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Closing The Loop

By Robert Fabricant

Much has been written about the cultural revolution being wrought by computer gaming. Game consoles are in 150 million homes and counting, and the pending release of Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Revolution will soon bring richer detail and more realistic gameplay. But the impact of these developments may be different than you expect.

Game designers have long focused their efforts on rendering a virtual world that rivals our own in detail and behavior. And as processor speeds increase, we re getting ever closer to that goal. James Cameron has famously noted that, someday soon, he will be able to make movies entirely without live actors, using computer-generated characters instead of real ones. The recent game development deals signed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, as well as game budgets that exceed $20 million, indicate increased momentum in the cross-breeding of film and game paradigms.

While Mr. Cameron is working out all of the rich painstaking detail for his next digital starlet, we are seeing the opposite trend in the real world: we are rapidly stripping away detail and variety in our world to better reflect these computer-generated simulations.


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Virtual experiences have the potential to add a great deal of richness to our communications and imaginations as they mature. But our fascination with the promise of a new world can blind us to its limitations. It is ironic that, as we perfect the algorithms for simulating facial expressions in 3D software, we are embracing cosmetic treatments that reduce the fidelity and individuality of our own facial expressions. Over the last few years there has been a 20-50% annual increase in the number of minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures (depending on the procedure). And there has been an utter acceptance and celebration of cosmetic surgery in the media with shows like Fox s The Swan and ABC s Extreme Makeover. It is easy to imagine a point in the future when these two trends converge and we all look like Angelina Jolie errr, Lara Croft.

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What happens then? As these graphs indicate, someday you ll likely encounter more realistic detail in the actors in a virtual gameroom than you see in the people walking around the mall. After all, it is easier to sculpt pixels than pores. Or is it? One of the first non-game applications for the Xbox, Yourself!Fitness, is a simulated aerobics class with a virtual instructor who shows you how to sculpt your body to match hers.

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This feedback loop between physical and the virtual experiences is shaping our imaginations even more than our bodies. Through the seduction of CGI and gaming, our culture has thoroughly fetishized the (limited) qualities of computer-generated forms and surfaces. On the heels of Volkswagen s re-launch of the Beetle, there has been a wave of designs that exploit products from our recent past that have a distinctive history — from the Mini Cooper or The Warriors — and re-render them to suit a virtual sensibility. In the process many of the distinctive qualities of these products have been replaced with stylistic elements that have the exaggerated feel of a 3D game experience. Products like the Plymouth Prowler and the PT Cruiser exemplify this trend — the drive to WalMart feels one step closer to Need for Speed. These products are the equivalent of laser skin surgery for the great American hot rod. And they re-appear as characters in computer games themselves, further closing the loop. MTV has turned this trend into reality TV with Pimp My Ride, the equivalent of Nip/Tuck for industrial design. Watching this show you have the uncanny feeling that you are seeing the constructor tools of a 3D game come to life. The vehicles that emerge at the end of this process don t belong on the Grand Central Parkway, they belong in Grand Theft Auto.

The convergence of 3D rendering tools for creating physical products and virtual environments has us trapped in a closed feedback loop of industrial design. This has created a new form of d j vu when we see someone walking down the street with a cyborg-like Bluetooth headset and Oakley sunglasses, or we walk into a new high tech glass office park that has a parking lot full of H2s. There is something immediately familiar — we have been here before.

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The mass appeal of DWR mid-century modern furniture is consistent with these trends; your average Eames fiberglass chair looks like it stepped out of The Sims. After all, it is no coincidence that these products (which were the first to apply industrial, mass-production technologies and materials to furniture) bear a striking resemblance to the simplified forms that are possible within emerging technologies for virtual mass production. The pleasing, formal qualities of these design icons shouldn t blind us to the fact that they are slowly emptying our environment of a great deal of detail and variety.

The digital tools that we use to create new products are perfect for churning out stuff with the virtual mass appeal of bad science fiction. As designers, we cannot allow ourselves to be overly-seduced by the ideas that we can easily render on our computer screens. Fortunately, there is a growing movement that celebrates handcrafts and DIY technologies. We should design products that invite input, adaptation and dis-assembly — which was the subject of last week s frog Design Mind.

Robert Fabricant is Creative Director in frog design s New York studio.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.