Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

13 JULY, 2009

Digital Choreography: Synchronous Objects


Twenty desks, one python, and what the human body has to do with lines of code.

Motion is a thing of beauty. Think about dance choreography — the human body in motion. Or the best stop-motion animation — pixels in motion. Naturally, the convergence of the two — choreography and digital motion — would be a magnificent thing.

Enter Synchronous Objects — a collaboration between German choreographer William Forsythe and Ohio State University Dance & Technology director Norah Zuniga Shaw.

The film plays off of the famed Forsythe piece One Flat Thing, Reproduced, using digital technology in a way that lets motion inform choreography. The project embodies the cross-pollination of ideas from different fields — dance, software, technology, sound design, motion graphics.

With this project, we seek to construct a new way of looking at dance, one that considers both discipline specific and cross-disciplinary ways of seeing.

Although this version of the film was done in Adobe Flash, upcoming work is experimenting with Field — a rich new open-source authoring environment built on Java and Jython (Python on the Java VM), designed for use in digital movement and visual expression. Field was conceived in — where else — the MIT Media Lab and has been used for anything from choreographic sequences to HD motion graphics installations.

Synchronous Objects and the technologies that inform it present a brave new frontier for motion arts, a future where human and algorithm come together to orchestrate beauty.

We highly recommend watching Synchronous Objects with headphones on — the sound effects alone are a piece of magic, adding a whole new layer to the already superb visual experience.

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01 JULY, 2009

The Human Face, Up Close and Personal


What the CIA has to do narcissism, attractiveness and Autistic children.

The face, with its intricate lace of 33 different muscles, is a powerful gateway to human emotion and thus the subject of relentless research aiming to pin down how and why we express our inner selves on that living canvas. Here are 3 fascinating projects that probe what lies beneath.


NYU Media Research Lab professor Ken Perlin has the ambitious goal of isolating the minimal number of facial expression elements that capture our character and personality.

His project, Responsive Face, is a 3D animation demo that lets you play with various facial elements — brows, gaze, head tilt, mouth and more — to see how they change as they capture emotions like fear, anger, surprise, disappointment and happiness.

The eventual goal of this research is to give computer/human interfaces the ability to represent the subtleties we take for granted in face to face communication, so that they can function as agents for an emotional point of view.

The demo is based on the iconic Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotions through the taxonomy of all conceivable facial expressions and whose work is now being used by anyone from lawyers to actors to the CIA. (Ekman also collaborated with the BBC on the excellent series The Human Face, which we couldn’t recommend enough.)

Perlin’s work is also being implemented in helping children with Autism, teaching kids not only how to “read” other people’s expressions, but also how to manipulate their own faces to communicate their emotions.


If you’ve ever made a few beer bucks in college participating in paid psych experiments, you know those can be long, tedious, and possibly involving being stuck in a a big, noisy fMRI machine for an hour.

Enter Face Research, an online portal for psychology experiments about people’s preferences for faces and voices, where you can help the advance of science from the comfort of your own living room. The project invites users to take a series of personality questionnaires and participate in various experiments in exchange for a look at the findings once data is collected. Granted, that won’t pay for beer, but it does indulge the psych geeks among us.

Previous studies have investigated fascinating topics like the relationship between averageness and attractiveness, women’s preference for masculinity in men’s faces, and various other aspects of why we like what we like.

The project is a joint venture between the University of Aberdeen School of Psychology Face Research Lab and The Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews. Sign up and help coin the cultural definition of attractiveness.


That’s My Face lives in that awkward limbo between the scientific and the bizarre, with one foot firmly planted in the questionable. Simply put, it’s a tool that lets you upload photos of yourself and explore your face in 3D as you manipulate age, race, gender and other attributes.

So far so good. But then comes the questionable — the site offers various souvenirs of narcissism, such as your own action figure, framed 3D portrait, and custom 3D crystal. There’s even an affiliate program, where the more, um, entrepreneurial can make a few bucks off of other people’s self-worship.

That’s My Face was founded by a grad student from University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory. We think it’s an interesting metaphor for the value of a PhD in today’s cultural environment — make what you will of that statement.

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30 JUNE, 2009

The Open_Sailing Project


Drifting villages, or what the Apocalypse has to do with your social life.

Here’s a little-thought-about fact: Oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, yet 6.7 billion of us cram into the other 29%, elbowing our way through pollution, overpopulation and various other delights of contemporary civilization.

Enter Open_Sailing, a visionary initiative pioneering an entirely new form of marine architecture.

The project aims to reinvent our habitat by designing a sustainable, technologically sound sea-based lifestyle, shielded from potential natural and man-induced disasters. An “International Ocean Station” to the International Space Station, if you will.

In practical terms, this translates into a drifting, inflatable “village” of modular shelters surrounded by ocean farming units and energy pods. All components are fully flexible — fluid, pre-broken, reconfigurable, pluggable and intuitive — and powered by innovative technologies that maximize energy efficiency and ensure a sustainable, self-sufficient model.

Initiated by Royal College of Art designer Cesar Harada, the project has drawn an international, multidisciplinary team of 15 designers and engineers working under the mentorship of various marine experts.

We want to live at sea. And we want to do it well: comfortably, sustainably and safely. We want delicious food, a great social life, space to work and play. We’ve come together; a diverse team from all walks of life to design our future on the ocean. With our combined skills, we’re pioneering innovative architecture, navigation and sea farming techniques.

The first Open_Sailing prototype is 50 meters in diameter and fits 4 people. An inaugural test will set sail from London to Rotterdam, and results will be available in July.

While the project is very conceptual, the vision behind it is firmly grounded in reality (we’re underutilizing our natural habitat and overexploiting the parts we are using), urgency (where do we go next?) and visionary problem-solving — and that we can appreciate. With the right tools, thinkers and technologies, we think Open_Sailing can change the world — literally.

Thanks, Jake

08 JUNE, 2009

Ordering The Chaos: The Internet Mapping Project


Dissecting the interwebs, or what digital toddlers have to do with infinite loops.

You know we’re in dire straits when Tim Berners-Lee, father of the World Wide Web, says we no longer fully understand the Internet.

But Wired magazine founder and chronic digital culture explorer Kevin Kelly has set out to dissect the fabric of the web. His Internet Mapping Project is an effort to understand how people conceive of the Internet through a series of user-submitted hand-drawn maps.

The internet is intangible, like spirits and angels. The web is an immense ghost land of disembodied places. Who knows if you are even there, there. Yet everyday we navigate through this ethereal realm for hours on end and return alive. We must have some map in our head.

So far, there are close to 80 submissions by people of all ages, nationalities and expertise levels, ranging from the concrete to the conceptual to the comic.

The project has also sprouted further analysis of people’s understanding — Argentinean psychology professor Mara Vanina Oses has distilled a fascinating taxonomy of the maps themselves.

Our favorite submission is a visceral stride-stopper that manages to communicate the nature of the Internet with brilliant simplicity, capturing the sea of interestingness that surrounds our homebase of curiosity.

Each submission asks for the person’s age, occupation and average daily hours on the web. And while the diversity of entries is astounding — from an art student to a jazz musician moonlighting as an IT consultant to the manager of the 10,000 Year Clock project — we did notice some interesting correlations.

Those who spend the most time online, for instance, have the most abstract of drawings — perhaps an indication that a truly rich understanding lives in the realm of the abstract and conceptual, not the concrete, providing a big-picture view not of what the Internet does or offers, but of what it is: An infinite loop of possibility.

At the same time, those who spend the least amount of time tend to put themselves at the center of the Internet — a sign of the “developmental psychology” of the web, wherein “web toddlers,” just like real 1-4-year-olds, adopt an egocentric worldview, while “web adults” are better able to shift perspectives and see the collective context of it all.

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