Step inside The Lightstream Chronicles

Some time ago I promised to step inside one of the scenes from The Lighstream Chronicles. Today, to commemorate the debut of Season 5—that goes live today—I’m going to deliver on that promise, partially.

 

Background

The notion started after giving my students a tour of the Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design (ACCAD)s motion-capture lab. We were a discussing VR, and sadly, despite all the recent hype, very few of us—including me—had never experienced state-of-the-art Virtual Reality. In that tour, it occurred to me that through the past five years of continuous work on my graphic novel, a story built entirely in CG, I have a trove of scenes and scenarios that I could in effect step into. Of course, it is not that simple, as I have discovered this summer working with ACCADs animation specialist Vita Berezina-Blackburn. It turns out that my extreme high-resolution images are not ideally compatible with the Oculus pipeline.

The idea was, at first, a curiosity for me, but it became quickly apparent that there was another level of synergy with my work in guerrilla futures, a flavor of design fiction.

Design fiction, my focus of study, centers on the idea that, through prototypes and future narratives we can engage people in thinking about possible futures, discuss and debate them and instill the idea of individual agency in shaping them. Unfortunately, too much design fiction ends up in the theoretical realm within the confines of the art gallery, academic conferences or workshops. The instances are few where the general public receives a future experience to contemplate and consider. Indeed, it has been something of a lament for me that my work in future fiction through the graphic novel, can be experienced as pure entertainment without acknowledging the deeper issues of its socio-techno themes. At the core of experiential design fiction introduced by Stewart Candy (2010) is the notion that future fiction can be inserted into everyday life whether the recipient has asked for them or not. The technique is one method of making the future real enough for us to ask whether this is the future we want and if not what might we do about it now.

Through my recent meanderings with VR, I see that this idea of immersive futures could be an incredibly powerful method of infusing these experiences.

The scene from Season 1 that I selected for this test.
The scene from Season 1 that I selected for this test.

 

About the video
This video is a test. We had no idea what we would get after I stripped down a scene from Season 1. Then we had a couple of weeks of trial and error re-making my files to be compatible with the system. Since one of the things that separate The Lightstream Chronicles from your average graphic novel/webcomic is the fact that you can zoom in 5x to inspect every detail, it is not uncommon, for example for me to have more than two hundred 4K textures in any given scene. It also allows me as the “director” to change it up and dolly in or out to focus on a character or object within a scene without a resulting loss in resolution. To me, it’s one of the drawbacks in many video games of getting in and inspecting a resident artifact. They usually start to “break up” into pixels the closer you get. However, in a real-time environment, you have to make concessions, at least for now, to make your textures render faster.

For this test, we didn’t apply all two hundred textures, just some essentials. For example the cordial glasses, the liquid in the bottle and the array of floating transparent files that hover over Techman’s desk. We did apply the key texture that defines the environment and that is the rusty, perforated metal wall that encloses Techman’s “safe-room” and protects it from eavesdropping. There are lots of other little glitches beyond unassigned textures, such as intersecting polygons and dozens of lighting tweaks that make this far from prime time.

In the average VR game, you move your controller forward through space while you are either seated or standing. Either way, in most cases you are stationary. What distinguishes this from most VR experiences is that I can physically walk through the scene.In this test, we were in the ACCAD motion capture lab.

Wearing the Oculus in the MoCap lab.
Wearing the Oculus in the MoCap lab while Lakshika manages the tether.

I’m sure you have seen pictures of this sort of thing before where characters strap on sensors to “capture their motions” and translate them to virtual CG characters. This was the space in which I was working. It has boundaries, however. So I had to obtain those boundaries, in scale to my scene so that I could be sure that the room and the characters were within the area of the lab. Dozens of tracking devices around the lab read sensors on the Oculus headset and ensure that once I strap it on, I can move freely within the limits of virtual space, and it would relate my movements to the context of the virtual scene.

Next week I’ll be going back into the lab with a new scene and take a look at Kristin Broulliard and Keiji in their exchange from episode 97 (page) Season 3.

Next time.
Next time.

Respond, reply, comment. Enjoy.

 

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Who are you?

 

There have been a few articles in the recent datasphere have centered around the pervasive tracking of our online activity from the benign to those bordering on unethical. One was from FastCompany that highlighted some practices that web marketers use to track the folks that visit their sites. The article by Steve Melendez lists a handful of these. They include the basics like first party cookies, and A/B testing, to more invasive methods such as psychological testing (thanks, Facebook) third-party tracking cookies, and differential pricing. The cookie is, of course, the most basic. I use them on this site and on The Lightstream Chronicles to see if anyone is visiting, where they’re coming from and a bunch of other minutiae. Using Google Analytics, I can, for example, see what city or country my readers are coming from, age and sex, whether they are regulars or new visitors, whether they visit via mobile or desktop, Apple or Windows, and if they came to my site by way of referral, where did they originate. Then I know if my ads for the graphic novel are working. I find this harmless. I have no interest in knowing your sexual preference, where you shop, and above all, I’m not selling anything (at least not yet). I’m just looking for more eyeballs. More viewers mean that I’m not wasting my time and that somebody is paying attention. It’s interesting that a couple of months ago the EU internet authorities sent me a snippet of code that I was “required” to post on the LSC site alerting my visitors that I use cookies. Aside from they U.S., my highest viewership is from the UK. It’s interesting that they are aware that their citizens are visiting. Hmm.

I have software that allows me to A/B test which means I could change up something on the graphic novel homepage and see if it gets more reaction than a previous version. But, I barely have the time to publish a new blog or episode much less create different versions and test them. A one-man-show has its limitations.

The rest of the tracking methods highlighted in the above article require a lot of devious programming. Since I have my hands full with the basics, this stuff is way above my pay grade. Even if it wasn’t, I think it all goes a bit too far.

Personally, I deplore most internet advertising. I know that makes me a hypocrite since I use it from time to time to drive traffic to my site. I also realize that it is probably a necessary evil. Sites need revenue, or they can’t pump out the content on which we have come to rely. Unfortunately, the landscape often turns into a melee. Tumblr is a good example. Initially, they integrated their ads into the format of their posts. So as you are scrolling through the content, you see an ad within their signature brand presentation. Cool. Then they started doing separate in-line ads. These looked entirely different from their brand content, and the ads were those annoying things like “Grandma discovers the fountain of youth.” Not cool. Then they introduced this floating ad box that tracks you all the way down the page as you scroll through content. You get no break from it. It’s distracting, and based on the content, it can be horrifying, like Hillary Clinton staring at you for seven minutes. How much can a person take?

And it won't go away.
And it won’t go away.

Since my blog is future oriented, the question arises, what does this have to do with the future? It does. These marketing techniques will only become more sophisticated. Many of them already incorporate artificial intelligence to map your activity and predict your every want and need—maybe even the ones you didn’t think anyone knew you had. Is this an invasion of privacy? If it is, it’s going to get more invasive. And as I’m fond of saying, we need to pay attention to these technologies and practices, now or we won’t have a say in where they end up. As a society, we have to do better than just adapt to whatever comes along. We need to help point them in the right direction from the beginning.

 

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Thought leaders and followers.

 

Next week, the World Future Society is having its annual conference. As a member, I really should be going, but I can’t make it this year. The future is a dicey place. There are people convinced that we can create a utopia, some are warning of dystopia, and the rest are settled somewhere in between. Based on promotional emails that I have received, one of the topics is “The Future of Evolution and Human Nature.” According to the promo,

“The mixed emotions and cognitive dissonance that occur inside each of us also scale upward into our social fabric: implicit bias against new perspectives, disdain for people who represent “other”, the fear of a new world that is not the same as it has always been, and the hopelessness that we cannot solve our problems. We know from experience that this negativity, hatred, fear, and hopelessness is not what it seems like on the surface: it is a reaction to change. And indeed we are experiencing a period of profound change.” There is a larger story of our evolution that extends well beyond the negativity and despair that feels so real to us today. It’s a story of redefining and building infrastructure around trust, hope and empathy. It’s a story of accelerating human imagination and leveraging it to create new and wondrous things.

It is a story of technological magic that will free us from scarcity and ensure a prosperous lifestyle for everyone, regardless of where they come from.”

Woah. I have to admit, this kind of talk that makes me uncomfortable. Are fear of a new world, negativity, hatred, and fear reactions to change? Will technosocial magic solve all our problems? This type of rhetoric sounds more like a movement than a conference that examines differing views on an important topic. It would seem to frame caution as fear and negativity, and then we throw in that hyperbole hatred. Does it sound like the beginning of an agenda with a framework that characterizes those who disagree as haters? I think it does. It’s a popular tactic.

These views do not by any means reflect the opinions of the entire WFS membership, but there is a significant contingent, such as the folks from Humanity+, which hold the belief that we can fix human evolution—even human nature—with technology. For me, this is treading into thorny territory.

What is human nature? Merriam-Webster online provides this definition:

“[…]the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Presumably, we include good traits and bad traits. Will our discussions center on which features to fix and which to keep or enhance? Who will decide?

What about the human condition? Can we change this? Should we? According to Wikipedia,

“The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.” This is a very broad topic which has been and continues to be pondered and analyzed from many perspectives, including those of religion, philosophy, history, art, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology.”

Clearly, there are a lot of different perspectives to be represented here. Do we honestly believe that technology will answer them all sufficiently? The theme of the upcoming WFS conference is “A Brighter Future IS Possible.” No doubt there will be a flurry of technosocial proposals presented there, and we should not put them aside as a bunch of fringe futurists. These voices are thought-leaders. They lead thinking. Are we thinking? Are we paying attention? If so, then it’s time to discuss and debate these issues, or others will decides without us.

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Future Shock

 

As you no doubt have heard, Alvin Toffler died on June 27, 2016, at the age of 87. Mr. Toffler was a futurist. The book for which he is best known, Future Shock was a best seller in 1970 and was considered required college reading at the time. In essence, Mr. Toffler said that the future would be a disorienting place if we just let it happen. He said we need to pay attention.

Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016
Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016

This week, The New York Times published an article entitled Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch by Farhad Manjoo. As Manjoo observes, at one time (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), the study of foresight and forecasting was important stuff that governments and corporations took seriously. Though I’m not sure I agree with Manjoo’s assessment of why that is no longer the case, I do agree that it is no longer the case.

“In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.”

At one time, this was required reading.
At one time, this was required reading.

When I attended the First International Conference on Anticipation in 2015, I was pleased to discover that the blindness was not everywhere. In fact, many of the people deeply rooted in the latest innovations in science and technology, architecture, social science, medicine, and a hundred other fields are very interested in the future. They see an urgency. But most governments don’t and I fear that most corporations, even the tech giants are more interested in being first with the next zillion-dollar technology than asking if that technology is the right thing to do. Even less they are asking what repercussions might flow from these advancements and what are the ramifications of today’s decision making. We just don’t think that way.

I don’t believe that has to be the case. The World Future Society for example at their upcoming conference in Washington, DC will be addressing the idea of futures studies as a requirement for high school education. They ask,

“Isn’t it surprising that mainstream education offers so little teaching on foresight? Were you exposed to futures thinking when you were in high school or college? Are your children or grandchildren taught how decisions can be made using scenario planning, for example? Or take part in discussions about what alternative futures might look like? In a complex, uncertain world, what more might higher education do to promote a Futurist Mindset?”

It certainly needs to be part of design education, and it is one of the things I vigorously promote at my university.

As Manjoo sums up in his NYT article,

“Of course, the future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.

Yet, without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.”

And if that isn’t just crazy, at the very least it’s dangerous.

 

 

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Vision comes from looking to the future.

 

I was away last week, but I left off with a post about proving that some of the things that we current think of as sci-fi or fantasy are not only plausible, but some may even be on their way to reality. In the last post, I was providing the logical succession toward implantable technology or biohacking.

The latest is a robot toy from a company called Anki. Once again, WIRED provided the background on this product, and it is an excellent example of technological convergence which I have discussed many times before. Essentially, “technovergence” is when multiple cutting-edge technologies come together in unexpected and sometimes unpredictable ways. In this case, the toy brings together AI, machine learning, computer vision science, robotics, deep character development, facial recognition, and a few more. According to the video below,

“There have been very few applications where a robot has felt like a character that connects with humans around it. For that, you really need artificial intelligence and robotics. That’s been the missing key.”

According to David Pierce, with WIRED,

“Cozmo is a cheeky gamer; the little scamp tried to fake me into tapping my block when they didn’t match, and stormed off when I won. And it’s those little tics, the banging of its lift-like arm and spinning in circles and squawking in its Wall-E voice, that really makes you want to refer to the little guy as ‘he’ rather than ‘it.’”

What strikes me as especially interesting is that my students designed their own version of this last semester. (I’m pretty sure that they knew nothing about this particular toy.) The semester was a rigorous design fiction class that took a hard look at what was possible in the next five to ten years. For some, the class was something like hell, but the similarities and possibilities that my students put together for their robot are amazingly like Cozmo.

I think this is proof of more than what is possible; it’s evidence that vision comes from looking to the future.

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