Thursday, 30 January 2014

more levels of reality

Outside the Media Markt in Rotterdam's city centre, there is an augmented reality (AR) billboard ad for Samsung. In this ad, an animated T-Rex takes a short stroll among the crowd and lets out a screen-shaking roar. National Geographic did a similar installation in Rotterdam Central Station a while ago, also featuring a T-Rex in addition to other dinosaurs, animals, a thunderstorm and an astronaut. I'm quite fond of these ads and I'm hoping to see public AR installations like these include crazier imageries in the future. 

I wrote about AR before in a broader definition of constructing new realities, but I have since realized that Augmented Reality really refers to the specific technical application of creating real-time computer generated graphics in a live video feed. I think I've mixed it up with Alternate Realities (AR). I should note that these are different concepts, but they can overlap, and I get specifically thrilled when they do (does that sound twisted?). I think I therefore intuitively imagine every augmented reality as an alternate reality, for my own mental satisfaction. You should note that I still do so in these following paragraphs.

I have been thinking about this AR overlap and its theological implications. In the Media Markt Samsung AR, I see myself (as recorded on a live camera) in a world where everything else is the same except that the T-Rex still lives and may endanger me. Let's say if in this AR the computer-generated T-Rex is programmed to eventually proceed to eat me (on screen). That's pretty easy to picture, no? The next step is to imagine that instead of a T-Rex, this AR features Roman soldiers, and instead of eating me, they crucify me. Whose souls do I save?

A possible Christian application of AR may be to model the Trinity experience in order to help (non)believers understand what it means.  Looking at AR from a 3rd person point of view, as in the example of this Samsung billboard, can be a model for the over-seeing perspective (the Father). Looking at the exact same AR through a 1st person view (a la virtual reality) can be a model for the experiential perspective (the Son). The Holy Spirit can be something in between. The software can be designed so that the user can experience a Jesus story in 3 modes, 3 narrative styles, being able to switch between them at any time. The Son is a fully player-controlled avatar, while every other human beings (like those Romans) are NPCs functioning on pre-created AI... (What moral responsibilities does the player have while in a simulation?)

I don't know if that's sacrilegious. I guess the potential controversy lies in the assumption that "if we try to put it in a software model then we devalue God's unknowable workings". But if humans were created in God's image then it is only reasonable to expect that we can (and eventually will) try to do everything that he does. When I was younger and still somewhat religious I believed God to be a version of myself, and having this guy in charge made me feel okay. I believe in different things now but sometimes I still like to entertain this sentiment. It'd be nice to have a software model to help me do that.


Some more related info on the you-can-go-see-it level. You might have heard of this virtual reality tech, the Oculus Rift. You can find out what it is in further details elsewhere on the internet, but basically it is this head-mounted-display that make wearers experience VRs in very immersive ways. The tech has a lot of potential beyond VR gaming. It is being picked up in many fields and devised for all kinds of uses in sciences and arts.  It's exciting to read about, but I think it's also one of those things that you have to try it on to be truly convinced. 

You can't buy it yet but Rotterdam's Het Nieuwe Instituut museum have one for visitors to try. I have tried it. I am convinced. The "game" they have (it's more like an architectural-conceptual project) is a biking simulation, you play by riding on an actual physical bike that's equipped with input devices, while wearing the OR. You can control your in-game directions with the handlebar and your in-game speed with the pedalling. The twist is that you bike in a VR that has incredible colours, scary slopes and crazy gravity. And the experience is REALLY like biking in this strange world. Your physical movements have in-game consequences. Move your head and you can see the virtual world around you. Move your feet faster and you ride faster. Move your hands to turn the handlebar, you make a turn. What the hell. What the hell. This is like, for real, dude.

It helped me to imagine the religious modelling mentioned above. It helped me imagine many things. If this biking experience was possible then a lot of things are too. You can go see it for yourself. It's on the museum's first floor, next to some legos.

Het Nieuwe Instituut came to be as the merge of several organisations in 2013. One of these was the previous Netherlands Architecture Institute. They have developed this smartphone app, Urban Augmented Reality (UAR), that allows you to see the architectural past, present and future of many places in Rotterdam (as well as other cities in the Netherlands). The app is maintained and updated. I need to check it out when I get some of this internet on my phone. If you already have a connected smartphone then you can do it before me. What I have already noticed though, is this ad in the city and its tagline: See what isn't there.

I think it's the perfect starting point for AR applications at large. Why would people want to see something that isn't there? We can think of many reasons, including some religious ones. Maybe AR tech has mad potentials for post-modern new-religious-movements. Can we create a religion simply by designing an AR app? Time may tell.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sunrise Views at Kralingse Zoom Parking Garage

I wrote about how the Kralingse Zoom parking garage is probably a pretty good spot for watching sunset and/or sunrise. I have since seen both. The sunset is not entirely visible because it sets behind the city buildings in the east, you cannot see the moment it goes down. The colours can still be quite impressive if the weather is good and the lights from the sunset act to engulf and delineate the Rotterdam skyline.

The sunrise, though, gives a more instantaneously stimulating visual (as shown in these photos). It's legitimately print-on-calendar stuff. I know that's not the best way to describe any scenery but I guess the sentiment I'm looking for is "objectively beautiful". That's a paradoxical phrasing too. What I really mean is it fits within an average human conception of what beauty is. I have no contention with this ordinary standard. People travel to extraordinary places, climb mountains and hike for hours in search for the ordinarily-beautiful. It excites me to be able to find that kind of beauty in a place as ordinary as a parking garage next to a metro station. It only makes sense, no?

As mentioned in my previous post, the parking garage in open 24/7. The schedule for the sunrise and sunset in the Netherlands is here. You can come to the spot to witness some natural beauty any day (given that it is not too cloudy). Be reminded, of course, to always have protection for your eyes and do not look into the sun otherwise. It can be dazzling and even dangerous

The sunrise and sunset are not the only moments worth seeing. The twilight just before the sunrise has a great vibe of anticipation and the charming sense of an in-between.

You may also direct your attention to the moon. I still have to figure out how to capture it on camera so it doesn't look like a blot of light, but here is a moment (around sunset) where the moon is directly above Capelle's Crystal Buildings.

Surely the magically adept can utilize this setting for some ritualistic visualisations? The movements of the sun and the moon can be, especially at seasonal markings like the equinox or the solstices, symbolically significant. Back in agricultural times, the seasons dictated everyone's agenda. The coming and going of sky entities was the coming and going of life. They were some of our oldest gods.

Have you read that recent news story on how the Chinese government had set up an artificial digital sunrise in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, because the pollution is so terrible that the people cannot see the real thing anymore? It has now been proven to be an imagined story, the product of poor journalistic research. Nevertheless, the story was only plausible because we have developed the means and contexts for this practice. Our technology cannot completely replicate the natural sunrise, but it is capable of creating some kind of representation that is probably good enough for aesthetic purposes. We may argue that the technique of representation itself, or language, is one of our most useful technologies. In representations it is possible to make anything.

The things we can make for real are also pretty impressive. The closest we ever got to REALLY making suns was probably by setting off nuclear bombs. They used to watch those in Las Vegas back in the 50s. The Nevada nuke testing schedules were made public at the time, and Vegas planned parties around the detonations. Typically, at the end of the party around 4am, a bomb would set off and people can witness its thrilling display while sipping on cocktails. You need something strong to chase down deathly sights like that. These were instruments of destruction on scales previously only depicted in myths. It's almost like the work of a new god, except it's just us. Extra scary!