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Todd Furmanski Interview

Todd Furmanski's Projects

Todd's USC Web Log

Interactive Media at USC


I would like to thank you for the opportunity to interview you for biota.org. For those not familiar with your work, can you please give some background on your interest in Alife?

I've known about Alife for quite a while-I even rigged up a simple predator-prey simulation using Hypercard in high school.† During graduate school at USC I found myself drawn back into the algorithms and procedures, especially after gaining a much better knowledge of Alife's history.† The names and works of Conway, Damer, Perlin, Reynolds, Simms, and many, many others came front and center as I focused my research.

In terms of collaborative development, can you describe the faculty and students you were involved with at USC? How heavily did this group effect your development of Alife?

I was a member of the first class in the USC School of Cinema-Television's then completely new Interactive Media department.† The real reason you go to a graduate program is to work with interesting people, and as I result I found myself involved with a number of projects and learning a number of subjects I would never have imagined existed before.† The classes and culture also helped me realize that Alife did not consist of names in books but of actual people that I could talk to.

My professors and faculty came from a variety of backgrounds: Virtual reality, augmented reality, future cinema, mobile, board game design, and of course Alife.† It helps to have knowledge coming from a variety of sources, it can come in handy when you least expect it.

My fellow students came from a number of backgrounds and just as many different places.† That said, I met a number of people who not only shared my interests in Alife, but also had the drive to code the proper infrastructure.† Here Be Dragons wouldn't be nearly as sophisticated without the help I received (and gave).

For those not familiar with Here Be Dragons, can you please give some background to the project?

Here Be Dragons is an experiment applying Alife philosophy to architecture and landscape.† Most Alife metaphorically represents living things or agents, but there is no reason why is cannot be used to emergently grow spaces.† I love exploring virtual spaces, but I also love designing them.† Normally these activities are mutually exclusive, but with Here Be Dragons I wanted a place that would grow and change, giving a new place to explore each time.

The name Here Be Dragons refers to a mythical warning that cartographers wrote on the margins of their maps, signifying places that were unknown and unexplored.† If violence is an inherent part of human nature, so is curiosity.† I like to appeal to the parts of the psyche that make people want to explore and find out what's over the horizon.

As for the technical nuts and bolts, I use Lindenmeyer (''L'') systems to generate the structures of the creatures and cities in a dynamic virtual environment.† L-systems are classically used to describe tree- and plant-like shapes, but can really be used to build anything hierarchical.† They also rely on simple one-dimensional text strings, analogous to genetic code.† The genes that build the creatures and the genes that define the buildings are essentially identical, and are simply read differently.

I've prototyped and tested versions that allow buildings and creatures to crossbreed.† The L-System strings recombine, with children having similar characteristics as their parents.† Buildings could have inhabitants that resemble their overall look, and vice versa.† Having structures and inhabitants communicate and influence each other also offers many intriguing possibilities.

I tend to think of Here Be Dragons more like a place.† I suppose it could prove the setting for a game or story, but in reality a setting is bigger than either.† I can think of a dozen goals or plots that could occur with Here Be Dragons, most of them at the same time.

There's still a lot to do within the space-the basic activities of the creatures and cities could always have sophistication added.† I'm also planning on having the genetic structure percolate through the world terrain itself.† Adding a better interface to affect and observe the behaviors present in the world is on my short list of things to do-once that's in place I plan on implementing some of the more complicated interactions in the 3D space.† Having a life cycle where a dragon undergoes metamorphosis into a city before producing offspring would not be too difficult to implement at this point.

There is a strong Gothic aesthetic to Here Be Dragons in part through the grayscale interface but also through the architecture of the cities and the dragons. What were your plans with the aesthetics of the environment? Did you intend to create this aesthetic from the start of the project?

The aesthetic started pretty early on. Iíve always liked the more abstract forms of computer graphics, and have a personal pet peeve against poorly pixilated texture mapping.† I could not get a textured look I was happy with, so I stuck with simple geometry, using fog as a depth cue.† I focused more on how the creatures and buildings would move than how they would appear in static images.† The internal motions of the dragons in particular were almost entirely accidental, but remain one of the elements I'm happiest with.

The silhouettes also make spectators read what they want to into the environment, making the whole landscape a living, animated Rorschach ink blot.† The basic shapes of the cities are actually quite simple, but combined they form rather intricate structures.† While I usually use the fairly neutral term creatures or critters to describe the mobile agents in the environment, people have called them birds, fish, jellyfish, viruses, and of course, dragons.

I know you have spent some time using immersive VR technology to explore the Here Be Dragons environment. How does exploring an environment like Here Be Dragons differ in an immersive VR environment versus a flat screen? What feedback can you give to Alife developers who want to explore this VR technology?

The environment develops a whole new dimension when placed in an immersive display.† I rigged up a VR Boom, a stereoptic display on an armature that allowed 6 degrees of freedom, and found the results very effective.† The silhouettes suddenly had perceivable volume, and the whole experience made the environment seem more like an actual location than a simulation.

Here Be Dragons tries to visualize the same data and algorithms in different ways, and going from desktop computers to VR falls into this category.† There's no reason why a virtual environment has to be slave to a single display-multiple displays can be more like different windows that look into the same place, perhaps at the same time.† One could have mobile, immersive as well as typical desktop displays, each seeing a different aspect of the environment.

You work with Biota.org founder, Bruce Damer, on the DigitalSpaces interface. For those not familiar, can you give some background to DigitalSpaces and your use of the environment?

DigitalSpaces is designed to be a common virtual environment platform, with a plugin structure to allow versatility.† Bruce currently is using it to simulate remote controlled rovers designed to build habitation on the Moon.† Graphics, sound, input, physics, and other things one might want are present, but fairly open-ended.† One simulation had three separate, disparate physics systems running in a single scene graph.

My own part of the project involved updating the Nerves Alife protocol.† Nerves itself came out of Bruce's Nerve Garden project, and uses a nervous system metaphor to control behavior states in a given entity.† This could have uses from controlling virtual agents to simulating local weather to controlling an autonomous space probe, and, since it's just one plug-in of many, could be among several Alife and AI systems and protocols.

What is your sense of the broader Alife community?

I try to keep fairly informed on the subject, studying the classics while hunting for new developments on the web.† Still, even in this age of instant information, I still find myself surprised by a project or group that I've managed to overlook.† In terms of internet correspondence, I tend to read more than write, although I hope to even out that ratio a little more in the future.

What more would you like to see with the Alife community?

Most Alife I have seen has been for its own sake.† I have nothing against such work, indeed I think it's necessary.† However, applying Alife to different problems and challenges could open up some amazing possibilities.† For my own part I would love to see more Alife used to make the relative static virtual environments I've seen more dynamic, interesting, and, well, alive.† Of course, there's no need to stop at literal visualizations found in games and VR.† Combining Alife with other methods in computer science could offer some very potent hybrids.

Any final thoughts?

One of the main reasons I've studied Alife is to look for ways to expand my own imagination, and hunt for ideas I might not have thought of on my own.† The promise of creating a novel space, a place no human has ever been to, or even directly designed, fascinates me.† If violence is an inherent part of human nature, so is curiosity, and I've tried to use this primal drive in the Alife work I've done.

Many thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.

The interview was taken by Biota.org's Tom Barbalet via email on February 19th, 2006.

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