Why is it that appearances play such a large part into a person’s perception of things?

When I was building a ray tracer (see here) a while back, there were a couple of stages. First, I had to get the actual ray tracing working, which was the math-intensive part of the project. However, that only yielded solid-color circles on the screen. Once I called the function a second time to trace from the bounce point to a light (giving the spheres shading), it became impressive to look at. The proportion of work to seeming difficulty seemed to be arbitrary.

A 3D model becomes more admired when color is added. Even if the textures are solid colors, it still “looks better” (to the untrained eye) than a white/gray untextured model, despite the actual model quality. Yet again, so much work can go into detailing a model or perfecting the topography, and it barely takes anytime to cover areas of the model in different hues. Similarly, a model will get as much praise from casual observers if it is solid white as if it is textured with checkerboard. However, checkerboard shows that the model has been UV unwrapped (a huge chunk of work), while pure white does not.

A game mod can be absolutely brilliant in conception and be fueled by a constant stream of original ideas, but if it has a couple of pieces of concept art or a 3D model or two to begin with, people will be much more interested. Perhaps in this case it’s also a sort of promise that work will be done on it, so people have some justification in expecting pictures. Honestly though, I would rather have a mod or scratch-built game with a brilliant design document/manifesto that insures that the developers aren’t the brainless riffraff you see nowadays in the main stream, than a few pieces of art.

An even more common example is websites. A website might be fully functional and the idea might be brilliant, but until it meets some of the unspoken standards set by most commercial websites, people will have limited interest. Conversely, a website might have no features, but if it is sleek with custom buttons and subtle gradients, people become enraptured by it. It’s almost as though superficial, insignificant design flourishes can replace content to a certain degree.

I guess you see that quite a bit in mainstream games these days. There is this industry standard that seems to have grown out of control. Distributors, and therefore designers in practicality, seem to think that for a game to be enjoyable, or rather to sell, it must have top of the line graphics. The only problem is that this standard was set by some megalithic productions that had ridiculous budgets (Crysis, Call of Duty, Halo 3). Now smaller studios are held to it too, though, studios that don’t have the budget to integrate state of the art graphics and environment detailing AND to work on developing an original, fun game. Thus we get the constant, haggard procession of small, rushed games with mediocre graphics, mediocre gameplay, and which are sometimes not even playable at the release date due to show-stopping bugs.

This phenomenon of design enhancing content is not entirely bogus, but in most cases it shouldn’t affect a viewer’s opinion. For instance, if I make a blog post with a picture at the top, people are more likely to read the entire thing. Why is this? I have two theories. I outlined one above a little bit; a user expects a certain layout and a certain level of visual quality. If this superficial standard is fulfilled, the user is subconsciously more acceptant to the content, even if it is of a lower quality than another less refined project. If the design is lacking, the user tends to disregard it as lower quality, and has a bias against the content before they even start consuming it. The other theory is that people are brainless. Most people don’t actually judge by substance quality; their mind tends to wander, and when it doesn’t want to focus on the stuff that makes them think, they look at the design. If something doesn’t have a good design to look at, they move away from the content.

But the question is, why do people value the visuals to begin with? This comes into play in more than just digital media. Everybody remembers sights easier than any of the other four senses. Sure, you might smell a scent and recall a name or memory of an event. But you can’t just recall the smell. It is like hash map. You can get from the smell to the linked memories, but just given the data structure you can’t reconstruct the keys that the hashes came from. Taste and touch become slightly easier. Sounds are almost as easy to remember as sights. So why are the senses given different priorities? I think the answer lies in two odd facts. First, for each level of aforementioned priority, the size of the vocabulary for describing sensations varies directly with the ease of recollection. Second, it is easier to reconstruct visual memories than it is tastes or smells. Humans can easily communicate what something looked like by drawing in the dirt, using hand gestures, or drawing on paper. Tactile sensations can be simulated using the hand, and sounds can be similarly recreated using the mouth. But smells and taste are completely out of our control.

I’m sure there is a whole field based around categorizing scents and tastes and developing a detailed vocabulary. If anybody has experience with this, feel free to comment.

Unity and tjSTAR

Here is a soundtrack for this post:

Everybody should use Spotify. It’s like magic, but real.

So I wanted to talk about Unity. For those who don’t know, Unity is a game engine. But it’s way for than that. The best way to describe is an IDE for game development, similar to UDK. Every part of the development cycle (aside from asset creation) can be done within the program, from placing assets to creating game object behavior to playtesting. The engine also has built in support for pretty much anything you would want to do. Behavior is described through scripts, which can be written in JavaScript, C#, or Boo (which seems to be a Python/C# hybrid). Assets can be imported from almost any file format, without external conversion. For instance, any 3D file format that can convert to FBX works, and image formats from PSD to PICT. Unity constantly checks for asset changes and updates them in realtime.

A good analogy involves programming languages. UDK is like Java, while Unity is Python; Source is C++. You don’t really understand how much annoying background work you are doing with Source until you start using Unity. However, unlike Python, Unity has an enormous learning curve. This comes from its being extremely powerful. I’ve only just started working with it (a few days) and I can see that there is a huge amount of potential. I also still have no idea how to most of anything.

The event that sparked interest in Unity was tjSTAR, an annual symposium held by my highschool. In addition to Design Challenge events and student presentations, there are also panels and professional talks. I attended 5 talks, all of which were fairly interesting.

Game Design and Development as an Academic Path and an Industry
This presentation is an in-depth look into majoring in game design in college, what universities offer the best programs, and how to get in; accompanied by an overview of the game industry and the careers it offers.

Mr. Danny Kim
University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Interactive Media Division

This was the presentation that got me interested in Unity. Of course, I had seen it before, such as at SAAST(the computer graphics course, specifically) when we looked at projects the undergraduate students had been doing, they used Unity for the most part. Danny Kim (a TJ alumni himself) also talked about how TJ is a great source of talent, both due to the large number of talented programmers, but also the great writers and artists. Any interested reader should check out his blog, See Play Live.

Big Data: What Is It and How to Cope With It
With the digital world enveloping our lives through mobile devices, digital home appliances, digital sensors and controllers, and video, data growth is expected to be massive in the coming years pushing into peta and zetabytes. Of this data, only 5%-20% will be structured. Find out how is the technology world is preparing to cope with this onslaught.

Ms. Rumy Sen
President & CEO
Entigence Corporation

This talk was about processing large amounts of data, especially sampled from online sources and social media. The objective is to analyze the whole of customer feedback across the Internet rather than from small testing sessions performed by marketing and consultant companies. However, this requires entirely new structures for storing and processing the data into a usable form. She talked about Hadoop and other forms of managing unstructured data that differed from conventional database methods, as well as processing methods such as massively parallel processor arrays.

Computer Vision: Challenges and Applications
Computer vision is the art of teaching computers to see and to understand what is in images and videos. The presentation will discuss some of the key challenges, and show practical applications.
Dr. Peter Venetianer
Director, Commercial Science Development

Computer vision is obviously interesting. The big brother of computer graphics (the two are inverse problems), it has stumped researchers for decades. The first professor to attempt the problem was sure that a summer with a lab of grad students would solve it fine. Now, 50 years later, we are starting to make some headway. Dr. Venetianer discussed some of the methods for separating critical objects from a noisy environment. Spotting movement from a fixed viewpoint is fairly easy. If you have three consecutive frames, spotting moving objects is simple using the three-frame method (it involves comparing differences). However, identifying the objects is much harder. If you know what to look for, the problem simplifies somewhat, but there are still numerous exceptions. A car is usually wider than it is tall, except when it is coming towards or moving away from the camera. A person is usually taller than they are wide, but a group of people is more likely to match the profile of a car.

Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation and Control
Guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) is a specialty area in Aerospace Engineering that involves determination of how a vehicle gets to its target, knows where it is, and maintains its position or trajectory. These concepts and related technologies will be highlighted for spacecraft application. Some of the projects involving GN&C at Emergent Space Technologies will be summarized.

For more information, visit
Dr. Sun Hur-Diaz
Vice President
Emergent Space Technologies, Inc.

Until you think about it, determining where you are in space might seem trivial. But because hardware never reacts perfectly, a spacecraft needs to constantly be checking its position and orientation. But you need a variety of instruments, such as sextants and telescopes, to determine orientation. To find your location in orbit you need at least four GPS satellites. Finding which orbit you want to go into requires some physics simulations, as well as constant corrections to maintain it. In fact, finding an orbit to optimize fuel usage and time for a set of destinations is a huge field.

Millimeter Scale Robotics Research and Development at the MITRE Corporation
As we continue to look for ways to keep soldiers and first responders out of harm’s way, the capabilities of robotic systems improve and demand for them increases. While large robots have been used extensively, the development of smaller robots opens up a range of additional potential applications, such as accessing confined areas for search and rescue or surveillance purposes. To address this emerging need, MITRE’s Nanosystems Group has been developing rugged, low-cost robots, designed to be carried in a pocket. They can be operated from a mobile phone and reconfigured in the field to quickly adapt to specific missions.
Ms. Jessica Rajkowski
Systems Engineer, Sr
The MITRE Corporation

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I am working at MITRE this summer, albeit in a different division. The talk was still fascinating. Some of it was about developing micro-scale “robots” using interesting properties of polymers and metals. The speaker also discussed MITRE’s development of a hand-sized field robot designed to be low-cost, low-maintenance, durable, and easy to control. Obviously this would normally violate the rule of “cost, speed, quality; pick two”. To some degree it was speed that was sacrificed. It took years to develop the robot, but at its current stage it is pretty amazing. Another subject of the talk was the speaker’s project to set up a consistent test for testing whether a producer’s robot was up to MITRE standards.

I’ve also continued to use Google AppEngine and I’m working on a forum, seen here.

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