Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for virtual worlds

Imagining the Future of 3D Printing at Fractal

fractal13

Ever since I started doing research on fashion design and copyright, I’ve been tracking the progress of 3D printing technology. The disruptive possibilities of this technology are abundantly clear in the fashion sector, and so I was thrilled to receive an invitation to attend fractal, a very unique conference in Medellin Colombia, where a diverse group of experts was asked to facilitate conversations about 3D printing, synthetic biology and other bleeding edge topics.

Hoping to shake-up the typical conference format, the instigators behind fractal – the intrepid Viviana Trujillo and Hernan Ortiz – decided to invite the audience to use “design fiction” to spin stories of the future that would reveal the key social, cultural, political and ethical quandaries that accompany the adoption of new technologies. The facilitators were a fascinating group: Reshma Shetty , an MIT-trained synthetic biologist; acclaimed artist and director Keiichi Matsuda, whose augmented reality installations have been featured at MOMA and the V&A, and Paul Graham Raven, a speculative fiction practitioner who uses narrative to solve engineering problems in the UK.

In addition to telling stories about how homes might be made out of living things and how augmented reality applications will fundamentally change the contours of our self-presentation to the world, we tackled the topic of 3D printing. Read the rest of this entry »

Artifical Intelligence, Gender & the Uncanny Valley

Spike Jonze’s new film Her has sparked some fascinating conversations about artificial intelligence, gender and how we might traverse the uncanny valley we experience when real worlds and virtual worlds overlap.

Liat Clark from Wired contacted me for a great piece about AI virtual assistants and he asked me why it was that Hollywood usually depicts friendly AI as female and threatening AI as male. I think that, even though we may be more aware of gender stereotypes and how limiting and self-destructive they can be, it doesn’t mean that we don’t invoke them in the stories that we tell about ourselves. We humans are caught in some very deep cultural grooves: we still tend to associate a helpful, nurturing creature with feminine characteristics and an aggressive and destructive force with male characteristics. To reverse that association would only result in reinvoking it: everyone would notice that it was “backwards.” In that respect, storytellers cannot help but invoke the tropes that define us – particularly when they’re weaving tales about artificial versions of ourselves.

Clark was also interested in why Hollywood tropes about love and romance always seem a bit retro, lagging behind the current zeitgeist. I think that the representations that define our popular culture are profoundly disconnected from reality and are more likely to reflect a marketer’s hunch about what a particular demographic craves rather than what real living people actually want. One reason I’m so excited about the prospects for social media is that it gives marketers and media companies better information than they’ve ever had before about what animates us, what preoccupies us, and what we care to share (this is the topic of one of my TED talks). I think marketers, advertisers, programmers and creators of entertainment content will need to respond to increasing pressure to supply what audiences actually want – rather than producing hackneyed stories based on primitive stereotypes.

Clark turned out to be much more skeptical than I was about just how far we can go with AI. As my friends well know, I am borderline obsessed with the possibilities of the singularity, and so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to make life-like versions of ourselves in my lifetime. For better or worse, I believe that we’ll make AI that conforms to our current notions of perfection, whatever those happen to be at the time. I also think we will undoubtedly change our definition of perfection the moment we think we’ve achieved it. We’re sort of predictable that way.

The broader question may be why we are so obsessed with humanizing technology in the first place. There’s a great scene in Prometheus in which the robot Michael (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) puts on some protective head gear which is entirely unnecessary for him. When a human asks him why he bothers, he says it’s because humans are far more comfortable with creatures that act and look like them. Bingo. Yes, we quite capable of empathy, but we are also deeply self-involved creatures, hard-wired for self-preservation, and anthropomorphism is a crutch we’ve been using for millennia.  Our virtual assistants and the robots we engineer will no doubt reflect our knee-jerk discomfort with anything elementally different from ourselves.

Tribeca Film Festival: The Art of Networking

Ironically, these pencils were a big hit at the Tribeca Film Institute's super-high-tech Interactive fest.


Film festivals are tricky events to navigate. Of course they’re about art and commerce and, for some reason, all too many filmmakers are uncomfortable with that combination. Despite the entertainment industry’s craven reputation, there are plenty of people in it – not just indie movie types – who long for something pure: complex aesthetic objects that will transport people to new places and new ways of understanding this world and the many alternate realities we’ve crafted for ourselves. That idealism, and the understandable longing for money and attention to achieve that dream, is prominently on display at fests like Tribeca. And yes, a lot of it is about glad-handing and hitting as many cocktail parties as possible (as well as standing next to the right person at the red carpet premieres), but more and more these days, it’s also about figuring out how to make movies do that the networking for you. Filmmakers who’ve managed to crack the social media code have, indeed, mastered the twenty-first century art of networking.

I thought it was terrific that Tribeca devoted an entire day of the Fest to a conference on interactive media. The event was held in Frank Gehry’s gleaming IAC building, in front of an impossibly long wall of screens. The shallow wide room was packed from start to finish with a mix of digerati (I was thrilled to meet Christina Warren the entertainment editor for Mashable) and people who’ve been toiling in the traditional media trenches all their lives. The implicit goal was to figure out how to make sure that filmmakers learn how to adapt to an increasingly interactive media space – something more easily said than done. These days, film projects of all sizes are expected to have some sort of online presence, not only for the purpose of promotion but for something far more ephemeral: audience engagement. There are generally no accepted standards to measure the latter, but it usually means that you’ve managed to convince passive potential audience members to take an active role in promoting, extending, or even reimagining the film itself or its subject.

For all too many filmmakers, a transmedia campaign includes a basic formula: a Web site, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and the coup de grace, an iPhone app. Much to the consternation of app developers like Michelle Byrd from Games for Change, creatives working in traditional media industries often assume that audience engagement just happens on these platforms: as long as you build it, someone will come. But take a quick look at all the apps you’ve installed and don’t use on your phone, and you’ll recognize that even scoring an install doesn’t necessarily lead to one iota of “engagement.”

Learning how to port linear, narrative art forms over to interactive platforms is a tremendous creative and technical challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

Avatar & the Sweet Delights of Horror Films at the Experience Music Project


During a recent trip to Seattle, I finally had a chance to visit the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen’s eccentric Frank Gehry-designed museum committed to Allen’s passions: rock and roll, digital technology, science fiction and the geekier side of American pop culture. A little tear welled up in my eye as I drifted through the somber Nirvana exhibition, but the highlights of my trip were to be found in the Sci-Fi wing of the museum.

The highly interactive Avatar exhibition was a delight to experience:  I was not the only one who had a hard time tearing myself away from the interactive table-top, which allowed you to shuffle through cards that triggered the retrieval of multimedia resources on the making of Pandora. I was also smitten by the fact that they let museum visitors try out Jim’s handheld virtual cameras, which he used to shoot scenes with actors after they already went home. It reminds you how magical motion capture really is, and I’m sure it puts the fear of Jesus in actors who thought they could never be replaced. I’m sure the gadgets installed at the museum are dumbed-down versions of Cameron’s cool invention (the zoom button felt like something circa 1972), but wow – it’s a brilliant way to give fans a taste of the creative process behind something they love.

I also could NOT wipe the smile off my face as I wended my way through the exhibit devoted to horror. Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror starts off with a descent in a soulless spiral stairwell, lined with pictures of people screaming. Once you land in the exhibit you realize that all those people are visitors who visited the “Scream Booth,” which gives everyone an opportunity to screech like Janet Leigh or Drew Barrymore. Such fun.

I also made an idiot out of myself in the “Shadow Monsters” interactive installation. As you move various parts of your body at various speeds, your projected shadow is transformed into a variety of monstrous forms. It’s pretty addictive but, man, I was little disappointed that I couldn’t get a decent shot of my monstrous shadow. I would have frightened you.

Storytelling, Communication Technology & Augmented Reality: Interviews at Fractal’11

[Fractal'11] What’s Up Interviews / Entrevistas en What’s Up from Universo Fractal on Vimeo.

I was interviewed by a youth-skewing local TV show called What’s Up? during my stay in the magical city of Medellín, Colombia. This video includes my interview about the impact of communication technology and storytelling, as well as commentary from James Alliban, an augmented reality app developer. Enjoy!

Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »

Death & Dying in the Movies

My seventeen year-old cat died a week and a half ago and so I found myself in need of some cinema therapy.

I’ve always argued that people who think of entertainment as simply escapist fare are not being honest with themselves. Yes, we use entertainment in order to check-out of our present situations, but, quite inevitably, we step into another world, one with some pretty clear connections to the world we live in, and we can’t help but use the time we spend in those virtual realities (like movies and games and concerts) to test some of the premises that guide our lives outside the cineplex, game or concert hall.

Sex and death are the bread and butter of compelling storytelling, from The Odyssey to Avatar.  That tradition takes on new hues in Beginners, the new film by Mike Mills that features a thoroughly beguiling performance by Christopher Plummer, who plays a man in his mid-seventies who comes out as gay. Through constantly shifting chronologies and flash backs, the film addresses his sexual awakening and his imminent death simultaneously, making both more poignant. We’re not allowed for one moment to think that this film isn’t about death (his son, played by Ewan McGregor, is packing up his father’s house as the film opens), but in my melancholic state, it was oddly comforting. I realized that what I was longing to escape from was not the subject of death, but my lonely slog through it. It was a relief not only to see other people grappling with it on screen, but to be among 100 strangers in a room who were going through the emotional obstacle course with me. Read the rest of this entry »

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