Friday, August 22, 2008

Vintage Virtual Reality

"Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory", March 22 1895

Since this post deals with the subject of "virtual reality" or VR, I though it would be interesting to note certain antecedents and explain some technical aspects that might give you food for thought. Although one of the modern tenets of VR is the "interactivity" aspect (and that is another discussion topic) earlier attempts were more concerned with "immersion" and this is true still today, as total immersion is a primary focus of VR designers today.

Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential film critics and filmmakers of the New Wave, once defined film as "...24 frames per second".

Coming from one of the most intellectual directors in film history this definition seems simplistic. But Godard was in fact referring to the fact that film was an illusion created in our minds by a simple physical phenomena. For many years we were told that the reason film works the way it works is because of the "lag" produced by our vision system, which does not "refresh" the image fast enough, resulting in the images blending with the previous one and so forth, therefore creating the illusion of movement.

Everyone has probably at one point played with the illusion of the "bird in a cage".
The thaumatrope, as this is called was a very popular toy dating to the Victorian era, and is often considered an antecedent of cinematography and particularly of animation. As a curious note some claim that Charles Babbage, who originated the concept of the programmable computer, was its inventor, although no definite proof of this exists.

Many still believe that "persistence of vision" is the phenomena behind the perception of movement in cinema, a "lucky defect of the retina" which permitted this illusion.

Movement, however, is a phenomena perceived directly by the brain, through different sensors with which it interacts. In this respect, the eye acts as a gate which transmits to the brain a frequency. And here we come around Godard's 24 fps or frames per second. Although early cinematographers arrived at this particular frequency empirically, they did not exactly know why the perception of movement was so "realistic" at this frame rate.

The brain produces different types of waves, like Alpha and Beta, associated with different "states of mind". This electromagnetic oscillations convey different sensations based on the information acquired by the senses. These wave frequencies range from 8 to 12 hz to 12 to 15hz respectively of which 24 and 30, the most common film and video rates are multiples.

I believe, based on my own experiments as an special effects (SFX) cinematographer that this results in a "feedback" loop, amplifying the electrical activity of the thalamic cells, responsible for the communication between the senses and the thalamus, which plays a major role in regulating arousal, level of awareness or consciousness and activity.

In 1983, Douglas Trumbull, the special effects supervisor for such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, directed his first major film, "Brainstorm" which predicted the fascination with virtual reality and developed a system for this film named Showscan, which was shot and projected at 60 frames per second. The effect for the viewers was an incredibly enhanced high definition and movement experience, described by some as a "psychedelic drug trip".

I describe the experience of viewing a film (at 24 and particularly at 60 fps) as a mild epileptic seizure since the frequency of projection greatly enhances the synchronous electrical activity of the brain. This is what is mainly responsible for the high degree of "immersion" that both film and TV effect in the viewer, regardless of content. And it is in this respect that Marshall McLuhan's phrase "the medium is the message" makes total sense.

I think I will leave it at that for now as a trigger point (pun intended) for a future conversation about the subject.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The extensions of Man

Ernst Kapp (1808–1896)

In his book, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik ("Fundamentals of a Philosophy of Technical Science," 1877 1), Ernst Kapp addressed societal and ethical problems associated with the rise of machines. He considered
technology a projection of our human organs, as a connection between the body and the technological tools that humans have produced throughout history. He said:

The intrinsic relationship that arises between tools and organs, and one that is to be revealed and emphasized – although it is more one of unconscious discovery than of conscious invention – is that in the tool the human continually produces itself. Since the organ whose utility and power is to be increased is the controlling factor, the appropriate form of a tool can be derived only from that organ.2

Man represents himself in his tools which are an extension of our natural instruments such as the hand, which transforms itself in scissors, a hammer a pen, a teleremote manipulator that extends our hand to Mars and beyond etc.

Kapp argues that everything mankind produces is to be interpreted as technics which is the result of the projection of its organs, therefore technics is the only road to self-awareness.

The extension of our mind that we call the internet will soon escape human control if it has not done it yet, and as we play with our avatars it is to hope that we become self-aware of the implications and rise up to the challenge.

I welcome you to Interactive Storytelling where we will be working with, hopefully understanding, the most powerful instrument that man has helped create. For what use and purpose will we task this extreme expression of ourselves? This is an opportunity to, if not find the answers, at least to ask the right questions.

1.- E. Kapp. Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (originally published in 1877), Stern–Verlag Janssen & Co, Düsseldorf (1978)
Mitcham, C. Thinking through technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1994).