Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Erotic Mathematics: Lessons in Perception

Eros ex Math 4
Digital image by Peter Miller ©2004
I was recently sent a gallery of erotic mathematical renderings by a friend with a remarkable nose for the obscure. They are certainly evocative. It goes to show how a little art training goes a long way in the pursuit of the harder sciences.

Naturally this got me thinking of on one of my favorite topics. How do we create high impact experiences without spending lots of money?

Realism: The obvious solution?
Suppose for a moment that I wanted to create a highly sensual environment in a game. The obvious solution is to drench the scenery in photorealistic voluptuous figures complete with taut pink nipples or pleasantly rippling pectorals. By getting hundreds of thousands of little details 100% correct, by replicating reality in our game, we can evoke the same emotions as if the player had experienced the situation for real. This train of thought drives much of the passion behind the quest for hyper realistic virtual reality.

Does the brain need all this stimuli in order to reach the equivalent level of arousal? Human perception is distinctly not photographic in nature. We see blurs where camera capture crisp detail. Our brains filter out extraneous shapes and details in the presence of faces or sudden distractions. Much of the history of the visual arts and almost all of the history of stage magic has been spent cataloging and hacking into our brains imperfect, quirky and highly biased shortcuts for sensing of the physical world.

Gorillas in our Midst
There is a famous study about a group of research participants that were asked to watch a tape of people passing a ball back and forth. The participants were asked to count the number of passes and if they got the right number they would get a prize. In the middle of the video, a person in an ape costume walks out into the middle of the room, pauses and then walks out of the room. Later when the participants were asked if they had seen anything unusual, a large fraction claimed to have not seen a thing. They were so focused on the task of watching the ball being passed back and forth that their brains had simply erased the ape from their senses.

If this had been a virtual room with virtual people passing virtual balls, would it have been cost effective for the developer to render the virtual ape?

Photorealism is a naïve strategy for rendering evocative experiences. We throw up our hands and say “I don’t know what causes people to tick, so I’m going to throw it all in and hope something sticks.” This is sometimes effective, but oh so expensive. Throw in a few untested skin shaders and a cutting edge facial animation system and you've created a classic high volatility risk cocktail. Even worse, sometimes by focusing on everything, you miss the few details that the human brain cues into strongly. The result is the uncanny valley where we create zombie-like monstrosities that do more harm to the experience than good.

Show only those elements that trigger responses
The smart way to create a highly sensual environment is to create only the subtle triggers that trick our primitive brain into reacting viscerally. What if instead of rendering those lovely photorealistic nipples, we instead took the path of the mathematician artist above. With a few soft curves and the appropriate color palette, a skilled developer could generate a virtual pornucopia of erotic mathematical landscapes. Mathematica fetishists aside, I suspect the results would be surprisingly successful and far less expensive than motion capturing hundreds of professional actors. After all, what is more erotic? The half glimpsed form in the flickering firelight or the full on frontal nudity of a Playboy / Playgirl photo shoot? Certainly, the viewer’s mileage will vary depending on their end goals, but for most casual situations, the former is quite effective.

Visual stimuli are a highly effective, but also admittedly expensive tool for rewarding players of your game. Always remember that your beautiful creations are passed through that quirky biological sensor known as the human brain that carefully filters out a larger percentage of what it receives. Pick visuals that matter and are pertinent to the task at hand, not merely ones that are ‘realistic.’

Take care

Gallery of erotic mathematics

A description of “"Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events" (Perception, vol 28, p 1059),

An alternative view on richness of perception