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The VR “Dream Park”

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Ready or not, here comes the future of mass entertainment.

As Adi Robertson and Ben Popper write in The Verge, “my partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.

Then we take off our headsets, and it all disappears. I’m standing on stage playing a game called The Curse of the Serpent’s Eye in The Void, an experience created by the Utah-based company of the same name that is one part virtual reality, one part video game, one part interactive theater, and one part haunted house. Its creators call it ‘hyper-reality’: a virtual experience overlaid onto physical space, creating impossible places that visitors can touch as well as see.

Instead of a torch, I’m carrying a wooden dowel studded with small, shiny balls. Instead of the hissing snake, I see what look like powerful fans. And instead of the straight golden walls, there’s a round and nearly featureless gray labyrinth, turning us in circles forever.

On July 1st, after months of running limited ‘beta testing,’ The Void is opening its first public attraction: a Ghostbusters-themed experience in New York City’s Times Square, located inside the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. For $50, visitors can strap on a VR headset and a backpack computer fashioned into a Ghostbusters proton pack, pick up a matching gun-shaped plastic prop, and act out a cinematic fantasy in real life.

After opening a door into a small New York City apartment, they’re accosted by tiny pink poltergeists, then make their way into an elevator and out a 40th-story window. A flock of living stone gargoyles and one angry Victorian spirit later, everything seems fine… until a familiar marshmallow-shaped face appears in the window.

Ghostbusters: Dimension is short and linear, although there are supposedly hidden Easter eggs for visitors to find—it’s a walk-through three-person experience, not a vast virtual world. But as technological achievements go, it’s a stunningly intricate one.

Players can see full-body avatars of their companions thanks to tracking markers on the headset and gun, and they walk freely through a tremendous amount of space by VR standards. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of getting hit by a thrown object or friendly proton pack fire, and mist accompanies the whooshing of a ghost.

We tried it, and it may blow your mind if you ever get a chance to try it too. Over the last four years, virtual reality has emerged as one of tech’s most exciting new sectors: Facebook, Google, Samsung, and Sony are all in the process of producing and marketing virtual reality hardware.

Most of those devices are are being sold directly to consumers; the experiences they offer—games, short films, and the like—are meant to be played at home, sitting in a chair or else tethered to a nearby PC and power supply.

But there’s an entirely separate category of virtual reality that won’t be possible at home. You’ll be able to walk freely, without tripping over wires. You’ll actually feel the heat of a fire on your face, and the weightlessness in your stomach during a fall off a skyscraper. These are the virtual reality experiences currently being built into arcades, attractions, and theme parks.

In February of this year, China’s Shanda Group announced it would invest $350 million in virtual reality and build a VR theme park built in collaboration with The Void. IMAX, the widescreen theater chain, is working with the Swedish game studio Starbreeze to bring ‘premium location-based virtual reality … to multiplexes, malls and other commercial destinations.’ And established amusement parks are layering virtual reality onto their existing rides—Six Flags is currently upgrading nine roller coasters into VR experiences this summer.

In one way, there’s something contradictory about driving all the way to a theme park to get into a virtual world. In another, ‘virtual reality’ seems like an arbitrary term to throw around, when theme parks already offer simulator rides and 4D theaters—does adding a headset fundamentally change the experience?

But if these attractions catch on, they could give people a new way to live out the fantasies that Disney, Warner Brothers, and other companies have used to build multi-billion dollar empires. And to companies like The Void, VR isn’t just a new technology. It’s the key to building another world.”

This is what’s happening, and that’s that – there’s really no arguing with it; not unlike the “Dream Palaces” in Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement, which I keep coming back to again and again. Soon these “dream parks” will pop up everywhere, and encourage people, even more, to live almost completely in a fantasy world. Comic book movies long ago took over the multiplex, and show no sign of easing their iron grip on the box-office; it seems that perpetual adolescence is now in control.

One wonders, absolutely idly, what someone like Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson or a more thoughtful director recent vintage might do with such technology, but it seems that the two mediums are incompatible. This is the future of theatrical exhibition; traditional “movies,” in 2-D, 3-D or Imax, are about to undergo a revolution.

This is just the opening salvo in what will be a complete transformation of the filmgoing experience; narrative films in which the viewer is a key participant. In ten years, contemporary cinemas will be as outmoded as silent films were in the late 1920s; you watch, this is coming on fast.

The VR future of “dream parks” is here and now.

Artificial Intelligence is Transforming The Web

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

As Cade Metz writes in a great article in Wired, AI technology is transforming the web – and the world.

As Metz writes, “yesterday, the 46-year-old Google veteran who oversees its search engine, Amit Singhal, announced his retirement. And in short order, Google revealed that Singhal’s rather enormous shoes would be filled by a man named John Giannandrea. On one level, these are just two guys doing something new with their lives. But you can also view the pair as the ideal metaphor for a momentous shift in the way things work inside Google—and across the tech world as a whole.

Giannandrea, you see, oversees Google’s work in artificial intelligence. This includes deep neural networks, networks of hardware and software that approximate the web of neurons in the human brain. By analyzing vast amounts of digital data, these neural nets can learn all sorts of useful tasks, like identifying photos, recognizing commands spoken into a smartphone, and, as it turns out, responding to Internet search queries. In some cases, they can learn a task so well that they outperform humans. They can do it better. They can do it faster. And they can do it at a much larger scale. If AI is the future of Google Search, it’s the future of so much more.

This approach, called deep learning, is rapidly reinventing so many of the Internet’s most popular services, from Facebook to Twitter to Skype. Over the past year, it has also reinvented Google Search, where the company generates most of its revenue. Early in 2015, as Bloomberg recently reported, Google began rolling out a deep learning system called RankBrain that helps generate responses to search queries. As of October, RankBrain played a role in “a very large fraction” of the millions of queries that go through the search engine with each passing second.

As Bloomberg says, it was Singhal who approved the roll-out of RankBrain. And before that, he and his team may have explored other, simpler forms of machine learning. But for a time, some say, he represented a steadfast resistance to the use of machine learning inside Google Search. In the past, Google relied mostly on algorithms that followed a strict set of rules set by humans. The concern—as described by some former Google employees—was that it was more difficult to understand why neural nets behaved the way it did, and more difficult to tweak their behavior.

These concerns still hover over the world of machine learning. The truth is that even the experts don’t completely understand how neural nets work. But they do work. If you feed enough photos of a platypus into a neural net, it can learn to identify a platypus. If you show it enough computer malware code, it can learn to recognize a virus. If you give it enough raw language—words or phrases that people might type into a search engine—it can learn to understand search queries and help respond to them. In some cases, it can handle queries better than algorithmic rules hand-coded by human engineers. Artificial intelligence is the future of Google Search, and if it’s the future of Google Search, it’s the future of so much more.”

A perceptive look at the future we all share; read the entire article here.

Digital Detox

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

From Gillian Brockell and The Washington Post, click here or on this image for five tips to avoid digital overload.

Facebook Wants to Know What You Don’t Post

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Even if you decide not to post something, Facebook wants to know what you were thinking.

As I wrote in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, Facebook has been from the beginning little more than a data mining operation, which simply tries to collect as much information on all of its subscribers as it possibly can, and then use this information for profit. And they keep upping the ante with every passing day. As Casey Johnston reported in Ars Technica on December 16, 2013, in addition to the material you actually post on Facebook, the site also wants to know about the stuff you type in, and then think better of, and decide not to post.

As Johnston writes, “Facebook released a study last week indicating that the company is moving into a new type of data collection in earnest: the things we do not say. For an analysis of self-censorship, two researchers at Facebook collected information on all of the statuses that five million users wrote out but did not post during the summer of 2012. Facebook is not shy about the information it collects on its users. Certain phrasings in its data use policy have indicated before that it may be collecting information about what doesn’t happen, like friend requests that are never accepted.

Capturing the failures of Facebook interactions would, in theory, allow the company to figure out how to mitigate them and turn them into ’successes.’ Adam Kramer, a data scientist at Facebook, and Sauvik Das, a summer Facebook intern, tracked two things for the study: the HTML form element where users enter original status updates or upload content and the comment box that allows them to add to the discussion of things other people have posted. Over the course of those 17 days, 71 percent of the users typed out a status, a comment, or both but did not submit it.

On average, they held back on 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments. In addition to that information, Das and Kramer took note of the users’ demographic information, ‘behavioral features,’ and information on each user’s ’social graph’ like the average number of friends of friends or the user’s ‘political ideology’ in relation to their friends’ beliefs. They used this information to study three cross sections with self-censorship: how the user’s political stance differs from the audience, the user’s political stance and how homogenous the audience is, and the user’s gender related to the gender diversity of their network.”

This is exactly what Herbert Marcuse was predicting, as early as 1964; see my earlier post.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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