Ireland’s foremost Apple-focused technology conference returned for its third iteration this week and once again Úll showcased the finest Irish and international exponents of design and development, but this year departed radically from the conventional conference format.
Rather than replicate the formula that has seen Úll generate so much acclaim in its two previous outings, founders Paul Campbell and Dermot Daly decided to reinvent their conference. Both developers themselves – their day jobs involve running Tito and Tapadoo respectively – they approached this year's event as a developer might decide to entirely rewrite and redesign an already successful app for its 3.0 release.
For a start, Úll decamped from the capital and made a fresh home for itself in the luxury environs of Lyrath Castle just outside Kilkenny city. Whereas last year Úll occupied the Mansion House, this iteration was simultaneously more concentrated and more diffuse – a series of conventional conference talks on day one, followed by a rather more experimental format on day two comprising feature session installations in various rooms throughout the building.
“There are lots of lovely ballrooms in Ireland,” said Campbell of the fresh approach, “but it’s all about making use of the space we have here. Like an art gallery or a fairground, it’s designed so people can choose their own schedule, explore in their own way.”
Daly reinforces the point. “You can’t take an amazing venue like Lyrath and keep people in a room like this,” he says of the function room. “It’s a waste of the environment. The question was, ‘How can we make it so that attendees don’t miss anything, but you make full use of the space?’”
After sundown, events included a live talk show (with music provided by Ryan Tubridy's house band the Camembert Quartet) and the now traditional closing keynote from writer and tech luminary John Gruber, a bona fide star of the Apple community, whose site 'Daring Fireball' has been the go-to blog for brilliantly opinionated Apple commentary for nearly a decade.
Fleshing out the daytime schedules were a range of eclectic diversions, including a 5km run and performances of Irish actor Susan Boyle's acclaimed storytelling-come-wine-tasting show, A Wine Goose Chase.
The move to Lyrath also allowed the conference to foster a family-friendly festival vibe, and a number of attendees brought "significant others" and children along with them – there was more than a hint of Electric Picnic for technology creatives about proceedings.
That family-friendliness extended beyond the mere number of children scurrying around – two of Monday’s talks revolved around designing apps for children, while addressing very specific needs.
Amanda Rösler of Swedish/US-based development house Toca Boca showed just how much impact design choices can have in her discussion on designing digital toys that appeal to both boys and girls – and such a process involves far more than merely avoiding pink and lazy stereotypes about what interests one gender or the other, but rather extends to rethinking many of the assumptions that go into how children play. Challenging those assumptions can also end up challenging assumptions about what the market will reward – Rösler pointed out that many Toca Boca games are top of the children’s games charts in the US App Store.
The importance of meaningful design was also the theme of an inspirational talk by Lisa Domican. Domican is the mother of two autistic children, and along with developer Steve Troughton Smith was behind the development of the Grace app, to facilitate picture-enhanced communication with her daughter Gracie. Her talk reinforced the point that the marriage of design and technology can play an instrumental role in dramatically improving people’s lives.
"IPads are not a universal panacea for autism, but they are a tool for connecting with people with autism," she said. "There is no cure for autism, but I found the secret to managing autism, and that is, getting to know your child. My daughter is still the person she always was. But I have been able to get to know her, and she has let me into her life."
The feature sessions on day two were an experiment in the unknown for most people, and ranged from intriguing product demonstrations to recorded video talks to exercises in metaphysical meditation – every room held something radically different.
Writer and software manager Michael Lopp and his wife Rachelle delivered an impressive video presentation on the joy of Instagram – the Lopps themselves were attending the conference but absent from the screening room, lending it the air of a reverse Marina Abramovic performance, but their absence felt like an appropriate conceit, given they were exploring the strong human connections that can be made through a photo-sharing service.
Another notable feature session was Jean MacDonald’s App Camp for Girls, a day-long version of the hugely successful app-development course she runs for young girls in Seattle and Portland. As she put it during the Monday night talk show, the success of the project shows that “underestimating girls is a big mistake”. It also demonstrated the proudly diverse approach to technology that Úll manages to encapsulate.
Somewhat invariably, given the presenters were not seasoned installation artists, some of the other feature sessions did not quite manage to successfully inhabit the space available or make ideal use of the format, but while the conference experimentation delivered mixed results, it is plainly the case that Campbell, Daly and their team, including Sasha Wilson and Killian McMahon, have built something rather special.
In Úll, they have created a small-scale, lovingly curated and painstakingly designed event that showcases a different, often underappreciated side to Ireland’s technology scene – one that is about attracting hugely talented creative people rather than merely attracting hugely successful multinational corporations. Tellingly, a good two-thirds of the attendees were visiting from abroad, and about half of them had never been to Ireland before.
“Úll isn’t just a technology conference,” says Daly, trying to sum up the hard-to-define essence of the event. “It’s more about exploring excellence in design, with Apple as a reference point.”