Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

my first post *ever* about my PhD

May 21, 2010

I think I’ve fallen into a groove this  year of putting up one blog post a month. Not a brilliant track record but at least there’s some consistency. But then, I almost missed out on May. Just making it with this post. Sjoe!

So why the tardiness? I’ve been pretty busy – coding, modeling, texturing. All in the name of my PhD prototype which is, in a nutshell, a 3D storytelling environment for a certain museum in Cape Town. I’ve learnt a lot of things from scratch in building this prototype, picked up Blender and made a basic, animated human model, learnt C# (which was really easy if you know Java) and XNA (Microsoft’s free, yes free, kind-of-awesome games engine). I have also zoomed up my Photoshop skills to new heights in doing textures. This week  was a big deal for me. I demo’ed the first fluttering of the prototype to the museum where it was met with giggles and smiles (rather than the awkward what-the-hell-is-this silence I was dreading). I also made a video to send off to The Supervisor and demo’ed to a bunch of people in The Lab. So far so good. Lots to do but its finally on its way.

During this past month, I spent an inordinate amount of time texturing the first (of two) main storytelling models/avatars. It’s meant to be a representation of Noor Ebrahim, a guide at the museum and District Six ex-resident. Here he is in real-life:



I made a model whose geometry (and skeleton) was as simple as possible so that even a monkey like me couldn’t mess up the model too much during tweaking and animating. But, since the geometry was simple, I figured texturing his face  was really important. The ever-obliging photog Max Barners agreed to help out and took some awesome portraits of Noor (and Joe the other storyteller I am modeling) to help with this. So after much fiddling and diddling with UV map generation and painting in Photoshop, meet virtual Noor:

virutal Noor

virtual Noor

Ta-daa! Yeah, he’s not a patch the real thing and there are number of issues to sort out with him. Like, for some reason, XNA is lighting him with a blue-ish light for no good reason. I need to track down the reason for that. And I’ve coloured his shirt and pants and hands and shoes with solid colours for now. At some stage I should really give him some decent threads though. But he animates! He boasts a range of about 30 different short animation sequences and I’ve coded him so he can tell a whole story so far with scripted animations that match. Now I’ve moved on to making him a bit more interactive.


May 6, 2009

Last week was kind of crazy. I finished up my last round of experiments for my project at MSR India on Monday, then on Tuesday I furiously recorded data into spreadsheets and started working a presentation for my final pow-wow to the TEM group. The pow-wow pretty much consumed Wednesday and afterwards it was off to a farewell/birthday party consisting of about 3 hours of high-energy Bollywood dancing at Zero G. This is touted as one of the most happening places on the Bangalore night-life scene, particularly on Wednesday nights when they have their famous Bollywood night. Zero G is a club on Laverly Rd. right at the top of a building. The place is half outdoors and half indoor and the setting is pretty swcheet. The amusing thing about Bangalore’s night-life scene is that it comes with some serious restrictions which, I think, are meant to curb garrulous hard partying. The weirdest of these restrictions is that drinking and dancing may not occur simultaneously – yes this is not a joke, the Bangalore police commissioner is very dedicated to protecting the eyes of unsuspecting innocents from the wild, uncoordinated flailing that might occur when a good buzz (or more) is set ot music. Another, recently imposed, restriction is that everything – clubs, bars and many restaurants close at 11:30pm – 11-freakin-30!! After this time no more alcohol is served, no more dancing may take place and people are expected to scurry to their burrows like good little boys and girls. This meant that at 11:30pm, the last song was announced, lights were cruelly faded up to bright and, after a minute or so, people started blowing whistles to encourage us to leave. Not really the nicest mode of parting I must say. But what made it better was that, once outside waiting for cabs, everyone sang happy birthday to me at midnight 🙂

Zero G was followed by a midnight dinner at the Taj Hotel’s 24 hour restaurant Mynt, which was all very pretty and fancy. Conveniently there was a piano in the hotel lobby and Kentaro regaled us with what one might describe as a peice of music on the opposite end of the music spectrum to Bollywood hits. I think we probably had dinner till about 2am during which there were two casualties, David and Divya, who simply fell asleep at the table. The life of a Microsoft researcher is brutal like that – don’t know say that no one ever warned you!

After getting to bed around 3am, I dragged myself out of bed on Thursday (my actual birthday) to begin my last day at MSRI. There were last minute meetings, data backups, administrative tasks (which were a bit tricky since it was also Admin day and all the admin folks were away on a fun day) and, finally, packing up of my desk *sigh*. Thanks for a great 3 months and an awesome farewell TEM!

The 5th National Oral History Conference

October 28, 2008
not bad at all

oral histories conference swag

About three weeks ago (i know tardy blogging right?), I got to attend the the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) 5th National Oral History Conference. I was presented a paper called Digital Storytelling Learning from Non-digital Narratives: Two Case Studies in South Africa along with Nic Bidwell from Australia and Xolile Sigaji from the Eastern Cape. The paper came out of a Royal Society workshop on User Generated Content (kind of like all that Web 2.0 stuff) and it’s about communities taking control of telling and preserving their stories NON-digitally, and what digital design can learn from this. My part of the paper describes District Six Musuem in Cape Town as a case study and Nic+Xolile’s part was about a workshop held in Lwandile, Transkei.

The conference was a weird one for me becuase (1) I was the only technical-type person there (2) there was a mix of academics, teachers and everyday storytellers there and (3) there was a heavy presence of historians. That last point was interesting because I got to think about what history actually is and what is means to be a historian. Turns out that it is to decide what accurate history is, especially when dealing with oral sources where memories are faulty and current contexts influence the stories told. The keynote was especially interesting and, dare I say, inspiring for my work. It was given by Pumla Madiba from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (phew!).She addressed how modernism continues to invade African traditions such that oral traditions are not being continued by modern, ubanised youth. Shel also pointed out that, while people are talking about using modern technology to preserve oral histories, we must not forget that orality is a technology in and of itself. Technology is a broad concept that can include all ways or tools that a species (yes its not only us humans that can wield technology) uses to survive or control their environment. Right now, the world is so computer-driven that I think there is a really narrow idea of technology around these as something bound to computers or digital technology. This precludes people from thinking of non-digial things as technology, like zippers (a major invention of the 20th century) and transmitting knowledge through oral storytelling. Anyway, Pumla acknowledged that, while current technologies can help with the preservation of oral histories, it should not replace them and that the person-to-person phenomenon of storytelling should be conserved.

Overall I felt there were lots of people talking about oral history as something unknown and distinctly African. There was lots of talk about how we don’t understand oral history well enough and need to figure out how to preserve it appropriately. And there was comparatively less pragmatic talk about how to go about doing this (more problematising than solutionising). I appreciate that oral storytelling, as a technology for transmitting cultural values and indigenous knowledge reliably, has been unvalued in Africa. However, oral history isn’t unique to Africa (however romantic it may be to think of it as such), it has been explored the world over. From the bits and pieces that I know there has been lots of work on this in anthropology and linguistics, such as Alessandro Portelli who has studied oral history in Italy and the US and Ochs & Capps who explore everyday storytelling in general. So it is not entirely necessary for South African historians to start from scratch – there is already a vast body of work to learn from!

On the peripheral details, this conference is subsidised by the government and… well it showed funding wise! When I was told that all the speaker’s accomodation was paid for by the conference I thought that I had misunderstood. I was so sceptical in fact that I contacted the only person I know from East London and asked if I could stay with her folks there if I happened to find myself on the streets! But they put us up and not too shabbily either, my hotel room was just a little smaller than my whole flat! It had two TV’s, two desks, a couch and a balcony (which overlooked a noisy construction site). There were lavish dinners with live jazz and the ‘swag’ was among the best I’ve seen – check out the beaded and embroidered conference bag! Unfortunately, despite all these conference goodies, a copy of the proceedings was suspicioulsy absent which was a topic that came up around the dinner table a number of times. On the last day we got taken out for an excursion of Transkei, Mthatha and Qunu (where Mandela grew up). All be open, beautiful and calm and a nice way to end of things.