Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar: Not Just Any Old Movie

I remember going to the midnight showing of Jurassic Park back in 1993. As a fan of sci-fi in general, and sci-fi movies, I had a pretty good idea of what special effects were capable of. There's a scene in Jurassic Park with Sam Neill and the two children winding up in the middle of the stampede of dinosaurs. They take shelter on the near side of a fallen log and the stampede jumping over the log are coming down in the foreground. It was a composite shot unlike any I had ever seen before, and I sat there slack-jawed thinking, "they can't do that." Previously, most sci-fi monster movies resorted to having the actors in the foreground and animated monster in the background. Or split screen effect with the actors on one side, and the monster on the other. We'd finally come far enough with technology that composite shots like the one I saw were possible. I knew then the moviemaking would take a whole new direction.

Tonight, I saw moviemaking reached a new level. I went with my friend John to see Avatar at the eight o'clock show in IMAX 3-D. After the movie, as the crowd was clearing out, neither one of us could say word. We just sat there in astonishment. James Cameron has achieved a masterpiece. And I know that sounds trite, but only because the word "masterpiece" is insufficient to describe it. He has proven that it's now possible to show anything on screen that you can imagine.

James Cameron has created a world, not just some animated 3-D characters, or 3-D backgrounds. You fully believe this is a real world, populated by real people. There are real animals lurking behind every bush, and every thing you see on screen is alive.

Having seen it in IMAX 3-D, I heartily recommend that you don't see it any other way. If you opt for the cheaper tickets you're cheating yourself. Thankfully, Cameron had more sense than to waive the 3-D in our faces with gratuitous scenes of objects coming at you out of the screen. And because he doesn't, you naturally fall in step with the 3-D. It looks so normal, the way you experience ordinary reality. It is this understated use of the technology that makes it believable.

I can't say this strongly enough: Go See Avatar!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

First Impressions: MacSpeech Dictate

I got an early Christmas present this year, a copy of MacSpeech Dictate. I've been using the speech recognition provided by Apple with the Macintosh for years. Since Snow Leopard came out the speech recognition engine in MacOS X has been less than functional. I had wanted a copy of MacSpeech Dictate for quite some time. One of the main reasons that I thought it would be interesting to play with is that besides being able to dictate articles (like this one), I knew that the program was extensible using AppleScript.

I've already ported over two of my scripts to MacSpeech and they seem to be working fine. So far my only disappointment is that MacSpeech doesn't allow interaction verbally --- in other words the program will not query you beyond performing the action that this script allows. Using the built-in speech recognition provided by Apple, I was able to build scripts I could interact with by providing a list of possible phrases that I could give in response to particular question. However the ability to dictate far outweighs that lack of functionality.

Since the quality of speech recognition is entirely dependent on the input source MacSpeech smartly includes a noise canceling microphone with the software. (Star Trek fans will appreciate this -- as I was dictating this I flashed on the picture of Gary Seven dictating to his typewriter!) Personally I'm not a big fan of headset microphones especially those that cover only one ear since they're not any good to listen to music with so your single headphone is basically useless. I tried using the microphone built into my WebCam, but in calibrating the microphone MacSpeech had to wind up upping the gain all way to maximum and even then I still had to talk very loud to be understood. I may search for a desktop microphone of sufficient quality so that I don't have to wear the headset.

Since installing the software my Bluetooth keyboard sits mostly unused. A true testament to how usable MacSpeech is. The amount of training I had to do with the software was very short, in fact it stopped me before I was finished. The quality level of the resulting text is truly amazing. As I get more comfortable with the system, I am producing less and less mistakes that need to be corrected.

So far I'm very impressed. And very happy with the software. I would definitely recommend it to someone who's in the market for dictation software --- especially since I think it's the only one available for the Macintosh!