The end of the line

Watching The Hummingbird Project, written and directed by Kim Nguyen, for New Scientist, 10 July 2019

IT IS 2011, a couple of years after the Great Recession. Quantitative analyst Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and his programmer cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) have found a way to steal a march on Wall Street: trading a millisecond ahead of the competition.

Where will they find this tiny, telling pinch of extra time? They plan to make it themselves, by stretching an optical fibre from Kansas City Internet Exchange to New York in as straight a line as possible. While everyone else waits 17 milliseconds for their information (the beat of a hummingbird’s wing is the film’s poetic, and accurate enough, conceit), Vincent, Anton and their backers will only have to wait 16 milliseconds. That’s time enough to squeeze in a few thousand algorithmically generated trades.

The trick will be to lay the cable as straight as the law allows. Never mind Amish farms, Appalachian mountain ranges, loneliness, obsession or physical frailty. They will build this thousand-mile long, 4-inch wide fibre tunnel if it kills them.

Scripted and filmed like a true-life story (after all, who in their right mind would make up a thriller about high-frequency trading infrastructures?) The Hummingbird Project, incredibly, springs entirely from the head of writer-director Kim Nguyen. It can’t quite decide whether to be a think piece or a buddy movie, but it can be staggeringly funny. Salma Hayek has indecent amounts of fun as Eva, the cousins’ abandoned boss.“I think we can break the walls of perception together!” she screams at one point, in a frantic attempt to keep them on her payroll.

It is one of those stories that, in being made up, encapsulates a lot of historical and technical insight. Hayek’s Eva can talk “nanosecond financial engineering” all she wants. As a sceptical investor notes, her style of trading is really just scalping: profiting off small, short-lived price anomalies between financial exchanges.

Scalping is hard because one hefty loss wipes out millions of tiny profitable trades. And it is also impossible to do without computers because markets adjust quicker than the eye can follow.

When world markets crashed in 2008, this strategy took a lot of the heat. It was easier for politicians to point the finger at runaway tech and artificially accelerated trading than to challenge and dismantle key institutions. But while trading algorithms have caused the odd “flash crash”, they do far more to sustain a market economy than to threaten it. This is why so-called mechanical arbitrage runs over half the trades in many markets.

Vincent and Anton’s project is entirely reasonable in a world that puts commercial operations as close to market exchanges as possible to steal millisecond advantages over competitors. Hanging over the cousins’ project is a rival bid to leave fibre behind and send financial information by microwave (and the discussion of “pulse-shaping algorithms” will warm the heart of any telecoms engineer). Today, the industry is even more complex, with atomic clocks to arbitrate the timing of financial information. Financial instruments that scalp multiple markets are driving the creation of strategic data centres in unlikely places, as banks head for space via Elon Musk’s Starlink servers.

All of which gives the film a curiously nostalgic feel. Do you recall when it took a thousandth of a second to win or lose a fortune? What slowcoaches we were, eight years ago.

Just a nuclear-powered dinosaur

Pondering the science of Godzilla for New Scientist, 12 June 2019

FOR Japanese children, Godzilla is the ultimate scary adult: fierce, honourable, clumsy and a bit out of control. For their grandparents, he’s the irradiated embodiment of wartime tragedy, a bad memory come to life. For the rest of us, I suppose, he’s “just” a nuclear-powered dinosaur.

Godzilla is also a pay cheque. Films featuring the epic creature, almost all by the Japanese studio Toho, have been produced since 1954, a cinematic franchise record. The current release, Godzilla: King of the monsters, is the 35th, and the third to be produced entirely within the Hollywood system.

Its human stars play the shattered Russell family. Millie Bobby Brown from TV hit Stranger Things is Madison, whose brother Andrew was killed during a 2014 kaiju (monster) attack on San Francisco. Her dad Mark is literally living with wolves; her mum Emma prefers kaiju to people.

Terroristic eco-warriors are out to awaken Godzilla’s subterranean cousins in an effort to bring the planet “back into balance” – and Emma is inclined to help them. Newsreel images of ruined San Francisco make her point: in five short years it has turned to jungle, accelerated by ionising radiation spilling from Godzilla’s insides.

Why do movies, stretching back to the giant ants of Them!, assume that excess radiation promotes growth? The evidence has always pointed the other way. Ionising radiation weakens and breaks up DNA, damaging cells enough to kill them, or cause them to mutate in ways that, somehow or other, lead to the grave. In humans, epidemiological studies show that even low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer.

Still, human nature being what it is, whenever a new kind of ray is detected, we speculate about its magical properties. Radium, a radioactive metal, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and though it eventually killed her, it still found its way into the food chain thanks to products like Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread (made with radium-laced water, which was supposed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles).

Is there more to this accelerated-growth idea than magical thinking? “Hormesis” is the controversial notion that things that are dangerous in high doses might be beneficial to human health at lower levels. Some lab studies have shown the effect in action. Whether there is radiation hormesis, however, is a big question – and a timely one.

China’s space programme has studied the ability of plants to develop and thrive in conditions of microgravity and exposure to cosmic radiation in space. Since 1987, 66 mutant varieties have been cultivated through its space-breeding efforts.

So far, so workaday: “atomic gardening” has been around since the 1950s, exposing plants to radioactive sources (typically cobalt-60) to generate mutations, and over 2000 new varieties of agriculturally useful plants have been created this way.

The Chinese results, however, are a bit weird. Plants positively mutated during space flight have grown faster than their irradiated Earth-grown counterparts. Space-bred mutations do better than their “atomically gardened” controls, and no one is sure why.

Is there something magical about cosmic rays? Probably not, though if I were Godzilla (traditionally Earth’s first line of defence against alien attack) I would watch my back.

Planck comes to Marvel’s rescue

Watching Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame for New Scientist, 15 May 2019

AFTER a spectacular false start, the heroes of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: End Game gather around a cobbled-together time machine. They’re out to stop Thanos, a supervillian whose solution to the universe’s resource depletion problem is to annihilate half of all life.

Stopping Thanos will not be easy, since the film — the capstone on 21 other interconnected movies in the Marvel cinematic universe — opens with Thanos having already achieved his goal. Many of our favourite characters are already dead. Given that vases do not unbreak themselves, how then will the surviving Avengers bring half the world back to life?

Revisiting and resetting past narratives is a necessity for long-running drama franchises. And as the deceased Bobby Ewing discovered when he stepped out of his shower in 1986, erasing two whole seasons of Dynasty’s soapy story arc, it can be a hard pill for viewers to swallow.

You’d think science fiction franchises would have an easier time of it, armed as they are with all manner of P T Barnum tricks, but the truth’s more complicated. The world of the X-Men draws to a close this year with two films, Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants. The franchise’s constant, piecemeal reinventions have been sloppy, but only so as to stay half-way faithful to their even more sloppy comic-book sources. On the plus side, we’ve had the passage of time, and the price paid for wisdom, brought to life by the unaging, unkillable, and ever more excruciatingly lonely figure of Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman.

From the always mindbending Doctor Who to the unforgettably weird final seasons of the Battlestar Galactica retread, it’s clear that you can tell truths about time, age, mortality, loss and regret in playful ways without ever opening a science textbook, and I wish to heaven someone had pointed this out to Star Trek, notorious for being the franchise where overblown popular science goes to die.

Since The Next Generation, Star Trek has saddled itself with a science bible that almost makes sense. And why not? Einstein’s equations do allow for the existence of time machines. And physicist Kip Thorne’s work in the 1980s on time-space wormholes does allow for the transmission of information through time. But hang on a minute: time machines aren’t practical, and the kind of messages you can actually send from the future aren’t ever going to be interesting, and the more you cite real science, the more you leave yourself open to people who begin sentences with phrases like “Yes but…” and “I think you’ll find…”

Avengers: Endgame’s hokey solution to time travel works far better, I reckon, by colliding two chunks of utter nonsense at high narrative speed. Take one master thief, Scott Lang (played by the always affable Paul Rudd), give him a suit that lets him shrink small enough to enter “the quantum realm”, point out (correctly) that at this scale time and space cease to mean very much, and hey presto, you have yourself a time machine powered entirely by jazz-hands and flim-flam. Smart-alec viewers can’t contradict the science, because there is no science here, and hasn’t been since 1899.

This was the year German theoretical physicist Max Planck evolved a model of the physical universe that relied upon ratios (which are timeless and universally true) rather than measurements (which depend upon who’s making the ruler). In the universe Planck drew up, the speed of light, the electromagnetic wave function, and the gravitational constant all have a value of 1. From this fiendish piece of dimensional analysis, you can work the shortest distance imaginable — the point at which the terms “here” or “there” cease to have meaning.

In a space smaller than the Planck length squared, information cannot exist — which is why a single photon entering a black hole, increases the area of the event horizon by 10-66 cm2. As Ant Man, understandably, did not say.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.

 

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

Lunar renaissance

The punchier contestants who entered the never-awarded Lunar X Prize are racing to launch their probes. Who will make moonfall first? My money is on Israel’s SpaceIL. While everyone else was crashing through the X Prize’s deadlines, trying to design wheeled vehicles for their rovers, SpaceIL was racing ahead with a vehicle that bounces about the lunar surface like a steel bunny.

A preview piece for New Scientist, looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing

Jenna Sutela: Mars in a dish

Contemplating nimiia cétiï for New Scientist, 11 September 2018

The artist Jenna Sutela normally divides her time between London and Helsinki, but she has spent the last four months at London’s Somerset House Studios, thanks to a residency with Google Arts & Culture. Here, she’s been either making a video, learning about computers, teaching artificial intelligences to dream, or mastering Martian. Perhaps all of the above. It depends who you speak to.

The artists Google invites to explore the potentials of its machine learning systems normally wind up in its lab in Paris. This time, however, Google engineer Damien Henry (the co-inventor, incidentally of the Google Cardboard VR headset) has been travelling to London to assist Sutela and her artistic mentor, the Turkish-born data artist Memo Akten, in a project that, the more you learn about it, resembles an alchemical operation more than a work of art.

Here – so far as I understand it – is the recipe.

  1. Take one nineteenth-century French medium, Hélène Smith, who made much of her communications with Martians. (The Surrealists lapped this stuff up: they dubbed her “the muse of automatic writing”.) Make up some phonemes to match her Martian lettering. Speak Martian.
  2. Prepare a dish of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium that we expect would cope rather well with conditions on Mars. Point a camera at it, and direct the video signal through a machine learning system. (Don’t call this an AI, whatever you do. Atkin has issued a public warning that “every time someone personifies this stuff, every time someone talks about ‘the AI’, a kitten is strangled.”)
  3. Lie to your AI. Tell it that your dish of wiggling bacteria is in fact a musical score. Record the music your AI makes as it tries to read the dish. Hide kittens.
  4. Keep lying. Tell it your dish of wiggling bacteria is a text.
  5. – a language.
  6. – a map.
  7. Write down the text. Speak the language. Read the map. Put the whole enterprise into a single twelve-minute video and hang it up in the foyer of London’s Somerset House Studios.

Titled nimiia cétiï and on view in Somerset House Studios until 15 September, Sutela’s video installation is heavy-going at first, but well worth some close scrutiny. Everything you see and hear came from that petri dish: the landscape, the music, the alien script, even its eerily convincing Martian vocalisation. “There is,” Henry tells me with avuncular pride, “absolutely no scientific goal to this project whatsoever.”

The point being that Sutela is one of the first artists, if not the first, to appropriate the rules of machine learning entirely to her own ends. It’s a milestone of sorts. She’s not illustrating an idea, or demonstrating some technical capability. She’s using machine learning like a brush, to conjure up imaginary worlds.

Which is to take nothing away from nimiia cétiï‘s considerable technical achievement. Sutela is forcing her recurrent neural network to over-interpret its little petri dish-shaped world. We’re a long way from inventing a machine that sees pictures in a fire, but these results are certainly suggestive.

«e tesi leca rizini nirnemea riechee sat ze po mizi» as a Martian might say.

Scotland’s secret weapon

Attending the launch of  Shore: How we see the sea for New Scientist, 18 August 2018

NOBODY catches much fish around the island of Arran now: overfishing and pollution have hit wild populations hard. There are still plenty of fish, mind: not free-swimming, but cooped up in huge salmon farms that leach detritus, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic waste into the Firth of Clyde.

And yet it is to Arran that Scotland’s coastal communities have turned to see a working vision of a cleaner, healthier, more productive ocean.

Arran’s Lamlash Bay became a Community Marine Reserve in January 2008. Its No Take Zone is helping local maerl, a fragile pink coral-like algae, which provides a habitat for sponges, sea squirts, crabs, squat lobsters and scallops. The hope is that commercial species such as cod will use this area to recover their numbers, and then spill out into the surrounding sea.

Meanwhile, the 280 square kilometres of the South Arran Marine Protected Area restricts trawling and dredging. A community development, it is the first of its kind, and has been taken up by the Scottish government with the creation of 30 more MPAs, covering some 20 per cent of the country’s seas.

Restoring Scottish sea life after decades of pollution, dredging and overfishing is not going to be easy. “We’ve got a long way to go, just to get the environment back to the condition it was 50 years ago,” says Howard Wood, founder of local advocacy organisation COAST, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Most ministers, he adds, are only interested in what the environment provides or used to provide – and how much can be wrung from it in five years.

The exciting thing about COAST is the armoury it brings to the battle against the myopia of politicians. Glasgow and York universities are monitoring Arran’s coastal waters, while COAST is working with local tourist organisations to develop dive sites. Even more impressively, it has won over the local fishing community.

Multimedia festival Shore: How we see the sea is the latest addition to COAST’s arsenal. This festival of coastal life was created in Arran and is now circling the Scottish coast, before it ends up in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth science theme park in April 2019. It is curated by Invisible Dust, a UK-wide organisation that pairs scientists and artists to explore key environmental issues.

Its founder, Alice Sharp, has commissioned two film-makers, despite the lack of cinemas in the north of Scotland. But the Shore festival does not lack technical backup: it has Screenmachine, a large blue lorry that unpacks Transformer-like into a comfortable 80-seater surround-sound cinema.

Margaret Salmon’s Cladach explores the shoreline of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area and the community bordering it in Ullapool. “Imagine somebody spending time in a town, then drifting down a beach and into the sea. Margaret’s film is like a journey from one medium to another,” says Sharp.

The second film, I Walk There Every Day But Never Saw It That Way by Ed Webb-Ingall, is a very different proposition as the first instalment in a community video project that aims to get Scotland’s disparate coastal communities talking to each other.

It is an old idea, Webb-Ingall says. In the 1970s, the National Film Board of Canada invited film-maker Colin Low to visit Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, whose fishing community was collapsing. “Low made short films of a group on one part of the island, then showed it to another group.” Soon the different communities and interests had a conversation going, and a more sustainable fishing industry began to emerge.

“The myth among film-makers is the ‘Fogo Process’ rejuvenated the island,” says Webb-Ingall. “Others reckon they were doing the work already!” Salmon is inclined to agree: “These precarious communities have experienced centuries of ebbs and flows. They’re a strong people.”

The Endless: Timeless avant-garde

Watching Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless for New Scientist, 21 July 2018

SINCE they escaped a UFO death cult, nothing much has gone right for Justin and his younger brother Aaron. They clean apartments for a living, subsist on junk food and have rotten luck with women. The arrival of a mysterious videotape convinces them that they should revisit the cult for the sake of “closure”, though it’s obvious that Justin is only going for Aaron’s sake, and what Aaron actually wants most out of this is some decent salad.

But when Justin attempts to jog around the settlement he gets caught in time (although he doesn’t know it at first). Other things are amiss, too, like the third moon. And the rope into nowhere. And an evening heat blur that turns the whole valley into shimmering mirrors.

It transpires that the friendly, gentle people our heroes ran from a decade ago are living in the presence of an unidentified “something”. It is invisible, but it isn’t hiding. Indeed, it is trying to communicate by showing them, through old photographs and videotapes, what it sees.

This low-budget Lovecraftian thriller explores territory we more usually associate with the heavyweights of the 1970s avant-garde – with the tangled story arcs of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the cunningly withheld narrative revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s groundbreaking film Solaris. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out here: The Endless is very nearly this decade’s Solaris.

But while the intelligent planet in that film was innocent, even as its little “gifts” sent the scientists studying it clear off their heads, the entity presiding over The Endless is more overtly malign: like the wanton boy in King Lear killing flies for sport, perhaps.

It is trapping people in time, affording them just enough free will to recognise their plight, but not quite enough to escape it.

But then, isn’t that just like life? We nearly all live out days that by most objective measures are more or less the same as each other.

Justin and Aaron’s cleaning job was certainly a trap of this sort. And are they any worse off now? It is, after all, a very laid-back, well-behaved sort of death cult, up there in the hills behind San Diego. Its spokesman Hal talks a lot, but he’s not in any real sense a leader. The group seems happy, and the beer they make and sell is top notch. All is as Aaron remembers from his childhood: a lot of nice people preparing a lot of good food.

Maybe Justin’s the one with the problem, that he cannot see the charm in living a looped existence here. Knowing they are trapped and being looked at, this “cult” at least has the graciousness to imagine that they are also being looked after. And who’s to say their metaphysical jailer has not handed them a chance – an endless series of chances, apparently – to become the best people they can be?

The directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also play the brothers Justin and Aaron. (Benson is, wonderfully, a dead ringer for Richard Dreyfuss.) And they have made The Endless dovetail neatly with their first micro-budget feature Resolution (2012). This kind of self-reflexive game-playing can get old extremely quickly, and a rather clunky emotional working-out between the brothers at the climax of the movie should serve as an amber light. Any further with this and self-indulgence will swallow them whole.

My guess, though, is that these two know what they are doing. In Spring (2014) they managed to turn the love affair between an American soldier and a vampiric octopus into one of the most funny, touching and ultimately profound screen love affairs since Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Benson (who writes) and Moorhead (who wields the cameras) take the hokiest ideas and discover in them rich seams of human experience. They’re not ironic. They’re not distant. They’re not portentous. And if they can only hold their nerve they will improve the science fiction genre immeasurably.

It’s coming at you!

Exploring volumetric capture for New Scientist, 13 December 2017

OUTSIDE Dimension Studios in Wimbledon, south London, is one of those tiny wood-framed snack bars that served commercial travellers in the days before motorways. The hut is guarded by old shop dummies dressed in fishnet tights and pirate hats. If the UK made its own dilapidated version of Westworld, the cyborg rebellion would surely begin here.

Steve Jelley orders us breakfast. Years ago he left film production to pursue a career developing new media. He’s of the generation for whom the next big thing is always just around the corner. Most of them perished in the dot-com bust of 2001, but Jelley clung to the dream, and now Microsoft has come calling.

His company, Hammerhead, makes 360-degree videos for commercial clients. Its partner in this current venture, Timeslice Films, is best known for volumetric capture of still images – the business of cinematographically recording forms in three dimensions – a practice that goes back to founder Tim MacMillan’s art-school experiments of the early 1980s.

Steve Sullivan, director of the Holographic Video initiative at Microsoft, is fusing both companies’ technical expertise to create volumetric video: immersive entertainment that’s indistinguishable from reality.

There are only three studios in the world that can do this with any degree of conviction, and Wimbledon is the only one outside the US. Still, I’m sceptical. It has been clear for a while that truly immersive media won’t spring from a single “light-bulb” moment. The technologies involved are, in conceptual terms, surprisingly old. Volumetric capture is a good example.

MacMillan is considered the godfather of this tech, having invented the “bullet time” effect central to The Matrix. But The Matrix is 18 years old, and besides, MacMillan reckons that pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge got to the idea years before him – in fact, decades before cinema was invented.

“Engineer Masahiro Mori says his ‘uncanny valley’ idea was never meant to be taken scientifically”

Then there’s motion capture (or mocap): recording the movement of points attached to an actor, and from those points, constructing the performance of a three-dimensional model. The pioneering Soviet physiologist Nikolai Bernstein invented the technique in the early 1920s, while developing training programmes for factory workers.

Truly immersive media will be achieved not through magic bullets, but through thugging – the application of ever more computer power, and the ever-faster processing of more and more data points. Impressive, but where’s the breakthrough?

“Well,” Jelley begins, handing me what may be the largest bacon sandwich in London, “you know this business of the ‘uncanny valley’…?” My heart sinks slightly.

Most New Scientist readers will be familiar with Masahiro Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley. It’s a curiously anglophone obsession. In the 30 years since the Japanese engineer published his paper in 1970, it has been referred to in Japanese academic literature only once. Mori himself says the idea was never meant to be taken scientifically. He was merely warning robot designers at a time when humanoid robots didn’t exist that the closer their works came to resemble people, the creepier we would find them.

In the West, discussions of the uncanny valley have grown to a sizeable cottage industry. There have been expensive studies done with PET scans to prove the existence of the effect. But as Mori commented in an interview in 2012: “I think that the brainwaves act that way because we feel eerie. It still doesn’t explain why we feel eerie to begin with.”

Our discomfort extends beyond encounters with physical robots to include some cinematic experiences. Many are the animated movies that have employed mocap to achieve something like cinematic realism, only to plummet without trace into the valley.

Elsewhere, actor Andy Serkis famously uses mocap to transform himself into characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, or the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and we are carried along well enough by these films. The one creature this technology can’t emulate, however, is Serkis himself. Though mocap now renders human body movement with impressive realism, the human face remains a machine far too complex to be seamlessly emulated even by the best system.

Jelley reckons he and his partners have “solved the problem” of the uncanny valley. He leads me into the studio. There’s a small, circular, curtained-off area – a sort of human-scale birdcage. Rings of lights and cameras are mounted on scaffolds and hang from a moveable and very heavy-looking ceiling rig.

There are 106 cameras: half of them recording in the infrared spectrum to capture depth information, half of them recording visible light. Plus, a number of ultraviolet cameras. “We use ultraviolet paint to mask areas for effects work,” Jelley explains, “so we record the UV spectrum, too. Basically we use every glimmer of light we can get short of asking you to swallow radium.”

The cameras shoot between 30 and 60 times a second. “We have a directional map of the configuration of those cameras, and we overlay that with a depth map that we’ve captured from the IR cameras. Then we can do all the pixel interpolation.”

This is a big step up from mocap. Volumetric video captures real-time depth information from surfaces themselves: there are no fluorescent sticky dots or sliced-through ping-pong balls attached to actors here. As far as the audience is concerned, volumetric video is essentially just that, video, and as close to a true record as anything piped through a basement full of computers is ever going to get.

So what kind of films are made in such studios? Right now, the education company Pearson is creating virtual consultations for trainee nurses. Fashion brands and car companies have shot adverts here. TV companies want to use them for fully immersive and interactive dramas.

“I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me has fallen for this super-real gymnast”

On a table nearby, a demo is ready to watch on a Vive VR headset. There are three sets of performances for me to observe, all looping in a grey, gridded, unadorned virtual space: the digital future as a filing cabinet. There are two experiments from Sullivan’s early days at Microsoft. Thomas Jefferson is pure animatronic; the two Maori haka dancers are engaging, if unhuman. The circus gymnast swinging on her hoop is different. I recognise her, or think I do. My body-language must be giving the game away, because Jelley laughs.

“Go up to her,” he says. I can’t place where I’ve seen her before. I try and catch her eye. “Closer.”

I’m invading her space, and I’m not comfortable with this. I can see the individual threads, securing the sequins to her costume. More than that: I can smell her. I can feel the heat coming from her skin.

I know she’s not real, but my body doesn’t. Every bit of me that might have rejected a digitised face as uncanny has fallen hook, line and sinker for this super-real gymnast. And this, presumably, is why the bit of my mind that enables me to communicate freely and easily with my fellow humans is in overdrive, trying to plug the gaps in my experience, as if to say, “Of course her skin is hot. Of course she has a scent.”

Mori’s uncanny valley effect is not quantifiable, and I don’t suppose my experience is any more measurable than the one Mori identified. But I’d bet the farm that, had you scanned me, you would have seen all manner of pretty lights. This hasn’t been an eerie experience. Quite the reverse. It’s terrifyingly ordinary. Almost, I might say, human.

Jelley walks me back to the main road. Neither of us says a word. He knows what he has. He knows what he has done.

Outside the snack shack, three shop dummies in pirate gear wobble in the wind.