Friday, January 18, 2008

Cool Shit Alert: simulating a 3D environment on the Wii


Johnny Chung Lee, a Carnegie Melon student and known Wii-hacking supergenius, has developed something that's not only an amazing technology hack, but simply an amazing concept in general. It strikes me that this would be revolutionary, no matter what technology it was exhibited on... the fact that the Wii makes it easy is just a testament to the versatility of Nintendo's hardware.

Here's the video. Be patient for the first minute and a half, as Johnny zips through a short explanation. Once you get to the demo of the display, it becomes rather mind-blowing.

When we think of 3D displays, we usually think of filtered glasses, allowing a screen to split an image into a "left-eye" version and a "right-eye" version. This creates the illusion of depth as the brain synthesizes the two images. Though it's also a two-dimensional take on 3D, Lee's display is working from a completely different paradigm.

Instead of simulating depth from a fixed point of view, Lee's program is simulating space by adapting a 2-D image to the position of the viewer. This is, in fact, more advanced than the traditional fixed-point approach used in movies like Beowulf. Here, the user can interact with the simulated space by moving around the frame and processing multiple viewing angles.

This could really be the next generation of displays for consoles and simulation. Even from the video, you can tell that it's mind-blowingly immersive, and it promises new heights of simulation and interaction.

I think it's also a testament to technology that this could be developed and disseminated by a man who is essentially an amateur, working with pre-existing tools and an incredibly innovative brain. He didn't need a room full of engineers to sit around and develop this with him, nor a corporate sponsor to give him financial backing and public exposure... he created it and publicized it himself, and nobody can ever take that credit away from him. That's a kind of visionary independence that's never been possible in any other culture or era.

Quickly, I'd like to throw in my own thought for expanding on this innovation. Perhaps somebody else has already suggested this, but I figure I may as well record it for posterity.


Okay, at the end of the segment, Johnny mentions that this will only work for one person at a time. This is because the display has to adapt to the user's position and adjust the image accordingly, and the same image can't accommodate two different points of view simultaneously. I'm not an inventor, and for me this is all speculative, but I have an idea of how to solve this particular problem.

I've heard of a technology that uses interlacing and wavelength filtering (i.e. through filtering glasses) to display two different images on the same screen at the same time. The screen would just interlace two images (image A and image B) that are projected for two different wavelengths, and the users (user A and user B) would each wear a different pair of glasses (glasses A and glasses B). The final result: user A would only see image A, and user B would only see image B. This would be a lovely alternative to split-screen viewing in two-player video games. Both players would be able to use the entire screen to steer their Kart.

Combining this technology with Lee's head-tracking wouldn't be difficult. He himself used a pair of safety goggles to track his head movement. If you just put filtering lenses in two pairs of goggles, you could give each of two users their own individualized content on the same screen. Thus, you could have the same scene, adapting to the positions of two different people at the same time, and you could create two-player games where each player got their own unique 3D experience.

COME ON, NINTENDO!!! DO EET!!! This is the future!

Hopes for 2008: Horror rediscovered in Cloverfield and The Signal

Okay, so when I did the "movie projections for 2008" post, I said I would do two more to follow it. I may end up only doing this one more; my other projection didn't hold up so well, once I started working through it on-screen. At the time, I was going to talk about comic book movies. Now I think I'm going straight to horror.

I haven't seen Cloverfield yet. It's right up there with No Country for Old Men and Juno on the "movies I need to hurry up and see" list, but sometimes that list just doesn't get taken care of. Instead of commenting on the movie directly, I'm going to comment on what I've surmised from trailers... after all, this is a "looking forward" post, rather than a movie review. I'll also talk a little about another movie coming out, The Signal, and I'll discuss the general history of horror a bit.

Frankly, I was impressed with the presentation of Cloverfield in its advance promotion. The trailer had me genuinely interested, using the sense of immediacy and alarm to generate fear, rather than the sudden noises and creepy children that have become tricks of the trade. It set up a sort of vast unknown to be confronted, and it left its monster so indeterminate that there was no way for the viewer to really confront an image directly. In some scenes, it looked giant, and in others, it looked like a humanoid-sized beast. All we, as the audience, could see was the devastation and fear that it generated.

When I first saw the trailer, I seriously hoped that this would be the movie version of Watchmen. There is a movie version of Alan Moore's graphic masterpiece in the works, and most of his fans are skeptical... if they had taken this grim, epic, uncertain angle on it, it might have made it genuinely fresh. If you haven't read the comic, I'm sure you don't understand what I'm talking about. You should go read the comic.

The power in this trailer, I think, is a power that horror has largely surrendered during the last decade. If you go back to the roots of horror... the old gothic tales, like Melmoth the Wanderer... you discover stories that are entirely submerged in ambiguity and shadow, where the most powerful forces are the ones never described (Melmoth's dire words to each of his victims, from whence they always turn away). This trend continues through into the classic Tales of the Strange, like Lovecraft and his cohorts and influences. Lovecraft's stories were always built around phenomena that seemed complex and inexplicable... malevolent elder Gods who were so rooted in history that the reader couldn't hope for anything but an ominous surface knowledge of them.

Unfortunately, I fear Lovecraft may have started paving horror's new path, out of fear of the unknown and into the giddy panic of violence and self-preservation. Some of his stories, like The Rats in the Walls and The Colour Out of Space, were truly, entirely enigmatic, but others, like the Cthulu story itself, climaxed with a terrifying description of the creature at the source of the story's trauma. Before Lovecraft, I don't know if writers ever brought their stories to a climax where the supernatural adversary was confronted in the flesh. That's a trend that has changed with modern horror.

I'll skip over the discussion of literature... from Pet Semetary to R. L. Stine... and side-step into cinema. Horror movies have largely replaced the terror of the unknown with the embodied enemy, whether in the furnace-blasted skin of Freddy Kruger or in the TV-escaping little girl in The Ring. Jack Torrance, Michael Myers, and Leatherface are all embodiments of horror, but not in the soul-shaking sense that Lovecraft mastered. They are embodied as physical threats, as icons of torture, pain, degeneration, and of our own vulnerability.

This is the trend that I hope these new horror films will turn around, at least for a moment, in 2008. Cloverfield presents a gathering of tension around an invisible force too vast for anyone to really confront, and the individual characters only see a fragment of the picture. That sense of uncertainty and limitation is a key element in classic tales of fear, and it manifests in some similarities. Just as Lovecraft always wrote his stories from the limited point of view of an observer, usually as a troubled memoir, so in Cloverfield, Reeves' vision is through the lens of an individual's handheld camera, perhaps imbuing the experience with the same fear of the unknown that Lovecraft was so powerful in inspiring.

Of course, Cloverfield is walking a fine line. If we're shown the monster at the end of the movie, it might destroy the enigma that made the concept so powerful. If we never see the monster, we may just feel cheated and manipulated. That's the danger of locating your terror in a single malevolent force (like Cthulu, for instance)... you catch yourself in the space between the vast unknown and restitution with the enemy.

The Signal is the other movie that looks like it has a lot of potential, and if Cloverfield's embodiment of the enemy is its weakness, The Signal might find its strength in its refusal to give us this indulgence. While the poster is a little cheesy, the footage shown in the trailer is compelling, with the unpolished, unflinching quality of an indie film. The premise described in the trailer -- the mysterious signal that seems to randomly awaken a bestial impulse in people -- is strange and terrifying, because it doesn't give us a sense that there's an enemy, or an external threat to confront. Instead, it suggests a world that we can't count on, a fragment of humanity that we can't possibly account for.

This is a frightening premise: the keystone of our functional lives is the fact that we live in a world where people share the same sense of order, and when this keystone is removed, the whole thing seems to topple around us. These characters have always built their own identities on their sense of shared experience, on their relationships with the people around them. When these people spontaneously become murderers, it threatens our own integrity as individuals, as well.

In a sense, this is a reconstruction of the "zombie" premise... it's frightening that within each of us there may lurk a cannibalistic, unreasoning ghoul. However, Signal does something exciting with it. Even in zombie movies, the fact that the zombies are dead, or are infected with a virus and robbed of their active agency, allows us to see them as the radical other. In The Signal, there's nothing different between you and the person next to you who just turned homicidal. You have to confront "the other" without knowing what makes him any different.

Sublimation of the fear of the other into the fear of oneself... I hope The Signal manages to pull it off. It may be an exciting year for horror.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Trends to Watch Out For in 2008 #1: the derivative cinema

This is a three-part entry on some trends I've noticed in the cinema coming in 2008. I did a short review of upcoming movies, mostly using the list found here: Slashfilm's Must-See Movies of 2008, and I came to some thoroughly premature judgments on the films we have to look forward to in the coming year. First, I'll dispense with the over-generalizations.

I can't BELIEVE the number of films that are built on recognizable source material. I mean, I know these have always been out there... adaptations, sequels, and remakes... but now, in 2008, I feel like a sweeping majority of films are depending on their source material for their marketing appeal. We have: films based on books (Lovely Bones, Spiderwick Chronicles, Choke, Angels and Demons, Time Traveler's Wife, Horton Hears a Who, 21, etc.), books based on franchises (Indiana Jones, Prince Caspian, Star Trek, Harry Potter, James Bond, Hellboy, Speed Racer, Get Smart, and Bruno), movies based on highly recognizable directors' styles (Scorcese's "Righteous Kill," Kaufman's "Synecdoche", Guy Ritchie's "RocknRolla," Pixar's "Wall-e", and Shyamalan's "The Happening"), and all sorts of other recycled cultural material, cluttering up our movie screens.

Now, I haven't actually verified that this is an exceptional year in this respect. What percentage of movies, historically, are based on entirely, or mostly, original screenplays? I know a lot of the greatest films, from The Godfather and Clockwork Orange to the Lord of the Rings movies, have drawn their genius largely from the genius of their source material. But there's something singular about stories written entirely for the screen... people like M. Night Shyamalan and Guy Ritche, and movies like Memento and The Matrix... these all seem to be really pushing the boundaries of the art form, and of the art of storytelling.

I don't have a strong thesis here, and I'm talking around a phenomenon that I can't quite put my finger on, but these are stories written specifically to take advantage of the two essential characteristics of film, those that differentiate it from both visual art and from written stories. They take the chronological aspect of storytelling, which can't be reproduced in a still image, or even in a sequence of stills, and they combine it with the visual immediacy of visual art, which can be described, but never really captured, in writing.

And I think Memento and The Matrix are perfect places to find these phenomena. Could Memento, a bewildering head-trip of paranoia and backwards narrative, have taken place anywhere but in the realm of film? Sure, a written story can be told backwards, but when you're reading the words on a page, you have time to process the descriptions and mull over the implications of the broken sequence. Without the forward momentum of the screen, with its edits and scenarios, there would be no way to step into the shoes of short-term memory loss. This was a great movie, but it was also a profound experiment in portraying the debilitating experience, rather than simply the story, of a crippling brain dysfunction.

The Matrix was another story that couldn't have been told in the same way in any other medium. It combined the choreographed art of the kung-fu movie with film's power over time and space, slowing, stopping, and disrupting the physical laws that kung-fu depends on. In a movie about the break between reality and simulacrum (to use an unnecessary academic word), it's critical that the audience experience the difference between real and virtual space. Again, film's niche is as a chronological, sensory medium... chronological in that it captures a sequence of events over time, and sensory in that it involves direct, rather than described, experience.

The visionaries of the future of cinema are going to be the people who create stories to be told specifically on screen, harnessing the power of film and using it to construct something that couldn't be done anywhere else. These are the writers and directors of original screenplays.

So back to 2008... I can honestly say, I think some of the most daring work coming this year is going to be the work created exclusively for the screen. The first and most obvious example is Cloverfield, which harnesses the silver screen's ability to depict a reality that seems too strange and threatening to imagine. In the same way that Blair Witch Project used the camera to situate the viewer directly within the sensory space of the characters, so Cloverfield (from what I can tell in the trailers) will put the audience in the middle of an apocalyptic panic. If it does its job well, it will test the limits of the medium and show us all something we've never seen before.

The other film that seems to push the boundaries of storytelling is Teeth, a strange-looking film about a girl whose vagina has... you know... mastication apparatus. Now, this is traditionally a figure of speech, a verbal trope that represents males' fear of unleashed femininity. In film, where we have to deal with direct sensory input, Mitchell Lichtenstein will have the opportunity to make that metaphor a literal reality for us. That's a disturbing but brilliant take on film's power over reality, its ability to turn an idea into an intimate experience.

That's my first take on film in 2008. Stay tuned for two more entries: first, a look at a strange "replacement movie" phenomenon that will surface in comic book films, and second, two upcoming movies that may use an intimate lens to revitalize the horror genre.