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Out of Control
Chapter 13: GOD GAMES

Hand wringing about the reality of simulations would be an appropriate academic exercise for French and Italian philosophers, if simulacra didn't turn out to be so useful.

In the Entertainment & Information Systems Group at the MIT Media Lab, Andy Lippman is developing an approach to television transmission that "lets the audience drive." A major objective of the Media Lab's research is to allow the consumer to personalize the presentation of information. Lippman invented a scheme to deliver video in an ultracompact form which can then be unpacked in a thousand different ways. He does this by transmitting not a staid image but a simulacra.

In the demo that he shows, Lippman's group took an early episode of "I Love Lucy" and extracted a visual model of Lucy's living room from the footage. Lucy's living room becomes a virtual living room on a hard disk. Any part or view of it can be displayed on cue. Lippman then used a computer to remove Lucy's moving image from the background scenes. When he wants to transmit the entire episode, he sends two kinds of data: the background as a virtual model and the film of Lucy moving. The viewer's computer reassembles Lucy's character moving against a background produced by the model. Thus Lippman can broadcast the living room set data only once in a single burst -- not continuously as is normal -- updating only when the scene or light shifts. Says Lippman, "Conceivably, we might choose to store all of the background sets from a TV serial at the front of a single optical disk, while the action and camera motion instructions needed to reconstitute 25 episodes could fit on the remaining tracks."

Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab, speaks of this method as "transmission of models rather than content, so content is something the receiver derives from the model." He extrapolates from the simple "I Love Lucy" experiment to a future when entire scenes, figures and all, are modeled into simulacra to be transmitted. Rather than broadcast a two-dimensional picture of a ball, send a simulacra of the ball. The broadcasting machine says "Here is a simulacra of a ball: shiny blue, with a dimension of 50 centimeters, moving at this velocity and direction." The receiving machines says, "Umm yes, a simulacra of a bouncing ball. Oh, I see it," and displays the hopping blue ball as a moving hologram. Now the home viewer can visually examine the ball from any perspective he wants.

As a commercial example, Negroponte suggests broadcasting a holographic image of a football game into living rooms. Rather than merely sending the data for the game's two-dimensional image, the sports station transmits a simulacra of the game; the stadium, players, and plays are abstracted into a model which can be compressed for transmission. The receiving machine in the home unpacks the model into visual form. The couch potato with a six-pack sees a dynamic mirage of the players as they rush, pass, and punt in 3-D. He chooses the angle he wants to watch it from. His kids can horse around by watching the game from the ball's point of view.

Besides being able to "break the tyranny of video as prepackaged frames," the purpose of transmitting simulacra is primarily data compression. Real-time holography requires astronomical amounts of bits. Using all the smart processing tricks in the foreseeable future, a state-of-the-art supercomputer would spend hours computing a few seconds of a real-time holograph the size of a TV console. The ball game would be over before you saw the last of the amazing (and terrifying in three dimensions) opening flying logos.

What better way to compress a complication than to model it, mail it, and let the recipient supply the intelligent details? Transmitting a simulacra is not a step down from transmitting reality. It is a step up from transmitting data.

The military is keen on simulacra as well.