The Ogaki Report

Details of life at IAMAS, in Ogaki, Japan.
As reported by Tamiko Thiel, winter 1999-2000

Where in the world is Ogaki?

Ogaki Report #2: November 14, 1999

This report starts out with an overview of the Art and Technology conference I attended this week - if it is boring, skip down to "Pontocho" and it'll get a lot more interesting.

Art and Technology conference

Even before I had left Munich, I had registered to attend an Art and Technology conference to be held outside of Kyoto the week after my arrival. The conference was put on by ATR (http://www.mic.atr.co.jp/), the research center where (among many others) Christa Sommers and Laurent Mignonneau are working on their Artificial Life-based art, so it seemed like a good chance to find out what they and the rest of ATR are up to as well. Sakane-sensei, the director of IAMAS was speaking there, and other speakers I was familiar with included Steve Benton, the director of MIT's CAVS art lab; Rodney Brooks, the director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab; and Barbara London, the media art curator of NY Museum of Modern Art. From the western line-up I figured the Japanese side would be pretty good too. Scott Fisher, the MIT Media Lab grad who is one of the "founders" of virtual reality was coming down from Tokyo too (where he is currently a professor of VR at Keio University) so there was really a local maximum of MIT people there.

Since I was still jetlagging I was awake at 5:30am and easily caught the 7am train to Kyoto. That took about one hour, and then I boarded an express train that went on and on for 40 minutes deep into the countryside. Once I reached my destination station I took a bus that went even further into the pampa. Finally, in the middle of nowhere, were two huge buildings: ATR and Keihanna Plaza, a plaza with no city around it. Kansai (the region of Japan around Kyoto) boasts 3 high-tech centers: IAMAS, ATR and VR Techno Plaza (more about this one later), all of which seem to be carefully built to be inaccessible as possible. Has something to do with funding for underdeveloped regions of the country.

The symposium turned out to be terrific, with my favorite lecture being Rod Brooks' talk about Cog, a humanoid robot that his group uses to test the thesis: "Humanoid intelligence requires humanoid interactions with the world," the latest version of Brooks' idea that intelligence is strongly affected by the physical object that contains it (my formulation). The last I knew of his work he was playing around with little insect robots that showed self-organizing behavior - and now this! His lab's methodology include learning through social interaction between robots and humans, sensory feedback and both recognition AND expression of human emotions by the robot. Sounds pretty out there, but it seems to be really working - the robot has extremely human-like responses and easily triggers our anthropomorphizing tendencies. He's focusing attention not on the robot as an isolated object, but on the system that includes both robot and human being. Check it out, I think this work is really mind-blowing: http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/cog/

We got extensive tours and demos of the work being done at ATR, including Naoko Tosa's interactive pieces that use the same emotional communication models as Rodney Brooks' robotic work. I had seen her "Neuro-Baby" at Ars Electronica in 1993, a computer graphic baby's face that responds emotionally to your tone of voice, cooing when you sweet talk to it and crying when you yell at it. She's extended it to a full body baby by now, so it reacts with very expressive body language to your tone of voice. Her latest piece measures viewers' skin tension to decide whether a computer graphic mermaid/merman pair should cuddle or fight, and it is rather amusing when they suddenly start punching each other on the screen. http://www.mic.atr.co.jp/~tosa/

Christa and Laurent have also produced a huge volume of of their stunning work in artificial life - based art in the last 6 years (ATR requires every one to produce at least one new work per year, I heard). Check out their joint website: http://www.mic.atr.co.jp/~laurent/

ATR stands for "Advanced Telecommunications Research", with the charter to investigate and create new multimedia communication technologies that go beyond simple voice transmission. The facilities and resources seem to be tremendous. http://www.mic.atr.co.jp/


After the conference was over, there was a small surprise presentation: performances by geisha from Kyoto's celebrated Pontocho district. The highlight was a dance done by a geisha and two maiko (young apprentice geisha), all 3 done up in gorgeous kimono and quite exquisite. Even the japanese were awestruck - geisha houses are incredibly expensive, and most japanese have never been able to see them perform either. I had my picture taken with the geisha as she was cuddling Aibo, the popular dog-robot from Sony, and promise to get it on the web as soon as I receive it.

Afterwards some of went to Pontocho in Kyoto - not to a geisha houses unfortunately, since none of our pockets are that deep, but to a sake bar with a huge range of varieties. I lacked the presence of mind to write down the names of any of the brands that I tried, I'm sorry to say. Several of them had a pale green color like japanese tea, and a taste quite unlike the stuff you get in stores in the States or Germany. Very smooth and dreamy. I don't think I can drink store-bought sake again.

The proprietor looked rather like Salvador Dali, with a very long nose and a fine mustache, so for the rest of the evening he was "Kyoto Dali". At some point he and his wife started giving us pieces of the bar's decorations as souveniers (the erotic carving above the counter was unfortunately not up for grabs.) I came away with a tiny mask in the form of a "tengu", a folklore figure somewhere between a crow and a man. Tengu always have a long nose, and this one also has a mustache, making him look very much like our own "Kyoto Dali." It is a depiction of a tengu from a nearby mountain, where tengu taught the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune how to swordfight so he could take revenge against the Taira clan that killed his father. I love the legend and am delighted to be able to possess an object that reminds me both of childhood legends and recent experiences.

One of the foods that appeared in the course of our drinking was the original precursor to sushi: fish preserved in salt and rice, whereby both fish and rice appeared on the plate. Rather fermented and extremely sour and salty, but just what you need to balance out the nth cup of sake. When it became clear that I was making very slow progress it disappeared and reappeared as a very sour and salty soup, which went down much faster.

Kyoto by daylight:

Sakane-sensei and I took the train back together. When we arrived at the transfer station in Kyoto, since neither of us had pressing business for the day we took some time to go sightseeing despite the rain. There is a huge new building complex at Kyoto Station, the first of its type in otherwise stodgy Kyoto. Outside it looks like a battleship; inside it looks like a space colonizing vessel with an 11-story atrium and an 11-story staircase to go with it. Since it was raining heavily the latter had transformed itself into an 11-story watercascade, which was also rather intriguing.

To balance out this experience we went to a shop selling traditional sweets in the Gion district of Kyoto (the rival geisha district to Pontocho.) Entering a standard 2 story traditional building, you go through the shop into the back - which opens up into a cafe with glass walls looking out onto the the "tsubo-niwa", the tiny but luxurious courtyard gardens of traditional merchant houses. I have never seen anything like this in Tokyo - maybe Kyoto has some advantages over Tokyo after all. Desert was flat noodles of gelatine dipped in molasses, balanced out with bitter green tea.

Both of us were actually completely exhausted, so we left our sightseeing at that and napped on the train back to Ogaki.

VR Techno Center

I had heard there was a VR student competition on Saturday at the VR Techno Center not far from Ogaki. Since this is the 3rd leg of the Kansai high-tech triumvirate, I thought I should catch it despite my fairly complete exhaustion from 2 nights with a lot of sake and very little sleep.

It turned into another trip into the pampa with an indeterminate path. I had the name of the station that was probably close to the center, but it turned out to be wrong. Finally a travel center at the station found the phone number for the center and got directions, which involved taking a bus from a tiny station in the middle of nowhere. Another high tech center in splendid isolation.

The tiny station in the middle of nowhere was however completely mobbed by families with small children. I really mean mobbed. I somehow doubted that they were all going to see a student VR competition, and I wasn't sure what all the smiling friendly gentlemen in military uniform were doing there either, so I asked one of them what was going on. It turned out that this tiny station in the middle of nowhere was right next to an airfield where an airshow was about to start. I love an airshow as much as any other 10 year-old boy, but the sheer mass of people who were moving over the street discouraged me from taking a side trip, so I regretfully went on to the VR Techo Center.

The student competition was mildly interesting, but in general their ambitions seemed to be greater than their technical ability. The fact that a lot of the students were from business schools might have had something to do with it. There were a lot of complicated interfaces where you were supposed to steer images by manipulating various objects, whose cables unfortunately tended to bind up or break. I shouldn't be so snide though - the engineer who decided to let other people make the tools so she could concentrate on artistic content ...

More interesting was the COSMOS 6-sided VR projection space. In a huge room, on a huge scaffolding, is a box 3m x 3m x 3m, where every internal face is a rear projection screen. (The size of the room and the scaffolding is so that there is room for projectors on all sides, including underneath the cube. ) One of the side faces moves out to allow you to enter the room. When it is closed and you have your stereo glasses on, you are completely surrounded by a stereo computer graphic image.

It was all quite impressive, but my complaints are the same as the other VR-projection spaces I've seen: the images were very dim (each one needs a double image, in order to get the stereo effect), and since I wear glasses, the big stereo glasses are very uncomfortable and have to be held in place with one hand, which severely limits the ideal feeling of being free in a wide open space. Plus, the system runs off Silicon Graphics' Performer software, which is difficult to use according even to such long-time pros as Scott Fisher. So a very complex, reactive space such as I'm planning to create for my Manzanar Project would be very difficult to implement for COSMOS. IAMAS has a close relationship to the VR Techno Center and they said they'd be very happy if I could make content for it though. It's an enticing offer, but I'm worried that it would be too difficult to make interesting artistic content - my standard problem with high-tech systems. I have since seen a video of a piece that Jeffrey Shaw did for a similar VR space, where he manipulated the limbs of a large mannikin in order to produce images that swirled around the sides of the cube. If I can see that work "in the flesh" maybe I'll be converted.


The conference was a great chance to catch up with old friends, make some new ones, find out what is happening in Japan, see a large number of interactive art works and check out some new technology. Not bad for a couple days effort. Plus, it turns out that Barbara London from NY MoMA will be staying at IAMAS for a couple of days this coming week as part of her trip around Japan, interviewing some students and faculty here and uploading her report onto the MoMA website. I'll send out an URL when her material is on-line.

Kansai promises to be an interesting mix of high tech and traditional japanese culture, much more that I have seen during our last stay in the Tokyo/Kanto area. I miss the big city (even Kyoto Station made a thrill run through my blood) but expect to get a goodly dose of that when I am in Tokyo for a couple of days at the end of the month. Between now and then, I hope to also get some work done on my project ...

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