Archive for February, 2011

Collaborating with you

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

One of the odd things about a blog is its asymmetry. Of course readers can comment, but the general tone is one of presentation and response: I make something and show it to you, and all you can do is play with it and then maybe say what you think of it.

So today I thought it would be interesting to try something more actively participatory. The image below leads to an applet that lets you rearrange a pattern of tiles. The kicker is that any change you make will persist: The next person who comes to that page will see the changes that you’ve already made to the pattern.

This certainly isn’t the most interesting example of participatory design, but I thought it best to start off with something simple, to test the waters. As usual, you launch the applet by clicking on the image below:

Audio virtual reality

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Let’s say you and I are having a conversation and we want to include our friend, who happens to be somewhere else.

Let’s also say that you and I are both wearing earphones (so we have an audio input leading into each of our two ears). This allows each of us to have a binaural input capability. In layman’s terms, this means that a properly constructed sound could appear to us as coming from any particular location around us — in front or back of us, above, below, left, right, or any angle in between.

With this binaural capability (and the right computer software to back it up), the apparatus we each wear could analyze and then re-synthesize a very high quality representation of the voice of the person we want to include — which will seem to come from some exact location in the room.

Nothing that I’m saying is beyond today’s technology — it could all be done with commodity equipment. But I suspect that our culture’s single-minded focus on the visual has distracted us from all of the cool things we could be doing with audio.

In particular, I’d love to hear what it would be like to have a third “virtually present” person in a conversation, accurately represented in pure spatial audio form. Perhaps, without the distraction of imperfectly formed video or computer graphics, the person would appear, on a psychological level, to be fully present in the room.

Or maybe not. In any case, it’s certainly something worth finding out.

Fractals revisited

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

I’ve been wanting to fix some things about my little interactive fractal program for a while, and today I finally got around to it. One problem was that the program didn’t actually finish building your fractal if you tried to make something really complex. It would just go for a while and then stop.

I’ve fixed it now so that it keeps on going, building your entire fractal pattern no matter how complex. The results look much nicer. :-)

Also, I’ve added a row of example templates at the bottom. Eventually I’d like to allow people to save their own original templates to a server, so the community can share them back and forth. This is a step toward that.

As usual, you get to the new program by clicking on the image below:

Distributed orchestra, part 2

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Continuing my post from yesterday, I envision a concert in which you are asked to purchase tickets with your cellphone. Once you have been assigned a seat, the creators of the concert have a way of mapping your seat number to your cellphone number.

This information becomes, in effect, a spatial map, in which a text message to a particular cellphone is a message to a precise seat in the auditorium. Which enables all sorts of exciting possibilities.

For example, sounds can be made to flow, circulate, or ricochet around the room. As an audience member you can experience a wave of sound move through you — or circle around you.

Up on the stage an image can be projected which shows where each instrument (or other source of sound) is located in the audience. Audience cellphones can be made not just to play music, but to laugh, shout, caugh, or call out a word or phrase, and any of these utterances can flow through the space, as they are made to successively emanate from one cellphone in the audience after another.

Meanwhile, the “conductor” is interacting with the projected on-stage image to visibly manipulate the image of cellphone locations, thereby giving audience members a visual representation of the waves of moving localized sound that they are hearing flow through them.

I think it will be an entirely new kind of concert experience.

Distributed orchestra

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Imagine you’re at a concert where you, as an audience member, have been requested to bring your iPhone. On the web site where you purchased your tickets, there is a link to a free iPhone app, which you have been asked to download.

You are now sitting in your seat. The curtain rises, and a solitary figure walks onstage. She is carrying an iPhone. When she arrives center stage, she pauses for a moment, and then activates an app on her iPhone.

The app sends a signal to the iPhones of each of the audience members, and the concert begins.

Except that the music of this concert — the trombones, the woodwinds, the strings — come not from the stage, but from various locations around the audience. The phone in your pocket has been recruited to be part of a distributed orchestra.

As audience members take out their cell phones, one by one, a sense of wonder fills the hall. For the sound is coming from all around — perhaps from the person sitting to your right, or from you yourself.

As the full power of all of these devices comes into play, you are not sure what it all means, but you know you like the sounds that fill the space around you. And perhaps you realize that you are experiencing the dawn of a new era.

Springy molecules

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

My friend Lee Tremblay sent me a link to a great database of molecules. Since I was going to be on a long train ride today, I saved 62 of the molecule description files on my computer, and figured out how to see them in my little Springy viewer.

The physics isn’t really right, but they are fun to look at and play with. And very colorful. :-)

You can see for yourself by clicking on the molecule below (which is one of my favorites — see if you can figure out which one it is after playing with the program):

Then another film

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

After talking about two films yesterday, I thought I’d continue the theme by talking about another film.

But not just any film. The other night I went with friends to see “The King’s Speech”. This is the small independent flick that is about to roll over and crush the big budget opposition at the Academy Awards like they are so many purple M&Ms in the path of an oncoming Sherman tank.

How can a little independent movie do such a thing? By not playing fair, of course. You see, most respectable Hollywood movies (eg: “The Social Network”) work by pandering to an audience through paper-thin fast talking characters that are little more than cartoons, placed in situations that merely caricature the human condition.

But “The King’s Speech” doesn’t play by those rules. Instead, it takes the extremely radical and unorthodox approach of (gasp!) respecting its audience’s intelligence. Characters are neither good nor evil, but rather complex, layered, conflicted. The acting, writing and directing don’t tell us what to think, but instead force us to think for ourselves about people and relationships that defy easy characterization.

We actually recognize ourselves in the people we see on-screen. We experience their pain and joy as though it is our own. We forget we are watching a movie.

Not bad for an evening’s entertainment.

Two films

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

You may very well think this is crazy, but in the last week, after having seen Tom Ford’s film “A Single Man” (2009) and then Vincente Minelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) — a film I was revisiting, having seen it years before — I came to the conclusion that, on a thematic level, they are essentially the same film.

Yes, one is an elegaic adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s bittersweet tale of a day in the life of a man contemplating suicide in 1962, and the other a classic uplifting Hollywood musical adapted from a series of short stories by Sally Benson. One would think the two films couldn’t be more different.

Yet to my surprise, I found the underlying message of the two works to be exactly the same. Essentially, both are saying that life is not about the big picture, the grand meaning, the heroic quest. Rather, the only true buttress we have against death, chaos, annihilation, is in the small details, the little connections with each other, the moments of discovered beauty in the ordinary course of a day. These are the things — the things we are often too busy to notice, in our headlong rush for meaning — that fill our lives with grace.

This is of course also the theme of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and many other works. It’s also a very Buddhist idea. Perhaps my week in Kyoto made me more aware of this dynamic. Perhaps I was drawn to see these two very different (yet oddly similar) films because I had just spent a week in Japan.