Tech Day New York 2015’s Great Success Was Clearly App-arent

IMAG0059Even though the weather was cold and windy in New York yesterday, the environment inside Tech Day New York 2015 (and on @TechDayHQ and #NYTD) was sunny and warm. Thousands of guests attended and were able to survey the exhibits and speak with the representatives of more than 400 startups from the NYC area. (Thanks and kudos, btw, to the designers and coders responsible this event’s website because it’s a very snappy and original piece of work.)

There is a thriving entrepreneurial community across this great city and its pride and spirit were well represented here. I found the hours that I spent wandering around the exhibits to be exhilarating because of the energy, creativity and determination displayed by all of these budding companies. Indeed, I found a massive group of people doing a lot of way cool things today. I took the photos above and below to try to capture some sense of the scale of TDNY.

Of course, such vivid concentrations of tech entrepreneurship exist elsewhere in a multitude of locations across the globe. But, forgive me, this is my hometown.

The startups at the event displayed a deep and wide range of online goods and services. Among many others, these included programming and app development tools, big data and analytics offerings, medical information collection and analytical platforms, cloud management and security systems, employment and benefits sites, social networking and organization apps, food preparation and delivery services, fashion industry services, music and media apps and services, education support offerings, and 3-D printing systems. There was even someone dressed up like a slice of pizza putting on some pretty cool dance moves in the middle of it all.

I stopped and talked with the reps at a number of the startups. I was very impressed with everyone’s sincerity, desire to succeed and wide-ranging knowledge of their businesses and markets. Despite the vast number of people attending, they all appeared to be making their best efforts to speak with everyone who was interested in speaking with them. I found that all of own my questions were answered in full and any of my inquiries for further clarifications were gladly provided. I also saw none of them doing hard sales pitches. Rather, they seemed more determined to make sure that the attendees to understand each venture’s goals, methods and services.

I believe that the attendees and these entrepreneurs both got much value out of participating in this tremendously exciting event. While not all of these startups will survive, they all deserve a grade of A+ for their visions, hard work and willingness to take big risks. Some will have the insight and fortitude to pivot and adapt their businesses plans to changes in the marketplace.

My very best wishes for all of them to succeed and continue to thrive.

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Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals

Image by mconnors

Image by mconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on December 12, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on December 19, 2014,  January 13, 2015 and March 27, 2015.]

December 12, 2014 Post:

At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to be held in Park City Utah from January 22, 2015 through February 1, 2015, part of this major annual film event is a program called New Frontier. This year it will be presenting 13 virtual reality (VR) films and “experiences”. Advanced coverage of this event was reported in an article on Wired.com on December 4, 2014 entitled VR Films Are Going to Be All Over Sundance in 2015 by Angela Watercutter. After reading this exciting preview I wanted to immediately pack a bag and start walking there.

To sum up, annotate and comment upon some of the key points in this story, the platforms being used for these presentations will mostly be the Oculus, while Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR will also deployed. While the Oculus Rift headset has not yet released to the consumer public, developers currently do have had access to it. As a result, they were able to create and format these soon-to-be-premiered experimental works. This year’s offerings are a much deeper and wider lineup than the much more limited sampling of Ocolus-based experiments presented during the 2012 Sundance Festival.

(In a recent Subway Fold post on November 26, 2014 entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015, one of the startups briefly mentioned is called Jaunt which is described in the blog post as “… developing an entirely new platform and 360 degree camera to create fully immersive virtual reality movies to be viewed using the versatile new Oculus Rift headset.”)

Attendees at some other recent industry events have responded very favorably to Oculus demonstrations. They included a HBO’s presentation of a Game of Thrones experience at this year’s South by Southwest festival, a Jaeger-piloting simulation ¹ at the 2014 Comic-Con in San Diego , and at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

To read what some of the creators involved in Sundance’s VR movies have to say about their creations and some brief descriptions and 2-D graphics of this immersive fare, I very highly recommend clicking through and reading this report in its entirety. They include, among others, news and documentaries, bird flights, travel landscapes, rampaging Kaiju, and several social situations.

I wanna go!

My follow-up questions include:

  • Because VR movie production is entirely digital, can this experience be securely distributed online to other film festival and film schools to share with and, moreover, inspire new VR cinematic works by writers, directors, producers and actors?
  • Can the Hyve-3D virtual development platform covered in this August 28, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Hyve-3D: A New 3D Immersive and Collaborative Design System, be adapted and formatted for the cinema so that audiences can be fully immersed in virtual firms without the need for a VR headset?
  • If entertainment companies, movie producers, investors and other supporters line up behind the development and release of VR movies, will this be seen by the public as being more like 3-D movies where the novelty has quickly worn off ², or more like a fundamental shift in movie production, presentation and marketing? What if, using the Oculous Rift, users could experience movie trailers, if the entire film at any location? Would this be a market that might draw the attention of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google and other online content distributors and producers?

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1.  In another Jaeger and Kaiju-related update, there is indeed good news as reported on June 27, 2014 on the HuffingtonPost.com by Jessica Goodman in a story entitled ‘Pacific Rim 2’ Confirmed For 2017 Release Date.

2.  See 2014 Box Office Will Be Hurt By Diminishing Popularity Of 3D Movies: Analyst by David Lieberman, posted on Deadline.com on February 3, 2014. For other new theater experience innovations, see also To Lure Young, Movie Theaters Shake, Smell and Spritz by Brooks Barnes in the November 29, 2014 edition  of The New York Times.

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December 19, 2014 Update:

The current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

January 13, 2015 Update:

While VR’s greatest core ability is in placing viewers within a totally immersive digital  environments, this also presents a challenge in keeping them fully focused upon the main narrative.That is, something happening off to the left or right may draw their attention away and thus detract from the experience.

A startup called Visionary VR has developed a system to reconcile this challenge. It enables creators of VR entertainment to concentrate the viewer’s attention upon the action occurring in the stories and games. This was reported in a most interesting article posted on Recode.com on January 5, 2015 entitled In Virtual Reality Movies, You Are the Camera. That Can Be a Problem, but Here’s One Solution, by Eric Johnson. I believe this will keep your attention as a reader, even in the three dimensions in the real world, and recommend clicking through for all of the details. As well, there is a rather spectacular video presented by the founders of the company on the capabilities of their system.

To recap the key points, Visionary VR creates an invisible boundary around the main narrative that alerts the viewer that they are looking away into other “zones” within the environment. When this occurs, the narrative is suspended but viewers can venture into these interactive peripheral areas and further explore elements of the story. Just as easily, they can return their gaze back to the story which will then re-engage and move forward. Visionary VR has created platform and toolkit for VR authors and storytellers to generate and edit their work while within a virtual environment itself. When viewing the accompanying video, the interface reminded me of something out of Minority Report.

(Btw, it has just been announced that this movie is going to be turned into a TV pilot for Fox according to a story posted on Deadline.com entitled ‘Minority Report’ Gets Fox Pilot Order, by Nellie Andreeva on January 9, 2015. This post also contains a photo from the movie showing this then fictional and now real interface. How cool would it be to see this new pilot in full VR?!)

March 27, 2015 Update:

VR movie technology continues to gather momentum and accolades at 2015’s artistic festivals. Its latest display was held at last week’s (March 13 through 17, 2015) South By Southwest Festival (SXSW). The page for the VR panel and speakers is linked here. Coverage of the event was posted in a very informative and enthusiastic article on VentureBeat.com entitled The Future of Interactive Cinematic VR is Coming, and Fast by Daniel Terdiman, on March 18, 2015.

Those in attendance were truly wowed by what they saw, and, moreover, the potential of fully immersive experiences and storytelling. Please click-through to this story for the full details. I will briefly sum up some of the main points.

The article mostly highlights and highly praises the demo by Jaunt, a startup emerging as one of the innovators in VR movies, mentioned in the initial December 12, 2014 post above. Other VR companies also presented their demos at SXSW.

The Jaunt demo consisted of Paul McCartney playing Live and Let Die in concert. Here’s the link to Jaunt’s Content page containing the stream for this and eight other VR movies (including the Kaiju Fury! film also mentioned in the December 12th post above). In order to immerse yourself in ay of these you will need either an Oculus Rift headset or a Google Cardboard device.

VR movie technology is indeed presenting filmmakers with “opportunities that have not been possible before”. This is likewise so for a range of content creators including, among others sure to come, musicians, athletes, interviewers and documentary makers.

Another panelist, Jason Rubin, the head of worldwide studios for Oculus, spoke about the level of progress being made to make these narrative experiences more genuinely interactive with viewers. He believes this will lead to entirely new forms of cinematic experiences.

Arthur van Hoff, Jaunt’s founder and CTO, stated the possibility of VR films where users can follow one particular actor’s perspective and story within the production. (Visionary VR’s technology, described in the January 13, 2015 Update above, might also be helpful in this regard.)

While new “companies, technologies and investors” in this nascent field are expected, Jaunt believes its current two-year lead will give its technology and productions an advantage.

Optimizing the Time You Have Available for Reading

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“On the Platform, Reading”, Image by Mo Riza

There is too much to read every day and the amount of it never seems to stop growing! We are swamped with such a multitude of bits and atoms in the forms books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites and apps that no one can possibly get through everything that he or she intends to read. Nonetheless, we live in an age where information is a ubiquitous and a uniquely valuable form of currency.

While there have been countless presentations and publications on how to tame “information overload“, many of them worthwhile, the need for some new methods is always welcome. There are no absolutely right or wrong ways to increase your consumption of text on paper and on-screen, but rather, a growing choice of methods that meets your individual preference and capabilities.

Surely, no one has figured out how to increase the amount of time in each day. It is finite and that’s that. Nonetheless, there are many active and motivated readers out there who have learned to make better use of the time they can allocate for reading. These benefits are found both in terms of the quantity of material they can cover, their comprehension of it, and their retention for subsequent recall, application and synthesis.

Sue Shellenbarger, the writer for The Wall Street Journal who write the (always excellent, imho) Work and Family column, published a very helpful and insightful piece entitled Get Down to Magazine Zero: Reading Faster and Smarter, in the March 11, 2015 edition of the paper. (The article appears on WSJ.com under the different title of How to Declutter Your Magazine Pile.) I will first summarize, list and add some comments to the methods described in this article and then add a series of my own suggestions in this never-ending quest to stay up-to-date.

According to Shellenbarger’s own research and the people and experts she interviewed, the following alternatives can help to optimize your reading time:

  • Confining your Facebook usage to a weekly stop limited to industry news. Likewise, reduce the time you spend watching TV and use the time for reading.
  • Passing up Wi-Fi availability on plane flight and instead dedicating that time for reading.
  • Listening to audio-books while on public transportation, walking or exercise.
  • Employing a strategy called “Always be reading” or ABR. That is, to always have reading material with you during any activity where you might have some time to yourself such as commuting or waiting in line. I have always followed ABR to the, well, letter. I never leave home or even go to the laundry room (which, btw, can be quite conducive to reading soap operas), without something to read.
  • Printout or email yourself important articles for later access and review.
  • Trying out one or more of the seven downloadable apps for mobile devices listed in an accompanying sidebar to this article. They provide convenient support for users to “compile, organize and prioritize” items you have selected for later viewing. Of these, I have used Flipboard and found it to be quite helpful. Another hugely popular app in this space and for other useful online gathering and drafting function is Evernote.
  • Meeting with friends on a regular basis who have some expertise in particular area of interest to you and, in turn, you know about a field of interest to them.
  • Setting the timer on your smartphone for a fixed period each day devoted exclusively to reading and use it to maintain your reading schedule.
  • Prioritize your reading material on a continual basis in order to elevate or eliminate each item accordingly.
  • Consider taking a speed reading course.
  • Other interesting sites mentioned include Summary.com which offers executive summaries of books, and NextIssue.com is a subscription site gateway to  unlimited access 140 magazines.

Here are some of my own suggestions:

  • Make good use of the Bookmarks in Firefox or the Favorites in Internet Explorer to mark and save the sites your frequently visit. This provides ready one-click access to all of them. Moreover, you can easily organize them into lists, folders and sub-folders according to your browsing needs.
  • Try your browser’s RSS function to “push” content of interest out to you as soon as it is posted online.
  • For scanning through a concise and self-vetted series of sites and blogs of interest to you, I find that using the browser bookmarks on my tablet and smartphone to be a very expedient means of staying current. (See the sixth bullet-point above again for apps that can assist with this.)
  • Set up an additional Twitter feeds to dedicate entirely as your own newsreader. Rather than using this for any interactive or communications purposes, limit this for personally curated content only.
  • Try setting up a few Google Alerts with its fine-grained filters to deliver news to your Google account.
  • Keep current on newly published books by regularly reading book reviews. The book sections of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are great places to begin.
  • Use Amazon.com to research books, authors and topics of interest to you. Likewise, follow some of the links to the books recommended on the pages you are perusing. For a more retro version of this, I highly recommend wandering around a bookstore and seeing where it takes you in terms of discovering new titles and writers. (If you are in or near New York, there is no better place anywhere to do this than The Strand Bookstore.) I also recommend visiting GoodReads.com as an endless virtual well of book recommendations.
  • Set up self-imposed deadlines and goals to try to get through everything you deem important. For example, I will finish this book by X date; I will finish 25 books this year; I will finish all of my online or on paper subscriptions before the next issues are posted and/or mailed; and so on.

The Advent of Social TV: Commercial and Creative Impacts of Using Twitter Activity Metrics Upon What Audiences Now See

Image by Arti Dandhu

“Sensory Overload”, Image by Arti Sandhu

[This post was originally uploaded on July 31, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on December 19, 2015 and then on March 11, 2015.]

July 14, 2014 Post:

Nielsen is a long-established and industry leading firm in measuring, analyzing and reporting upon media deployment, usage and audiences. Their services also include a similar range of sophisticated services concerning consumer behavior and products.

A fascinating new report appeared on their sites Newswire section on June 2, 2014 entitled This TV Season’s Biggest Moments on Twitter that chronologically mapped which US TV shows from September 2013 through May 2014 generated the greatest volume of traffics and postings on Twitter. The categories included:

  • Greatest Reach
  • Most Tweets
  • Greatest Activity and Reach
  • Most Impressions
  • Most Tweets Per Unique
  • Most Tweets and Tweets Per Minute

Each of these data points is clearly explained and includes the names of the shows, their corresponding data generated by these massive amounts of Twitter activity, and the hashtags and handles involved. In a single screen, this data visualization is a terrific example of how to present so much information that is belied by its elegant and informative design.

Moreover, the value of this data must be highly significant in a multitude of ways to, among others, advertisers, entertainment companies, media planners and producers, content strategists and marketers, and demographers in assessing their respective audiences and clients.

December 19, 2014 Update:

For me, the best story told on TV during the 2014 season was – – in a fictional world where “brains” take on an entirely different significance – –  The Walking Dead on AMC in terms of the extraordinary number of tweets about ongoing adventures Sheriff Ricky and the Grimes Gang. This was covered on Nielsen.com on December 15, 2014 in a post entitled Tops of 2014: Social TV.  TWD averaged twice as many tweets as its next competitor in the ongoing series category. As I read scores of TWD tweets on the mid-season finale myself, everyone will miss you, Beth.

March 11, 2015 Update:

We are now experiencing the emergence of what is being called Social TV, a phenomenon where Twitter and other social media traffic and sentiment data and metrics are exerting significant influences upon on-air advertising campaigns, audience perceptions and creative choices. Just to cite another example of this is the contemporaneous two-screen experience audiences can now join on shows such as The Walking Dead.

Scientific support for the relevancy, accuracy and scalability of Twitter data and metrics on individual TV shows continues to grow. Persuasive new evidence was released on March 9, 2015, in a report authored by Nielsen entitled Social TV: A Bellwether for TV Audience Engagement. An informative article on this report was also published in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times entitled Social Study of TV Viewers Backs Twitter’s Claims to Be Barometer of Public Mood by Vindu Goel. I will sum up, annotate and comment on this article and supplement this with a look at the Nielsen report itself. I very highly recommend clicking through and reading both of them in their entirety.

Nielsen used 300 people in a study of their brain activity while they watched eight selected shows in an effort to find the level of correlation to their volume of tweets about the same content. The results showed a significantly close correlation. The Nielsen report contains a concise graph of the data that  visually  charts this point at 79.5%.*

As a result, researchers can now accurately assess the level of a particular show’s “depth of engagement” of its audience with the events as they unfolds on the small screen. Moreover, this is not only for the show itself, but on a more granular level on a scene-by-scene basis. Thus, this study and report reaffirms Twitter’s assertions that its data accurately represents its platform’s real-time engagement of its users in real-time during a show’s broadcast, as well as a show’s “popularity”.

Most importantly, this data and its interpretations can be used to sell ads to advertisers looking to best maximize their expenditures in their efforts to most effectively reach the audiences they are seeking for their  services and products.

Twitter data and metrics can also be used for predicting potential audiences for new shows even before they premiere, according to a report Nielsen released on January 15, 2015 entitled Must See TV: How Twitter Activity Ahead of Fall Season Premieres Could Indicate Success.

Nonetheless, neither Nielsen nor Twitter have addressed the key issue of the degree to which the volume of Twitter traffic actually increase the size of the viewing audience.

Nielson is planning another study to evaluate the impact of Twitter activity concerning TV ads upon the audiences who view them. (Might I suggest starting with this current TV ad about Mountain Dew Kickstart that has been viewed nearly 6.5 million times on YouTube and makes me laugh out loud every time I see it!)

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*   Issues concerning the distinctions between correlation and causation were raised in two recent Subway Fold posts on November 27, 2014 entitled Minting New Big Data Types and Analytics for Investors and then on January 27, 2015 in a post entitled Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators.

GDELT 2.0 Launches Bringing Real-Time News Translation in 65 Languages

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Image by Library and Archives Canada

I only speak two languages: English and New York. Some visitors to NYC, especially those for the first time, often feel like they are hearing some otherworldly dialect of English being spoken here.

I am always amazed and a bit envious when I people are genuinely fluent in more than one language. I have friends and colleagues who can converse, write and even claim to think in multiple languages. Two of them immediately come to mind, one of whom who can speak 5 languages and the other can speak 6 languages. How do they do it?

Thus seeing an article posted on Gigaom.com entitled A Massive Database Now Translates News in 65 Languages in Real Time by Derrick Harris on  Feb. 19, 2015 immediately got my attention. I will sum up, annotate and add some comments to this remarkable story.

The Global Database of Events, Languages and Tone (GDELT) is an ongoing project that has amassed a database of 250 million “socioeconomic and geopolitical events” and supporting metadata from 1979 to the present. GDELT was conceived and built by Kalev Leetaru, and he continues to run it. The database resides in Google’s cloud service and provides free access and coding tools to query and analyze this massive quantum of data.

Just one representative of GDELT’s many projects are an interactive map (available on GDELT’s home page), of conflicts and protests around the world.  Support for this project is provided by The US Institute of Peace. an independent and nonpartisan American government institution.

Here is a deep and wide listing from GDELT’s blog that links directly to more than 300 of their other fascinating projects. Paging through and following even a sampling of these links will very likely help to spark your own imagination and creativity as to what can be done with this data and these tools.

On February 19, 2015 GDELT 2.0 was launched. In addition to a whole roster of new analytical tools, its most extraordinary new capability is real-time translation of news reports across 65 languages. The feeds of these reports are from non-Western and non-English sources. In effect, it is reporting from a different set of perspectives. The extensive details and parameters of this system are described in a February 19, 2015 blog post by Mr. Leetaru on GDELT’s website entitled GDELT Translingual: Translating the Planet.

Here is an accompanying blog post on the same day announcing and detailing many of the new tools and features entitled GDELT 2.0: Our Global World in Realtime. Among these is a capability called “Realtime Measurement of 2,300 Emotions and Themes” composed of  “24 emotional measurement packages that together assess more than 2,300 emotions and themes from every article in realtime”. This falls within the science of content analysis which attempts to ascertain the deeper meanings and perspectives within a whole range of multimedia types and large sets.

I highly recommend checking out the Gigaom.com story. But I believe that is only the start if GDELT interests you. I further suggest clicking through and fully exploring their site to get a fuller sense of this project’s far-reaching vision and capabilities. Next, for the truly ambitious, the data sets and toolkits are all available for downloading right on the site. I say let the brainstorming for more new projects begin!

Back on December 2, 2014 in a Subway Fold post entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content, we took a look at  an exciting new startup call Quid that is doing  similar sounding deep mining and analysis of news. Taken together, they represent a very fertile field for new endeavors like GDELT and Quid as the sophistication of machine intelligence to parse, and the capacities to gather and store these vast troves of data continues to advance. For both profit and non-profit organizations, I expect that potential benefits from deep global news analysis, interpretation, translation, visualization and metrics will continue to draw increasing numbers of interested and ambitious media companies, entrepreneurs, academics and government agencies.

 

 

Animator Getting Closer to Creating a Convincing Virtual Human Face

"DSC_19335", Image by Philippe Put

“DSC_19335”, Image by Philippe Put

[This post was originally uploaded on October 21, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 11, 2015.]

The one achievement that still eludes movie and gaming special effects artists and programmers is the creation of a human face so convincing that it could fool viewers into believing it is a real person. Vast and untold amounts of time, money and other resources have been expended in this quest and these artists and programmers have gotten close over the years. However, the human eye is so precise and discriminating that audiences can always accurately detect a virtual visage. In, well, effect, the imagery looks almost, but not quite “real”.

That is, maybe until now. According to a fascinating article on studio360.org posted on October 14, 2014 entitled Have We Finally Conquered the Uncanny Valley? by Eric Molinsky, an animator named Chris Jones may have just achieved this or else come extremely close to it. He has been uploading his recent animation efforts to his blog, and two of them are also embedded in this article of a human face and a human hand. These are videos, not static images. I found the result to be extraordinary. I highly recommend clicking through to have a look at Jones’s efforts.

Let’s assume for a moment that Jones fully succeeds in his work and such virtual humans  start to populate movies, tv shows, videos and games. Lets further assume that the tools for doing this become widely accessible to computer generated imagery (CGI) artists. Then what? Here are my questions:

  • Whether and how will the careers of today’s real life working actors be impacted?
  • Will commercial audiences accept such virtual actors or will this be perceived as just being too creepy?
  • Will living actors or the estates of deceased actors be able to license their likenesses to be used in new video and film creative works?
  • Assuming that such licensing becomes a reality (even though the graphics remain unreal), what terms will be noticeable in terms of making an actor younger or older? What if the actor/licensor objects to final manner in which his or her image is used in the story?
  • Will new forms of agents and agencies be needed to handle the negotiations and contracts? Will future talent agents both literally and figuratively, become software agents?
  • Will new virtual and branded “stars” emerge in terms of the quality, usefulness and public acceptance of the imagery? That is, stars in terms of the virtual creations themselves and stars in terms of the CGI artists who emerge as the best in this specialty?
  • Will this development permit news forms of storytelling and gaming that are not possible with the current state of CGI?

I suppose then that this story also gives a whole new meaning to user inter-face development.

January 11, 2015 Update:

Breaching of the “uncanny valley” described in the original post above, the term used for the significant difficulty in creating a fully convincing computer animation of a human face, still remains quite elusive. According to a most interesting column in yesterday’s (January 10, 2015) edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Why Digital-Movie Effects Still Can’t Do a Human Face by Alison Gopnik, this holy grail of CGI still presents some considerable roadblocks. I highly recommend clicking through and reading this piece in full. I will try to sum up, annotate and comment on it as a counterpoint to the post above.

Using a very clever analogy, the author compares the still unrealized feat of creation of a convincing CGI human to the Turing Test which, originally posited by the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing (also the subject of the very well-received and possibly Oscar contending current bio-pic called The Imitation Game). This is a test for the achievement of actual machine “intelligence” whereby such a system cannot be detected in its interactions with an actual human being. That is, the human believes that he or she is communicating with another human when, in fact, the other party is a computer. Computer science is in deep pursuit of passing the Turing Test but it has thus far not been accomplished.

As between the passing the Turing Test and crossing the Uncanny Valley, Gopnik writes that the latter is “much, much hard for a computer to pass”.

While CGI is woven into so much of today’s visual media, they human face remains stalled in the Uncanny Valley for the time being. This is largely because of the incredible sensitivity of human vision and the wide range of subtleties in our human facial expressions to communicate our emotions to each other.

Gopnik further describes the effort on the fascinating ongoing project called Baby X by Mark Sager, a designer who worked the faces in Avatar and who is now a professor at the University of Auckland,  as being “one of the most convincingly complete computer-generated faces”. I highly recommend checking out and comparing this simulation to that of Chris Jones described and linked to above. Which do you think is more realistic and life-like in its appearance and movements? Does it make a considerable improvement in the realness of Sagar’s simulation that his project make additional use of the latest relevant neurological research when compared to the efforts of a highly skilled CGI artist alone?

Updates on Recent Posts Re: Music’s Big Data, Deep Learning, VR Movies, Regular Movies’ Effects on Our Brains, Storytelling and, of Course, Zombies

This week has seen the publication of an exciting series of news stories and commentaries that provide a very timely opportunity to update six recent Subway Fold posts. The common thread running through the original posts and these new pieces is the highly inventive mixing, mutating and monetizing of pop culture and science. Please put on your virtual 3-D glasses let’s see what’s out there.

The December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market? explored the apps, companies and trends that have become the key drivers in the current global music business. Adding to the big data strategies and implementations for three more major music companies and their rosters of artists was a very informative report in the December 15, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Hannah Karp entitled Music Business Plays to Big Data’s Beat. (A subscription for the full text required a subscription to WSJonline.com, but the story also appeared in full on Nasdaq.com clickable here.) As described in detail in this report, Universal Music, Warner Music, and Sony Music have all created sophisticated systems to parse numerous data sources and apply customized analytics for planning and executing marketing campaigns.

Next for an alternative and somewhat retro approach, a veteran music retailer named Sal Nunziato wrote a piece on the Op Ed page of The New York Times on the very same day entitled Elegy for the ‘Suits’. He blamed the Internet more than the music labels for the current state of music where “anyone with a computer, a kazoo and an untuned guitar” can release their music  online regardless of its quality. Thus, the ‘suits’ he nostalgically misses were the music company execs who exerted  more controlled upon the quantity and quality of music available to the public.

Likewise covering the tuning up of another major force in today’s online music streaming industry was an August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology. This summarized a report about how deep learning technology was being successfully applied to improve the accuracy and responsiveness of Spotify’s recommendation engine. Presenting an even stronger case that you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet in this field was an engaging analysis of some still largely unseen developments in deep learning posted on December 15, 2014, on Gigaom.com entitled What We Read About Deep Learning is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by Derrick Harris. These include experimental systems being tested by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. As well, there were a series of intriguing presentations and demos at the recent Neural Information Processing Systems conference held in Montreal. As detailed here with a wealth of supporting links, many of these advanced systems and methods are expected to gain more press and publicity in 2015.

Returning to the here and now at end of 2014, the current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This fits right in with the developments covered in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Full Slate of Virtual Reality Movies and Experiences Scheduled at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as this short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience, continuing right along with the September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains, concerns a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

Of course, all movie making involves the art and science of storytelling skills as discussed in the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?. In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the basis for the November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

Finally, the best story told on TV during the 2014 season was – – in a fictional world where brains take on an entirely different significance – –  The Walking Dead on AMC in terms of the extraordinary number of tweets about ongoing adventures Sheriff Rick and the Grimes Gang. This was covered on Nielsen.com on December 15, 2014 in a post entitled Tops of 2014: Social TV.  TWD averaged twice as many tweets as its next competitor in the ongoing series category. This follows up directly with the July 31, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytical Twitter Traffic Report on US TV Shows During the 2013 – 2014 Season.  As I read scores of TWD tweets on the mid-season finale myself, everyone will miss you, Beth.

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As a major fan of TWD, I would like to take the opportunity add my own brief review about the tragic events in Episode 5.8:

I think that in the end, Beth was a form of avatar for the entire show. She traveled many miles from lying on her bed in Season 2 completely unable to function and progressing to Season 5 as a realist concerning herself and the group’s survival. Rather than resigning herself to be held a captive ward in the hospital, she was determined to escape no matter what and was so proud of helping Jonah to escape.

She awakened and arose to be a survivor and a committed member of the Grimes Gang, just as everyone else has done during the past five years. That is, Beth’s journey reflects the entire group’s journey. She, and the Grimes Gang, up to this point have survived all of the threats they faced and endured all of the horrors they have seen. They will all survive but this death with have more serious repercussions than perhaps any other death up until this point. Maggie, Daryl, Rick, Carol and Carl, the core of the GG, will not soon recover from this.

What I still do not understand is why, given that she was finally free in the hospital’s hallway, did she jeopardize her life by going after the lead officer with a scissors. It seemed to be somewhat at odds with Beth’s character as someone who had survived until now on her own determination and close bond with the group. She had nothing to gain by such a reckless act in the middle of a very volatile situation. Was it a sacrifice to save Jonah? Did she realize that the cop was holding a gun at that point? Was she just overtaken by the motivation that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures?

Consider, too, that she was Herschel’s daughter and her character reflected what she had learned from him: 1. Both learned to see things differently and adapted when the circumstances changed. 2. Both faced sacrifices and danger with great dignity. (Recall Herschel’s acknowledging grin towards Rick right before the Governor murdered the elder of the survivors, and then Beth’s defiant grin when she saw that Jonah had escaped.) 3. Both were resilient insofar as Herschel adapting to the loss of his leg and Beth recovering from her father’s murder. 4. Both sought to comfort others as Herschel stayed with the flu patients and Beth finally drew Daryl out about his terrible family life. Recall also, the three very effective times during her history on the show when Beth’s singing gave great comfort to the others. Indeed, she was a saintly figure but as this story arc wore on, her demise seemed to be foretold.

TWD remains, for me, an absolutely brilliant show in terms of its characters, narrative and presentation.

 

 

 

 

Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Everyone loves a good story and, in turn, a good story is always made even better by a great storyteller. Some people just have a natural inclination for delivering the beginning, middle and end of a story that captivates the listeners. We all know people like this. The highest complement you can pay them is to say “that was a great story well told”.

They are indeed a far cry and a great yarn away from the more common and seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation many of us have had to endure where the speaker drones on and on. Little or any substance rarely stays stuck to the audience’s gray cells a few seconds after the meeting has ended.

The innately skilled storyteller knows how to evocatively set the stage, animate the players, and draw you into the drama, fact or fiction, no matter if the story takes 2 minutes or 2 hours. Moreover, they can readily deliver a verbal and animated replay of something that happened just minutes ago with the same finesse of a story they heard years ago passed down through their family. Such raconteurs know they have this skill and can employ it to communicate with others in a wide variety of situations. Even those who don’t quite have the skill at first can readily be taught to improve their delivery and enjoy the benefits it can bring.

The science supporting engaging storytelling was explored in a fascinating post on the Harvard Business Review Blog entitled Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Paul J, Zak on October 28, 2014. To recap the main points, a decade ago, the author’s lab discovered a neurochemical called oxytocin, whose role arises in many social situations. Simply stated, this substance’s activation in the brain is an integral part of experiencing and expressing empathy, trust, kindness and cooperation. More recently, his lab has conducted experiments that have shown oxytocin also plays a role in “character-driven stories”. The more oxytocin released in a subject’s brain showed a relationship to the extent to which he or she is willing to assist other people.

The next step in his research was to study the reasons why storytelling had an effect upon gaining someone’s voluntary cooperation. A key element of this involves maintaining the listener’s attention such that they “share the emotions of the characters in it”, both during and after the story had been told. In the business world, “character-driven stories with emotional content” produce increased comprehension and later recall of a speaker’s main points. Zak advises business clients to start off their presentations with “a compelling, human scale story” to put this science to good use and to persuade listeners. He further describes how stories are quite valuable within businesses to motivate employees, increase sales, understand customer concerns, and solve problems. He also discusses how an “organization has its own story” concerning its founding and objectives.

I highly recommend read the full text of this piece for its highly valuable details and pragmatic lessons. Indeed, it is a story about stories well told.

Whenever I tell a story, either in a business situation or to friends and family, I also try to do the following:

  • Never introduce a story by first telling listeners that the tale you about to tell is the funniest, saddest or weirdest thing they will ever hear. Rather, just start telling it without any introductory adjectives that might raises or lower the listener’s expectations.
  • Be as economical as I can with words and time. Brevity counts and getting to the point quickly always counts.
  • Introduce the key characters first in order to get listeners to identify with the people involved and then move on to the details of the story.
  • Adding a slightly misdirecting component to the narrative can be helpful in distracting the briefly distracting listeners and then bringing them quickly back towards the resolution of the story.
  • It’s always true that timing is everything. Pace the plot so that it continues to accelerate.
  • Humor helps but should be used judiciously depending on the context and subject matter of a story.
  • If you have some room, stand up and move around a bit so as to enact certain key points.

November 5, 2014 Update:

There was a timely post on SocialMediaToday.com today* entitled Storytelling 101: Who Are You? by Rachel Parker that fits in well here. The author’s main point is that often strangers in various circumstances will ask “Who are you?” How you reply can potentially turn scenario into a business development opportunity. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, potential client’s want to know, in fact, who you really are before they will consider doing business with you and your firm. Thus, having a compelling story about your company’s origin, products and services, and likewise being prepared to deliver all of this succinctly and effectively can be a valuable skill. I suggest clicking through to the full text for the particulars.

December 19, 2014 Update:

In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the original basis for this November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

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*  As I was writing “SocialMediaToday.com today” I was reminded of the time when I worked with someone named “Tamara” and another colleague asked me “Have you seen Tamara today?” and I could not resist replying “No, but I expect to see Tamara tomorrow”. Fortunately, this did not result in any disruptions in the time and space continuum for either Tamara or myself.

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[The most amazing storyteller I have ever heard was the legendary New York City radio personality and satirist Jean Shephard. The following is a review of a biography about him that I originally posted on July 6, 2005 on a much earlier incarnation of The Subway Fold.]

Many people are only familiar with Jean Shepherd’s work from his uniquely charming and hilarious perennial holiday film A Christmas Story. Yet to a large number of people in the metro NYC and surrounding areas his greatest creative contribution was the late night radio show he did on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. He wrote five critically acclaimed collections of stories and was a columnist for various magazines.

Shepherd was a local phenomenon unlike any other in the long and rich history of local radio here. Long before the days of concentrated station ownership by a small number of conglomerates, severely limited playlists and call-in formats, Shepherd’s show was a shining beacon of originality, humanity and humor unlike anything else before or after it. Describing the experience of listening to him is always presents a challenge to anyone who never heard him.

I was one of those people who, while I was in high school and college, listened to him faithfully almost every night. Although his show was not for everyone, his large legion of fans were often incredibly devoted to him. He shaped many of our sensibilities about the media as well as our perspectives on daily life. To this day, whenever I come across a fellow fan we immediately have an understanding between us of that shared experience of years of listening to Shepherd’s unique riffs about, among many other things, growing up, life in the Army, his friends and family, modern culture and the travails of living in New York City.

Listening to Shepherd was just like having a good friend over for a talk on the porch. It was as if he was speaking directly to you in a friendly and familiar manner. His uncanny attention to detail, strikingly original POV, embrace of ideas new and different, and most importantly his sense of humor made it essential for us “night people” as he often referred to us, to listen as often as possible. Despite his Midwestern accent, there was something so utterly New York in his voice, delivery and infectious laugh. However, he was by no means a “2 guys walk into a bar” comedian. Rather, he was far more sophisticated while being wholly accessible.

Eugene Bergmann has just written a remarkable biography about him entitled Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. I first learned about this publication on 5/13/05 when it was the subject of two programs on the local NPR station here, WNYC. The author appeared on both the Brian Lehrer Show and immediately following on the Leonard Lopate Show.

I picked the book up and was completely absorbed by it. Bergmann has accomplished a considerable achievement by skillfully capturing the essence of Shepherd’s life, philosophy and work. To bring order to such a large body of public work and a complex personal life, he began by listening to and transcribed hundreds of tapes of Shepherd’s shows. He then formatted this biography with generous portions of those transcripts throughout the text. This succeeds as the “voices” effectively and seamlessly alternate between the biographer and his subject. Indeed, Shepherd’s voice and delivery are vividly evoked in every section of the transcriptions. In many passages, I even recall hearing them as they were originally broadcasted years ago.

For a faithful listener, this book is worthy and respectful homage to the subject’s multifaceted talents and achievements. Bergmann has found the right language and insight to illuminate the work of an artist who worked in words, imagery and ideas as, Shepherd used to say “a sculptor worked in clay”. While I so fondly recalled many particular shows while reading this book, it more importantly caused me to reconsider how and why so many people were such a devoted fans: He spoke to us and we could relate during a time in my life when our views were constantly changing and being challenged. The author succeeds in deftly building a intricate accumulation and integration of artistic and intellectual reasons for our devotion, never before presented with such clarity, that were always axiomatic for all of Shepherd’s fans.

The book does not shy away from Shepherd’s considerable off-the-air personal faults. While these revelations do remove some of the gloss from long-enduring warm and friendly reputation, they also makes him more human. The performer and the man are brought to life on each page. As Bergmann emphasizes, what Shepherd did, more than anything else, was to examine the human condition. What the author has accomplished so skillfully here is to examine in fine and critical detail, the condition of one uniquely imaginative human.

Jean Shepherd died in 1999. His work and his fans will continue to live on for many years. Even if you never heard his show, read his books or saw A Christmas Story, I highly recommend this book for its integrity, internal consistency and literary accomplishment. Nowadays when modern media platforms, content and influence are changing on a daily and worldwide basis, this is an opportunity to learn about a definitively original media talent.