Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 15 2016 12:56 PM

Drone Racing Is Now on ESPN. Will People Watch?

Drones are going mainstream: The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that by the end of 2016, people will own more than 2.5 million in the United States alone. But competitive drone-ing is newer still, and televised drone sports are practically uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. That will change Thursday night when the first of a 10-episode season featuring the Drone Racing League airs on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. Eastern.

Sept. 15 2016 12:25 PM

How Oculus and the NBA Made a VR Movie That’s Actually Fun to Watch

Making movies in virtual reality—that is, 360-degree video—is hard. Really hard. The cameras are big and expensive. They can’t zoom. Move the cameras, or cut too quickly from one to the next, and you risk making viewers sick. Keep the cameras in the same spot and you risk wearing viewers down.

But the biggest obstacle facing VR movies, according to some critics, is that viewers can look in any direction at any time, making it impossible for the director to control exactly what they see. In a May Scientific American column, tech writer David Pogue called audience attention “the towering problem that no VR filmmaker has yet cracked.” It’s part of why some VR experts, including Stanford University’s Jeremy Bailenson, think the medium simply doesn’t lend itself to narrative.

Pioneering VR filmmakers have coped with these constraints in various ways: limiting the number of cameras, avoiding frequent scene changes, abandoning traditional narrative structure, and above all, keeping films short. In the process, they’ve come up with some fascinating experiments, but few crowd-pleasers.

An ambitious new VR documentary about the 2016 NBA Finals, the result of a partnership between the NBA and Oculus VR, may help to change all that.

Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals, released Wednesday on the Oculus Store for Samsung Gear VR, is not an artistic or journalistic masterpiece, by any means. But it does challenge some common assumptions about what’s possible in a VR film. It embraces linear narrative. It cuts easily and frequently between cameras and venues—as often as every six to eight seconds, according to the filmmakers. And it clocks in at 24 minutes—short by cinematic standards, but a veritable epic in VR terms.

For a film that breaks so many unwritten rules, the result is a surprisingly straightforward, watchable, and at times engrossing look back at a historic series of basketball games, from a perspective that’s worthwhile for more than its sheer novelty. Impressively, for a VR experience of its length, it’s rarely confusing or disorienting.

Many early VR films feel futuristic and experimental. Some eschew plot altogether in search of a radically new vocabulary for the medium. In contrast, Follow My Lead takes its inspiration from slickly produced behind-the-scenes sports documentaries like ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, albeit without the provocative journalistic edge. You can get a vague sense of its aesthetic from the trailer below, which converts the footage to conventional, flat video. But the full experience is possible only in VR.

Taking us from the pre-series media buildup through the Cavaliers’ victory parade, the film hops confidently from in-game highlights to crowd reaction shots to quieter moments in the teams’ locker rooms and press conferences. It captures the scene and the mood outside the arenas as well as in, juxtaposing idyllic scenes of the San Francisco Bay with gritty shots of downtown Cleveland. The plot focuses on the underdog bid by Cleveland and its star, LeBron James, to disrupt Golden State’s anointment as the greatest team of all time and bring their blue-collar city its first championship in five decades. In the films best moments, it reveals the key players—especially James—in their capacity as humans as well as performers.

To film it, the NBA granted wide-ranging access to Oculus VR and the production company Missing Pieces. Much of the game footage comes from stationary Facebook Surround 360 cameras attached to the basketball hoops and held or mounted on the court’s sidelines, just above the team’s benches. The former vantage point proves well-suited to dunks and blocks; the latter, to arcing 3-pointers and close-ups of coaches prowling the sidelines.

No doubt the production was extremely expensive, not to mention the priceless access. This is not the type of movie that an indie filmmaker could hope to imitate. Moreover, sporting events may be uniquely suited to VR filming, because you know in advance exactly where the action will transpire. For that reason, Follow My Lead can’t by itself disprove the doubters who see VR movies as a boondoggle. But it does offer reason to think that the medium has a real future with mainstream audiences.

Follow My Lead VR movie screenshot
The film was shot on Facebook Surround 360 cameras, so you can turn your head and see what's behind you.

Courtesy of the NBA

The film has one real shortcoming. Whether due to the limitations of VR filmmaking, the film’s relatively short length, or the simple fact that we know the series’ outcome before we begin, it does not fully capture the drama of the contests themselves. Oculus’ head of video, Eugene Wei, told me the producers debated various ways to convey the in-game context for key plays before deciding to let the highlights speak largely for themselves, with an occasional assist from narrator Michael B. Jordan. It’s a tasteful choice, but the downside is that we watch spectacular plays without really understanding their significance to the game’s outcome. For example, at the end of the decisive Game 7, we see a Steph Curry launch a three-pointer that clangs off the rim, and then the clock expires on a Cavs’ win. Only afterward do we learn that the final margin was four points, rendering Curry’s miss mostly irrelevant.

What we do get is an enthralling new view of iconic moments such as James’ thunderous Game 7 chase-down block of Andre Iguodala, a play that the filmmakers rightly emphasize as a visual metaphor for the series. As impressive as the play was on TV, it’s even more so in 360 degrees, thanks to the sense of physical immediacy that VR uniquely conveys. From behind the basket, you see two extremely large men approaching very fast—and then, suddenly, there’s James, emerging from behind them and launching himself straight at your face as he rises above Iguodala to swat the ball away.

Therein lies the chief appeal, of both the film and the medium. VR advocates call it “presence”—the compelling illusion of being there to experience something in person.

Interestingly, this feeling is sometimes stronger in Follow My Lead’s off-court moments than it is when you’re watching in-game action, probably because the camera can get much closer. In one memorable scene, you hover directly over the shoulders of the Cavaliers players as they huddle in a tunnel somewhere in the bowels of Oracle Arena before Game 7. There, without any coaches present, James delivers a pep talk to his teammates in the voice of a battle-scarred veteran who has experienced enough disappointment to understand the magnitude of the stakes.

It would be great footage even for a conventional documentary. But in VR, you feel like you’re part of that huddle. Look left or right and you’ll see your towering, thickly muscled teammates closing their eyes and bobbing their heads as the King speaks. Above you are rafters, behind you—I don’t know, because I wasn’t tempted to look. As in other key scenes, the directors left zero doubt as to where to focus your gaze. By the time James finished, I felt like I was ready to run out and beat the Golden State Warriors.

When I asked Oculus’ Wei how he tackled the problem of audience attention, he said one technique his team has developed is to make sure that when they open each scene, the primary action is unfolding in the same place where the viewer was looking before the cut. Over time, he said, that should help viewers to trust the directors, so that they don’t feel compelled to glance all around them to get their bearings each time the scene changes.

But why, I asked, shoot in VR at all if you don’t expect the viewer to spend much time looking all around? Wei’s answer was persuasive. He said the point of 360-degree video is not that you shouldkeep turning around to see what’s behind you, but simply that you know you can. That knowledge, he says, is the key to the illusion of presence. “If you looked back and it’s all black,” he said, “then you know what’s in front of you isn’t real.”

*Correction, Sept. 15, 2016: In an earlier version of this post, Cleveland Cavaliers player Kyrie Irving was misidentified in the photo caption.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 14 2016 10:34 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: All Tomorrow’s Yesterdays

Greetings, Future Tensers,

To understand the future of technology, you first have to get a sense of its past. Accordingly, as we push ahead with our Futurography course on nanotechnology, we’re looking backward, via this history of the field from W. Patrick McCray. It’s a story that stretches back at least to 1959, when Richard P. Feynman gave a talk that still resonates with researchers and engineers. But McCray’s narrative also describes fierce public debates, bold government initiatives, and ongoing uncertainty. As McCray writes, “the future is a contested arena of speculation,” but his account of how we started to dream it into being is well worth your time.

Of course, that’s not the only history of a trending topic that we looked into this week: If you’ve been following the news about Samsung’s flammable phones, for example, you might be interested in this exploration of lithium ion batteries, which offers an important reminder that such explosive problems aren’t new. And looking into Facebook’s supposed censorship of an iconic photograph, Kate Klonick argues that the incident fits into the long-developing entanglement of speech and platform governance on social media. Examining previous incidents, Klonick points out that it’s what Facebook does next that matters most.

Here are some of the other stories that we read while trying to remember that cyber isn’t a noun:

  • Gadgets: When Apple debuted its new wireless AirPods, it may have been slyly introducing a whole new class of devices, not just an expensive set of headphones.
  • Internet freedom: In the wake of violent protests, the Indian government has largely cut off internet access in Kashmir, arguably going against its own stated ideals.
  • First contact: Science fiction teaches that if aliens really do reach out to us, we need to think carefully about who should respond to the signal.
  • Distance learning: The hardest part about taking a course online may be the once simple act of raising your hand to participate.

Events:

  • The issue of government hacking is now front-page news. But how should we govern such initiatives? New America’s Open Technology Institute is convening a pair of panels where a wide range of experts will tackle these questions and more. The event will be held at New America in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 19, 9:15 a.m.­ to 12:30 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Sept. 13 2016 4:01 PM

Now the Head of NSA Is Concerned About Russia Hacking U.S. Elections

The head of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael Rogers, said on Tuesday that he is concerned about the possibility of Russia hacking the U.S. electoral process.

Sept. 13 2016 2:30 PM

How Should We Govern Government Hacking?

This past spring, the FBI bought a hacking tool to break into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone—then refused to disclose it to Apple. In August, the mysterious “Shadow Brokers” published a stolen cache of NSA’s hacking tools—revealing two previously unknown or “zero-day” vulnerabilities in Cisco routers that the NSA had secretly stockpiled and that Cisco had to rush to patch. And just a few weeks ago, researchers discovered three new iPhone vulnerabilities by analyzing spyware being sold to repressive governments to spy on human rights defenders.

The issue of government hacking—and the question of when and how the government should disclose the software vulnerabilities it buys or discovers—is now front-page news. This news in turn raises hard questions: Do we need new laws to regulate government hacking or the government’s disclosure of vulnerabilities, and if so, what should they look like? Should law enforcement be allowed to hack, or participate in the market for hacking tools, at all?

Building upon its recent paper on the topic, Bugs in the System: A Primer on the Software Vulnerability Ecosystem and its Policy Implications, New America’s Open Technology Institute is convening a pair of panels where a wide range of experts with backgrounds in government, industry, civil society and academia will tackle these questions and more. The event will be held at New America in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 19, 9:15 a.m.­ to 12:30 p.m.

For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Sept. 13 2016 12:52 PM

Adblock Plus Now Sells “Acceptable” Ads

Adblock Plus, the popular extension used to stop advertisements from popping up in users’ internet browsers, announced Tuesday a new system for allowing advertisers, website operators, and publishers to reach Adblock Plus users with “acceptable” advertisements.

Sept. 12 2016 5:13 PM

Federal Judge Rules FBI Can’t Hack Someone’s Computer Without Warrant

Last year, the FBI used a hacking tool, the innocuously named Network Investigative Technique, to identify people who had trafficked in child pornography on a website called Playpen. Catching bad guys: Good. Remotely slipping malware—and then denying it was malware—onto citizens’ computers without warrants: Not so good.

Sept. 12 2016 1:22 PM

Paralyzed Woman Completes Half Marathon on Her Own Two Feet—Thanks to Bionic Power

602354000-claire-lomas-who-was-injured-in-a-riding-accident
Claire Lomas crosses the finish line in the Great North Run half-marathon in northeast England.

Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images

With the help of a robotic exoskeleton, a paralyzed woman from Leicestershire, England, completed a half marathon on Sunday. Thirty-six year-old Claire Lomas wasn’t fast—covering about three miles a day, it took her five days to cross the finish line—but her achievement is still a win for researchers and companies investing in this new technology.

ReWalk Robotics (formerly Argo Medical Technologies), the company that made Lomas’ device, announced last week that it had sold its 100th personal system, a milestone CEO Larry Jasinski said “symbolize[d] a new era” for the company.

One hundred devices may not seem like that many, but each system must be finely customized and calibrated. Leg and hip braces support the wearer, and motors in the braces help lift and rotate joints. Sensors on the hips and knees sense body movement and the wearer uses crutches for balance. “Repeated body shifting generates a sequence of steps which mimics a functional natural gait of the legs,” according to ReWalk website.

As Slate has previously reported, the devices can be prohibitively expensive—one ReWalk systems costs almost $70,000. In February, an insurance company in the U.S. reluctantly agreed to cover the cost of a ReWalk system for one of its clients.

Will Oremus wrote in 2013 that the technology was already being sold to hospitals and clinics around the world and that some companies had even expanded their vision to “commercial exoskeletons and bodysuits aimed at enhancing the strength and endurance of nondisabled people.”

But for Lomas, who was paralyzed from the chest down after a horseback riding accident in 2007, just being able to walk again is enough. She told the BBC that she was “over the moon” about finishing the half marathon, known as the Great North Run. She also walked the London marathon in 2012, with the help of her husband, finishing in 16 days.

But using the exoskeleton is not exactly easy. After the half marathon, she said,  "It's taken some learning. It's not just physical work, it's the concentration with every step.”

Sept. 9 2016 6:04 PM

Facebook’s Censorship Problem Is What Happens When a Tech Company Controls the News

In the space of a single day, Facebook has managed to:

Did I mention that Facebook also promoted in its trending news section on Friday a story claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job? And then, as “a temporary step,” removed the entire trending topic relating to the upcoming 9/11 anniversary?

It’s just another day on the world’s most influential news platform, whose founder and CEO continues to insist that it is not a media company.

My colleague Jacob Brogan has more about the dustup over the 9/11 truther story, which is only the latest in a series of embarrassing blunders resulting from Facebook’s misguided attempt to exorcise human judgment from its trending news section.

The photo censorship episode is somewhat different, although it has its roots in the same conundrum. It revolves around the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1972 photo “The Terror of War,” which depicts terrified children fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. One of the children was a naked and badly burned 9-year-old girl. The photo has been credited by some with hastening the end of the Vietnam War.

When a Norwegian writer published a series of Facebook posts that included the photograph, Facebook suspended him from the site, according to Aftenposten, the country’s largest print newspaper. The social network had determined that the image violated its anti-nudity policy.

When Aftenposten reported on the censorship in a news article that it shared on its Facebook page along with the photo in question, Facebook deleted the newspaper’s post, too. Aftenposten on Friday responded with a front-page open letter denouncing Facebook’s “abuse of power,” and Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, weighed in with her own Facebook post criticizing the the company, again including the photo. Facebook went ahead and deleted that as well.

Pressed by reporters Friday, Facebook defended the decision with the following statement:

While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others. We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.

As the outcry grew, Facebook flip-flopped and promised to reinstate the posts it had taken down. It issued a second statement explaining that choice:

After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed. We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days. We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward.

The photo controversy differs from the company’s trending-news snafus in that it centers on Facebook’s signature product, the news feed. In that respect, it’s a bigger deal.

The trending news section is peripheral to the Facebook experience, and its decisions only marginally affect what the company’s massive audience reads. The news feed, in contrast, is a daily or even hourly addiction for a significant portion of the world’s population. Some 66 percent of U.S. Facebook users say they rely on it for news, which equates to 44 percent of all U.S. adults. Accordingly, the news feed has become a critical distribution channel for major news outlets—and, as a result, a reluctant arbiter of what’s most relevant in the news.

Media companies, generally speaking, accept responsibility for the content they publish, including its newsworthiness. But, as I’ve explained, Facebook is loath to do that, because exercising editorial judgment is both controversial and labor-intensive. That’s one big reason why traditional media companies are both relatively poor and widely mistrusted while Facebook is wildly rich and relatively well-liked.

In place of human editors, the company has fallen back on one-size-fits-all policies, such as its prohibition against nudity, which can be enforced via a combination of proprietary software and poorly paid contractors working in warehouses in Manila. That approach has helped to fuel the company’s rapid growth and enormous profits. But as the social network’s dominance of media grows, its drawbacks are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

When Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook isn’t a media company, it’s not so much a descriptive claim as a wishful one. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, for the reasons outlined above. That’s understandable: Editorial judgment is perilous territory, and as much as we cry out when Facebook clumsily enforces a blunt policy, the cries would only grow louder if the company were to take a more activist approach to the types of content it permits and promotes.

Yet the company’s persistent claims to neutrality, which were philosophically empty from the outset, are further undermined each time it changes its policies in response to public pressure, or makes an exception for “an iconic image of historic importance,” or offers a rationale such as, “the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal.”

That is so naked a value judgment that Facebook’s PR team couldn’t even find a word other than “value” in which to cloak it. In essence, with its second statement on Friday reversing the ban on the “Terror of War” photo, Facebook just admitted to all of the following:

  • It does make value judgments about the content people are allowed to post in the news feed.
  • It is willing to make such judgments on a case-by-case basis.
  • In doing so, it is prepared to consider claims of newsworthiness and historical importance, while considering such factors as source, cultural context, and feedback from its readers.

In other words: Facebook is a media company, when it’s forced to be. It’s just a media company that’s determined to accept as little responsibility as possible for what it publishes—and which alternately abdicates and reclaims its prerogative to exercise editorial judgment according to what it deems expedient at any given time. Remind me again why the public is so quick to trust technology companies?

Sept. 9 2016 3:43 PM

Facebook Promotes “Trending” Article Claiming 9/11 Was an Inside Job

Depending on how you use Facebook, you might never notice its trending news sidebar. Theoretically a marker of what users are discussing, the feature came under fire in June when Gizmodo reported on its supposed liberal bias. In August, the company sacked its human editors, replacing them not, as some erroneously claim, with purely algorithmic curation, but instead shifting to a team with more “technical skillsets.” The results were immediate and disastrous, with the site promoting a false story claiming that Fox News had fired Megyn Kelly.

Unsurprisingly, things have only gotten worse for the site in the weeks since. On Friday, Sara Morrison reported in Vocativ that Facebook was featuring an article pinned to the trending topic “September 11th Anniversary” that claimed to discuss footage revealing that the Sept. 11 attacks had been the product of a planned demolition. In other words, Facebook, just short of its 13th birthday, has officially (if inadvertently) risen to the level of a teen joking about jet fuel and steel beams.

While it’s tempting to blame algorithms for Facebook’s mistake, it was, in fact, a more human inside job. According to a press release from the company, while the humans currently on the trending team review topics, they’re mostly working to make sure that those topics correspond to “current news event[s]” or are otherwise of immediate interest. Accordingly, curators are looking for events that are currently unfolding, or that are actively generating conversations. As Morrison notes, seeing Sept. 11 in the trending feed “makes sense, as the 15th anniversary of the attack is in a few days.”

In this case, however, it’s not clear that the trending staffers followed their company’s own best practices. In a more comprehensive PDF explaining its guidelines, the company lays outs a multistage process for accepting a topic. During the NBA Finals, for example, curators wouldn’t promote an article about LeBron James just because he was playing in the game—only if he actually did something of note, like hitting a “game-winning shot in Game 2 of finals.”

Accordingly, the erroneous Megyn Kelly article was presumably accepted in accordance with these principles because it appeared to correspond with an actual event (Fox firing its star anchor), even if that event didn’t happen. It’s considerably less obvious how the 9/11 article made it past muster, though it seems possible that Facebook employees—acceding to the company’s ongoing attempt to counteract accusations of bias—really were trying to show both sides of the story here. In this case, however, the other side of the story just happens to be one that’s comically, perhaps even offensively, wrong.

For now, Facebook has apparently responded by removing its entire 9/11 anniversary topic tag from the trending stream:

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the topic was no longer active, telling Slate, “We’re aware a hoax article showed up there and as a temporary step to resolving this we’ve removed the topic.” It seems possible that Facebook trending itself won’t be long for the world either.

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