Perfume is a Japanese techo-pop group, a trio of women cranked out of a Hiroshima idol-singer mill nearly 15 years ago; last week they at last made their SXSW debut, after touring the United States for the first time only last year. Their performance — an eye-popping, digitally mashed-up overload of projection-mapped spectacle — offers exciting new ways to consider the negotiations between digital and live bodies on stage.
SXSW has supported talent from Japan for most of its run, despite often pigeonholing it in the single Japan Nite showcase — which observed its 20th anniversary this year (I had the fortune of being present for the first back in ’96, featuring the great Lolita No. 18). But as bands from Japan have upped their cultural cachet here, bigger acts have spilled over into the festival’s other venues and showcases. Perfume’s set last week — sandwiched at the end of the festival's Interactive portion and the beginning of its bedrock music week — certainly turned some heads.
Finally. After all this time speculating about the boring, antiquated Oculus Rift headset, Microsoft this week demoed a new product that promises an actual step forward in melding virtual-reality computing into everyday living.
CNET’s report says: “Microsoft wants us to imagine a world without screens, where information merely floats in front of you.”
This, folks — this is the Kool-Aid I’m chugging.
Last year at this time, I posted a list of the best albums I’d heard in 2013. I was able to do so because I still had been employed as a full-time music critic through the first half of that year, and I’d kept up through the holidays. This year, the old annual itch is still there — but I’ve definitely not kept up. I couldn’t tell you what some of the big releases were in 2014, and I’d be lying if I said I feel bad about it. Despite the professional lifetime as a music scribe, it’s felt pretty grand to let go this year, to catch up with all the music I raved about and then set aside, and to reconnect with a lot of ancient post-punk and new-wave stuff that got me excited about music in the first damn place.
Nonetheless, apropos of very little and for whomever it could possibly be of any worth, here’s a rundown of the new-ish and not-so-new music that grabbed me by the lapels and gave me the what-for in 2014 …
This one’s a personal post, a philosophical one (maybe), and a very belated eulogy for a friend. It’s about illness, infrastructure, Cartesian dualism, yoga, and one of today’s buzziest of buzzwords: mindfulness.
Just a response to a paper I’ve read related to human-computer interface design — one that hit me where I live, or used to.
“Soylent: A Word Processor with a Crowd Inside” describes a software project that amends the dreaded Microsoft Word with some crowd-sourced editing assistance. “Writing is difficult,” the authors observe — yeah, welcome to my world — before adding: “When we need help with complex cognition and manipulation tasks, we often turn to other people” (1). Sometimes we have support systems in place for this assistance, but sometimes not. The Soylent project crafts just such support for any writer-user, utilizing Mechanical Turk workers to farm out editing, proofreading, and formatting tasks to others.
Need someone to read over your paper — because you need suggestions as to what can be cut, because you want to make sure all the proverbial i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, because if you comb through your citations one more time your head will explode — but maybe you’ve called in that favor already or don’t want to risk bothering a colleague? Launch Soylent, which hires its invisible labor force to handle the work for you, perhaps in the dead of a deadline night.
What struck me about this project is how it attempts to replicate something electronically that has existed professionally for more than a century: the newsroom.
"World Is Mine," sure, but Hatsune Miku is still working hard for the money in the United States. The Japanese Vocaloid sensation has enjoyed her widest exposure this year stateside, from opening the first leg of Lady Gaga's summer tour to her recent appearance as the musical guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Is it working to expand her audience here?
There's an oft-cited quotation within the circles of popular music. It goes like this: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It's a succinct summation of the challenge of music criticism — of experiencing the ineffable magic of any art and then using mere words to pin down all that smoke. Throughout my 20 years getting paid to do just that, I recognized the futility of the activity (while counting my lucky stars).
The quote — attributed to a wide variety of sources, though it was most likely a Martin Mull original, according to the fearless and tireless Quote Investigator — usually is bandied about by musicians (commonly by those who have been on the receiving end of some sharp criticism) with the intent of belittling music critics. They wield the statement in order to point out how worthless is the critical pursuit, how beneath their attention. They could be right.
But I'm newly involved in plumbing the depths of performance studies, and it's lead to a not-small revelation about that quotation's very metaphor.
That's no moon. That's the Light Stage X, a complex and utterly cool device created by USC's Paul Debevec and teams to capture image data from human faces and bodies.
This week I enjoyed a tour of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, featuring demos of several of their virtual-reality projects, including Bravemind (VR assistance in PTSD therapy), ELITE (VR training for counselors), Gunslinger (a wild simulation of a Western cowpoke showdown that artfully brings narrative into real-time VR interaction), and one of the Graphics Lab's Light Stages.
In my recent research into virtual performance simulations, I've ended conference presentations, my upcoming book chapter, and my thesis with some measured forecasts of the cool technology likely just over the horizon — in digital re/animation, projection systems, and artificial intelligence — all the while keeping in mind that technology forecasts tend to become outdated if not entirely quaint within hours of utterance. This week, however, brought very exciting news that sent me gleefully diving into some revisions.
Princess Leias and 2.0Pacs, I give you: the Ostendo Quantum Photonic Imager.
If your Roomba chews up the fringe on your favorite Oriental rug, is it OK to punch it? If an algorithm recommends a movie to you, and the movie turns out to be crapola, to whom do you direct your online flames? If a drone independently computes a tactical course correction and flies into the wrong airspace, igniting international tensions, would war be averted if our rep stood in the UN assembly and assured everyone, “The drone gravely regrets its error”?
Machine ethics, robot rights — these topics keep popping up in my world. In the last year, I’ve attended three talks addressing various shades of the subject.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.