The folks over at Robot Japan just held the 1st Robot Japan Dance Competition on Sunday, January 9, 2011 in Tokyo. This video has some clips from that contest, with several different entrants, and it is worth watching just for the silliness factor. There are a few worth noting for the skill and ingenuity that went into their construction and programing, mostly towards the end of the video.
And one of them, the Kabuki bot, is very reminiscent of the wonderful days when Steampunk Japan was created. From 1600 to 1900, from the Edo to the Meiji periods, Karakuri or Clockwork Dolls were designed and built, mechanical robots who’s movement and logic tree choices were based on mechanical programming rather than electronic. At the beginning it was imported technology, based on Swiss gearboxes (mostly watches and clocks with the occasional Mecha built into a cuckoo clock) brought over by Portuguese sailors. It didn’t take long for some truly smart artisans to grasp the basic principles and start designing their own, starting with a tea serving robot who would bring you your cup, wait while you drank, and take the empty back. To the best of my knowledge this was the very first practical implementation of household robotics in any form, and at the core of Japan’s current supremacy in the field; they have now been building them for 400 years, after all.
On the first day of the new year I tend to think of the first days of other things. Remember back in 1982, when state of the art gaming brought you that marvel of the modern world, Pong? That was actually a crude digital descendant of the more elegant Brookhaven Lab’s Tennis for Two, built all the way back in 1958 by nuclear physicist William Higinbotham. It used a Donner Analog computer to drive the game, which was basically a series of potentiometers married to a patch panel; the potentiometers were assembled in sets as electronic slide rules, the patch panels allowed you to physically configure each electronic slide rule for specific types of calculations and then assemble sequences of the configured assemblies to simulate various real world processes or respond to real time input. The game controllers were two boxes with a button and a potentiometer on each, the potentiometer controlling the angle of the virtual tennis racket, and the button indicating the swing moment.
When Brookhaven National Laboratory was celebrating their 50th anniversary in 1997, they had the good sense to want to make this piece of gaming history part of the party, but the original device had only existed for a year. So another engineer who had joined Brookhaven a few decades later had to resurrect the game based on old film footage and a series of notebooks. He could not get a Donner analog computer at first, so parts of his reconstruction were digital circuits imitating the actions of the original.
The scary part is this wasn’t even the first video game; that honor goes to 1947’s Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, which was the original analog computer version of arcade favorite Missile Command. I had thought Asteroids came before Missile Command, but that one didn’t get invented until 1962 at MIT under the name Spacewar, and was first built on a digital computer. I include part one of The History of Gaming from The Irate Gamer. He seems to think his topic begins with 1962’s Spacewar, but from that point forward he does manage to hit a few of the high points.
This weekend hasn’t been in doubt since half way through 2009; TRON: The Legacy is the hands-down winner. Many of us have been waiting decades for the continuation of this story, an archetype tale of the computer age that changed movies forever. It wasn’t just the use of computer graphics (real and simulated), although that was a precursor of movie production processes to come. It was also the first time computer processes were personified, with each subprogram taking on the personalty its function set would require; the first time the kind of Artificial Intelligence we had known for years from books was portrayed on any screen.
There had been previous attempts to personify AIs on screen, such as 1967’s Colossus: The Forbin Project, which in my mind was the inspiration for the original Skynet from 1984’s Terminator movie, much as the original 1982 TRON was the inspiration for the animated masterpiece ReBoot in 2001. The most notable AI film after them was 1999’s The Matrix, which again completely changed the rules.
None of them led to War Games in 1983, because that box was a real computer and the logic of the plot line adhered to actual parsing rules any programmer of today understands. There was no touch of AI in that story, just the massive paranoia of the time combined with a lack of understanding on the majority of the audiences part of how computers worked. Just saying…
Interestingly enough, the other movie coming out this weekend is a spiritual descendant of TRON by way of William Gibson’s Neuromancer on several levels; the protagonist in Spark Riders invents a way for people to place their soul on the internet. When her idea is stolen by a power hungry psycho and a greedy spy, people begin to become trapped online. With a total budget much less than TRON spent on catering the location shoots, this film could still potentially be worth checking out; after all, they made Dark Star on 10% of Spark Riders budget, and Hollywood promptly threw a ton of money at Dan Obannon and John Carpenter (who then created the Alien and Halloween franchises respectively) because of it.
And one final note; for all of those who, like me, have been frustrated in their efforts to acquire ReBoot for their personal collections, an agreement was reached a few months age between Rainmaker Entertainment, Inc. (the direct descendant of Mainframe Entertainment) and Shout! Factory to release ReBoot in the US in some format or another, most probably a DVD Box Set version. ReBoot really is a direct descendant of Tron; what a treat if we could finally access the original of the former with the the next volume of the later within a year or less of each other! Here is the latest peek at the cover art for the complete series DVD.
No, not postcards to your favorite actors, but actual electronic post cards you can send into space. These cards are delivered to the ISS, or International Space Station, and more specifically to the members of Expedition 26 who currently live there. Or if that’s too retro for you (I built my first electronic postcard page with a Perl Script batch file that tied an image selector, a text entry GUI, and an email server command string bundle around 1995 or so), you can always opt to Tweet the Astronauts your holiday greetings instead. Contrariwise, if both methods of communicating seem too newfangled and hi-tech for your comfort zone, you can find out when they will be visible in your neighborhood and smile and wave at them while they go passing by. Just understand that while you will have no problem seeing them if the cloud cover is favorable, they will probably only notice you if a camera with a sufficient lens assembly is pointed in exactly the right direction, and that only after they have taken and then examined the image in detail.
Only a month and a few weeks to go to TRON: Legacy; a little Daft Punk with footage to get us ready… BTW, there is also some trailer footage for the new Green Lantern movie, but since it is mostly a commercial for Entertainment Tonight I didn’t post it here.