Archive for July, 2011

The Multiverse Express

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Thanks for the wonderful suggestions about community-created work. The suggestion by Li-Yi Wei to use a Wikipedia-like history model could be intriguing, when applied to building an animated sim — a kind of modifiable world where you set up conditions, and then let your simulated universe plays things out. Especially if navigating between universes is very easy.

My Fish Tales toy is a very simple example of a sim, since the fish is running a low-level A.I., which gives him a limited amount of autonomy (not over what he does, but over how he does it). It could be even more interesting to apply a save-all-history model as the A.I. underlying such a sim becomes more advanced, and the creatures in it more autonomous. In a sense, each authorable state of the sim would generate a particular alternate universe, whose inhabitants live by unique rules.

Anybody who goes to the site can set conditions any which way they like. As long as all previous authored states are saved, then none of these universes will ever be lost. I’m picturing a giant scroll-bar, which could be called the Multiverse Express, to let you quickly scrub through the history to see all changes ever made by past authors.

If all previous universes are saved, there is no need for branching. Just copy a universe you like, paste it on the end of the growing track, and edit to taste. No harm, no foul.

Some universes would most likely be rather boring, with characters doing dull and repetitive things. But others might be gloriously alive, if an author is talented enough to find just the right settings. Those alternate universes that get more frequent visits along the Multiverse Express become marked as popular tourist destinations (sort of like Rod Serling’s town of Willoughby).

Welcome to the Multiverse Express. Next stop, Willoughby!

Novel ideas for tiny fonts

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

The largest computer monitor we have in our lab is a Dell Ultrasharp U3011 30″ LCD Monitor, which has a resolution of 2560×1600 pixels. I realized today that with my tiny font, one could comfortably fit an entire novel, say “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, on a single screen (I did the math, and indeed Jekyll and Hyde would totally fit on that screen).

So today I started to do just that, until at some pint I realized that nobody would actually ever read it in that form. While it is intriguing to contemplate a novel that can be taken in all at once on one computer screen, such a thing would exist only as a kind of conceptual artifact, to show what is possible, not what is practical.

Not that I’m against conceptual art. Sometimes such projects are so utterly crazy, they attain a kind of grace. Like if a nation were to spend countless billions of dollars just so a few people could take a stroll on the Moon. What could be cooler than that?

But I think a tiny font novel-as-screenshot would be worth doing if it were visually overlaid with the movie version of Stevenson’s classic allegory, using the variable font-boldness technique I showed yesterday. Since this story has so many film adaptations (a few of which are quite good), it might be interesting to switch between them. But in every case, the theme is clear: Like Jekyll and Hyde, a novel and a film are as different as two media can be, yet they are actually two aspects of the same entity (cue scary music).

More generally, the tiny font technique could be used to display the entire screenplay of a film you are watching, directly on the screen. The scale of the font is so much smaller than the scale of the film imagery that they would not visually interfere with one another. It could even be a kind of hypertext — as the film progresses, resonances and parallels between different places in the film could be subtlely highlighted in the screenplay itself.

Tiny font, revisited

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Today I became curious to know whether the tiny font I made a while back could support different font styles. It’s a useful thing to determine, because as far as I know this font is the smallest readable screen font.

By the way, if you’ve been a grownup for a while (he said oh so diplomatically), you might want to wear reading glasses for what follows. :-)

As a base comparison for the following discussion, here is my standard benchmark test — the first 515 words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence on a 320×240 screen, with enough room left over for a comfortable margin all around:



As a test I added bold and italic styles. In the following screen shot, all of the characters on the right half of the screen are in bold, and all of the characters on the bottom half of the screen are in italic (so the bottom right quadrant is all in bold-italic):



It seems to work just great! Nicely enough, I didn’t even need to make the bold characters take up more room than the non-bold characters. As you can see, the words all remain at their original locations on the screen.

I also realized that with a font this small, it might be interesting to embed visual messages — or even animations — within the relative boldness of each character on the page. This could lead to a new kind of art form.

For example, in the below version of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a shadowy figure appears to loom mysteriously over the document, perhaps subtlely shifting its significance into directions unforeseen by our Nation’s founders:



In a way this image is sort of funny. As long as you don’t, um, think about it too much. :-)

Nurturing a creative community

Friday, July 8th, 2011

As Sharon pointed out, my “Fish tales” experiment the other day was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the sandbox nature of it fostered a sense of openness by letting anybody modify anybody else’s movie. On the other hand, it really was a sandbox, in the sense that any sand castle you make might be gone the next time you visit the sandbox.

Which means people aren’t going to put a lot of work into making something great. In the immortal words of Rutger Hauer, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

So what to do? I don’t want to allow people to type in names for their creations, because that will open the whole thing up to trolls — I worry that I’ll come back in two months to find that somebody has used my little fish tales space as a place to invent new varieties of curse words.

My thought is to let everyone create in their own private sandbox until the moment they want to save their work. Then I prompt them to type a password (unseen by anybody but them). Once your work is uploaded, anybody can see it, but if you want to modify something that’s up on the site, you need to know its password.

This has the advantage that people who want to work together on something can still do it — one person uploads it, and then shares the password with their collaborator(s).

There is still the problem that the site might get cluttered with hundreds of uninteresting fish tales, which will make it impossible for visitors to find the really good ones.

One solution might be to rank each fish tale by how often people play it (weighted by how much of it they play), roughly following the YouTube philosophy. If tale 47 gets a lot more play than tale 93, then maybe it’s more worth your while to check out tale 47.

I’m open to suggestions on all this. I’d love to figure out a good general model for effectively nurturing a creative community.

Brian May

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Brian May. In a particular way he is a paragon — a kind of ideal.

Please understand that most of the people I hang out with on a daily basis are part of a small contingent of the population that really believe, down in our bones, that science and art are deeply intertwined — that thinking seriously about how the universe around us really works, and building shared aesthetic meaning between people, are simply different parts of the same larger quest.

This is definitely not the cultural norm. Most well known people who have contributed to both the sciences and the arts have done so as two entirely divergent pursuits. Samuel F Morse was perhaps the single most influential figure in the invention of the telegraph, yet this has nothing at all to do with his considerable contributions as a painter and fine artist.

Similarly, the invention by Hedi Lamarr and George Antheil of spread spectrum (essential to both radar and modern cell phone technology) had nothing to do with her career as a Hollywood star or his as an influential avant-guarde composer.

But Brian May is different. A serious first rank rock star — the lead guitarist of the legendary rock group Queen, and by general consensus one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time — he is also known in the field of astrophysics for his research into the movement of interplanetary dust clouds (the subject of his Ph.D. in astrophysics).

But what really distinguishes May is the fact that one of Queen’s biggest hits — “’39” — was essentially a lecture on Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity — and quite a good one at that. The essential plot of the sad lyric is that a ship of space explorers leaves for a one year journey, but because of relativistic time dilation, one hundred years have passed (therefore they also return in the year of ’39), to find that everyone they had known or loved is long dead.

What fascinates me about this lyric is the way the astrophysicist channeled his love of science, without any watering down or compromise, into one of the most popular songs by one of history’s greatest rock bands.

I have seen examples of well known scientists “doing art”, and well known artists “commenting on science”, but I can’t think of a similar instance in modern times where an individual managed to connect their inner scientist and inner artist in such a seamless and completely successful way.

Fish tales

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

I’m curious to see what kinds of fish tales people might make. So I’ve given you the ability to save the tales that you create.

In this version, you can choose one of 42 tales to tell. You can also visit and modify anybody else’s fish tale.

Of course, if somebody creates a really amazing and wondrous tale, I hope the rest of you will recognize how cool it is and not mess it up. :-)

Click on the image below to try out this new version:



Fish tale

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

In research it’s important to change things up from time to time, to see whether an idea works when you vary the context. So this weekend I turned my little interactive desklamp into a fish. Deep down he isn’t all that different (in some ways he still thinks he’s a desklamp), but now he floats serenely above the desk in a nice magical way.

This floating quality also makes him suitable for showing up some day soon in our own world as an eccescopic pal, sort of like Slimer from Ghostbusters.

I added some controls for facial expression, and at some point I’ll add higher level facial controls, like talking, as well as gestures like nodding “yes” and the corresponding “no” gesture. And of course I’m also going to give you the ability to save your own original movies, so we can all share.

But for now I wanted to get this out there. As usual, click on the image to try it for yourself:



July 4 at 4

Monday, July 4th, 2011

I spent this year’s fourth of July with family. I realize that many people are going to various events to commemorate the anniversary of America’s independence, including spectacular displays of fireworks, outdoor concerts, all night parties and other celebrations near and far.

But for me the highlight arrived courtesy of my nephew, who is just four years old. His idea of celebration was to go out in the back yard this afternoon with his uncle (that would be me), who was instructed to fill up water balloons, one after another. My nephew would then throw each balloon up in the air, and watch with delight as it landed and burst apart with a spectacular splash. Cue giggling.

Give me your parties, your crowds, your lighted fireworks yearning to burst free. It’s all good.

But somehow the look of sheer delight on the face of my four year old nephew is a better celebration and a more wondrous symbol of a bright future than any mere display of fireworks could ever be.

A curriculum for visual storytelling

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Sharon’s thoughtful comment yesterday helped frame the parallel between our current traditional notion of teaching literacy in school (currently seen as a necessity), and the more modern notion of extending the teaching of literacy to include visual storytelling (currently seen as elective, at best).

Teaching young people to read and write is a multi-year effort, which extends from kindergarten all the way through their senior year of high school and beyond. This effort touches on many areas, including vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, writing practice, study of fiction and non-fiction, as well as the study and analysis of great works in a wide variety of literary genres.

If we are to take seriously the teaching of visual narrative creation, we need to break it down into a multiyear program consisting of progressive age-appropriate courseware, where each academic year builds upon skills that were mastered during the previous year.

In addition, we’d want to incorporate skills of visual storytelling into the teaching of classes in other subjects, including math and the sciences, as well as history and cultural studies. In today’s curriculum we expect students to be able to express their mastery of a subject through the written word. It would be logical to extend that expectation to include the creation of expository visual narratives.

It has not escaped our notice that an educational shift to more visual and dynamic means of expression would quite likely increase the teaching of computer programming and computational thinking. :-)

Telling a story

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

I’m on a jury for a short film festival, so today I spent quite a bit of time looking at lots of entries, mainly by young people. Some entries were extremely good, but most were so bad that they were startlingly bad. I found myself asking “what were they thinking?”

And that started me thinking … shouldn’t the basics of visual storytelling, effective construction of dramatic or comic narrative, character arc and development, building of audience involvement, anticipation, pacing, timing, use of camera, focus, lighting, montage — be a part of today’s core educational curriculum?

After all, we now live in a world where the means of production — even high quality production — are within easy reach of any child with access to a computer. Consequently, the ability to express oneself in a visual narrative medium is a skill that can make the difference between success and failure in many fields, and the importance of that skill will continue to increase rapidly as the technical and economic barriers to entry continue to fall away.

Just as, in an earlier time, parents understood that a child who cannot read has no real chance of success in a highly competitive world, shouldn’t parents of today realize that the ability to put together an effective short movie to communicate one’s viewpoint and ideas is a necessary skill for their child to master?

And shouldn’t we be addressing that need in our K-12 curriculum?