Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for virtual worlds

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 »

Fractal: A Science Fiction Conference That Might Just Blow Your Mind

I was a little surprised by the invitation I received from Hernan Ortiz and Viviana Trujillo to speak at their annual Fractal conference . I couldn’t figure out how they knew that I was interested in all the things their conference was about: science fiction, technoculture, music and the porous boundary between fiction and real lived life. I knew that my current work at the Norman Lear Center was informed by these interests – which I’d cultivated while I was earning my English PhD in a theory-heavy program – but it was hardly obvious in any official bio you might find online.

The conference was in Medellin, Colombia, and so I immediately contacted my friend, who has lots of family in Colombia, and asked her whether it was safe for an American gal to travel alone there. She assured me that things had improved tremendously: Medellin was now safer than it had been in decades, and it just happened to be one of the most beautiful places in the entire country.

Boy, she wasn’t kidding.

Hernan and Viviana were clever enough to include in their original invitation links to two glowing reports about the two previous conferences in 2009 and 2010. Science fiction writers John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly wrote this about the first Fractal:

The festival blithely crossed boundaries in the arts, exploring the literature of the fantastic, music, art, science, technology, and fashion. It was Colombia’s first national science fiction conference. Dedicated to presenting different ways of imagining and creating the future, the conference took its mission from a quote by J.G. Ballard. “I believe in the power of imagination to rebuild the world.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Yul Brynner: Best. Cyborg. Ever.

Wow. I’m not sure how this happened, but for some reason I never saw (or even heard of) Michael Chrichten’s campy robots-run-amok movie, Westworld. Lots of interesting material for those of us interested in the singularity (it turns out the robots were programmed by computers, not humans), but also some of the best damn casting I’ve ever seen. It takes a certain kind of talent to make people believe that you’re a robot . . . and not simply robotic (a certain Schwarzenegger comes to mind). Magic happens when the robot reads like a cyborg, as I believe “it” does when Summer Glau tilts her freaky head in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or in every single one of Yul Brynner’s scenes in Westworld. Brynner is spot on (and terrifying) as a robot gunslinger who’s no longer prepared to die at the hands of childish vacationers who paid big bucks to play cowboys and Indians. When Brynner’s eyes start glowing, I can’t tell where the special effects and the human part ways. It’s a creepy little glimpse (from 1973!) of the uncanny valleys we’ll be crossing as our robots become more and more life-like.

Fashion Innovation in Virtual Worlds

Paper Couture channels Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

Next, the third and final installment from my interview with Iris Ophelia, the official fashion correspondent for New World Notes, a long-running blog about Second Life, and Blue Mars, another 3D social world. You can follower her on Twitter @bleatingheart. Check out part one and part two of our conversation where we discussed, among other things, Mad Men,  Alexander McQueen and Armani’s ill-fated experiment in Second Life.

OK, here’s the most obvious question: who are your favorite Second Life designers and why?

It’s incredibly hard to pick, though most of my favourites are my favourites because they’re so innovative in addition to the other qualities that I’ll list… I love June Dion because she’s a powerhouse of variety and she takes risks many other designers won’t while keeping her prices unbelievably low.

I’m also a big fan of Dakota Buck because her designs have this really alluring femininity to them that isn’t tarty or trashy and that’s something that really needs to be nurtured more in Second Life’s fashion scene. Zaara Kohime is amazing because she uses colours and patterns and even textures effectively along with really unique ethnic influences.

Nylon Pinkney is without a doubt the patron saint of hand drawing in Second Life and her pieces for her own brand as well as the pieces she contributes to Paper Couture are each works of art on their own, and Emma Gilmour has an equally amazing artistic gift with 3D modeling tools so her sculpted clothing elements are miles ahead of everyone else.

I’ll also admit that I’m very fond of Yukio Ida who designs more fringe fashions, things like fawn hooves and gothic kimonos, because I have tremendous respect for designers who keep true to their own personal tastes and vision, even if those aren’t really mainstream. I’m really happy that Second Life has an environment that allows brands like Ida’s to flourish.

 

A virtual fashion design by Emma Gilmour.

I’m always looking for Second Life fashions that have some functionality embedded within them. Are there some designers who are pushing the envelope in this direction, developing designs that do interesting things?

That depends on the kind of functionality. There are shoes with scripts that make them click when you walk (though most SL fashionistas look down their nose at this and consider it tacky); purses that have animations in them that make your avatar hold them a certain way; completely prim avatars that blink and change colours (Blue Galaxy has good examples of this), and prim finger nails and feet often come with the ability to control details like polish colour (SLink comes to mind immediately here), stickers and skin colour… I think most of the functionality of fashion is limited to the bells-and-whistles category like those, though the best example of function and fashion meeting is likely the animation override, an attachment that makes you move and pose in a customized way, which almost everyone seems to use at this point.

Other examples can probably be found in the role playing communities which tend to produce gorgeous weapons and accessories that are scripted for combat (personally I’m always on the look out for cute Three Kingdoms-era warfans), but are also excellent accessories in their own right.

Designs by June Dion.

Who are the most innovative designers in world and who are the most influential?

I’d say that Eloh Eliot had a huge impact when she released her skin textures completely free to the community for modification and resale. So many skin designers learned from her templates, and she’s an excellent example of how creatively beneficial open sourcing can be to a community.

There’s also Ginny Talamasca who died several years ago, but who ran one of the largest and most popular virtual brands, Last Call. Talamasca really raised the bar for texture quality, and brought a lot of significant real life trends into Second Life fashion. Even today there are many brands that style themselves after Last Call both in their artistic techniques and their overall image.

LeLutka is a brand that has been very influential in bringing the fierce and scowling runway model look into Second Life. The extreme features of high fashion definitely play a larger part in virtual fashion than they did before LeLutka’s founder started creating in SL– it’s not a look I’m particularly fond of, but it has brought some dramatically different items into the market and I’m always happy to have more variety. That’s what makes Second Life such an incredible fashion playground.

Fashion, Entertainment & Virtual Worlds

Mad Men's Joan Holloway, recreated in Second Life.

 

In my ongoing effort to better understand fashion in virtual worlds (it’s our future, you know), I’m posting a three-part series of interviews with Iris Ophelia, the official fashion correspondent for New World Notes, a long-running blog about Second Life, and Blue Mars, another 3D social world. You can follower her on Twitter @bleatingheart.

You mention in your blog that Mad Men, True Blood and Glee have big followings within Second Life’s fashion communities. What other entertainment products – films, games, music – have had a strong influence on fashion in SL?

Second Life is in a lot of ways just a visual representation of the Internet. Major Internet communities all leave their mark somewhere. Anime has had a huge impact on SL fashion for example. One of the earliest and biggest brands that’s still around specializes in cosplay costumes, and one of the more prominent style subcultures, nekos,  also originate from anime, manga, and Japanese games. Aesthetics influenced by Blade Runner, Jules Verne, and John Norman’s Gor novels have all respectively taken root in Second Life, not to mention furries and the various fetish-based fashion communities. I know some people would argue that furries shouldn’t count as a fashion community, but considering the care and investment they put in buying, creating, and assembling their outfits I find them indistinguishable from fashionistas.

I’ve heard that it can be difficult to make plus-sized avatars in Second Life. Do you think it’s a problem that human-style bodies tend to come in very predictable configurations in SL? It seems to me that fashion design could become much more innovative in SL if there were a broader range of bodies to clothe . . .

Betty Draper gets the Second Life treatment as well.

It’s not as hard if you have some experience with the avatar shape editor; what’s hard is wearing that shape over a period of time. You have to edit your prim attachments (i.e., the virtual clothes you purchase) constantly if you’re lucky enough for them to be modifiable, but even then things tend to be shaped to suit slimmer body types. Unlike real life, all SL clothing technically fits any avatar body, but like real life whether or not it’s flattering or suited to your shape is a completely different issue. While I love seeing more variety in body shapes, and I have a couple plus-sized shapes myself, I have to admit that my own shape is a slightly curvy variation of a gazelle. That’s really the bigger issue– even if you can have a larger shape, it’s just not what the majority of people want. Humans have always made idealized versions of ourselves in replica, from Venus of Willendorf to Barbie. While there’s charm in making something a bit more unique, most people will stick with the more safe and comfortable image of ‘perfection’, whatever that is at the time. Considering how far back it goes in human history it’s clearly something really deeply embedded within our minds. Not everyone, myself included, likes the super-exaggerated supermodel shapes in Second Life, but the fact remains that it’s as emotionally easy to be skinny in SL as it is technically easy.

I love the fact that “I” can wear stuff in Second Life that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in the real world. I’m sure that’s part of the pleasure of shopping and dressing up in SL. Can you talk a little bit about why people are so willing to spend money on clothes in SL and what people are getting out of that investment?

I liken it to renting a movie. You know you aren’t buying it to keep, because Second Life won’t be around forever, but you pay and get your enjoyment out of it while you can. I think of Second Life shopping as more of an entertainment expense in that sense. It also explains why most people are hesitant to buy any Linden Dollars when they first join. Why rent the movie if you can just buy it for a little more money, or in this case shop for physical goods instead? After a certain point, most SL users find their particular answer to that question. For some, it’s because you can enjoy more rentals with the same amount of money it would take to buy. For others it’s because you can try things you aren’t sure about and experiment with new genres without making a significant investment in them. It all tends to boil down to entertainment, which everyone is looking for in some form.

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