Wednesday, April 02. 2014
A few weeks into the making of Her, Spike Jonze’s new flick about romance in the age of artificial intelligence, the director had something of a breakthrough. After poring over the work of Ray Kurzweil and other futurists trying to figure out how, exactly, his artificially intelligent female lead should operate, Jonze arrived at a critical insight: Her, he realized, isn’t a movie about technology. It’s a movie about people. With that, the film took shape. Sure, it takes place in the future, but what it’s really concerned with are human relationships, as fragile and complicated as they’ve been from the start.
Of course on another level Her is very much a movie about technology. One of the two main characters is, after all, a consciousness built entirely from code. That aspect posed a unique challenge for Jonze and his production team: They had to think like designers. Assuming the technology for AI was there, how would it operate? What would the relationship with its “user” be like? How do you dumb down an omniscient interlocutor for the human on the other end of the earpiece?
When AI is cheap, what does all the other technology look like?
For production designer KK Barrett, the man responsible for styling the world in which the story takes place, Her represented another sort of design challenge. Barrett’s previously brought films like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Where the Wild Things Are to life, but the problem here was a new one, requiring more than a little crystal ball-gazing. The big question: In a world where you can buy AI off the shelf, what does all the other technology look like?
Technology Shouldn’t Feel Like Technology
One of the first things you notice about the “slight future” of Her, as Jonze has described it, is that there isn’t all that much technology at all. The main character Theo Twombly, a writer for the bespoke love letter service BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, still sits at a desktop computer when he’s at work, but otherwise he rarely has his face in a screen. Instead, he and his fellow future denizens are usually just talking, either to each other or to their operating systems via a discrete earpiece, itself more like a fancy earplug anything resembling today’s cyborgian Bluetooth headsets.
In this “slight future” world, things are low-tech everywhere you look. The skyscrapers in this futuristic Los Angeles haven’t turned into towering video billboards a la Blade Runner; they’re just buildings. Instead of a flat screen TV, Theo’s living room just has nice furniture.
This is, no doubt, partly an aesthetic concern; a world mediated through screens doesn’t make for very rewarding mise en scene. But as Barrett explains it, there’s a logic to this technological sparseness. “We decided that the movie wasn’t about technology, or if it was, that the technology should be invisible,” he says. “And not invisible like a piece of glass.” Technology hasn’t disappeared, in other words. It’s dissolved into everyday life.
Here’s another way of putting it. It’s not just that Her, the movie, is focused on people. It also shows us a future where technology is more people-centric. The world Her shows us is one where the technology has receded, or one where we’ve let it recede. It’s a world where the pendulum has swung back the other direction, where a new generation of designers and consumers have accepted that technology isn’t an end in itself–that it’s the real world we’re supposed to be connecting to. (Of course, that’s the ideal; as we see in the film, in reality, making meaningful connections is as difficult as ever.)
Theo Twombly still sits at a desktop computer when he’s at work, but otherwise he rarely has his face in a screen.
Jonze had help in finding the contours of this slight future, including conversations with designers from New York-based studio Sagmeister & Walsh and an early meeting with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, principals at architecture firm DS+R. As the film’s production designer, Barrett was responsible for making it a reality.
Throughout that process, he drew inspiration from one of his favorite books, a visual compendium of futuristic predictions from various points in history. Basically, the book reminded Barrett what not to do. “It shows a lot of things and it makes you laugh instantly, because you say, ‘those things never came to pass!’” he explains. “But often times, it’s just because they over-thought it. The future is much simpler than you think.”
That’s easy to say in retrospect, looking at images of Rube Goldbergian kitchens and scenes of commute by jet pack. But Jonze and Barrett had the difficult task of extrapolating that simplification forward from today’s technological moment.
Theo’s home gives us one concise example. You could call it a “smart house,” but there’s little outward evidence of it. What makes it intelligent isn’t the whizbang technology but rather simple, understated utility. Lights, for example, turn off and on as Theo moves from room to room. There’s no app for controlling them from the couch; no control panel on the wall. It’s all automatic. Why? “It’s just a smart and efficient way to live in a house,” says Barrett.
Today’s smartphones were another object of Barrett’s scrutiny. “They’re advanced, but in some ways they’re not advanced whatsoever,” he says. “They need too much attention. You don’t really want to be stuck engaging them. You want to be free.” In Barrett’s estimation, the smartphones just around the corner aren’t much better. “Everyone says we’re supposed to have a curved piece of flexible glass. Why do we need that? Let’s make it more substantial. Let’s make it something that feels nice in the hand.”
Theo’s phone in the film is just that–a handsome hinged device that looks more like an art deco cigarette case than an iPhone. He uses it far less frequently than we use our smartphones today; it’s functional, but it’s not ubiquitous. As an object, it’s more like a nice wallet or watch. In terms of industrial design, it’s an artifact from a future where gadgets don’t need to scream their sophistication–a future where technology has progressed to the point that it doesn’t need to look like technology.
All of these things contribute to a compelling, cohesive vision of the future–one that’s dramatically different from what we usually see in these types of movies. You could say that Her is, in fact, a counterpoint to that prevailing vision of the future–the anti-Minority Report. Imagining its world wasn’t about heaping new technology on society as we know it today. It was looking at those places where technology could fade into the background, integrate more seamlessly. It was about envisioning a future, perhaps, that looked more like the past. “In a way,” says Barrett, “my job was to undesign the design.”
The Holy Grail: A Discrete User Interface
The greatest act of undesigning in Her, technologically speaking, comes with the interface used throughout the film. Theo doesn’t touch his computer–in fact, while he has a desktop display at home and at work, neither have a keyboard. Instead, he talks to it. “We decided we didn’t want to have physical contact,” Barrett says. “We wanted it to be natural. Hence the elimination of software keyboards as we know them.”
Again, voice control had benefits simply on the level of moviemaking. A conversation between Theo and Sam, his artificially intelligent OS, is obviously easier for the audience to follow than anything involving taps, gestures, swipes or screens. But the voice-based UI was also a perfect fit for a film trying to explore what a less intrusive, less demanding variety of technology might look like.
Indeed, if you’re trying to imagine a future where we’ve managed to liberate ourselves from screens, systems based around talking are hard to avoid. As Barrett puts it, the computers we see in Her “don’t ask us to sit down and pay attention” like the ones we have today. He compares it to the fundamental way music beats out movies in so many situations. Music is something you can listen to anywhere. It’s complementary. It lets you operate in 360 degrees. Movies require you to be locked into one place, looking in one direction. As we see in the film, no matter what Theo’s up to in real life, all it takes to bring his OS into the fold is to pop in his ear plug.
Looking at it that way, you can see the audio-based interface in Her as a novel form of augmented reality computing. Instead of overlaying our vision with a feed, as we’ve typically seen it, Theo gets a one piped into his ear. At the same time, the other ear is left free to take in the world around him.
Barrett sees this sort of arrangement as an elegant end point to the trajectory we’re already on. Think about what happens today when we’re bored at the dinner table. We check our phones. At the same time, we realize that’s a bit rude, and as Barrett sees it, that’s one of the great promises of the smartwatch: discretion.
“They’re a little more invisible. A little sneakier,” he says. Still, they’re screens that require eyeballs. Instead, Barrett says, “imagine if you had an ear plug in and you were getting your feed from everywhere.” Your attention would still be divided, but not nearly as flagrantly.
Of course, a truly capable voice-based UI comes with other benefits. Conversational interfaces make everything easier to use. When every different type of device runs an OS that can understand natural language, it means that every menu, every tool, every function is accessible simply by requesting it.
That, too, is a trend that’s very much alive right now. Consider how today’s mobile operating systems, like iOS and ChromeOS, hide the messy business of file systems out of sight. Theo, with his voice-based valet as intermediary, is burdened with even less under-the-hood stuff than we are today. As Barrett puts it: “We didn’t want him fiddling with things and fussing with things.” In other words, Theo lives in a future where everything, not just his iPad, “just works.”
Theo lives in a future where everything, not just his iPad, “just works.”
AI: the ultimate UX challenge
The central piece of invisible design in Her, however, is that of Sam, the artificially intelligent operating system and Theo’s eventual romantic partner. Their relationship is so natural that it’s easy to forget she’s a piece of software. But Jonze and company didn’t just write a girlfriend character, label it AI, and call it a day. Indeed, much of the film’s dramatic tension ultimately hinges not just on the ways artificial intelligence can be like us but the ways it cannot.
Much of Sam’s unique flavor of AI was written into the script by Jonze himself. But her inclusion led to all sorts of conversations among the production team about the nature of such a technology. “Anytime you’re dealing with trying to interact with a human, you have to think of humans as operating systems. Very advanced operating systems. Your highest goal is to try to emulate them,” Barrett says. Superficially, that might mean considering things like voice pattern and sensitivity and changing them based on the setting or situation.
Even more quesitons swirled when they considered how an artificially intelligent OS should behave. Are they a good listener? Are they intuitive? Do they adjust to your taste and line of questioning? Do they allow time for you to think? As Barrett puts it, “you don’t want a machine that’s always telling you the answer. You want one that approaches you like, ‘let’s solve this together.’”
In essence, it means that AI has to be programmed to dumb itself down. “I think it’s very important for OSes in the future to have a good bedside manner.” Barrett says. “As politicians have learned, you can’t talk at someone all the time. You have to act like you’re listening.”
As we see in the film, though, the greatest asset of AI might be that it doesn’t have one fixed personality. Instead, its ability to figure out what a person needs at a given moment emerges as the killer app.
Theo, emotionally desolate in the midst of a hard divorce, is having a hard time meeting people, so Sam goads him into going on a blind date. When Theo’s friend Amy splits up with her husband, her own artificially intelligent OS acts as a sort of therapist. “She’s helping me work through some things,” Amy says of her virtual friend at one point.
In our own world, we may be a long way from computers that are able to sense when we’re blue and help raise our spirits in one way or another. But we’re already making progress down this path. In something as simple as a responsive web layout or iOS 7′s “Do Not Disturb” feature, we’re starting to see designs that are more perceptive about the real world context surrounding them–where or how or when they’re being used. Google Now and other types of predictive software are ushering in a new era of more personalized, more intelligent apps. And while Apple updating Siri with a few canned jokes about her Hollywood counterpart might not amount to a true sense of humor, it does serve as another example of how we’re making technology more human–a preoccupation that’s very much alive today.
While I do agree with the idea that technology is becoming in some ways banal --or maybe, to use a better word, just common-- and that the future might not be about flying cars, fancy allover hologram interfaces or backup video cities populated with personal clones), that it might be "in service of", will "vanish" or "recede" into our daily atmospheres, environments, architectures, furnitures, clothes if not bodies or cells, we have to keep in mind that this could (will) make it even more intrusive.
Tuesday, February 25. 2014
Via the guardian
Is our urban future bright or bleak? Peter Bradshaw provides a selection of celluloid cities you might consider moving to - or avoiding - if you are looking to relocate any time in the next 200 years or so.
METROPOLIS (1927) (dir. Fritz Lang)
Metropolis is the architectural template for all futurist cities in the movies. It has glitzy skyscrapers; it has streets crowded with folk who swarm through them like ants; most importantly, it has high-up freeways linking the buildings, criss-crossing the sky, on which automobiles and trains casually run — the sine qua non of the futurist city. Metropolis is a gigantic 21st-century European city state, a veritable utopia for that elite few fortunate enough to live above ground in its gleaming urban spaces. But it’s awful for the untermensch race of workers who toil underground. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) (dir. John Carpenter)
Made when New York still had its tasty crime-capital reputation, Carpenter’s dystopian sci-fi presents us with the New York of the future, ie 1988, and imagines that the authorities have given up policing it entirely and simply walled the city off and established a 24/7 patrol for the perimeter, re-purposing the city as a licensed hellhole of Darwinian violence into which serious prisoners will just be slung and then forgotten about, to survive or not as they can. Then in 1997 the President’s plane goes down in the city and he has to be rescued. New York is re-imagined as a lawless, dimly-lit nightmare. Not a great place to live. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/MGM.
LOGAN’S RUN (1976) (dir. Michael Anderson) This is set in an enclosed dome city in the post-apocalyptic world of 2274. It looks like an exciting, go-ahead place to live and it’s certainly a great city for twentysomethings. There are the much-loved overhead monorails and people wear the sleek, figure-hugging leotards, unitards, and miniskirts. The issue is that people here get killed on their 30th birthday. Some people escape the dome city to find themselves in deserted Washington DC, which is a wreck by comparison. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
BLADE RUNNER (1982) (dir. Ridley Scott)
ALPHAVILLE (1965) (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
THINGS TO COME (1936) (dir. William Cameron Menzies)
AKIRA (1988) (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
SLEEPER (1973) (dir. Woody Allen)
MINORITY REPORT (2002) (dir. Steven Spielberg)
BABELDOM (2013) (dir. Paul Bush) This cult cine-essay by Paul Bush is all about a fictional mega-city called Babeldom. Where this city is supposed to be is a moot point. It is everywhere and nowhere. At first it is glimpsed through a misty fog: it is the city of Babel imagined by the elder Breughel in his Tower Of Babel. Then Bush gives us glimpses of a place made up of actual cities and then computer graphic displays take us through how a city develops its distinctive lineaments and growth patterns. Of all the future-cities on this list, Babeldom is probably the weirdest.
This article was amended on 30 January 2014 to correct the spelling of Paul Bush's name.
Wednesday, November 06. 2013
The Making of an Avant Garde: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies 1967-1984
A documentary written, produced, and directed by Diana Agrest
1.5 AIA and New York State CEUs
This film screening is organized by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union and co-sponsored by The Architectural League.
A screening of The Making of an Avant Garde: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies 1967-1984.
The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, founded in 1967 with close ties to The Museum of Modern Art, made New York the global center for architectural debate and redefined architectural discourse in the United States. A place of immense energy and effervescence, its founders and participants were young and hardly known at the time but would ultimately shape architectural practice and theory for decades. Diana Agrest’s film documents and explores the Institute’s fertile beginnings and enduring significance as a locus for the avant-garde. The film features Mark Wigley, Peter Eisenman, Diana Agrest, Charles Gwathmey, Mario Gandelsonas, Richard Meier, Kenneth Frampton, Barbara Jakobson, Frank Gehry, Anthony Vidler, Deborah Berke, Rem Koolhaas, Stan Allen, Suzanne Stephens, Bernard Tschumi, Joan Ockman, among others.
Time & Place
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
This event is free and open to all. Reservations neither needed nor accepted.
Undoubtedly a documentary I'll look to get a copy!
Thursday, May 03. 2012
While most camera innovations are aimed at higher megapixel counts or new image capturing techniques, Matt Richardson is taking an entirely different route with the Descriptive Camera: creating a device that turns your captured imagery into words. Designed as part of a class for New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, the camera consists of a USB webcam, a shutter button, a small thermal printer, and an ethernet connection. When a picture is "snapped," it's sent off to humans for analysis via Amazon's Mechanical Turk API. The human on the other end then creates a written description of the image, which is sent back to the camera. The resulting text is printed with the thermal printer, framed by a Polaroid-style photo outline (an example Richardson provides reads "It's a dark room with a window. The image is quite pixelated."
According to Richardson's post about the project, the Amazon Human Intelligence Task — or HIT — cost is about $1.25 for each image, with results usually taking between three to six minutes to return. An "accomplice mode" actually lets the camera send out links to the image via instant messenger, providing a cheaper option for human interpretation. While the device currently requires external power from a 5-volt source, Richardson does hope to make a version at some point that runs off self-contained batteries and can use wireless data. It's certainly an interesting project, and we won't deny that we're smitten with the idea of taking images out and about in the world, and seeing them perceived through someone else's eyes.
Friday, April 15. 2011
The relationship between architecture and photography is so old as both disciplines. While Anne Elisabeth Toft asks “Is it possible to capture, translate and transmit architectural experience via representations?” we can recall to the most recent work of the filmmaker and artist Wim Wenders, called Places, strange and quiet which is based on a fascinating series of large-scale photographs taken in countries around the world from Salvador, Brazil; Palermo, Italy; Onomichi, Japan to Berlin, Germany; Brisbane, Australia, Armenia and the United States. Wenders pointed on his latest publication:
But what about photographing not buildings, but landscape, urban voids and ruins? Can we talk about the same relationship as in between architecture and photography?
Most of Wim Wenders‘ photographs are created during his personal travels and while location-scouting for his films. From his iconic images of exteriors and buildings to his panoramic depictions of towns and landscapes, it’s not strange to find some of his movies accompanied by photo exhibitions and publications such as The Heart is a Sleeping Beauty as part of The Million Dollar Hotel or his 1999 film Buena Vista Social Club which was featured with the companion book by Wim Wenders and Donata Wenders.
Wim Wenders was a painter before he started working on film and photography, and he talked about this in an interview with Michael Coles:
Wenders photographic work is obviously very cinematic. His approach to catch the right moment and the right place, his sensibility to transmit with images what a urban place can mean and the way he freezes different urban context is widely poetic and full of literary references.
Wenders points that he doesn’t think that any photographer has anything else in mind than that particular moment he is capturing. This is the main guideline of the photo-work of the exhibition that will take place at the Haunch of Venison, in London.
“…but a story,
- Wim Wenders
As he said, “discovering the story that a place wants to tell. That’s my main concern, my attitude. Listening to the place. For me, taking a picture is more an act of listening, so to speak, than of seeing.” Now, the questions hidden in every picture are always the same:
What happened to that place? What happened to those people? How does this house or this street or this landscape look now, 10 or 30 years later?
The book Places, strange and quiet has been published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. More info at their web-site
Monday, October 25. 2010
Upon its completion in October 1958, the Union Tank Car Dome, located north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was the largest clear-span structure in the world. Based on the engineering principles of the visionary design scientist and philosopher Buckminster Fuller, this geodesic dome was, at 384 feet in diameter, the first large scale example of this building type.
“A Necessary Ruin” tells the history of the Union Tank Car Dome via interviews with architects, engineers, preservationists, media, and artists; animated sequences demonstrating the operation of the facility; and hundreds of rare photographs and video segments taken during the dome’s construction, decline, and demolition.
Visit handcraftedfilms.com for more information and to purchase the DVD.
Wednesday, October 06. 2010
“Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films (Vol. 1) is a combination viewing list, star map, and catalogue, begat from a series of screenings held at the Yale School of Art during the Spring of 2010. The publication suggests the formation of a tentative filmic canon in which modernist homes are used by filmmakers as containers for immorality and vice. Essays by John Yoder and Joseph Rosa are paired with several illustrations as well as highlights from eight films that employ the trope, including The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Diamonds are Forever (1971), Blade Runner (1982), Body Double (1984), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), and Twilight (2008).”
Printed in a tabloid format in red and yellow ink, Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films offers a serious but lighthearted investigation of the representation of Modernist architecture in popular film, reflecting on the convention of associating evil characters and events with Modern buildings, and also, more generally, on the relation between cinema and architecture. A series of texts point to examples in the James Bond films, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and many others, accompanied by plentiful film stills.
Monday, August 16. 2010
In his irresistible 1967 Play Time, Jacques Tati anticipated Jean Baudrillard by conceiving a city in which modernist simulacra had substituted for the “real” presence of traditional urban icons and representations.
Thus, the “real” Paris appears to a group of American tourists as only a transient mirror-image in some of the many transparent surfaces that invade the film. Samewise, the modernist slab appears throughout the movie as a repetitive symbol of the modern holiday vista – be it in Honolulu or Benidorm.
Monday, August 09. 2010
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fabric | rblg
fabric | rblg is the survey website of fabric | ch -- studio for architecture, interaction and research. We curate and re-blog articles, researches, exhibitions and projects that we notice during our everyday practice.