Tag Archives: design futures

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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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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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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Harmless.

 

Once again, it has been a week where it is difficult to decide what present-future I should talk about. If you are a follower of The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know I am trying to write about more than science fiction. The story is indeed a cyberpunk-ish, crime-thriller, drama intended to entertain, but it is also a means of scrutinizing a future where all the problems we imagine that technology will solve often create new ones, subtle ones that end up re-engineering us. Many of these technologies start out a curiosities, entertainments, or diversions that are picked-up by early-adopting technophiles and end up, gradually in the mainstream.

One of these curiosities is the idea of wearable tech. Wristbands watches and other monitors are designed to keep track of what we do, remind us to do something, or now in increasing popularity, remind us not to do something. One company, Chaotic Moon is working on a series of tattoo-like monitors. These are temporary, press-on circuits that use the conductivity of your skin to help them work and transmit. They are called Tech Tats and self-classified as bio-wearables. In addition to their functional properties, they also have an aesthetic objective—a kind of tattoo. Still somewhat primitive (technologically and artistically) they, nevertheless, fall into this category of harmless diversions.

techtats
Monitoring little Susi’s temperature.

Of course, Chaotic Moon is hoping (watch the video) that they will become progressively more sophisticated, and their popularity will grow from both  as both tech and fashion. Perhaps they should be called bio-fashion. If no one has already claimed this, then you saw it here first, folks. If you watch the video from Chaotic Moon you’ll see this promise that these things (in a future iteration) will be used for transactions and should be considered safer than carrying around lots of credit cards. By the way, thieves are already hacking the little chip in your credit card that is supposed to be so much safer than the old non-chipped version. Sorry, I digress.

My brand of design fiction looks at these harmless diversions and asks, “What next?”, and “What if?”. I think most futurists agree that these kinds of implants will eventually move inside the body through simple injections or, in future versions, constructed inside via nanobots. Under my scrutiny, two interesting things are at work here. First there is the idea of wearing and then implanting technology which clearly brings us across a transhuman threshold, and the idea of fashion as the subtle carrier of harmlessness and adoptive lure. You can probably imagine where I’m going with that.

Next up is VR. Virtual reality is something I blog about fairly often. In The Lightstream Chronicles, it has reached a level of sophistication that surpasses game controllers boxes and hardware. You simply dial in your neocortex to the Lightstream, (the future Internet) and you are literally wherever you want to be and doing whatever your imagination can conjure up.  In the story, I more or less predict that this total immersion becomes seriously addictive. Check out the prologue episodes to Season 4.

Thanks to one of my students for pointing out this video called the Uncanny Valley.

“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”
“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”

You can watch it on Vimeo. Chat up the possible idea of any detrimental effects of video games with a gamer and you’ll almost certainly hear the word harmless.

These are the design futures that I think about. What do you think?

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What games will we change next? Is your game one of them?

A few of weeks ago I was blogging about open sourcing, collaboration and how all these tectonic shifts change industries, professions and more. Then, there was a recent blog on the future of work and how even white collar jobs, the ones that everyone thought were bullet-proof, are targets for dissolution by artificial intelligence (AI). Could designers be targets as well? That was the subject of the first post I mentioned.

So a couple of things crossed my glance that could have a bearing on the design, manufacturing, collaboration, and what we think of as the traditional maker-economy. What bearing will it have? Who knows? I think we should keep an eye on them.

1. Not long ago, WIRED had an article and video on how a “regular guy” without any special “making” skills was able to fabricate, in his home, a fully functioning and untraceable AR15 automatic rifle. Of course, doing so is illegal, so after testing his weapon on the firing range he turned over the parts to the local police. It was all in the name of journalism. Check it out.

The fully assembled AR-15.  Photo: JOSH VALCARCEL/WIRED
The fully assembled AR-15. Photo: JOSH VALCARCEL/WIRED

2. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about the very interesting trend in business toward Network Orchestrators. According to HBR, “These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, and Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.”

What do these things have in common? They are potential game-changers. Heck, they’ve already changed the game. The bigger question for us is what game will they change next. Both models challenge traditional “expertise”. The expert, the specialist, the factory, the tradesman (and in some cases the authorities) are getting edged out. It has applications to just about everything including medicine and the work that we believed could only be done by the specialist. So what should we do about it? I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you this: We should be thinking about it.

Just sayin’.

 

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Robots will be able to do almost anything, including what you do.

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about what our working future may look like. A few weeks ago I wrote about some of Faith Popcorn’s predictions. Quoting from the Popcorn slide deck,

“Work, as we know it, is dying. Careers and offices: Over. The robots are marching in, taking more and more skilled jobs. To keep humans from becoming totally obsolete, the government must intervene, incentivizing companies to keep people on the payroll. Otherwise, robots would job-eliminate them. For the class of highly-trained elite works, however, things have never been better. Maneuvering from project to project, these free-agents thrive. Employers, eager to secure their human talent, lavish them with luxurious benefits and unprecedented flexibility.  The gap between the Have’s and Have-Nots has never been wider.”

Now, I consider Popcorn to be a marketing futurist, she’s in the business to help brands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I agree with almost all of her predictions. But she’s not the only one talking about the future of work. In a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (forwarded to me by a colleague) Rise Of The  Robots | Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford pretty much agrees. According to the review, “Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams.” Increasingly devices, like 3D printers or drones can do work that used to require a full-blown manufacturing plant or what was heretofore simply impossible. Ford’s book goes on to chronicle dozens of instances like this. The reviewer, Barbara Ehrenreich, states, “In ‘Rise of the Robots,’ Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.”

In another article in Fast Company, Gwen Moran surveys a couple of PhD’s, one from MIT and another who’s executive director of the Society of Human Resource Management. The latter, Mark Schmit agrees that there will be a disparity in the work force. “this winner/loser scenario predicts a widening wealth gap, Schmit says. Workers will need to engage in lifelong education to remain on top of how job and career trends are shifting to remain viable in an ever-changing workplace, he says.” On the other end of the spectrum some see the future as more promising. The aforementioned MIT prof, Erik Brynjolfsson, “…thinks that technology has the potential for “shared prosperity,” giving us richer lives with more leisure time and freedom to do the types of work we like to do. But that’s going to require collaboration and a unified effort among developers, workers, governments, and other stakeholders…Machines could carry out tasks while programmed intelligence could act as our “digital agents” in the creation and sharing of products and knowledge.”

I’ve been re-accessing Stuart Candy’s PhD dissertation The Futures of Everyday Life, recently and he surfaces a great quote from science fiction writer Warren Ellis which itself was surfaced through Bruce Sterling’s State of the World Address at SXSW in 2006. It is,

“[T]here’s a middle distance between the complete collapse of infrastructure and some weird geek dream of electronically knowing where all your stuff is. Between apocalyptic politics and Nerd-vana, is the human dimension. How this stuff is taken on board, by smart people, at street level. … That’s where the story lies… in this spread of possible futures, and the people, on the ground, facing them. The story has to be about people trying to steer, or condemn other people, toward one future or another, using everything in their power. That’s a big story. “1

This is relevant for design, too, the topic of last week’s blog. It all ties into the future of the future, the stuff I research and blog about.  It’s about speculation and design fiction and other things on the fringes of our thinking. The problem is that I don’t think that enough people are thinking about it. I think it is still too fringe. What do people do after they read Mark Ford? Does it change anything? In a moment of original thinking I penned the following thought, and as is usually the case subsequently heard it stated in other words by other researchers:

If we could visit the future ”in person,” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present?

It is why we need more design fiction and the kind that shakes us up in the process.

Comments welcome.

1 http://www.warrenellis.com

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Recognition technology. We know who you are and maybe what you are thinking about.

New technologies are everywhere. They are being developed in labs every day—if not every ten minutes. If you are searching for them, like me, then you are likely to run across hundreds of techy developments that are on the cusp of being something mainstream within the next 10 years. Then, there are those technologies that we never hear about but that are fairly well developed, except that, as a society we’re not ready for them. So they sit in a lab until other developments come to pass or the marketing department decides that there is a high enough percentage of the population that will use or even accept them.

There is a great scene in the 2002 movie Minority Report where John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks into a Gap store. Immediately upon entering, his irises are scanned and the resident hologram begins to make suggestions based upon his purchasing preferences. In the movie, Cruise has just had his eyes swapped out with someone else to disguise his identity. So the virtual sales person thinks he is Mr. Yakamoto.

That movie is 13 years old. Today, iris scan recognition is already widely in use and in case you missed it, retinal scanning is now obsolete. The United Arab Emirates uses it at border crossings, India has begun enrolling its 1.2 billion citizens by capturing individual iris data, and in at least a half dozen applications for security around the world. It’s only current drawback is that you have to be standing still and fairly close the scanner for an accurate read. 1

Fear not, however because for people moving about and not standing still there is facial recognition which is much less picky about the quality of the scan, or in this case, the image. Facial recognition algorithms have improved dramatically over the years now logging 16,384 reference points which are referenced against a database and, fairly quickly can identify a person with 80 -90% accuracy. Higher accuracy rates just take a bit longer. 2 Right now its in use by law enforcement in airports and high security areas, but also at retail locations to catch shoplifters. Now it gets interesting because, while we fine-tune the iris scan, the same facial recognition system that is used to identify ne’er do wells can also be used a la Minority Report to identify shoppers who are regular customers, or help them find the lingerie department. A quick cross-reference with their online shopping habits, Facebook page and their Google history can also tell them how much you are likely to spend, your favorite color, and the name of your best friend to remind you that their birthday is right around the corner.

Putting this in context with what we’ve seen in the last few weeks of The Lightstream Chronicles, the idea that Keiji-T, with access to someone’s memories can ascertain their guilt or innocence is a logical next step. Too far, you think? Brain implants are already in testing that can implant memories 3 and augment decisions. Commonplace in the year 2159, perhaps.

 

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iris_recognition#Deployed_applications
2 http://www.fastcompany.com/3040375/is-facial-recognition-the-next-privacy-battleground
3 http://israelbrain.org/will-human-memory-chips-change-the-world-by-dr-ofir-levi/
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A Science Fiction Graphic Novel About Design and the Human Condition

Page 100

We’ve reached page 100 and in some cases, The Lightstream Chronicles is already longer than many graphic novels. Nevertheless, as meaty as the author has worked it to be, there is so much more in the developing story. I was asked recently, “Where is it going?”

Expect some intrigue, angst and an action packed climax, but as with most science fiction and even design fiction, it is about people.

If you know anything about the author, you know that I’m a designer, heavily ensconced in research in the area of Design Fiction, Speculative Design, and Design Futures. The Lightstream Chronicles is a foray into a future world where we, like it or not, have been changed by the design and technology that we have embraced over the years. We are different. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. This is what design does to society and culture. Don’t get me wrong; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Design is a product of which we are as human beings. It is a reflection of humanity. Hence, it will reflect both bad and good, something that I believe is not a “fixable” tweak in our DNA. It is the essence of our design. In many respects, without it, we cease to be human. We have the choice between good and evil and depending on what we choose, our design and the various manifestations of it will reflect those choices.

As I wrote,

“In The Lightstream Chronicles, the author creates a science fiction graphic novel and asks that the reader ponder the same self-rationalizing tendency as it applies to slick new enhancing technologies and the “design” decisions that fostered them. It looks at not only the option to make the decision, but the ethics of whether the decision should be made, as well as society’s competency to choose wisely.1”

Perhaps then, it becomes a graphic novel about the human condition. In a way then, it is like most fiction, but it is that and more. It also examines where we find meaning, especially when most of what we would consider our greatest fears—of death, disease, physical or mental decline, of enough food and water, sustaining the environment or having enough energy—have vanished. Is it enough to satisfy us, to fulfill us, and give us meaning or does it leave us wanting?

The only thing that seems to have survived the grasp of man and his ability to wipe it away is evil. The perfection of synthetic humans would seem to be the answer, though even then, man has found a way to twist them. And if we become the creators are not our creations still made in our image?

What do you think?

 

1.Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
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Who is paying attention to the future? You’re standing in it. 

If you are familiar with this blog you can that tell that I am enamored of future tech, but at the same time my research in design fiction often is intended to provoke discussion and debate on whether these future technologies are really as wonderful as they are painted to be. Recently, I stumbled across a 2012 article from the Atlantic.com (recommended) magazine (Hessel and Goodman) that painted a potentially alarming picture of the future of biotech or synthetic biology, known as synbio. The article is lengthy, and their two-year-old predictions have already been surpassed, but it first reminds us of how technology, historically and currently, builds not in a linear progression, but exponentially like Moore’s Law. This is an oft quoted precept of Ray Kurzweil, chief futurist for Google and all around genius guy, for the reason that we are avalanching toward the Singularity. The logic of exponential growth in technology is pretty much undeniable at this point.

Hessel and Goodman take us through a bit of verbal design fiction where in the very near future it will be possible to create new DNA mathematically, to create new strains of bacteria, and new forms of life for good and for not so good. The article also underscores for me how technology is expanding beyond any hope of regulatory control, ethical considerations or legal ramifications. No one has time to consider the abuse of “good technology” or the unintended consequences that inevitably follow from any new idea.  If you are one of those people who, in an attempt to get through all the things you have to read by taking in only the intro and the conclusion. Here is a good take away from the article:

“The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.”

If you want to know how they dare make that assertion you will have to read the article and it is not a stretch. The unintended consequences are staggering to say the least.

Of course, these authors are only dealing with one of dozens if not hundreds of new technologies that because of the exponential rate of advancement are hanging over us like a canopy filling with water. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we will —all of us—demand to bring these ideas into collaborative discussion.

In addition to my research, I write fiction. Call it science fiction or design fiction. It doesn’t matter to me. As dystopic as The Lightstream Chronicles may seem to my readers, in many ways I think that humanity will be lucky to live that long—unless we get a handle on what we’re doing now.

Some links for the incredulous:

http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/

http://www.genewiz.com/index.aspx

http://mashable.com/2013/05/15/personal-genetics-resources/

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