Beyond Verses

My blog that specializes in Space Science and latest news from NASA

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Artist makes beautiful light with Microsoft's Kinect

Artist Audrey Penven used a Kinect and a camera with an infrared filter to create a series of hauntingly beautiful photos. Her gallery exhibition of the images opens Friday.
(Credit: Audrey Penven)
For months, we've known that Microsoft's Kinect could help make video games fun. But who knew that it projects such beautiful light?
Until San Francisco Bay Area artist Audrey Penven and some friends started taking pictures of themselves playing Kinect games, no one. But when Penven looked at the images, she realized she was on to something special.
In normal light, you can't even see the light put out by the Kinect, Microsoft's new motion control system for the Xbox 360. But with the help of a roommate's camera, which is modified to shoot infrared, Penven discovered scenes at once ghostly and straight from the cover of a Neal Stephenson novel.

Penven said she learned that the Kinect projects a known pattern of infrared structured light, and that when it picks this up with its built-in camera, the device figures out the shape of the 3D space based on the distortion of the pattern. "It uses infrared light so ambient visible light won't interfere with the process," Penven said. "I imagine this is also so it can remain invisible."
The images that resulted from Penven's photographic experiment show a cacophony of bright dots that encompass and enfold the people in them. They evince movement and wonder and hint at art. Yet the first time around, the light was little more than Kinect trying to gauge the movements of Penven and her roommates while they played a little Dance Central.

"I thought it was really amazing to see people defined by these infrared dots," Penven said of discovering the surprise in her photos. "I knew that infrared was used in some way by the Kinect to map out 3D space, but I didn't know what to expect when shooting with an infrared camera...I thought it was interesting that the human form could still be so recognizable, even when only shown in tiny dots. I loved the quality of light and the different way of looking at depth and form. [And] I was inspired by the way the Kinect was using a pattern invisible to human eyes to see us."

Related links
 Culture hacker talks Kinect bounty hunt (Q&A)
 Bounty offered for open-source Kinect driver
 Hacker wins contest for open-source Kinect driver
 Microsoft announces plans for Kinect SDK

That inspiration led Penven to take what she had just inadvertently learned and run with it. Created with the help of artist and animator Aaron Muszalski, the result is her first-ever solo art exhibition, titled "Dancing with Invisible Light," which opens Friday at the Pictopia gallery in Emeryville, Calif., and which will run through April 29.
"With these images I was exploring the unique photographic possibilities presented by using a Microsoft Kinect as a light source," Penven writes in the invitation to the opening of the exhibit. "As a photographer, I am most interested in the nature and quality of light: how light behaves in the physical world, and how it interacts with and affects the subjects that it illuminates. For this shoot my models and I were essentially working blind, with the results visible only after each image was captured. Together, we explored the unique physicality of structured light, finding our way in the darkness by touch and intuition. Dancing with invisible light."
Unanticipated use of the Kinect 
Though the Kinect has been an unqualified success as a video game accessory, selling more than 10 million units since its November debut, it's also been a huge hit in the hacker community.
Literally from day one, that community has been out to take the Kinect places where Microsoft never intended. A $3,000 bounty offered by the open-source hardware outfit Adafruit Industries for the first open-source driver for the device bore fruit almost immediately, and since then there's been a near free-for-all among people wanting to use the Kinect for things far outside of gaming.
And to some of those who have been following this movement since the beginning, Penven's work fits in beautifully.

"[It's] stunning. This is another great example of the tool being used in a way that [Microsoft] could not imagine," said Phil Torrone, a principle at Adafruit Industries. "Are they diamonds, are they points of light? It doesn't matter--it's just one of the many expressions the hacked Kinect has enabled for artists, designers, and even photography--something that's been around for almost two centuries."
To Kyle Machulis, a hacker and artist who has experimented with Kinect-created visualizations, Penven's work is deeply impressive, particularly given that the device has been on the market for such a short time.

"It's really amazing, the way she brings such beauty to [something] happening in millions of homes around the world right now," Machulis said. "We're only five months into the release of the Kinect and the technology is already becoming a bit of an afterthought to many consumers. But what's going on behind it still seems like magic even to those of us close to the technology, and [Penven's] pictures really bring that out."

Of course, Penven is hardly the only one using the Kinect to make art. Do a quick Google search on the term, and a seemingly endless supply of links pops up. They range in style from the art that can be captured on screen with a series of gestures to 3D printed representations of Kinect users' motions to a storytelling initiative that helps children gain confidence in their self-expression to an effort to use the Kinect to help blind people restore some sense of sight.

Just a little flash 
While Penven's final images blossom with light, the reality is that when she and her models were shooting the pictures, they were in a dark room with nothing more than a camera flash to illuminate them. But throw in the infrared filter and the pictures burst into life.
"Most of what you see was done in camera," she explained. "For some shots, we experimented with longer exposures and movement. Color and contrast are the only adjustments I made after the fact. Infrared photography, by its nature, is a false color process. The infrared spectrum is represented by colors that we can actually see. I hadn't intended to change the color much from what came out of the camera, but I thought that the difference between the light from the flash and the Kinect was really cool. I decided to emphasize that by pushing the colors in different directions."
Although Penven and her friends discovered the artistic possibilities of the Kinect while playing Dance Central on an Xbox, she said that for the photos in the exhibition, they never hooked up the game console. So what you see in the images doesn't has no relationship to any game--it's nothing more than the million points of light from the Kinect rolling over Penven's models.

In the end, she came up with a whole set of images from the shoot. But one that she is using to promote the exhibit may do the best job of illustrating what the show is all about. In the image, a woman is seen half normal, and half flooded with purple dots. It screams cyberpunk.

"I love the contrast between the sides of her face," Penven said. "Right after this one was taken, and there was a group of us standing around the camera to see it, someone said that she looked like she fell out of a sci-fi story. That really stuck with me. It's like a traditional portrait of a half-digital human."


NASA snaps first image from Mercury orbit

Mercury's Debussy crater and environs, in the first photo ever taken by a spacecraft in orbit around Mercury.
(Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
NASA this afternoon released the first-ever photo of Mercury taken from a spacecraft in orbit around the innermost planet of the solar system.
The most arresting element of the photo is the rayed crater Debussy, which lends to the overall image the impression of the vine end of a cantaloupe after the vine has been snapped off. Straight out to the left of Debussy and much smaller, about halfway to the left border, lies the crater Matabei "with its unusual dark rays," NASA says.
The space agency has seen Debussy and Matabei before. What it hasn't ever seen until now is a region of Mercury that lies in the darker bottom half of the image, in the direction of the planet's south pole.

The photo comes from the Messenger spacecraft, which took off from Earth in 2004 and which has taken plenty of flyby photos of Mercury since 2008. Earlier this month, Messenger became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Mercury. And with that, scientists are hoping to get a much fuller sense of the inhospitable planet, addressing questions such as these: Why is Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, so dense? How big is the planet's core, and is the outer core really molten? What are the unusual materials at its poles--could that actually be ice?

In the six hours since snapping this image of Debussy and environs at 2:20 a.m. PT with the Wide Angle Camera of the Mercury Dual Imaging System, Messenger acquired 363 more images and began downloading the data to researchers here at home. NASA plans to release additional images tomorrow.

The spacecraft is still in what NASA refers to as the commissioning phase of its mission, as Messenger and its instruments get checked out. The science mission begins April 4 and is expected to last at least a year and to generate more than 75,000 images.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Russia's New Angara Rockets To Be Test Launched Before 2014

Test launches of Russia's new generation Angara booster rockets will begin no later than 2013, a spokesman for the Russian Space Forces said.
Alexei Zolotukhin said work to build on-ground infrastructure of the space complex for launches of Angara carrier rockets is currently in active stage at Russia's northern space center Plesetsk.
Angara rockets, designed to provide lifting capabilities between 2,000 and 40,500 kg into low earth orbit, are expected to become the core of Russia's carrier rocket fleet, replacing several existing systems.
The rockets have a modular design similar to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), based on a common Universal Rocket Module (URM).
The main purpose of the Angara rocket family is to give Russia independent access to space. The rockets will reduce Russia's dependence on the Baikonur space center it leases from Kazakhstan by allowing the launch of heavy payloads from more northerly sites such as Plesetsk and from a new space center in Russia's Far East.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The 10 Best Computers in Science Fiction Movies

For nearly a century, the best computers in science fiction movies have set standards for real-world computer engineers to live up to. Unfortunately, the most advanced practical super-computer we’ve come up with is a smart phone that sometimes gets service. But that won’t stop science fiction movies from constantly dreaming of bigger, better — and sometimes badder — super-computers to accompany, assist, and attack our celluloid heroes.

The Great Machine

(from Forbidden Planet)

 The Forbidden Planet is a quintessential 50′s sci-fi film, and it stars a very young Leslie Nielsen to boot. The plot of the movie revolves around a mission to a distant planet, where a human colony had settled decades before. Upon arriving, an unfunny Leslie Nielsen and team discover that the planet is virtually abandoned, except for a few remaining humans and a giant computer, The Great Machine, that’s capable of bringing a person’s thoughts to life. Unfortunately, it turns out that people think of monsters a lot, so a monster shows up and they have to kill it by blowing up the computer and (obviously) the entire planet. Despite The Forbidden Planet‘s dangerous message regarding futuristic technology, it would still be awesome if you could just think of a chili dog, and then you’d have one. I’d fight off a thousand thought monsters a day for that computer.


(from Barbarella)

In contrast to her incredibly pro-feminist public persona, Jane Fonda starred in Barbarella, which is basically just a perverted voyeur show posing as a crappy science fiction movie. Jane is naked and/or scantily clad for the entire film (even when she’s wearing a snowsuit, somehow) and it’s basically just her running around in lingerie, having sex with alien dudes, and talking to her gay computer friend, Alfie, who takes care of ship business and manages everything while she’s out whoring it up like an intergalactic Jersey Shore cast member. Alfie’s pretty cool though, and his patience with Jane’s slutty ways are an attribute that any futuristic super-computer should possess.



(from the Terminator film series)

Computers in sci-fi movies tend to go one of two ways: either they’re the all-purpose helper who handles everything for its owner so that they can focus on fighting evil aliens, not going crazy, or banging their way through the galaxy, or they quickly become sentient, realize that humans are a pestilence, and dedicate all of their programming to the destruction of mankind. SkyNet is the poster child for the latter type of sci-fi computer. SkyNet is basically the internet if it went rogue on us and had lots of guns. As the all-knowing antagonist of theTerminator film and TV series, SkyNet manufactures and controls an unending army of militarized robots hellbent on the destruction of humans. It’s self-sustaining, self-programming, and self-aware. SkyNet is the reason why your iPhone still has an off button. You may never use it now, but you’ll be very thankful it’s there if and when you have a “oh crap my smart phone became sentient and is now trying to murder me” moment.


Bomb #20

(from Dark Star)

 Dark Star is a strange must-watch science fiction movie from the twistedly awesome mind of John Carpenter (who later did The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live, along with every other movie you love). Dark Star is a dark sci-fi comedy about a spaceship crew whose job is to destroy troublesome planets by dropping self-aware nuclear bombs on them. Trouble arises when one of the bombs, Bomb #20, becomes belligerent. The bomb refuses to drop out of the bomb bay door, and it also refuses to disarm itself. It’s the Charlie Sheen of nuclear bombs. Now the crew is faced with a real problem: there’s an armed nuclear weapon on board and they can’t get it off. In the end, the bomb starts thinking that it’s God and explodes, killing everyone on board. This seems completely ridiculous until you compare it to another running plotline, the mischievous pet beach ball (not kidding) that rolls around the ship causing trouble. Dark Star is a definite must see.


(from WarGames)

 WarGames is a movie about how scared people were in the 80′s. As with all movies about what people are scared of in the 80′s, WarGames focuses on the Cold War. In the film, the government has created a super-computer that will manage the dispersal of nuclear warheads in the event that the Soviets start the fight. There’s only one problem: in the 80′s, all computers ran on DOS, and any kid with a Commodore 64 could just hack into military data networks and play the missile defense system like a game of Oregon Trail. In WarGames, that kid with the Commodore is a young Mathew Broderick, who thinks he’s playing a video game but actually almost starts World War III, then has to try to stop the computer from blowing up the entire world. Luckily he does, and a few years later he’s able to skip school and have the best day of his life with his best friend Cameron, his girlfriend Sloan, and his high school principal who turned out to be a pedophile in real life.



(from Alien & Blade Runner)

 Alien is one of the most recognizable science fiction movies of all time. Depending on who you ask, the film is either about the horrors of mouth rape (which is pretty obvious), or about black people destroying the world. Either way, none of the story would have been possible without MU-TH-R, the super-computer that controlled and monitored every aspect of the Nostromo, the ship that carried Sigourney Weaver and friends to their destination/tragic demise at the hands of the nastiest mouth-raping alien we’ve ever seen on film. Ridley Scott directed Alien just three years before he directed Blade Runner, and MU-TH-R’s control panel was used in both films. When asked about the super-computer crossover later, Scott claimed that he had done it on purpose because both films probably took place around the same time in the future, so it made sense that the computers would be similar. It’s either that, or he still had the control panel footage from Alien laying around when he forgot to shoot coverage for Blade Runner. His version sounds way cooler, though.


Master Control Program

(from Tron)

 Tron was a crappy movie, but the special effects were light years ahead of their time. Therefore, it only makes sense that the major antagonist of the movie, a super-computer program called Master Control Program, should look like a CG mash-up of The Kool-Aid Man, one of those giant Easter Island heads, and Scotty Pippen. Despite how ridiculous MCP looked and how easy it was to destroy in the end, the idea of a sentient computer program controlling reality was a fairly revolutionary concept in the film world when Tron was released in 1982, and Tronwas the only sci-fi film that ever utilized an all-knowing computer program antagonist like this in a—-oh wait, no it wasn’t. Here’s another movie that did the same exact thing :


The Machines

(from The Matrix)

 The Matrix is a lot like Tron. A LOT like Tron. But there’s one huge difference that sets it apart and makes it infinitely cooler: in Tron, our hero gets sucked into a computer-generated reality. In The Matrix, our hero discovers that his reality is already computer-generated. The Machines, the villains of The Matrix series, are a collection of sentient robots created in the early 21st century (so, right now) that became got pissed and started using humans as a power source. In order to keep us busy while they sucked our life force out, they created a computer program, The Matrix, to simulate reality. It’s up to constantly-in-awe computer programmer Neo to stop the program and wake people up. That makes for an entertaining and super-cool film, but I’d much rather stay asleep and pretend to live a normal life than wake up looking like a Road Warrior extra and have to hide from self-aware robot squid in the sewers all day. No thanks, Neo. Keep your stupid colored pills and let me dream about inventing that chili dog computer.


HAL 9000

(from 2001: A Space Odyssey)

 HAL 9000 is easily the most recognizable sentient computer-gone-bad in science fiction movie history. As the villainous computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL was directly responsible for making your parents afraid of computers. What made HAL creepy wasn’t just the fact that he killed people or disobeyed orders, it was that we as viewers got to watch him transform from a helpful computer companion into a soulless murderer. The tone of his voice never changed. His mannerisms (subtle as they were) stayed consistent. His giant red eye never turned a more evil shade of red, but we could just tell that he was thinking, and that he was bad. There’s a reason why HAL is the universal symbol of evil sentient computers: because he’s the best there ever was.


Gerty 3000

(from Moon)

 Gerty 3000 is the super-computer from Moon, the 2009 British sci-fi movie starring Sam Rockwell and directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones. Gerty’s success as a sci-fi movie super-computer rests entirely on the shoulders of HAL 9000. Gerty has a similar look to HAL (with the exception of the charming emoticon facial expression screen), has a similar voice to HAL (except that it’s Kevin Spacey’s voice), and exhibits much of the same behavior and mannerisms that HAL displayed in 2001. The comparison is subconscious, and it was done that way on purpose. The effect is subtle, but incredibly effective: as a viewer, you know that you’ve seen this kind of sci-fi movie computer before, and you know exactly what it’s going to do: it’s going to become evil at some point, and you’re waiting for it the whole movie. Then it doesn’t happen, and you realize that you’ve been fooled. Unlike HAL, Gerty performs exactly as he’s supposed to. He follows commands even when they’re against protocol. He’s an exemplary sci-fi moonbase robot. Plus, he has adorable emoticons to make him more personable. What more could you want?