Archive for June, 2016

Elsewhere on the site we’ve already explored the age of the synthespian, but there’s one factor that hasn’t been accounted for in our previous stories, namely the advent of uncanny valley.

First penned by the theorist, Jasia Reichardt in her 1978 work, Robotics: Fact, Fiction and Prediction, the notion builds upon the Freudian concept of the uncanny – a state where the seemingly familiar becomes suddenly alien to the observer.

In the realm of animation, video games and, most recently, modern robotics the ‘valley’ denotes a shift towards disquiet when faced with increasingly realistic representations of the human form. Aesthetically we tend to accept caricatures and simplified, cartoon versions of ourselves, but head towards photo-realistic artificial likenesses and, unless skillfully executed, we get the jitters.

Out of all the examples above, animation has the longest tradition of replicating the human form, but until the coming of computer animation, rotorscoping was about as realistic as depictions got.

In video games, more than anywhere else, one key area where the uncanny valley set up an uneasy residence is with facial animation. It’s probably the result of a now outdated need to avoid screen burn, with coders remedying the situation using avatar idle animations. What this practice has resulted in, however, is a general resistance towards characters simply doing what all humans do, i.e. occasionally presenting a relatively motionless form. As a result, computer animators are a long way from capturing the kind of micro expressions that any great actor can use to convey a character’s inner feelings. Take Robert Di Nero sitting in a diner in Goodfellas. Scorsese frames the scene in one long, lingering shot in which you unconsiously glean that Jimmy Conway has decided to ‘whack’ one of his associates. How does Di Nero convey this? Simply by smoking a cigarette and staring after his intended victim.

Consider instead, Peter Stomare’s portrayal of the limbo bound psychologist Dr Hill in Until Dawn (above). Admittedly, this is a survival horror video game, so the intended effect might be to illicit the uncanny, but it still makes for odd watching.

Unlike video games, Robotics – due to the current lack of sophistication in animatronics – is still a fair way from causing a sustainable sense of unease, but it’s a field that’s developing swiftly. Perhaps, as part of its home grown take on aesthetics, it could learn from the errors of other mediums and consider that sometimes less really is more.

Tags: , , , ,

V for Vendetta

This site has followed a consistent and simple purpose. To look at the messages codified into machines by creatives in all fields, and to present these considerations of our future. While my home country readjusts itself to the turmoil instigated by a minority seeking power, it would be remiss of us not to reiterate the thoughts of those that have already stood on such thresholds in their imaginations. The rise of British fascism is as much of a reality right now as the ‘reds under the bed’ were to post-war America. But to not define cautionary tales where domino effects lead to bleak consequences would be to go against everything we do here. So, by embellishing a retrospective – and apologising up-front for the volume of links – here are three years of cautionary tales:

Back in 2013 we highlighted yet another instance in the “1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual” erosion of Orwell’s original message with London Transport’s misguided messaging.

In 2014, there’s the combined elements of a “reworking” of the above dystopain novel, alongside the battle against the slow encroachment of our online liberties. Looking back at this now, and considering the reference to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, his words continue to resonate, both in comic form and during his 2007 interview.

Next up, Drozbot welcomes the era of drone surveillance in 2015, albeit with the caveat that those wielding such technology really should take moral responsibility for its application.

Finally, to bring us all up to date, you can find this most recent post that examines the messages conveyed in fantastical advertising and how it reflects upon us as a culture. In this, there’s reference to Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, but it’s probably more suitable to consider the perennial relevance of his film Brazil.

So not that many Sci-Fi portents considering the longevity of this site – which we can take as part of a generally optimistic outlook – but enough to ponder upon and, hopefully, to be inspired to avert.

Keep calm and carry on listening to Sci-Fi!

Tags: , , , , , ,

While the UK is about to embark upon deciding its future within the European Union, space science is compelling us to look beyond our provincial trials and tribulations. While the NASA PR machine goes into a new, super-slick mode with its promotion of the arrival of the Jupiter near-polar orbiter mission (JUNO) above, it’s just one story in a torrent of interplanetary distractions.

In our own atmosphere we find the frankly stunning landing of the SpaceX first stage booster on a drone controlled ship. This audacious piece of calculation and engineering is best seen to be believed, and sits on a par with the wonderful complexity of the Curiosity Mars rover’s descent onto the red planet. Talking of which, the plucky little robot has been adding to its growing album of selfies with some absolutely stunning images.

Meanwhile, British astronaut Tim Peake has also just returned to Earth after his six month mission. As well as waxing lyrical about the many physical beauties of his home planet, he has also fired the planetary exploration debate by backing the European Space Agency’s preference to go to the Moon rather than aiming for Mars – as targeted by NASA and SpaceX. It’s a staging strategy that’s also been backed by former NASA flight controller Chris Kraft, as highlighted in a recent article by Eric Berger. Interestingly, there’s new evidence – published by Glyn Collinson in Geophysical Research Letters – that Mars may well be a be the best option for terraforming due to the potential of it having a weak electrical field, much like the Earth. Venus, however, is looking like it’s even more inhospitable.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of updates and theories all adding to the interesting home tensions that Tim Peake has literally plunged into.

Sci-Fi likes its unions, its Federations and Rebel Alliances. It’s born out of a deep-seated belief that we need to work together to overcome obstacles. In this instance, the underlying theme is to either mend the only home we know, or to thin our ever increasing numbers across our neighbouring heavenly bodies. Perhaps together we can become more than the narrow-minded scare tactics that currently litter UK news feeds. Perhaps the answer to the question ‘where next?’ is to stop navel gazing and to look up.

Tags: , , , , ,