Archive for April, 2007

Second Sight: Adventures in Sensory Deprivation

Visions, astral projection, synesthesia. Typically the purview of certain psychoactive drugs, they became mine this week at the cost of my sight.

It started when I managed to scrape a good deal of my cornea off by simply opening my eyes one morning and, given the choice between blurry vision accompanied by unbearably mind numbing pain and keeping my eyes shut with merely ridiculous pain, I chose the latter. But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that the combination of constant pain and temporary blindness put my brain into an altered state. During cab rides to the ER, the sounds and smells of New York City would spin my head in so many directions that, when I got a rundown of the real street details, I’d come close to arguing. (You mean we aren’t in a caravan surrounded by unicyclists spinning cotton candy into a massive trapeze?) Lucid dreams with motorized whimsy like Grrr or Lovey Vice City.

The big shock, though, came when Charles Mingus went synesthetic on me. It happened back home during the classic “Better Git It In Your Soul” (via Christian McBride). I heard the opening refrain but then it went silent. And where the horns were supposed to come in (I know the song well), somehow I saw horns instead of hearing them — one after the other, floating like cardboard cutouts, each playing and fading and floating away, the slightly atonal ones (this is Mingus after all) a little offset from the rest. And when the second refrain came, all the sound came rushing back and a massive two-dimensional wooden ship appeared behind the horns, holding them afloat at sea. This happened over and over throughout the song as new elements of the scene were introduced: sound replaced by visuals, visuals replaced by sound. (The closest thing I can figure is War Photographer, but that doesn’t quite capture it.)

The week was filled with these kinds of mind’s eye moments — the sort I thought I’d left behind in childhood, when I confused dreams with waking life all the time. Eyes wide shut like Stéphane. It reminds of the visions Lilly’s isolation tank could induce. And it makes me wonder how the sightless perceive the world; what I might learn from them.

Today was the first day I went outside with my eyes open in almost a week. When I stopped being able to see, the weather was dark, brooding, confining. Stepping outside today, all I saw were those first warm sun rays pouring down onto Manhattan neighborhood streets and the newly lit street life rising up to meet it. Damn I love New York in summer. And I’m so thankful I can see again.

We last wrote about sight loss in Game Changing Technology.

Update: Find more discussion of sensory impairment and creativity on 9rules.

The gory details: I’ve had these corneal abrasions before (but first time for the left eye) so that put my mind more at ease than it might have been otherwise. Still, multiple emergency room visits in a weekend are never fun and Q gets all the credit for managing the unglamorous parts of this episode of cornea canyon (read uncontrollable sobbing at 3am) with patience and style. Image via the always awesome kozyndan.

Abandoned Beauty, Hidden Politics, In Translation

Abandoned beauty was big this week, starting with stunning shots of Japan’s Gukanjima, a kingdom-like island deserted overnight when the coal ran out. Jake and Saha explored the long forgotten Floyd Bennett Field out in Brooklyn. AP captured a fabulously ominous shot of the Stardust implosion in Vegas. And Sam snuck into a frozen Toronto brickworks just ahead of its revitalization.

Hidden politics came to light as Cheney choked on oxygen for Earth Day. Bill Moyers presents a fascinating and well-researched view of why the media bought Bush’s arguments for war (more here). And we learned that explicit segregation is still alive and well at a Georgia prom.

In translation we found some pretty entertaining English in Beijing. Will St. Leger translated the third world landmine problem into a form that brings the threat home. Colbert and Sean Penn translated the world into metaphor in the hysterical Meta-Free-Phor-All. But my favorite translation of the week has to be the the super tiny, super strange theme love hotels of Japan. And don’t miss love hotel photographer Misty Keasler’s other work, either. Revealing, touching, spooky stuff.

It Ain’t Easy Being Mii

It’s safe to say Nintendo’s Miis have penetrated popular culture. And why not? They hit an incredibly great sweet spot between being expressive while staying easy to create and customize (and not-too-kiddy). But as much as they look like you, they never quite will be. That’s because you never really control your Mii. Sure, you can make them swing a racket, throw a punch, even guide them as they go cow riding. But when the closest you come to taking full control of your Mii is grabbing their unruly head between your thumb and forefinger, you know something must be afoot. And I think that’s intentional.

Miis ain’t you and that’s what makes them special. Unlike more traditional avatar worlds like Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the soon-to-be PS3 Home, your Mii has a life of its own — they’re always just slightly beyond your command. It makes them whimsical, it makes having them visit your friends’ Wiis make sense, it makes you always wonder what they’ve got up to when your Wii is off. And, oh, making this doppelgänger not freaky is an accomplishment, too, because they usually are. Very.

Of course, all this could change in an instant should Nintendo decide to put your Mii under your full control in a traditional virtual world. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. As it is, Miis inhabit a space somewhere between a Nintendog and your character in Animal Crossing; their closest contemporary might be The Sims. But they aren’t Sims because you have such an intimate relationship with them — you don’t give vague instructions and see what they do, you don’t change their environment and see how they react, but you do control them very deeply in constrained situations: say, putting a golf ball into a hole or popping a body into bubbles. And that makes them peculiar. In a good way.

It’s an interesting place to be because nobody has quite been there before. The design challenges are as fascinating as they are complex and what they will bring is anyone’s guess. But here’s hoping the world Miis inhabit continues to be odd. Because it’s clear that Nintendo has something that really resonates here — creating a strong connection between the player and their avatar by making it look like you, while being someone else entirely.

Find out how Miis came to be at and witness the passion they inspire on flickr.

image grabbed from myutopian

Streetwise, Gamewise, Earthbound

On streets this week we were totally charmed by a graffiti-covered cottage in Portugal. Beautiful, playful work. (Close ups: one, two, three, four.) In the UK, we saw a brilliant puzzle of an optical illusion that requires the viewer to stand in just the right place. Back stateside, the thought police are on the prowl on San Francisco walls. And equally political is this poignant illustration of the Iraqi refugee crisis.

Gamewise, we found out that it costs extra to be black in Acclaim’s new online dancing game. (Black skin is a power-up?) Emily Short talks pushing the text adventure envelope in a thoughtful interview. Professional moron Jack Thompson goes on and on about the connection between videogames and the VT shootings before the shooter had even been identified. On a brighter note, year 3 of the always fabulous iam8bit opens tonight.

Back on Earth, Kenneth Weiss gave a fascinating, terrifying look at oceans forever changed by human activity. Worldchanging wondered aloud about the absence of celebrity eco-friendly designers. But what dropped my mouth open widest this week had to be ACROS Fukuoka, a “reversible building” that looks all-too-typical on one side and like an unkempt forest on the other. It proves that, if there are no celebrity green designers, there really ought to be. Metaefficient has more and Metropolis provides a nice history of green roof architecture since 1960.

Click Click Boom: Web 2.0 Wrecks Your House

Architecture of participation. It’s one of the money phrases of Web 2.0 — the idea that online spaces should be designed in a deep way to accept contributions from anyone. And the web is at its most interesting when those contributions enter the real world, bringing people together in new and positive ways (a la DonorsChoose, HeyLetsGo, Meetup, etc.).

But what happens when the web brings people together in new and, well, destructive ways? Witness the Craigslist ad that put anything and everything in a Tacoma, WA house up for grabs. Only problem was they didn’t own it. The house was stripped to the studs and the lawyers are still trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly we’ve got architecture of annihilation.

Of course, this kind of thing isn’t particularly common on Craigslist and we can take some comfort from the fact that it wasn’t a random act of malice (turns out the ad was placed as the latest chapter of a family feud). Still, it speaks volumes on the penetration of these technologies into our lives, psyches, and confidence. Fear the not-so-smart mobs.

It reminds me of the Detroit Demolition Disneyland project, where a band of artists painted dangerous, dilapidated houses “Tiggeriffic Orange” and achieved the unexpected (or was it?) outcome of silently convincing the city to knock them down. The beauty of it all being that city hall all but refused to do anything about the houses until they were made so prominent that even people outside the underserved neighborhoods where they stood could no longer ignore them.

Both the Tacoma mob and DDD are examples of remote controlled demolition, with one party throwing signals in the air and unknown others doing the dirty work. I find the comparison fascinating because it makes clear that this phenomena isn’t isolated to the web. After all, had the Tacoma house been in Detroit and painted orange by a team of miscreants, it might well have been knocked down, too. But, then, painting a house is a bit more involved than entering an online ad, isn’t it? It seems the web at its most beautiful when physical and online spaces intersect. And also at its ugliest.

image grabbed from detroitfunk

Climate, Cultured, Colors

This week, climate change pulled up the drive as Toyota got culture jammed at the New York Auto Show. London and Tokyo went underwater when Second Lifers demonstrated the results of a world gone hot. And Worldchanging did a quite nice review of small-scale NYC housing that respects the environment.

Latinos got backup as Geraldo went unsensational and laid down the law on Bill O’Reilly with (shocking) sincerity. A thoughtful ad from Saatchi & Saatchi pointed out that human traficking is the new slavery. The lighter side features a mock ad that manages to be both hysterical and deep with a bit of demographic oversight (wait for it). And black people unite to define home court advantage in the funkiest gym in America.

Photowise, I’m blown away by a beautifully monochrome shot of Saturn from the Cassini Orbiter and brought back to earth by 3 kids working the camera in Mumbai. Montréal’s Blue Girl is fly, but my favorite bit of the week has to be the colorful new Guardian ads — gorgeous stuff now up on London streets.

Inside Living Game Worlds

What makes a next generation game? At Living Game Worlds III last week, some really bright folks got together to talk about just that question. And the answer came like a chorus: It’s not about wicked-fast number crunching, liquid AI, and poly pushing by the pound, but games the engage the soul and go beyond conventional expectations of what a game should be. Looking back on a day overflowing with interesting people and ideas, a few things stick out:

Katie Salen talked accuracy vs. authenticity, the notion that just because a game accurately models some real-world activity or place does not guarantee that players will perceive it that way. “Reality” is in the player’s head, not in the physical world. Game design, then, is a constant negotiation between design decisions and player expectations. And it’s always different. There’s no one game that every player plays.

Janet Murray made the case that games are our most primal form of cultural expression, even predating speech. They emerged from an urge to document experiences and culture, to reenact them over time and pass them on to future generations. She argued that game play is a central, even instinctual, urge in all cultures and that shows how much further videogames could reach.

Tracy Fullerton pointed out that game mechanics are a significant limiting factor in the industry today. The mechanics are the message; where narrative is the organizing principle of film, mechanics are the organizing principle of games. The problem the industry faces is that new mechanics are hard, time consuming, and costly to develop. It’s easier to stick with what you know works. But developing new mechanics is essential because they are so central to advancing the state of the art — providing game developers access to significantly new and different content.

A particularly inspiring session focused on Games of the Oppressed, featuring three games that aim to help those in need. A Force More Powerful, an RTS-like sim, provides the oppressed masses with strategies to confront and defeat violent leaders using nonviolent means. The now famous (and rightfully so) Darfur is Dying was demonstrated in addition to some lovely avatar creation art for a new title. Lastly, we got a walkthrough of the inner-city afterschool program that designed Ayiti: The Cost of Life, a game that explores poverty and obstacles to education in contemporary Haiti.

Some heated exchanges came during the discussion of indie game festival Slamdance ejecting Super Columbine RPG and the ensuing firestorm of publicity. “Why is it OK to make a film about Columbine but not a game?” being the key question. (Joystiq has more)

The day ended with another central question: Nobody ever told a kid to stop reading a book and go outside, but you hear it all the time with TV and videogames. Why is that? What does that say about the relationship between our culture and gaming? What does it say about the ground game designers have yet to explore? Food for thought and food for the future.

Special Effects, Ben Gets Board, Pixel Jam

Nicolas Provost remixes Kurosawa’s Rashomon to stunning effect in Papillon D’Amour. I’m still going gaga for Azul De Corso’s uniquely Argentinean illustrations. On the flip side of quality are the hysterically bad special effects straight outta Bollywood. And speaking of special effects, Incredibles director Brad Bird lays down the law in a fascinating, passionate hourlong interview.

Uncle Ben got elected chairman of the board, but still doesn’t seem to have a last name. CNN (of all places) provides a thoughtful overview of the state of film in Africa (it’s after the brief previews of Spiderman 3, Half Nelson, and Lives of Others). Also in Africa (and Afghanistan) is this cleverly well produced International Rescue Committee ad that converts their work into a mechanical coin-op game. Does it make what they do easier to understand or belittle it?

On the street, I adore Skull and Bones Bush both for its overt Mr. Yuck go near it and die commentary and its more subtle reference to the freaky disturbing Order of Skull and Bones (aka Brotherhood of Death) that all the rich and powerful Yalees (like Bush) seem to have been members of.

And the culture jam of the month has to go to Jason Eppink’s Pixelator, which executes a takedown on those obnoxious Clear Channel displays. Nice of him to provide build instructions and a hat tip the MTA and Clear Channel as (laughably unknowing) collaborators, too. Hi-fi to lo-fi with beautiful results.

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