In this week’s Metro, I explore feature film motion capture technology and hear how performance capture artistes are being short-changed on acting accolades.
New Zealand-based Weta Digital is one of the world’s leading VFX and performance capture studios. I interviewed Dan Lemmon, visual effects supervisor on Oscar-nominated War for the Planet of the Apes.
I also spoke with Johl Garling, head of studio at Imaginarium Studios, a dedicated motion and performance capture studio co-founded by Andy Serkis in 2011.
In chatting with Dan and Johl, I realised a distinction – that had escaped me for now – between motion capture and performance capture:
‘Motion capture’ has become ‘performance capture’, a deserved nod to how the myriad cameras, sensors and polystyrene balls now combine to record subtlest nuances of an actor’s delivery
Performance capture a fascinating subject. While I couldn’t cover everything in the feature, there is one story I‘m keen to tell that we didn’t have space for in print:
The head-cam is another important part of believable performance capture. ‘Essentially, these are little video cameras attached to the actor’s head pointing at their face,’ explains Dan Lemmon, VFX supervisor at Weta Digital. ‘We add white markers to the face so we can track how each patch of skin moves, then transform those movements into curves and map them onto a digital puppet.’
In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Andy Serkis wore four head-cams to capture the necessary detail to animate Snoke, the Supreme Leader. The challenge in the Planet of the Apes films is that Caesar’s face is so dissimilar to that of Serkis. ‘The nose, muzzle and brow are anatomically completely different,’ says Lemmon. ‘We have to figure out how to make certain facial expressions while respecting the realism of the ape’s anatomy. It requires a carefully trained human eye to make sure it looks right.’
Read more in the Metro e-edition here and take a look at my other visual effects stories in the Metro here
My ‘super cuts’ highlights packages for major tech product launches have become increasingly popular. In summer 2017, Mobile World Live commissioned me to produce video packages for the much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the Apple iPhone X smartphone launches.
Standing now on another packed commuter train, I glance up to see a carriage full of people staring down at their smartphones. In fewer places is it more evident how mobile technology has become central to our lives.
It’s no wonder then that smartphone launches from the likes of Apple or Samsung attract significant attention from the media as well as the public, all eager to learn about the newest devices and their features.
That why quick-turnaround highlights packages – like those I’ve been producing over the last couple of years – have become very popular online and shareable on social media.
The full Apple press conference clocked-in at just under two hours, the Samsung Unpacked event at just under sixty minutes. Yet, shortly after each event, I’d edited and voiced crisp broadcast-spec packages capturing the most important moments and the energy from the entire event.
Similar items I’ve produced for media outlets have performed very well, capitalising on speed of production and the thirst for information on the latest mobile hardware.
Head over to Mobile World Live TV to see the full Apple iPhone X or Galaxy Note 8 stories, or take a look at some of my previous packages for MWL TV and International Business Times. And do drop me a line if you think a quick-turnaround package might work for your outlet or brand.
In today’s Metro tech section I shed some light on Li-Fi, a flashy new wireless tech that uses your living room light to help you browse safer and faster.
In a nutshell, Li-Fi is just like Wi-Fi except it uses visible light from domestic LED light bulbs to carry data, instead of invisible radio waves from a Wi-Fi router. As I put it in the Metro story, think Morse code on steroids.
Of course, using visible light does raise a few questions: many of us do not have our lights switched on during the day, some of our connected devices may sit under a desk in the dark, and rapid flashing or flickering is known to provoke headaches or worse.
I spoke with Professor Harald Haas, the luminary behind Li-Fi (here’s his TED talk on Li-Fi), who is well-practised at batting away these concerns as well as speaking of the technology’s benefits in terms of security, speed and even health:
Professor Haas is the co-founder of pureLiFi, the Edinburgh firm attempting to turn the technology into a viable commercial proposition. Its latest product, the pureLiFi-XC, features a USB adapter the size of a thumb drive with drivers certified for Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS and Linux. Android and iOS smartphones and tablets are not supported yet, but pureLiFi hopes one day its technology will be embedded into all devices, just as to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are now.
Li-Fi-enabling our light bulbs may prove more of a stumbling block, however. Each LED light that supplies a wireless data stream must be controlled by a Li-Fi access point which, in turn, must be network-connected. pureLifi may need to provide more ingenious ways to minimise the friction of installation if it is to muscle-in on Wi-Fi’s patch, particularly if it is to make waves in the domestic sector.
Nevertheless, if growth in connected smart-home and internet of things devices means that demand for radio frequency bandwidth exceeds availability – the so-called ‘spectrum crunch‘ – then technologies like Li-Fi will certainly have a place in our homes and offices of the future.
In this week’s Metro newspaper I share my top turntable picks.
The ‘vinyl revival‘ is a term coined to describe the resurgent interest in records and record players that dominated the musical youths of me and many others over 35. In fact, record sales recently hit a 25-year high.
Technically obsolete behind the CD, MP3 and now online streaming services, vinyl has nevertheless maintained mindshare with those who value the tangible side of owning music – not least the album art – alongside the much vaunted ‘warmth‘ vinyl brings. Indisputably, nostalgia plays a big part of this; cost and convenience? Perhaps not so much.
I can tell you that the first 7-inch singles I bought were You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon and For America by Red Box (wasn’t 1986 a great year?), but they were pre-dated in our house by shelves of my parents‘ discs – an eclectic mix of folk, country and pop, plus Hancock‘s Half Hour radio comedies like The Blood Donor and (my favourite) The Radio Ham.
I have now taken the reigns of its Inspect-a-Gadget column, where my remit will be to cover where emerging technology meets with business IT. Or, less elegantly, what the latest gadgets and consumer tech mean for the workplace.
Among my recent stories there, I have looked at how the all-new Bluetooth 5 standard ups the ante for the Internet of Things, got an early hands-on with the QWERTY-equipped BlackBerry KEYone smartphone, and visited London Tech Week to meet a UK startup that claims to have cracked Siri for the office with its UMA conversational AI:
Earlier this week, I began looking at some new entries to Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017.
In today’s Metro, I ask how the tech firms are tackling online abuse.
Despite the efforts of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, many of the internet’s most popular destinations remain troubled by trolls.
When the trolls are in town, popular social platforms become unpleasant, unsocial places, not a carefree online destination to catch up with family and friends.
Some of those accused may claim they are exercising free-speech, but that doesn’t wash if the intent is to cause alarm or distress. Hurling abuse at somebody isn’t free speech, it’s hurling abuse at somebody.
So, isn’t it high time that tech firms stepped up their game to tackle the online abuse that runs riot on their platforms?
That’s what I examine in How tech is tackling trolls: how artificial intelligence, machine learning and image recognition are being deployed to disarm the trolls who terrorise the web.
However, there’s another angle to this that I’d like briefly to expand upon here: social networks need to tackle online abuse not only for their users’ sakes but for their investors’.
You see, for online social platforms driven by advertising – which is most of them – it is impossible to ignore the economics of trolling.
Economics of Trolling
Social networks are based on the principle that we humans are social creatures who like to express ourselves. The more we share, the more the networks know about us, and the more able they are to sell targeted advertising (ads that are, in theory, more relevant to us) on behalf of their partners.
Overall, it’s a happy relationship, and the numbers speak for themselves: almost 2 billion of us log in to Facebook every month to share status updates, likes and photos, from which it made almost $10 billion in 2016.
However, fear of unsocial behaviour on social platforms makes us more reluctant to express ourselves online; the less we share, the less they know and the less we visit, so the more it hurts the online platform’s ad revenues. The likes of Facebook and Twitter make nothing if we’re too afraid to use them.
Facebook and Twitter make nothing if we’re too afraid to use them
Twitter: We Suck
There are other ways in which the economics of online abuse can hurt too. Last year, Disney dropped its plans to buy Twitter over concerns that widespread trolling and bullying on the platform might, according to Bloomberg, ‘soil the company’s wholesome family image’.
Months before, Twitter boss Dick Costolo wrote, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls,” adding “It’s no secret, and the rest of the world talks about it every day.”
It does: just ask Leslie Jones, Katie Price, Zelda Williams, Katie Price, and countless others who have made the news after leaping from the toxic platform, having unwittingly stirred the trolls’ nest.
So, clamping down on unsocial behaviour is an obvious investment for businesses that rely on us being socially generous.
As I explore in the Metro feature, technology can go some way to weeding out abuse, but the trouble with automated tools is where the boundaries blur between abuse and robust argument. Even human moderators struggle with this and, for a while yet in my opinion, it’s likely AIs will too.
In today’s Metro I investigate whether the CIA really can ‘hackcess all areas’. Plus, I ask if wearable tech has fallen from fashion. Hold on tight, it’s time to Connect…
Last week’s WikiLeaks document dump professes to reveal how the CIA has – with help from agencies including MI5 – been collecting and developing an arsenal of hacking tools, exploits and cyber skeleton keys to pick its way into the devices we use every day.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Covert surveillance is a tool widely used by intelligence agencies to maintain national security and counter terrorism.
But if the good guys can find a backdoor into our connected kit, surely the bad guys can too? Read on in the Metro e-edition…
The Apple Watch launched less than two years ago. I know this because on the day of the launch I confidently declared that ‘wearable tech is the next big thing’ on stage at the Gadget Show Live, enthusing about the upcoming Pebble Time smartwatch and the latest Jawbone and Fitbit gear.
How times change.
Less than two years on and the wearables phenomenon has failed to catch on, leading analysts to rein in their optimism.
Back to the Apple Watch.
Many – myself included – saw the launch of Apple’s highly-anticipated wearable as a watershed moment. Indeed it was, but rather than sparking a wearables revolution it had the opposite effect. ‘Oh, is that it?’, was the consensus.
However, as Bill Gates once quipped, we tend to over-estimate the impact of a technology in its first two years but underestimate its impact in ten. It might be in the depths of the trough of disillusionment but I can’t see anything other than wearable tech to playing a huge part in our future.
In today’s Metro I embark on a tour of Soho to see how London’s Oscar-winning visual effects firms are lighting up cinema screens around the world.
Central London is home to many of the movie world’s most innovative visual effects firms. With the 89th Academy Awards this Sunday I wanted to understand more about what goes into making VFX-heavy Hollywood films.
In researching the feature I spoke to Foundry co-founder Simon Robinson. His company’s software titles Nuke, Mari and Katana are used by post-production houses the world over – in fact, every film nominated for a best VFX Oscar in the last six years has used its software.
As well as talking technology I also learnt about the immense manpower required to turn around a typical movie, and ethics around the digital character resurrection that saw Peter Cushing and Paul Walker brought back to life for the big screen.
The 2017 Oscars take place this Sunday 26th February 2017, with five films nominated for Best Visual Effects: Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Deepwater Horizon, The Jungle Book, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
Read the full story in the Metro e-edition here.