Episode Eighty: Motion, Controlled; The Childish Myth; Odds

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Over one thousand subscribers! And it only took me 80 episodes! It’s late on Wednesday night, and I’m heading back to Portland tomorrow, sans wife and son. We had a stupid amount of good barbecue today. I can’t eat anymore, ever.

1.0 Motion, Controlled

So Microsoft caved and Kinect 2 is no longer a pack-in for the Xbox One[1]. The upgraded motion/3D/depth/high-definition camera that had the unfortunate timing of being announced at roughly the same time as the Snowden revelations, capitalising upon the evil-red-all-seeing-eye of, well, both Sauron *and* HAL 9000, isn’t a requirement anymore, and you can now bask in a slightly-less-powerful than PS4 gaming experience, or, if you prefer a slightly-better-than-PS4 on-demand video experience that integrates with your cable box. That you won’t be able to talk to.

Ian Bogost had a good post in Edge Online (not edge.org) earlier this month, calling the death of “physical interfaces for active play”[1]. Whilst Bogost does have a reputation for being a bit of a crochety bastard, he’s certainly a *smart* crotchety bastard, and he presents a compelling case for the history of physical user interfaces for gaming as being nothing more than a Groundhog day cycle of faddish repeats.

I think Bogost’s most compelling point was that, aside party games like Just Dance/Dance Central and Kinect Adventures for kids, motion-control just really wasn’t an interesting or sticky enough behaviour inside the house. I remember the moment pretty early on when we figured we could play Wii Tennis just as easily by sitting on the couch and flicking our wrist, with minimal movement, and that appears to define the moment for Bogost when the dream of the original Wii died. His other point, that Kinect’s other big point is voice control, is that it’s hardly an active interface at all, and, at worst, one that makes the user experience ever so slightly more tedious.

Perhaps what’s needed with motion sensing is for the motion to be pervasive, unintrusive and supplemental to the main mode. I have to admit that one of the games that I was most taken with for Kinect was Child of Eden[3], the spiritual successor to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez[4], the classic Dreamcast synesthesia on-rails trance shooter. Child of Eden, with its magic/sorcery-like control system for targeting and firing made me appreciate exactly how buff Tom Cruise’s upper-body was, and despite the literally awe-some music and visuals, I never got that into it because the damn thing was tiring.

And that was one of the criticisms of motion-controlled gaming: we already have motion control that enough people are familiar with, and that’s touch direct manipulation on every touch screen. There’s physical resistance against the screen, and a metaphor of direct manipulation in that the frame-rate is high enough and the latency low enough to make it feel like you’re manipulating the thing, unlike the CGI that we’re used to when Tony Stark manipulates the design for his latest suit. I’m quite happy to go back to the well and quote Douglas Adams on motion control here:

“For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophistated the controls were made touch sensitive – you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.”

Whilst I haven’t tried Kinect 2 yet, the experience with Kinect One was just slightly emerging out of the trench of disappointment. Motion control, Kinect-style, was tantalisingly close, but also infuriatingly imprecise. Anyone who’s tried the original Kinect will be familiar with the irritating jitter that the faux hand cursor would display on the screen as you held your hand up to manipulate menus (once you had been impressed by the way the hand switched orientation to display your corresponding right, or left, hand as you switched). Perhaps motion control is rather like the capactive touchscreen Symbian era of smartphones: the technology is kind of there, but no one’s quite combined all the rights bits together yet.

[1] http://www.polygon.com/2014/5/13/5714120/no-kinect-xbox-one
[2] http://www.edge-online.com/features/with-kinect-2-the-era-of-physical-interfaces-for-active-play-has-come-to-a-definitive-close/
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_of_Eden
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rez

2.0 The Childish Myth

Timo Arnall has produced a new multi-screen film titled Internet Machine[1], about the invisible infrastructure of the internet. You might remember Arnall as helping to put together the Immaterials Project[2], a beautiful bringing to life of the intangible infrastructure that now envelops us and is outside of our realm of perception.

There was a particular phrase of Arnall’s that struck me in his description of his latest project:

“In this film I wanted to look beyond the childish myth of ‘the cloud’, to investigate what the infrastructures of the internet actually look like.”

It’s his characterisation of the current understanding of what ‘the cloud’ is as childish that’s interesting. Way back when we used to scribble network and architecture diagrams, there’d be a kind of zagged line that would end in a fluffy cloud shape, and that cloud or internet would exist as a kind of off-the-cuff marginalia – something that we didn’t have to worry about, that would fulfill a certain function, because what we were concerned with was the meat of the diagram – look over here, not over there.

Arnall’s point is that you can’t really ignore and abstract away as a fluffy object that’s ‘over there’ when it’s the infrastructure that powers, well, most of the world. And that it’s worth understanding: in geography lessons at school we grew up learning about transport hubs, what made cities cities, the different types of industry that would make up a town or indeed a country. Are kids being taught about what data centers are? How critical they are to the mundanity of daily life? I mean, it’s one thing to start thinking: hey, shipping containers are pretty interesting, ever think about how much the world shrunk when we standardised on shipping containers? And it’s another to think about the humble TCP/IP packet, but spare a thought for the physical substrate that all of this stuff runs on. The electricity requirements. The square footage. The geographical location. The fact that states and cities compete by offering tax incentives to house buildings that, while they generate employment in the short term in terms of erecting their sheer size, once they become operational, actually require minimal human involvement as a ratio to their volume. As Arnall’s film makes visually clear, this isn’t a *cloud*. It’s noise and heat and light and cold and cabling and corridors and not just blinking lights with overhanging flat-panel monitors that display Johnny Depp’s uploaded visage. The cloud is *heavy*. It’s made of concrete and chillers and fans. This isn’t to say that it’s a wrong thing to have the cloud in the first place, but that’s the point of the “childish” description. It’s like saying: hey, did you know that trade lines were ploughed by dragons? Yeah, dragons. I mean boats. Giant container ships. But we call them dragons. Yeah, I don’t know why. Aren’t dragons awesome?![3]

[1] http://www.elasticspace.com/2014/05/internet-machine
[2] http://www.elasticspace.com/2013/09/the-immaterials-project
[3] http://shorttermmemoryloss.com/portfolio/project/dragons/

3.0 Odds

– I helped edit Tom Coates’ In Praise of Boring Objects (https://medium.com/product-club/379216903543) which you should read, even though it’s long, because it explains how the internet connected objects can just be plain *better*, and not just stick extraneous interface in the way that shows off that they’re connected. Coates explains, plainly and persuasively, what it means for objects to use the network as a material.

– In the continued quest to put Bluetooth 4.0 LE connected three-axis accelerometers in *everything*, you can now (well, when the Kickstarter’s done) put them on skateboards. http://syrmo.com

Okay, that was disappointing. I didn’t get any notes. I was all excited for notes, and then you all didn’t send any. Either that or I should check my email again. Or maybe you’re all reeling from yesterday’s episode? Or maybe it was just obvious. In any event, if you’re new, you should say hi and introduce yourself and let me know where you heard about this little newsletter.