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Doubting what we see as truth

Our eyes have always been the thing we trusted the most. We have used them to define and measure the world around us. We believe things with our own eyes. We have to see it to believe it.

That’s been changing for a while, and we’re in for more changes very soon.

Audio as Truth
The tools were new, the medium was new, and the output was hard to forge. What we heard on the radio, or any recorded media, was ‘official’, in part, because it was so expensive. Only companies using the medium for ‘real work’ or profit could afford such devices and time and expertise.

Orson Welles changed how we viewed media just prior to Halloween 1938. The broadcast of The War of the Worlds episode created, for the first time, doubt in our ability to trust what we heard in recorded or broadcast media. This was expensive! This sounded like news! This must be real!

Image as Truth
By the time the personal computer came along, the price had lowered for the production of ‘quality’ print making. Desktop publishing ushered in an era of anyone being able to produce what looked state of the art, for print media. In a few short years, our computers were capable of producing and manipulating graphics. Photorealistic images were now stored in the computer and Photoshop made its first appearance.

It has become a verb now. “That looks ‘shopped'”. We don’t trust what we see in a still image. We assume that anything in a still image, an ad, a photo, has been retouched and reworked and presented just as the creator has envisioned. We now trust our media outlets, on behalf of their reputations alone, to present to us non-doctored, non-photoshopped images. It’s become about integrity, not cost.

Video as Truth
As the computers have become more powerful, we have lost faith in moving images as well. Movies shown in theaters today are commonly augmented with CGI (computer-generated imagery). We are accustomed to seeing superheroes flying, explosions far too big for movie sets, and monsters that don’t really exist. This has become normal and we don’t think much of it. New tricks (bullet-time from the Matrix) are few and far between and noteworthy when they have their coming out.

But we still trust ‘live’ video. We assume that if it looks real, and is fairly recent, that it’s probably real. The cost has been too high for regular people to manipulate this medium. We are in the time, for video, as we were before War of the Worlds, for radio.

But not for long.

A few bits of technology, of late, are beginning to allow us to see what our new future holds. We are beginning to grasp at the tools that will allow us to manipulate entire scenes and series of videos.

Microsoft’s Photosynth

Microsoft Live Labs’ Photosynth allows a community of photographs to be analyzed and pulled into a single experience. You can ‘interact’ with a 2.5 dimensional space and zoom in and out from photos mapped into a common navigable interface. The interface is a near duplicate of what the sci-fi and police forensics TV shows were doing in mock-up just a few years ago (CSI used this software itself recently). View a bunch of examples here (if you’re on a Windows machine).

TED Demo of Seadragon and Photosynth from March 2007

UW’s Video Enhancement

The University of Washington’s Computer Science department has been working on enhancing video through a variety of techniques. It’s not tight edits. It’s not CGI. It’s augmentation, that takes the reality of the clip and enhances it. Super resolution, object removal, etc.

Using Photographs to Enhance Videos of a Static Scene from pro on Vimeo.

George Allen’s macaca moment. Could have been faked? Probably not today… but give it a few years. We are in for a rude awakening our next presidential election. Videos with subtle changes, tight edits, and falsehoods will make their appearance and I hope we’re savvy enough to ignore most of them in 2012.

Media Literacy
This brings up the issue of viewer education or media literacy. As the rules of the game continue to change, we need to keep up. The problem of course, is that the computer capabilities and the software are moving much quicker than public uptake. Maybe YouTube will save us all…

Americans believe what they see – as fact.

The impulse to record family history that is more wishful than accurate is as old as photography itself. In the 19th century, people routinely posed with personal items, like purses or scarves, that belonged to absent or dead relatives to include them, emotionally, in the frame, said Mary Warner Marien, an art history professor at Syracuse University and the author of “Photography: A Cultural History.”

In India, she said, it is a tradition to cut-and-paste head shots of absent family members into wedding photographs as a gesture of respect and inclusion. “Everyone understands that it’s not a trick,” she said. “That’s the nature of the photograph. It’s a Western sense of reality that what is in front of the lens has to be true.”

An imbalance between the tools and our media literacy has the potential to undermine our sense of democracy and trust. We need education about these issues. Let’s hope there are some remarkable examples of faked video that trick people *before* it matters. Let’s hope there are some cases where what we see is NOT what happened *before* we’re voting to decide our leaders. We need discourse and fact-checking, dialogue and transparency.

Seeing is not necessarily believing, anymore.

Update: Stanford announces the ability to replace arbitrary surfaces in video with any other arbitrary video or still image. This works for placing ads in home movies or (re)creating a scene for different audiences based on content. Stanford is calling it ZunaVision.

The future is here. I hope you’re paying attention.

UPDATE: And this is only promotional, but the comments are telling…

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