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Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Alumni Profile: Media Master

The name Kung Fu Numerik may initially conjure up an image of little digital people jumping all over each other on a small screen. But Ghassan Fayad (BS ’98) assures us that his interactive media design and development company is more about mastering the field of digital arts (think creating the next youtube.com), than digital martial arts.

“Numérique means digital in French, so it’s all about ‘digital kung-fu’,” he explains. “And, if you come back to the real etymology and meaning of the Chinese word kung-fu, it’s not as much about fighting but rather the mastery of an art or craft.” It’s about precision, strength, competence, perseverance, and wisdom.

Fayad created Kung Fu Numerik to build cutting-edge creative web sites, web tools, software, and interactive content for the entertainment and cultural industries.

Logic, passion, and an evidently unfailing gut instinct took Fayad from Beirut to Montreal and to the head of his own successful interactive media design and development company.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in computer and communications engineering at AUB in 1998, Fayad chose to pursue a master’s in electrical and computer engineering at McGill University in Montreal. After graduation, friends, family, a girlfriend, and a right-side of the brain desire to be his own boss kept him there, despite a temping job offer in California’s Silicon Valley. Plus, as it turned out, the dot-com bubble burst just months later, leaving thousands of young engineers instantly unemployed. So, while the tech industry was imploding stateside, Fayad was in Montreal getting plenty of work setting up portals for Quebec-based organizations, and preparing to launch his first company.

In 2003, he decided he wanted to be involved in the creation and conception of interactive media. His goal was to move towards producing content for the web. So, he registered for a six-month intensive program at Canada’s prestigious INIS (Institut National de l’Image et du Son), which is renowned for its programs in cinema, television, and new media production. The next year, Fayad founded his first company, Le Medialab, which came together after Fayad and his then partner won a substantial contract from Quebec’s largest institution in the field of clinical assistance, which works with people with motor and/or speech and language disorders. The pair worked a year on the project.

“They wanted us to entirely redevelop their site and create several interactive components and technical solutions. One of the client’s most critical requirements was the accessibility of the content to people with disabilities,” he tells me. “Our solution was based on a standard called the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) which is a heavy and sometimes very theoretical published set of guidelines that allows any online content to be accessible to different devices and interfaces.” So, whether you access the site via a computer, a handheld device, a screen-reader, an eye-controlled cursor, a joystick, a touch screen, and so on, the content—or some version of that content—will be available.

Armed with expertise and hands-on experience from Le Medialab, Fayad soon took off on his own to found Kung Fu Numerik, which, in less than eight months has grown and accumulated an impressive portfolio and various prizes. It is, says Fayad, a company dedicated to two main activities. The first is to develop technological architectures for web platforms or, to put it more simply, to create cutting-edge creative web sites, web tools, and software and interactive content. “Our clients for these services are mainly advertising and design agencies that lack the technical know-how to develop web databases and highly interactive on-line experiences,” he says.

When I probe him about interactivity, Fayad uses the analogy of video games (Playstation, Xbox), which are the closest thing to a highly interactive immersive experience. The big trend is to get involved with what’s happening on screen, and not just sitting back and watching. “The taste for ‘user-generated content,’ like myspace.com, youtube.com, and so many of the biggest web success stories today, has meant a reliance on the public to generate the content that is shown. With the interactive platforms, information can be pulled from the public instead of just being pushed on the public.”

For example, a company like amazon.com is constantly profiling its customers and tracking preferences so that it can target its products to clients more effectively. As Fayad explains, “The information is filtered for you and the system is learning to ‘know you.’ The content becomes tailored to your needs.”

Kung Fu Numerik is currently working on two interactive user-generated content projects. The first is an immersive visit to the great Canadian north to discover the native Inuit culture today. “We are recreating the environment from a massive bank of images and video that a team collected there last winter in order to almost give a sense to people of actually being there and interacting with the locals. The other project is a “portrait” of the United States where people can upload their digital photos from their computers or mobiles, to generate a map of America as a constantly changing mosaic composed of thousands of user-submitted photos.

The second and fastest growing of Kung Fu Numerik’s activities is the production and development of concepts, on-line content, and intellectual property. It is here that Fayad talks excitedly about the Cityspeak project, which has been nominated for and won several international awards. Cityspeak works in much the same way as poetry magnets that people stick on their refrigerator doors, with which they compose various messages. For Fayad, the idea lent itself ideally to the web because it is a simple collaborative concept. “The added spin is that our words were not just words but city words, which could be captured anytime, anywhere, with a digital camera or cell phone. So in this sense, the public contributes to the content on multiple levels: they create the messages with the words, but they also build the vocabulary by sending their photos of words. This is the essence of Cityspeak,” he notes.

“So imagine you want to say ‘Happy birthday Mom’ in an original way. You would go to Cityspeak and type your sentence and the engine will generate the sentence in photos. You can choose a theme (street signs, Montreal words, Beirut words, famous logos, etc.) and customize the message. You can upload your own photo of your mom and have it replace the 'mom' word in the sentence.” Once the message is complete, it can be e-mailed or sent to “mom’s” mobile, or posted on the Cityspeak “wall of poetry.”

In the end, and in addition to logic, passion, and a reliable gut instinct, what has helped Fayad get to where he is now has as much to do with creativity, something that he has in abundance. “I’ve always had a creative side, even during my engineering studies,” he says. “I was doing music, design, and animation on the side. During my AUB years, I was working as a designer for a Lebanese weekly and I had a rock band. I also made certain choices in my course projects that kept me closer to multimedia and creation. So I have never been content with being a purely technical resource… The possibilities are endless and we are still in the early exploration of what can be done.”

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