Attending San Diego’s famous annual Comic Con is a breeze — when you’re an STS grad student, at least. The lines for the Netflix trailers and movie sneak-peeks and TV cast conversations? Long, like crazy-long. The lines for the science panels? What lines?
Writing about Facebook profiles as memorials to the dead, Patrick Stokes notes that “our social identities are not necessarily coextensive with the biological life of the individual human organism with which they are associated, and thus it is not the memory of the dead person that is being honored and sustained through this form of memorialization, but some dimension or extension of the dead person themselves” (367). This is part of a growing body of literature that has coalesced around the agency of the dead — an agency facilitated specifically through durable, mediated representations of formerly living bodies.
My research is rooted in a sizable patch of this, but I’m commenting on some of it here because of a couple of nifty examples encountered just this week — mediated, shared, and hyped performances by two public figures who are no longer alive. (Warning: a few minor “Rogue One” spoilers lie ahead.)
My two most productive research interests seem quite different. My current dissertation project investigates the cultural histories and spatial embodiment of holograms and hologram simulations. In my copious free time (cough, sputter), I also maintain a course of study that began well before my grad-school adventure; as a journalist, both in Tulsa, Okla., and at the Chicago Sun-Times, I wrote a great deal about folksinger Woody Guthrie and the revival of his legacy within his home state, and now as a scholar I continue examining the ol' cuss and his peculiar communication strategies. One interest is old, analog, and sepia-toned; the other is shiny, digital, and futuristic.
But — as I explained in my presentation this weekend at the Woody Guthrie Symposium, hosted jointly by The University of Tulsa and the Woody Guthrie Center — there's actually a bit of Venn-diagram shade between the two. What interests me about these emerging "hologram" technologies, especially uses of the tech in pop-music performance contexts, is how the digitally projected characters achieve some semblance of believability, how their creators manage to craft a successful performing persona, and whether these simulations can claim something like Benjamin's "aura" or even Bazin's "fingerprint." This is not far removed, I'd say, from the process human performers go through in crafting their own performing personas — which is what I claim Woody did during his two years on L.A. radio beginning in 1937, as a direct result of his encounter with the new mass medium and its delayed feedback channels. Such is the basis of my paper on the subject, and my talk this weekend.
No one, to my knowledge, yet has proposed that Woody be among the legions of dead musicians resurrected in hologram form. This sounds like both a terrific idea (he'd probably love it) and a dreadful idea. Who knows?
What is a hologram?
Dictionaries say one thing, but popular discourse says much more. From its birth as a collage of post-WWII optical sciences through the 1970s, holography was an evolving but fairly easily defined practice. Its products were called holograms — photo-like film images that delivered a more three-dimensional view of the subject.
Then "Star Wars" happened.
When researching and writing about (or designing and producing) hologram simulations, there’s always an initial coming-to-terms with the terms.
When I analyzed the discourses of simulation designers, nearly all of them made some attempt to square and/or pare the language of their field. Designers and artists usually opened interviews with this, eager to make sure I understood that while we call these things “holograms” they’re not actual holography. “The words ‘hologram’ and ‘3D,’ like the word ‘love,’ are some of the most abused words in the industry,” one commercial developer told me. Michel Lemieux at Canada’s 4D Art echoed a common refrain: “A lot of people call it holography. At the beginning, 20 years ago, I was kind of always saying, ‘No, no, it’s not holography.’ And then I said to myself, ‘You know, if you want to call it holography, there’s no problem.’” In my own talks and presentations, I’ve let go of the constant scare-quotes. The Tupac “hologram” has graduated to just being a hologram.
It gets stickier when we begin parsing the myriad and important differences between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Many of us think we have an understanding of both, largely as a result of exposure to special effects in movies and TV — where the concept of a hologram underwent its most radical evolution, from a mere technologically produced semi-static 3D image to a computer-projected, real-time, fully embodied and interactive communication medium — but it’s AR people usually grasp more than VR. They’ll say “virtual reality,” but they’ll describe Princess Leia’s message, the haptic digital displays in “Minority Report,” or the digital doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.” Neither of these are VR, in which the user dons cumbersome gear to transport her presence into a world inside a machine (think William Gibson’s cyberspace or jacking into “The Matrix”); they are AR, which overlays digital information onto existing physical space.
Yet both VR and AR refer to technologies requiring the user to user some sort of eyewear — the physical reality-blinding goggles of OculusRift (VR) or the physical reality-enhancing eye-shield of HoloLens (AR). Volumetric holograms — fully three-dimensional, projected digital imagery occupying real space — remain a “Holy Grail” (see Poon 2006, xiii) in tech development, and we may need a new term with which to label that experience. One developer just coined one.
Just a slightly nifty post from the “nothing new under the sun” file: All that fuss over the (never available) Google Glass, all the hype over the (still unavailable) Oculus Rift, all my excited bewilderment over the (only demoed) Microsoft HoloLens — yet these head-mounted augmented-reality displays have been on drawing boards since at least the ’60s.
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.
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?
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.