While Pixar keeps on innovating, Dreamworks keeps on mixmitating

If, like me, you’re a fan of Hayao Miyazaki, your amazement at the upcoming Pixar’s film “Up!” will be somewhat moderate. What these guys are doing is just taking American animation out of the cage where it’s been since the thirties, and into the vast, fertile creative territory where Studio Ghibli have been working for decades now. This is not without merit though, and the flick looks terrific. I can’t wait to see more. If this film fulfills my expectations by making further wise, Miyazakian choices such as realizing animation films don’t need a villain, then my happiness will be complete.

Update: Nevertheless, go see “Ponyo on the cliff” if you want a taste at the real thing.

Meanwhile, what do Dreamworks do? Announce “Monsters vs Aliens“. For the purpose of describing it I’ll have no choice but to invent a new portmanteau word: man, they’re doing a blatant mixmitation of the cute-spooky creatures of “Monsters” with a touch of the cold-war, B-series atmosphere of “The Incredibles”. Come on, they’re even cloning Pixar’s style of rendering the human figure to the point that they will soon turn it into an industry-wide standard. Laaame.

Next time someone asks me to illustrate the difference between being a leader and being a not-so-fast follower, I’ll have a handy example at hand.

“Up!” trailer enjoyed via Denegro.

Heat Pixels: an example of recombination

Recombination is one of the tactics nature uses to generate diversity. For instance, genetic recombination is responsible of the fact that all our children are genetically different (with the exception of identical twins, of course).

Recombination, as in mixing parts of different concepts or disciplines, is a very useful creativity technique. Take two very disparate things and mix them somehow. The result may be strange, but it might be the seed for a useful idea.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with some friends. Nice, non-technical people. They were talking about how awesome the new iPhone is told to be. You know, this topic is getting more and more boring all the time, so I tried to change the subject to their experience with induction smooth-top stoves (Let me say that smooth-top stoves are very popular in Europe —I’ve heard in the UK they’re called “ceramic hobs”). Then, the idea came to me about an “iPhone stove”: a multi-touch, tactile stove where you can “paint” heat sources directly on the surface.

The idea of someone using a multi-touch interface to determine the size and position of heat sources in a stove is a little bit impractical (not to say dangerous), but the concept of a configurable stove where you can “paint” heat sources with “heat pixels” seems promising.

See, this is a typical fixed configuration of heat sources in a smooth-top stove:


Four heat sources are shown. You can choose the one you need, depending on the size of your pan and the power needed.

But now imagine you have a number of small heat-emitting elements arranged in a bee-hive pattern:


Depending on the size and number of the cooking utensils you are going to use, you’d change the arrangement of these “heat pixels”:


At the left, you can see a configuration for three utensils of different sizes. At the right, you can see what the configuration would be for a single, large cooking utensil such as the one needed for a nice Spanish paella.

What would be the right user interface to control configuration and heat control of these dynamic sources? As we’ve said before, a multi-touch interface, tough fashionable, would be not the most sensible option. I suggest placing a camera and a projector in the extractor hood and using an interface driven by the user’s gestures and by the actual presence of utensils on the stove. Think of something similar to Ianus Keller’s Cabinet or Pompeu Fabra’s Reactable. It would work like this:

  • Configuration of heat sources (its number, shape and size) would be automatically performed by the sole presence of cooking utensils. Just put any pan anywhere, and the appropriate “heat pixels” will activate accordingly.
  • Control of each heat source will be controlled by hand gestures. For instance, putting your hand above one utensil and showing one to five fingers would set up heat power 1 to 5, whereas waving your hand would cut up the heat.
  • The camera attached to the extractor hood might be able to use some artificial vision to recognize changes in the contents of the utensils. For instance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to to recognize boiling, or even the slight change of colour that would tell you the stuff you’re frying is starting to brown. This way, you could give the stove commands such as “wait for this one to boil, then power down to level 2, wait 10 minutes, then power off and beep“.
  • The projector might feed the user with information by projecting figures and graphics on the stove, the food itself, or an adjacent surface (for instance, a cutting surface that can also work like a precision scale).
  • This intelligent stove could assist the user with audio-visual hints and recipes.
  • Now that we are getting carried away, the extractor hood might have also a mass spectrometer (a kind of “artificial nose”) and detect some of the aromatic compounds that are emitted by food as it is transformed by heat.

Phew! We’ve started by mixing the iPhone and a stove, and now we’re defining the kitchen of the future. Needless to say, dozens of objections and drawbacks come to mind (from “an extractor hood is the worst place to keep the optics of a camera/projector clean” to “heat sources divided into heat pixels would be far less efficient”), but I have no doubt that in the future, we’ll see one of two of the developments we’re describing here.

See where a little recombination has taken me? I’d love to hear where it can take you.

Are we being educated to transform or to conform?

DIY rhinoplastyLately, policy makers don’t stop saying that innovation is “strategic”. Do they really mean it?

If that is the case, then we are in need of a workforce trained to engage into an innovation-ready mindset. Let me call this kind of mindset the “transforming mode” (or “the transforming cognitive style”, or even “the transforming mind state”, if you will).

You are into transforming mode when:

  • You stop taking for granted everything you see, and you start questioning everything.
  • You stop judging and filtering your thoughts before they are formulated, and start generating a lot of possibilities, no matter how weird or implausible they might look, leaving judgement for later.
  • You enjoy mutating things: you can easily think of a lot of alterations that could be applied to anything.
  • You enjoy recombining things: you find it easy to make things acquire elements or properties of other foreign things (or disciplines).
  • You enjoy mutating and recombining the work of others, and helping others mutate and recombine your own work.

(it is not a coincidence that mutation and recombination are both tactics of natural evolution).

Do you think our education and training systems are teaching us to get ourselves into transforming mode?

I don’t think so. On the contrary, they tend to teach us get into “conforming mode”. They train us to:

  • Accept anything given by the authority, and don’t dare to question it, circumvent it, or even adapt it to present circumstances (when was the last time you were given a problem in an exam, and you felt this conflict between doing what you believed was best to solve the problem, or rather do what you thought your teachers expected you to do, even if it didn’t feel like the right thing?)
  • Try to make things as close as possible to a given canon. Identify deviations from the canon and regard them as errors. Repeat until your work is error-free (i.e. your work conforms to canon).
  • Exert critic upon your own work and the work of others. Prepare yourself to confront critic. Make your work critic-proof before you show it to others.
  • Value individual authorship, if only because it makes individual evaluation possible. Don’t cheat by letting others contribute to your individual work. This would distort its evaluation.
  • Think into disciplinary silos: if you are given a physics problem, don’t even think of solving it with social science.

Don’t take me wrong here. Conforming mode is necessary, mostly in earlier stages of education. Conforming mode helps us to apprehend the gifts of our culture, and to acquire a lot of cognitive tools that will make us way more powerful, even as transformers.

But don’t you think education systems should:

  • Devote at least a small fraction of the curriculum to get people into transforming mode, right from infant and primary education.
  • Increase this fraction of the curriculum as you get into latter stages of the education system.
  • Teach people to switch between these two modes, and use their best judgement to get into the right mode for the task at hand?

In the last few decades (in Spain as in other countries), some policy makers have introduced progressive education reforms that have attempted to make education a little less conforming and a little more transforming. But they have been repeatedly choked and made to fail by teachers as well as parents (and by the lack of the funds needed to really transform the system bottom-up). Somehow, as education consumers, we all seem to feel safer with the “old-school school”. And the education offer has been, well, shaped by demand.

I think if we want to commit ourselves to innovation as a long-term goal, we should all change this. What do you think about it?