24 September 2001
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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By David Duberman
CyberArts International held its 10th-anniversary conference last weekend, and it was a doozy. "But wait," you ask, "if it's been around for 10 years, how come I haven't been hearing about it?" Here's why (don't worry; I'll keep the history short): CyberArts was founded 11 years ago by Bob Gelman and Dominic Milano as a forum for bringing together artists using technology to create and communicate. The initial conferences took place in Southern California in 1990, '91, and '92, and the plan was to keep it going, but because funding stopped, alas, so did CyberArts. But it kept going in the hearts and minds of the organizers and participants, and last weekend--10 years after the "middle" of the original conferences--those long-held hopes came to fruition in the friendly setting of the Exploratorium's McBean Theater. Those who missed the community feeling the events invoked, and those of us who were unable to take part in the original events, were extremely fortunate last weekend to be able to witness the resurgence of a unique phenomenon.
What makes CyberArts special? One key advantage is intimacy. Physically, it's a small event--a single track. This is actually an advantage for those of us who always regret having to miss sessions at multi-track shows like GDC and Siggraph because so many attractive ones are held simultaneously. In fact, due to a regrettable lack of advertising money, it was a little too small. Even in the tiny McBean there was plenty of room to spread out during most sessions. But at the same time, it's an illustrious conference, with some of the brightest, most original, and creative people in the interactive media industry pouring forth ideas for consideration by their peers, who didn't hesitate to provide feedback.
The opening session started with Milano giving a brief history of CyberArts, followed by short speeches by principal organizer Bob Gelman and Trudy Myrrh Reagan, founder of Ylem (http://www.ylem.org/). As it happens, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of that noteworthy organization for artists using science and technology, for which the conference was actually a benefit. Among other remembrances, Reagan recounted how she came up with the unusual name; it was Aristotle's term for the fundamental substance from which all matter derived.
Next came the first keynote presentation, by Bruce Damer, founder of the Earth 2 Avatars conference (still going strong online as Avatars 200x; see http://www.ccon.org/), and Mike Kaplan, his current partner in crime at Adobe. Not long ago the two teamed up to create a tool for creating online 3D communities that could easily be created by normal people, not just skilled artists and technologists. They ran out of money, but not steam, whereupon Adobe picked up the project and dubbed it Atmosphere.
Kaplan's third design principal for Atmosphere is immersion. It uses software rendering only, but is still fast, allowing for real-time lighting and dynamic streaming content. It also streams portals; that is, it fetches data for "adjoining" worlds in the background, and doors don't open until their worlds are available. Lastly, the Atmosphere system offers ubiquity, in that it's basically free. The player is free, of course, but according to Kaplan, there will always be a free version of the builder software as well. Adobe will ostensibly make money by selling a fuller-featured version of the builder, which will make it easier to design 3D online worlds.
The following session, titled What Happened to the Future? - A Look Back, featured a panel of three: Milano, Marc Canter of Broadband Mechanics, and Michael Masucci of EZTV. Canter did his usual megalomaniac schtick, focusing mainly on his latest venture, which wasn't particularly memorable, and making pronouncements like "VR is the enemy." He also sparked a bit of controversy by claiming that telecoms could provide everyone with 45-megabit broadband today, but instead they maximize profits by "spoon-feeding" bandwidth upgrades to customers in dribs and drabs. Mike Kaplan denied this vehemently but reasonably, to which Canter responded with an anecdote that didn't really prove his assertion. I like Canter, but he needs to be a bit more open to what's going on around him. For instance, many presenters remained through the entire conference, but Canter vanished immediately after his session.
It was during this session that Lee Felsenstein first spoke up. Felsenstein, an attendee at the conference, is a legend in personal computing, having co-founded Berkeley's Community Memory Project, a pioneer in information technology for the masses. He was also involved in Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club, where folks like Bill Gates got their start in the industry, and designed the Osborne 1 portable computer. Felsenstein remains interested in the cutting edge of computing, as evidenced by his frequent participation at CyberArts in audience Q&A sessions. His was a valuable presence throughout the conference.
Next up was a session, Stuck on a Plateau? - Next Generation Graphics and Animation Platforms, which didn't deliver quite as much as its title promised. The first speaker was Dave Blackburn of marketing/development firm Virtual Ventures (http://www.virtvent.com), who spoke about his company's "new paradigm" for real-time graphics production. I took a lot of notes from his presentation, but it boiled down to three elements: tools must enable true real-time authoring and creation of 3D content; tools must seamlessly weave 3D characters and scenes with audio and video content; and robust file formats can be shared across media. To expand on the second point, you must be able to synchronize A/V content with 3D animation; the author must be able to work constantly in playback mode to see what the audience will. And for the robust file format, Blackburn talked up Kaydara's FBX format, whose early adopters include Viewport, RealViz, Newtek LightWave, and Turbo Squid. Blackburn concluded by describing the expanding financial opportunities awaiting 3D/interactive media authors in coming years.
Following Blackburn was Frank Schwartz of Gen3D, who talked about art possibilities with mobile devices. Apparently, sending text poems via cell phones is a popular pastime in Europe. Another application is synchronized events, such as a theatrical-type play via mobile text messaging. The market generates a billion messages per month, which generates revenues in the UK of 150 million pounds. An artist named Katherine Lubar charges 36p per use for pictures viewable on cell phone LCDs. Tools capable of generating graphical art for the mobile platform are Flash, Blender, and FunMail. But there's also audio art: According to Schwartz, 150 Websites sell ringtones at $1.80 each, and European firm Vivendi offers music on mobile. He also mentioned a mobile participation concert, called Dialtones: A Telesymphony (http://telesymphony.aec.at/), which took place earlier this month in Austria.
The second day of the conference began with what turned out to be my favorite talk, a keynote by Noah Falstein entitled The Future of Entertainment. Falstein's been around the games biz a while, having worked at places like LucasArts and Dreamworks Interactive, and is now an independent consultant developing games, edutainment, and corporate interactive media. He's also working on a book, due out probably next year, from which this talk was derived.
Falstein prefaced his talk by "defending" fun, based on groundless insinuations that the September 11 terrorists had trained as pilots on software like Microsoft Flight Simulator. Of course, as Falstein pointed out, cars, knives, and many other tools can be used for good or evil. And while games do tend to be violent, they can be used for very positive functions, such as teaching health and medical treatment. He also mentioned a film often cited by his colleague Hal Barwood of LucasArts: Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, which Barwood uses to show the healing power of humor and entertainment.
Getting into the actual presentation, Falstein listed applications of what interactivity is good for, such as physical simulation, info retrieval, and learning by doing, as well as what it's not so good for: storytelling, because it's about doing, not telling. Moving on to the question, "Why do we play?", Falstein came to the crux of his talk: We play because it's in our genes. While not actually hunting, early humans who practiced their survival skills went on to become our ancestors, while those who lazed about instead died out (or became game-show hosts). Another practice that aided in survival was cross-training, such as the hunter who gardened in his spare time; a modern-day example would be an office worker who goes bungee-jumping on the weekend.
Falstein went on to connect contemporary forms of computer gaming with skills practiced by our forebears. For example, players of multiplayer online role-playing games engage in tribal interaction, hunting and gathering, and discussion of resources and dangers. The first-person shooter appeals to adolescent boys precisely because it's a safe way to practice the kill-or-be-killed lessons learned primarily by our male ancestors.
At this point, Falstein recounted knowledge he'd learned from reading Stephen Pinker's book How the Mind Works, which he recommends game designers read. For much of our evolution, the only person-shaped photon patterns hitting our eyes. As a result, we're hard-wired to care about what other people are doing. Movies, art, porn, and games are so compelling because they trick our brains into thinking this is important information. He also pointed out that one reason VR has been has been slow to take off is because we already have a very effective virtual reality: language. And he asks if it's any wonder that games like Deer Hunter are so successful; that so many movies and TV shows that focus on issues of survival and reproduction; that violent games are so popular. Falstein asserts that we won't grow out of this syndrome without a couple million years of evolution.
I apologize for the fractured nature of this account of Falstein's talk; it simply reflects the state of my notes. If you get a chance to see him speak, don't miss it. I'll finish with a few of his predictions:
Next up was a panel entitled Is Virtual Reality Worth Another Look?. Linda Jacobsen returned to her old VERGE stomping grounds to tell us about changes to VR since 1996, when she "went over to the dark side" (SGI); she's just recently struck off on her own as a consultant. According to Jacobsen, the small tool companies have been swallowed up, which goes to show that the larger companies acknowledge the value of the technology. Isolating head-mounted displays have been displaced by VR spaces such as CAVE and VR theaters with wrap-around screens. Sun has bought the VPL (Jaron Lanier) patents from Thompson, but apparently hasn't decided what to do with them yet.
Jacobsen also mentioned what sounds like an interesting event coming to UC Berkeley October 22-24: The 7th Annual Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia (http://www.vsmm.org/vsmm2001/). The conference, whose theme this year is "Enhanced Realities: Augmented and Unplugged," explores the technologies and applications of enhanced environments, focusing on virtual heritage, immersive art and creative technology, and virtual design (industrial, architectural and medical), plus a special session on emerging virtual entertainment directions.
The last session, which lasted until about 8 p.m Sunday evening--several hours after the conference's scheduled close--was dominated by academic futurist Charles Ostman. Ostman's a brilliant guy, but he speaks at a breakneck pace and often swallows his words, making him difficult to understand. He showed video illustrating how nanites (nano robots) will cure disease and repair bodies via such methods as capturing viruses and recoating nerves with myelin sheaths, while predicting such technology is practically right around the corner, which was vociferously debated by members of the audience.
Much more happened during CyberArts International 2001, including a fine party at the Somarts space, but I'll end my description here. Even though some of the key planned participants couldn't make it, those who did enjoyed the conference considerably. For me, at any rate, CyberArts was a great success, and I hope it'll keep going for many years to come.
Expandable Language today announced open beta testing for ChangeAgent, a Web site maintenance application. The program is designed to facilitate fixing broken links, removing orphan files, and renaming and moving files in a site.
"Fixing broken links is tedious," explains Terence Parker, president of Expandable Language. "It requires constant switching back and forth between an editor, a file manager, and a Web browser to get familiar with the context of the broken link, find the right fix, and make the fix throughout the site."
He claims ChangeAgent provides a single, integrated environment for discovering, investigating, and fixing broken links, making the process easier and more efficient.
ChangeAgent is available for all 32-bit Microsoft Windows platforms and works best on systems with Active Desktop installed (Active Desktop is pre-installed on all Windows 98/Me/2000 systems).
Just out from Macromedia is the Macromedia eLearning Studio, which combines the new Macromedia Authorware 6, its visual authoring product for creating interactive, e-learning applications, with Macromedia Flash 5 and Dreamweaver 4 to provide a comprehensive authoring solution for e-learning. Authorware 6 is also available separately.
The Macromedia eLearning Studio enables authors to create learning content that adheres to learning standards from the ADL, AICC, and IMS. Authorware supports AICC-compliant data tracking and elements of the ADL SCORM content model to ensure the courseware can be more efficiently tracked, managed, and reused.
Authorware 6 was recently certified by the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) as compliant with the AICC's Web-based CMI Systems guidelines. AICC certification allows Authorware developers to create e-learning content that can be delivered and tracked within any AICC-compliant learning management system.
In addition to AICC compliance, Authorware ships with a template that demonstrates how to create trackable content using the ADL's SCORM run-time API. Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) is an initiative sponsored by the US government to facilitate instructional content development and delivery using current and emerging technologies. Specifically, the ADL SCORM project enables the reuse of Web-based learning content across multiple environments and products.
Authorware also supports the IMS specification on content metadata. A command within Authorware launches an editor that developers can use to create an IMS-compliant metadata file. For assessment, Authorware Question Knowledge Objects support import and export of XML files that comply with the IMS specification for Question-Test Interoperability (QTI).
New features in Authorware 6 also include one-button publishing for the Web and CD-ROM, enhanced external media support, drag-and-drop media synchronization, XML parsing, and support for streaming MP3 audio.
Liberate Technologies has integrated Macromedia's Flash Player into Liberate's interactive television platform for commercial deployment. The integration of the Macromedia Flash Player makes it possible for the "more than one million" Macromedia Flash developers to create content and applications for interactive TV on the Liberate TV Platform software. The company says it's also offering an upgrade path to future Flash releases.
"Macromedia Flash is [suitable] for delivering interactive programming guides, games, e-commerce, and … Web applications," said Peter Goldie, general manager, Macromedia.
Newly available from graphics studio and publisher Marlin Studios is its $249 "Panoramica - Land & Sky" 2 CD-ROM set, created by artist and photographer David Campbell. The product is the 12th in a series of texture libraries created for use by 2D and 3D graphics artists.
Panoramica is a collection of photographed and post-processed panoramic land and sky backgrounds, in full hemispherical and 180/240/360-degree formats. Matching 3D models are included for the various-size textures. Also included is a set of six stop-action animated cloud formations, suitable for video and other applications.
Says company president Tom Marlin, "A graphics artist can wrap a texture on the inside of a hemispherical model (a dome) or a cylinder shell and place it over or around his scene. The sky varies with every camera shot and the camera can look anywhere. This is particularly useful for flybys and walkthroughs. And the photorealistic lighting quality is remarkable when used with radiosity."
Because a panoramic texture sometimes requires close scrutiny by the camera as it moves in a scene, panoramic textures need to be large in size. The textures included with Panoramica in some cases area as large as 10,000 x 2,000 pixels. If the artist requires smaller sizes, the panoramic textures can be reduced to required specifications. The textures are presented in TIFF format for lossless quality.
In a makeover of its professional graphics tablet line, Wacom Technology Corp. today announced the new Intuos2 graphics tablet system. Most important of the new features are:
The pressure-sensitive Grip Pen features a rubber grip area to make the pen easier to hold. The design enlarges the grip area, while a rubber sleeve reduces the grip pressure required to hold the pen, thus helping to avoid fatigue when the pen is used for extended periods of time. The pen provides 1,024 levels of tip and eraser pressure, as well as tilt angle and direction information. The pen also has two side buttons in a single rocker-style switch which can be set to be application-specific modifier keys, keystrokes, or mouse buttons. The switch also can be removed.
Larger tablets--those with 9" x 12", 12" x 12", and 12" x 18" active areas--are bundled with a new 5-button 4D Mouse. 4D stands for the four dimensions of information it provides: high-resolution x and y coordinate data, analog data from an auto-centering fingerwheel, and compass-like rotation data when the mouse is turned.
The new 4D Mouse has been redesigned for better ergonomics and to more closely emulate a traditional scrolling mouse. Its high-resolution scroll wheel is no longer a side thumbwheel but a self-centering fingerwheel on top of the mouse which provides +/- 1024 levels of data. It continues to provide specialized capabilities in those applications that support its 4D features.
Wacom also introduced the Cintiq 15X, a $1,900 pressure-sensitive Interactive Pen Display. The device combines a 24-bit color LCD monitor display (15-inch active matrix TFT 1024 x 768-pixel resolution screen) with graphics tablet technology that allows use of a cordless, batteryless pressure-sensitive pen.
Users can draw and edit directly on the LCD screen using the electronic pen and see what they are doing precisely at pen point. This makes the Cintiq 15X suitable for photo image editing, painting, and controlling presentations in meetings or classrooms as well as for medical, financial, CAD, 2D/3D animation and other applications. Its resolution is 1016 lines per inch, about four times that of a mouse.
Computer book publisher Sybex has released Digital Video! I Didn't Know You Could Do That by Erica Sadun. The book uses a light-hearted tone to show readers how to make the most of their digital movies, with topics such as:
Sega Dreamcast owners can catch 20 feet of virtual air while pulling a double tail whip with Activision, Inc.'s Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX. The just-shipped game lets players ride like the 10-time World Vert Champion Mat Hoffman or seven other vert, dirt and street BMX pros. The game challenges players to perform hundreds of tricks and signature moves in a variety of realistic, street, vert and dirt jump courses.
The game features two-player H-O-R-S-E, split-screen Trick Attack and Graffiti for all three types of courses. Gamers can also play in the career mode, moving up the ranks to win the ultimate BMX crown by unlocking new courses and upgrading their bike and rider abilities. The title was developed utilizing an enhanced version of Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game engine.
Coming this week for a mere $30 from Sierra and Fox Interactive is The Operative: No One Lives Forever Game of the Year Edition. Since its original release, the game scored the triple crown in the PC gaming world by being named "Action Game of the Year" by PC Gamer, Computer Games Magazine and Computer Gaming World. Added in this version are a new mission, a map editor to create new levels, new textures and a new enemy model.
In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, Activision postponed the September 18 release of Spider-Man 2 Enter: Electro for the PlayStation game console, which is set in New York City. While the environments in the game were not designed to depict specific buildings, the climax of the game takes place atop a skyscraper that resembles The World Trade Center. The announcement was made today by Ron Doornink, president and COO, of Activision, Inc.
"Out of respect for the victims, their families and our fellow citizens, we will be postponing the launch and making minor changes to the game," states Doornink. "While the buildings in Spider-Man 2 Enter: Electro act only as a background environment and do not explode or collapse, Activision is being extremely cautious about any images in our game that might be mistaken for the Twin Towers. We expect to ship the game well in time for this holiday season. Additionally, the delay of the game will have no material impact on our business."
A new release date was not specified. The game has been rated "E" for Everyone (ages six and older) by the ESRB.
The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) last week announced the creation of D.I.C.E., the first annual summit for leaders in interactive entertainment design. The event will take place at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas from February 28 -- March 1, 2002, in conjunction with the Fifth Annual Interactive Achievement Awards.
Some of the speakers confirmed are:
Origin Systems, an Electronic Arts development studio, will host Online Worlds FanFest 2001 on October 26 and 27 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. The company says it expects over 1,000 computer game fans to gather at the event to meet and interact with game producers, get a glimpse into the future of Ultima Online (UO), and socialize within the enormous UO community.
Keynote speakers will be Maxis co-founder and chief designer of The Sims Will Wright and Gordon "Tyrant" Walton, vice president of Maxis and executive producer of The Sims Online. Other presenters will include producer/director Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn and founder of McFarlane Toys and Spawn.com, as well as Brett Sperry, chief creative officer at Westwood Studios and executive producer of Earth and Beyond.
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