Xu Bing: The Future of Art and New Media

Last night I caught Xu Bing’s talk at Lesley University/The future site of the Art Institute of Boston.

Xu Bing is a Chinese artist, probably best known in the states for his unusual use of imagined calligraphy – either characters that have no meaning, or English letters morphed into psuedo-Chinese script.

Butterfly Dreams at Contemporary Museum Image from aur2899’s PhotostreamLast night, among other things, he showed a few images from his Book from the Ground project. The Book from the Ground is an attempt to use iconography to tell stories. You can read excerpts online. He talked a little about the goal of creating a book that everyone involved in modern life can read – inspired by the airport signage he saw around the world. His team is even creating software so that we can all talk to each other in icons.

This one project made me think a lot about film and the success of symbolism. If you see an old man and a young man on screen, looking at each other from afar, then running towards each other and embracing – you don’t need to know that they are a separated father and son. In fact, any other explanation would be downright subversive. Modern culture has flattened the symbolic landscape to the point where we all know the sign for “man” “alarm clock” and “airplane.” We don’t need a dictionary. Xu Bing talked about the decision that Coca-Cola made to stop printing its labels in other languages. “Coca-Cola” is now a symbol around the world, more than it is an actual word. He didn’t even mention IKEA, which uses a language of symbols and signs to give a universal set of instructions with every piece of furniture.

Much as I could type all day about symbolism, culture and iconography. . . I’d rather pose a real-world question: Are we genuinely moving toward a universal language of symbols, or are some sentiments too complicated, too culturally specific, to ever become universalized? If we are moving toward more universal forms of communication, is that always a good thing?

Musical Road

Ok, now this is cool. A road in Lancaster, CA has had grooves cut into it that cause car’s tires to play the William Tell Overture as they drive over it. CNET has the full story.

This is apparently part of a marketing campaign for the Honda Civic, and the road is tuned to play best for a Civic’s tires. The best part is that this isn’t even unique. There are other “singing roads” in Japan and South Korea. The one in Lancaster is being paved over due to complaints from neighbors. You would complain too if you had to listen, over and over, to a section of the William Tell Overture that sounded like this:

Encoding music into a road is a clever idea, despite the low fidelity. It certainly gets my attention. What other creative outlets for music have you seen?

RPI Builds Giant Media Toy

I don’t know how to describe Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Empac, except as a Giant Media Toy. The New York Times article had many more eloquent words to describe the 220,000 square foot center, which not only serves as a performing arts space, but is also where a bunch of researchers hope to create a Star Trek-like holodeck, and train doctors to perform surgery using virtual models that they can see AND touch.

This project brings up a host of questions: How do science research institutions contribute to the production of art? How do artists drive scientific inquiry? Are big-scale virtual experiences still as relevant now that we have so many small-scale virtual experiences in our own homes (Nintendo Wii, iPod tours, etc)? What stories would you want to tell using a giant 3D theater that simply can’t be told on a regular old screen?

Canon 5D Mark II Video Footage

Canon EOS 5D Mark II Image from Steve KeysCanon lent a prototype of the new 5D Mark II to New-York-based commercial and editorial photographer Vincent Laforet for 72 hours, and this short film is what he put together: beautifully shot, put to music (no sync sound), using only footage from the 5D Mark II. The footage is 1/4 size (from the original 1080P) and shot with mostly L-series glass. The 5D Mark II retails for about $2700 (body only) from B&H. The combination of excellent lenses with the full frame sensor yields some gorgeous low-light shots.

I’m certainly interested to see some of this tech make it over to the prosumer video side of Canon. After seeing this kind of result, would you consider shooting your next project on a DSLR?

Virtual World Creation Gets Democritized

In an interview with Information Week, Raph Koster talks about the Metaplace project.

“As [game] technology has risen, it has been harder and harder and harder for ordinary people to contribute,” said Raph Koster, the founder and president of Areae. This has driven budgets up “and the result is less creativity, less innovation, and fewer worlds,” he said.

“So we want to democratize this by doing what the Web has managed to do, which is push content creation tools to a much lower threshold,” said Koster.

The vision of bringing the technology behind virtual worlds to a level that allows non-technical users to easily create new content is akin to the dropping prices and lower thresholds in video equipment that fuel YouTube and other UGC video sites.

Virtual Building Blocks Image from fdecomiteThe difference, of course, is that democritizing virtual world creation is a matter of software design and usability, not governed by Moore’s law. Most modern computers are already powerful enough (rendering time aside) to create and run a virtual world. The difficulty is in designing the tools. Given Raph Koster’s previous successes, we’re optimistic that the future holds a signifigantly lower barrier to entry in the virtual world department.

Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem: DRM done right? Or yet another failed attempt?

Here’s what we know so far. DECE will announce details at CES in January. The general principle is something along the lines of a digital rights locker in the cloud that keeps track of what content you have purchased and have rights to play.

Burned (read: Destroyed) DVD Image from Night Star RomanusThe major goals of the project are interoperability, allowing users to copy content onto household playback devices (as opposed to streaming only) and to enable writing to physical media.

Sounds like an ambitious project, and maybe a pipe dream given the walled garden approach that most content providers have been pushing thus far. But with a list of players that includes most major media corporations, some serious technical expertise, the device manufacturers of both HD disc technologies (and then some), and at least one major retailer, this might have a chance to get past the conception stage.

The list of companies signed on so far is Best Buy, Cisco, Comcast, Fox, HP, Intel, Lions Gate, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, Philips, Sony, Toshiba, VeriSign, and Warner Bros.

What does this mean for indie producers? That remains to be seen, but for most of us, there’s already an alternative. What else supports interoperability and portability of content to offline and physical media? What lets viewers watch what they want, where and how they want to? Anything without DRM. Just sayin’.

Panasonic’s AG-HMC70 falls short

Panasonic AG-HMC70
Image from Panasonic Press Release
I’m excited about this announcement from Panasonic. Or more accurately, I’m excited that the camera has finally launched. This shoulder-mounted camera, clearly targeting event videographers, offers quite a sweet spot of price and features:

  • 3×1/4″ CCDs
  • 12x Leica Dicomar Lens
  • 1440x1080i AVCHD (a.k.a. H.264 or MPEG 4 Part 10)
  • Records to cheap SD/SDHC cards
  • XLR inputs
  • BNC and HDMI outputs
  • Headphone jack (OK, this should really be standard, but still worth noting)
  • Street Price of around $2100

What more do you need, right? Then I get to the sticking point: 13Mbps bitrate for the AVCHD. That’s significantly lower than the limit for the spec (24Mbps) and is disappointing in a camera that is otherwise very promising.

ZDNet has a good description of the problems with low bitrate “HD” as well as an at-a-glance comparison of 13Mbps AVCHD and 24Mbps HDV (MPEG-2).

As you can see, there’s “HD” and there’s HD. This camera still has some utility, but mostly to institutional videographers. Handy for a school or church, but filmmakers looking for quality HD can probably find a better match for their needs.

More Steadicam from Garrett Brown

Image by mikefats
B&H has Part 2 of their interview with Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam. We featured Part 1 last month. In this addition, Brown talks about his early experiences using the Steadicam on film sets, the advent of post-production tools for correcting shaky footage, and combo-shots using the Steadicam along with dollys and cranes.

B&H also has a video with Garrett Brown demonstrating the Steadicam Pilot, one of the lightweight and lower-cost alternatives to the full-scale film camera version. If Garrett Brown’s Steadicams are a bit of your price range, take a look at Johnny Chung Lee’s $14 Steadycam.

Johnny Chung Lee: My newest hero

Steadycam Pieces
Image by ElDavid1
Chances are you haven’t heard of Johnny Chung Lee yet – but it’s probably only a matter of time. Lee has demonstrated some pretty neat tricks with the Wii remote, and actually tells you how to accomplish them at home (I could devote an entire post to how awesome he is at explaining technology, but I’ll refrain). If building Minority Report style finger tracking and a home-made multi-input whiteboard isn’t enough for you, Lee makes his own $14 Steadycam. He has some really nice demos up on the site, too. The side-by-side comparison between his Steadycam and a camera on a folded tripod is pretty impressive.

What I like about all of these projects is that they are not focused on the most perfect means of exploiting technology, but the fastest, cheapest and simplest. Teague is quite taken with the $14 Steadycam.  Now you all know what to get him for his birthday.