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Weekend Gems 003

May 17, 2020

The value of constructive demands, using storytelling to organize reality, Kinect’s path to oblivion and tales of Mirrorworlds and Magicverses.

What do we use for lifeboats when the ship goes down?

“What we want to ask for, what we want to demand is the quality of artificial illumination, not how pretty the light pole is.”

This past week I found myself going back to my readings on Richard Saul Wurman, a man whose work and biography always captivates me, no matter how many times I choose to revisit it. An architect himself—although, as Molly Wright Steenson notes, a more accurate description would be simply “curious”—Wurman’s work is so radically interdisciplinary that the moment you think you have read everything about him, you are met with, well, a new gem.

And this is precisely what this interview, given to My (a pseudonym used by the author), is. Because this interview, beyond architecture and an architect’s gaze over the city, is about curiosity, information, what it means to be a good teacher and what it feels like navigating life with a plan. Most importantly, in this interview Wurman talks about the value of truly understanding how the world works and making sense of even the tiniest elements that compose it.

Being in a position to rationalize a problem and read behind its textual appearance, enables one to form constructive demands, seek valid spatial experiences and, most importantly, get answers of quality and substance.

In his own words:

“You can ask for brighter stations and new vehicles, and you don’t even know what a movement system is or what it really means to move or why you want to move or how movement affects your life or could affect your life or how interesting it is when you are moving or whether it is good to have a certain period of time… whether it should be longer each today that you are in movement or it should be less, and why it should be either”

For Wurman, one truly understands something only if that particular something is relative to something else they already know and understand. If this thought seems blatantly obvious, that’s because it is. All the powerful things in life are simple and profound. Same goes for storytelling; as a medium of communicating ideas, a story is powerful because it bridges the new with the known. Everybody knows how to craft a story, how to listen to one, how to recall one at different times and stages of their lives, how to navigate through allegories, metaphors and synecdoches. And this is precisely why I think architecture has long been flirting with other media and creative fields, such as films. One of the quotes that really stuck with my while I was working on my thesis in Volos, came from Walter Murch. Speaking on films and architecture, in his own words:

“Architecture is an exterior medium, film is an interior medium […] The patterns of image and sound and story of a good film have to have a certain entertainment value, but ultimately they also last in the mind as sort of a template of matrix of how to organize reality.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that Paolo Soleri’s work comes up in the discussion between Wurner and My. Speculative architecture, as Liam Young notes, is essentially stories. Stories are a much more effective medium than a technical plan for one to grasp the structure of a system and be in a position to form constructive demands regarding its future transformation. It allows one to illustrate all the potential effects a single change will eventually have to the ways we perceive the world—let alone how it will look. Simply put, speculative architects need to employ the proper media in order to structure a glimpse into the future of space, to speak the right words in order to create life out of chaos.

Paolo Soleri’s Figure 2 of Novanoah I, part of his famous project ‘Arcology’

Liam Young’s interview at STRELKA Magazine

During another bright moment of this interview with My, Wurman brings forward the issue of making spaces a novo versus recognizing the inherent value of found spaces. “I think we have only two abilities” he says. “We can say more, and we can say no.” For anyone even mildly interested or invested in the profession and structure of architecture, the re-appropriation of buildings is nothing new of a techne—on the contrary, it is an entire sub-field with its own borders, techniques, artifacts and design methods and thinking. Yet I cannot help but think of one particular project that was so radical in its conception yet so profoundly simple that not only expands Wurman’s idea of “saying no” but also confirms the importance of asking the right questions in order to get results of quality and substance.

When Lacaton et Vassal, a creative duo famous for their fresh and radically pragmatic stance on renovation and architecture, saw this little triangular plaza in Bordeaux, they knew what kind of development it needed.

“Clean it more often and treat the lime trees: quality, charm, life exist here. The square is already beautiful”.

All the money in the world couldn’t make Kinect happen

The path that led ,e to this article was rather funny: I was recently reading Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s “The Second Machine Age”, a book written in 2014 about the ways innovation accelerates in the digital age. In Chapter 3, while building an argument around Moore’s Law and the infamous Chessboard Tale, the writers bring forward the problem of SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping): flirting with oversimplification at this point, one could think of SLAM as a technology of creating a mental map of a space while navigating and exploring it for the first time. If this sounds like a very banal ability for a human, it is—but not for a robot (or at least it used to be—remember, the year of the book is 2014). Bringing Moore’s Law to the table, this time next to the SLAM problem, Brynjolfsson and McAfee turn to Kinect and praise it, Microsoft’s sensing device that sold more than eight million units in the sixty days after its release, retailing for $149.99.

For some reason I was never really drawn to Kinect—perhaps because I did not own an Xbox at the point of Kinect’s publishing or perhaps because my mother, a professor of Topography and Digital Photogrammetry at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, had insisted I worked with LIDAR scanners whenever I wanted to scan spaces. What does the one thing have to do with the other, you may ask. Well, apparently Kinect was widely used as a space scanning tool—a practice first presented in the project ‘KinectFusion’ at SIGGRAPH 2011 and pioneered by a team of Microsoft employees and academics. And for a short period of time, it seemed like it was here to stay; not necessarily as a game console but as a (very powerful) tool of sorts.

Which brings me to the second gem of this weekend: I decided to see how Kinect was doing and, apparently, according to Blake Hester, it is not doing so well. Blake’s piece takes the reader down the memory lane, all the way back to 2005 in Tel Aviv, where the idea behind Kinect started among PrimeSense—the team of Aviad Maizels, Ophor Sharon, Alex Shpunt, Dima Rais and Tamir Berliner.

One of the things I found particularly interesting was when Blake describes the ethnographic research the employees at Microsoft carried out. Beyond the skin tone problems or the different accents that Kinect could not pick up (which, if you are a non-native English speaker like me and sound more like a movie stereotype, you know it’s a very real problem), apparently the majority of the skeletal data Kinect was operating on, were taken from volunteers at Microsoft—aka, a lot of white guys. Asian girls, black teenagers, pregnant ladies and people on wheelchairs were simply invisible to the camera. Kinect was, first and foremost, a clear manifestation of Mark Weiser’s idea of ubiquitous computing: without the need for a controller, this technology had the power of creating entire worlds and completely dissolve inside them. “You are the controller”, as Kinect’s marketing lead noted. Yet it is interesting to see how a medium as ground breaking and radical as to have Steven Spielberg envisioning new storytelling paradigms, just slipped.

Quite ironically, Kinect’s story is that of a medium who failed to sync with the stories it wanted, was able to and finally managed to tell. It is also a story about a tool with potentials that exceeded the world it wanted to be a part of. As Hester writes, “Kinect has been used for stroke recovery, to translate sign language, by NASA to control a robotic arm, and in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea to monitor for objects crossing the border. It might’ve died in the game industry, but Kinect has lived on through alternate uses.” All in all, Kinect’s story is probably one about asynchronous narratives. Which kind of brings us to the next read.

Welcome to the Mirrorworld

Going through Wurner’s thoughts on distributing information in the city and the story of Kinect’s “disappearance” made me think of a brilliant piece I read a year ago. On the 12th of February, 2019, Kevin Kelly published an article called “Mirrorworld” on WIRED. The piece, revolving around the future of the Augmented Reality technologies, describes a constructed reality of contextualized objects, images mediated by machines and pure information overload - where everything has its own virtual double and immersion is achieved through the merging of the physical with the digital. “The mirror world does not yet fully exist, but it is coming” he writes.Indeed, it is. For Ming-Chi Kuo, this world would arrive somewhen in 2022 at the earliest. However, this past week, Jon Prosser took on to twitter to announce that maybe this world is closer than we think.

The anticipation of such a world is not a new phenomenon yet it seems there is always something strangely familiar in the way we anticipate it or even fantasize about it overall. In 2016, Kelly himself was writing about Magic Leap, a company founded by Rony Abovitz. The startup, famous for its head mounted virtual retinal display and prototype AR headset, is standing behind its own vision of a fully Augmented world - the Magicverse - which was first presented to the world in 2018. Described as “an Emergent System of Systems”, the Magicverse is imagined as a highly dynamic environment of data, overlaying and constantly informed by the physical environment it is attached to. The success of such a spatial computer model relies heavily on evoking a sense of place-ness as it is, in fact, an aggregation of place extensions itself (remember SLAM from Kinect’s story?). Designed to amplify and strengthen the digital, immaterial and invisible networks that have already manifested themselves as a total of events and connections in the urban fabric, at the end of the day the Magicverse should be visualized as a scale-less architectural condition.

Now, it seems that the idea of Magicverse is going to be overshadowed (or actualized) by Starboard, the UI designed for Apple Glasses (I am sure that Mark Jarzombek would have a lot to say about the choice of naming of all these AR / Digital phantasmagorias). Regardless of the name, I find this period—the time before the actual announcement of a particular technology—to be the most fruitful and fun: it is the time of speculations, absurd scenarios and wild critical thinking of what might be.

Speculating on the effects and possibilities of an augmented reality world is, of course, not new: architects have long been imagining a spatial condition such as the Mirrorworld (or the Magicverse) and studying cases where the need behind the creation of such a model was employed as a design drive force; Coney Island, Walt Disney’s EPCOT and Archizoom’s “Instant City” are just few of those bright examples. However, even though speculative architectural projects are still enriching the depository of the field, in the dawn of Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies, I can’t help but notice that architects seem to only be able to see in them merely as design tools and not a design and spatial condition unfolding overall. Simply put, these emerging technologies have mostly been treated as a medium; whether as a narrative vehicle in artistic installations, a design tool in architectural design processes or as a technology to be further advanced and optimized by engineers.

And maybe, just maybe, we could learn a thing or two from Kinect’s story and brace ourselves for a world that, when it arrives, will require us to sync our stories with the media that sustain it so that we can see and use the latter for what they truly are and what they can truly be.

Bonus Round

Unreal blessed the world this past week with Unreal Engine 5. Go watch the Demo running on PlayStation 5 because, I promise you, even if you are not into gaming, you will want to see this.