#17: Robotic human tails | Drip, drip, drip | Bauhaus pseudo-synchronicity

art | science | digital culture | design | creativity | words | tech

In which we mention (but not in this order): accelerationism, the Bauhaus, binge-racing, biomimicry, Brasília, the Ghan, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Hurtigruten, the pitch drop experiment, seahorses, slow, and synchronicity.

tech | art | science | design

Robotic tails made for humans

What would happen to the way we move in the world if we had tails? It’s a topic that some of our students were exploring in our Wearable Technology class a few weeks ago. Just now across my feed comes Arque exhibited at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles last week.

It uses biomimicry, the copying of concepts and forms from the biological world, to augment the human body with a tail. The most obvious creature you’d probably copy (especially if you’re Australian) is the kangaroo due to being able to easily imagine the jump (so to speak) between kangaroo and human form.

However, the researchers used the seahorse tail for inspiration for a variety of reasons, some of which are mentioned in the video above. The whole thing is pneumatically controlled, which means it needs a relatively bulky air compressor. It’s not a quite a strap-on-and-go device quite yet. (If you were reading last week, you would have seen how pneumatics were used for a VR glove without needing an air compressor. Unfortunately, that tech doesn’t scale up to this project.)

The researchers experimented with a few different applications. The first was to use the tail as a stabilisation mechanism, which many animals do. It would sense the body’s centre of gravity shifting and then compensate to keep the body balanced. The second was to use it as a kind of haptic (touch-based) feedback in virtual reality settings. Say you’re flying through the air in VR and you are buffeted by wind: this device could apply a force to your body so you felt that buffeting to match what you were seeing through your visor.

There’s lots of fun potential in this one although it might be a while before people are wearing them in public looking like robo-roos.

digital culture | creativity | design

Forming the world in slow drips

A few days ago, I saw a headline for a story in Wired magazine “In Praise of Euphoria, the Perfect Anti-Binge TV Show”. I didn’t read the article at the time but it got me to thinking again about the experience of slow. I’ve mentioned slow before in this newsletter, in the context of the advantages of doing nothing and a slow 3D printing project I’m working on.

Bingeing TV has been shown to have significant effects on our health (delaying sleep, sitting too long, convenience snacking), relationships (lack of socialisation, reduction in sex between couples), and neurochemistry (addictive dopamine hits from bingeing TV series). And yet Netflix has data that shows the majority of subscribers binge watch series, even commenting a few years back on the phenomenon of “binge racing” where people try to be the first to get through the entireties of newly released series, usually within 24 hours of release. Netflix has also found that 58% of viewers binge watch with their pets and

“More than a third of respondents (37%) have moved where they were sitting so their pet would be more comfortable, 22% have bribed them with treats to watch longer, and some (12%) have even gone so far as turning off a show because their pet didn't appear to like it.”

What kinds of responses might there be to binge watching, specifically online? I can think of a few relevant endeavours, whether intentionally designed to address this or not.

One of the first real breakout Web TV series, which was written during the Hollywood Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08, was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was released in three episodes free online. The first episode was available for streaming for two days then removed, episode 2 for two days and removed, and episode 3 for one day and removed. The whole series wasn’t available again until some time later. So although it was still watching a few episodes in a few days, the schedule forced a certain watching pattern. I watched it on the original release schedule and found it a surprisingly unusual and seductive experience.

In a very different vein, artist Bryan Boyer observed that the city of Brasília was designed to be “read” at the speed of a moving vehicle and that pedestrians had a kind of slow motion experience of the city. As a way of “celebrating slowness”,

“I wondered whether a film could be consumed at the speed of reading a book—just as a city like Brasília can be enjoyed on foot.”

He created the Very Slow Movie Player (VSMP). Instead of 24 frames per second, it plays 24 frames per hour, a slowing to 1/3600 of the original speed. He makes some very interesting observations about how this slow motion experience plays out in the world, reconnecting a film with the surrounding environment, making the film place-specific among other effects.

A different kind of slow viewing involves the Guinness World Record for longest running experiment: the University of Queensland pitch drop. Since it began in 1927, nine drops of the pitch have fallen from a funnel. Prior to the ninth drop, which fell in 2014, the university set up a live stream of the experiment (“The Ninth Watch”) in the hope that somebody might see the drop fall live. Nobody ever has seen a drop event live, and nobody did in 2014 either, despite more than 35,000 viewers from 160 countries registering to watch. Those viewers logged a total of 736,447 hours of viewing time. The video feed is a continuous stream but the “action” will only occur once every decade or so. (The rate has been slowing, likely due to a few reasons. The next drop is expected in the 2020s.) It’s a slow process that can be dipped into, but the live unrecorded nature gives it a certain quality.

An additional aside: A “slow TV” movement began in Norway with Hurtigruten, a live broadcast of the 134 hour boat trip from Bergen to Kirkenes. This has been replicated in a few forms including Australia’s first effort early in 2019 with the The Ghan: The Full Journey, a 16.5 hour video of the The Ghan train journey from Adelaide to Darwin. (I’m quite tickled by the fact that the website for the The Ghan show calls it Season 1, Episode 1.)

My efforts underway with slow 3D printing are a reaction to the pressure to always increase speeds, to make things more efficient. Reactions to the quickening of life can involve creating a kind of negative feedback process that keeps things stable. My work is not about that fundamentally conservative process. If you buy into the philosophy of accelerationism, it isn’t possible anyway. (For what it’s worth, I’m tempted to agree more with “Left-accelerationism” of the variants proposed.)

I’m more inclined to explore what slowing down means for our experience and understanding of the world, including the things we create in it. (To me, this is the key feature of Boyer’s video project.) What different things can we create when we make them slowly, not because we are constrained by technology, but because we choose to use technology in that way?

This leads me to a thought experiment for a technological implementation. Can we fairly simply create a mechanism for slowly dripping our media creations out in the world? What interface would it have? One option would be something like getting a series of emails/notifications/tweets at particular times with each including a link to the latest episode but the link expires and prevents the content being revealed outside the time of the link being active and the content is not available any other way. The process should allow any individual to begin on demand, but not change the pace of, pause, or perhaps even stop.

Anything you send over the internet can be recorded, stored, and recompiled, so this only really works if the effort required to re-assemble the parts is considerably more difficult than the reward you would get from doing it. Some of the tech is in place already: expiring links have been well implemented so it probably just requires connecting them to notification mechanisms and content delivery. Easier said than done perhaps, but it seems to be not too hard in principle.

Back to Euphoria: I don’t think I’ll watch the show because the subject matter looks more disturbing than what I want to deal with in TV form. That original article also seems to be mostly about the need for time to absorb what has been in the show. It’s a somewhat different process to what I’m interested as the viewer can still choose the pace and binge if they want. It does remind us that there are media operating within our current bingeable framework that make us stop and think about whether that is the best way to go.

art | design | science | words

Happening upon a coincidence of Bauhaus

Why does Bauhaus keep coming up in this newsletter? It’s probably a case of what I think of as pseudo-synchronicity. Carl Jung wrote about synchronicity as the idea that events can be connected by meaning rather than causality. That makes my skeptical alert system start blinking rapidly, and it seems to me that what we perceive as synchronicity is probably a kind of confirmation bias (we recognise coincidental sets of events rather than other sets of unrelated events even though each is statistically likely) or a kind of apophenia, which is the human tendency to observe patterns where there are none.

The reason why I think of this as pseudo-synchronicity rather than rejecting the whole idea and term of synchronicity outright is that even though these events are not connected by meaning as such, we sometimes create meaning from observing these coincidental events. The meaning we create from the events is a kind of reverse of Jung’s idea of the events being created by meaning.

This bout of pseudo-synchronicity for me has just been enhanced by noticing three new writings about the Bauhaus and an extra coincidence.

The first is a book review in the Washington Post, “Looking back at a Bauhaus artist who tried to bridge the gap between science and art”. The book itself is “Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus”.

The second was the recent discovery that “Centerbook: The Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Evolution of Art-Science-Technology at MIT” is about to be published. CAVS, the subject of the book, was founded by Kepes at MIT in 1946.

The third is an article in Nature, “The Bauhaus at 100: science by design”. It is a nice discussion of how the Bauhaus school drew links between fields including art and science.

The fourth is the realisation after happening on all of these writings on the same day that I had spoken briefly about Walter Gropius to my Masters media theory students a few days prior, in the context of an extended discussion of Le Corbusier’s architectural philosophy. Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus school.

There is an alternative explanation of this apparent pseudo-synchronicity: we are 100 years after the founding of the Bauhaus school, which of course leads to more writings about it. The numerology of round numbers is inevitably appealing! However, in previous newsletters, I have been making connections to Bauhaus-related project and ideas from the past that were not brought back to attention due to the anniversary and I hadn’t realised it was the anniversary! So I’m letting my own cognitive biases count this as pseudo-synchronicity.

If it is, and if I buy into my own definition of pseudo-synchronicity, what meaning am I creating through this observation? Just that the whole idea of the Bauhaus is more significant to the way I think and research than I perhaps had appreciated. It’s not a huge amount of meaning in one sense but maybe it’s a particularly meaningful meaning, if you follow my drift.

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