Friday, March 8, 2013

Starfire: The Director's Cut

Starfire is a 1994 concept video from Sun Microsystems. I first saw it circa 1995 and was quite impressed, and then it became difficult to find, even on the 'net. The other day on a whim I searched for it -- and found it on youtube! Speaking as someone who's seen a lot of 'concept videos', I was happy to see that Starfire has aged extremely well. Which is really saying something for 13 minutes of content and 2+ minutes of credits.

The 'Director', Bruce Tognazzini aka "Tog", has several web pages dedicated to the movie that I'm working my way through, including the annotated script.

One of the things that impresses me is that, while Starfire "drew together the talents of more than 100 engineers, designers, futurists, and filmakers", it doesn't suck. By which I mean: your average corporate concept video vision of the future is bright and shiny and soulless, flat, and devoid of personality. Comparing Starfire to other similiar concept films from Microsoft, Corning, etc is like comparing Toy Story to every other non-Pixar CGI movie before 1995. There's neat tech stuff, but there's also a plot and actors we can empathize with. The 13 minutes passes more quickly than you would believe.

So from a technical standpoint, how does Starfire hold up after almost 20 years?

Things they got wrong:

  • The scanning thing was cool -- but they scanned a newspaper?
  • The cutesy visual metaphors, like "pouring" a texture map onto a 3D model - in a way they got this right: they predicted MS Clippy! (1998-2004) But that's a little bit like predicting New Coke.
  • They completely missed Mobile technology. Which is arguably a pretty big miss. But it's also really kind of a textbook case of how professional futurists can't predict breakthroughs.

Things they got right:
  • The airport "Office Workspace" -- they exist (but they're not a huge business, probably because of Mobile).
  • Watching entertainment videos at work (including "voyeuristic" cam-watching, which is today considered really creepy, but I guess back in 1994 they just thought it was cute)(if they did it today they'd probably use viral cat videos).
  • Electronic signatures.
  • The electric sportscar in the video is not unlike the Tesla Roadster, which was introducted in 2008 and proceeded to sell like shares of the Google IPO. So not only did they correctly predict the emission-free sportscar, they correctly predicted that it would sell well.
  • Datastorming on the 'net to find evidence in real-time.
  • Using tools to throw a "professional looking" presentation together in minutes.
  • Also, it wasn't shown directly but I think it was strongly implied that people had their data available to them everywhere they went. AKA an early version of 'The Cloud'.

Fun stuff:
  • Obligatory Stanley Kubrick / HAL 9000 reference: "I'm sorry Julie, I can't do that",
  • I swear the boardroom drama at 9m45s between June and O'Connor is based on similar scenes between Miguel Ferrar and Ronny Cox in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987).
  • I love that huge display / input surface. A purely horizontal or purely vertical design would be unusable, but this one looked like it might be the best of both worlds. And today there are (flat) 27" touch-screen displays that are supported in MS Win8. Which I personally think is one of the best ideas they've had in years and I'm hoping that Apple will add touch to the iMac.
  • I've read that the concept of using the surface as a display and scanner is for real: each pixel is a <R,G,B,i> tuple where i is a phototransister, and the scanning happens by sequencing through R, G, and B and reading the reflected light values through i. Watching it this time, I also noticed that the surface seems to be pressure sensitive(?), as June rubs her thumb on the newspaper clip as if to indicate the "area of interest" to the desk.

I should note that I'm posting this before I've read the annotated script, so I'm sure I've missed a number of things and perhaps got some things just plain wrong. My cursory scan of the script leads me to believe that I've missed a LOT of tiny details.

And, of course, one final thing they got right is that even in the far-off future of 2004, medical science still hasn't found a cure for the common cold.

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