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The Birth of the Cool

Signal processing is part and parcel of what we see.  The retina is in fact actually composed of brain cells and interpretation plays a part from the first instant of perception. Because the image it receives is optically inverted and the data arrives faster than it can be processed, the brain adjusts the information before we "see" it in our minds.  "The retina, unlike a camera, does not simply send a picture to the brain. The retina spatially encodes (compresses) the image to fit the limited capacity of the optic nerve." It does this in part, by sending the changes in a visual image rather than the entire dataset containing the static parts of the image.

But if Mother Nature tricks us, then why not Google? Dean George Orsak of Southern Methodist's Lyle School of Engineering says that "augmented reality" has had a long played a large and perhaps dangerous role in our vision.

Something fascinating happened during a football game between the Bengals and Ravens in 1998. It seemed a little gimmicky at the time, but now it is indispensable: The yellow first-down line that automatically "paints" on your TV screen premiered during this game, providing most of us with our first glimpse of live augmented reality.

Football changed forever.

Today we take it for granted that our reality can be enhanced by technology. From new emerging 5D rides at amusement parks to "heads up" displays in modern airplane cockpits and video games, augmented reality is here to stay.

"Augmented reality is here to stay" especially if Google has a say in the proceedings. Consider Google Goggles which may soon be at a computer store near you.

Now that we have the leaked information from Google that the company is preparing to release new camera-loaded, data-processing eyeglasses, we are all preparing for what could be a major advance in the role technology plays in our personal lives. What the smartphone did for human communications and rapid information access, the so-called "Google Goggles" just might do for much of the remainder of the human experience.

Augmented reality is not a Web page or a search engine. It is human experience enhanced by all types of technologies that supplement sounds, sights, smells, motion, and interaction to improve our experience. This is not new, but that doesn't mean that Google's sideways announcement won't be a game changer. The wireless phone didn't just remove the wire -- it unleashed an entirely new path for innovation that is still playing out today.

Augmented reality is "a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data." But if that sounds great, consider that its near-cousin, computer mediated-reality, "refers to the ability to add to, subtract information from, or otherwise manipulate one's perception of reality through the use of a wearable computer."

The difference between the two is entirely dependent on the kind of processing implemented.  Do it one way and it's "augmented". Do it another way and it's "mediated". But in either case what you see isn't necessarily what you get; or rather what exists isn't necessarily what you see.  Perhaps David Axelrod understood the word "media" long before most of us did.  The media is what "mediates" and his idea is that once you start augmenting reality via the media, then why stop?

The centerpiece of Axelrod's latest effort to persuade voters to re-elect the President in 2012, despite his poor record in virtually everything  is the "cool strategy". It aims to persuade voters to see the President as a celebrity, the greatest thing since unsliced bread, a person whose presence you would be grateful for.  Therefore you should elect him just because he makes you feel good. That would be in contrast to the constipated, clinched, and stuck-up Mormon Republican Mitt Romney, whose mere proximity should fill you with disgust. The Christian Science Monitor describes the battleground.

Republicans know that in a battle of “cool,” Mitt Romney doesn’t stand a chance against President Obama.

While Mr. Obama slow-jammed the news on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” – giving the show its highest viewership in two years – Mr. Romney’s biggest cultural moment of the week was ... what? Sitting at a picnic table with Republican voters in Bethel Park, Pa., in his crisp white shirt and necktie, turning up his nose at the cookies? Turns out they were from a beloved local bakery. Oops.

One is tempted to remark that this battleground is entirely fictional, as in Captain America versus the Red Skull or Thor versus Loki. But so what? That's where the action is. Therefore the Republican game-plan for fighting the Obama "cool strategy" is perceptual as well. Instead of complaining that President Obama's cool constitutes just another set of mediated reality goggles, they are simply going to sell the public a rival set of goggles, one in which cool is uncool. The Christian Science Monitor continues its description of the battle of the goggles.

But instead of just ignoring Obama cool, the Republicans are hanging a lantern on it, saying, in effect, We get it, and here’s why you should vote him out anyway.

That’s the essence of a new video out Thursday by American Crossroads, the big conservative “super political-action committee” that’s supporting the Romney campaign. The 45-second message is mostly a montage of cool Obama moments – appearing on Jimmy Fallon, singing Al Green, calling Kanye West an expletive. Then the music stops, and the harsh statistics appear: Half of recent college grads are either jobless or underemployed. Eighty-five percent of college grads are moving in with their parents, according to a study out last May. Student-loan debt just crossed the $1 trillion mark.

Modern American politics with its emphasis not on changing reality but altering the voter's perception of it  recalls the fictional Talosians of Star Trek. In that science fiction universe, the Talosians are masters of a world in which people live in illusion so that they may be independent of reality.

The Talosians capture Star Fleet officer Captain Christopher Pike. They make everything seem wonderful for him. But they are up to no good. In reality (if one may use the term) "while imprisoned, Pike uncovers the Talosians' plans to repopulate their ravaged planet using himself and Vina as breeding stock for a race of slaves."

Viewers of the Original Star Trek series will remember that even the Talosians could not quite master reality completely. "Pike discovers that his primitive human emotions can neutralize the Talosians' ability to read his mind, and he manages to escape to the surface of the planet along with his landing party". Pike learned that if you got angry, hungry or emotional enough, the raw truth would burn through, despite the Talosian goggles.

Ironically he returns to the Talosian planet of his own free will. After being irremediably damaged in a radiation accident, Pike decides that reality is no longer for him. He makes his way back to Talos and disappears into the care of the aliens who tell the crew of Starship Enterprise as they depart that Pike has "illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant."

And there the viewer is left, on a Starship warping out into the void of space when it could have had all the Talosians had to offer, the crewmen wondering if it is still slavery when the slave doesn't know he is enslaved.  Say goodbye to reality and live in the Dream, for why should anyone care what exists if we can all pretend to live in the greatest of all possible worlds.

Cool, anyone?

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