Author Archives: erikthereddest

VR: Where You Can Punch A Shark In the Face

Virtual Reality Explosion: Soon You Too Can Punch A Shark in the Face

 

A few stories come up here and there in the general news media about advances in virtual reality technology, but if you haven’t been paying attention to more specialized tech sources, you probably don’t know about the apparent explosion of new VR ventures currently happening. The recent E3 (Entertainment Electronics Expo) showcased a very strong showing of several gaming companies’ attempts to enter into the new field, and while you may not be interested in video games, this industry has a specific interest in pushing the envelope for VR technology which will soon be adopted in nearly every other industry.

Virtual Reality: A Science Fiction Fantasy?

Oculus Rift DKIIWe’ve been trying to figure out how to make virtual reality a real thing ever since it was a fake thing in science fiction. The idea of simulating the real world through mechanical or otherwise synthetic means is by no means a new concept: flight simulators, driving simulators, and immersive artistic experiences have been around long before the computer, relying on a mix of mechanical and electronic means. One famous example, usually considered the first comprehensive VR machine, was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, built in 1962.

In fact, there were plenty of past attempts at kick-starting the virtual reality industry predicted by science fiction for years. Famously, Nintendo created a whole console devoted to the idea, but numerous flaws caused it failed utterly, spoiling the video game industry on the idea for decades.

I9 has a great article outlining several failed virtual reality technologies, including those mentioned above.

So why is this such a big deal now? Well, for the first time, the technology is not only viable and effective, but hyped beyond all reason.

The Oculus Rift: The Standard-Bearer of a New Generation of VR

About a year ago, a small engineering firm put up a Kickstarter campaign to build their new VR Head Mounted Display, dubbed the Oculus Rift. I’ve highlighted this one before, but since my last coverage, the company has not only met record-smashing success selling development prototypes alone, but they’ve been acquired by Facebook. People are still a little confused about why exactly the social media titan would want a VR headset, but apparently they want to create the largest virtual reality network in history, planning for 1 Billion simultaneous users. So basically, any anime, game, movie, or tv show you’ve ever seen with a massive VR game world is basically coming, thanks to the big FB.

Needless to say, people are really getting excited about this thing. The Holodeck? Seems to be right around the corner. Speaking of Star Trek, George Takei even got in on the fun during his Youtube segment  Takei’s Take, where he played an Oculus Rift game where you punch a shark in the face (skip to 2:46 for the actual Oculus Rift demo. Spoilers: he didn’t do very well):

It’s pretty hard to imagine what using one of these devices is really like, but there are plenty of people raving about them. Here are some impressions people have gotten from trying the Oculus Rift out at E3:

Not surprisingly, lots of people are jumping on this bandwagon right-quick:

Sony Project Morpheus

Looking to be a major contender, Sony’s really trying to beat Microsoft to the punch and to be the first game console maker with a first-party VR headset. Anyone with a Playstation 4 will be able to hook up a Morpheus and play virtual reality games, which really will pull VR into the mainstream market.

Cmoar Mobile MR Viewer , Vrizzmo

Several companies are catching on to the fact that many people already tote around a small, HD screen with motion sensors and computing power: smartphones! Cmoar is a specialized unit with interchangeable lenses which will let users swap out for different uses, including games, movies, and even Augmented Reality with the front-mounted camera. Vrizzmo, another unit made by De Jet Works, takes a simpler, cheaper route by giving you one set of adjustable lenses to slide your phone into.

These are just a few examples, and there are sure to be many more coming. The future of VR seems to actually be here.

Don’t Want to Wait? Build Your Own!

RoadtoVR.com has been my go-to for VR news of late, but one set of articles I keep coming back to (without yet doing anything with them) are their Do-it-Yourself guides for building your own VR head mounted display for roughly $20. That’s right! You don’t have to wait for consumer models to come to a store near you. With a little elbow-grease and surprisingly little technical know-how, you can make your own lens and phone assembly like those phone-based unites described above. I want to do this for myself (once I get a decent phone, that is!), but until then I’ll be watching the news for more details about the coming VR revolution!

 

Pathos in Pieces: Nostalgia in The Lego Movie

It may have something to do with the fact that I’m getting hitched in under two months, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about emotions. Specifically, the ways people try to drag out an emotional response in media, like movies or books. Sometimes it’s like they think they’ve got a prize-winning big-mouth bass on the line. As I am male, I tend to resist this sort of coercion. I pull that line with every ounce of bass-strength I have, and if I go down, I’m taking them with me. I find that even when I’m caught off-guard and have to pretend that there’s something in my eye to avoid the awkward glances of fellow movie-goers, I resent the assault of the writers on my emotions and judge them for their crudeness.

My point is mainly this: anyone can have their protagonist’s favorite fuzzy take an errant arrow, or have a doe-eyed little girl meet an untimely grizzly death to drag a tear out of the audience. It’s cheap, easy, and as far as I’m concerned, poor form. Melissa already covered this ground succinctly in Killing Little Suzie, so read her post if you want her take on when and when not to murder children for dramatic effect.

What I would like to explore in this post, however, is what I feel is a much subtler and more artful emotional appeal that I find is not only more difficult to pull off effectively, but widely unrecognized for its power.

Nostalgia – The Subtler Appeal

The Lego Movie posterI recently saw The Lego Movie (yes, I know, I’m a bit late), and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Any film based on a children’s toy is in danger of being hopelessly dumb and devoid of creativity, often purposefully so, because the people involved operate under the assumption that children like dumb, worthless fluff and will go see the movie anyway because TOYS! Clearly, we have many great works of literature and even several great classic films that demonstrate the fallacy of good art having no appeal to children. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie are both enduring children’s classics full of wit and humor that delight adults alike. Pixar has given us several films that clearly have tremendous appeal to both children and adults. I don’t specifically seek out movies that were created for children, but I have seen many films fail because they try to dumb their art down to what they think is an appropriately childish level.

I loved Legos growing up. I still refuse to refer to them by the appropriately Dutch plural form “Lego” because I’ve always called them Legos and I’m not a pretentious prat. So when I saw the preview for The Lego Movie, I was sure that it was either going to be exceedingly dumb or incredible. After hearing good things about it from several friends, even those unlikely to make excuses for a “Kids Movie,” I was optimistic.

What I actually got was a beautifully crafted, stop-motion animated monument to my childhood, and I ached to have a young sibling or nephew to share it with. I wanted to go excavate my parent’s attic and dump my old 50-gallon container of Legos on my bedroom floor and build a giant spaceship. The Toy Story series of movies touched my sense of Nostalgia for my childhood imagination in a general, vague way, but this movie was a direct hit on my inner child.

 

Nostalgia and Kitsch

So, great. I really really liked The Lego Movie. But I started thinking about it more and more, about what I found so powerful. The story was well-written, and the gags were clever and endearing, but I felt that there was something deeper that resonated.

The sheer scope of the animation process for this movie is mind-blowing to me.

Aside from the value of the movie’s script and effective appeals to nostalgia, the sheer scope of the animation process for this movie is mind-blowing. You’ll swear it’s CGI, but it’s not.

When I use the word nostalgia, I am dangerously close to both clichés and kitsch. Merriam-Webster Online defines nostalgia as 1: the state of being homesick, 2: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. “Excessively sentimeltal” strikes me as inherently negative, and in a sense, for a writer to attempt to affect the audience with a deep sense of nostalgia, he or she is in danger of relying on kitsch, the post-modern self-aware manufacture of emotional experience for its own sake.

In my recent class on literary criticism, I read an article Roger Scruton called “A Culture of Fake Originality” in which he describes contemporary academia as being driven primarily by kitsch, which he defined as a work of art which is “not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it” (1). According to Scruton, this phenomenon relies on a collaboration between faker and victim to replace reality with the idealistic vision represented by kitsch. Kitschy art that wields nostalgia relies on the audience to supply his or her idealistic vision of the past, ignoring conflict and flaws in an unbridled fantasy of what should have been. But the old guard of Tolkien and Lewis would say that the peril in the adventure of childhood is just as important as reflecting on the happiness of more innocent times.

The Lego Movie is not about creating a beautiful and false ideal, nor is it relying on clichés to formulate whatever market-driven image of childhood we should all have stamped on our memories. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, I can safely say that the entire story world of this film reflects a child’s unabashed creativity and imagination, through the medium of a child’s toy that specifically enables it, and to me the combination was a powerful image more akin to The Shire than the sort of merchandise-driven marketing ploys we’ve come to expect.

I’ve gone to somewhat silly lengths to express my admiration for the quality work I saw in this movie, but I hope I’ve at least managed to express the impact the legitimate and effective use of nostalgia can have, if only on one person. You may not have as strong of a reaction as I did to The Lego Movie¸ but I encourage you to look for the more subtle and artful emotional appeals in movies and books and to call it out when you find it. I for one want to see more of this sort of thing rather than the likes of that abomination The Last Airbender or that mind-rendingly horrible Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Googling the Cyborg: is it Steam Engine Time?

Hello everyone,

This is my last post for the month, and so I’ll be wrapping up my original thoughts on William Gibson’s non-fiction theories and responses to cultural phenomenon outside of his novels, primarily those thoughts encapsulated in Distrust That Particular Flavor, an anthology of Gibson’s non-fiction.

distrust that particular flavor william gibson book cover

Generally, the most influential idea to me that comes from these writings is the idea which is a primary theme of Gibson’s more recent novels since his cyberpunk trilogy, the idea that the “cyborg” is not as simple as a literal man-machine hybrid, but that we as modern men and women have already integrated technology into our beings so closely that we have become what he predicted in the 80s without so much as a single shard of implanted silicon. But there’s another aspect to this idea which is very useful for writing purpose which I want to cover.

My thoughts (and Gibson’s) today come mostly from his piece “Googling the Cyborg,” a talk he gave to the Vancouver Institute in 2008 which is included in Distrust.

Why We Didn’t See Computers Coming

original dalek dr who

Not that there’s anything wrong with robots!

If you look at traditional science fiction, especially in TV in the 30s and 40s, there are a lot of rocketships. Rocketships and flying cars and jetpacks. Do we have any of those today? Not really, at least not as they were envisioned. It’s fascinating to see how so many writers were trying very hard to predict what the future would look like and settled on technologies that just didn’t create the sort of renaissance they expected. Nothing really about the computer, which at that time was already beginning to exist.There are robots in these films and stories, but they’re pretty much exclusively the snappy-clamp-handed stainless steel variety that have sparks and glass vacuum tubes coming out everywhere. But Gibson describes one thing that did come up: the “electronic brain” which was almost like a computer, but never quite bridged that conceptual gap.

This is because of something Gibson describes as “Steam Engine Time:”

The observable fact that steam, contained, exerts force, has been around since the first lid rattled as the soup came to a boil. The ancient Greeks built toy steam engines that whirled bronze globes. But you won’t get a locomotive till it’s Steam Engine Time. What you wouldn’t do, in 1940, with an electronic brain, would be to stick it on your desk, connect it somehow to a type-writer, and, if you had one, a television… (247).

What do we know about, use, or dream about today that will become our future, without our even noticing? Is it nanotechnology? Stem cells? Aliens? There’s not necessarily any way we could identify it (we can’t know the future until we get to it, really), but I believe that after computer technology broadsided humanity with its unexpected revolution of our daily lives, we’ve been on the lookout. That helps to explain why we have such broad and varied foci for our speculative fiction nowadays, but that’s another conversation.

50s rocketship black and whiteSo what of the electronic brain? Did it stop being important after we decided to stick it on a desk and hook a TV to it? Gibson sees it in something we’ve come to completely take for granted: Google. The internet, a massive network of invisible connections that bring information of almost any subject to the extended memory of every user, is just another aspect of our becoming cybernetic organisms. We don’t need cranial jacks when all we have to do is type in what we want to know, and the great electronic brain does the thinking for us.

Maybe our future visions of artificial intelligence, the electronic brain’s shiny new iteration, will become just as quaint and silly as previous generations’ rocketship dreams seem to us today. Maybe while we look forward to the next big thing, we’re missing the little thing that will actually change our lives, much like the computer did almost without anyone noticing it. Until Steam Engine Time hits again, it’s likely we won’t know.

That’s it for this week! We’ve got Halloween coming up on Thursday, and with that our All Hallows Eve edition of The Gallery of Worlds! Sign up for our newsletter to get a free download code!

Will We All Be Obsolete? Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity Debate

Hello everyone! This month I’ve been talking about William Gibson’s non-fiction writings, centering on his assertion that our interactions with technology have already made us the cyborgs of his stories. This brought me back to the Technological Singularity, the idea that at a certain point in human history, we will eventually artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to create better artificial intelligence.

This is a really cool / terrifying idea, and I’ve covered it before, specifically focusing on how to use it or avoid being hobbled by it in your own writing. However, what I realized I have not discussed is the tempestuous debate surrounding this topic in both the public and academic spheres.

Singularitarianism as the New Utopian Dream

Vernor Vinge, on of the first contemporary theorists in the field of “Future Studies” has predicted four different possible routes we might take to reach an uncontrolled and possibly cataclysmic explosion of technological development:

  • We might develop self-aware artificial intelligence on purpose (think Siri)
  • We might accidentally create self-aware artificial intelligence (as in, the Internet wakes up, or Skynet)
  • We augment our intelligence prosthetically to the point that we are superhuman (Cyborgs)
  • We augment ourselves biologically to the point that we are superhuman (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan from the recent Star Trek movie, but not necessarily  evil or murderous)

Obviously, the examples I give seem to imply that any one of these could mean our doom, and that is one interpretation of the theory. However, many Singularitarians (as they have come to call themselves) have hopes that this event will actually mean the next stage of human evolution and mean the transcendence of natural limitations. According to some, this could mean we finally get Utopia.

Ray Kurzweil is an extremely outspoken (and combative) member of this group, and is responsible for inspiring a lot of the public interest in this topic. His first book The Age of Intelligent Machines kicked off much of the larger discussion and made him well known for his transhumanist predictions that we will take the less apocalyptic route and use the Singularity to become more than human. Here’s an interview from SingularityHub which encapsulates much of Kurzweil’s thoughts:

Or, for a much shorter and quite funny presentation of what Singularitarians believe, see this video:

But the Singularitarians do have their opponents, and it is important to see the other side of the argument.

Opponents of the “New Church” of the Singularity

Theoretical utopian societies always have detractors, often because they make necessary assumptions about human nature or technology which can be criticized. It is interesting to note that even some of the cyberpunk writers such as Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson are critical of Kurzweil’s theories, seeing them as too fantastic to truly represent a possible future.

But there are also voices from the scientific community who do not agree with the premises of the Singularitarian movement. One example is Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis denies that the human brain can actually be simulated, and that we can especially not replicate the human consciousness. While Kurzweil believes that we are pretty close to figuring out how the human brain works, Nicolelis thinks this is all “hot air” (according to Singularity Hub). Another is George E. Moore, the guy Moore’s Law of semiconductors is named after, who does not believe that machines will attain the same intelligence as humans, because they are outside the natural evolutionary process which (he believes) resulted in us.

In fact, IEEE.org, the website for the Institute for Electric and Electronic Engineers, has a fantastic list of high profile supporters and detractors of the theory of the Singularity, and their diverse thoughts on the subject offers a sample of the debate (part of a larger single-issue web magazine full of extremely interesting articles; check it out here!). The sheer number of consequences and possible outcomes for the Singularity (or any of the above should the event never occur) has been a significant feature of science fiction in the past 20 years, so it is extremely useful to understand where so many of these writers, critics, and theorists are coming from.

That’s it for this week! I’ll finish up my discussion of Gibson’s non-fiction next week (there’s one more really great article I want to talk about). Until then, do you believe in the Singularity? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Science Fiction Roundup: Robotics Update

Hello, everyone!

I decided to take a break from the heavy stuff this week and point you all to some interesting articles in a much-overdue Science Fiction Roundup.

I read dozens of tech-related blogs and websites, often finding inspiration for science fiction stories. Every now and then, I find some great articles to share, and round ’em up for your convenience.

This week’s post is all about our favorite future overlords and their current progress toward global domination (with a little help from us humans, of course)

Crushing Things With Your Robot Claws is Now a More Satisfying Experience

human hand and robot hand shakingHere’s something us humans can benefit from: tactile response in prosthetics. We take for granted every day that the ability to feel pressure and texture sensations in the skin is an incredibly intricate and amazingly complex mechanism. For people who need prosthetic limbs, tactile response is something sorely missing, making for a constant reminder of the “substitute” nature of the device. First, you need a type of sensor that can detect texture and pressure (check). But after you have a way of generating proper data to mimic human touch-sense, you need to be able to give that data to the human brain.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have managed to get close to that goal with Bonobo monkeys, which is a step closer to development for humans. They trained the monkeys to respond to specific touch sensations, then stimulated the monkeys’ brains in such a way that got the same response. This helped the researchers to map points and define specific voltages to mimic the desired sensations, which will be necessary to make sure the touch sensations from the prosthesis translates to the brain properly.

Check out the article at 33rd Square for more information.

Boston Dynamics Bring More Options to Skynet’s Table

I’ve mentioned several of Boston Dynamics’ projects before, especially their very impressive PETMAN humanoid terminator testing platform. Recently, their zippy little cheetah-like WildCat platform has graduated from the lab to cord-less operation. The robot can gallop at up to 15 miles per hour, as you can see in the video. While it might seem a little awkward (it faceplants in part of the video, that is, if it had a face), this is an incredible development for rugged robot mobility. I can’t quite work up the nightmare-inducing terror over this one, but I’m sure it will be a prove to be a valuable tool in our eventual extinction.

PETMAN’s successor ATLAS is also in development, expanding on the unsettlingly-human movements to a bipedal balance system and less-terrifying form. I currently lacks a head, but it hardly looks threatening at all as it gingerly tip-toes through the boulders, does it?

Check out the articles on WildCat and ATLAS on Singularity Hub for more information.

 Too Cute to Be Threatening… Right?

Just to show some contrast, here’s a new dancing owl robot. Because kids want those, I guess? ixi-Play is a new interactive robot designed by Witty Worx to play educational games with children using its 720p camera, multiple touch sensors, and internal dual-core processor. I do question how many parents will see this as yet another excuse to leave their young children unsupervised for extended periods of time, but look at how much fun this kid’s having:

Check the article on 33rd Square for more information.

That’s it for this week! Next week I’ll wrap up my discussion of William Gibson’s social criticism. Until then, what do you think about these robots? Cool? Terrifying? Let me know in the comments below!