Augmented Reality

“Early cinema held an instant fascination with the train, as is evident from the numerous actualities of engines entering and leaving stations, including the famous Lumière brothers film L’Arrivée d’un Train (1896). In the train, cinema found a technology to rival its own wonders, and early train films are often records of one modern technology marvelling at the other. It was a relationship that in a way began decades earlier; through the train carriage window, passengers were offered a cinematic experience years before the emergence of cinema itself. With the ‘phantom ride’, these two technologies were fused together to produce an all-new cinema spectacle.

“Phantom rides were films shot from the very front of moving trains. The films would present the journey from the train’s perspective, capturing the approaching track, surrounding landscape and the passage through tunnels. To obtain these films, cameramen would literally tie themselves and their cameras to the buffer of a speeding train. From this position, the film would appear to be moving by aid of an invisible force, hence the name ‘phantom ride’ by which they soon came to be known. The first phantom ride, The Haverstraw Tunnel, was made in America in 1897. The concept quickly caught on in Britain and would become one of the most popular forms of early cinema…

“As was standard practice at the time, the films would only last a few minutes at most, and would have been part of a programme of similarly short actualities, comedies and trick-films. But in 1906 a number of specialised cinemas, under the banner ‘Hale’s Tours of the World‘, opened across Britain, styling themselves in the manner of a train carriage and offering trips to ‘the Colonies or any part of the world (without luggage!)’ for sixpence. These cinemas took the realism of phantom rides to another level: the benches would shake and the images would be accompanied by the sounds of hissing steam and train whistles. In effect, the Hale’s Tour is an ancestor of the sophisticated rides simulating space travel or flight in many fairgrounds and amusement parks today. There were four of these cinemas in London (two of them on Oxford Street), while others appeared in Nottingham, Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol.”

Text: Christian Hayes, Phantom Rides, BFI Screen Online.
Video: View from an Engine Front – Barnstaple (1898)

The Stranger

“The idea of creating messages to send on interstellar space probes seems both obvious and completely absurd. On the one hand, we might ask, ‘why not?’ On the other, saying ‘yes’ to messages on space probes and taking the ensuing questions seriously opens up a mind-boggling series of problems. Trying to communicate with aliens asks us to consider the limits of representation, the status of the ‘universal’ and the West’s generally ethnocentric, even anthropocentric, assumptions about other beings and cultures. It asks us to address the problem of multiplicities speaking univocally, and involves the indignities associated with speaking for others. If we try to speak to aliens, every manner of formal and ethical conundrum follows. Irresolvable paradoxes and contradictions emerge; one way or another, trying to communicate with aliens means asking, and answering, impossible questions.

“So who is the audience for the Golden Record (besides, of course, those of us here on earth)? Human imagination of extraterrestrials from both scientific literature and popular culture generally falls into two categories. The first is what we might call the ‘alien-stranger’ — this is an extraterrestrial that is not human, but which shares many characteristics with humans (roughly similar senses, language, capacity for abstract and symbolic thought, individuals organised into social units and so forth). The alien-stranger is the alien of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the panoply of beings in the Star Trek franchise that emerged in the mid-1960s.

manwhofelltoearth

“Lomberg’s ‘insoluble problem’ emerges in relation to a different figure of the alien, a figure we might call the ‘alien-alien’. This is an alien that is truly and radically nonhuman, with few if any overlaps in communication strategies, thought and sense experience. In literature and film, the figure of the alien-alien appears in stories such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Fiasco (1987), and to an extent in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972). Humans can barely recognise the alien-alien as a life form, let alone meaningfully communicate with it. Stories in which humans encounter the alien-alien usually end in one of two ways: either the humans and alien-alien can’t recognise one another and, confused, go their separate ways, or they kill each other, often without even realising it. To design a message for the figure of the alien-alien is by definition impossible; doing so would mean being able to think radically unhuman thoughts, and to imagine beyond the limits of human imagination.

“Therefore the audience for the Golden Record can only be the alien-stranger, a species broadly similar to humans. If this is so, then Samaras’s critique of the Golden Record may hold. Perhaps it is true that the LP recapitulates some of the more troubling legacies of humanism, echoing the French mission civilisatrice, used to justify European colonial rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or even the more recent US ‘liberations’ of Afghanistan and Iraq. But could it have been otherwise? Is it even theoretically possible to compose a message for extraterrestrials with the stated goals of the Golden Record group, namely ‘a full picture of earth and its inhabitants’? Of course not. Any ‘complete’ representation of earth’s geologic, biological, chemical, scientific and cultural diversity would inevitably result in a map of the type envisioned by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’ (‘On Exactitude in Science’, 1946) — a representation at least the size, or even a great deal larger, than that which it seeks to represent…”

Text: ‘Friends of Space, How Are You All? Have You Eaten Yet?’ Or, Why Talk to Aliens Even if We Can’t, Trevor Paglen. Afterall.org.

Image: David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1976.

WARN: There Is Another System

“…Technology in science fiction film does appear to be limited, by-and-large, to trends in real-world technology. Early films depict computers as monolithic, mainframe-like entities. Over time, depictions of the computer become more ubiquitous and more commingled with everyday human life. 2001 and THX 1138, for example, each feature what could be considered mainframe computers. Furthermore, computer monitors in such early films are generally monochrome CRTs, and input devices are primarily push-buttons. Later depictions of computers, as in Minority Report, feature computers that blend into the environment and whose interfaces are sometimes hard to discern. This trend is more or less similar to the real trend in computer technologies.

“However, while depictions of technology in the films largely follow trends in real-world technology, there were a number of notable exceptions to the rule. Such cases are informative both in illustrating misconceptions filmmakers had about the future in terms of technology, as well as in illuminating areas in which technology has not advanced as far as expected. Take, for example, the notion of future computing being characterized by room-sized computers. Depictions like these illustrate a future view of computer technology that software and microprocessors have helped redefine, of course, but it remains telling that early filmmakers did not anticipate at least a move to smaller computers. The same could be said for depictions of the Internet — developments like the Internet are sometimes retrospectively viewed as a natural, almost predictable evolution in technology, yet this natural evolution was not anticipated by early filmmakers. Both examples illustrate the dramatic, difficult
to anticipate changes that characterized computing in the latter half of the 20th century. On the other end of the spectrum—technology that has not advanced as far as expected—we find computers with extremely high functioning artificial intelligence (e.g., 2001) and humanoid robots (e.g., THX 1138 and AI). In fact, these are common elements in science fiction film dating back to at least Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Such depictions of technology are interesting counterbalances to other technologies presented in the same films that are low-tech in comparison (e.g., monochrome monitors or push-button interfaces). This observation has implications for the real world. Technology, it seems, advances in unpredictable ways. In 20 years, there will likely be new technologies that completely redefine the way we interact with one another, and yet we will just as likely continue to struggle with any number of technology issues whose resolution seem within reach today.

“Lastly, and perhaps related to the previous point, it is telling that depictions of computer technologies in science fiction film typically have more polish and function far more seamlessly than computer technologies in real life. Norman notes that one large difference between computer technologies today and how they were presented in 2001 is how flawlessly the depicted technology works. In film, software is not burdened with usability issues and computers rarely crash. Indeed, this observation extends to nearly all the science fiction films examined in this study; rarely did people have trouble using a computer or computer technology, even in films presenting a dystopian future. This may be yet another way in which computer technology has advanced (or stagnated) in unpredictable ways.”

Text: Jerrod Larson, “Limited imagination: Depictions of computers in science fiction film”, Futures 40, (2008) 293–299.

Image: Colossus: The Forbin Project, 1970.

Near Mercury

“Sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film: voices of characters, sounds made by objects in the story music represented as coming from instruments in the story space ( = source music). Diegetic sound is any sound presented as originated from source within the film’s world Diegetic sound can be either on screen or off screen depending on whatever its source is within the frame or outside the frame. Diegesis is a Greek word for “recounted story”. The film’s diegesis is the total world of the story action.”

Text: Diegetic & Non-Diegetic Sounds. Filmsound.org

Dead Eyes Open

“One of Jules Verne’s later Voyages Extraordinaires titled Les Freres Kip (The Kip Brothers, 1902) features in its conclusion a somewhat curious scientific concept-yet one which was quite popular during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth: the notion that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death remains imprinted upon the retina of the eye.

“The fictional setting in Verne’s novel where this theory comes into play is as follows:

“A certain Captain Harry Gibson of the English freighter James Cook has been stabbed to death. On the strength of circumstantial evidence, two brothers named Karl and Pieter Kip are promptly arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Photos of the dead body are taken; in particular, snapshots of the victim’s head (with eyes open). An acquaintance of the victim asks the photographer for an enlargement of the head photo as a memento of his dead friend. The photographer agrees and makes several copies of the portrait, giving one to the victim’s family as well. Upon seeing the enlarged photo of his slain father, the young Nat Gibson is seized with grief and bends over to kiss it-and suddenly discerns two small points of light in the eyes of the photo. He examines these with a strong magnifyingglass and discovers therein the faces of the real murderers:two villainous sailors from the James Cook whom the police had initially suspected but against whom no hard evidence could be found. The real culprits are now arrested and condemned; the Kip brothers are vindicated; and the novel concludes with Justice served and the status quo happily reestablished.

“In his final chapter, Verne (always the pedagogue) explains to the reader the “scientific”basis for this pivotal discovery:

“For some time now it has been known-as a result of various interesting ophthalmologic experiments done by certain ingenious scientists,authoritative observers that they are- that the image of exterior objects imprinted upon the retina of the eye are conserved there indefinitely. The organ of vision contains a particular substancer, retinal purple,on which is imprinted in their exact form these images.They have even been perfectly reconstituted when the eye, after death, is removed and soaked in an alum bath.”

“It is likely that Verne gleaned this tidbit of ocular physiology from any one of the various newspapers, scientific journals, or encylopedias available to him in fin-de-siecle France-like the Gazette Medicale, for example, or the L’Encyclopedie franchise d’ophtalmologie by Lagrange and Valude-which offer detailed descriptions of this phenomenon (the latter of which, in particular,bears some resemblance to Verne’s own)…

“Undoubtedly, the rapidtechnological advancesmade in (and the growing popularity of) photography throughout this period also served to highlight these discoveries and to introduce them into public awareness. After all, the lesson seemed simple and very straight forward: the retina functioned like the photographic plate of a camera, therefore the final image viewed before death should remain fixed forever-like a photo-within the dead person’s eyes. It also came to be believed (as a logical extension of this hypothesis) that if death were to occur at a moment when the pupils of the eyes were hugely dilated-e.g., because of fear, surprise, anger or some other strong emotion-the retinal optograms of the deceased would be even clearer,more detailed, and easier to “develop.”

“Popular belief in these “facts” became so widespread during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that some police departmentsbegan to take close-up photographsof the eyes of murder victims in the hope of identifying their murderers. The most cel- ebrated of such cases involvedScotland Yard’sinvestigationof the infamous Jack-the-Ripper murders in Whitehall, London in 1888. One historian, in describing these events, notes:

In an attempt to be scientific,the police pried open Annie Chapman’s dead eyes and photographed them,in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing shesaw.But no images were found. (Stewart-Gordon121).

Text: Arthur B. Evans, “Optograms and Fiction: Photo in a Dead Man’s Eye, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1993), pp. 341-361.

Image: New York City crime scene, 1914-1918, New York City Municipal Archive.