Conclusion

I set out to assess the implications of a wholly new medium, one which had received little academic attention written from a media theoretical perspective. I made clear use of an industry connection to gain inside knowledge of the developments occurring to bring this medium to the mainstream. Building a methodology that could sustain the level of analysis that I hoped to achieve, I observed the interactions between technology and industry, market forces and cultural influences. Having positioned my subject at the crest of a curling wave, I employed critical media theory to explore the potential implications of my subject in its wider context of social reality. This ambitious task has granted me insight into how the complex interactions of various fields give rise to social change. Along the way I have revealed seams rich in potential for further analysis.

McLuhan is proven to apply to yet another medium, the perspective he offers served my analysis quite well. A further exploration might make use of his Acoustic and Visual Space probe, Cavell’s basis for McLuhanistic spatial enquiry in his book McLuhan in Space (2002) would be a good starting point for such work, since it applies McLuhanism to the media of time and space, thus a good start for work on the presence of virtual objects. Media analysts occupied with screen design might wish to extend Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) work on remediation to the emergent Mobile AR technology, perhaps from an explicit digital gaming perspective. Those with interest in advertising or business as applied to Augmented Reality would do well to continue Benjaminian thought to its logical end: manipulating a virtual object to hold added-value for commercial enterprise. Those with a more creative bent might enjoy a study of the public perception of AR artworks using Benjamin also. There is scope for research into AR-based social interactions; gaming styles; immersion and identity formation, but this sort of work necessitates that first Mobile AR spends at least some time in public consciousness.

Finally, I believe that I have convincingly laid out an argument showing that AR is currently being developed and packaged as an entertainment technology, but its potential for community-driven, self-proliferating excitement of user-created content makes AR a significant and culturally-transformative technology. Convergence between media types will enable and drive the creation of innovative content which if successful will itself rely on new ways of accessing and viewing content and ultimately new forms of content and user experience entirely. We are at the crest of a wave. Will it wither and let a larger wave pass above it, or will it grow to reach tidal proportions? Despite my predictions, only time will tell.

Summary So Far

In summary, Mobile AR has many paths leading to it. It is this convergence of various paths that makes a true historical appraisal of this technology difficult to achieve. However, I have highlighted facets of its contributing technologies that assist in the developing picture of the implications that Mobile AR has in store. A hybridisation of a number of different technologies, Mobile AR embodies the most gainful properties of its three core technologies: This analyst sees Mobile AR as a logical progression from VR, but recognises its ideological rather than technological founding. The hardware basis of Mobile AR stems from current mobile telephony trends that exploit the growing capabilities of Smartphone devices. The VR philosophy and the mobile technology are fused through the Internet, the means for enabling context-based, live-updating content, and housing databases of developer-built and user-generated digital objects and elements, whilst connecting users across the world.

I have shown that where the interest in VR technologies dwindled due to its limited real-world applicability, Mobile Internet also lacks in comparison to Mobile AR and its massive scope for intuitive, immersive and realistic interpretations of digital information. Wearable AR computing shares VR’s weaknesses, despite keeping the user firmly grounded in physical reality. Mobile AR offers a solution that places the power of these complex systems into a mobile telephone: the ubiquitous technology of our generation. This new platform solves several problems at once, most importantly for AR developers and interested Blue-chip parties, market readiness. Developing for Mobile AR is simply the commercially sensible thing to do, since the related industries are already making the changes required for its mass-distribution.

Like most nascent technologies, AR’s success depends on its commercial viability and financial investment, thus most sensible commercial developers of AR technologies are working on projects for the entertainment and advertising industries, where their efforts can be rewarded quickly. These small-scale projects are often simple in concept, easily grasped and thus not easily forgotten. I claim here that the first Mobile AR releases will generate early interest in the technology and entertainment markets, with the effect that press reportage and word-of-mouth behaviour assist Mobile AR’s uptake. I must be careful with my claims here however, since there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this will occur for Mobile AR. Looking at the emergence of previous technologies, however, the Internet and mobile telephony grew rapidly and to massive commercial success thanks to some strong business models and advancements in their own supporting technologies. It is strongly hoped by developers like Gameware and T-Immersion that Mobile AR can enjoy this same rapid lift-off. Both technologies gained prominence once visible in the markets thanks to a market segment called early adopters. This important group gathers their information from specialist magazine sources and word of mouth. Mobile AR developers would do well to recognise the power of this group, perhaps by offering shareware versions of their AR software that encourage a form of viral transmission that exploit text messaging.

Gameware have an interesting technique for the dissemination of their HARVEE software. They share a business interest with a Bluetooth technology firm, which has donated a prototype product the Bluetooth Push Box, which scans for local mobile devices and automatically sends files to users in acceptance. Gameware’s Push Box sends their latest demo to all visitors to their Cambridge office. This same technology could be placed in public places or commercial spaces to offer localised AR advertising, interactive tourist information, or 3D restaurant menus, perhaps.

Gameware, through its Nokia projects and HARVEE development program is well placed to gain exposure on the back of a market which is set to explode as mobile offerings become commercially viable, ‘social’, powerful, multipurpose and newsworthy. Projects like HARVEE are especially interesting in terms of their wide applicability and mass-market appeal. It is its potential as a revolutionary new medium that inspires this very series.

The Internet

The Internet, or specifically the World Wide Web, requires a limited virtuality in order to do its job. The shallow immersion offered to us by our computer screens actually serves our needs very well, since the Internet’s role in our lives is to connect, store and present information in accessible, searchable, scannable, and consistent form for millions of users to access simultaneously, to be dived in and out of quickly or to surround ourselves in the information we want. The naturally-immersive VR takes us partway towards Mobile AR, but its influence stops at the (admittedly profound) concept of real-time interaction with 3D digital images. What the Internet does is bring information to us, but VR forces us to go to it.

This is a function of the Mixed Reality Scale, and the distance of each from The Real. The closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives. The self-sufficient realm of The Virtual does not require grounding in physical reality in order to exist, whereas the Internet and other MR media depend on The Real to operate. AR is the furthest that a virtual object can be ‘stitched into’ our reality, and in doing so we exploit our power in this realm to manipulate and interact with these digital elements to suit our own ends, as we currently do with the World Wide Web.

The wide-ranging entertainment resources offered by the Internet are having a profound effect on real-world businesses, a state of flux that Mobile AR could potentially exploit. There is a shift in the needs of consumers of late that is forcing a change in the ways that many blue-chip organisations are handling their businesses: Mobile data carriers (operators), portals, publishers, content owners and broadcasters are all seeking new content types to face up to the threat of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) – which is reducing voice traffic; and Web TV/ Internet – reducing (reduced?) TV audiences, particularly in the youth market.

T-Mobile, for example, seeks to improve on revenues through offering unique licensed mobile games, themes, ringtones and video-clips on their T-Zones Mobile Internet Portal; NBC’s hit-series ‘Heroes’ is the most downloaded show on the Internet, forcing NBC to offer exclusive online comics on their webpage, seeking to recoup advertising revenue losses through lacing the pages of these comics with advertising. Mobile AR represents a fresh landscape for these businesses to mine. It is no surprise, then, that some forward-thinking AR developers are already writing software specifically for the display of virtual advertisement billboards in built-up city areas (T-Immersion).

The Internet has changed the way we receive information about the world around us. This hyper-medium has swallowed the world’s information and media content, whilst continuing to enable the development of new and exciting offerings exclusive to the desktop user. The computing capacity required to use the Internet has in the past constrained the medium to the desktop computer, but in the ‘Information Age’ the World Wide Web is just that: World Wide.

Virtual Reality

AR is considered by some to be a logical progression of VR technologies (Liarokapis, 2006; Botella, 2005; Reitmayr & Schmalstieg, 2001), a more appropriate way to interact with information in real-time that has been granted only by recent innovations. Thus, one could consider that a full historical appraisal would pertain to VR’s own history, plus the last few years of AR developments. Though this method would certainly work for much of Wearable AR- which uses a similar device array- the same could not be said for Mobile AR, since by its nature it offers a set of properties from a wholly different paradigm: portability, connectivity and many years of mobile development exclusive of AR research come together in enhancing Mobile AR’s formal capabilities. Despite the obvious mass-market potential of this technology, most AR research continues to explore the Wearable AR paradigm. Where Mobile AR is cousin to VR, Wearable AR is sister. Most published works favour the Wearable AR approach, so if my assessment of Mobile AR is to be fair I cannot ignore its grounding in VR research.

As aforementioned, VR is the realm at the far right of my Mixed Reality Scale. To explore a Virtual Reality, users must wear a screen array on their heads that cloak the user’s vision with a wholly virtual world. These head-mounted-displays (HMD’s) serve to transpose the user into this virtual space whilst cutting them off from their physical environment:

A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision
A Virtual Reality HMD, two LCD screens occupy the wearer's field of vision

The HMD’s must be connected to a wearable computer, a Ghostbusters-style device attached to the wearer’s back or waist that holds a CPU and graphics renderer. To interact with virtual objects, users must hold a joypad. Aside from being a lot to carry, this equipment is restrictive on the senses and is often expensive:

A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device
A Wearable Computer array, this particular array uses a CPU, GPS, HMD, graphics renderer, and human-interface-device

It is useful at this point to reference some thinkers in VR research, with the view to better understanding The Virtual realm and its implications for Mobile AR’s Mixed Reality approach. Writing on the different selves offered by various media, Lonsway (2002) states that:

“With the special case of the immersive VR experience, the user is (in actual fact) located in physical space within the apparatus of the technology. The computer-mediated environment suggests (in effect) a trans-location outside of this domain, but only through the construction of a subject centred on the self (I), controlling an abstract position in a graphic database of spatial coordinates. The individual, of which this newly positioned subject is but one component, is participant in a virtuality: a spatio-temporal moment of immersion, virtualised travel, physical fixity, and perhaps, depending on the technologies employed, electro-magnetic frequency exposure, lag-induced nausea, etc.”

Lonsway (2002: 65)

Despite its flaws, media representations of VR technologies throughout the eighties and early nineties such as Tron (Lisberger, 1982), Lawnmower Man (Leonard, 1992) and Johnny Mnemonic (Longo, 1995) generated plenty of audience interest and consequent industrial investment. VR hardware was produced in bulk for much of the early nineties, but it failed to become a mainstream technology largely due to a lack of capital investment in VR content, a function of the stagnant demand for expensive VR hardware (Mike Dicks of Bomb Productions: personal communication). The market for VR content collapsed, but the field remains an active contributor in certain key areas, with notable success as a commonplace training aid for military pilots (Baumann, date unknown) and as an academic tool for the study of player immersion and virtual identity (Lonsway, 2002).

Most AR development uses VR’s same array of devices: a wearable computer, input device and an HMD. The HMD is slightly different in these cases; it is transparent and contains an internal half-silvered mirror, which combines images from an LCD display with the user’s vision of the world:

An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them
An AR HMD, this model has a half-mirrored screen at 45 degrees. Above are two LCDs that reflect into the wearer's eyes whilst they can see what lies in front of them

 

What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible
What Wearable AR looks like, notice the very bright figure ahead. If he was darker he would not be visible

There are still many limitations placed on the experience, however: first, the digital graphics must be very bright in order to stand out against natural light; second, they require the use of a cumbersome wearable computer array; third, this array is at a price-point too high for it to reach mainstream use. Much of the hardware used in Wearable AR research is bought wholesale from liquidized VR companies (Dave Mee of Gameware: personal communication), a fact representative of the backward thinking of much AR research.

In their work New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura Bolter et al. (2006) apply Benjamin’s work on the Aura to Mixed Reality technologies, and attempt to forge a link between VR and the Internet. This passage offers a perspective on the virtuality of the desktop computer and the World Wide Web:

“What we might call the paradigm of mixed reality is now competing successfully with what we might call ‘pure virtuality’ – the earlier paradigm that dominated interface design for decades.
In purely virtual applications, the computer defines the entire informational or perceptual environment for the user … The goal of VR is to immerse the user in a world of computer generated images and (often) computer-controlled sound. Although practical applications for VR are relatively limited, this technology still represents the next (and final?) logical step in the quest for pure virtuality. If VR were perfected and could replace the desktop GUI as the interface to an expanded World Wide Web, the result would be cyberspace.”

Bolter et al. (2006: 22)

This account offers a new platform for discussion useful for the analysis of the Internet as a component in Mobile AR: the idea that the Internet could exploit the spatial capabilities of a Virtual Reality to enhance its message. Bolter posits that this could be the logical end of a supposed “quest for pure virtuality”. I would argue that the reason VR did not succeed is the same reason that there is no “quest” to join: VR technologies lack the real-world applicability that we can easily find in reality-grounded media such as the Internet or mobile telephone.

What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

armarker2
Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

crw_80271
The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

100-0007_img_21
ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.

Introduction

Augmented Reality (AR) is a theme of computer research which deals with a combination of real world and computer generated data. AR is just one version of a Mixed Reality (MR) technology, where digital and real elements are mixed to create meaning. In essence AR is any live image that has an overlay of information that augments the meaning of these images.

Digital graphics are commonly put to work in the entertainment industry, and ‘mixing realities’ is a common motif for many of today’s media forms. There are varying degrees to which The Real and The Virtual can be combined. This is illustrated in my Mixed Reality Scale:

mixed-reality-scale
My Mixed Reality Scale, a simplified version of Milgram & Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum

This is a simplified version of Milgram and Kishino’s (1994) Virtuality Continuum; simplified, because their research is purely scientific, without an explicit interest in media theory or effects, therefore not wholly applicable to my analysis. At the far left of my Mixed Reality Scale lies The Real, or physical, every-day experiential reality. For the longest time we lived solely in this realm. Then, technological innovation gave rise to the cinema, and then television. These media are located one step removed from The Real, a step closer to The Virtual, and can be considered a window on another world. This world is visually similar to our own, a fact exploited by its author to narrate believable, somewhat immersive stories. If willing, the viewer is somewhat ‘removed’ from their grounding here in physical reality, allowing them to participate in the construction of a sculpted, yet static existence. The viewer can only observe this contained reality, and cannot interact with it, a function of the viewing apparatus.

Later advancements in screen media technologies allowed the superimposition of graphical information over moving images. These were the beginnings of AR, whereby most of what is seen is real with some digital elements supplementing the image. Indeed, this simple form of AR is still in wide use today, notably in cases where extra information is required to make sense of a subject. In the case of certain televised sports, for example, a clock and a scoreboard overlay a live football match, which provides additional information that is useful to the viewer. Television viewers are already accustomed to using information that is displayed in this way:

Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics
Simple Augmented Reality, televised football matches augment meaning with digital graphics

More recently, computing and graphical power gave designers the tools to build wholly virtual environments. The Virtual is a graphical representation of raw data, and the furthest removed from physical reality on my Mixed Reality Scale. Here lies the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), a technology that uses no real elements except for the user’s human senses. The user is submersed in a seemingly separate reality, where visual, acoustic and sometimes haptic feedback serve to transpose them into this artificial, yet highly immersive space. Notice the shift from viewer to user: this is a function of the interactivity offered by digital space. VR was the forerunner to current AR research, and remains an active realm of academic study.

Computer graphics also enhanced the possibilities offered by television and cinema, forging a new point on the Mixed Reality Scale. I refer to the Augmented Virtuality (AV) approach, which uses mainly digital graphics with some real elements superimposed. For example, a newsreader reporting from a virtual studio environment is one common application. I position AV one step closer towards The Virtual to reflect the ratio of real to virtual elements:

An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio
An Augmented Virtuality, the ITV newscasters sit at a real table in a virtual studio

There is an expansive realm between AV and VR technologies, media which offer the user wholly virtual constructions that hold potential for immersion and interactivity. I refer to the media of video games and desktop computers. Here the user manipulates visually depicted information for a purpose. These media are diametrically opposed to their counterpart on my scale, the cinema and television, because they are windows this time into a virtual world, actively encouraging (rather than denying) user interactivity to perform their function. Though operating in virtuality, the user remains grounded in The Real due to apparatus constraints.

Now, further technological advancements allow the fusion of real and virtual elements in ways not previously possible. Having traversed our way from The Real to The Virtual, we have now begun to make our way back. We are making a return to Augmented Reality, taking with us the knowledge to manipulate wholly virtual 3D objects and the computing power to integrate digital information into live, real world imagery. AR is deservedly close to The Real on my scale, because it requires physicality to function. This exciting new medium has the potential to change the way we perceive our world, forging a closer integration between our two binary worlds. It is this potential as an exciting and entirely new medium that has driven me to carry out the following work.

To begin, I address the science behind AR and its current applications. Next, I exploit an industry connection to inform a discussion of AR’s development as an entertainment medium. Then, I construct a methodology for analysis from previous academic thought on emergent technologies, whilst addressing the problems of doing so. I use this methodology to locate AR in its wider technologic, academic, social and economic context. This discussion opens ground for a deeper analysis of AR’s potential socio-cultural impact, which makes use of theories of media and communication and spatial enquiry. I conclude with a final critique that holds implications for the further analysis of Mixed Reality technology.

Gutter Talk

Gutter Talk: Hot & Cool in the World of Comic Books

The medium we call comics is based on a simple idea: the idea of placing one picture after another to show the passage of time. Legendary comic artist Will Eisner defines comics as ‘sequential art’. The idea that art can be ‘joined up’ to create a narrative can be seen in practice throughout the ages and is therefore not new. Examples from history include Egyptian hieroglyphics, European stained glass windows, Greek wall frescoes, Japanese scrolls and prehistoric wall paintings. In the year 1066 the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230 foot long piece of sequential art, was completed. Reading from left to right, it illustrates the events of the Norman Conquest of England unfolding in deliberate, chronological order before its viewers. Today the formula for making sequential art remains the same, though Scott McCloud’s definition is more relevant to the type of comics we have come to know. In his book ‘Understanding Comics’ McCloud states that comics are:

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”

(McCloud, 1993, page 9)

This definition ignores single-panel comics such as Larson’s ‘The Far Side’, and other visual mediums like animation, but includes the use of the ‘speech bubble’ as a critical element in a comic’s narrative. McCloud’s definition lends itself to the most common forms of comics: newspaper strips, magazine-format comic books and graphic novels.

So how do modern comics work? Each panel in a comic is contained within a border. Each panel is a self-contained piece of art, and a fragment of a narrative. When read in a sequence, the gap between each panel is ‘filled in’ by the reader’s imagination. It is the reader that ‘animates’ these still pictures, not the medium itself. This happens because the mind is designed to close gaps in our awareness. Gestalt psychologists call this process ‘closure’. The real power of comics, then, lies not in the characters involved, nor what they are saying, or even the stories themselves, nor any of the medium’s potential content, but in how the reader interprets each panel as part of a sequence. As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”.

One of the seminal media analyst’s best known concepts is that of a medium being either ‘hot’ or ‘cool’. In a broadcast on California’s CBC Television on June 22, 1965, McLuhan was asked to explain his concept:

“‘Cool’ is a slang term borrowed from the world of Jazz and popular music. The word ‘cool’ has a kind of mystical meaning that is not unlike the Hindu idea of detachment. The Hindu idea of detachment means complete involvement in an action and detachment in action. Whereas when people are merely involved in an action but not detached from the action, that’s ‘square’, or ‘hot’. Most people think of ‘cool’ as merely detached from action, but the word ‘cool’ as used in Jazz, and as I use it as sense for a medium, means a medium which uses all of you, but leaves you detached in the act of using you.”

(McLuhan, CBC.CA, 1965)

McLuhan exemplified hot media as: radio, print, photographs, movies and lectures; and cool media as: the telephone, speech, cartoons, TV and seminars. The comic book is another example of a cool medium, and to test McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe as a whole we will look at a comics series that typifies the medium; In the words of the great (but fictional) Professor Charles Xavier, “To me, my X-Men”.

For some, the X-Men comics are the epitomy of how all comics should be; fluid, exciting, intelligent, emotionally complex, relevant, and expressively drawn. Since their conception by Stan Lee in 1963, Marvel Comics X-Men have come very far indeed. Comparing the X-Men across the decades, panels of artwork today are richer with visual information. Comics in the early 1970s had a palette of just twelve colours. The reader had to use their mind’s eye to see the School for Gifted Youngsters that the series’ artists had in mind when drawing the series. Today, details such as old chalk-marks and lecture notes appear on the blackboard in Storm’s history classroom to give the reader a deeper sense that Mutant Academy is a real place. The characters’ facial expression are radically improved today, greater subtleties between Wolverine’s bad moods can now be conveyed, and fiery explosions are almost photo-realistic in terms of their adhering to physical law. There are now fewer gaps for the reader’s mind to fill in. Because of technological advancements and improvements in artistry, the X-Men and comic books as a whole have heated up. However, the images are still constrained within the borders of each frame. We must imagine what else is in the room when we see it from just one perspective, whereas in hotter media such as film the camera angles are generally wider, providing more information and therefore less detachment.

The panel makes up one essential part of the comic book’s construct. The second aspect is ‘The Gutter’ or the space between the panels. McCloud states that:

“Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there! Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality. If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar. And since our definition of comics hinges on the arrangement of elements then, in a very real sense, comics is closure!”

(McCloud, 1993, page 66-67)

Using the Gestalt definition of closure as “a principle of organization holding that there is an innate tendency to perceive incomplete objects as complete and to close or fill gaps” (TheFreeDictionary.com) and fusing it with McCloud’s concept of ‘the gutter’, in a McLuhanesque sense ‘the gutter’ becomes a very cool place indeed, completely devoid of content but for the reader’s own imaginings. There is actually an evolving art to reading or processing a comic as the guttering mechanisms become more and more sophisticated. In this way, comics could be said to be getting cooler. In some ways there’s a gutter happening whenever you turn the page too – a good example being that really ‘cool’ thing that happens when you turn the page in an action sequence (or somesuch) to a full or double page spread, sometimes with no words, and the reader really gets pulled in by the dramatic effect. Perhaps readers who are more brought up on squarer mediums, where they are more ‘spoon-fed’ with input have a harder time comprehending the narrative flow of certain comic books and so they are put off by the medium and never get to appreciate what it can offer. There are some types of comic book that require a pretty experienced reader, well versed in the ‘laws of the gutter’ and these are the coolest types of comics.

McLuhan’s thermometer is a tool for relativity, and works best when comparing multiple media. Luckily the X-Men do not appear solely in comics. They also appear in two animated television shows and have a highly successful movie franchise under their (spandex utility) belts. In a comic book, frames are viewed from up left, to bottom right. This requires active participation from the reader to help the narrative unfold. Panels can be ‘rewound’, ‘paused’ or skipped entirely. In cinema, frames on a film reel are shown to you in rapid succession and in the same place: the screen. All that the viewer has to do is sit back and let the medium wash over them. There is only a miniscule ‘gutter’ between the frames of a movie because the frame rate must be high enough to make still images on a movie reel appear to be moving fluidly. The closure between these frames is continuous, involuntary and imperceptible. The closure of frames in comics is reader dictated, involving, and necessary to the understanding of the book as a whole. This is what makes cinema hot, relative to comics’ cool.

Since VHS and, more recently, DVD became available; audiences can not only immerse themselves in a movie’s narrative from their home, but splash around a little too. Mystique and Wolverine’s fight scene cannot be rewound and played in slow motion in the cinema, but it is possible to do this at home. This makes home viewing a cooler immersive experience than cinema. The X-Men also have video games of their own, allowing a fully interactive, involving and entirely participatory immersion in the world of superheroes. In Activision’s 2004 game ‘X-Men Legends’ players can choose a team of their favourite heroes and work together to stop the psychotic Magneto. The game has its own scripted narrative, but allows real involvement that not even comic books can offer. Comics may be cool, but video games are cooler.

So what have we learned about the medium of comic books? We know that the medium consists purely of the panels in which content is placed, and spacing between the panels, which connects adjacent panels over space and time. We know now that although comics’ content is warming up as technology and craft allows, comics’ defining component, the ‘gutter’, must always remain an icy-cool permafrost desert of bleakness: Comic books would not exist without it. We have also learned that, in the Gestalt sense, comics can be seen as a configuration of elements so unified as a whole that a comic cannot be perceived by the reader as merely the sum of its parts, and that it is our own cognitive programming that turns a series of images into an involving narrative. We have learned that McLuhan’s ‘Hot and Cool’ probe still applies to varying media, but lacks a content analysis that might render it more relevant, especially with the dawn of video games as a highly prevalent medium. Hopefully though, the main lesson is that the true art of comics is not what we see on the page, but what we see in our mind’s eye.

1624 words

Bibliography

CBC.CA. (1965). “Marshall Mcluhan: A Pop Philosopher.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-69-342-1818/life_society/mcluhan/clip4.

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

TheFreeDictionary.com. “Closure.” Retrieved 16/03/05, from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/closure.

Further Reading

Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Carrier, D. (2000). The Aesthetics of Comics. Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Age. London, Routledge.

McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing Comics. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

McLuhan, M. and W. T. Gordon (2003). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Corte Madera, CA, Gingko Press.

Stearn, G. E., Ed. (1967). McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New York, The Dial Press, Inc.