Where Do Genres Come From?

That’s the question I’ve been puzzling over this weekend. Why do we accept the genre taxonomies of our entertainment providers? Here are the genres according to HBO Go: Series, Movies, Kids, Comedy, Sports, Documentaries. When you drill down to Movies on HBO Go, you get to choose Action, Comedy, Drama, Horror/SciFi, Suspense, Romance, Family, or Latino.

Weirdly, while we’ve become so adept at micro-targeting and receiving our personalized recommendations via collaborative filtering algorithms, when we approach films categorically, we still allow ourselves to get funneled down into a handful of broad genre categories.

This makes sense to me just from a cognitive perspective. When I was an ice cream man in the early nineties, I observed that kids took a shorter amount of time to decide which items to buy when there were fewer choices. I worked for two ice cream companies–Joe’s Ice Cream in north Seattle, and a sketchy, backwoods sort of operation based outside Olympia. Joe’s offered nine items, and the sketchy operation offered over twenty. I made sales much faster driving for Joe’s because my customers weren’t as paralyzed by choice. This is a common phenomenon extensively studied by people more informed than me about psychology.

And I’m just as guilty of choice paralysis as anyone. I’m writing this post at Victrola, a cafe on 15th street across from a building that used to be home to On 15th Video, a business whose closing I still lament. I can’t tell you how many times I stood in that store, walking slowly down the New Releases shelves, numbed by choice. And when I’m visiting my parents and indulging in their Netflix, I often find it takes me half an hour to settle on a movie to watch.

Genre is a helpful tool that helps us decide what entertainment we want to choose. But the trade-off is that it forces works of art to conform to narrower definitions than they’re often inclined to conform to.

One way around this is to categorize films via the auteur theory. Scarecrow Video organizes their vast collection in this manner, and it’s an incredibly gratifying experience to browse by director if that’s your orientation to movies. But if you enter Scarecrow with no idea of what it is you might want to end up watching, you run the risk of spending an hour or more wandering. Or you might miss a science fiction film by a particular director if that film is filed by director rather than genre.

Genre classification, whether we’re talking about books, movies, or TV shows, is something we just can’t seem to quit, a seemingly necessary set of restrictions that allows us to make choices.

How’s all this relate to VR?

One of the things that’s fascinating about VR is how it weds two art forms that have up to now only flirted with each other, games and movies.

The big question is how much interactivity users are going to want from their VR. VR allows for the creation of explorable 3D spaces. Is watching a VR movie like watching a play, where I can choose to direct my attention to various actors on a stage? Or is it like a video game, where I can actually climb up on that stage and interact with the actors? Am I going to want some experiences to be fully navigable, and want to play more of a spectator role in others? I just don’t know, but I want to figure this out.

One prediction I think that’s safe to make is that in the early days, media companies will simply import the genres we’ve grown accustomed to in movies into VR. There will be sci-fi, action, drama, and (if HBO has any say in this), Latino VR experiences. (And of course there is/will be porn, which is a whole other discussion I don’t have the bandwidth to get into at the moment.)

But there’s another way to approach genre in VR. Genre can be based on the level of interactivity and the sense of presence rather than the categories we’ve inherited from movies, which in turn inherited them from books. I think we’ll come to our genre classifications through how we choose to use VR, not just via the tropes of the content we expect to encounter with it.

I’ve written about stereoscopes in this blog, and I think they’re actually an interesting way to think about what genres might emerge in VR. During the Victorian stereoscope boom, I’d posit that the most of them were of the Exotic Lands genre. People liked to look at 3D images of far-away places. Looking at these sorts of stereoscope cards now, it still feels like you’re “there” in a way that you can’t get from looking at an old 2D photograph.

I think we’re going to want this again, but with a poignant twist. I think we’ll use VR to “preserve” parts of the world that are vanishing due to climate change. I think human beings will be hungry to “visit” the island nations that will soon be subsumed by rising sea levels. We’ll create a virtual archive of earth’s dying places in order to remember them, and hopefully one day we’ll use this archive as our species’ collective memory so that we can bring these kinds of places back.

I believe that the power of presence can be a tool toward ensuring the continued existence of life on earth. It represents an opportunity for the earth to become more fully aware of itself via human perception, and maybe it’ll whip off the flat screen-induced blinders we’ve all been wearing.

On a far more trivial note, I was thinking recently about how I’d use a 360 camera rig to film my apartment on Capitol Hill. I often feel like I hit the apartment jackpot. I live in a vibrant, incredibly walkable neighborhood. I’m across the street from a grocery store, within a couple blocks of light rail, Elliott Bay Book Company, parks, and one of Seattle’s very best bakeries. I also recognize that I won’t live here forever. So I’ve been thinking that some day I’d like to just make a VR recording of my apartment. I’d set up the camera so I could revisit what it was like to sit in my writing chair in my living room, or gaze out my bedroom window when the dogwood is in bloom.

We’ll get to the point where home VR recording will be a thing. I’ve already seen a incredibly sleek 360 camera about the size of a smart phone. As we get into whatever ends up being the VR version of FaceTime, we’ll hit record so that years later we can relive those conversations we had with our geographically separated relatives. Increasingly, VR will become a medium we use not only to travel to various places in space, but back in time.




VR Reaction Videos

I’m late to these sorts of viral videos, so chances are you’ve already seen these if you’re at all interested in VR. But I thought I’d post them together, as they provide an interesting juxtaposition of the emotional reactions that VR elicits.

First, a grandmother going bonkers.

And here, a lady losing her shit playing a zombie VR game.

This is how people initially react to any new visual medium. In 1896, the following film (and films like it) literally caused people to gasp and jump out of the way.

Sometime in the late eighties, I was visiting my grandmother in Davenport, Iowa, with my family. My dad and I sat down one night in their den and watched an episode of our favorite show, Dr. Who. I remember it being one of those gloriously lo-budget Tom Baker episodes. In this particular episode, the Doctor is tormented by mummy robots. These robots killed their prey by slowly walking toward them and squishing them in a kind of menacing group hug. As my dad and I were cracking up at the cheeseball nature of this form of demise, my grandmother wandered into the room, looked at us, looked at what was on TV, and said, “This isn’t scary to you?”

Point being, we learn how to get bored by a medium, how to get jaded, how to turn into Beavis and Butthead, sitting on a couch, mocking the lame production values of entertainment that was cutting edge years before. The same thing is going to happen with VR. Some day the experiences available in VR now will look dated and our kids will mock us for ever being so scared or so thrilled.


Strange World

Here’s a really short clip of the storytelling app I helped create during the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon last weekend. Most of the credit belongs to the other members of my team: Majesta Vetal, Tarik Merzouk, and Eva Hoerth. I was so proud to be part of this project, which won the prize for best visuals.

A few notes about what you’re seeing here. This is how the app looks when viewed through a Hololens. The Hololens has a “record” feature that allows you to capture video of what you’re seeing. Eva recorded this video, and that’s her hand you see clicking the “Next” button.

Continue reading

Using a Tool to Make VR within the Environment You’re in the Process of Making

And around we go.

Last night I had my first Oculus Rift experience in a co-working space on Capitol Hill. Don Alvarez, President and Co-Founder of Accelerated Pictures was demoing Filmmaker Live, a storyboarding tool for VR and 2D movies. While my career has led me to various interactions with Hollywood in the past (like the time Jane Fonda scowled at me at a red carpet event, long story), I am neither a filmmaker nor software developer. My impressions of Filmmaker Live are entirely through the frame of a storyteller and VR noob. Grain of salt alert.

Obviously, in order to make VR experiences, we need tools to make those experiences. Since we don’t yet understand what those experiences might entail, we don’t yet understand what tools we might need to make them. It’s a chicken and egg problem that folks like Don are working on.

For some time there’s going to be an innovation loop between the software developers who build the tools to create VR, and the Vrtists who use those tools. This is going to require a lot of feedback, trust, imagination, and camaraderie. And there will be a certain porousness of these roles. In an emerging medium, artists and engineers are often the same people.

filmmaker live
Filmmaker Live. The MS Surface interfaces with the VR environment through the cloud. I think that’s how it works.

So what is Filmmaker Live? Roughly speaking, it’s a story boarding tool. It allows filmmakers to imagine their shots ahead of time in a virtual environment. You can plan either 2D or VR experiences with Filmmaker Live. For instance, you can frame your shots from within a 3D simulation of your location. And here’s something really trippy that took me several minutes to buffer. When you’re in the VR environment, with the goggles on, you can call up a control panel for the software within the environment. You can bring the tool inside the tool itself and while you’re there, you can either use the tool to frame a 2D movie or fly around the environment that you intend to use as the basis for your VR environment. And it gets trippier. The VR environment you’re in can represent the real world you’re planning to film in (a world in which production teams build physical objects and breathing actors speak their lines), or a computer generated VR environment, or some combination thereof. Who designed this stuff? MC Escher?

Continue reading

The Victorians Beat Us All to VR


I’ve been fascinated by stereoscope cards since I stumbled upon a cache of cards and viewers at the Yaddo artist colony in 2001. In recent years I’ve been collecting these cards, which represent the some of the first efforts at photographic 3D. The technology is quite simple. A pair of photographs of the same scene taken slightly apart recreate stereopsis when viewed through a stereoscope viewer.

Gazing at these tableaux does create a slight feeling of that VR buzz word presence. In the brilliantly executed scene pictured above, the staff of Ontario’s Windsor Hotel Great Dining Hall circa 1894 stand ready to serve you. You can’t really see it in the jpeg, but behind them, in the back of the room, are two huge mirrors, which create even more depth. I count at least  dozen distinct planes in this image! It’s easy, when looking at these sorts of scene, to fall into the fourth dimension–time. I get tugged backward to the turn of the twentieth century and feel, ever-so-slightly, that I am there.

As I’ve spent more time with stereoscope cards, I’ve begun to appreciate the craft of their anonymous photographers. You can tell the ones who seized upon the possibilities of communicating depth.

Ye Olde Occulus Rift

The stereoscope evolved into a toy that most of us have some familiarity with, the View Master. I have a View Master with a number of slides, including one of pictures taken around Washington State in 1954. My favorite shot from this series is a view of downtown Seattle taken from that little park on Admiral as you approach the crest of the hill in West Seattle. It’s quite incredible to see our city when the tallest building on the skyline was the Smith Tower. There’s also an image of Spirit Lake and Mount Saint Helens that almost makes me tear up every time I look at it. Not because St. Helens is gone, but because of how much snow there is on that mountain. It almost hurts to look at. Continue reading

Using a Medium’s Limitations as Narrative Structural Elements

I had an interesting conversation with a developer at the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon last Saturday. This fellow was dismayed that 360 images lost their resolution at the outer edges. Which means that a user sees the objects closest to the 360 camera as crisper than objects that are at the outer edges of the “dome.” When you can navigate within this 3D space in VR, the resolution of your surroundings degrades the closer to the edge you get.

I went and slept on a beanbag in the lobby of Fremont Studios and as I was passing out, I thought of a saying I used to hear a lot at Amazon, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

When I woke up, I started thinking about old photographs. In recent months as I’ve been writing a memoir, I’ve been digging through boxes of family photos taken from the early seventies through this decade. This means not just traveling back in time to glimpse images of myself and my family when we were younger, but viewing those younger versions of people via older iterations of the medium of photography.

What’s “wrong” with this photograph taken in the early 1980s? Well, besides the fact that I apparently didn’t know how to wear shorts?

And when we look at photographs, we don’t say that there’s anything “wrong” with them if they happen to have been taken in the seventies with a rudimentary, 35 mm point-and-click Pentax. We don’t have the sense that something has been lost or degraded if we’re looking through fuzzy shots within the frames of Polaroids.

If the point of VR film is to capture the physical world with as much verisimilitude as possible, then the resolution issue in a navigable 360 image is going to cause you headaches. But if you accept those limitations, you free yourself and open up some interesting creative opportunities.

Continue reading

The Infancy Of VR and AR in Seattle


I just spent forty-four straight hours at something called the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon, a gathering of developers, techies, and artists interested virtual and augmented reality. We camped out in a sound stage in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, where we quickly formed teams and spent a weekend developing apps for Microsoft’s Hololens, a wearable headset computer that overlays holograms on the real world. Trying out the Hololens for the first time was one of those this-is-going-to-change-everything moments, like my first Internet search (for Beastie Boys lyrics, 1993) or the first time I turned on an iPhone.

I was on a team of four people and was literally twice as old as every other member of my team. I was nothing but impressed by the tech skills, creativity, and unflagging twenty-something endurance of my teammates. I remembered what it was like to have that kind of stamina from when I was a customer service rep at Amazon back in 1998. In those days I was pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at the same time I worked fifty hours a week in the depths of a UNIX-based CRM database. At one point the word “emacs” made my teammates laugh.

My team ended up winning the prize for best visuals for our 3D picture book, which you can imagine as a holographic pop up book that you can blow up to the size of a house. The lion’s share of the credit for our prize goes to the tenacious members of my team who were toddlers when I was attending various Lollapaloozas. When the weekend of coding wrapped up, I said goodbye to the other members of team Strange World thinking, you guys are about to have such incredible careers.

I’m just dipping my toe into this new medium, and my primary filter is that of an artist. I’m just beginning to see how this industry is shaping up, and I have some thoughts on how Seattle might best take advantage of the talent, tech infrastructure, and lessons from the dotcom bubble as we head into this new world of virtual and augmented reality. I’m planning on posting my evolving thoughts about this stuff in this blog.

Continue reading