April 30, 2012
A couple of weeks ago audiences at the Coachella music festival got to see Tupac perform live (NSFW language), despite the fact that he’s been dead for fifteen years. Countless websites have already dissected why the technology used to create this “Tupac hologram” isn’t actually a hologram, but rather a Pepper’s Ghost effect that dates back to the mid-19th century, so I won’t get into that. But the other fascinating element to this story is the fact that we can now RESURRECT OUR FAVORITE ENTERTAINERS FROM THE DEAD.
Bringing back popular entertainers was the promise of the future in the 1980s and ’90s. As computer graphics improved in the 1980s (with movies like Tron) and then in the 1990s (with movies like Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park) people imagined that actors like Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and even a Laurence Olivier/Abraham Lincoln mash-up would be able to star in the computer-enhanced movies of tomorrow.
Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 book July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century includes a fictional movie listing for the year 2019:
Still Gone with the Wind. The sequel picks up several years after where the 80-year-old original left off, with Rhett and Scarlett reuniting in their middle age, in 1880. Features the original cast (Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh) and studio sets resurrected by computer graphic synthesis. Still Gone sets out to prove that they do make ‘em like they used to (Selznick Theater, 2:00 and 8:00 P.M.)
The June, 1987 issue of Omni magazine featured an article by Marion Long, who spoke with six directors to get their ideas for the kinds of movies that they would want to direct in the year 2001. One of the directors that Long spoke to was Susan Seidelman, who in 1987 directed a movie called Making Mr. Right starring John Malkovich.
Seidelman’s hypothetical movie of the year 2001 was called Yankee Doodle Sweetheart, and was imagined as starring Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, Debra Winger and Jimmy Stewart. Marilyn Monroe had been dead for 25 years by the time this article came out, and though Jimmy Stewart didn’t die until 1997, he was still pictured as playing a much more youthful (and completely computer-generated) version of himself. The synopsis of the film is below:
Seidelman electronically recreates Marilyn Monroe. The sex goddess of the Fifties plays a showgirl off to the front lines of a war on a Bob Hope USO tour. In sharp contrast to Monroe’s innocence and naivete stands Debra Winger, a military nurse acutely aware of the horrors of war. But this is Monroe’s story—her coming-of-awareness. Robert De Niro, a Marine sergeant deadened to human emotion, wants one thing: the showgirl. So does his friend, a young recruit, played a computer-simulated Jimmy Stewart. Monroe falls in love with—you’ll have to see the film.
The 1982 book The Omni Future Almanac also imagined even more radical computer creations, being able to include the acting skills of one actor with the appearance of another historical figure:
It is possible that dramatic performances, even actors’ lines, will be altered, via computer synthesis, yielding a perfect first “take” every time. Some actors, specifically character types, might be totally synthesized. One actor’s performance might easily be combined with another person’s distinctive physical look or voice. By using computer synthesis, a director would be able to marry the acting skills of Laurence Olivier to photographic images of Abraham Lincoln.
Marilyn Monroe popped up a number of times in predictions about future movies, which may have had something to do with the fact that she died so young—she was just 36 years old. A 1993 article in the San Francisco Examiner predicted that one day, “dead actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe could be ‘resurrected’ by using computers to generate their visages and act out scenes they never did,” while the following year, Popular Mechanics ran a story that also featured Marilyn Monroe. The March, 1994 issue had an article called “Beyond Jurassic Park,” which predicted a world of resurrected movie stars now that Jurassic Park had shown just how far computer graphics had come.
Marilyn Monroe moves smoothly under a red kimono, and the audience gasps with delight. The scene cuts to Marilyn seated in a swinging trapeze far above the ground. Her face is animated and happy, platinum hair flying in the breeze and her short skirt flipping up over her sleek, attractive thighs.
As in her previous life, nobody really knows this Marilyn. This Marilyn is a computer construct—a proof-of-concept synthetic human actor used to advance the science and art of realistic 3D digital animation.
The 1990s saw TV advertisements wherein Fred Astaire danced with a vacuum cleaner and John Wayne drank beer, long after both had passed away, but it seems the “Tupac hologram” has for those of the 2010s revived interest in the idea that we might see our favorite celebrities perform for us once again.
There’s speculation that Michael Jackson may be next to take the stage from beyond the grave. Or that maybe a digital Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes will allow TLC to reunite. But allow me to be the first to request a “hologram Sheb Wooley.” Because why not, that’s why.
And, what about you? If you were making a computer-enhanced film, who would be in your dream cast of living and dead actors?
April 27, 2012
New York has the Statue of Liberty, St. Louis has the Gateway Arch and Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign.
It seems rather fitting that the landmark most emblematic of Los Angeles — a city built on glitz and showmanship — is an advertisement.
If you’re at all familiar with the history of the Hollywood sign, you’ll likely remember that it started as an ad for a new housing development in 1923 called Hollywoodland. Using 4,000 light bulbs, the sign was illuminated at night and flashed in three succeeding segments: first “holly,” then “wood,” and then “land.” The sign would then light up in its entirety, all 4,000 light bulbs piercing through the dark of night to the city below.
Los Angeles didn’t invent outdoor advertising (that distinction may belong to the ancient Egyptians, who would post papyrus notices of rewards offered for runaway slaves), but it certainly played a prominent role in the city’s history and its visions of the future. As the automobile took the city by storm in the first half of the 20th century, it became increasingly necessary for advertisers to make their billboards larger so that speeding motorists wouldn’t miss their message.
The 1982 film Blade Runner showed viewers a dark, futuristic version of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Prominent ads for Coca-Cola and Pan Am blink back at you throughout the film, looming large and bright in this highly branded vision of the future.
Today, with digital billboard technology becoming commonplace, local governments all over the country have been fighting advertisers with outright bans. Cities claim that these relatively new forms of outdoor advertising are ugly and distract drivers. Of course, these were the exact claims that the opponents of billboard advertising were making in the early 20th century.
Part of the tremendous growth in outdoor advertising in Los Angeles had to do with the fact that there was relatively little regulation of billboards in California. As the March 1929 California Law Review noted in “Billboard Regulation and the Aesthetic Viewpoint with Reference to California Highways”:
What legislation has been enacted in California on the subject[?] Hardly any. This state prohibits the placing or maintenance of signs on property of the state or its subdivisions “without lawful permission,” or on private property without the consent of the owner or lessee, and the signs so prohibited are declared to be nuisances. A sign erected upon or over a state road or highway without a permit from the department of engineering is further declared to be a public nuisance, punishable as a misdemeanor. This is all the legislation on the subject in this state.
The essay goes on to contrast California’s lax billboard laws with the laws of other states at that time: like Kansas (billboards prohibited within 1000 feet of a highway, even if it’s on private property), Connecticut (billboards prohibited within 100 feet of any public park, state forest, playground or cemetery), or Vermont (billboards must meet the explicit approval of the secretary of state in kind, size and location). Vermont would later go on to make billboards entirely illegal in that state in 1968. In fact, four states (Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Vermont) all ban billboard advertising anywhere within their borders.
The goal of the California Law Review paper was to propose new laws to regulate billboards. The paper suggested that a progressive tax be placed on billboards based upon their size; that billboards be restricted in areas that are deemed unsafe for motorists, such as at crossings, curves and hills; and that the size of billboards be restricted, the largest being relegated to “commercial districts.”
Today, battles over the regulation of billboards continue in Los Angeles. The last few years have seen major fights over so-called “supergraphics” — gigantic billboards placed on the sides of buildings, stretching many stories tall. They’re incredibly hard to miss — rivaling those predicted by Blade Runner in size, if not electronics — and are scattered around the city, most prominently downtown and along major freeways. The city has sued many of the media companies that negotiate and install these ads, claiming that they’re illegal, and winning over $6 million in lawsuits thus far.
It’s tough to say just how hard the city of Los Angeles will clamp down on the proliferation of billboards — be they digital or merely huge — but for the time being Angelenos will likely remain just this side of a branded, Blade Runner future. With just seven years until 2019, it seems legislation and litigation will be the only thing keeping Los Angeles from achieving full bladerunner.
[The 1917 Life magazine illustration was scanned from the 1956 book Predictions: Pictorial Predictions From the Past by John Durant. Photo of a "supergraphic" in disrepair in downtown Los Angeles by Eric Richardson, used under its Creative Commons license.]
April 25, 2012
At first glance, the cover of the April 1938 issue of Popular Science magazine looks like a particularly odd vision of the future. Is that a 1930′s rocketship, blasting off into space? What about the door on the right with a clearly marked “EXIT” sign above it?
Our Depression-era rocketship is indeed indoors and claims to be the design for a new planetarium exhibit that would show visitors the cosmos from the perspective of a soaring, futuristic spaceship.
Rocketing through space at lightning speeds, encircling the moon, streaking past planets, racing with a comet — these are some of the startling sensations promised visitors to an ingenious planetarium planned for an international exposition. Outside the domed structure, visitors enter a steel rocket ship fitted with circular windows.
The short article goes on to explain how the rocket would give the illusion of blasting off into space:
Wheeled through an arched doorway, the space ship glides into a steel turntable where it is tipped upward, pointing into the heavens pictured on the inside of the planetarium dome. As chemical vapor illuminated by colored lights roars out of exhaust vents at the rear of the ship, specially prepared motion pictures are projected onto the circular ceiling to give the effect of speeding through space on a whirlwind tour of the universe.
Though the “international exhibit” isn’t named, we can deduce that it was most likely for the 1939 New York World’s Fair the following year. Designed by Raymond Loewy, the exhibit wasn’t built precisely as Popular Science had described it. The final design still had a rocketship, but visitors were no longer seated inside of the vehicle. And rather than the stars, your new destination was London. Loewy’s design, depicting the spaceport mid-blast, is pictured below.
Found inside the Chrysler Motors Building, this “Focal Exhibit,” gave visitors a presentation of the past, present and future of transportation. Though the Focal Exhibit is not as well remembered as GM’s Futurama exhibit, it certainly presented visitors with a wondrous vision of the future, emphasizing that “the world has steadily grown smaller, its people drawn ever closer together by improved methods of transportation on land and sea and in the air.”
From the Official Guidebook to the 1939 New York World’s Fair:
What of transportation in the “World of Tomorrow?” As the airplane finishes its flight across the screen, lines shoot out and harness the earth with other planets. Twinkling signal lights, the hum of gigantic motors and the warning sound of sirens indicate that the Rocketship is loading passenger for London. You see futuristic liners unloading at nearby docks; sleek trains glide to a stop, automobiles whisk voyagers to the spot, high-speed elevators rise and descend as the Rocketship is serviced for the coming journey. The moment of departure arrives. A great steel crane moves, a magnet picks up the Rocketship and deposits it into the breach of the rocketgun. A moment of awesome silence. A flash, a muffled explosion, and the ship vanishes into the night.
April 23, 2012
In 1987, a small Dallas-based company launched a floppy disk magazine that was supposed to be a grand experiment in the future of the medium. At $19.95 an issue, The New Aladdin was a bi-monthly general-interest magazine that hoped to give readers an entirely new kind of interactive experience; complete with animated graphics, computer games, music, puzzles, and feature stories that allowed you to ask questions.
And though you couldn’t “wrap a dead fish in it,” the magazine hoped to make up for this short-coming with fancy 8-bit graphics. The New Aladdin editor John Henson is pictured above, recording a scene in miniature for the magazine.
From an Associated Press story in the June 27, 1987 Galveston Daily News (Galveston, TX):
The magazine is two disks in a case with a label on it that looks like a miniature magazine cover. The sophisticated artwork is in a style reminiscent of The New Yorker magazine. Insert a 3 1/2-inch disk in a disk drive and an image of Aladdin pops up on the screen seated next to a lamp billowing smoke where tiles of stories appear and then fade with the push of a button.
This was to be more than a passive magazine-reading experience. As the July-August, 1987 issue of The Futurist magazine explains:
How does it work? One sample magazine story might be about how to refinance your home. With most magazines, you would have to read hypothetical stories that may not apply to your own situation. But with The New Aladdin, you plug your own facts and figures into the story to find out precisely how much refinancing your home would cost and how much it may save you in the future. Another possibility is to conduct your own “press conference” with the president of the United States, asking the questions you want answered.
The AP story elaborates a bit on what a virtual presidential press conference looks like:
In a recent issue, The New Aladdin carried a cover story that was a spoof on a presidential news conference with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. “Meet the Pres” starts with the music “Hail to the Chief” and allows readers to ask an animated Reagan questions from a list and to create their own. They also can respond to questions from Reagan about the press. The Reagans talk to the reader, mouths moving with sentences rolling out of them, word by word. Some of the answers are taken from actual press conferences, others are creative satire.
It sounds like some of their experiments may have worked better than others. The article in The Futurist describes one story that sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure, minus the whole “choosing your own” thing. There were 65,000 different possible versions of the story:
For a fictional story in one issue, five writers contributed a different version of a story developed form a master outline. The computer randomly assembled the paragraphs, so the reader could enjoy a different story each time it appeared. More than 65,000 different versions of the story were possible, says Henson. The magazine also features animated graphics, computer games, and puzzles.
The AP story also explains that they’re targeting a mass market, attempting to make it as user friendly as possible.
No knowledge of computers is necessary to read the stories or respond to them — they work with the push of a button or the movement of a “mouse” hand controller on Commodore Amiga computers, Atari ST computers and Atari 8-bit computers. Magazines programmed for the Apple IIg will be available soon.
It was obviously difficult to define this new form of publishing, as editor John Henson told The Futurist:
“It’s a magazine; it’s software; it’s a video game; it’s literature,” says Henson. “Content-wise, we are a family entertainment and information journal. The New Aladdin has similarities to everything from a news magazine to a science-fiction digest to a children’s book. But because the user can interact with The New Aladdin, that makes it fundamentally different from any printed publication.”
April 19, 2012
In 1983, a Chinese fast-food restaurant in Pasadena, California hired a curious-looking pair of servers: two robots named Tanbo R-1 and Tanbo R-2.
At 4.5 feet tall and 180 pounds, the robots would scoot around; bringing trays of chow mein, spareribs and fortune cookies to customers’ tables.
Shayne Hayashi, the owner of Two Panda Deli, first put the robots to work in 1983. Each Japanese-built robot purportedly cost $20,000 (about $45,000 adjusted for inflation) but were prone to dropping things and letting radio interference make them go a bit haywire. When they worked, they were a hit, telling jokes and delivering food to customers who were assured that this would be the future of the restaurant business.
In the mid-1980s, the robots gained some national press in typical “news of the weird” fashion. The June 10, 1983 Miami News described their trials and tribulations:
The pair at the Two Panda Deli, a fast-food Chinese eatery in Pasadena, tend to blur their words drunkenly when their 12-volt power cells run down, and they’ve been known to drop food and spin in circles when police radios operate nearby. They’re programmed to be nice to customers — “Will there be anything else?” and “See you tomorrow” — in Japanese, English and Spanish. Patrons whose commands confuse the pair get the response: “That’s not my problem,” accompanied by a short blast of disco music to which the bubbleheads dance back and forth.
Hayashi had the exclusive rights to sell the robo-garcons in North America, but in 1986 told the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News that he was having trouble with maintenance of the machines after selling one to a restaurant in Modesto, California:
“But he couldn’t take care of it,” Hayashi recounted. “All the time I had to drive out there and fix it.” Hayashi wound up buying it back. And how do Tanbos R-1 and R-2 rate as waiters? Hayashi admitted they break down often, and while they can find a table with an order, “when someone crosses in front of it, it stops. Some people move a chair or something or move the table, and we’re in trouble.”
You can still find people online who remember the robot waiters fondly, like in this post on Foder’s from 2007:
Granted, all Chinese in Pasadena pales next to the long-gone Two Panda Robot Restaurant on N. Lake. Does anyone else go back that far and remember this place? My daughter was young and loved being served by the robot. lol
The 1985 National Geographic children’s book Science: It’s Changing Your World explained that these robots were just the beginning of a wondrous era when machines would do our bidding:
The scene at the Two Panda may be unusual today. But it will become more and more common in years to come. In the home, robots may do the dusting and vacuuming. They may wake you up in the morning and serve you breakfast in bed. In shops, offices, factories, and fields, robots will do many jobs that people find boring, difficult, or dangerous. Because the jobs are of that nature, robots often do them better than humans. Robots have no minds to wander or worry. They always do exactly what they’re told. In fact, that’s all they can do.
With the meteoric rise of increasingly complex home electronics and personal computers in the 1980s, the robot-servant world of the Jetsons and Rosey the robot maid was thought to be just around the corner. And though today restaurants around the world do employ robots in various forms, the fully-automated robot waiter is still relegated to the scrap-heap of paleofutures.