|Core: noun, the most important part of a thing, the essence; from the Latin cor, meaning heart.|
|Volume 1.17||This Views Column||June 3, 2002|
Seeing is Believing
And It Always Will Be
Video technology has been advancing at a dizzying pace. Computer-generated (CG) imagery enhances many movies in ways we (some of us, anyway) have come to expect. It also enhances live television broadcasts, including news and sports, in ways to which we have become accustomed assuming we are aware of them. The technologies will continue to advance and will converge, some day, with momentous consequences.
Computer-Generated Imagery in the Movies
You could swear the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park is real. Even close up. When it looks for the children in the car, during the rainstorm, its eyes seem to be the real searching eyes of a real gigantic dinosaur. It snorts, and the people and things in the shot respond as if a real animal has really snorted. It roars, and the actors cover their ears; it chases, and they flee. Or get gobbled up.
But, of course, that T. rex is not even there. Well, it wasnt there when the scene was originally filmed. The actors and things in the shot are reacting to simulations, by other persons or things, of what a real dinosaur would have done and of what a special-effects dinosaur will do in the scene as it eventually plays in the finished movie.
Industrial Light & Magic
Many months, if not years, of work go into making a movie with a lot of complicated CG effects. An interesting and informative article at the HowStuffWorks website lists the different kinds of specialists that are employed at one of the more famous and successful CG special-effects companies, George Lucas Industrial Light & Magic (ILM):
Another interesting article at the same website, on another CG special-effects company called Centropolis FX, describes some of the high-tech hardware required by the company, and explains why it is all so necessary:
Ever Improving Results
The results of the special-effects wizardry get better and better that is, more and more realistic as time goes by. For instance, some of the scenes in the original Jurassic Park dont strike me as being quite so realistic as similar scenes in the sequels: I am thinking of the scenes with animals running in herds, or even of any scene with a very large number of animals, running or not. In such scenes in the original movie, some of the animals have some faint, almost indescribable quality of looking as if they are not really there of appearing to be the fakes they really are.
I hardly notice this at all in the sequels. The technology improves, and the professionals gain in skill with experience, giving us better, more realistic, results.
Computer-Generated Imagery on Television
For reasons similar to those already discussed, you could swear the English-speaking Stenonychosaurus librarian in ABCs Dinotopia is real, though not all the characters are quite so realistic.
But some television broadcasts also present an entirely different mode of CG effect: making the viewer see something in a live broadcast that is not really there. This kind of special effect falls largely, so far, into two categories: (1) advertising and branding, and (2) visual enhancement of sporting events.
Advertising and Branding
Over the past few years, insertion of digital advertising images into live broadcasts of sporting events has become more and more common. Called virtual ads, they are seen only by the TV viewing audience.
Their use is not confined to sports, according to a New York Times article, January 12, 2000:
The First-Down Line
Nor is their use in sports confined to advertising. During some professional hockey games in the 1996-1997 time frame, a digitally-enhanced image of the puck was broadcast. Used by Fox TV, it was officially called FoxTrax but was also dubbed The Blue Blob, which gives us some idea of what it must have looked like, at least to its critics. As far as I can tell (not being at all a hockey fan), the practice was controversial among the viewing audience, so it was soon discontinued.
Another digital enhancement of the playing field has been much more successful: the first-down line in broadcasts of football games.
The first-down yard line can be especially difficult to spot by TV viewers. Enter SporTVision, which has been providing a special-effects service to Fox Sports and ESPN since 1998 that draws a yellow or orange line across the field to mark the first-down line for the TV audience.
Think of it as a giant virtual highlighter. HowStuffWorks provides some idea of just how complicated an affair it is to draw with this virtual highlighter:
Eight computers are required to do all that, and four people to run the system:
Ever Improving Results?
I cannot say that live-broadcast CG special effects have been improved dramatically over the years, as have the effects in movies. (I cannot say, because I do not know.) Apparently, the first version of FoxTrax was very much in need of improving; as reported in an article at Canadian Online Explore (CANOE), January 15, 1997:
I am sure, though, that a great deal of research, and trial and error, and continuing improvement has gone into in-house test, and beta, and original production versions of live-broadcast effects: how else does anything really get accomplished? Perhaps there have not been any dramatic improvements because the effects themselves have been inherently simpler and more subtle than those desired in movies.
Computer-Generated Imagery in the Future
The implications of these technological trends have been floating around my mind for quite some time now. A column by Fred Reed, Surveillance in Digital Times was a catalyst:
I have learned since that this technology is employed widely in casinos, to watch for known cheats. And the New York Times reported, May 25, that a trial run of such technology was being undertaken at one point of entry (of the two) to Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty is:
Naturally, this has civil libertarians up in arms, so to speak, for reasons I will not get into here. (If you really want some thought-provoking reading on this, have a look at Fred Reeds article Just Because They Arent Out To Get You in conjunction with the one quoted above.)
This is what really caught my attention about the high-tech photography used at the Super Bowl in 2001: they can program computers, and machines controlled by computers, to photograph faces, then scan a database looking for matches and they can accomplish this search-and-find almost instantaneously.
Wow. Do you see the implications?
Consider (1) the lightning speed at which this digital process (scan and search) happens and (2) the digital special-effects capabilities in movies and TV. These technologies will only improve. But they will not only improve: they will converge.
The day will come, I thought, when somebody will be able to take real, live imagery (such as a politician giving a speech) and substitute phony, digital imagery so quickly and seamlessly that nobody seeing the broadcast will be able to tell.
I suppose that may seem to be a pretty big leap. I never thought it was. But if it was a big leap, a very large step has already been taken towards getting us to where somebody can make it. So reports The Boston Globe, May 15:
What Are the Implications?
I might as well tell you outright: I do not know what the implications are. Who could? But I have some observations that might help us to have some idea how to think about these issues.
Computing capabilities memory, storage, speed have advanced with astonishing rapidity over the past 15 years. I remember (I think) my first PC: it was an 8 MHz 80286 with 2 megabytes of RAM and a 40 Mbyte hard drive. And Windows 2.0. I remember when I got its replacement: a 66 MHz 80486 with 16 Mbytes of RAM and a 512 Mbyte hard drive. And Windows 3.1. Honestly, it was so much faster than my first machine, it would perform the same operations so much more quickly, I sometimes thought something was wrong: I couldnt see it performing the operations on the monitor, or hear the activity of the disk drive, so I worried that it hadnt done them at all! And that machine would be considered a slow-as-molasses-in-January old dog compared to the 400-MHz machine Im using now. (And I have files on this machine that would not fit on that 512-Mbyte disk!) And this 3-year-old machine is a slow old dog compared to the machines being sold today. And computing capabilities memory, storage, speed will continue to advance with astonishing rapidity.
Computers can learn from people. Not as people learn from people student from teacher, child from parent, young from old, anybody from books. No. But programmers can teach computers how to do what only people could have done before. You want some cash? Forty years ago, you went to the bank and got some from the teller. Today, you can go to a machine and get some from the withdrawal slot: people taught machines how to do what only people had done before. (Of course, computers arent the only machines involved here. But they are all, ultimately, computer controlled.) Computers will, eventually, learn from people to do what people have done in running computer-generated special-effects imagery. And they will do it much, much faster than people have been doing it.
Human beings will continue to be... human. We will continue to engage in politics of all kinds: strictly political, religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, etc. And some of us will not scruple for a moment to resort to ruthless strategies and deceptive tactics to advance our goals. When I do say when, not if when the technology exists to make (for instance) Hillary Rodham Clinton look to all the world in a live broadcast as if she is praising Karl Marx and Josef Stalin to the highest heavens, or to make (for another instance) Cubans turn to one another and say Gee, its amazing that Castro is still going so strong for a man of 97 years of age well, somebody, somewhere will be happy to do their best to make it so. Do you doubt that? Unscrupulous persons, no matter their political or other persuasions, will be able to convince thousands, if not millions, if not hundreds of millions of people, simultaneously, that they have seen with their own eyes what in reality never happened at all.
And seeing is believing. And it always will be.
© ELC 2002
|Volume 1.17||This Views Column||June 3, 2002|
|http://theviewfromthecore.com/20020603/column.html @ Tuesday, 20-Oct-2020 11:53:35 GMT|
|This Page in The Current Issue|
|The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.|
|Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman Heart speaks to heart|