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TRANSFORMATIONS: The Spore Evolves

Well, I’m torn. Shall I go to the presentation on “Hair shells and bi-quad transition rig on Shrek the Halls and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” or to the “Humanizing virtual agents: the role of speech technology in effective human-machine interaction?” Maybe if they made a rule that titles had to be short, like “Beards and boundaries” and “Talk to me, Mac,” I would feel less anxiety about making these choices.

Pervasive computing gets the upper hand.

Russell Bekins reports from the VIEW Conference in Turin

Well, I’m torn. Shall I go to the presentation on “Hair shells and bi-quad transition rig on Shrek the Halls and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” or to the “Humanizing virtual agents: the role of speech technology in effective human-machine interaction?” All of this requires a certain mind-set. Maybe if they made a rule that titles had to be short, like “Beards and boundaries” and “Talk to me, Mac,” I would feel less anxiety about making these choices. More...Here at the VIEW Conference, one gets a gleeful feeling at being a geek, because the titles of the presentations are so specific. I begin to wonder: am I transforming into a geek myself, or simply letting my geek flag fly?

There is no better place to do so at this conference than at the PEACH conference (upstairs from the main floor), where researchers and professionals gather on either side of a wretched video projector tower placed smack in the middle of the room and struggle to explain the intimacies of their particular area of research. “It’s coordinated effort for future and emerging technologies aiming to support the presence community,” explains Giulio Ruffini, the coordinator of the program. What is presence, other than what one looks for in a future movie star? “Presence,” continues Ruffini, “refers the ‘qualia’ in Latin, the subjective experience of being somewhere with someone.”

I must have stared blankly, because he carried on, “it’s kind of like an existential thing – pretty powerful and vague. We don’t know what it means at some level.”

Now we’re talking sense.

Yet the more you talk with the engineers and researchers at this conference, the more enthusiastic you become, and the more they begin to sound like the folks building the frame for the house that the games and films guys are going to go live in after a few years. The PEACH program is an acronym for Presence Research in Action and has three main areas of study: Human-Machine interfacing sensors, human cognition and the neuroscience of a physical machine interface (there were three different companies showing off brain wave control hardware and software) and artificial intelligence agents.

“I think it’s a fantastic forum for companies to develop synergies,” says Pilar Manchon of Sevilla-based Indisys, a company that develops interactive agents. “Three of the companies similar to what I do are focused on graphical interface. I have the brain and they have the good looks."

Wow. It’s starting to sound like a dating service.

But a dating service with industry research heavyweights like Phil Stenton of HP Lab in Bristol. “If you think of where the Internet is going,” Stenton tells us, “cloud computing, semantic web net… sensing technology, it’s all about delivering the right thing at the right moment.” This pervasive computing approach is quietly being constructed in these sessions. Where else is someone going to run down for you the entire history of text-to-speech research?

Meanwhile in the other conference downstairs, the one that seemed to be run by the Americans, Jim Waldo of Sun Microsystems is busy transforming people into avatars http://www.projectdarkstar.com. In his presentation of scaling online games for open source, he spoke about how cool (not to mention green) it is to walk into a colleague’s office and chat about a project even though your collaborator is on the other coast.So far, no discussion as to whether you get to smell your co-worker in the next iteration of the system.

Wright tears down the wall between creator and game player.

Without a doubt, however, the most exciting talk of the day was that of Will Wright, the brain behind The Sims, who presented his new game Spore, which has become something of a cultural phenomenon. “In the two months since its release, 45,000,000 characters have been uploaded to our site,” Wright says, somewhat boggled by the result. The game involves creating species through out the universe, terra-forming planets and seeing if you can make these sentient creatures survive. The exciting element is the character design interface, which is a gas to work. It allows the player to create alien species, which can be anything from funny to spooky, and within twenty clicks the player engaged in the god-like act of species creation.

Wright did not shirk from his moment in the sun to wax eloquent about the importance of releasing the creativity in – well everyone. “The world used to be a much simpler place,” he affirmed. “The number of people involved in creating content as opposed to those consuming it remained quite low.” The transition is now arriving with YouTube, Rock Band and (now) Spore. He is positively giddy about their success in giving players more leverage; optimize the number of consumers involved in producing games. “It’s a really interesting time,” he points out. “Various threads of culture (music, movies, games) collapsing into one thread.”

So far at the VIEW Conference, one gets the idea that one might just be on the right forum at the right time.

Tomorrow: Glen Entis of EA and PDI-DreamWorks looks into the future.

Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.

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