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This virtual world

Monday, 17 November 2008 — by

When we speak of virtual worlds, we really mean the real world. Because no matter what these virtual worlds look like, they’re still populated by real people. But what happens when virtual worlds become reality and reach into the real world?

The inverse is probably more astonishing; what happens when our actions in the real world are captured and played out in a virtual environment? Those actions — made up of gestures and movements that we consider our own — become the scrutiny of others, watching from afar.

A body of electronic evidence

The very clever technology behind the Nintendo Wii and ‘touchless’ technologies by Elliptic Labs have potentially more luminous and less strenuous futures:

“One use of gesture recognition that sprung immediately to mind was the world of surveillance. Automated systems could monitor people passing through major transport hubs — such as bus depots, train stations, air & sea ports, for example — spotting violent altercations or individuals acting furtively.”

Similarly, technologies like GreenDot allow for people to be identified by their own unique motion patterns:

“To identify who is in the video, the computer first looks for movement in the scene. As the video plays, and the computer collects motion data, it compares new information to a database of previously ‘learned’ body signatures, and can eventually identify the human.”

Clearly, such innovations could be made to serve the interests of the public. An example would be identifying the movements of known criminals, irrespective of their dress or their appearance. Their expressions and their very motion would betray them. Also, finding people who are lost or who have been abducted could potentially be accelerated.

But what of their potential for abuse? Do they outweigh the apparent usefulness of such technologies? Here, yet again, personal privacy and the perceived invasion thereof is an unwelcome specter.

Beauty is only algorithm deep

For years, magazine editors have given us a false, utterly unrealistic, yet tantalizingly close, vision of beauty. Armed with a copy of Adobe Photoshop, cover girls are transformed from being just attractive, to unattainably gorgeous.

Now this electronic elegance is automatic; photographs of the ordinary are subtly transformed into the extraordinary — all at the touch of a few buttons:

“They’ve built a beauty machine that, with the press of a button, turns a picture of your own ordinary face into that of a cover model. While its output is currently limited to digitized images, the software may be able to guide plastic surgeons, aid magazine cover editors, and even become a feature incorporated into all digital cameras.”

How long before this technology can work with live video?

With so many women and young girls obsessing over their looks and appearance, this kind of technology is reinforcing their mostly unfounded cosmetic concerns and perpetuating a cycle of self image being everything, rationalizing the hiding of the real substance behind a virtual persona, like that afforded by a Facebook profile.

The key to more than just privacy theft

We are now creatures of habit, now routinely guarding our personal details from prying eyes. Our credit cards, mobile phone numbers, email addresses, receipts and utility bills are brimming with data & information that could easily undermine our personal and professional lives, should they fall into the wrong hands. But just how secure is the humble house or office key?

“In one demonstration of the new software system, the computer scientists took pictures of common residential house keys with a cell phone camera, fed the image into their software which then produced the information needed to create identical copies.”

But why do this? This is the work of students at the Jacobs School of Engineering, and this is a demonstration, meant to highlight just how insecure keys are as means of securing ones property. It’s an alarming demonstration, too.

Real life, with added motion blur

Blurring the boundaries between the real world and the virtual are technologies like those of Innovid and VideoTrace. In their virtually real worlds, everything has the potential to not be quite what it appears to be:

“Innovid provides a platform that allows seamless integration of brand advertising into relevant video content.”

“VideoTrace is a system for interactively generating realistic 3D models of objects from video—models that might be inserted into a video game, a simulation environment, or another video sequence.”

Essentially, this is the ultimate product placement, where the product is virtual. We’re looking at the future of advertising, a future where advertising is so targeted to our needs, it’s no longer annoying.

When we combine these technologies, there will be nowhere to hide from advertising, corporate endorsements or sponsorships. Thankfully, such things might just be invisible in the real world, as material costs, environmental pressures and the prevalence of mobile devices means it’s far more practical for advertising to exist in digital form, a layer or two away from the real world, suspended in the electronic ether between this world and that behind a video screen.

When worlds collide

Motion tracking. Voice analysis. Facial and gesture recognition. Real time video effects. CCTV. Incrementally, very clever people are, piece by piece, inventing the various, disparate parts of a new future.

But what kind of a future? We have a choice.

On the one hand, this world of ours becomes a surveillance society. One that is no longer a far off place, confined to the chapters of a science fiction novel. A very real Orwellian present-day future.

On the other hand, we might one day bask in the warm glow of a technological Utopia. A place where our advancements walk in lockstep with our clean and virtuous societies.

It’s probably harsh to try and lay blame at the feet of people with the inspiring, inquiring minds. But the thing is, when their imaginings go beyond the “What if?”, and they either forget or neglect to ask “Why?”, the buzzword and the killer feature of today could become the very real world we live in tomorrow, be that world for the better or for the worse…

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Jillian → Saturday, 22 November 2008 @ 19:08 BDT

You raised a lot of good points and although I have reactions to most of them, I would like to suggest that the “Beauty is only algorithm deep” might prove the opposite.

Sure, people want to look good, but the truth is that 98% of us have few attractive features and don’t really care enough to even eat a healthy diet, much less go under the knife to fix or alter facial features.

I believe the internet will help move the population away from the fixation on physical beauty because of social networking and online dating sites. With the internet, you get the chance to get to know someone – assuming they are being truthful – before you see their actual face and body. It is what is in the head, the heart and the soul that really matters. I hope this moves people away from the shallow and into the real depths of what makes us human.

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