do we know how to look at VR yet?

When we think about the spaces of VR, we almost always focus on the spaces that the VR user (is that the right word?) experiences while they’ve got the headset on. Equally important, though, it seems to me, are the spaces in which the VR experience takes place. This thought was prompted by Davina Jackson (thanks Davina!), who sent me a link to this video:

Quite apart from the rather groovy VR here – it’s called Mutator and it’s the work of William Latham and many colleagues – the video also shows the gallery space in which Mutator was installed, along with the VR users, tethered by cables and surrounded by large panels with images from the VR printed on them.

The spaces in which images are viewed – galleries, living rooms, cinemas, streets, trains – are not only material spaces but also social spaces, in which certain kinds of practices happen, and this includes specific, embodied ways of seeing.

But the viewing space in this video is quite unlike any other in terms of how things are being looked at. The panels suggest a gallery, except that looking at them is not the point of being there and few people are doing that. Nor can the gallery visitors doing the VR move around like you would in a gallery space. It isn’t like watching a film either; these viewers are totally isolated from other viewers when their headset is on, they’re using hand controls, they can’t see anyone else and they’re all probably all looking at something different anyway.

This profoundly unfamiliar viewing environment seems to me to be one of the major issues confronting the future development of VR. The idea that the images produced by many new visual technologies remediate aspects of old types of images is of course well established. Computer-generated images are often made to look like analogue photos, for example. But the same logic applies, often, to the ways in which new kinds of images are seen. Digital family snaps are looked at in much the same ways as analogue snaps. Google Maps on a smartphone is used in ways not entirely dissimilar to printed A to Zs. Illuminated adverts on large billboards framed our viewing of large digital screens. TV viewing was initially a bit like cinema viewing; and ambient TV (to use Anna McCarthy‘s term) was the precursor of our contemporary urban spaces where ambient screens often feel like they’re everywhere, not least in our hands. We learn how to look at new kinds of images in part by adapting the practices through which we encountered older kinds of images.

But what’s the precursor for watching VR? I don’t think there is one. In particular, I can’t think of another kind of viewing where the viewer cannot see anything of the place in which they are doing the viewing. This surely accounts for the feelings of isolation and – potentially – vulnerabilty – that some VR users report.

This uncertainty about the embodied practice of watching VR is also evident in one of the most amazing, boggling adverts currently doing the rounds: Samsung’s advert for what it modestly calls ‘The New Normal’.

A PhD thesis could be written about this ad, really – visuality, technology, domesticity, familiality, tourism, childhood, pedagogy, nature – it’s riddled with fascinating assumptions about all of these. But for now let’s just zoom into the sequence about a minute in, which shows a group of schoolchildren using VR to experience being chased by dinosaurs. (And let’s add ethics to that list of what deserves discussion in this ad.) What the bodies do in the VR experience, with the dinosaurs, is quite different from what they’re shown doing in the classroom. They run with and from dinosaurs in the VR but they’re sitting on the floor in the classroom; and when they are sitting in in dinosaur-world, it’s in a different arrangement from how they’re sitting in classroom-world. That is, the advert can’t align the bodies of the VR users in their VR experience with their material bodies.

Both the gallery goers pictured doing a VR art experience and the advert making VR part of the ‘new normal’, then, are both struggling with the embodied experiencing of VR. It’s not yet clear where VR can be seen appropriately, nor what embodied practices VR requires.  In a sense, then, both are suggesting that we don’t know yet how to look at VR.

swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.

smart-vid

Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

ten top tips for making a smart city promotional video

I’ve just finished writing a chapter discussing the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are pictured in promotional videos. I’ve been working with twenty-one videos, all on YouTube, made by seven US and European companies: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Siemens, Thales and Vinci. The chapter is heading for a collection edited by Karin Fast called Geomedia, out next spring I think. It continues my efforts to think about how cities are being visually mediated in distinctively digital ways, and also in ways that are both representational and operative.

smart-vid

In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.

  1. make sure that your video starts with an aerial view – of the planet or of a city, it doesn’t matter, just make sure you start from on high and zoom in.
  2. ensure that every single image – apart from talking head interviews – moves. Film must picture things moving, animations must constantly transform, and if you’re stuck with having to film something that doesn’t move, overlay some animated graphics onto it.
  3. make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
  4. you must have at least one shot of traffic, at night, streaming through a glowing urban landscape. In fact, make as many things glow and flow as you can.
  5. don’t interview women, unless they are so important that it’s really unavoidable (which means a national CEO or the director of strategy of a national organisation at least). If you have to interview a woman, see if you can get away with not naming her.
  6. use as many kinds of imagery as you possibly can: photorealist aerial views, massing study fly-throughs, panoramas (pan across them), maps with things moving across them, powerpoint bullet points lists (again, these must be animated), app interfaces, systems diagrams, electric circuit notation, documentary video, etc etc etc.
  7. if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
  8. avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
  9. avoid any suggestion that a smart city has surburbs or houses. If you must show a house, make sure there’s a female figure in it either cooking or with a child. In fact, all children must be shown with female figures regardless of location. If you feel like adding a pushchair to your urban scene, make sure it’s being pushed by a female figure, and if the children are in school, ensure the teachers are female.
  10. finally, use music but use it carefully. It must either be uplifting and orchestral, of the we-are-moving-into-glorious-futures kind (though try to avoid it sounding too much like Lord of the Rings); or, preferably, it must be the plinky plonky cutesy sort of soundtrack popularised by Apple some time ago.

Hope that helps, guys…

digital visualities in a spy movie

I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga.  In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month.  So off I went.

Bourne-970-80

Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.

Henry starts his review by saying that:

The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.

Wow.  That’s quite a claim.  But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.

This has various consequences.  For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).

And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens.  (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).

The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too.  They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course).  They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.)  And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.

In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too.  You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true.  But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder.  And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.

And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.

All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film.  No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run.  The camera wheels and pans relentlessly.  It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.

So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.

(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows.  SPOILER ALERT.  Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)

photographing a smart city

MK:Smart is a large ‘smart city’ project based in Milton Keynes in the UK.  It’s hosted by my home institution, The Open University.  Its core work package when it was set up was the development of a open data hub: an repository of all sorts of big data about Milton Keynes, accessible to anyone.  As the project has developed, though, its efforts to enable local people to engage with such an open data source have increased.  One of these efforts is the website OurMK, and the project team also does lots of outreach in local schools.  You can find about more about their work to facilitate ‘smart citizens’ here and some of their publications are listed here.

As part of this engagement work, the MK:Smart team launched a photography competition in December 2015, with prizes for the best photographs picturing Milton Keynes as a smart city.  You can see the finalists here.

I think these photographs raise some fascinating questions about how a smart city is visualised by its residents (or, more accurately, what the judges thought were the best ways some residents had pictured a smart city).  Nineteen photographs made it to the final stage – not many, so I should be careful about drawing any big interpretive conclusions from them.  On the other hand, as I’ve remarked before, one of the liberating things about writing a blog is that sometimes the robust methodological procedures of the social sciences can be laid to one side and a little more speculative thinking permitted…

Car Park Drama

Car Park Drama by Suzanna Raymond. Suzanna’s caption read: The way the car park is integrated into the shopping centre looks like a smart design to me, making it an integral part of the layout rather then just a space added on as an afterthought.

So one thing that struck me immediately about these nineteen was how so many of them focus on the landscape of Milton Keynes, and especially on its ‘natural’ landscape: trees, parks, canals, lakes, skies.  There are no pictures of servers or data hubs or smartphones (though there are two photos of electric car charging points, one of a bus charging wirelessly and one of solar panels).

This preference for picturing a smart city as a green city perhaps speaks to the distinctive history of Milton Keynes.  Milton Keynes was designed as a new city in the late 1960s and early 1970s with plenty of experiments in (and symbols of) more sustainable living: houses powered by solar energy, cycle ways paralleling the roads, a dial-a-bus service, a tree cathedral… the whole city is full of trees and parks and is oriented along a ley line! Milton Keynes has a strong sense of itself as green, then, and these photographs might be speaking to that sense of place. The photos perhaps also draw on a rather English preference for rural landscapes, gardens and parks.

The other thing that struck me about the photographs was the way they display the sort of visual aesthetic that seems increasingly common in many digital images, which is a kind of glow against darkness, whether that’s lights gleaming at dusk or (elsewhere) live data feeds pulsating across a black background.  No less than seven are taken around sunset, and one more makes a striking play between a sky darkened by clouds and a golden building.

So, possibly, what we have in this admittedly tiny sample of photographs is an interesting play between what someone like Lev Manovich might suggest is an increasingly widespread visual aesthetic, driven by the extensive use of digital image creation/editing software – even a global visual aesthetic – and something that’s may be much more local, attuned to the specific histories of this particular city and its sense of place.

Now, of course, as Doreen Massey would immediately have pointed out, there’s no clear distinction between the local and the global.  Many of the ideas behind Milton Keynes, and implicit in its first visualisations, were imported by its architects from the west coast of the USA, for example, and I’ve already suggested that a love of rural landscape may be as much English as anything to do with Milton Keynes.  But it’s precisely this play between the new and the old, between existing ways of seeing and of making images with new ways of seeing and making, that I find so fascinating in this small collection of photographs.

 

 

picturing the users of driverless pods in smart cities

I’ve posted before on this blog about the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are being pictured through some pretty sophisticated digital visualisations.  The Crystal exhibition space on sustainable cities built by Siemens in London has an extended digital film showing ‘Future Life’ in New York, London and Copenhagen, which is a good example of some of the techniques that seem to be emerging when a lot of resource can be devoted to high-end imagery.  I’m particularly struck in the Crystal film by the way photographic imagery of the city is literally made to fade away, revealing the glowing skeleton of a digital city, which is then controlled by smiling shadowy figures swiping and tapping in response to real-time data flows.

More prosaic – but currently reaching much wider audiences than the Crystal film  – are the images created to picture the driverless pods that currently seem to be the public face of smart city technology in the UK.  Discussion of the pods seems to be almost entirely focused on their safety – how do cars without human drivers avoid crashing into things?* – though apparently there are issues with how to insure driverless cars too.

In this, the discussion of driverless cars, or pods, or autonomous vehicles, seems to be taking the same direction as so much other current discussion about smart urban technologies, which is a focus on the technology at the expense of the thinking about the complex social context in which it is expected to work.  At least, the media discussion based on press releases announcing pilot projects with the pods seems to be uninterested in how different people might engage with driverless pods differently.  A set of visuals – which I think were released by the UK Department of Business and Skills as part of recent announcements about more funding to test the pods in three British cities – suggest a rather different story, though.

mk pod snowdome

There aren’t that many people in the futuristic landscapes chosen as backdrops for the pods (this is the Snowdome in Milton Keynes).  But when people do appear…

mk pod exec

… they seem to be almost entirely men.  Business men.  Presumably men with no time to lose driving themselves, looking for parking spaces or waiting for taxis.  Not women.  Or parents with a two toddlers, a buggy and the weekly shop.  Nor an elderly person with mobility difficulties.

I did find one image with a woman.

mk pods diagram

She’s not actually in the pod, in fact, but once again she’s in business, wearing a suit and a carrying a briefcase.  The imagined users of driverless pods don’t seem to be that diverse, then.  Sigh.  Indeed, the imagery seems to be suggesting that the people who most want efficient transport are business people, even that business is what deserves efficiency most.

What’s also quite interesting in this last visual – which comes from the Sunday Times newspaper – is the trope of opacity/transparency.  High digital tech in this image, just as in the Crystal film, is signified (though not really explained) by going beneath the surface and revealing the glowing, flowing tech below.  And also, there are those orange-y rays in the graphic which are meant to show various forms of digital information: ‘talk’ between pods, says the graphic, or sensors at work.  This also seems to be an emerging trope of smart city visualisations: information flow through wireless technologies, the generation of data, is made visible by things that look a bit like radiating circles.  In animated visuals, they are often pulses (Shannon Mattern, in her great talk on urban interfaces for the Programmable Cities project – available here – jokes about IBM’s exploding blue circles in their smart city animations).  Sensors, smartphones, pods: all pulse information in the smart city, which creates the data from which so-called ‘smart’ decisions will be made.

So is a visual language for bringing aspects of smart technology into visibility beginning to emerge?  If so, it raises a challenge to the persistent trope to be found in a lot of critical digital studies on the invisibility of code and digital infrastructure.  In these images, aspects of smart are being made visible.  The issue then might not be making smart tech visible per se, but the kinds of visibility it is envisioned through and who it’s being envisioned for.

* the answer: a lot more effectively than cars with human drivers…

racism, cartoons, and the uneven distribution of rights in the visual field

I had started to think about how to write a post on the cartoons carried by Charlie Hebdo, but then I found this piece by Mustafa Dikeç on the Environment and Planning D: Society and Space blog.  I hope Mustafa won’t mind if I simply quote a paragraph from his eloquent and incisive essay which, among other things, makes it clear that, in a context where there is no agreement on what it is proper to render visible, that context is not simply the right to be able to picture whatever you like.  The appropriate context to think through should also include deeply embedded racism, which inflects the visual field such that some groups’ rights not to see certain kinds of images can be ignored with impunity.  Here is Mustafa:

It is one thing to criticise powerful and dominant groups in a society, another to constantly take the piss out of its most stigmatised by mocking their dearly held religious beliefs. The misdemeanours of Islamists and the abuses of Islam to mobilise hatred and violence are already widely criticised in the Muslim world. Even without the help of French May 1968 inheritors, many courageous people in Muslim countries are themselves capable of criticising, through mockery, such aberrations made in the name of Islam, without recourse to what one journalist called, with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic cartoons, ‘repeated pornographic humiliation’ of this religion, its prophet and followers. Charlie Hebdo was right to practice and insist on freedom of speech, but it was far from even-handed in its attack on organised religions…Especially after 9/11, as a former Charlie Hebdo journalist wrote in 2013, an ‘Islamophobic neurosis gradually took hold’ in the journal. If the whole point of satire, vulgar or not, is to criticise uses and abuses of power, just what a cartoon depicting a naked Muslim prophet asking ‘Do you like my butt?’ achieves remains obscure…

An excellent reminder, if one were needed, that the politics of visuality lie not only in how things are represented but also whether they are represented.

we’re all cultural studies scholars now?

Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general.  For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.

Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):

thornberry

In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.

On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless.  It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter.  Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility.  Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.

Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well.  So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied.  The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people.  And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.

Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of  social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors.  As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”.  She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.

But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation.  Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded.  The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar.  And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?