Digital art: Twitter bots

Since the theme this week has been Twitter bots, today I’m going to show you a couple of ingenious examples of… well, I suppose that it’s digital art: Twitter bots that send automatically generated images, that can be at best quite striking and at worst, a pleasant distraction. Now, I’m not saying that I like these (automated art? really?), but the idea is interesting, and the programming really clever.

Great Art Bot – computer-generated images, updated four times a day…

Great Art Twitter bot


Pixel Sorter – tweet an image at this bot, and it will re-arrange the pixels and tweet it right back at you.

Pixel Sorter Twitter bot



Quilt bot – this is my favourite. It will tweet a mash-up of any image you send it.

Quilt Twitter bot

Do you know of any others?

— x —

For more information on Twitter, check out my Flipboard Twitter magazine:

flipboard twitter

Twitter bots, teachers and inspiration

Until this morning, I had no idea how Twitter bots work. To be honest, they haven’t impinged too much on my consciousness, but a friend once commented to me that he uses bots to tweet stuff about media (I had no idea what he meant), and a MOOC that I’m taking uses “Teacher bots” to reply to tweets from students.

That really intrigued me, especially since the MOOC is all about the automatisation of learning (not advocating it, just asking us to think about it, and giving us lots of thoughtful readings to show us how little we really have thought about it…). The course goes into depth on, among other topics, how technology affects our definition of what it means to be human, so I’m not sure if using a teacher bot is irony, conscious tongue-in-cheek-ness, or a sinister sub-plot to see if we’re paying attention.

can bots replace human tweeters?

So, what is a Twitter bot? And what do they have to do with Teacher bots? And will Teacher bots take over education feedback?

Bots are a little computer programs that tap directly into the Twitter feeds, extracting tweets or even only parts of tweets according to criteria that you set. They can be created in pretty much any programming language (and if you want some guidance as to how, check here and here), and if you don’t have the technical experience to do it, a developer could whip one up for you in a few minutes.

According to Twitter, almost 10% of its active accounts are automated bots, which means, doing the math, that there are probably over 20 million automated Twitter tweeters out there. What on earth are they tweeting about?

About half of the bots are spam, trying to sell followers, trying to manipulate the trending topics, or trying to sell you body parts enhancers. Twitter has a strict anti-spam policy, and spam accounts are eliminated once caught. Catching them is not that easy, unfortunately.

But the majority of the bots are simple re-tweeters. I noticed the other day, for example, that anything that I tweet with the hashtag #startup gets retweeted by another account. It doesn’t do that because thinks my tweets are particularly insightful (although they are, of course, #humblebrag). It does that because it’s programmed to. And those kind of bots can be very useful.

You can program a bot to retweet any tweet with certain words in it, hashtags or not. Companies are increasingly using this tactic to find out what people are saying about them. You’ve probably noticed it when you tweet something nice about a particular brand and it’s suddenly retweeted by the brand’s account. Or that if you complain about a service or product, someone from the Customer Experience department gets in touch with you right away. Media outlets are increasingly using this technique to find sources and information. Their bots retweet messages that include certain keywords, such as “Ferguson” or “immigration”, which feeds them both material and potential collaborators.

As with the media outlets, bots can also help students and teachers to find information and sources, for use in class debate or in essay preparation. They provide up-to-date, real time information which can be incorporated into presentations and assignments, giving a different and more emotional perspective than text books or even prepared videos.

Programming bots to automatically retweet is pretty simple. However, we are beginning to see a rise in the number of bots that attempt “dialogue”, using a mixture of algorithms and basic artificial intelligence (AI). And here’s where its potential impact on education gets interesting…

For now, the AI bots are still clunky. Tweets like “That’s a very good comment, Hank” and “Why are you saying this now, and how can I help?” aren’t really going to fool anyone for long. But as we get more experience with this, and as we learn more about AI programming, we will soon be receiving messages that seem almost… human.

Tofu tweets

So, is that a real-live human tweeting a reaction, or a bot? Is that your teacher responding to your query, or a computer program? Does it matter?

Yes, it does, very much. It’s a question of trust.

I love the efficiency of Twitter communication, and I strongly believe that it should be used more and more in education. And I believe that anything that can be automated should be automated, to free up time to do more meaningful things. I also understand that the role of the teacher in education is being re-examined, with the advent of MOOCs and flipped classrooms and excellent teaching apps for the tablets that more and more students are using.

But no one can deny the value of the influence of a good mentor. Since the beginning of documented history, students have had figures to look up to and to learn from. Since the beginning of documented history, certain eloquent and intelligent individuals have taught, inspired and motivated the younger generation. That has not changed, even though the methods of delivering a large chunk of the information that we believe the students should learn, has. Ask any young person who their favourite teacher has been so far, and watch their faces light up as they remember how doors were opened, lights were turned on, and a whole lot of other appropriate metaphors. Their faces light up because the sensation of understanding and of seeing a future roll out before you is indescribable, and one of the best gifts we can give the next generation.

Can an automated response do that? The question is actually a very big one, and brings up a ton of artificial intelligence issues. Can we love a robot? Yes, it seems that we can, if they have enough human characteristics (tell me you didn’t cry in Wall-E, or I Robot). But loving something doesn’t mean that we are going to trust it enough to let it inspire us.

Can we count on a robot to care about us? Here’s where things get sticky. Any good teacher has no problem showing that they care about their students, as people. They feel proud when the children exceed their own expectations, they feel happy when the class is excited, they understand if someone is having difficulties. Good teaching is not about imparting knowledge or grading papers, a robot can do that. It’s about feelings. If we feel that someone cares about us, we are more “invested”, we try harder, we want the teacher to feel that his or her caring is not misplaced. It’s natural, and not just in children. (Of course there are exceptions, and they have many posts dedicated to them in the psychology blogs.)

As the saying goes, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” A good AI bot can probably fake it to some extent, but nowhere near enough (yet) to convince us that it’s human. And as for connecting, inspiring, and showing that they care… Can we trust them to do that? It’s also often hard to trust humans, but with humans we have the emotional connection of forgiveness, understanding and affection. The human presence allows for a wide range of non-verbal communication as well, all of which generates the trust needed to really inspire another human.

Is the human presence necessary for learning? No, not for all learning. I can learn from reading books and watching documentaries, and while they were admittedly created by humans, there isn’t a direct human presence. And I can learn from Google search results, I can learn from a walk in the woods in which I observe moss patterns.

Is the human presence necessary for teaching? Yes. While videos, books, online courses are very informative and even instructive, they are limited to “showing”, which is not the same as teaching. Valuable, but not the same. For a good teacher, you need the human touch.

The MOOC that I mentioned at the beginning of this post managed a powerful mix of the human and the automated. The classes were via videos and readings, and there was an active discussion board, as with most other MOOCs. What set this class apart from others is that they also organized Hangouts, live video chats in which students could participate. Participation is limited to 10, but they had more than one session, and the chance to “meet” both the professors and other students made it feel so much more real, important, even meaningful. It’s not the same as a physical meeting, but it’s close enough. It feels personal.

For the course, as an experiment, the professors created a Teacher Bot, which responded to students’ tweets with responses according to recognizable words in the tweets. It has its usefulness, no doubt. But its answers were not human, and so did not carry any “weight”. There was a lack of trust, and engagement. Tweets are useful for receiving information. But that can also be taken care of on a static web page. Twitter is even more useful for connecting, however briefly, with someone else, to exchange thoughts, jokes, ideas and links. While there are many hilarious bot accounts (I’ll tell you about some of them in another post), and I confess that I subscribe to some of them, Twitter’s value is in the human connections. Bots can be worthwhile, and even entertaining. But emotions and inspiration need a human source.

The bots put up a good effort, though. I ended up feeling a touch of affection for our Teacher Bot. His tweets were getting stranger and stranger. He seemed to give up trying to appear human. Although, the last tweet I got from him made me wonder, and almost brought tears to my eyes:

Teacher Bot

— x —

For more information on Twitter, check out my Flipboard Twitter magazine:

flipboard twitter


A list of fitness trackers

Last week I promised you a list of the principal fitness tracking wearable devices on the market or in development (that I know of – if I’ve missed one, let me know!). For now I’m not going to include health controllers (unless they are also a fitness tracker, like iHealth) or baby monitors or clothing, information about those will be coming in other posts. Here you have a list of fitness tracker wearables, mainly worn on the wrist, with some clips and one surprising pair of eyeglasses.

I’ve put an asterisk next to the ones that I think a especially interesting (completely personal opinion)…


  • wristband or shoeclip
  • not available yet, currently in Indiegogo funding
  • activity recognition, calories burned, resting heartrate, step counting, exercise tracking, sleep patterns
  • wireless charging, 3-day battery life

Amiigo fitness trackers


  • watch-style band with touchscreen
  • available from November at $200
  • in future upgrade, will sync with SMS, email, calendar, apps, phone
  • heartrate, sleep patterns, skin temperature, steps and speed (accelerometer)
  • 4-day battery life, wireless charging
  • recently bought by Intel for $100 million

Basis fitness tracker


Bodymedia sleep and fitness trackers


  • smart earbuds that let you listen to your music while they track biovitals and active performance – works even without phone
  • after successful Kickstarter funding, now in development, taking pre-orders at $300

Dash smart earbuds

Epson Pulsesense 

  • wristband or watch-style band
  • heart rate, sleep quality and exercise intensity tracking
  • $130-$200

Epson pulsense


  • clip, wristband and soon watch-style band
  • activity tracker, sleep monitor, silent alarm, calorie intake, weight tracker (on Fitbit scale) and soon heartrate
  • $60 – $130



  • ankle band
  • cycling, running, swimming
  • in development, shipping in December, pre-order for $170

Flyfit cycling tracker

Garmin Vivofit 

  • watch-style wrist band
  • sleep monitoring, step counter, heartbeat, calories consumed and it even tells the time!
  • in development
  • 1 year+ battery

Garmin Vivofit


  • more a health app with lots of cool accessories, than an accessory with a cool app
  • it tracks your weight through a wireless electrical scale, it takes your blood pressure, it controls your blood sugar levels through a bluetooth glucometer (and gives you the option to share the information with your doctor), it can test your blood oxygen saturation, and it’s a sleep and activity tracker that you wear on your wrist or belt.
  • the clip/wristband is available for about $70



  • clip, wristband
  • activity tracker, sleep monitor, smart alarm, diet coach, heartrate, inactivity alert (buzzes you if you’ve been sitting around doing nothing for too long), caffeine monitor
  • $50-$180


Jins Meme

  • “eyewear that lets you see yourself”. This is slightly creepy, and fascinatingly geeky. The eyeglasses tell you if you’re tired (in case you couldn’t tell), they can measure your concentration levels (which sounds distracting), and it can give you information on your speed, calories burned and posture (it’s not clear how). It’s not on the market yet, but it is being showcased in some tech events this month, so it shouldn’t be too long…

Jins Meme


  • wristband or pendant
  • fitness tracker, sleep monitor
  • $99 – $150

Misfit fitness tracker


  • watch-like band
  • activity tracker and fitness coach, walking/running, and boxing
  • in development, limited quantity shipping at $80 (I ordered one, mainly for the boxing, I’ll let you know how it goes!)

Moov fitness tracker


  • clip, wristband, watch-style band
  • fitness tracker, sleep monitor, calorie counter
  • watch, incoming calls, calendar
  • $34 – $80

Striiv fitness tracker

Samsung Gear Fit

  • watch-like band
  • fitness tracker, heart rate monitor
  • emails, texts, alarms and call alert
  • $100

Samsung fitness tracker

Withings Pulse Ox 

  • clip, watch-like band
  • activity tracker, sleep monitor, calorie control
  • about €135

Withings Pulse Ox

*Withings Activité  (this gets a separate entry because it seems so different and… well, attractive)

  • activity-tracking watch, sleep monitor, automatically changes time zones
  • really attractive
  • €390, launching end of November 2014

Withings Activité



A scary selection to choose from… And I have a feeling there’ll be many more before long!

For my article on fitness trackers, see here.

Energy Flow – a non-linear film

The concept of a non-linear film is hard to grasp. Time is linear (or so it seems), and we watch a film in time, so therefore a film has to be linear, right? Not necessarily. “Non-linear” refers to the lack of a plot, or in the case of the example of digital art I want to show you today, a randomly generated lack of a plot. Got it?

10 digital artworks are interweaved to create a different story every time you watch it. You spin the virtual top, and that affects which story you get. The project was originally designed by The Creator’s Project (an Intel/Vice joint venture) in collaboration with digital art studio Field for the iPad, but is also now available on Android.

Watch the trailer here:

energy flow trailer

Or better still, download it from the App Store or Google Play, and watch it on your (preferably) high-resolution device.

If you’re like me, most of the time you have no idea what you’re looking at. But that doesn’t stop it from being totally fascinating. The mesmerizing shapes are the protagonists in dream-like hallucinations. To quote their own definition on the website:

Energy Flow is a non-linear film experience that explores the physical, social and spiritual tensions in our world.

Translating real-life events and processes into digital paintings in motion, Energy Flow weaves multiple story lines into an immersive, audio-visual experience that is unique every time it is played.

Or, to quote my 12-year-old daughter when I showed it to her:


screenshot from energy flow

It’s hypnotizing, endlessly fascinating, and very impressive. The graphics left me open-mouthed. I’ve watched it now about 12 times, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

Let’s have fun: Travel, music and smiles

It’s been the most glorious autumnal week in Madrid! Crisp, blue skies, crunchy leaves underfoot, and not too cold…

sunset in Pozuelo

Instagram: @noelleinmadrid


1) That doesn’t mean I don’t still fantasize about exploring the world, though… Yesterday I actually found myself wandering around the streets of Tokyo on Google Maps… Here’s a web that gamifies that virutal travel instinct: Geoguessr. The game shows you a photo, you guess where it is by putting a pin in a world map, and you get points according to how not-so-very-far-away you are… The photos are taken from Google Maps, and let you explore a bit. Fascinating…

Geoguessr2) I’m not going to show you an image of the next web,, so as not to spoil the surprise. Which will be a mixture of “Oh how cute!” and “What the….?”. It’s almost guaranteed you will at least smile, though, if not guffaw as we did.

3) I know that there are a ton of “Can you believe it?” websites out there, most of them scarily addictive (it takes great willpower to click “Close” before scrolling down and suddenly 15 minutes has gone by that you’ll never get back!). But this one is worth the time, it is much more artistic than most, and showcases some truly surprising creative work. MyModernMet. You may not always love what it shows you, but it’s generally more, shall we say “tasteful”?, than most.


4) The Nostalgia Machine – just what it sounds like. Choose your year, hit the button, and sit back and enjoy some of the “top” music videos from that year. Wickedly entertaining.


Know thy data: fitness wearables, it’s not all about you

On my Christmas list: a fitness tracker, which will help me train more, eat well, sleep better and otherwise become a much better person. If it could also be invisible, or if not then at least amazingly stylish, that’d be great. Thanks.

Fitness trackers will, I’m sure, be on many Christmas lists this year. Research firm ABI estimates that 42 million fitness tracking devices will be sold in 2014, up almost 30% from 2013. The boom is partly due to an increase in supply and a decrease in price. But those in turn are a response to an overwhelming demand from not just fitness fanatics. The fitness trend is nothing new. We are all bombarded with information on how to lose weight, increase our life span and cure a sore back. But these trackers are even being purchased by people who have never lifted a weight in their lives. What’s going on?

moov fitness wearable

To understand what is motivating this new trend, it helps to separate the market into three main groups. The largest group is comprised of people who do little or no exercise. It’s hard for them, they don’t have time, they don’t enjoy it… Suddenly along comes a little gadget that supposedly makes it easy, that gives you little badges when you reach certain goals, that convinces you that you’re actually doing something proactive about your fitness level. Your friends are impressed, you envision a leaner, fitter you, and you feel motivated (for a few weeks, anyway).

The second group is the fitness fanatics, who, being fairly driven people anyway, want to continue to perfect their techniques, increase their speed and strengthen their endurance. The data provided by these little gadgets can help them to obsess over progress and achievement, to swap data over the watercooler or health drink and to push themselves even further.

The third group is people like me. We’re relatively fit, we take care of ourselves, we exercise, we eat well, and we’re happy with our lifestyle. We don’t really feel the need for a fitness tracker, since we have a fairly reasonable level of motivation anyway. But, they sound cool. Some of our friends are wearing them. And becoming even fitter without having to think about it too much sounds good.

Flyfit wearable tech

The concept is called “the quantified self”, since it’s all about gathering data, lots of it, about us. This is not new, it has been done for years in laboratories, with human test subjects hooked up with wires to beeping monitors while they run, sleep, watch videos… The big innovation is the ease with which data about our actions is collected and analysed. We can now get at least 10 times the amount of data, with no wires whatsoever. That little bracelet on your wrist can track how many steps you take a day, what your heart rate is, how many calories you burn, how much and how well you sleep… And the apps put the data in context. The information is transmitted to your smartphone, analysed and presented to you in an attractive infographic that shows how much you’ve improved in stamina/strength/sleep/calorie consumption.

Could the influx of fitness trackers be the beginning of a health revolution? Could the ease/coolness/social pressure finally get everyone off the couch a bit more? Will cocktail party conversations increasingly revolve around your biorhythms, sleep patterns and blood oxygen levels? Personally, I’m not really interested in knowing what my heart rate is or how my sleep patterns differ from one day to the next, that’s just too much detail for me. I have more interesting things to obsess over. I am very interested, however, in how this concept can change the way people live. If we are more conscious of every step and breath we take, perhaps we will live more “in the present”, more “mindfully”. And perhaps we will live healthier, longer and more productive lives. Or, perhaps we will become even more self-absorbed than we (on the whole) already are.

I think that, rather than the personal fitness angle, the lasting impact will be the changes to the healthcare sector. Doctors with access to our data can dole out health advice based on our lifestyle, they can monitor our progress and they can suggest evolving changes to our diet, exercise patterns and stress levels. Instead of waiting until we feel ill, doctors could help prevent ailments and injuries with access to our lifestyle data. It’s a more personalized form of health care, that saves time and money. As well as your vital signs, an increasing number of trackers monitor glucose levels, and advise both you and the doctor if certain measures need to be taken. Some motion sensors can even detect early onset Parkinson’s disease, and advise if the wearer has fallen and hurt him or herself.

ihealth blood pressure monitor

Wearables could also open up another line for life coaches, professionals who help us to focus, set objectives and meet them. Quantifiable goals tend to produce more concrete results than vague dreams, and data that shows us how close we are can be a powerful motivator. Health professionals are finding that simply tracking an activity can encourage people to do more of it, at least for a while.

Apart from the help and motivation, fitness wearables can provide a staggering amount of information to the healthcare sector, at a fraction of the cost of a full-blown study. Macro-research. Jawbone users have collectively racked up data on 130 million nights of sleep, which makes it the biggest sleep study ever.

Imagine what health wearables can do for team management. A coach will be able to tell which of his players is getting tired, who is exerting himself too much. A fire response coordinator will be able to tell whether any of his firemen are in danger via their heart rate monitors. The fastest growing part of Fitbit’s business is sales to employers. Not so much the “quantified self”, more the “quantified other”. A free Fitbit (or similar) band in exchange for a commitment to get more exercise is turning out to be profitable for companies in the form of lower health insurance premiums.

There are so many choices of fitness tracker wearables either on the market or in development, that the field is starting to look a bit like a solution in search of a problem. In a first sweet I counted at least 40 different brands and models, from wristbands to clips to eyeglasses to insoles (I’ll publish my list next week!). It will be interesting to see which device ends up leading the pack in terms of sales. I imagine that it won’t be the cheapest one, or the one that ends up collecting the most data, but the one that is easiest to use and to understand. Just as most gym memberships are never fully taken advantage of, the use of these wearable devices drops off sharply after purchase.

Industry forecasters seem to agree that 2014 was the “breakout year” for wearables, and that 2015 will be the year for smartwatch sales growth. Could smartwatches end up cannibalizing the “quantified self” devices, fighting over the valuable real estate that is your wrist? They are, after all, a “wearable”, with a superior chip and plenty of adaptability. And to top it all off, they tell the time! As the talk-show host/comedienne Ellen succinctly put it:

apple watch tweet



If you want more information on fitness trackers and biosensing wearables, check out my “Wearables” Flipboard magazine.

Noelle's Wearables flipboard magazine

Let’s have fun

This is probably a crazy idea (in fact, I’m sure it is), but I’m going to start sharing with you some of the many cool websites that I come across. It’s a crazy idea because I’m not quite sure how I’m going to keep up (lots going on at the moment), but there are so many useful and creative webs out there that I want to tell you about, that aren’t quite digital art (I write about that on Sundays) and that don’t belong in a long sector-oriented article (which I write about on, cough, some other day of the week).

On the selection I plan to follow no particular pattern or even criteria, other than that I think that they’re interesting and/or fun. Here we go, this week’s four:

  • The House that Lars Built – quirky, designer-y and probably more than a bit “hipster”, I love this site for its creativity and bohemian sweetness.

The House that Lars Built


  • – For nostalgic music lovers (like me), this website takes you through the US radio hits for every year since 1940. Click a few of the buttons and you’ll be “Oh, I remember that!” and reaching for the download button on iTunes. The design is pretty awful, but the music is good, and free.
  • Cabinporn – ideal for those days when you just want to get away from it all (and you know you have them!).


  • What Will I Draw? Wow. That’s really all I can think of to say about this. She turns random scribbles into something really very presentable.

Forms, by Alexei Shulgin

forms, by Alexei Shulgin

While this may look simplistic, even “primitive” by digital art standards, it’s actually very complex and even quite profound. Which may be a bit much for a Sunday morning, but bear with me…

First of all, there’s nothing obvious to click on, right? Some rectangles that don’t look particularly button-ish. But go ahead and click on any one of them anyway. You get sucked into a maze of images and forms. None of them are particularly stunning on their own, but after a few clicks I discovered a couple of surprising things:

One, is there anything less creative than a computer form or check box? And yet here we have the empty and lifeless rectangles and dots taking on character, morphing into shapes, and almost becoming “life-like”. Which probably says more about us, the viewer, than the work or even the artist.

snapshot of Forms by Alexei Shulgin

And two, it is so representative of the horizontal way we have of surfing the web. A click here, a link there, and suddenly we’re looking at 10 ways to know if your relationship is working, whereas what we started reading about was online publishing.

This got me thinking about a fascinating MOOC I’m taking from Edinburgh University on “E-learning and Digital Cultures“, in which we’re looking at is technology neutral, or does it control us? Technology gave us the way to navigate horizontally, and encourages us to do so. Is that encouragement influencing us? If technology influences us, then it’s not neutral. And if it’s not neutral, then we really do need to be careful.

Like I said, a bit much for a Sunday morning, so I think I’ll go and make some low-tech scones for breakfast.

Social television and the second screen

I confess that I don’t watch much television, mainly because of lack of time, but also because to unwind I actually prefer to curl up with my iPad and tap and swipe my way around the Internet ( is dangerously fascinating). So imagine my interest when I discover that there are many, many more out there like me (hi!), and that some innovative TV shows are including the smaller screens in their storytelling.

By that I don’t mean trying to get us to watch the shows on the iPad (although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind). They want us to have our tablets or phones in our hands while we’re watching the show on TV. They’re developing additional content, complementary visuals, ways to connect with others also watching, and, yes, they want us to divide our attention between the two screens. Welcome to multi-screen entertainment.

walking dead second screen

The idea is that, in grabbing our attention on two levels simultaneously, and in feeding our peripatetic quest for more stimulation, faster, they get us even more hooked on the show. According to a 2013 Nielsen survey (Yahoo and Razorfish surveys produced similar data), as much as 80% of tablet and smartphone owners say that they use their device while watching TV, for checking email and/or social media sites, and for looking up information. What got the TV executives (or whatever they’re called these days) sitting up was that half looked up information about the TV show they were watching, which shows a surprising interest in “going deeper”. 20% spent time simultaneously reading social media commentary on the show. Almost 15% said that they watched the show because of something that they read on social media.

Now, even though these figures don’t show a majority, they are enough to make the show developers drool. Imagine, all those people caring enough about your show to spend time and energy talking about it online! Yes, we do that with family and friends after the show anyway, and maybe at the office or gym. But with people we don’t know? During the show? It’s not only the “hearts and minds” part that marketers fantasize over. It’s also the possibilities of viral marketing for the show itself. On creating a buzz around watching a show with dual-screen content, the relatively solitary act of watching TV becomes social.

watching tv with a second screen

The situation gets even more interesting when we look at it from an advertiser’s point of view. The audience for TV ads is dwindling, as more and more of us watch “delayed” shows, that is, we record it and watch it at our convenience, or we use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. Do you know of anyone who, given the chance to fast forward through the ads, would voluntarily sit and watch them? (True, some ads are excellent, but again, I would rather watch them when and where it suits me, not the channel.) The social aspect of two-screen viewing, with the possibility of chatting with other fans as the show is being broadcast, or even of chatting with the show’s producers or actors, could encourage more people to watch “live”. And to prevent them from getting up to get a drink or go to the bathroom during the ad break, the show could “continue” on the second screen with additional content, behind-the-scenes, interviews, quizzes or contests… The second screen is the antidote to delayed viewing.

Several networks and individual programmes have launched apps to deliver an integrated social experience. And over the past few years a flurry of startups has emerged vying to catch the second-screen eyeballs. Tvtag (previously GetGlue) and Beamly (previously Zeebox) are among the leaders in terms of shows and users, and the previously-in-parenthesis in both cases is due to each being purchased for undisclosed sums, after raising a significant of venture capital. As in, there seems to be significant economic potential in this concept.

Defiance game and show

And, creatively speaking, there is huge scope. The crossover potential is so much more than just chats and information. Defiance, a futuristic Syfy channel series about an alien invasion, was launched very soon after the Defiance game hit the market. It’s not a show based on a game, or a game based on a show, the two were developed simultaneously. The characters and storylines cross over, and the free-to-play game is continually updated to reflect plot twists. The gamers keep playing, because there’s always something new. And they watch the show. Going in the other direction, the series fans might try their hand at the game, which they will probably come back to often, because there’s always something new.

The functionality is also creative. Some apps show replays of sports events, exclusive interviews, contests… “New Girl” ran simultaneous relationship polls and offered quotes from one of its quirkier characters. “Grimm” now comes with an e-book. “The Vampire Diaries” app lets viewers capture screen shots and add captions to share with their friends.

Scandal tweets

The drama series Scandal doesn’t have an app, but is one of the most-tweeted-about shows on air in the US this year. Fans, celebrities and even the show’s producers and actors chat away about the episode as it is happening. Slate magazine’s Willa Paskin once tried to reconstruct an episode just from reading the tweets – it turns out her version was pretty accurate. (“Can I watch Scandal by only reading Twitter?”) Smart brands can also get involved: on one particularly tense episode, during a scene in which the main character is desperately clutching her usual glass of wine, Seagrams Gin tweeted:

Seagrams Gin tweet

That was retweeted almost a 1000 times. Effective and very low-cost marketing. The second screen is a fertile field for marketers, not only with tweets and good timing, but also within the apps. Some audio-sync episodes and show ads your tablet or phone that relate to the scene, or show an ad for the same product that is being advertised in the ad break, but with a direct tap-activated option to buy. More immediate, more measurable, and with considerable scope for creativity.

As Scandal shows, the programme-specific apps are perhaps not necessary. Ever since Twitter emerged, fans have been communicating on that micro-chat platform with each other. In fact, Twitter was the trigger for the “second screen experience”, the original, basic engagement tool. Fans would tweet away during a show and during the ad break, too, finding each other through the show’s hashtag (such as #BreakingBad or #Suits). Jokes, theories, questions and comments from Twitter users found an audience with other Twitter users watching the same show, and made the viewing more fun. I confess to getting annoyed when people I’m watching with talk over the dialogue (I’ve never been able to figure out how they can follow the intricacies of the plot when they miss out on chunks of the action because they’re discussing the previous scene!), but “listening” to others by glancing at the screen does add another level of interest to the show.

With live events, the chatter is even more relevant and interesting. Sports, awards ceremonies and talent shows tend to unite people eager to chatter. Twitter invites you to live-tweet opinions, facts and jokes that make you feel like you’re sharing the experience with a room full of friends. The broadcasters also get in on the act by tweeting “inside information” (and ads) and by responding to some of the audience tweets. It’s participatory, it’s entertaining and it generates program/event/brand loyalty.

In all of the conferences that I’ve been to recently, I see a similar phenomenon, with people listening, tweeting and reading simultaneously. Surprisingly, it’s more stimulating than distracting, and often the synchronous activity on Twitter is almost as entertaining as the actual talks.

And here’s an interesting development: you don’t need to be watching live anymore to participate in the social aspect of the second screen. Your tablet or phone can audio-sync to the program, detect which show and episode you’re on, and link you up to the appropriate chat group, fan page, fact centre… The chat may not be live (or, depending on the size of the audience, it may be, there are probably others somewhere in the world watching at the same time, whatever time that is), but it’s still participation.

Obviously not all television viewing will be “disrupted” by the second screen, at least not for now. But the concept does deepen our relationship with what we watch. Many have proclaimed that the rise of the Internet would lead to the death of television. But it turns out that it’s actually saving television viewing, by helping it shift from a passive medium to an interactive gathering. Second-screen viewing, by adding layers of information and social interaction, gives dimension to the flat screen. The creativity, humour and sense of community that the “new” channels provide are leading to a new concept of programming, in which the audience participates, influences and takes care of a large part of the marketing. As with interactive ebooks and digital art, television programmes are adapting to the new media, and generating a new form of entertainment. Yet again the content adapts to the medium.

The Wilderness Downtown

Music meets creative film-making meets Google Earth… Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait” is paired with “choreagraphed windows” (I love that phrase, not something you hear every day) and “interactive flocking” (ditto) to produce a suprising video/music experience, unforgettable but hard to describe.

The Wilderness Downtown

Open it up, type in the address of where you grew up, and prepare to be amazed. (And when the time comes to type or draw a message to the younger you, try doing both, the effects are very impressive…).

The Wilderness Downtown choreography

The video and choreography were directed by Chris Milk, who also directed the “Dreams in Black” video I showed you a couple of weeks ago, and the Johnny Cash collaborative art project. And a whole lot of other amazing animations, interactive or not, that I will no doubt be showing you at some stage. A mixture of staggering creativity and technical genius.