Thursday, November 13, 2008

Singapore Digital Media Festival Recap

One year ago, I was scouting for ideas to develop a new conference format to replace the iX Conference event I had been helping to organise for several years. iX is a thought-leadership conference focused on Web 2.0 trends and technologies, modeled on the successful O'Reilly conferences. The annual iX Conference is organised by Singapore infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF), and up to 2007 my role had been as chair or co-chair of the organising committee.

For 2008, I was interested in developing a digital media event that would combine a film festival screening and an IT thought-leadership conference, to explore business opportunites in the converged technology & content space. I travelled to Vancouver to see the Vidfest event, and I was impressed at how they combined games, mobile and a showcase of made-for-Internet films.

So was born the Singapore Digital Media Festival, organised by the Digital Media Chapter of SiTF. The inagural DMfest was was held about 2 weeks ago. Did it live up to expectations, and does the format work? Well, we made a bit of money for SiTF, although attendance was not as high as I had anticipated. We planned for up to 500 but really it was quite a bit below that. It was interesting that the festival screening drew a different audience than the conference - perhaps only half those attending the conference had attended the film and video programme the evening before. But overall the programme was very well received and we had great feedback from sponsors, speakers, media, bloggers, and ordinary attendees.

The conference sessions were all recorded, and have been published as webcasts, so you can be your own judge. The theme of the event was 'Television 2.0 - Internet Services and New Media Mashup', and we had filmmakers as well as technologists onhand to address the creative, distribution and community issues.

The evening before the conference we screened about 3 hours of made-for-Internet (MFI) film and video programmes in HD format. You can get some flavour of this screening by scanning the online previews. The highlight of the screening (and the entire festival) was no doubt the live linkup with Mark Schubin, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. The Met has been pioneering delivery of operas live in HD to cinemas throughout the world, and Mark was there (virtually) to tell us about the making of these shows.

Speaking of 'making of' stories... the live linkup was a story in itself. We ran the connection from Manhatten School of Music to the National Museum Theatre over the IPv6 network, commonly known as Internet 2. This is a next-generation network, which allowed us to transmit in HD quality (at about 4 megabits/second) for projection of the interview on the theatre screen. Many parties helped out, including Singaren, Mediacorp, NETe2 Asia and Singtel. The 'last mile' was a fibre optic cable laid from the telecom riser and snaking several hundred meters along the museum's back corridors into the projection booth. For safety, we shot a second interview with Mark in New York's Central Park a few days ahead, and couriered the tape to Singapore. It arrived just an hour before the show began.

We faced a few key challenges staging such an ambitious event. Foremost among these was the short lead time, and the need to develop our DMfest brand to engage potential attendees and sponsors. I say short lead time, because it wasn't until early September (just 60 days before the event) that we had support commitments from government agencies and sponsors. We began the branding exercise with a good domain name and a wonderful logo (see above) developed by Nicholas Ang, a second-year student from Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Infocomm Technology.

Next we developed a wiki and encouraged contributions from a list of 30 'organisers'. We also developed a formal organising committee that met every two weeks. We appointed IDC to perform marketing and event management, and Text100 to develop a publicity campaign using social media. We contracted Veron Ang (of Sparklette fame) to develop the website and Tan Ee Sze to do the writing. We formed an OPS team that met weekly in the final lead-up to the event.

The programming was done mostly by me, and I learned a lot about the relationship of animation, machinima and virtual sets in the Internet film creation process. Speaker selections were pretty straight-forward, but curating the festival screening was a new challenge for me. For inspiration and guidance I must thank San Francisco artist Justin Hoover and Singapore Film Festival director Philip Cheah.

We wanted the festival to incorporate mobile and games platforms, but we faced a challenge in figuring out how to showcase made-for-mobile (MFM) content. This was addressed by Billy Fong of VHQ Post, who organised the mobile content showcase. He obtained loans of handsets from Motorola and Nokia, tethered them to tables, hired cute sales promoters to demo the content and produced movie-posters to give visitors an instant impression of what was on offer. Similarly, Aroon Tan, MD and co-founder of Magma Studios, ably organised a games showcase that was situated in a living room environment. Like the rest of the organising committee, Billy and Aroon were volunteers.

Topping it all off, we organised a mini-exhibition for the benefit of sponsors. Each got a small tabletop to show off their digital media solutions and services, positioned in the main foyer to guarantee maximum traffic. We also obtained a donation of thumbdrives from HP Storageworks and produced a content folio with a variety of informational and marketing materials organised as a wiki (using the free tool TiddlyWiki). These were offered to every delegate.

In the conference itself, we gave the best seats to a set of invited bloggers, who were pre-selected and briefed by Text100. Communications were facilitated by Ram Srinivasan, a volunteer who operated a Campfire chat and a Twitter feed, which were projected on plasma display screens located throughout the ballroom. Ram researched during the speaker presentations, and posted the results of his digging (eg- wikipedia articles on micropayment, or stories about the making of a particular Internet film). Thus, the audience was engaged in several realtime channels, and could SMS their feedback or comment via the Campfire chat. This worked great and would have been even more compelling if the audience had been bigger.

The keynote sessions were all excellent. Iolo Jones took the opportunity to launch his new product VidZapper at the conference. Hugh Hancock championed the 'guerilla showrunner' (ie- making MFI films on a low budget) and Timo Vuorensola made an excellent case for collaboration on MFI films using the model of open source software development.

As a programmer, I was a bit concerned that the panel sessions covered too much ground. The distribution panel addressed News 2.0, micro-payments, mobile content and video production tools - quite a lot of ground to cover in less than an hour. But there was something for everyone and the programme flow was easy enough to follow. The audience actually increased througout the day, rather than tapering off as in most events. Everyone said they were having a good time, including Mediacorp celebrity newscaster Genevieve Woo and MDA Deputy CEO Michael Yap, and most attendees stayed for the chill-out reception.

I think our organising committee Chair Ivan Ho did a great job making this whole event come together, not least by focusing on the financial bottom line. He and our Digital Media Chapter Chairman Ng Chong Khim were principally responsible for securing all the sponsors, and thus making my job much easier.

If we do this again next year, as has been the intention all along, we will have more leadtime and a recognised brand. I think DMfest 2008 has established a great foundation for an annual event to bring together the IT vendor and media production communities in Singapore.

Updated 20081114: Ammended by WMC to clarify attendance numbers.


Anonymous said...

As someone who's attended and spoken at hundreds of similar events, you, your colleagues and SITF are to be congratulated for an excellent event; from the mix of content and speakers to the great organisation, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I hope it goes from strength to strength!