Stick figures on the Holodeck

It makes sense that there would be a rush to develop the most realistic, highest polygon count, most finely textured visions for virtual reality. After all, that’s the dream, right? The ability to create worlds, to remake reality itself, only perhaps better, richer, more full of wonder.

Yet as our little NYU Holodeck has started to become a reality, I find myself pulling strongly in a very different direction. I spent much of this weekend working on an animated stick figure. As I worked at it, I realized fairly early on that my inspiration was the xkcd webcomic, and its simple yet remarkably evocative characters.

It was a little over a year ago that I had the privilege of meeting Randall Munroe in person, having been a follower of xkcd for years. I showed him my software for making sketches come to life and turn into animated characters. At the time I felt a little like an aspiring songwriter playing a tune for Bob Dylan.

But he was very kind and helpful, and gave me some good suggestions. He helped me to realize that it’s not about making things more real, but about finding great expressiveness in a few strokes.

I think I’m channelling some of that energy now. I’m not so much interested in creating a physically accurate world, but rather a world filled with expressive characters, teeming with personalities and emotions and human ideas. Deliberately swinging away from realism — putting stick figures on the Holodeck — is one way to get closer to that.

Besides, it’s pretty cool to see a little stick figure man walking across a table. :-)

6 Responses to “Stick figures on the Holodeck”

  1. Stephan Ahonen says:

    Rather than risk the treacherous crossing of the uncanny valley, it’s better to strive for a style that doesn’t rely on realism to be successful.

  2. admin says:

    That’s a very logical thought. Yet our experience has been that very realistic characters (for example, detailed 3D characters animated by MoCap) also work very well in the space. The sense of presence, of being physically in the same room with the character, seems to be conducive to a compelling experience at various places along the realism spectrum.

  3. Thibault says:

    There is a very interesting comic/book called “Understanding Comics” (Google Image gives great examples of what the book is about) which deals about the medium and its challenges.

    In particular Scott McCloud, the author, tell how the simpler a drawing is, the easier it is for the reader to project what he/she wants on it (again, Google Image :))

    I always thought how its content can be stretch to any medium really, and video games come to my mind first.

  4. admin says:

    I am never far from a copy of “Understanding Comics” (I own several copies, just so one is always nearby).

    I completely agree that the principle pertains to all media — including songs, paintings, sculpture, prose and poetry.

    What particularly strikes me about McCloud’s argument — and you see this in much Japanese animation in particular — is his point that to the person viewing a character, simpler translates to “me” (the viewer him/herself), and more detailed translates to “you” (somebody who is not myself, that I am objectively viewing).

    The space between those extremes forms a very rich expressive dimension.

  5. NYL says:

    re: rush to build realistic virtual worlds–One of the most success virtual world builder that comes to mind is Minecraft, and I think there’s something beautiful in the low res, Lego-like feel of it all. Once I sat next to somebody playing Minecraft on a bus, and I asked what he likes about the game. He said it’s just fun to build something and share it with his friends. It didn’t matter that the world didn’t look realistic. Hehe, it’s kind of funny. The impetus for building his virtual world is to share it with the real one.

  6. admin says:

    NYL: Good point. That was quite likely the same impetus behind the world building of Manchester Park, Mrs. Dalloway and Oryx and Crake, and they all had very low polygon count. :-)

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