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Toronto's CFC Media Lab is a world pioneer in digital interactive media & now they mean business.

There is a tight spiral of film stills rotating above my head like a celluloid galaxy. I am gazing up at posters of the 100 Essential Films as determined by an expert panel, projected on the wall of the recently opened TIFF Bell Lightbox. Lists like this generate fierce debate, though, and TIFF's number one choice, The Passion of Joan of Arc, was replaced through fan lobbying by 2001: A Space Odyssey, after only five days of TIFF.  

The Canadian Film Centre's (CFC) Media Lab designed the interface that allows people to reshuffle the TIFF list and vote for their favourite movies with their mobile phones. It's a nice way to strike a balance between the choices of the art-house critics and the Star Wars fans.

Ana Serrano, Director of the CFC's Media Lab, is excited about the ongoing installation. "It's a data visualization of how the 100 essential films would be reorganized by the public," she says. "This is the only exhibit [at TIFF Lightbox] that lets the audience interact with the films."

The Media Lab has been producing interactive media installations like this for the past 13 years. "The Media Lab was one of the first post-graduate institutions focused on interactive narrative-based story telling," says Serrano. "When people think about digital media, they think about the web, maybe mobile phones. We think about digital technology as a new medium for telling stories."

The CFC Media Lab has an in-house production team, but also spends a large chunk of its time hosting graduate students in the Telus Interactive Art & Entertainment Program (IAEP), a residency devoted to hands-on exploration of the world of interactive digital media. Recently, the Media Lab has begun to incubate start-up companies with the view of commercializing innovative projects.

Companies don't need to be convinced anymore that telling the story of their brand through digital content is an excellent way of hooking customers.  "The consumer experience is where the future of digital media lies," she Serrano.  In the summer of 2010, the Media Lab moved into the MaRS Discovery District so the business advisors at MaRS could help commercialize the Media Lab creations.

"It's about making money through art and expression," says Serrano. "We needed to partner with MaRS to learn how to better develop the business side of things." Serrano and the core Media Lab team are getting more and more contracts like the one from TIFF to visualize data and to engage potential customers.

Telus, one of the CFC's biggest sponsors, supported a huge installation for Scotiabank's Nuit Blanche 2010 at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Musical Rumble: Jazz vs. Classical was a "phone-enabled game" that allowed users to vote on battles between musicians from a jazz band and a classical ensemble. Projections of the musicians were displayed on the walls of the RCM on Bloor Street and the audience voted on their favourite performance. The winning band then performed an original piece of music.

'Neigbourhoodie' is another innovative Media Lab project, created by students in the Telus IAEP. "People bring in their old hoodies and retrofit them with electrical conductive material and LED lights so they can play 'zombie tag'," says Serrano. "If you get tagged, you light up and have to join the other zombies to find more people." A giant game called "Project Hoodieplay" was launched this year at the Zer01 art and technology festival in San Jose

"Our intention with Neighbourhoodie was to encourage active gaming in teens and tweens in a video-game-like format," writes game creator and Telus IAEP alum David McCallum from his new digs in Sweden. "It was kind of luxurious to be able to spend so much time developing and producing our own ideas at the media lab. The media lab is a great incubator for creative, off-the-wall projects that couldn't be developed anywhere else." At MaRS this year, Telus IAEP students installed Voicings, the creation of an eclectic group consisting of a former CBC producer, a web developer and an interactive installation artist.  The three were inspired by the MaRS building, built from the shell of the original Toronto General Hospital where Banting & Best discovered insulin in 1921.

Dozens of voices telling stories were laid overtop of one another, creating a whispering mass of voices in the building's lobby. "They were using MaRS' history as a gold-mine of untold stories," says Serrano.  "They were trying to give a voice to a building."

Another group developed an interactive musical instrument designed to help kids with autism develop connections with students in their class called DruMeBa The students follow the rhythm of some music by banging on a digital drum that triggers an animation on a central screen that gives them feedback on rhythm and accuracy. Played in groups, it's a technology that allows autistic children to communicate and develop social skills without having to physically touch other students; a product that has enormous application in the field of music therapy.

The best way to experience these projects, like all art, is to experience them first hand. So head down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox and vote on your favourite movie. Whether your favourite movie is L'Avventura (#3) or Pulp Fiction (#30), know that the CFC's Media Lab has made it easier for you to make your point on the big screen.

Ana Serrano speaks as part of Treehouse Talks on the topic "No, Interactive Story-telling is Not an Oxymoron." The event takes place at the MaRS Discovery District on Nov. 5 at 6:00 PM.

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