nature

Podcast with Jeffrey Ventrella – on the Versatilist

Hey wiggy peeps,

I was recently interviewed on the Versatilist Podcast, by Patrick O’Shea.

podcast

http://versatilist.podomatic.com/entry/2016-10-03T08_42_23-07_00

In this podcast, Patrick and I kick around lots of ideas on artificial life, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality. I describe my ongoing efforts to develop a kind of self-animated character that can thrive in our highly augmented future.

Augmenting Nature…in Hollywood

Our upcoming presence at Digital Hollywood is likely to be a pivotal moment for Wiggle Planet. For one thing: I’ll be speaking on a panel with the likes of Paul Zak, Garry Hare, Christophe Morin, and Brian Selzer. We’ll be pontificating on brains, “neuro-marketing”, storytelling, and augmented reality.

John and JackieIn addition to this panel, Team Wiglet (John Pathfinder Lester and Jackie Van Winkle) will be doing acrobatic guerrilla marketing, and adding splashes of color among the men with suits. Should be a barrel of fun.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 7.38.17 PMBig execs with deep pockets will be making the rounds and looking for the next big thing. But we planetary wigglers do not expect to show up on their radar screens immediately. Hollywood is still very entrenched in the movie business and the cultural and intellectual zeitgeist that surrounds it. Consider these typical Digital Hollywood phrases: “Hollywood Brand Power: Strategic Concepts in Celebrity and creativity Across Platforms” and “Video Anytime Anywhere: Video Across Platforms – Television, Broadband and Mobile – Understanding the Value Proposition.”

We at Wiggle Planet, LLC have a soft, fuzzy-green sound to our music:

Human beings love life in all its forms; interacting with living things gives us great delight. This is one of the most powerful aspects of our connection to the natural world. Given that, we believe that our innovations in character animation technology, augmented reality, and artificial life are on the verge of bringing us something much more meaningful than what has ever been possible in films, games, and educational software.

Here’s the thing: everyone cares about climate change. Everyone knows that a deeper understanding of nature is a good value proposition for humanity (and business). Everyone cares about education, and many people now believe that school as an institution in America is crumbling at its foundation. We need to build new technology infrastructures that fuse learning, gaming, and socializing. And what better way to address these major seismic shifts than wacky wiggly characters that visit us from the invisible underworld via augmented reality?

I’m half-joking.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 8.19.23 PMAnd half-not joking. It sounds strange, I know. But I’m not known for doing things in a boring way. In all seriousness: we feel like we are in the middle of a convergence – where mobile technology, character animation, big data, and artificial intelligence can be pivoted around a growing interest in environmental awareness.

High Tech and Environmental Education: Strange Bedfellows?

Hell no.

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If you happen to be in LA around October 19-22, we would love to see you at the conference. Stop by and we’ll buy you a coffee. We’ll rub shoulders with celebs (or at least pretend) … and generally make a wiggly racket.

-Jeffrey

Mind Children for Children’s Minds

Dog vs. Robot Cute Dog Maymo

Hans Moravec wrote a book in 1990 called Mind Children, about robots and the future of humans and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book, but I did read Moravec’s “Human Culture: A Genetic Takeover Underway“, which influenced me greatly. I included it as required reading for an Artificial Life class I taught at Tufts in the 90’s.

As we approach the singularity, it will become increasingly evident that Darwinian evolution will have minimal effect as technological evolution races forward at ever-increasing speeds, leaving human genetic evolution in the dust. In a way, you could say that human evolution is indeed happening right now at a very high rate (that is, if you replace the ancient agents of replication (genes) with the more nimble agents of replication (memes)…and the emergent manifestation of interacting memes: human culture – and technology.

…which leads me to why I used Moravec’s book title in the title of this blog post. Currently, children have more than good old-fashioned cartoon characters and plastic dolls to play with. Their toys are coming to life.

When you add augmented reality with artificial intelligence, a new kind of animated personality begins to emerge.

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Real and imaginary are about to enter into a future dance in which they will whirl at such a velocity that we may have a hard time telling them apart.

But what are the consequences of animated characters that become more “alive” than ever before? Children are more prone to failing the Turing Test. So…will more realistic AI characters confuse their developing theories of mind?

Some argue that this is mostly positive; it simply fuels a child’s imagination, which already naturally blends real and imaginary as a matter of course.

The picture below is from an article titled: Neuroscientists identify brain mechanisms that predict generosity in children.

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This kind of research is being used by some toy manufacturers and game designers to teach kids social skills.

Let me just state an opinion, for the record:

If you want kids to learn how to socialize, there is no substitute for playing with REAL kids.

(A possible exception may be autistic kids who need tools to give them some non-face time to give them some training for the real thing.)

Now, why would I state that kids need to play with each other to learn to socialize, while at the same time eagerly developing self-animated characters in augmented reality?

Barry, Jeff, and Peck Peck

I believe the key is in the intent.

The way we must bravely enter into our technological future and to prepare that future for our children is to keep a clear distinction between real and imaginary – to stay on top of the game, as it were. And to give kids the tools to enhance their imaginations – while not distorting their sense of reality. This may become a challenge as screen-time and face-time blur with ever convincing digitally-enhanced experiences. But it is important to keep in mind.

We need to keep the problem of “robot morality” in the same bucket as age-old problems of how kids react sympathetically to cartoon characters.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

DRC____

-Jeffrey

Augmenting the Uncanny Valley

Many of you readers are already familiar with the uncanny valley. If not, let me show you some pictures to set the mood.

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The two images at the top (Homer Simpson, and the head by sculptor Ronald Mueck) were made with full awareness of the uncanny valley effect. Since the time I first wrote about this subject over ten years ago, I have witnessed a whole aesthetic emerge that intentionally plays on the phenomenon. It has become its own meme.

But creepiness is not necessarily what was intended in some of these unsettling images.

japan-robotsOften, the creep-factor results from an attempt to make something extremely realistic  – like a humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated human. Besides the Wikipedia page, I’d suggest taking a look at some of my previous thoughts on the subject: (Uncanny Charlie, and The Uncanny Valley of Expression).

Okay, now…on to the subject at hand:

Consider augmented reality, a technology that is still searching for deeper meanings other than…

As augmented reality demos get slicker, smoother, and more realistic, they have the danger of creeping closer to the uncanny valley. Why?

The fetish-like obsession with realism that has plagued so much of computer graphics throughout its history.

Now consider this video by Magic Leap.

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It’s magical. But if you ask me – it’s also kind of unsettling.

To be sure: if a gravity-defying micro-elephant were to appear between my hands – THIS VIDEO SHOWS EXACTLY WHAT IT WOULD LOOK LIKE. But…why would a gravity-defying micro-elephant appear between my hands? I have no good answer other than…

But I’ll just leave it at that. Google pumped half a billion into Magic Leap, and they are talking about making educational apps (but aren’t we all anyway). So…hopefully, they are not just high on a newfound ability to trick the eye like never before, and actually have some non-geeky aspirations.

In a previous blog post, I put forth a general theory of the uncanny valley, describing it as:

“the phenomenon that occurs when incompatible levels of realism are juxtaposed in a single viewing experience. So for instance, an animated film in which the character motions are realistic – but their faces are abstract – can be creepy. How about a computer animation in which the rendering is super-realistic, but the motions are stiff and artificial? Creepola. A cartoon character where one aspect is stylized and other aspects are realistic looks…not right.”

faces_11I always like to bring up Scott McCloud regarding the language of abstraction, and how it can be used to leave room for the imagination to fill in the blanks. Abstraction (and cartoonification) can be used as an antidote to the uncanny valley. This might be why Polar Express tends to get more uncanny bad marks than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

How Augmented Reality Isn’t “Real” Enough

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Kevin Slavin makes a compelling argument in this video on how augmented reality is approaching the precipice of the Valley (it’s 27 minutes long, but if you are interested in this topic, give it a watch).

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 10.28.33 PMAversion to the uncanny valley is why I choose to use cartoony characters in augmented reality, as shown in the video at right, in which Peanut Boy thanks our Kickstarter backers for funding our augmented reality book.

Averting an Uncanny Future

From one perspective, humanity seems to have an unending appetite for blending the virtual and the real, and for pushing the realism of virtual reality. If this is the case, the uncanny valley will be with us for a long time – perhaps forever (because our ability to discern real from fake improves along with the moving target).

But there is another possible future: keeping nature and artifice separate, both in terms of achieving a healthy, truthful relationship with nature, and in terms of art, media, and technology-enhanced work and play. It’s important, in my opinion, to keep reminding ourselves that the goal in life is not to live inside of a hallucination.

Is “Artificial Life Game” an Oxymoron?

langtoncaArtificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.

Games

What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)

Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.48.02 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.24.54 PMOn the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.

These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).

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On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed at a keynote I gave at VISIGRAPP Barcelona).

“Hierarchy Hinders” –  Lesson from Spore

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.18.59 PMWill Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epic Spore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.

Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.

For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.

Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.

Emergence

alife graphAt the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).

The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.

In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?

Out Of Control

Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.04.07 PMMaybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms.  OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.

What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.

Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?

This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…

…or evolved in the wild.

Onward and Upward.

-Jeffrey

Wiglet Diversity: A Spectrum of the Wonderfully Strange

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The first thing you’ll notice about Wiglets is that…well, let’s be honest, they look kind of strange.

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That’s because Wiglets are not hand-drawn cookie-cutter characters.

They’re artificial life forms that look and behave a certain way because of their genetics.

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They’re neither homogenized nor pasteurized.

And unlike video games where you have limited character creator options (Choose from these 5 hairstyles!  How about these 7 different noses?), a Wiglet’s DNA can recombine through breeding to create a highly unpredictable range of physical and behavioral diversity.

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Kind of like real life.

Which is exactly the point.

In the near future you’ll be hearing more from us about a Wiglet breeder app that will let you experiment with just how diverse they can be.

We think you’ll fall in love with their quirky appearance and behaviors.

Not because they look like something familiar and common.

But because they don’t.

 

– John “Pathfinder” Lester

 

 

Augmented Reality is Inevitable

sculpturePost-humanism sounded scary to me at first. The idea that humans will turn into cyborgs: half machine-half animal; the idea that humans will merge with technology to the point of becoming unrecognizable – something other than the soft, fuzzy artist/poet/lovers that we once were.

But there’s a nicer version of post-humanism.

Medical and information technology are enhancing our bodies and our minds in many ways. A hip replacement; a vaccine against polio; the prompt answer to a factual question by Siri or Google using a hand-held device; the ability to project your expressive body language to a loved one on the other side of the planet. These are enhancements to human potential.

The conversation on post-humanism, in my opinion, should not be centered on “if”, but “how”. Technology is a fact of our species. Fish swim. Birds fly, and humans make technology. And if that technology makes us smarter and more creative, then in a sense one might say that it makes us more human.

AUGMENTED REALITY

Augmented reality is defined as the overlay of visual (or audible) information over a view of the real, physical world. While virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one, augmented reality modifies, or enhances one’s perception of the real world.

Augmented reality is on the rise in gaming and education research. It’s quite exciting, and I think it’s inevitable that it will become a normal part of our future.

As educators, artists, and engineers, it is our job to make sure that augmented reality makes us more human, not more machine. It’s a theme that comes up for me all the time, and it is also very relevant as so many people find themselves sucked into computer-mediated social networks or virtual reality games that are hyperreal and addictive.

BACK TO NATURE

Fantasy and escape are still valid, important parts of our human nature. But perhaps it’s time to look at how gaming and computer simulation can bring us back into closer connection with each other and with the natural world.

This is one of the goals of Wiggle Planet, which features free-range animated characters that are being designed to bound from augmented books and games into the world – and back again. This cross-reality nature is enabled by dynamic data in the cloud (currently in development) that makes them exist both in our imaginations as well as in real-world locations where they can be found, like a rare mushroom or hummingbird.

Our Kickstarter Campaign gave us an initial boost for the creation of a book that will bring these characters (wiglets) to life in the context of a nonverbal story about nature, finding your place in it, and how we (post-humans) can be a part of a more connected world – in harmony with nature.

We are a visual species. Any technology that enhances our visual experience of the world and allows us to “see” a deeper reality, is a great advancement, as I see it. For this reason, I believe that augmented reality can be a wonderful addition to our post-human future.

-Jeffrey Ventrella