TED Talk: Why I Built a Time Machine!

I spent the spring at TED this year, working on developing a VR piece about Coney Island’s Luna Park, and writing a talk about how technology has shaped entertainment. Cramming a TED talk into six minutes was no easy feat. The idea was to look back at the past as a lens to consider how technology during the first and second industrial revolutions defined the last century of entertainment, then to speculate how the dawn of today’s natural user interfaces will lead the way to new forms of entertainment that will extend into the next century. So, here it is at last, my TED talk!

The talk centers around a project I have been working on over the last several years- a historic reconstruction of Coney Island’s Luna Park as it appeared a century ago. The work done at TED this year resulted in a prototype VR experience allowing users to virtually walk through Luna Park as it existed in the milestone years of 1903, 1908 and 1914, and jump between these years as they explore. There’s tons more modeling to do to build out the experience, and after the talk I just had to put it aside for a while to reflect on why I am doing this completely obsessive project.

The current state of VR seems like an in-between technology to me. This isn’t where we are going, but rather a stop along the way.  I’m guessing some AR/VR device will eventually come along that mixes with just the right software experience to become the tipping point for mass adoption, but I think we’re still a ways away. In the meantime, it’s my hope to keep working on building out the Time Machine so that when technology finally catches up, it will be ready. There’s lots more work to be done modeling and then the exhaustive texturing that will really make Luna Park look like the glittering and glowing city of fire that it was.

A lot of my thinking about the piece left me thinking about how to turn this into a product that will interest people other than a very small group of Coney Island history buffs. It’s playful, but is it a game? Or maybe the rides get built out as virtual rides and that could justify its existence as a software product? I toyed with the idea of using it as a collection game where we can roam the environment exploring and collecting people from the Scan-A-Rama archive.  Then it dawned on me… this is literally a Time Machine, and there are tons of other places I would travel in time if I could. Where would you go if you could travel anywhere in time and space? That’s when I realized that this is–  the first proof of concept destination for a Time Machine platform.

I have a vision of the Time Machine as a set of camera controller objects that allow anyone who is passionate about a place to build their own time machine that can travel to ancient Egypt or whatever place they are passionate about. That’s my real “big idea” coming out of TED- that the Time Machine platform should be an open source library of template Unity files empowering anyone to create and share their explorations. This could be a great tool for architects, archaeologists, crime scene investigators, history and literary buffs– anyone interested in experiencing places that can no longer be physically visited, and which bear examination as they changed over time.

Time jumping is definitely a feature that is already out there as a software principle. Consider Undo/Redo, the DVR, or Google Street view, which already has about 15 years worth of data. What happens when Street View hits 50 years, or a century? Time travel is coming, it’s just going to be different than what H.G. Wells predicted. The Eye in the Sky episode of RadioLab also talks about another form of time travel that has definite ethical issues. In an increasingly digital world, I predict that temporal travel will become more pervasive, so where would you want to travel? I look forward to hearing from potential collaborators or anyone who is passionate about places they would want to travel to.

If you have a Windows VR setup with an HTC VIVE, try out the Time Machine prototype yourself. Special props to Matt Laverty of Atomic Veggies and developer Daniel Alhadeff for their help on the project!

Download Prototype for 64 bit Windows systems with HTC Vive.
Controls: Use the controller touchpad to move, press the small button above the touchpad to jump between the years of 1903,1908 and 1914 (For example, while looking at the entrance)

Time-Machine

The Time Machine!

So, its happening… last week I time travelled and took a walk in turn of the century Luna Park! It was really exciting and gave me a huge boost that this project is going to be amazing. It’s one thing to see the models of the buildings on a screen, but wearing the VR headset, you’re literally standing in the middle of the scene and have been teleported through time and space to turn of the century Coney Island. It also gave me the vision that what I am creating is actually a time machine. My hope is that as the viewer walks through and explores the virtual world, that they will be able to hit something on the controller to ‘jump’ to the next point in the timeline to see the architecture around them change.

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I spent a day last week out in New Jersey visiting my friend Matt Laverty, who worked with me at Funny Garbage, and now runs his own studio Atomic Veggies, which is focused on VR. He works out of a coworking space in the old Bell Labs building, a cavernous space designed by Eero Saarinen. After spending years in disrepair and being abandoned, the whole campus is being revitalized as a 21st century tech hub.

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Interior of the Bell Labs Building

I wish I could show you what it was like to really stand there in the middle of Luna Park, but it was truly magical. In the meantime, here’s some of the work on the models as it is unfolding. Matt and I are working on texturing the buildings as well, but right now the models are the main focus. Stay tuned for more soon!

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Luna Park VR Project

I’m already in my fourth week here at TED and am starting to amass a nice collection of newly modeled buildings to go into the VR recreation of Luna Park. The hope is to complete a few more structures in the coming week and then bring them into Unity so that I can begin doing some tests for the cell shading style they will be rendered in, and explore specular maps to be used for the thousands of tiny electric lights covering all the buildings. Here are some screenshots of the newest buildings, as well as a sample cell shaded view from the original prototype. Its pretty exciting to finally be working on this again!

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The 1907 entrance, under construction

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A finished 1907-8 version of the entrance

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The 1914 “pinwheel” version of the entrance seems more in people’s memories of Luna Park, so I decided to go ahead and build that version as well. 

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I am super happy with the way the pinwheel version of the entrance came out. The park changed so much year to year. How cool would it be if we could travel in both time and space as we explored Luna Park? This is one of my goals for the piece.

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A Trip to the Moon was the original simulation ride, offering passengers a voyage on the spaceship Luna from Coney Island to the moon, where they disembarked into caverns made of green cheese and were greeted by Selenites and an assortment of fanciful creatures of the moon.

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The current state of my Trip to the Moon.

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The current work in progress: 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

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Cell shading test from the prototype… I am pretty happy with this style- though it needs to be a little less pink and more midnight blue, but it still lacks the electric lights to really shine

Stay tuned for more!

 

Fred at TED!

It’s been hard to keep my mouth shut the last two months, but I am finally able to announce that I will be spending the next 3 months as a Resident at TED, working on a project to recreate turn of the 20th century Thompson & Dundy’s Luna Park in VR, with an accompanying TED talk in June.


This is the next step in the evolution of a project that I have been working on on and off for over 20 years, since I first went the NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in the mid 1990’s. Back then, I created a series of Quicktime VR panoramas of Luna Park, and then a few years ago when 3D printing became widely accessible, I rekindled the project to produce a 3D printed model of the park that was exhibited in the Coney Island Museum. This upcoming phase will be focused on recreating the entirety of the park as a VR experience which will allow viewers to explore the park firsthand. It is my hope to share the models under a Creative Commons licence that encourages others to use virtual Luna Park and encourage its use as a virtual meeting place in the future.

There are several themes I am thinking about in regards to the TED talk I will be doing in June, but the general idea I am working with is about the history and legacy of technology as entertainment, specifically Luna Park’s role in defining everything we do for amusemnt today. Luna Park came out of the golden age of world fairs, a time when attractions in the 1897 World Columbian Exposition were effectively the physical manifestation of a memory palace containing all of man’s culture and knowledge. It was the real world embodiment of everything Google is for us today. The park was not only a showcase for fantastical, otherworldly architecture, it transported the melting pot of American immigrants to exotic locales around the world, even to the moon, anticipating what the future of entertainment would be like. Electricity, phonographs, motion pictures, infant incubators, simulation rides, they all began at Luna Park. I cannot wait to virtually resurrect it and share it with the world!

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A screencap of the Luna Park VR prototype, with cell shaded rendering style

 

Dear Friends of The Great Fredini

Coney Island has been an important place in shaping my identity as an artist, primarily through my involvement with the nonprofit arts organization Coney Island USA. For over 35 years, CIUSA has provided a staging grounds for a huge range of artists, performers, actors, playwrights, musicians, filmmakers and practitioners of just about any other artistic discipline you can think of, entertaining NYC’s diverse audiences and preserving aspects of uniquely American popular culture, such as the iconic Mermaid Parade. CIUSA has done remarkably well in helping to shape the neighborhood’s revitalization, but the organization is still financially reeling in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy and needs YOUR help! This March 19th, I am being honored at Coney Island USA’s Spring Gala, so I am forwarding an appeal from longtime board member and friend Mark Alhadeff. Please consider taking out a journal ad or buying a ticket to what may be CIUSA’s most important fundraiser ever. Coney Island USA needs your support so that it can continue making America’s playground a special place for generations to come!

-Fred

CIUSAGala

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Dear Friend of The Great Fredini:

I can say with confidence that every recipient of this note will know what a special person Fred Kahl is. But, just in case you forgot, let me remind you: He is a man of vision, intelligence, and good taste. And most importantly, he is a person with a giant heart.

Further, if you’re as lucky as me and have known Fred for decades, you will also know that Fred has always listened to the advice of Joseph Campbell and “followed his bliss.” This has led him on many incredible journeys, and the ultimate destination of most of those trips has been Coney Island. More specifically Coney Island USA (Coney’s resident not-for-profit arts group) has been blessed by the presence of Fred’s energy and creativity since the 1980’s. From neon sword swal- lowing to a 3D Luna Park, from acting on our stage to serving on our Board, from a spiral wishing well to an awesome electric chair — Fred is part of the very fabric of Coney Island USA.

Now that a few strands of silver have appeared in Fred’s luscious locks we here at CIUSA have decided it is time to honor the Great Fredini. Fred has been named “Man of the Year” and will be celebrated at our Spring Gala on Saturday, March 19th. The Gala is without fail the must-attend event of the Coney Island social calendar and dedicating it to Fred was a no-brainer.

I am writing on behalf of everyone at CIUSA to invite you to join in this celebration of Fred’s life and achievements. There are two easy (and not mutually exclusive) ways to get involved:

  1. Attend the Gala in Coney Island on March 19th. Tickets are available now (and a great bar- gain). Show your love to Fred in person! You can learn more by visiting: http://www.coneyisland.com/gala
  2. Let Fred know how much you care about him by putting a customized notice in the commem- orative Journal. The Journal is distributed to all Gala attendees and becomes a keepsake. Get your message about Fred in there: http://www.coneyisland.com/gala-journal

I do hope to see you at the Gala, to read your message in the Journal and to share your joy in the year of the Fred.

Sincerely,

Mark Alhadeff

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Friend of Fred
Coney Island USA Board Member

3D Scanning at the Brooklyn Museum

I was recently at the Brooklyn Museum for the opening of the exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008. Its a great exhibit and I encourage everyone to go check it out! While there, I took the time to take pictures of several objects to use to generate 3D models of a few Coney Island Artifacts, as well as some beautiful architectural details.

This process of photogrammetry  or “physical photography” as I have come to call it involves photographing an object many times from all angles, taking care to ensure that each image is in full focus. Once photographed, software analyzes the image to find the same point in multiple images and generates a 3D model of where in space each camera was. From there, a point cloud and 3D mesh can be generated. Its a laborious process but its a very accurate way of generating 3D models of still objects like sculpture.

Here’s the processed scans:

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Spook-A-Rama cyclops head from Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park (Courtesy of the Coney Island History Project)

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Pegasus Statues from the Coney Island pumping station. (read about these here)

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Bacchus Keystone from the Brooklyn Museum Sculpture Garden. This scan came out amazing, with incredible detail to it!

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Another Great Keystone!

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Telamon (Male Caryatid) #1

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Telamon #2

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Architectural Detail from the Brooklyn Museum Sculpture Gardens

Remembering Harold Feinstein: April 17, 1931 – June 20, 2015

Photo taken by Judith Thompson (Harold's wife) visiting Coney Island 2001 This image has been used in the fly-leaf of his books

Photo taken by Judith Thompson (Harold’s wife) visiting Coney Island 2001

When I first came to Coney Island in the 1980’s, the photographer Harold Feinstein was a fixture there. He was everywhere with his camera, capturing the place’s unique melting pot of people in the array of moments that can occur no where else in the world. Dick Zigun was always chasing him away, not wanting to give away images of the sideshow cast, but I’m glad he caught us in our downtime. Those moments and many others would have disappeared if it weren’t for Harold’s persistence. I never got to see his photos back then- only years later.

A few years back, I supported his retrospective book on Kickstarter and began to learn of the breadth of his work, an impressive body of photographs of New York City street life covering 65+ years. Last year, I was able to meet him and his wife Judith as he returned to his Coney Island roots. I wanted to 3D scan him, but his health was not great and he seemed frail. I was glad to have had some time to talk. While he photographed other things, I think Coney Island was central to his voice was and he impeccably captured the neighborhood’s soul. His work is a celebration of the human condition and the American spirit. Coney Island is the place where all peoples come together and emotions of joy, laughter, love, loneliness, friendship and all of life are there for us to experience in his work. Its somehow fitting to know that he chose to leave this world on June 20th, the day of the Mermaid Parade.

Rest in peace Harold. You will be missed but your legacy lives on. Thank you for preserving the moments.
See more of Harold’s work at http://www.haroldfeinstein.com/

Orthodox Jewish guys admiring Demonica and Phantom as I sit on the fence

Orthodox Jewish guys admiring Demonica and Phantom as I sit on the fence

Michael Wilson, the Illustrated Man

Michael Wilson, the Illustrated Man

Elvis in the World in Wax Musee

Elvis in the World in Wax Musee