Category Archives: Web Comic Commentary

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.

 

Bookmark and Share

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.

 

 

Bookmark and Share

“At a certain point…”

 

A few weeks ago Brian Barrett of WIRED magazine reported on an “NEW SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM MAY LET COPS USE ALL OF THE CAMERAS.” According to the article,

“Computer scientists have created a way of letting law enforcement tap any camera that isn’t password protected so they can determine where to send help or how to respond to a crime.”

Barrett suggests that America has 30 million surveillance cameras out there. The above sentence, for me, is loaded. First of all, as with most technological advancements, they are always couched in the most benevolent form. These scientists are going to help law enforcement send help or respond to crimes. This is also the argument that the FBI used to try to force Apple to provide a backdoor to the iPhone. It was for the common good.

If you are like me, you immediately see a giant red flag waving to warn us of the gaping possibility for abuse. However, we can take heart to some extent. The sentence mentioned above also limits law enforcement access to, “any camera that isn’t password protected.” Now the question is: What percentage of the 30 million cameras are password protected? Does it include, for example, more than kennel cams or random weather cams? Does it include the local ATM, traffic, and other security cameras? The system is called CAM2.

“…CAM2 reveals the location and orientation of public network cameras, like the one outside your apartment.”

It can aggregate the cameras in a given area and allow law enforcement to access them. Hmm.

Last week I teased that some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future, through my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles, are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. A universal “cam” system like this is one of them; the idea of ubiquitous surveillance or the mesh only gets stronger with more cameras. Hence the idea behind my ubiquitous surveillance blog. If there is a system that can identify all of the “public network” cams, how far are we from identifying all of the “private network” cams? How long before these systems are hacked? Or, in the name of national security, how might these systems be appropriated? You may think this is the stuff of sci-fi, but it is also the stuff of design-fi, and design-fi, as I explained last week, is intended to make us think; about how these things play out.

In closing, WIRED’s Barrett raised the issue of the potential for abusing systems such as CAM2 with Gautam Hans, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. And, of course, we got the standard response:

“It’s not the best use of our time to rail against its existence. At a certain point, we need to figure out how to use it effectively, or at least with extensive oversight.”

Unfortunately, history has shown that that certain point usually arrives after something goes egregiously wrong. Then someone asks, “How could something like this happen?”

Bookmark and Share

“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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

Micropigs. The forerunner to ordering blue skinned children.

 

Your favorite shade, of course.

Last week I tipped you off to Amy Webb, a voracious design futurist with tons of tidbits on the latest technologies that are affecting not only design but our everyday life. I saved a real whopper for today. I won’t go into her mention of CRISPR-Cas9 since I covered that a few months ago without Amy’s help, but here’s one that I found more than interesting.

Chinese genomic scientists have created some designer pigs. They are called ‘micro pigs’ and they are taking orders at $1,600 a pop for the little critters. It turns out that pigs are very close—genetically—to humans but the big fellow were cumbersome to study (and probably too expensive to feed) so the scientists bred a smaller version by turning of the growth gene in their DNA. Voilà: micropigs. Plus you can order

Micropigs. Photo from BPi and nature.com
Micropigs. Photo from BPI and nature.com

them in different colors (they can do that, too). Now, of course this is all to further research and all proceeds will go to more research to help fight disease in humans, at least until they sell the patent on micropigs to the highest bidder.

So now we have genetic engineering to make a micropig, fashion statement. Wait a minute. We could use genetic engineering for human fashion statements, too. After all, it’s a basic human right to be whatever color we want. Oh, no. We would never do that.

Next up is Googles’ new email respond feature coming soon to your gmail account.

Bookmark and Share

The big questions.

 

I was delighted this week to discover Michael Sandel Professor of Philosophy and Government at Harvard’s Law School, where he teaches a wildly popular course called “Justice”. In this course, Sandel asks the big questions: Is it right to take from the rich and give to the poor? Is it right to legislate personal safety? Can torture ever be justified? He also asks questions of the digital age These are the issues with which I wrestle. A recent article in FastCompany, highlighted some of these: “Should we try to live forever? Buy our way to the head of the line? Create perfect children?” In a recent blog, I asked a similar question: Is it a human right to have everything that you want?

Sandel’s questions are about ethics and making his students think about the tough questions that we confront every day and the tough issues that are looming in the future. Some of these are accelerating toward us at an alarming pace. Privacy, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology are also on his list.

To the students at Harvard, Sandel is probably a celebrity. Sandel has a long list of credentials, including TED talks, and a best-selling book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. Nevertheless, I just discovered him this week, and I’m particularly pleased. Sandel is raising the kinds of questions that I try to do through my design fiction. His class is provoking the same discussion and debate that I work toward not only with design students but also the public at large.

Most often we do not like to grapple with these questions. It is one of the challenges of The Lightstream Chronicles. An explicit goal of my story to get people to think about the future, but thinking is optional. We have the option view the story as entertainment, purely for its story value without considering the underlying themes. It is one of the reasons that I have begun to pursue additional, more “guerrilla” oriented design fictions.

Back to the FastCo article, Sandel agrees that these discussions happen too infrequently. He gives a couple of reasons (sorry for the long quote, but he’s dead-on).

“There are two obstacles to having these conversations. One is that we have very few public venues and occasions for serious discussion of these questions… It’s very hard to have the kind of reasoned discussion of these big ethical questions without creating opportunities to do that.

The second obstacle is that we have a tendency in our public life to shy away from hard, controversial moral questions…We have a fear of moral judgment and moral argument because we know we live in pluralist societies where people disagree about values and ethics. There’s a tendency to believe that our public life could be neutral on those questions.

But I think that’s a mistaken impulse.”

Sandel goes on to suggest that the public has a “great hunger” for these philosophical, moral and ethical questions. I agree. Through my work and research, I hope to provoke some of these discussions and perhaps the public venues and occasions to hold them.

Bookmark and Share

Behind the scenes, The Lightstream Chronicles Episode 136

Episode 136

Clearly,  the Techman is out cold, probably has a whopping headache and some tingling extremities. No problem. Keiji-T has equipment for this. Rubbing his fingertips together, Keiji-T can emit a chemical odor akin to our current day smelling salts. Aromatherapy from the fingertips, however, is a standard feature built into most synths. As we saw back in season 3, Keiji was bragging about the various scents he could conjure up.

In 2159, pheromone implants are also a common human augmentation. A quick trip to the infusion store and you can pick up a nano-endocrine emitter (NEET) that you apply to the skin and it absorbs through the pores. The emitter synchs with your master chipset and can generate or regulate certain hormonal activity.  The most popular varieties are either axillary steroids or aliphatic acids that act as a potent attraction to the opposite sex or as enhancements to intimacy. There are many other options available including repellent scents, stimulants, and relaxants. They are also an optional feature for the enormously popular fingertip implants (luminous implants) that nearly everyone has. This option, however, is not available on earlier fingertip models like one’s that Techman uses.

You can read more about a host of 2159 technologies and augmentations by visiting the glossary part 1 or part 2.

Bookmark and Share

The ultimate wild card.

 

One of the things that futurists do when they imagine what might happen down the road is to factor in the wild card. Short of the sports or movie references a wild card is defined by dictionary.com as: “… of, being, or including an unpredictable or unproven element, person, item, etc.” One might use this term to say, “Barring a wild card event like a meteor strike, global thermonuclear war, or a massive earthquake, we can expect Earth’s population to grow by (x) percent.”

The thing about wild card events is that they do happen. 9/11 could be considered a wild card. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Katrina would also fall into this category. At the core, they are unpredictable, and their effects are widespread. There are think tanks that work on the probabilities of these occurrences and then play with scenarios for addressing them.

I’m not sure what to call something that would be entirely predictable but that we still choose to ignore. Here I will go with a quote:

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

― Malcolm Muggeridge

Some will discount this automatically because the depravity of man refers to the Christian theology that without God, our nature is hopeless. Or as Jeremiah would say, our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you are willing to accept a more secular notion that man can be desperately stupid. To me, humanity’s uncanny ability to foul things up is the recurring (not-so) wild card. It makes all new science as much a potential disaster as it might be a panacea. We don’t consider it often enough. If we look back through my previous blogs from Transhumanism to genetic design, this threat looms large. You can call me a pessimist if you want, but the video link below stands as a perfect example of my point. It is a compilation of all the nuclear tests, atmospheric, underground, and underwater, since 1945. Some of you might think that after a few tests and the big bombs during WWII we decided to keep a lid on the insanity. Nope.

If you can watch the whole thing without sinking into total depression and reaching for the Clorox, you’re stronger than I am. And, sadly it continues. We might ask how we have survived this long.

Bookmark and Share

Enter the flaw.

 

I promised a drone update this week, but by now, it is probably already old news. It is a safe bet there are probably a few thousand more drones than last week. Hence, I’m going to shift to a topic that I think is moving even faster than our clogged airspace.

And now for an AI update. I’ve blogged previously about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but the evidence is mounting every day that he’s probably right.  The rate at which artificial intelligence is advancing is beginning to match nicely with his curve. A recent article on the Txchnologist website demonstrates how an AI system called Kulitta, is composing jazz, classical, new age and eclectic mixes that are difficult to tell from human compositions. You can listen to an example here. Not bad actually. Sophisticated AI creations like this underscore the realization that we can no longer think of robotics as the clunky mechanized brutes. AI can create. Even though it’s studying an archive of man-made creations the resulting work is unique.

First it learns from a corpus of existing compositions. Then it generates an abstract musical structure. Next it populates this structure with chords. Finally, it massages the structure and notes into a specific musical framework. In just a few seconds, out pops a musical piece that nobody has ever heard before.

The creator of Kulitta, Donya Quick says that this will not put composers out of a job, it will help them do their job better. She doesn’t say how exactly.

If even trained ears can’t always tell the difference, what does that mean for the masses? When we can load the “universal composer” app onto our phone and have a symphony written for ourselves, how will this serve the interests of musicians and authors?

The article continues:

Kulitta joins a growing list of programs that can produce artistic works. Such projects have reached a critical mass–last month Dartmouth College computational scientists announced they would hold a series of contests. They have put a call out seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that produce “human-quality” short stories, sonnets and dance music. These will be pitted against compositions made by humans to see if people can tell the difference.

The larger question to me is this: “When it all sounds wonderful or reads like poetry, will it make any difference to us who created it?”

Sadly, I think not. The sweat and blood that composers and artists pour into their compositions could be a thing of the past. If we see this in the fine arts, then it seems an inevitable consequence for design as well. Once the AI learns the characters, behaviors and personalities of the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles, it can create new episodes without me. Taking characters and setting that already exist as CG constructs, it’s not a stretch that it will be able to generate the wireframes, render the images, and layout the panels.

Would this app help me in my work? It could probably do it in a fraction of the time that it would take me, but could I honestly say it’s mine?

When art and music are all so easily reconstructed and perfect, I wonder if we will miss the flaw. Will we miss that human scratch on the surface of perfection, the thing that reminds us that we are human?

There is probably an algorithm for that, too. Just go to settings > humanness and use the slider.

Bookmark and Share