Fifteen bleeding-edge Web sites to recharge your batteries and refresh your mindset.
When I started writing this column years ago and we settled on the name "The Leading Edge," there really did seem to be a "leading edge." Venture capital (VC) money was flowing like... well, VC money in 1998. A whole generation was energized, and we all really were staking out the new frontier. Every day brought a whole new crop of applications never dreamed of before. Designers, marketers, advertisers, and businesspeople everywhere threw caution to the wind. Every day seemed to launch a new concept. Possibility was everywhere.
Of course, we all know where that led us.
The path since the April 2000 crash seems to me (and, I'm sure, to many of you) as a long, downhill slide. The bubble burst, the economy tanked, we began a war, and money dried up. As fast as it came, the buzz was gone. Layoffs, bankruptcies, and malaise followed. Companies that once spent freely on experiments began talking return on investment (ROI), accountability, and measurement. They'd blown their wads and hadn't seen an immediate ROI, so the old conservatism crept back in.
We may have marveled at some concepts, scratching our heads and asking (ourselves, at least), "How do they think they're ever going to make money on that?" Many didn't, but you have to admit it was exciting. And it was exciting when the innovations came faster than we could count them.
As I search for leading-edge topics to write about, I find it increasingly difficult to unearth anything truly new and exciting. Sure, people are making incremental steps. Buggy systems that once seemed held together by the cyber equivalent of baling wire and spit now actually work. That's good. What's bad is the ennui that's slipped in as we move from a world where everything seemed possible to one where many of us work our butts off just to keep afloat.
Frankly, it's boring.
That's a copout. Innovation hasn't stopped, it's gone underground (or at least, off the radar). Now that insane amounts of money aren't being thrown at any cockamamie schmiel who can bang out a business plan, most real innovation has moved from the commercial space to private visionaries or universities. Since the business media doesn't see dollar signs everywhere it looks, a lot of real innovation isn't being reported.
What's happening on the leading edge? Plenty! As a public service intended to at least point you to some of the more interesting stuff, I offer my list of places to go to view the leading edge of online innovation.
Note: This is not anywhere close to a comprehensive list. It's definitely not indicative of all the cool stuff going on. But most of these sites link to lots of other sites, so if you're in need of inspiration start here and begin clicking. You never know where the links may take you. That's the really cool part about what we do!
Hypertext Kitchen: For those of you relatively new to the Web, you may not remember a time when we called linking and multimedia "hypermedia." Old timers (and academics) haven't forgotten. They continue to push the boundaries with experiments and thought about this new form from which we make our living. The Kitchen is a portal to thoughts and discussions about the medium and what it means to culture and art.
Alt-X Online Network: If you're wondering what's going on at the fringes of Web design and art, start here. Sure, a lot is heavy pomo ramblings. Plenty conforms to the bleep-and-random-pixels school of computer art. But there's loads to explore if you're interested in Web design, cutting-edge interface, and what it all means.
Digital Art Source: A huge hub of digital art, experimentation, out-and-out play, and the digital culture edge. Start here if you're looking for some inkling of the next design stage.
Independent Games Festival: Though this page ostensibly is about the annual event, it provides plenty of links to fringe and leading-edge experimental games. Why should you care? I've written extensively on the convergence of marketing and games. If you don't believe games and marketing go hand in hand, check out how McDonald's and Intel are paying big bucks for product placement in The Sims.
Gamasutra: The hub of the online gaming industry. A lot is technical and a lot is written with a very industrycentric viewpoint, but it's a good place to check out what's going on in gaming.
Game Studies: A more thoughtful take on games and culture. It's fairly academic and dense, but if you're into the philosophy of gaming there's no better (or more respected) source.
Dorkbot: Billed as a place for "people doing strange things with electricity," this site links several worldwide chapters of an eclectic organization. Exploring reveals experiments on everything from making music with PDAs to new forms of digital art. Goofy? Nobody thought the Homebrew Computer Club would launch a revolution, either.
Plumb Design Visual Thesaurus: Wondering what future interfaces might look like? They could be like this wonder, created by the visionaries at Plumb Design. At once a useful tool for finding word associations, an interface experiment, and a work of art in itself, this tool is worth a look by anyone interested in alternative ways of browsing information.
Atlas of Cyberspaces: Speaking of other ways to view information, this site contains scads of new ways to envision information. Although most browse the Web today in a way that hasn't changed much since the first browsers, these images offer a glimpse of the future.
CellPhoneHacks.com: Yeah, yeah, we all know the wireless bubble has long since burst, and many of the hype-y dreams now look pretty silly. There are still a lot of people using cell phones and a lot of new ways to use them. This is a great source of ideas and experiments on the fringe of wireless hacking. Who knows if one of the "hacks" discussed here today won't become the Next Big Thing of tomorrow?
MIT Media Lab research site: Some of this stuff will definitely give you a headache (or at least a minor case of whiplash from shaking your head in disbelief). But if you want to see some of the coolest, bleeding-edge technologies, you owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes clicking around the research at MIT's Media Lab.
BotSpot: Although true AI is perhaps a long way off, companies and innovators all over the globe are working on ways to use it to handle mindless tasks many of us do manually. "Bots," online autonomous agents, may mainly be toys now, but strides are being made to use them for everything from customer service to advertising and research.
InstantMessagingPlanet: Instant messaging (IM) is a huge cultural phenomenon that marketers have barely begun to figure out and companies still don't know how to deal with. This site [a sister site of ClickZ -Ed.] provides an ongoing source of news and information for anyone interested in the industry... which should be all of us.
Boing Boing: Created and maintained by some of the coolest (and funniest) denizens of cyberspace, Boing Boing is the blog for anyone interested in cyber culture, fun stuff, and a laugh or two. I'm be becoming convinced its the source behind most of the best "have you seen this link!" email I receive. Read it daily.
Blogdex: Like IM and games, blogs are just beginning to be discovered by those interested in commercial speech. Macromedia and others have created blogs designed to push their products. There's a lot more than that out there. Blogdex is an index to an absurd number of blogs and a wonderful window into Web buzz and culture.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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