Monday, September 1, 2008

The most complex sculpture in any world, real or virtual?

Mystery, beauty, superlatives and controversy have punctuated the short life of Black Swan, a region in Second Life® that, at its birth, was famously the stage for Starax's return to the metaverse as Light Waves after a much lamented 15 month disappearance. The discovery of Black Swan in mid-September, 2007 revealed graceful prim-light sculpty sculptures placed spectacularly along the periphery of a watery aquamarine basin, and Light Waves did it all using less than 4,000 prims.

Now, and since July 16th of this year, this inherently dramatic simulator has become the site of what must surely be the most complex sculpture in the history of virtual worlds...

I am not talking about the fact that it is airborne, or the size of it, but because Noobility is nothing short of a play that is taking place before your eyes in real-time... a 3D, immersive and silent play. It tells a powerful and highly theatrical story that transpires over the course of an hour, and then recycles again, and again, in automated fashion. The only thing that's missing is the popcorn.

I did some research to learn if any other art installation, real or virtual, had ever accomplished this, but the only thing I could come up with, that even came close (and while delightful, it is certainly not "art"), was the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland, and even that doesn't run one hour long, destroy itself completely and recreate itself anew, while its spectators are able to move around it and in it freely at any time.

We had already seen a variation of the sculpture - The Sky is Falling - also by Seifert Surface (aka Henry Segerman), at the Garden of NPIRL Delights. 1,500 prims "in a pattern based, in part, on a process that turns up in nature a lot: 'growing' new objects around an axis at an angle of 2pi/Phi from the previous one, where Phi is the golden ratio," he explained.

Seifert, a postdoctoral mathematician and lecturer living in Austin, has been featured on these pages many times in the past with his math-inspired art - and the adulation he inspires in many of the grid's leading content creators is well deserved - but this new installation, realized together with his Real Life brother, Art Laxness (aka Will Segerman) - a Brighton, UK-based prop master for film and theatre in Real Life - is way, way over the top.

* Concept and storyline: Seifert Surface and Art Laxness
* Sculpties: Art Laxness
* Scripting: Seifert Surface
* Video: Bettina Tizzy
* Music - Awaiting the Attack: composed by David Flavin, ASCAP and Roland Rudzitis, ASCAP

The technical aspects of Noobility, as the kinetic sculpture is now known, are without precedent. To give you some idea, there are 2,552 active scripts... fewer than ten are listeners, and almost everything is collision-activated. Three sensor prims inject scripts that make the falling phantom prims drop.

I met with Seifert and Art at Noobility to learn more from the two masterminds.

A 17-sculpty-prim noob meets his creator. Art Laxness' avatar is a basic prim

What were some of the pranks you pulled when you were kids?
Art Laxness: Henry (Seifert) would never go for pranks. He's been a grown up since the age of 10. :P
Seifert Surface: We did build those tripwire traps. Well, trip string, but nobody ever went through them unaware.
Art Laxness: Elaborate Rube Goldberg things to shoot stuff at people...

How old were you at the time?
Seifert Surface: Err. 10?
Art Laxness: ... dunno first used a band saw when I was 8... liberal parents. There were bits and bobs, like that board game... ninjas! And we made that wrestling ring. And the bows and arrows? Then there was the scooter race course we built in the workshop, and the play dough head where you cheesegrated the end of my finger...
Seifert Surface: Oh, yes. :)

Where did you grow up?
Seifert Surface: Manchester, UK. We lived in a place that was half our Dad's business (workshop) and half house.
Art Laxness: His company makes strings for Renaissance instruments and repairs them, too.
Seifert Surface: Used to be lots of people around, making instruments...
Art Laxness:... and having early music jams.

How'd it happen that you decided to collaborate on Noobility?
Art Laxness: Henry happened to be (coming) 'round in Brighton. I had the making-fake-AVs idea rattling around for a while.

Did you develop the storyline first?
Seifert Surface: No, it all came together at once. I decided really very late that we were going to rerez the whole structure anew each time, and then the question of what prims it would rerez came up.
Art Laxness: Kinda how I find making art works... the making instigates the concepts and vice versa.
Seifert Surface: ... and we already had these noobs, so the concept of the noob god, Giganoob, came up naturally.

The noob, or the avatar most male users are wearing when they make their first appearance in Second Life®, has the perpetual countenance of a young and innocent simpleton. His facial features aren't fully realized and his clothing could be described as "generic basic." Interestingly, it seems that the noob avatar we all know and recognize today will soon be history. Second Life is introducing much more elaborate "starter kits"

The noobs' nincompoopish look is magnified when he is "afk," (away from keyboard), which newbies often do since they generally don't know anyone upon arrival in-world. This hilarious capture taken at a USC MacArthur Foundation event by Wellington Bahram

When did you come up with the noobs, Art?
Art Laxness: Pretty much as soon as sculpties came out... avatars were, until that point, unique. You couldn't reproduce them.

Did you hear that they've gotten rid of Ruth?
Art Laxness: Yes, we now have the cloud.

I think the guy noob looks so much better than Ruth.
Seifert Surface: We'd always wanted to go for the male avatar rather than Ruth anyway.
Art Laxness: Wonder how that would fit into our mythology ;)
Seifert Surface: He's quite a bit creepier looking.
Art Laxness: Yeah, the noob we used here was my first experience of Second Life. When I signed up, all of my informative experience was wearing that skin. I wore it around the Ivory Tower of Primitives.

Interesting way to put it.
Seifert Surface: Will has a degree in fine art. He can reel all that stuff off for hours.

Art also works with The Magicians, a metaverse development company led by Kim Anubis (aka Kimberly Rufer-Bach), and while their current project is quite Possible in Real Life (PIRL), it's a stunner.

A different way to spend a holiday... You were working off Art's router?
Seifert Surface: We decided quite a bit of what we were going to do before I was in England. Then, pretty much the whole time I was there (2 and a half weeks), we were working on it. (Worked off of ) Art's wifi. Yeah, my Mac on the kitchen table, Art's computer on the other table. Back door out onto a view of the sea.
Art Laxness: Was fairly intense. I have a lovely large kitchen here with my computer in it.
Seifert Surface: Art's latest Real Life project...
Art Laxness: I sculpt fine art and also make props for film and theatre in Real Life. (Art showed me a photograph of Cate Blanchett in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age, for which he had sculpted some of her armor). (It) was a lovely project. Prop making is fun but the pay isn't great and the hours suck.

Are you unionized? I have an old school friend who is in a prop masters union here (US), and boy, do they have it locked in! The last time I looked, they only had nine members.
Art Laxness: Nope, all freelance, and there's way more people (who) want to do it than there are jobs.

While we'd been chatting, Noobility was pressing on in its automated fashion.

Uh oh, here comes NOOB GOD.
Art Laxness: Apocalypse time
Seifert Surface: Giganoob giveth and Giganoob taketh away.

I love the flexis.
Seifert Surface: Nice bit of incongruity. I might have spent the longest on that kind.
Art Laxness: I was unsure of them at first but yes, glad they're in.

Here and there, when things really get going, a flexi pyramid begins to spin on its own axis

It's a masterful touch. How many flexis are there?
Seifert Surface: The number changes. There are a couple of factors: which pyramids are special, and how many of each is determined each time it rezzes.
Art Laxness: Giganoob decides.
Seifert Surface: There are prime numbers and integers modulo those primes involved.
Seifert Surface: He does actually... there's one part which is random. Giganoob decides on a random seed for the whole pattern, which is a number between, er, 1 and 90000, I think. That one number determines the colours, the positions and numbers of special pyramids... everything. One of the tricky things is that, when you rez something, you can pass the rezzed thing a single number for initial data, so what people often do is use that number to set up a listener and then use the listener to transfer extra data, but there are 1500 pyramids (here).

... would lag us to death.
Seifert Surface: Right. It probably wouldn't be that bad, actually, but yes, it's bad form. So, the Giganoob rezzes a pyramid, and it knows which of the 1500 (prims) it is, and it knows the seed number (between 1 and 90000). From those two bits of information, it can work out everything else, and it is because it is all mathematical and procedurally generated that we can get away with that. The blue glowing things are just going out there to deliver the actual prim. When they get out there, they rez the appropriate type of pyramid.

The veins in the pyramids are new in this installation.
Seifert Surface: Art's department.
Art Laxness: Inspired by Aztec-ness and my housemate playing the WII Zelda game.
Seifert Surface: Oh man, did you know the texturing is entirely different when a prim is flexi? I had to convert Art's texture using a python script to get it to look right. You can see a tiny flicker on the texture when it comes back from flipping twice... Little bits of imperfection... le sigh.

What else about the scripts here is different from what you've seen in Second Life before?
Seifert Surface: Hmmm. There are a couple of things that are a bit different. All the vanilla pyramids (the stable ones)... none of them have any scripts in them, again, for lag purposes, and nothing has a listener in it.

Vanilla... like the one I'm flying over?
Seifert Surface: Yep, vanilla as opposed to more interesting flavours. Not a reference to the colour. Just that it doesn't try to kill you.
Art Laxness: Check the (prim) description to see what flavour each is.
Seifert Surface: In order to make the things fall, it needs a script in there, so it's all done with the use of a function called llLoadScriptPin which loads scripts into existing prims. It's not used much, although I got the idea from Jeffrey Gomez, who used a similar thing for his Primmies game.
Art Laxness: Seif assures me its all very clever.
Seifert Surface: Quite a bit of hackery to get it to work :) I guess having the rezzing be part of the artwork is kind of new in Second Life. Seeing things built by script is one of the most awesome sights in Second Life, I always think, but it's usually only the builders who see it.
Art Laxness: I get to see that aspect of Seif's stuff and (it) is as good as the final thing.
Seifert Surface: Well, you rez your thing using Cadroe Murphy's Tools. Then you've got your nice big circular platform, and you're done. Visitors later on might figure out that it had to be built by script, but they won't see it building.

Among other things, Seifert Surface created the winning logo for the Not Possible IRL group

Did you fill out that NPIRL survey on IP protection, Seifert?
Seifert Surface: Errr, I think so, but it is not something that I'm terribly concerned with. Scripts are in far less danger of getting nicked.

Unfortunately, what did get nicked was Art's prim-based noob. It was copybotted and free full-mod noobs became available - even via SL Exchange - all over the grid a few weeks ago. While Art filed a DMCA, he has not had a response from Linden Lab.

Well, I mention it because the biggest concern of the participants was the protection of their scripts, by far. Meaning... that they serve one purpose and you don't repurpose them?
Seifert Surface: Yes, and even then, I don't sell much in-world for L$. Most of my things are one-offs. Nobody is going to steal Noobility and set it up somewhere, even if they could. Well, I guess they might, but specific commissions for a client would be a little obvious.

Have you tossed any scripts into the open source bin?
Seifert Surface: I have a couple on the Wiki. There's a fractal tree generator, and another one for making arbitrary parametric surfaces from triangles.
Art Laxness: You should get the door script you made for me out there... doesn't sound like much, but if you regularly make doors, it is serious stuff.

Are you mathematically inclined, Art?
Art Laxness: I enjoy maths but not to the level Seif does. (He) is a mathematician who does art; I'm an artist who does math. I see math as more of a means to an end... which results in Seif explaining stuff to me so I get what is going on while I need to. Then I promptly forget it all.
Seifert Surface: That works :)
Art Laxness: ... and hey, if I ever need to know again, I've always got Seif right (here).

Art, what program are you using to make your sculpties?
Art Laxness: I think I used most in this project: Maya, Wings, Blender. It involved lots of trying-things-out.
Seifert Surface: ... and we used Glintercept to get models of the noobs to build the sculpties around.

But working with all this software seems so foreign to your Real Life work, and crafting with objects.
Art Laxness: Not at all. I'm into making 3D objects in every medium I can get my hands on. Any sculptor who isn't into 3D software is really limiting themselves, and as 3D printing becomes more accessible, the fields are going to merge. I mean, consider prop making in 10 years time when I could just print out Cate Blanchett's armour.

Teleport directly to Black Swan from here. To access the sim, you must pay $199L and wear the attachment you are provided with.

See also:

More on Seifert Surface:
- Summer Noob Games ;-)
- Mathematical Sunday with Seifert Surface
- It's blooming sculpties at Seifert Surface's "XYZ" sim
- Turning the page on 2007 in virtual worlds - What happened and what's next
- This just in! The future of huge prims is looking good
- Not Possible IRL field trips with Seifert Surface

More on Black Swan and Starax/Light Waves:
- Baby found at Black Swan
- For the dude who worked so hard on it in the first place
- Rezzable Productions: The slippery slope of turning art into a revenue stream
- It's easy. No, it's magical.
- Light Waves' 'Night Dreaming' statue comes alive


Pavig said...

This certainly isn't the first work of this type. Generative works have a long and proud history. Artificial life type systems such as Svarga and the (now defunct) sl ecology are prime examples of similar temporal generative works. The wikipedia page is a good jumping off point for exploring these themes.

The difficulty of understanding the systems that make up these artworks is what makes them so difficult to describe. In fact often the most intense creative element - the coding - is completely invisible, and even if you could see it only another coder could see the art in it.

Ironically these generative code practices exist throughout SL, invisibly running the wind (which we are almost never aware of), and if Phil had his way in early sl development, would have been the primary creative force active in SL, generating also our trees, creatures and environment.

Unfortunately in fighting griefers the "grey goo fence" in sl has also killed a majority of the generative art and environment systems within SL - the anti griefing system killed the SL ecology within 48 hours of being switched on. It is the greatest shame in SL I think... and though hardly anyone knows about it, for me it was the death of any chance of us having a "natural environment" with the magic of the "sensical randomness" of code organisms we don't directly control in our virtual lives.

On a less maudlin note :P This is a wonderfuly clever artwork - and there's magic in the coding of it. It can be perceived, makes sense, but in acting of it's own accord, cannot be explained. Lovely work.

Henry S said...

On the grey goo fence:

There is a relatively simple solution to these problems, just have a single central rezzer. With an ecosystem build, when a new animal is supposed to be born, rather than the mother animal doing the self replication trick, just request a new animal (with whatever genome you want) from the central rezzer and off you go. The effect is the same, assuming you're not trying to birth a ludicrous number of animals at once, and the grey goo fence doesn't notice any of it.


Troy Mc said...

This installation is indeed impressive, but "The most complex sculpture in any world, real or virtual?"

No wonder some people accuse the SL of being over-hyped: it sometimes *is*, and this blog post is an example.

Some people define the complexity of something as the simplest / shortest program (or set of programs) that can reproduce that thing in every detail. Two copies of one program doesn't count for double (because a small program can be written to do the duplication). By this definition of complexity, Pirates of the Carribean blows this out of the water. Arrrr!

Bettina Tizzy said...

Pavig, thank you for this stunning comment, and I appreciate the melancholy it conveys over lost opportunities. I had not thought of Noobility as an AI system like Svarga but rather as a sculpture.

I also realize that it is far more complex to erect some of the more ambitious sculptural projects in Real Life, such as Christo's installations or the New York City Waterfalls, but most of the complexities behind those works have to do with the sheer cost of realizing them as well as the permit barriers imposed by the locations.

Troy - Okay okay, guilty as charged... although SL could use more of the overhype and less of the slamming, these days. However, it was not a statement... it was a question.

I also think that Pirates of the Caribbean rocks, but that is not a sculptural work, or is it?

I loved when Jay Newt of Brooklyn is Watching described the Garden of NPIRL Delights as a "theme park." What is the demarcation point between an art installation and an attraction, and will virtual worlds narrow that gap?

jay2 said...

This is indeed a really impressive artwork IMHO. It is NPIRL so its hard to think of something to compare it to. Part of the reason is that expense would be immense, and this is a reason why- I think you're right Bettina and SL may narrow the gap between "art" and "theme park". Pirates of the Carribean can exist because it appeals to mass taste, and it can make a lot of money for someone like Disney who has a lot of money to spend.

Something like Noobility could have been created by a one crazy dude in his basement.... i gather it was created by two crazy dudes in this case but... you get my point.

The only "high art" example i can think of that has this kind of scale is something like Christo and Jeancaude's umbrellas or Gates, or Valley Curtain.... Those works had a similar epic scale (seen from the pov of the avatar... i mean.. physically Noobility is some ones and zeros in some server, right) but if i am my avatar- and its easier and easier for me to imagine that i am... this work is very effecting- because of its epic scale and part of what works there is the inclusion of the AFK noob figures...

Ugh... as i write this i think about the "lost podcast" where we talked about all of this... so frustrating.

Anyway, I like this work so much that I am compelled to be very nit picky abou it. The tron-esque texture on the pyramids seems extraneous to me. It feels like the artists were not confident enough in the power of the work and added that to make it look cooler. I think its a distraction and the work would be better without it. The texture calls attention to the game-space nature of the work in a way that doesn't really shed light on what it seem to me its really about.

what is it really about? I'm not sure- but its some kind of a feeling that transcends (or wants to) any game and any technology- the randomness of the pyramids makes me think of the human condition-- Job at the mercy of powers he can't control or understand and the fact that they sometimes wiggle and then eventually drop out from under the noobs and that it starts all over reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus...

Bettina Tizzy said...

Jay, always good to see your good brain 'round these parts. Yep, I think we can equate the scale of the Noobility installation with something like Christo's umbrellas, but before you do your podcast on the topic, don't forget to factor in that Noobility also relays a story, self-destructs, recreates itself, and tells the story anew, every hour on the hour.

Sysiphus was totally emo and yearned to reclaim his place back amongst mortals. For me, the noobs are like 0's and 1's in a software program, and Giganoob is the programmer.

Looking forward to that podcast!