s a rise of the creative coder,” Watson says; “code is the new clay – but there’s these art people that always talk about making apps but never do anything. How can you be the catalyst? How can you make it happen?”
The advantage for Microsoft, and for Nokia, of a contest that emphasizes design is obvious; “they’re trying to challenge people who wouldn’t normally look at it and say there’s a real opportunity here.” Because Alphalabs.cc is designed to encourage collaboration between designers and developers – and code from some of the projects will be available for other coders to use – he thinks it has more appeal than the money on offer in a standard contest (although there is a £5,000 first prize).
“It’s a space to experiment. People are asking ‘Are we just going to develop for nothing? You’re going to get all the benefit. I might get some money, I might not; but I’ve invested all this time.’ We can give someone this experience so they will get something else that’s not about money and not about delivering an app and feeding a large corporation – it’s how can you develop for yourselves. Value is changing from knowledge that you keep for yourself to sharing – and we’ve all got a jigsaw piece.”
Inspiration you can touch
To kick things off and to inspire entrants, Watson organised three sample Alphalabs projects, with video artists, independent record labels and musicians teaming up with more traditional coders to create three apps in just two weeks. So far they’re prototypes but what we’ve seen of them is hugely impressive – and proof that all Windows Phone apps don’t have to look the same.
Rather like the Deadmau5 appearance and stunning 4D projection on Millbank tower to launch the Lumia 800 this week, Microsoft and Nokia have taken a really different approach to encouraging innovative and well-designed applications for Windows Phone – and it shows in the results.
Kaleidobooth is a kaleidoscope app from video artist Max Hattler and console game developers Indieskies. It overlays fractals and shapes and images from the camera into kaleidoscopic patterns that respond to the sound of your voice, and you can change the designs by shaking the phone. Save the ones you like best to play back as a slideshow.
Digital artist Vera Field describes her art as “making things that come to life with technology”; she worked with coders from Treehouse and indie record label Numbers to create a racing game called Red Shift where you drive geometrical shapes through the world of a music video by tilting the phone.
Three different tracks race past items from three songs – like giant high-heeled shoes – and you can change the gravity or turn it off altogether to fly to different dimensions in the game. Treehouse plans to open source the library they’re using to build the game, which uses a subset of the XNA features on the Xbox, so there’s a possibility of an Xbox version too.
But the most impressive app by far is Vequencer, from electronic musician Stuart Warren-Hill – one half of electronic duo duo Hextstatic – and a team of developers including Matt Lacey, who runs the Windows Phone User Group and works on Windows Phone apps like Last.fm and Sky News. Under the name Holotronica Warren-Hill is working on a 3D Blu-ray album called The Sentinel, with complex 3D visualisations of the music you’re listening to. Vequencer lets you take the title track – and in the final version, which will come out at the same time as the album, all the tracks – and remix it yourself using samples from the same analogue synthesizers Warren-Hill uses. You get multiple instruments – from bass to snare drum to open and closed hihat cymbals and a ‘blip’ sound – that you sequence together by tapping and swiping around the edge of the screen, where a time signature runs like a sequence of tiles. Swipe sideways to add more instruments and build up your composition, and the visualisation on screen responds by pulsing, spinning and sending out pulses and planes of light. Once you’ve set up the mix, you can swipe to make the visualisation full screen and enjoy the experience.
It’s fun to play with the instruments by yourself – but amazingly, Vequencer lets you use multiple phones together to control the music, with different players controlling different instruments. Forget playing games between two iPads; Vequencer works with up to eight handsets over Wi-Fi, all perfectly in sync with 120 beats per minute audio and 60 frames per second video.
It’s an impressive piece of coding – but it’s also a fantastic musical tool with an engaging interface. And that makes it a perfect example of what Alphalabs is all about.
There are more details about the competition, and about these three projects, on the http://alphalabs.cc website.