Category Archives: Graphic Novel

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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“It will happen this way:”

 

One of my favorite scenes in cinema comes from Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, loosely based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor. The film stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow. The movie site IMDb gives this tidy synopsis:

“A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead, and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust.”

The answer is probably: nobody. If you have not seen the movie, you should check it out. The premise of an all-knowing, all-powerful, intelligence agency that plays fast-and-loose with the constitution and human life is all too real even 41 years later. There is a scene near the end of the movie where the hitman Joubert (played by Sydow) tells CIA researcher Joe Turner (Redford) that he may never be safe again. The script for this film is outstanding. The character Joubert knows his profession and the people that hire him so well that he can predict the future with high confidence.

 

In many ways, that is what futurists and those in foresight studies attempt to do. Know the people, the behaviors, and the forces in play, so well, that they can make similar predictions. My variation on this, which I have written about previously, is called logical succession. I have used this technique extensively in crafting the story and events of my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles.

In previous blogs, I have explained why my characters have perfect bodies and why they show them off in shrink-wrapped bodysuits that leave little to the imagination. As technology moves forward, it changes us. Selfies have been around since the invention of the camera. Before that, it was called a self-portrait. But the proliferation of the selfie, the nude selfie, and sexting, for example, are by-products of the mobile phone and social media—both are offspring of technology.

With genetic editing already within reach via CrisprCas9, the notion of a body free of disease is no longer a pipe dream. Promising research into manipulating gut hormones could mean the end of obesity. According to livescience.com:

“The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things.”

No wonder medical technology is working hard to find ways to hack into the body’s endocrine system. When these technologies become available, signing up for the perfect body will undoubtedly follow. Will these technologies also change behaviors accordingly?

Psychologists point to a combination of peer pressure, the need for approval, as well as narcissism to be behind the increase in selfie-culture but will that only increase when society has nothing to hide? Will this increase the competition to show off every enhanced detail of the human body? In my future fiction, The Lightstream Chronicles, the answer is yes.

Already there are signs that the “look at me” culture is pervasive in society. Selfies, Sexting, a proliferation of personal photo and social media apps and, of course, the ubiquitous tattoo (the number of American’s with at least one tattoo is now at 45 million) are just a few of these indications.

If this scenario plays out, what new ways will we find to stand out from the crowd? I’ll continue this next week.

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Writing a story that seemingly goes on forever. LSC update.

 

This week I wrapped up the rendering and text for the last episodes of Season 4 of The Lightstream Chronicles. Going back to the original publication calendar that I started in 2012, Chapter 4 was supposed to be 30 some pages. Over the course of production, the page count grew to more than fifty. I think that fifty episodes (pages) are a bit too many for a chapter since it takes almost a year for readers to get through a “season.” If we look at the weekly episodes in a typical TV drama, there are usually less than twenty which is far fewer than even ten years ago. So in retrospect, fifty episodes could have been spread across 2 seasons. The time that it takes to create a page, even from a pre-designed script is one of the challenges in writing and illustrating a lengthy graphic novel. Since the story began, I have had a lot of time to think about my characters, their behavior and my on futuristic prognostications. While this can be good, giving me extra time to refine, clarify or embellish the story, it can also be something of a curse as I look back and wish I had not committed a phrase or image to posterity. Perhaps they call that writer’s remorse. This conundrum also keeps things exciting as I have introduced probably a dozen new characters, scenes, and extensive backstory to the storytelling. Some people might warn that this is a recipe for disaster, but I think that the upcoming changes make the story better, more suspenseful, and engaging.

Since I have added a considerable number of pages and scenes to the beginning of Season 5, the episode count is climbing. It looks as though I going to have to add a Season 7, and possibly a Season 8 before the story finally wraps up.

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Powerful infant.

In previous blogs (such as this one), I have discussed the subject of virtual reality. Yesterday, I tried it. The motivation for my visit to The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), Ohio State’s cutting-edge technology and arts center, was a field trip for my junior Collaborative Studio design students. Their project this semester is to design a future system that uses emerging technologies. It is hard to imagine that in the near-future VR will be commonplace. We stepped inside the a large, empty performance stage rigged with a dozen motion capture cameras that could track your movements throughout virtual space. We looked at an experimental animation in which we could stand amidst the characters and another work-in-progress that allowed us to step inside a painting. It wasn’t my first time in a Google cardboard device where I could look around at a 360-degree world (sensed by my phone’s gyroscope), but on an empty stage where you could walk amongst virtual characters, the experience took on a new dimension—literally. I found myself concerned about bumping into things that weren’t there and even getting a bit dizzy. (I did not let on in front of my students).

I immediately saw an application for The Lightstream Chronicles and realized that I could load up one of my scenes from the graphic novel, bring it over to ACCAD’s mocap studio and step into this virtual world that I have created. I build all of my scenes (including architecture) to scale, furnish the rooms and interiors and provide for full 360º viewing. Building sets this way allows me to revisit them at any time, follow my characters around or move the camera to get a better angle without having to add walls that I might not have anticipated using. After the demo, I was pretty excited. It became apparent that this technology will enable me to see what my characters see, and stand beside them. It’s a bit mind-blowing. Now the question becomes which scene to use. Any ideas?

Clearly VR is in its infancy, but it is a very powerful infant. The future seems exciting, and I can see why people can get caught up in what the promises could be. Of course, I have to be the one to wonder at what this powerful infant will grow up to be.

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Breathing? There’s an app for that.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp) continue to advance there really is no more room left for surprise. These things are cascading out of Silicon Valley, crowd-funding sites, labs, and start-ups with continually accelerating speed. And like Kurzweil, I think it’s happening faster than 95 percent of the world is expecting. A fair number of these are duds and frankly superfluous attempts at “computing” what otherwise, with a little mental effort, we could do on our own. Ian Bogost’s article, this week in the Atlantic Monthly,The Internet of Things You Don’t Really Need points out how many of these “innovations” are replacing just the slightest amount of extra brain power, ever-so-minimal physical activity, or prescient concentration. Not to mention that these apps just supply another entry into your personal, digital footprint. More in the week’s news (this stuff is happening everywhere) this time in FastCompany, an MIT alumn who is concerned about how little “face time” her kids are getting with real humans because they are constantly in front of screens or tablets. (Human to human interaction is important for development of emotional intelligence.) The solution? If you think it is less time on the tablet and more “go out and play”, you are behind the times. The researcher, Rana el Kaliouby, has decided that she has the answer:

“Instead, she believes we should be working to make computers more emotionally intelligent. In 2009, she cofounded a company called Affectiva, just outside Boston, where scientists create tools that allow computers to read faces, precisely connecting each brow furrow or smile line to a specific emotion.”

Of course it is. Now, what we don’t know, don’t want to learn (by doing), or just don’t want to think about, our computer, or app, will do for us. The FastCo author Elizabeth Segran, interviewed el Kaliouby:

“The technology is able to deduce emotions that we might not even be able to articulate, because we are not fully aware of them,” El Kaliouby tells me. “When a viewer sees a funny video, for instance, the Affdex might register a split second of confusion or disgust before the viewer smiles or laughs, indicating that there was actually something disturbing to them in the video.”

Oh my.

“At some point in the future, El Kaliouby suggests fridges might be equipped to sense when we are depressed in order to prevent us from binging on chocolate ice cream. Or perhaps computers could recognize when we are having a bad day, and offer a word of empathy—or a heartwarming panda video.”

Please no.

By the way, this is exactly the type of technology that is at the heart of the mesh, the ubiquitous surveillance system in The Lightstream Chronicles. In addition to having learned every possible variation of human emotion, this software has also learned physical behavior such that it can tell when, or if someone is about to shoplift, attack, or threaten another person. It can even tell if you have any business being where you are or not.

So,  before we get swept up in all of the heartwarming possibilities for relating to our computers, (shades of Her), and just in case anyone is left who is alarmed at becoming a complete emotional, intellectual and physical muffin, there is significant new research that suggests that the mind is a muscle. You use it or lose it, that you can strengthen learning and intelligence by exercising and challenging your mind and cognitive skills. If my app is going remind me not to be rude, when to brush my teeth, drink water, stop eating, and go to the toilet, what’s left? The definition of post-human comes to mind.

As a designer, I see warning flags. It is precisely a designer’s ability for abstract reasoning that makes problem solving both gratifying and effective. Remember McGyver? You don’t have to, your life hacks app will tell you what you need to do. You might also want to revisit a previous blog on computers that are taking our jobs away.

macgyver
McGyver. If you don’t know, you’re going to have to look it up.

Yet, it would seem that many people think that the only really important human trait is happiness, that ill-defined, elusive, and completely arbitrary emotion. As long as we retain that, all those other human traits we should evolve out of anyway.

What do you think?

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Is it a human right to have everything you want? 

The CBC recently published an article online about a new breakthrough in vision improvement that could provide patients with 20/20 vision x3. Like cataract surgery today that removes an old yellowed lens from the eye and replaces it with a new, plastic optometric-correct lens, the inventor, an optometrist from British Columbia, says the 8-minute procedure will give recipients better than 20/20 vision for the rest of their lives no matter how old they are.

bionic-lens-20150518
Better than 20/20. Maybe it starts here.

As soon as clinical trials are complete and the regulatory hurdles are leaped the articles says the implant could be available in as early as two years. Let me be the first to say, “Sign me up!” I’ve had glasses for 20 years and just recently made the move to contacts. Both are a hassle, and the improvement is anything but consistent. Neither solution provides 24-hour correction, and you’re lucky to get 20/20. So, rationally speaking, it’s a major improvement in vision, convenience and probably your safety. On top of that, the CBC article concludes noting the inventor/optometrist has set up a foundation,

“…Which would donate money to organizations providing eye surgery in developing countries to improve people’s quality of life.

“Perfect eyesight should be a human right,” he says.”

Now I hate to break the poignancy of this moment, but it’s my job. Should perfect eyesight be a human right? How about perfect hearing, ideal body weight, genius IQ, super longevity, cranial Internet access, freedom from disease, illness, and perfect health? It’s hard to deny that any of these are good. If you follow my graphic novel, The Lightstream Chronicles, you know that society has indeed opted for all of it and more: enhanced mood control, faster learning, better sex, deeper sleep, freedom from anxiety, stress, worry, bad memories, and making stupid comments. They are all human rights, right? Or is it just human nature to have unlimited expectations and demand instant gratification? It begins with one implant (not unlike the first nip or tuck or a new tattoo) and then becomes an endless litany of new and improved. But if you posit the argument that these enhancements are desirable, then you are also acknowledging that the current state of humanness is not. Are our shortcomings, disappointments, pain, testing, and struggles to be jettisoned forever? Once we can control everything about ourselves that we don’t like, where will we stop? Will we be happier? Or will there alway be that extra thing that we simply must have. Perhaps this is the real definition of human nature: never satisfied.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”

As I have written about before, all of this is a small section of a greater organism that is growing in technology. So as complicated as the whole idea of human augmentation is to think about, it’s much more complicated. While we cobble together new additions on the old house, there are technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) that will surpass our shortcomings better than our replacement part enhancements. If you haven’t read Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, you should. We are rapidly approaching a time when the impossible will be possible and we will be staring at it slack-jawed and asking how we got here and why? It can paint a dismal picture, but it is a picture we should look at and study. These are the questions of our time.

And so, I create fictional scenarios, firmly convinced that the more disturbing and visceral this picture the more we will take notice and ask questions before blithely moving forward. This is where I see the heart of design fiction, speculative futures, and—I think the more powerful—experiential interventions. It will be something to talk about in a future blog.

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Falling asleep in the future. 

Prologues to Season 4 : : The Lighstream Chronicles : : Dreamstate

Season 4 Prologue ix-x: Backstory

Every now an then it makes sense to keep readers updated on the scientific and technological developments that were both behavioral and cultural influences in the 22nd century. This addendum could to the 2159backstory link on The LIghtstream Chronicles site.

It wasn’t until 2047 that technological manipulation of the body’s endocrine system became commonplace. Prior to that, pharmaceuticals were the primary mode of stimulating hormone production in the body, but that solution never seemed to alleviate the side effects that so often accompanied pharma-based protocols. Nevertheless, it was the the well funded pharmaceutical industry, perhaps seeing the writing-on-the-wall that helped to pioneer the chips that ultimately became the regulators that enabled precision balance of the body’s chemistry.

Implanting chips into the body was in full swing by the late 2020’s but and this often meant that the body required numerous implants to balance and regulate different processes. The chemchip as it was called in 2047 was the first handle multiple functions. Chip#5061189 (the original first device was about the size of a postage stamp and was inserted below the skin in the lumbar region of the back. From here, it was able to trigger or inhibit the adrenal glands, hypothalamus, ovaries, pancreas, parathyroid, pineal gland, pituitary gland, testes, thymus and thyroid. Programs were written and updated seamlessly to coincide with various life stages and individual preferences. These early implants had a significant affect on overall health and wellness.

Gradually however, these chips required maintenance and did not work in synergy with other chipsets that were becoming prevalent throughout the body. A series of technological developments over the next 12 to 15 years began to consolidate individual chip functions into what became known as the chipset. You can read more about how the chipset works.

 

dreamstate
Just relax, we’ll take it from here.

Of course, technology marches on, so by the 22nd century the augmented human is an extremely sophisticated combination of technology builds on a “natural” human elements. Hence, we have the sleep program. This can be anything the user wants it to be from floating weightless in an imagined, liquid, greenspace to a field of tall grass. Then, regulation of the the body chemistry can manipulate the body chemistry and trick the body into thinking it has had 8 hours of sleep in only 3. Think of how much more work you could get done.

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Season 4 begins. The plot thickens.

Each week I post a blog congruent with what is happening on The Lightstream Chronicles. Sometimes it is tightly related, other times it might be a bit of a stretch. At any rate, this week we are launching Season 4, and as is customary, we are starting out the season with a bit of context that can help to situate you more comfortably in 2014. That’s a stretch, I realize, but the more you understand about this world the more you are likely to relate to the story, the characters, and the drama.

That being said, we examine the idea of a space station, or in this case a space resort, tethered to earth by no less than a space elevator. Your first thought is science fiction fantasy, but not so fast. The idea of a space elevator actually dates back to the 19th century and a good deal of speculation has been done on how this might actually happen. The critical element that makes this plausible is carbon nanotubes; super strong, super light. Do your homework (ibid).

NVCinsert
Dream on.

 

 

Hence, in 2159 we have an orbiting space resort tethered to a space elevator. Hong Kong 2, though slightly outside of the equatorial ideal zone won the bid. It turns out that mathematical calculations can render almost any location acceptable for an elevator, though Hong Kong remains the only existing site. Plans are underway for Sri Lanka and Rio de Janeiro with new space resorts.

New Vega City could be compared with a 21st century cruise ship. In fact, it was a cruise line that made the initial investment in NVC. Not unlike 21st century cruise ships, passengers choose state rooms based on the view. There are beaches, wave pools, casinos, restaurants that serve non-rep food—the options are impressive. It remains one of the few experiences that rival the V.

Hope you enjoy the next four weeks of Season 4 Prologues and the rest of Season 4.

 

 

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More futurist predictions from The Lightstream Chronicles.

Last week I talked about the similarities between Faith Popcorn’s 2025 predictions and that many of these predictions were already included in The Lightstream Chronicles. Since TLSC takes place 134 years after Faith Popcorn’s predictions, a better term than predictions would probably be backstory. As I have written before, one of the reasons for choosing such a distant future is to allow for the dramatic improvements in artificial intelligence (AI). There is quite a debate on this in science fiction and in future studies: When will we break the true AI barrier? Some believe that we will leave our physical bodies behind and become one with the hive, a giant mind merger of shared thoughts and consciousness somewhere in the mid to late 21st century. Ray Kurzweil, and Martine Rothblatt would probably fall into this camp. Kurzweil believes that there is ample evidence to trust that exponential improvements in technology will make this possible. It appears as though Rothblatt is working on achieving this by what amounts to an accretion of your own data, thoughts, opinions, etc. over time producing what would be the ultimate Siri of yourself. The body it would seem is an afterthought, possibly unnecessary.

My scenarios hinge heavily on what I would call, my take on human nature. I think we like bodies. In fact, they obsess us. I can’t see us abandoning our physical selves for an enhanced neural connection to the Othernet, especially as we are on the verge of perfecting it, ridding it of disease, aging and disability. So enamored are we with bodies, we will insist that our robots be equally sleek and endowed.

And while many future predictions include a Singularity, where everything changes, an unrecognizable future ruled by AI, I think change will be more mundane. As I highlighted last week (and where Popcorn and I agree), I believe we will be heavily augmented. Here are some more:

  1. By nature of what I call endofacts, (implanted artifacts) we will become our own ultra-powerful computers. Our input output (I/O) will be built-in as in luminous implants; our user interface (UI) will be visible on our retinas.
Learning to use your new luminous implants. Click to enlarge.
Learning to use your new luminous implants.
  1. Our aging process cease with an outpatient procedure that stops telomere decay. 25-29 will be the preferred age for that.
  1. Because of the powerful transmission chips embedded in our chipset, we will be able to transmit thoughts and images from our mind or our vision to anyone, anywhere who is willing to receive it. It will be a lot like reading minds, but we will also have to invent brain-gate encryptions to keep others from hacking our thoughts. If you want to talk to me, (like a phone call) I have to give you permission.
  1. As with Popcorn, I believe that virtual reality will make physical travel less important, but I also believe it will rule the day. It will be the new drug with millions addicted to it as an escape from reality into their own programmable, perfect world. Once again, this is attributable to human nature. This, I believe, will be the biggest upheaval in the socio-techno future: the determination and separation of real from virtual.
  1. The Top City Spanner is the result of programmable architecture. It can replicate and rebuild itself based on our needs. It’s the same idea that nano technology promises but on a larger, life-size scale. The two technologies will merge.
  1. Replication is another big prediction. We will be replicating food and just about anything else by recreating its molecular structure. It will end starvation, food shortages and most farming.

There are a lot more if you drift through the pages of TLSC, which I encourage you to do.

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The future according to Popcorn and The Lightstream Chronicles.

Back in the 90’s an innovative marketing futurist/consultant by the name of Faith Popcorn created quite a stir with her book, The Popcorn Report. It was a best seller for its predictions of what we would be doing and buying at the turn of the century. I’m pretty sure she coined the phrase cocooning, back then. Some of her predictions came true and then it seems as though we didn’t hear much from Popcorn. Then, earlier this week, I stumbled on an article on the online site, Fusion. The article spun from a presentation called FutureVision:2025 that Popcorn gave earlier this year on the future of work. There are a host of new predictions, but what struck me was how many of these predictions are already part of my future in The Lightstream Chronicles. Herewith are some of the similarities:

Popcorn says:                                               LSC says:

1. Careers and offices are over.        The majority of the workforce

works at home.

2. Virtual  replaces actual travel       Travel greatly reduced

by use of the V. .

3. Language dwnld > implant chip   The chipset and implants.

See the lexicon.

4. Implant chips release body chems     Adjusting your chems. See

Prologues to Season 3.

5. A robot revolution (lots of rbots)  Major premise of graphic novel

is ubiquitous synthetics.

6. Robots will care for the young.      Introducing Marie-D. Season 2.

7. Robots and humans                              Note the AHC logo and image

from Popcorn’s deck below.

popcorn

 

8. “Always upgradable embedded chips…”   Lots on the chipset and

implants. See lexicon.

9.”Who will offer immortality insurance…”   Lexicon, p4 S1.

Almost no one’s getting old.

In a related slide deck, Popcorn also makes a bunch of predictions on the augmented brain. These include exchanging memories, adjusting your mood, reducing sleep time, and escaping into the virtual. Of course, all of these predictions are foundational to my story. And there are a number of slides in these decks that bear an uncanny resemblance to images from the graphic novel. Maybe great minds think alike.

Next week, I’ll highlight some of my other predictions. Speaking of thinking, what do you think?

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