Cardboard and scissors, scotch tape and coffee stirrers

I am working through an idea for a research project. If it works out, it’s going to involve brilliant grad students, custom electronics, motion control equipment, real-time sensors, interesting software, perhaps some serious applications to both healthcare and computer gaming, and maybe a spin-off company to help bring it all to the world in an economically self-sustaining way.

But things never start there. 🙂

So today I spent some time with cardboard and scissors, scotch tape and coffee stirrers, and assorted other junk lying around the lab, starting to put together an early proof-of-concept prototype. Depending on how that works out, I may take things to the next stage.

Even if it doesn’t, I sure had a fun time!

Two shows

Today I saw the marionette show in Central Park. Two members of our party were little children, and they were really the target audience.

As adults, watching a puppet show aimed at children was a wonderfully eye opening experience, because we were actually watching two shows.

On the one hand, we were seeing the same show that the kids were seeing, a tale of silly clowns, beautiful ballerinas, impish monkeys, mustachioed strongmen and flying cows. The plot was often ridiculous, but never ever boring.

On the other hand, we were constantly aware of the presence of the puppeteers, just out of our sight. We admired the hook that comes down from the “sky” and artfully engages a piece of scenery, the strings that hold up the lovely ballerina as she twirls so gracefully on a balance beam, the ingenious mechanical wings of a flying bird.

This is all quite difference from the experience of seeing a good play or film, where I fairly quickly forget the artificiality of it all, and willingly suspend my disbelief to become immersed in the story and characters.

But in a puppet show, keeping all the strings visible is part of the point. One is constantly reminded of how it is done, and that awareness is part of the show.

I am reminded of the highest exemplar of this art,Japanese Bunraku puppetry, in which the puppeteers remain visible at all times. We in the audience honor their brilliance by politely ignoring them.

But we never forget that they are there, giving their creations the magical gift of life.

The Peter Jackson version

Saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” this evening — a big goofy puppy dog of a superhero film. It’s the kind of movie that comes right up and happily licks your face. A totally enjoyable experience, if you remember to leave any trace of seriousness at the door.

The highlight of the pre-film previews was the promo for the next installment of “The Hobbit”. Not because it was good, but because it was bad in such a peculiar way.

Those of you who live in the real world might recall that Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” was a charming little children’s story, filled with goofy adventures and sly offhanded humor.

Peter Jackson, from what I can see, does not live anywhere near that world.

His new Hobbit movie seems to be even more grandiose and portentous than the first one (that was the one where Sherlock Holmes, playing a dragon, nearly ate Watson). Tonight’s preview had lots of slow motion, shots of serious looking actors in gleaming profile, and leisurely pans across rows upon rows of archers grimly facing the Apocalypse. All very very important.

During the self-serious immensity of it all, my mind started to wander, and I found myself wondering whether you could do this with any source material.

Could we, for example, split “Peter Rabbit” into a three part epic, with all human virtues and vices represented metaphorically by the larger-than-life travails of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail?

Or what about “The Cat in the Hat”, done in the style of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, with the cruel fate of the well-meaning fish standing in for the darkness of the human soul and the terrible injustice that implicates us all?

All of which would need to be told as an epic saga, in gorgeous 70mm, with each installment clocking in at about a hundred and forty minutes. Of course the characters of “Thing One” and “Thing Two” would need to be cut from the screenplay. After all, would you include Tom Bombadil in a movie about the Fellowship of the Ring?

But what I’m really holding out for is the forthcoming epic miniseries — in ten successive two hour installments, shot and presented in glorious stereoscopic iMax, with music composed by John Williams and conducted by the London Symphony Orchestra with accompanying vocals by the Vienna Boy’s Choir.

I’m speaking, of course, about “Captain Underpants: The Peter Jackson version.”

Future past future

I am a big fan of what is commonly called “Retro-futurism”: Visions of the future from decades past. SciFi images from the 1920s through the early 1960s often contain a heady mix of optimism and wonder on the one hand, and dark dystopian warning on the other.

As I watch current science fiction movies — which have a common aesthetic thread running through them, with their stylized corporate interiors and magically floating interactive displays — I wonder whether I am seeing the Retro-futurism of tomorrow.

Like up-to-the-minute fashions from the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s, the now cutting edge look of current movies and TV shows might some day end up making them look charmingly old fashioned — and all in the same way.

One day, thirty years from now, middle aged people may be hard pressed to explain to teenagers why they once thought that “Iron Man” or “The X-Men” represented a vision of the future.

Most likely the kids won’t be listening anyway. They’ll be too busy rolling their eyes.

The day after SIGGRAPH

The day after SIGGRAPH is both heady and confusing, because, like everyone else who attended, I’ve been mainlining exciting new ideas, trying to absorb the fantastic work of my peers all at once. I find that by the last day of the conference, it becomes hard to concentrate on the technical papers, because my mind is already racing to connect the dots between things I’ve already seen, and to incorporate all those new insights into my research for the coming year.

And now, on the day after the conference — after a much needed night’s sleep — I realize that somewhere in the back of my mind I am formulating plans, thinking of cool projects for students, setting aside budget for this piece of equipment or that research visit.

There are a million things you can do with the vast amount of new insight that comes with attending SIGGRAPH. The trick is to pick just a few of them, the ones that are really doable and will generate excitement and original thinking on the part of the students.

It will probably take another week or so before my mind makes the transition from wild and overambitious schemes to a solid plan of action. Meanwhile, I’m just enjoying the journey.

Contrarian Attraction Theory

There are dog people, and there are cat people. They tend not to be the same people.

In my experience, dog people value the enthusiasm and loyalty of their canine companions. I have never witnessed a more pure or focused love than the emotion conveyed by a dog to his or her human.

Cat people, on the other hand, cherish the elusive mystery and independence of their feline friends. As my friend Athomas put it yesterday, “People don’t train their cats. Cats train their people.”

Which leads me to my theory.

Athomas’ comment came up during a meeting with a colleague in which we were discussing a potential project involving a virtual interactive cat. One key question that comes up in any such project is: How should a virtual cat behave?

A common question in human / computer interfaces is “How can I get it to do what I want?” But this is not quite true if you are trying to simulate a cat. After all, an interface agent that does everything you want requires only a theory of “Digital Obedience Gestalt” (DOG).

But in this case, we need to develop more of a Contrarian Attraction Theory (CAT), to describe a creature that appeals to us largely because it is so eloquent at expressing its approval or disapproval — at being so capable of not doing what we want.

Cats do what we want them to do by not doing what we want them to do.

A majestic mountain

As I watch the technical paper presentations and play with the demos of emerging technologies at SIGGRAPH, it becomes more clear to me what many of us have in common here: We are, in some way, trying to work with the tools of the present to understand the future.

The tools available today are meager compared with what we will have in another twenty years. Yet we can already think about what those future techniques will be like, and we are all trying to reason through the fog of future time, creating experiments that help us see that world to come, and perhaps build a little bit of it now.

The goal is not to make the future happen immediately — that is not possible — but rather to create just enough experience of it so that we can understand it better, and perhaps help to guide it to a better place.

So the meaning of SIGGRAPH is not really found in the particular demos and technical papers that one sees here. It is found in the shared understanding in the minds of the people in attendance.

Others may look at our tools and techniques and see only pick-axes and climbing equipment. But what we see is a majestic mountain, off in the distance. We are just trying to figure out the best way to get there.

Real-time live!

Today I went to my favorite SIGGRAPH event — “Real-time live”. This is the event in which everything has to happen right now, interactively. It generally shows off the cutting edge of what can be done with a PC and a dream.

I was very happy that the grand prize was won by Birdly — which many of you have undoubtedly seen on the Web. This is that little piece by some young Swiss guys in which you strap on an Oculus Rift and lie down in a crazy robotic contraption that gives you the feeling of flying through the air like a bird, as you flap your arms while an actual fan blows air at you.

I was happy this won because of the fact that its coolness was very much connected to the fact that it was tethered to the real world. This isn’t an experience where you just put on a VR helmet and sit on a couch — you actually have to put your whole body into it.

There is something so delightful and charming about the fact that such a decidedly Victorian contraption — something that would have made perfect sense to H.G. Wells — wins the a grand prize at a Virtual Reality event in 2014.

It gives me hope for humanity.