Now in its fourth year, Flash on the Beach has quickly grown in to one of the most popular Web conferences in Europe. This week hundreds of developers, designers, gamers and animators (you name it) have arrived in Brighton to see and hear the latest news and innovations in the Flash world. I’m here and until Wednesday, trying to get to the best of the packed schedule.
Richard Galvan and Mark Anders
They started with the usual kind of Flash Player boasting, statistics, looking at the penetration and speedy uptake of the past versions for the last view years and looked over some of the feature successes of 2009 before outlining what we can expect in the near future.
Of those success stories they particularly highlighted the prevalence of 3D, the perspective API in particular and the new drawing API. With both, celebrating the growing power of the Flash platform in their ability to handle these developments as they’ve promised years previously.
Elsewhere on the Flash player, the new text rendering engine looks impressive. The forthcoming update easily renders ‘print quality’ text in any reading direction – not only bi-directional right to left, but supporting languages such as Thai, Hebrew, Arabic and Asian languages horizontally and vertically.
We had a sneak preview of what else is to come in the CS4 update. Inclusive of the above text advances; authors will have a far greater amount of control over editable properties, more toward the likes you would find in Photoshop (kerning, ligatures, etc) as well as the TLF (Text Layout Framework) improvements which can link multiple text fields like columns, as to what we’re more familiar with in Adobe Illustrator.
There’s a keen initiative to make life easier for newcomers to Flash – and designers .
For example, there are now a number of code snippets bundled with the Flash IDE which, whilst not being anything brand new at all for most workflows, has been lacking in Flash for some time. These will beparticularly beneficial for those experiencing migrations problems from Actionscript 2.0.
Alongside those, the code IDE also has both auto-completion and code introspection for custom classes.
As has always been Adobe’s intention, there’s a continuation of tightening the integration of programs across the Creative Suite.
Flash Professional and Flash Builder (the renamed Flex Builder) have a partnered workflow between coding and design environments. Documents can be created within the Flash IDE and a document class be generated and automatically be launched within Flash Builder. Flash Builder in turn has compile and debug shortcuts via the toolbar to switch back and forth with Flash thereafter.
The keynote concluded with Mark Doherty joining Richard and Mark on stage to demonstrate some of their developments with mobile devices. Showing Flash running (almost) natively on a few mobile devices and even promised their first television platform support – though poor cabling let down the demonstration.
The first talk proper I attended was with Mike Chambers exploring some advanced techniques with Adobe AIR. Since it’s release 18-odd months ago, there’s been plenty of entry-level talks and tutorials at conferences I’ve attended, so I was looking forward to a more advanced demonstration.
Mike went through some of his contributions to the AS3corelib, a must-have library of tools that came around last year.
The first was the FileMonitor, straightforward enough, is a handler class for monitoring changes to a file on the system marked for observation. The class dispatches events on modification and movement (or if it is deleted) by polling the file regularly and, basically, looking for changes to the last modified date. Mike noted that this class and the VolumeMonitor, which he demonstrated next, essentially facilitate what AIR natively ‘cannot’ really do. They’re not particularly hacks, but workarounds until the runtime supports these functions natively.
Mike also talked about the AIR 2.0 release, that as well as having the performance improvements you’d expect, checks off a few of the most popular feature requests, which was one of Adobe’s highest priorities.
He demonstrated the StorageVolume API, which monitors for USB mounted hard drives. He recorded a video with a flip camera and handled the file transfer within an AIR application which detected it’s mounting and read the file contents.
This really made AIR look like it could eventually be a very powerful desktop runtime (and already it’s pretty damn good as it is). But with it’s seamless connection with the hardware devices and by seeing it confidently carry out the kind of tasks you’d expect more traditional proprietary software to perform was really something.
Likewise, Mike showed some examples of storing persistent data for applications by creating custom file types. He also utilised the application cache, by way of the ResouceCache class, to optimise processing. This of course also allows you to access these kinds of assets whilst offline, which after all is half the deal with AIR. It too really made AIR look like a far more serious, or at least a more mature platform than it’s young age may otherwise suggest.
Finally he talked about forthcoming changes to running native processes and applications – and this is a huge deal.
I’m sure this is would have been the most requested feature by far – that AIR should be able to launch files in their native apps and run other applications or processes securely from within it’s own runtime.
Mike was the developer of the CommandProxy, a proof-of-concept bridge between AIR and the OS by way of a secondary application (running in the background), but this development now makes that obsolete. This would be able to talk to other applications the correct way, whether that application is something like Photoshop or a command line process.
Apparently though, if you do use this functionality, you can no longer distribute your applications as an .AIR file. Although your app will still be completely cross-platform (this is important to Adobe, he says) you’ll have to export as the platform-specific executable – so a DMG or EXE file, for example – though handy as it is, the compiler will produce these for you .
Mike has now uploaded his notes to his blog here.
Next up was Carlos Ulloa who discussed a selection of his latest work for his studio HelloEnjoy. Founder of Papervision3D, Carlos (as ever) didn’t fail to impress.
The first project was ‘Flowers’, a very intricate visualiser and editor for forms of artistic models of abstract 3D flowers. Whilst offering a very simple interface to manipulate the characteristics of the flower – shape, size, colours, in real-time – it hid some extremely complex mathematics and transformations behind-the-scenes.
Carlos took us through how the project was conceptualised and ultimately built, referring to some of the libraries he used along the way – Flint particles being one of them, as well as the excellent GouraudMaterials for shading.
Secondly he demonstrated EnergyLab – a relatively straightforward game mechanic, but executed to the highest levels of workmanship and attention to detail that I’ve probably ever seen in such an application.
Having visited the site before and being impressed enough simply by the experience it offered (it deservedly won a FWA, too), I hadn’t truely realised how much work had gone into the development of the project – particularly the 3D work more in the combination of Papervision and Maya, than the video production which is arguably more striking.
Carlos went through an extremely complex and lengthy process to achieve the desired visual results requested by the client, who pretty much came to them with a video full of CGI and asked “Can you do that?”. It’s exemplary of the powerful effects that can be created in Flash as boasted in the keynote.
Working in parallel with Papervision and Maya, for weeks scrutinising every detail of the project it would seem, it’s as much also a remarkable achievement of workflow and process. I don’t think that playing the game really represents this.
Finally we saw walkthroughs of HelloRacer, an iPhone application developed with Unity 3D in just a week (the online version of which can be seen on Carlos’ blog), and the popular HelloEnjoy website – newly improved with extra models and sound. By this point most people were already pretty blown away, Carlos made this look relatively simple - he sets a high bar.
Adobe Flash Platform team
This session was a face-to-face Q&A between the leaders of the Flash platform and the community at large, an open-mic style meeting allowing anybody to fire any questions they had.
Most questions related generally to workflow, feature requests or concerns over software bugs, with the odd teething problem with CS4 thrown in. However a few points are worth nothing outrigh.
For one, the panel were asked about threading and whether there are any plans to support some kind of threading in the Flash Player (ever, at all). I thought this would produce an outright “no”, but it seems it is something that they’re considering. No doubt due to the high amount of requests. They said, whilst threading is very hard to achieve and in no-way present in any form natively for the player right now, they’ve looked at other methods of running concurrent tasks seen elsewhere with the likes of HTML5 or Grand Central Dispatch, to facilitate something similar. So although there is a definite interest, what we might eventually see may not necessarily be ‘threading’, per se.
Another (perhaps inevitable) question asked for any update on the status of Flash for the iPhone – both for support in the Safari browser as well as potential to run applications natively on the platform. Disappointingly, there is none. This was an outright blank – although of course, it’s still a target. Adobe will demonstrate Flash Player 10 to the best of its ability at Adobe MAX 2009, but other that that, there’s no new plans. It was actually at FOTB last year that the first announcements were made.
Finally there was a quick conversation about the ‘headless’ Flash player, a distribution for search engines to allow indexing of Flash-based content (SWF files). I wrote about this when it was announced, but it sounds as if it might now be released again but for developers to play with – for the same reasons and SEO purposes so we can see how it works inside-out, but also as a tool that could be used for the likes of automated testing, or anything else that we might be able to come up with.
Another note taken from the session actually, it seems that Flash on the Beach is unfortunately ‘too close to MAX’, as I heard on multiple occasions. Adobe are obviously holding back from secrets for MAX, fair enough, but it was disappointing to hear this said a few times to the crowd of eager community members who’ve paid their hundreds of pounds for their tickets.
Flash on the Beach has been noted for a being a conference that despite it’s name isn’t solely concentrated on Flash. Although you’d expect the whole platform to be covered (Flex, AIR, etc), which it is, FOTB also hold sessions on technologies only loosely associated with Flash, other Adobe products and pure Web technologies too. They’ve held talks on the likes of Processing for example, and there are talks about technology in general. This was the first of those kind for me.
Dr. Woohoo! talked about his time working with cybernetics and digital art and his paradigm of Art + Science = Serious Fun. He talked about about the people and places that have influenced his work and shaped his career to date.
He spoke about his time at the Santa Fe complex, showed some great recordings of the Art && Code symposium and other exhibitions he’s attended, spoke about the current state of affairs with reference to projects like Computer Vision and more recently Project Natal.
There was a lot of name dropping and references thrown in to books and other institutions, recommended reading and quotes from luminaries of the field (far too many for me to write here). His blog is regularly updated, so hopefully his slides will eventually surface there.
Telling stories was another such session.
Hillman Curtis was the Art Director at Macromedia when Flash was first born in 1998. In his talk he spoke about his journey from then until now, his work with photography, film and Web design and his influences and muses found along the way.
We saw work from his portfolio and part of his latest film; a feature length documentary on David Byrne.
Despite being another code-free talk, it was attended by all event-goers and met with a compelled atmosphere no less.
I actually though this was very well placed at the end of the day, it seemed to encapsulate everything about why we do the things we do, even if not talking directly about our software product itself.
Joel Gethin Lewis
That was the end of the daytime sessions. After a break we returned for the first of the ‘Inspired’ evening sessions of the week. These talks aimed to be free of code too, if not development entirely, hosted purely for inspiration and the feel-good factor.
Joel Gethin Lewis is an interaction designer and artist who previously worked with United Visual Artists.
We saw some of his work there including the brilliant Regent Street Christmas lights of 2007. The huge light installation claimed to be the first ever ‘interactive’ Christmas lights created, the formations and lights changed based upon the density of shoppers below and other factors such as surrounding weather conditions, captured by cameras and climate sensors hidden around the street.
From the latter we saw their project Lights On (also currently on the YYN homepage at the time of this writing), a massive audio visual performance created for the opening of the new Ars Electronica museum. With YesYesNo, he spoke about his work with openFrameworks and Computer Vision also.
He also worked on another great project called Contact, a floor-based artwork commissioned by the British Council that tracked the motion of those walking over it and generated physics-simulated shapes and objects below them on a giant LCD surface.
The thing is, this project was developed in about two weeks and made possible only by leveraging open source software. It’s with this possibility and ultimate realisation upon Contact’s success that that Joel reached his ‘epiphany’; that in his opinion, all software not only need not be paid for but should be free and open source.
Enthused, he found a whole host of open sourced software and similar successful projects and became set on being a champion of the open source school of thought. There’s a great article from Creative Review earlier this year in which he and partner Pete Hellicar talk about their experience.
All in all, a great first day from Flash on the Beach – all boxes ticked and more, exceeding expectations already.
I do apologise for the lengthy post, worry not – I’m sure I can’t keep this up.