Technology vs observation

Losing my rag at the Royal Academy for New Scientist, 13 December 2017

When the schools of London’s Royal Academy of Arts were opened in 1769, life drawing — the business of sketching either live models or the plaster casts of worthy sculptures — was an essential component of an artist’s training.

As I wandered around From Life, an exhibition devoted to the history as well as the future of the practice, I overheard a curator explaining that, now life drawing is no longer obligatory in Royal Academy art courses, a new generation of artists are approaching the practice in a “more expressive” way. The show’s press release claims even more: that life drawing is evolving “as technology opens up new ways of creating and visualising artwork”.

There was little of this in evidence when I visited, however: two-and-a-half of the three virtual-reality experiences on offer had broken down. Things break down when the press turns up – you might even say it’s a rule. Still, given their ubiquity, I’m beginning to wonder whether gallery-based VR malfunctions are not a kind of mischievous artwork in their own right. In place of a virtual sketch, a message in an over-friendly font asks: “Have you checked your internet connection?” At least Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s wild mobiles of the 1960s had the decency to catch fire.

How can new technologies like Google’s Tilt Brush and HTC’s Vive VR platform bring artists into a more intimate relation to their subject — more intimate than might be achieved by, say, standing a metre away from a naked stranger armed only with a bit of charcoal?

Jonathan Yeo has had a stab at the problem, using Tilt Brush’s 3D painting tech to fashion a sculptural self-portrait. The outsize bronze 3D print of his effort — an assemblage of short, wide, hesitant virtual “brushstrokes” — has a curiously dated feel and wouldn’t look out of place in a group retrospective of 20th-century British sculpture. As an advert for a technology that prides itself on its expressivity (videos of the platform at work usually resemble explosions in a paint factory), it’s a curiously laborious piece.

On a nearby wall hang Gillian Wearing’s photographic self-portraits, manipulated using the sort of age-progression technology employed by forensic artists. In this way, Wearing has captured her appearance 10, 20, 30 years into her future. It’s an undeniably moving display, and undeniably off the point: life drawing is about capturing the present moment, which leaves Wearing’s contribution resembling those terms and conditions that appear at the bottom of TV advertisements – Other Moments Are Available.

Yinka Shonibare (best known for his ship-in-a-bottle sculpture on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square) comments on the show, rather than contributes to it, with a 3D VR conceptualisation of a painting by the 18th-century Scots artist and dealer Gavin Hamilton.

Hamilton once sold a Roman sculpture to a collector. Shonibare has scanned a plaster cast of this Townley Venus, then placed it on a plinth in a largely imaginary VR garden (you catch only a glimpse of this space in Hamilton’s painting). He has covered its plaster-white surface with batik designs (referring to common sub-Saharan African fabric, though it was originally a Dutch export) and as a coup de grâce, he has stuck a globe on Venus’s torso in place of her head. The point is that we can never copy something without to some degree appropriating it. Whether you like what he’s done will depend on whether you like art that makes a primarily intellectual point.

In a gallery environment increasingly besotted by (and bested by) technology, such acts of cultural orienteering may be necessary; they’re certainly inevitable. The new work gracing From Life at least attempts to address the theme of the show, and its several failures are honest and interesting.

Still, I keep coming back to the historical half of the exhibition — to the casts, the drawings, the portraits of struggling young artists from 1769 to now. Life drawing is not obligatory for artists? It should be obligatory for everyone. If we never learn to observe honestly, what the devil will we ever have to be expressive about?

It’s coming at you!

Exploring volumetric capture for New Scientist, 13 December 2017

OUTSIDE Dimension Studios in Wimbledon, south London, is one of those tiny wood-framed snack bars that served commercial travellers in the days before motorways. The hut is guarded by old shop dummies dressed in fishnet tights and pirate hats. If the UK made its own dilapidated version of Westworld, the cyborg rebellion would surely begin here.

Steve Jelley orders us breakfast. Years ago he left film production to pursue a career developing new media. He’s of the generation for whom the next big thing is always just around the corner. Most of them perished in the dot-com bust of 2001, but Jelley clung to the dream, and now Microsoft has come calling.

His company, Hammerhead, makes 360-degree videos for commercial clients. Its partner in this current venture, Timeslice Films, is best known for volumetric capture of still images – the business of cinematographically recording forms in three dimensions – a practice that goes back to founder Tim MacMillan’s art-school experiments of the early 1980s.

Steve Sullivan, director of the Holographic Video initiative at Microsoft, is fusing both companies’ technical expertise to create volumetric video: immersive entertainment that’s indistinguishable from reality.

There are only three studios in the world that can do this with any degree of conviction, and Wimbledon is the only one outside the US. Still, I’m sceptical. It has been clear for a while that truly immersive media won’t spring from a single “light-bulb” moment. The technologies involved are, in conceptual terms, surprisingly old. Volumetric capture is a good example.

MacMillan is considered the godfather of this tech, having invented the “bullet time” effect central to The Matrix. But The Matrix is 18 years old, and besides, MacMillan reckons that pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge got to the idea years before him – in fact, decades before cinema was invented.

“Engineer Masahiro Mori says his ‘uncanny valley’ idea was never meant to be taken scientifically”

Then there’s motion capture (or mocap): recording the movement of points attached to an actor, and from those points, constructing the performance of a three-dimensional model. The pioneering Soviet physiologist Nikolai Bernstein invented the technique in the early 1920s, while developing training programmes for factory workers.

Truly immersive media will be achieved not through magic bullets, but through thugging – the application of ever more computer power, and the ever-faster processing of more and more data points. Impressive, but where’s the breakthrough?

“Well,” Jelley begins, handing me what may be the largest bacon sandwich in London, “you know this business of the ‘uncanny valley’…?” My heart sinks slightly.

Most New Scientist readers will be familiar with Masahiro Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley. It’s a curiously anglophone obsession. In the 30 years since the Japanese engineer published his paper in 1970, it has been referred to in Japanese academic literature only once. Mori himself says the idea was never meant to be taken scientifically. He was merely warning robot designers at a time when humanoid robots didn’t exist that the closer their works came to resemble people, the creepier we would find them.

In the West, discussions of the uncanny valley have grown to a sizeable cottage industry. There have been expensive studies done with PET scans to prove the existence of the effect. But as Mori commented in an interview in 2012: “I think that the brainwaves act that way because we feel eerie. It still doesn’t explain why we feel eerie to begin with.”

Our discomfort extends beyond encounters with physical robots to include some cinematic experiences. Many are the animated movies that have employed mocap to achieve something like cinematic realism, only to plummet without trace into the valley.

Elsewhere, actor Andy Serkis famously uses mocap to transform himself into characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, or the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we are carried along well enough by these films. The one creature this technology can’t emulate, however, is Serkis himself. Though mocap now renders human body movement with impressive realism, the human face remains a machine far too complex to be seamlessly emulated even by the best system.

Jelley reckons he and his partners have “solved the problem” of the uncanny valley. He leads me into the studio. There’s a small, circular, curtained-off area – a sort of human-scale birdcage. Rings of lights and cameras are mounted on scaffolds and hang from a moveable and very heavy-looking ceiling rig.

There are 106 cameras: half of them recording in the infrared spectrum to capture depth information, half of them recording visible light. Plus, a number of ultraviolet cameras. “We use ultraviolet paint to mask areas for effects work,” Jelley explains, “so we record the UV spectrum, too. Basically we use every glimmer of light we can get short of asking you to swallow radium.”

The cameras shoot between 30 and 60 times a second. “We have a directional map of the configuration of those cameras, and we overlay that with a depth map that we’ve captured from the IR cameras. Then we can do all the pixel interpolation.”

This is a big step up from mocap. Volumetric video captures real-time depth information from surfaces themselves: there are no fluorescent sticky dots or sliced-through ping-pong balls attached to actors here. As far as the audience is concerned, volumetric video is essentially just that, video, and as close to a true record as anything piped through a basement full of computers is ever going to get.

So what kind of films are made in such studios? Right now, the education company Pearson is creating virtual consultations for trainee nurses. Fashion brands and car companies have shot adverts here. TV companies want to use them for fully immersive and interactive dramas.

“I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me has fallen for this super-real gymnast”

On a table nearby, a demo is ready to watch on a Vive VR headset. There are three sets of performances for me to observe, all looping in a grey, gridded, unadorned virtual space: the digital future as a filing cabinet. There are two experiments from Sullivan’s early days at Microsoft. Thomas Jefferson is pure animatronic; the two Maori haka dancers are engaging, if unhuman. The circus gymnast swinging on her hoop is different. I recognise her, or think I do. My body-language must be giving the game away, because Jelley laughs.

“Go up to her,” he says. I can’t place where I’ve seen her before. I try and catch her eye. “Closer.”

I’m invading her space, and I’m not comfortable with this. I can see the individual threads, securing the sequins to her costume. More than that: I can smell her. I can feel the heat coming from her skin.

I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me that might have rejected a digitised face as uncanny has fallen hook, line and sinker for this super-real gymnast. And this, presumably, is why the bit of my mind that enables me to communicate freely and easily with my fellow humans is in overdrive, trying to plug the gaps in my experience, as if to say, “Of course her skin is hot. Of course she has a scent.”

Mori’s uncanny valley effect is not quantifiable, and I don’t suppose my experience is any more measurable than the one Mori identified. But I’d bet the farm that, had you scanned me, you would have seen all manner of pretty lights. This hasn’t been an eerie experience. Quite the reverse. It’s terrifyingly ordinary. Almost, I might say, human.

Jelley walks me back to the main road. Neither of us says a word. He knows what he has. He knows what he has done.

Outside the snack shack, three shop dummies in pirate gear wobble in the wind.

VR: the state of the art

 

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For New Scientist

THEY will tell you, the artists and engineers who work with this gear, that virtual realities are digital environmental simulations, accessed through wearable interfaces, and made realistic – or realistic enough – to steal us away from the real world.

I can attest to that. After several days sampling some of the latest virtual environments available in the UK, I found that reality righted itself rather slowly.

Along the way, however, I came across a question that seemed to get to the heart of things. It was posed by Peter Saville, prime mover of Manchester’s uber-famous Factory Records, and physicist Brian Cox. They explained to an audience during Manchester’s International Festival how they planned to fit the story of the universe on to sound stages better known for once having housed legendary soap Coronation Street.

Would The Age of Starlight, their planned immersive visualisation of the cosmos, give audiences an enriched conception of reality, or would people walk home feeling like aliens, just arrived from another planet?

Cox enthused about the project’s educational potential. Instead of reading about woolly mammoths, he said, we will be able to “experience” them. Instead of reading about a mammoth, trying to imagine it, and testing that imagined thing against what you already know of the world, you will be expected to accept the sensory experience offered by whoever controls the kit.”We will be able to inject people with complex thoughts in a way that’s easier for them to understand!” Cox exclaimed. So, of course, will everyone else.

Institutions of learning, then, had best associate their virtual reality experiments with the most trustworthy figure they can find, such as David Attenborough. His First Life is the London Natural History Museum’s joyride through perilous Cambrian shallows, built on the most recent research.

“When the film starts, try to keep your arms to yourselves,” begged the young chap handing out headsets at the press launch, for all the world as though this were 1895 and we were all about to run screaming from Louis Lumière’s Arrival of a Train. The animator, given free rein, renders tiny trilobites on human scale. This is a good decision – we want to see these things, after all. But such messing around with scale inevitably means that when something truly monstrous appears, we are not as awed as we perhaps ought to be.

VR sets awkward challenges like this. From a narrative perspective, it is a big, exciting step away from film. Camera techniques like zooming and tracking ape the way the eye works; with VR, it is up to us what we focus on and follow. Manipulations have a dreamlike effect. We do not zoom in; we shrink. We do not pan; we fly.

Meanwhile, virtual reality is still struggling to do things everyone assumes it can do already. Accurately reading a user’s movements, in particular, is a serious headache. This may explain the excitement about the two-person game Taphobos, which solves the problem by severely limiting the player’s movements. Taphobos, a play on the Greek words for “tomb” and “fear”, traps you in a real coffin. With oxygen running out, the entombed player, equipped with an Oculus Rift headset, must guide their partner to the burial site over a radio link, using clues dotted around the coffin.

“This combination,” say the makers, master’s students in computing at the University of Lincoln, UK, “allows you to experience what it would be like if you were buried alive with just a phone call to the outside world.” Really? Then why bother? By the time you have addressed virtual reality’s many limitations, you can end up with something a lot like, well, reality.

London’s theatre-makers know this. At first, immersive entertainments such as Faust (2006) and The Masque of the Red Death (2007), pioneered by the theatre company Punchdrunk, looked like mere novelties. Now they are captivating bigger audiences than ever.

Traditional theatregoers may grow weary of running confused across gargantuan factories and warehouses, trying to find where the action is, but for gamers such bafflement is a way of life, and to play scenarios out in the real world is refreshing.

Until 27 September, London-based Secret Cinema offers a similar sort of immersion: inviting you to come battle the evil Empire through several meticulously realised sets as a warm-up to a screening of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s all played at a gentle, playful pace: something between a theatrical experience and a club night.

Right or wrong, VR promises to outdo these entertainments. It’s supposed to be better, more engaging than even the most carefully tailored reality. That’s a very big claim indeed.

More likely, VR may be able to present the world in a way that would otherwise be inaccessible to our unaugmented senses. The first tentative steps in this direction were apparent at this year’s Develop games conference in Brighton, where the Wellcome Trust and Epic Games announced the winner of their first Big Data Challenge. Launched in March, the competition asked whether game designers could help scientists to better visualise incomprehensibly large data sets.

Among the front runners was Hammerhead, a team taking on the enormous task of designing a decent genomics browser. They have barely changed in a decade. Once they held barely a dozen data fields, now they need hundreds since studying the behaviour of different genes under different conditions is a multidimensional nightmare. Martin Hemberg of the Sanger Institute, who set the challenge, explained: “Genomics is very data-intensive. Trying to integrate all this and make sense is a huge challenge. We need better visualisation tools.”

Hammerhead’s proposal promises something close to SF writer William Gibson’s original conception of cyberspace: a truly navigable and manipulable environment made of pure information. Not surprisingly, it will take more than the challenge’s modest $20,000 to realise such a vision.

Instead, the prize was handed to two London studios, Lumacode and Masters of Pie, who collaborated on a tool that is already proving itself as it takes the 14,500 family health records in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, and spits them out in real time so researchers can follow their hunches. It even boasts privacy tools to facilitate the work of hundreds of researchers worldwide.

On current evidence, today’s VR is going to change everything by just a little bit. It will disconcert us in small ways. It will not give us everything we want. But reality doesn’t either, come to that. We can afford to be patient.