Penny Arcade drops ads for Crowdfunding

I love comics, and I love geek humor, so it should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of Penny Arcade – the web comic about two snarky video game nerds and their exploits. But now I’m going from fan to fanboy because the guys at PA are doing something that could be the future of digital independent publishing on the web – they’re ditching the ads, and asking their fans to donate to their cause on Kickstarter.

Crowdfunding is getting increasingly popular with tech startups and indie artists, but it’s nothing really new. As Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter page plainly says, “After the ‘dot com bubble’, we ran the site entirely on donations for over a year. The word crowdfunding hadn’t been invented yet; back then, people simply called it ‘begging'”. But with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, RocketHub, Sponsume, and GoFundMe all doing big business, independent creators no longer need to feel like they’re going around with their palms up, looking for a handout. The idea behind all of this is simple: let the people who are most interested in your product fund you from the start.

For Penny Arcade, this means that instead of doing the traditional thing of sticking ads all over their site, they can go directly to their fans and say “Hey, if you’re tired of these dumb banners, just contribute whatever you want to help us take them down and still pay the bills.” If that weren’t motivation enough, the PA boys have additional incentives for your donation dollars. Contributors who drop $25 or more can get exclusive prints of some of PA’s spin-off comics sent right to their door, and the big spenders get even cooler gifts like passes to the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) or a visit to meet Penny Arcade founders Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik in person for lunch (and given their sense of humor, I’d imagine this would be the most epic lunch meeting of your life.). PA has already wildly exceeded their original funding goal of $250,000 and now have $460,000 from their adoring fans.

I’m excited that the “famous” indie artists are finally getting in on the Kickstarter bandwagon because it gives further validation to this model. Instead of giving more money to the corporate machines that indie artists and their fans historically loathe, you can go directly to your fanbase and say “just pay us whatever you want.” It reminds me of the time Radiohead went “pay what you want” with the release of their “In Rainbows” album. At the time it was a groundbreaking move for a major artist, but the recent trend of Kickstarter success stories (the Ouya video game console, Pebble e-ink watch, et al) is proving that this idea has legs. Perhaps in the future we’ll see more and more artists ditching the old models and offering their fans direct methods to support their favorite creatives while getting a little something extra too.

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Short film: the future of Augmented Reality?

Some students have made a great short film that might portend the scary-but-awesome future of augmented reality tech.

Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo, graduate students at the Bezaleal Academy of Arts in Jeruselem, created a spectacular sci-fi short film with high production values and visionary concepts that extrapolate current tech trends and ponders how technology could become so pervasive it would virtually replace ordinary human vision. The film is appropriately called “Sight”.

Watch the short film “Sight” below:

Augmented Reality technology is one of those things that make science fiction not so much like fiction. The Google Glass project could potentially give us a huge step forward in the AR arena, but the technology in this video takes things to a whole new level. Imagine a world we all have Internet-connected contact lenses that overlay context-sensitive information on our field of vision. You’d no longer need a TV – just use your eyes to open your streaming video program, stare at a blank wall, and the video plays right there. Look at a building and instantly see information about its history and the businesses inside it. It’s crazy to think of the applications of AR in the future and this little movie showcases what we might be dealing with in 20 years or so, and the film does it with the panache and creepiness of a well-directed sci-fi movie. One aspect I really find interesting is how the directors focused on the “gamification” of everyday activities, including chopping vegetables.

For me, being a geek, engineer, and pedantic bastard – the video raises a number of technical questions about the advances we’ll have to make in order to make this kind of stuff a reality. For example:

  • Those contact lenses must have some kind of wireless Internet connection, but where would it come from? We’ve gotten really good at miniaturizing wireless chipsets, but what we see here would require some major advances. Perhaps the lenses speak (via BlueTooth or something similar) to another device, like a smartphone, which in turn does all the heavy Internet stuff.
  • All this intensive display and analysis is bound to generate some kind of heat. How would we keep our eyeballs from frying?
  • How does the system handle audio? Are there tiny headphones we’re not seeing here, or would we have to develop some freaky technology that translates tiny vibrations in our eyes into sound we can recognize?

“Sight” is an intriguing (and creepy) look into what our future might be. Like all good sci-fi, it throws down some inspiring challenges for the technologists who will build the next big thing, but it also provides some warnings of what might happen if our society isn’t quite ready for these innovations.

Fanfiction Confessions

Okay, I’ll admit it. I used to write Harry Potter fan fiction.

In fact my first completed novel-length work was my own rendition of HP Book 6. This was years ago, in that long span of time between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince. I really liked Rowling’s writing style and I needed some practice on my writing. I also needed a community that was ready and willing to provide feedback in bunches. Fanfiction was the answer.

Two years is a long time to wait for the next installment of a series you love. So I, like many other writers, filled the time by coming up with my own stories to fill the void. It was entertainment for me, and practice. I picked up where Rowling left off and inserted my own original characters, ideas, histories, and spells – all while attempting to mimic Rowling’s writing style (and writing in someone else’s world isn’t easy). My goal was to write a book that people could actually believe was the sixth book in the series. My dream job at the time was to get a gig writing in the Star Wars expanded universe (yes, I am that huge of a geek) so I figured this would be good practice. Writing for an existing commercial series is essentially just fan fiction you get paid for, after all.

My fanfiction was quite an educational endeavor. The Harry Potter fans are rabid and at times pedantic. They were the best critics I could have had at that point in my nascent writing career. They kept me focused, and for the first time I felt the joy that comes with people enjoying stories I wrote (even if I was playing in someone else’s world).

Now I write my own novels, and I do some freelance writing on the side. But my time as a fanfiction author definitely helped me become the writer I am today, and I think that’s true of many ambitious writers in this day and age. I recall, years after I left fanfiction, that a writer on the site I used to post on got a book deal with a $500,000 advance.

So why am I talking about fanfiction now? There has been a lot of chatter about the recent crazy trend of Twilight fanfiction stories getting major book deals. The Fifty Shades of Gray series started this trend, and now a new series by Sylvain Reynard reportedly earned a SEVEN FIGURE BOOK deal. Both book series started out as Twilight fanfiction and, after necessary tweaks and edits to avoid copyright infringement, became huge bestsellers on their own right. Fanfiction authors, long considered the oddest of the odd writers, are suddenly getting financial validation. I just wish the industry supported something better than those Twilight books -_-