A focus on nature is breathing new life into how we design our homes and cities. Here, hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer explore the principles of biophilia, learning how natural light, sounds and patterns can help us all, especially now.
TIM BEATLEY 00:01
The vision of biophilic cities addresses just about every economic, social, and environmental concern. We know that planting trees, we know that just about anything that a city can do to make itself more natureful will make it more resilient. And more resilient in the face of things like natural disasters and social trauma.
COREY S. POWELL 00:20
Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times. It’s about the ideas and discoveries driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect.
We started making Innovation Uncovered before the pandemic hit. And in the last few months, our thinking about what innovation is, and why it’s important -- especially now -- began to shift.
Some of the most extraordinary feats of progress are happening right here, close to home, where most of us have spent more time than we ever imagined. These innovations are changing things like how we make wine, watch films, and think about sports.
Today we’re going to start our series by exploring a design movement that’s reshaping the way we live indoors, and even how we plan our cities. They call it biophilia.
I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the origin of life. And I’m joined by my lovely, brilliant, and as-of-yet unintroduced co-host...
KRISTEN MEINZER 01:29
Yes, I'm Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. For the next six episodes, I’ll be out in the field -- well, the virtual field at least, thanks to social distancing.
Bringing a little science -
And a little culture -
To conversations about the people and ideas that are reshaping so many aspects of our lives today.
Kristen before we get into the story I just want to acknowledge to our listeners that we’re recording from two different places, and uh, we’re connecting via video chat. It’s unfortunately a kind of familiar scene for a lot of us at this point.
Yeah, and I have to say, my home office as you can see, it’s uh, it’s pretty sad-looking. There are no windows, there’s very little light...but I gotta say, Corey, the view from your screen looks a little happier. Are those plants I see there?
Yeah you know, I should tell you-- I am in my basement. I am in a windowless office, just like you are. But I have a little garden right next to me. I have some house plants, I have a little herb garden. They’re all supported by a grow light. So I have some greenery, I have a little bit of nature here.
And I have to tell you, it makes a big difference. It gives a psychological boost, having my little syngonium, and my little schefflera flourishing over there. It makes me feel better. And it’s not just all in my mind. I came across this 2020 study out of the University of Hyogo in Japan that says that even having a small plant on your desk can reduce stress.
And part of what I love about this study: the title of the study is: Potential of a Small Indoor Plant on the Desk for Reducing Office Workers’ Stress
So you don’t even have to wonder, hey, what does that mean? It just means that academically, what I’m experiencing seems to be a real thing
Yeah, it sounds like whether you knew it or not you’ve planned out your basement in a biophilic way.
I definitely didn’t know it. I was just going by intuition that I knew that these green plants make me feel good. But you know it’s nice to have some academic validation that what I’m doing really is scientifically verifiable.
Reporting this story about biophilia, I talked to a few people who are constantly thinking about bringing plant life into indoor spaces...
BETHANY BOREL 3:48
My name is Bethany Borel, and I'm an architect and interior designer with a kind of interest and geek out a little bit about biophilic design.
I connected with Bethany Borel to learn about a particular kind of interior design that is quietly revolutionizing how we live. She doesn’t just ‘kind of have an interest’ in this area — which is known as biophilic design — she’s one of the innovative architects leading the charge. She’s worked on projects such as biophilic high-rise buildings, a girls’ school, an affordable housing building, and plenty more. And Bethany kindly agreed to be our guide, so to speak.
The first thing that you see when you come off of our elevator bank is a long hallway that's a gallery, has large terrariums that are filled with plants that are thriving within these glass terrariums. We also have art on the walls photographs of Angkor Wat, you know, referencing how nature does take back our environment at some point. So really there's a moment of contemplation of quiet and calm.
Doesn't that sound like a dream? What could this beautiful place be? Well, it's actually an office, Bethany's office. She's a senior associate at COOKFOX Architects in New York City. And she describes the space so well because... she designed it.
Once they get to the reception desk, that's where views of our east and west terraces become apparent. Having a direct view to a natural element outside is an orienting tool to help you understand where your body is in space. Our bodies are always trying to figure out what our boundaries are and where we are. And so those views of daylight and views of nature are pretty key for that.
Are you feeling calmer already? It turns out the reason you're feeling so calm and centered right now, isn't just Bethany's soothing voice. It's because of biophilia.
It's the innate human affinity for natural systems and natural processes. So it's something that's ingrained in us, in our DNA.
The term biophilic design was popularized in the 1980s by E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and writer.
Over time, this theory of biophilia was organized into something called biophilic patterns. These are essentially design elements that architects can use to make indoor spaces more biophilic. Some of these elements are pretty straightforward...
Visual connection with nature. Thermal and airflow variability, presence of water, dynamic and diffuse light...
While other elements are a little more abstract.
...complexity and order, prospect, refuge, mystery, risk and peril. And awe.
I love that. Awe. But what does it mean to incorporate something like risk and peril into architecture for example.
For those who've been to the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, and you stand up close to the railing in the center of the museum. You'll notice it's just a little shorter than most railings, and I don't know about you, but when I get that close, I get I get that rush of risk, but it it heightens your senses. And so it's not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, I've had that same experience at that museum. The building is like a large undulating spiral. As you reach the top of the spiral and peer over the edge down to the lower levels. You feel that exhilarating feeling, which really lights you up without making you worry about your safety, of course. Architects have a lot of nature inspired tools at their disposal to influence how we respond.
Light, the play of light, the availability of natural light, natural patterns. Our brains respond to natural patterns in the same way as they would seeing them out in a forest versus a panel of millwork. So it's the shape, it's the scalar shifts, it's the relationship of volumes in the space, acoustics within the space have a lot to do with it.
As Bethany just hinted at, biophilic design goes beyond just the visual. Architects also have to consider how a space will sound.
If you think about an open office plan, you know, you get used to hearing your neighbor. And so that doesn't end up distracting you as much if you hear your neighbors speaking. But if somebody who sits all the way on the other side of the office comes over and says something loud enough that you can hear, it will more likely than not interrupt your concentration. And it'll take you a little while to get back on track. And it's about 20 minutes that it takes for that to happen. So it's a pretty serious, you know, acoustics are pretty serious concern.
So maybe right now, you’re working from home. Office chatter isn’t really a problem. But something you might be noticing, if you live alone, for example, is that silence isn’t great for productivity either. The natural world isn't silent after all.
you know, if you go too far with sound dampening, it almost becomes really eerie. We as humans are organized so that we expect a certain amount of sound. And so if there's too much white noise, it can start to, you know, trigger confusion or anger. Or if there's not enough white noise, it can have kind of a similar effect of confusion or it'll, it'll feel eerie. I think we've all kind of been in one of those rooms where you walk in and you could hear a pin drop and it's very creepy.
Given everything we've been through in the last few months, it's no surprise that so many of us are craving the outdoors and appreciating the basic aspects of nature--how the sun feels on your skin, the beauty of leaves rippling in the breeze.
But even in non-isolation times, people spend about 90% of our lives inside.
And as Bethany Borel's work shows, now people are waking up to something we've been feeling for a while about life indoors: Something's missing. And that something is nature.
There's been a significant amount of scientific research around the physiological and psychological benefits of biophilic design. There's been proven absenteeism reduction, presenteeism increase, cortisol level reduction. You know, for students, if you're designing a school information retention increases, they're able to learn better by some of these strategies.
And just to go a little deeper on these benefits. People just really need that little bit of nature during the day. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied found that just adding plants to an otherwise sparse office could increase workers feelings of well being, boosting productivity by as much as 15%. Even more critical, from a business standpoint, all of these wellness effects can have economic advantages.
90% of what companies spend their money on are the employees, right, rent is a fraction of their yearly expenditure. It's really the people, the healthcare for those people, you know, all of that, that takes up the bulk of what companies are spending. If some of the design strategies that you can put into place that are not necessarily more expensive than you would do otherwise helps to mitigate some of the absenteeism or ability to focus or kind of general contentment or general happiness, which then leads to retention. That's, that's a huge financial benefit to that company.
You know Kristen, this is exactly what I find really fascinating about biophilia. It’s a very personal thing, it’s a psychological thing, but it’s also an economic thing with clear, tangible benefits.
Exactly, it’s not just about warm-fuzzy feelings.
So here’s another interesting example I came across: The city of Sacramento did a study at one of their call centers. And they found that employees with views of nature managed their calls 6 to 7 percent faster than their coworkers without a view. So, here’s a hard number. They crunched the hard number, and they found that based on that improvement, they could save $2,990 per employee per year, if only people there had some nice greenery to look at.
And how much does that nice greenery cost, Corey?
So here’s the cool thing: Just $1,000 per employee. So, dollar for dollar, you’re better off giving them a nice green view. And if those employees are at all like me, they’re probably much happier employees, too.
Despite all of this proof that biophilia is good for us: both for wellness, and business... it hasn’t been a focal point of a lot of modern architecture -- especially in big spaces like offices and schools. But Bethany and COOKFOX are part of a new innovative cohort of thinkers who are elevating biophilia to the forefront of architectural design.
I'm really excited to say that there's been this resurgence over the past, you know, 10 years or so a little bit more. And now consumers are more aware of it. And so you have clients that come in and ask about it and have heard the term before. And so the more people learn about it, the more they experience it, and see and feel the benefits of it, the more it'll take off. So it is a pretty exciting time right now, to be digging in even deeper.
It’s also a really interesting time to start thinking about how we can incorporate more biophilic principles into our own indoor spaces. Because, surprise, all of these design principles also work in your home, not just in office buildings. It’s something Bethany has been noticing a lot lately on video calls with colleagues and clients.
Which is really fascinating because it gives you a little glimpse into people's personal lives by the backdrop that's behind them, you know, their background changes over time as they try to find the right spot. And it's really amazing how many people end up right next to a window. You know, either they're looking out the window or they're set up beside it so they can turn their head and look out the window when they need a break from their screen.
That desire to be near the window is more than just liking natural light. Bethany told me that it's also tied to one of the patterns of biophilia.
A couple of the patterns of biophilic design I tend to incorporate into most of my projects are that of prospect and that of refuge. Back before, we were able to build these types of structures that we build now. Humans would find caves that provided refuge so you knew that no predator was going to come and attack you while you were sitting there or sleeping, but also provided prospect so that you could look out and see the horizon and see what weather was coming, what predators were coming, where color was because that indicates where food is. So this, this concept of prospect and refuge is one that's really easy to apply and understand on the interior level. And it's the same reason that people are lugging their laptops and monitors and kitchen table over to the window is to give that opportunity of prospect because it helps to calm us down. It reduces our cortisol levels. It reduces our stress levels.
In some ways, your home might be designed with comfort in mind -- more so than any office would be. But there is one thing Bethany mentioned that might be harder to adapt:
A lot of people have been changing the lighting in their homes because when you're sleeping, it's a very different type of light that you respond to than when you need to be awake and alert. And so a lot of people have been asking me for recommend on like color-temperature-changing task lights or how to layer lighting within a space, because that's another kind of key element that our homes aren't necessarily set up to help us perform in the way that our office would.
Natural daylight is probably your best option, but if you don’t have a window nearby, think about where the light is coming from, how bright it is, and what color it is.
Kristen, all this talk about biophilia has me thinking, as much as I enjoy being in my basement with my green plants, I miss the outdoors. I miss the outdoors in New York City, and I feel like I need to reconnect a little bit more with urban nature.
Yeah, and there’s way more of it than I think people outside of New York even realize. I mean our city is covered in trees, in front gardens, in little plants coming up and growing through the sidewalk.
Honestly, New York doesn’t even hold a candle to other cities, in terms of how they’re embracing biophilia. I’m thinking for instance of Singapore. Which is really not a place people normally associate with greenery, but what an astounding and unexpected example of green cityscape it’s become.
Looking at images of Singapore, it just blows my mind. It looks like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon...like you know, when you go there, you’re being dropped into the middle of a leafy canopy of trees, of flora, of fauna, of all the beautiful things when think of when we think of nature in Southeast Asia.
And that beautiful green identity didn’t all happen by accident, of course. When Singapore gained independence in the 1960s, the new government intentionally tried to shape the colony into a garden city. In recent years, they’ve even shifted and expanded their view: Not just a garden city, but a “city in a garden.”
What a way to conceive of a city....especially in a city so dense.
Not just dense, one of the densest in the world, and getting denser. Between 1986 and 2010, the population of Singapore almost doubled -- from 2.7 million to 5 million people. And amazingly in that same time, it’s gotten greener. Green space in the city actually increased from 36 percent to 47 percent.
That’s phenomenal. I mean, Singapore is really a model to the world, but it turns out they’re not alone. Biophilia is being enlisted in cities around the globe.
Right, because it makes sense. Infusing this biophilia into the cityscape helps with all kinds of practical things like stormwater management, it makes it more attractive to foreign investors, it makes it into a place people want to visit, and honestly, it makes it into a nicer place to live.
Yeah. biophilia isn’t just for our home offices or basement offices, it works on a city scale to make life better.
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A biophilic city is a city that puts nature at the center of its design and planning. So we argue that, that to lead a happy, healthy, meaningful life really requires that you have contact with nature.
That’s Tim Beatley. I turned to him to help me understand the larger scale version of biophilia.
My name is Tim Beatley, and I teach here at the University of Virginia in the Urban and Environmental Planning Department in the School of Architecture.
In addition to his teaching title, Tim is the founder of the Biophilic Cities Network. Since it was founded in 2013, twenty-two cities have joined. They span the globe from Phoenix, Arizona, to Wellington, New Zealand, to Panama City, Panama, to Singapore. Tim and his Biophilic Cities Network have brought the efforts of these far flung places together to help radically change the way cities think about their design and development. And it really comes down to your access to nature.
It's not just something that you can get once or twice a year on a vacation or holiday. It has to be all around us. It has to be where we live and work and and we have to experience that every day, if not every hour.
That's something I hadn't thought about before. It's great to know that nature is out there that we could, you know, always go to a park or hop on the train to go for a hike, for example. But it's something entirely different to feel immersed in it without having to try.
So yes, we love parks. We need parks. But The vision of biophilic cities is one of immersive nature and that's really the the notion that we should see the entire city as the park we should see the entire city as as the forest as the garden so that we're not having to go to visit nature in particular places we're living with nature, nature is all around us. We're immersed in nature, and that's ultimately the vision that we're after here.
And that's one of the most important elements of a biophilic city. That immersion in nature. To explain this, Tim thinks of it, like we once thought of the food pyramid.
We sometimes talk about this idea of a nature pyramid, which is one way of kind of understanding what constitutes our nature diet, if you will. We do believe that we need that connection with the natural world. So the stuff at that, that base of that pyramid are the things that nature around us every day, every hour, the trees, the birds, and and it's multi sensory, by the way, it's not just the the things that we see. But then as you move up the pyramid, there national parks and things where you might go to visit that might require a bus ride. We do want a city where it's possible to reach nature and public transit. But we do have to sort of start with the neighborhood scale and the place where people are, living and working.
One of the most innovative aspects of biophilic design--whether it's in your home, your office or your entire neighborhood--is the focus on wellbeing. We've touched on it before, but these architects and city planners really have the whole human in mind.
And we have so much compelling evidence that having nature around us affects just about every aspect of the human being that the physiology the the mental health, it changes our mood in a positive way, it enhances cognitive performance, greener, more natureful schools, you know, lead to better test scores for kids, happier kids and happier teachers. There's even evidence actually that with nature around us we’re more generous we’re more likely to be cooperative, evidence coming out of economics that we're more likely to think longer term if we have nature around us. So you can make a pretty strong argument that in the presence of nature, we are better, better human beings actually.
You know, the pandemic has really opened our eyes to the benefits of biophilic cities. They prioritize nature all around us, meaning you don't have to go and crowd a city park or beach to immerse yourself in the flora and fauna. Instead, it's right outside, and perhaps also inside your door. Some cities are experimenting with biophilia in real time, they're opening roadways to give pedestrians more space to be outside. Oakland, for example, closed down 10% of the total street mileage in the city, that's 72 miles, so that pedestrians had more space to walk around and socially distance properly. Cities like Minneapolis, Berlin, Bogota, Paris, Montreal and Portland decided to turn car lanes over to pedestrians as well.
Where we have these sort of concerns about the inability to social distance. I think we can be much more clever and of course having, having more space. I think more cities are tilting in that direction.
And Tim thinks that these temporary changes could spur something more permanent in the future.
I think cities, I think we're going to, we're going to be maybe readjusting, I hope, the priorities we give to certain things and maybe reducing the emphasis on on cars and automobility. I think often the the reason we haven't done this more often is that that it's a lack of imagination to some degree, and perhaps a lack of compelling models and seeing what other cities have done.
Some folks now might even be rethinking their feelings on cities in general. I mean, if we need that strong connection to nature, what's the benefit of living in the concrete jungle at all? Well, I asked Tim about this, whether or not cities really are important to maintain. And here's what he told me.
Cities, cities do many things for us. Of course, they provide people with you know, remarkable economic opportunities. There are real reasons Why we want to be in cities. And we're not going to turn this global trend around anyway.
I, for one, look forward to getting back out there and exploring the biophilic elements of my city once it's safe to do so. But for now, I know I'm going to try to incorporate biophilic design into my own indoor spaces in small ways. And perhaps more of my video calls will involve biophilia, like when Bethany's cat joined us for the interview.
Sorry, she got back into the room.
That’s some nature right there next to you.
Yeah, a little biophilic element.
So this whole conversation about biophilia makes me feel inspired to do more of that in my own life. I don't think I can get away with bringing a cat in, as nice as that sounds. But you know, what I've been thinking about more is, you know, I have a backyard that's mostly concrete, I'd love to bring some water into there, try to find more ways to bring outdoor light into this apartment. Maybe even try to find ways to bring more sort of full spectrum light down here into the basement. You know it listening to these stories makes me realize that we don't have to be as cut off as we have been.
Yeah, I mean I've been thinking, my little closet studio. Maybe I could bring some plants in here.
Yes, why not? You know, in my first job, I was in a windowless office and I put a giant painting of an outdoor window on the wall. And it made me feel good. I didn't know I was a pioneer in biophilic design, but apparently I was.
[laughs] Well, at this point, I think maybe we all can be, we can all put a little bit more biophilic design into our worlds.
Well, and I like the idea that when you're less alienated from nature, that maybe you're a slightly kinder person, maybe you're a slightly more connected person. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind being like that.
Yeah, I need to become nicer. I'm gonna get some plants.
Innovation Uncovered is a podcast from Invesco QQQ in partnership with T Brand at the New York Times.
Over the rest of the season we’ll be discovering the innovations happening in all of your favorite things: film, music, staying connected, basketball, and for our next episode: wine.
I think what we’re seeing is a blurring of the categories--beer, cider, wine, spirits--are starting to communicate a lot more. Even in the wine world there was some kind of insularity where people would be hesitant to share ideas and breakthroughs but now it’s like, nope we’re all in this together.
Subscribe to Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts.
KRISTEN 28: 06
Thanks for listening. See you next time.
Innovation Uncovered is brought to you by Invesco QQQ. From tech innovators to lesser known biotech and media companies, Invesco QQQ is more than just a tech fund. It’s an ETF that allows you to access the NASDAQ 100 -- some of today’s more innovative companies that are changing the world. To learn more about what this ETF can mean for your portfolio, visit Invesco.com/QQQ. The NASDAQ 100 Index comprises the 100 largest non financial companies traded on the NASDAQ. You cannot invest directly in an index. Risks are involved with investing in ETFs including possible loss of money. ETFs are subject to risks similar to those of stocks. Investments focused in a particular sector such as technology are subject to greater risk and are more greatly impacted by market volatility than more diversified investments. Before investing consider the fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. Visit Invesco.com for a prospectus containing this information. Read it carefully before investing. Invesco Distributors Incorporated.
Invesco is not affiliated with TBrand Studio, New York Times, Corey S. Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia and the Biophilic Cities Network, or Bethany Borel of COOKFOX Architects.
Why launch a case of wine into space? Hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer uncover how ancient winemaking techniques, paired with modern technology, are revolutionizing the wine industry — and may help us face climate change.
TODD: It's the uncertainty, I think, that's really making it scary for some people, but also fun and interesting for small new producers like me to think about, "Hey, what can I be doing in 20 years? What can we grow here? What's gonna be successful? And, you know, what is the future of wine growing gonna look like?"
COREY: Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times. It’s about the ideas and discoveries driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect.
This episode, my intrepid co-host, Kristen Meinzer, goes to the vineyard…
KRISTEN: Can you show us what you stomp in? Is it nearby?
TODD: Yeah. I'll, I'll show you. Yeah. Um, we have uh, well,
COREY: And expand our wine horizons,
COREY: "So I'm a little bit perplexed, but I'm open to experiences."
COREY: To learn how innovation in wine making may provide the key to helping us adapt to climate change.
COREY: I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the origin of life.
KRISTEN: And I'm Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. And on this show, I’m out in the field — well, usually the virtual field, thanks to social distancing — reporting on the people and ideas that are reshaping so many aspects of our daily life.
COREY: We bring a little science,
KRISTEN: And a little culture,
COREY: To conversations about innovations impacting our world today.
KRISTEN: This is Innovation Uncovered, from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times.
[Wine being poured. Clink.]
COREY: Cheers. Ah, here, you know what? [Clink] L'chaim.
KRISTEN: Yay. Yay. Okay. So we both pretended to cheers each other but we really just hit two glasses together
in our respective homes. Let's try this natural red wine, shall we?
COREY: Okay. It feels… I don’t know, can a wine be rugged? I'm sure that’s not an approved wine adjective, but it tastes a little bit rugged.
KRISTEN: I did something a little bit unorthodox with mine. I, I chilled it a little bit earlier today. So it's not quite room temperature. And it's delicious.
COREY: I'm sure it is. And you know, there’s also a lot of science behind the flavors that we’re tasting. It starts long before the grape becomes wine: the humidity around the vines, the amount of rainfall, the temperature — all of those things have an effect on the way the grapes grow, and eventually on how the wine will taste.
KRISTEN: So much goes into this beautiful glass of wine I'm drinking.
COREY: You know, there’s a wonderfully nerdy study I came across, it's from the University of California at Davis from a few years ago. They had wineries around the world make a malbec using the same methods for grape crushing, fermentation, and aging, all of that. Everything the same. And then the researchers analyzed the wines to see how the growing environment changed the taste on a molecular level.
Using, you know, a good old gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. You've got one of those, right?
KRISTIN: Oh yeah, I have one right here next to me right now.
COREY: Well, I'm, I'm sure we all do. But just uh, these scientists happened to think that they were going to use it specifically to study the aromatic compounds of wine. What they found was that the malbecs grown in Argentina were sweeter and more alcoholic than the ones grown in California. The difference? Mainly, the altitude where the grapes were grown, and to some extent, the local rainfall. But you can actually see the chemical difference.
KRISTEN: And Corey, all of those different environmental elements you just mentioned are things that will look very different in the future, thanks to climate change. And that’s why I think natural wine is such an interesting thing to talk about in this context.
COREY: Yeah, natural wine is delicious and trendy right now. But there are also some things about it that have maybe more lasting qualities. It's, it’s typically made with more sustainable farming practices, for instance, and it contains less additives.
KRISTEN: Yes! And there are some fascinating wine innovators out there going even further.
They’re adapting to a changing climate, and even sending wine into orbit to better understand what grapevines, and all plants, will need to survive in the future.
THEME MUSIC OUT
KRISTEN: Imagine you're an astronaut on the International Space Station, floating up there in Earth's orbit, maybe wishing for the comforts of your home planet. Then, [astronaut voice] one day, a resupply shuttle arrives, and there's something special on board. It's 12 bottles of Bordeaux. But, it's not for you to drink. Instead, it's all part of an experiment.
NICOLAS: My name is Nicolas Gaume, and I'm the founder and CEO of Space Cargo Unlimited, a European startup
that wants to leverage the benefits of space for Earth’s future.
KRISTEN: Nicolas Gaume and his team are part of a project called Mission WISE, which stands for Wine In Space Experiment. It sounds far out, literally, but it’s actually not. There’s a long history of studying wine, for insights that have led to innovations in agriculture and medicine. Now, researchers hope that studying wine can help winemakers — and farmers of all types — prepare for climate change in the future.
NICOLAS: We're in a trend where climate change is affecting how we're going to feed humanity tomorrow. Basically, you don't grow plants and be able to feed humanity with two or three degrees Celsius higher average temperature and with less drinkable water. So we should all be very concerned.
KRISTEN: As our planet warms, crops will no longer thrive in regions where they've been grown for centuries. The water gets saltier, the weather gets warmer and more unpredictable. Some plants may not grow at all. And
grape vines, and wine itself, they're sort of a canary in the coal mine for this issue. Grape vines are rather fragile and grow best in very specific regions around the world. The weather and the environment the vines are grown in also end up changing the sweetness of the grapes. And the alcohol content of the wine.
NICOLAS: I come from Bordeaux in the southwest of France. In the 1970s to produce wine in Bordeaux, and it was very controlled, but you also had to add sugar to accelerate the wine process and you would end up with wine that were 11, 12 degree of alcohol because the grapes were not sugary enough. Recently today, you don't need to do this anymore. And the same process with the same vine creates wine that is 13, 14, if not 15 degree of alcohol. And if you continue on that trajectory, as climate evolve and, and grapes become more sugary, well, you would get wine that would be 18, 19, 20 degrees of alcohol. And it's just an example of many, many, many that, that shows
climate change is affecting, in a very profound way, the way we grow plants and the way that we make the food that is feeding humanity.
KRISTEN: We know all this because wine growers have been meticulously documenting their plantings and harvests for hundreds of years. That creates a compelling record of how climate change has already had an effect on wine and grape growing. By sending wine, as well as samples of grape vines into orbit, Nicolas’ team of researchers will be able to study how the plants and wine react in the reduced gravity environment. They’ll perform tests and look at how the plants and wine handle stress on a cellular level.
All the while there are control experiments happening in a lab here on earth. And after the wine and grape vines finish their time in orbit, they'll return back to the lab for further testing. At the end of the study, the researchers hope to learn how different elements impact the chemistry of the wine, and the grape plants themselves. That way, they can figure out how to help other crops adapt to the changing environment here on Earth.
NICOLAS: `And the basic theory,
very super simplified is that if we have any living organism that is surviving the stress of the absence of gravity, when it come back on earth, it will be more resilient to lesser stresses, specifically the stresses related to climate change. For instance, more salt because less drinkable water means more salt into the soil and, and plants do not like salt. So how do they react and adapt and adjust, is really one of the thing we're going to capture.
COREY: It’s fascinating to think about the future of our planet: No matter where we go and what we do, our culture is going to come with us -- and wherever our culture goes, wine is going to come with us, too. But as you mentioned, there’s also a lot of history at work here. Nicolas is continuing a very long tradition of using wine to understand big scientific concepts. And that tradition goes back, well, it goes all the way back at least to Louis Pasteur, 150 years ago.
KRISTEN: Hold on, Louis Pasteur,
the guy who came up with the pasteurization of milk and vaccines and all that good stuff?
COREY: Right. There are a few big stories we learn about Louis Pasteur. But what they don’t usually teach you in 7th grade science class, is that Pasteur made a lot of those big discoveries about microscopic life by studying wine. Strictly speaking, he was studying beet root alcohol. That was when he realized that the yeast in the alcohol were alive, and it was their living metabolism that was turning sugar into alcohol.
KRISTEN: I for one am kind of glad we’ve moved beyond drinking alcoholic beet juice.
COREY: I'm right there with you.
KRISTEN: And speaking of, we have another wine to taste here. This one is a little bubbly, it’s pink, and it has a name I love, very intriguing: Mea Culpa. And it was created by another wine innovator named Krista Scruggs. Shall we give it a taste, Corey?
COREY: Oh here, you know what? [glasses clink] Cheers.
KRISTEN: Yes. Ooh… It really is unique and one of a kind. It's a little sour. It's a little funky. It's a little, hmm. It,
it almost tastes like a cross between wine and cider?
COREY: There's a certain element of mystery to it. There's something going on here, in this wine, that is not like any other wine I've ever had. And I don't exactly know what it is.
KRISTEN: Well, Corey, maybe the reason this wine tastes so different is because it was grown in Vermont, historically, not a place we associate with wine growing.
COREY: Right. When I think about Vermont, wine is not the first word that comes to mind. And, when I think about wine, I don't usually immediately think Vermont. I probably think California, in part because my brother in Berkeley is a total California wine snob, and I have to admit he’s got his good reasons: the soil in California, the sun, the rainfall. The local conditions are very well suited to exactly what the grapes need to produce a good vintage.
KRISTEN: That being said, Corey, California is not immune to climate change. The wine industry is changing there. And it's changing all over the world. In some cases, for the better.
Wine can be grown in regions once thought impossible now, like England, and Vermont. Places that are driving a whole different sort of innovation in wine making.
KRISTA: My name is Krista Scruggs. I am the farmer, winemaker of Zafa Wines and co-founder of Co Cellars located in Burlington, Vermont.
KRISTEN: I like to think of Krista making wine at a place where history and innovation converge. But before she landed way up in the Northeast, she spent her childhood growing up in California, across the street from a big commercial winemaker’s vineyard. Her grandparents were even homesteaders in California. A lot of wine is made there. But it just wasn't the right place for Krista to start growing her own vineyard.
KRISTA: You know, growing up in California, I was, I was very aware that financially I didn’t feel it was even possible for me to build upon or to even acquire land. I don't come from a socio-economic background
that has land in it's family. So I knew that I had to look, you know, I had to think outside the box and look outside of California and, and remind myself that the whole reason of me pursuing this was to farm and to make wine with ethos that I have.
KRISTEN: And Krista also sees a benefit to growing and making wine in Vermont. She doesn't feel beholden to the tradition of the conventional wine industry.
KRISTA: I think I'm building a legacy that is bigger than me, especially as a black farmer in this country. And I hold that with so much responsibility and respect. I really like to stress that everything that I'm doing is in honor of tradition. And that's why I feel lucky to be in Vermont, because I get to write my own story here. And, and in many other regions, I don't think I would be able to do that.
KRISTEN: Krista first got into making wine by working for a big commercial wine company. But, she wanted something more hands-on. After learning from winemakers around the world, she found what she was looking for in organic, biodynamic, natural wines. There isn’t one definition for natural wine, but in general, it’s wine that's made with wild yeasts,
little to no additives, and low intervention on the part of the winemaker. Krista moved to Vermont and in 2017 started Zafa Wines. In no time, she became an important figure in the burgeoning movement of natural winemakers around the world. By some estimates, organic wine sales add up to about $200 million in the U.S. It’s a small slice of the larger U.S. wine market, which is valued at tens of billions of dollars. And while it’s hard to know exactly how much of that organic wine is also natural wine, it’s a growing, and exciting, trend.
What put Krista and Zafa on the map was her runaway success with her very first vintage in 2017. She called it Jungle Fever. And for many critics, it was a welcome change from what they had all been drinking. Krista uses hybrid grapes, which taste very different
from say, a merlot, or chardonnay. And her process also really bucks tradition: Instead of crafting wine that tastes exactly the same year after year, decade after decade, she lets each vintage of wine speak for itself.
KRISTA: I feel that to truly express, and for anyone who has opportunities to taste my wines to experience that, it is my job to not try to chase how I made Jungle Fever, for example, how I did the year before and or any other wine that I made that year. My job is to try my best to tell the story of what I navigated. Most importantly, what those vines, those apples, navigated without imposing my ego.
KRISTEN: Did you hear Krista mention apples? That's the other innovative method she has up her sleeve. She blends her grapes with apples and other fruits, making what’s known as co-fermented wines, or vinous ciders. She does this partially because she’s interested in the cider and brewing industry,
but also, because she had to.
KRISTA: The grapes that I was supposed to be working with that vintage, I lost that vineyard to a pest, to Japanese beetles. And so through the encouragement of my mentor at that time, I just saw, you know, apples as an opportunity. According to the federal government cider is wine. Any fruit that is fermented is wine.
KRISTEN: So Krista is blending the beverage industries by fermenting apples and other fruits along with grapes. And this innovation is partially a reaction to what's happening in the environment. Krista’s approach, and success, is a lesson for all wine makers: If a pest wipes out your grape harvest, or if the changing climate changes the flavor of your wine each year, you must adapt.
KRISTA: You know, in a few months, you know, I close on my own land here and to be part of 1.1% of black farmers in America and to hopefully, through my unique stance and being as Krista, can influence
other especially and particularly black and brown girls and boys to farm, and honor in the tradition of our ancestors in this country.
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COREY: You know, Kristen, I used to think of winemaking as very traditional -- and to be honest, maybe even a little stuffy. But, Krista Scruggs is really is putting her own spin on what wine should taste like, how it’s made, and who’s making it. Her story makes it clear she’s part of a progressive, evolving industry.
KRISTEN: And that evolution is evident in both who is growing the grapes, and what they’re using to make these wonderful beverages. Speaking of which, Corey, shall we sip on our next bit of innovation? This one is from a place called Wild Arc Farm.
COREY: I am up for innovation. I have a can here in front of me. And, I know this is an episode about wine, so I'm a little bit perplexed, [opens can].
KRISTEN: Alright, I'm going to open mine. It's a beautiful pink can.
COREY: And it's pink when you open it inside too.
COREY: It's a little bit fizzy. Yes.
It's, it's interesting. It's complex. It's definitely surprising. I'm still adapting to it a little here.
KRISTEN: Yeah, I mean that freshness at first, it does settle into something different. It's almost a little bit funky, a little bit bitter, like I can taste the grape skins. And I mean that in a good way.
KRISTEN: The last stop on my ‘innovation in wine’ tour was in the Hudson Valley,
in upstate New York, to a wine operation that is not only adapting to climate change but is making every effort to be sustainable. Earlier this year, I went up to Wild Arc Farm, to visit with its founder, Todd Cavallo.
TODD: Alright, this is the barrel room. Very crowded, as you can see. Basically barely enough room to maneuver and get things in and out here.
KRISTEN: They smell amazing.
TODD: Yeah, things are, as it's warming up, things are starting again.
KRISTEN: I've never smelled wine barrels before.
KRISTEN: A few years ago, Todd quit his job in New York City and started making wine full time. And one of his goals was to make Wild Arc a biodynamic farm.
TODD: Biodynamics, it's kind of more of a philosophy of growing.
It's a practice that encompasses the entire farm. Because the idea is that you've got no inputs and you can farm without having, you know, nitrogen from the fossil fuel industry as your fertilizer and synthetic pesticides and herbicides and fungicides. And so the idea is that you, you create everything that you need, and then you're putting that back into the soil and letting those microbes and mycorrhizal fungus in the soil that let the plants grow and take the nutrients from the soil that they need. You're just kind of reinforcing that every year and keeping your living soil web going.
KRISTEN: Sustainability is at the top of Todd's mind in most of the decisions he's making, and that's something that also comes through with the way he's innovating in the natural wine space. Wild Arc makes some familiar types of wine, like cabernet franc and chardonnay, but in an effort to be as sustainable as possible, Todd turned to history for inspiration, and decided to make … a different kind of beverage: Piquette.
TODD: It's actually been going on for 2000 years. The Romans and the Greeks were making things like this, but most common in 18th and 19th century Europe, mostly France and Italy. The poor who couldn't afford wine and couldn't drink the water because it was still unsafe to drink, would take the pomace, which is the leftover grape mash from making wine, home and soak it with water for a couple days and then press it again to make a second wine. And this, piquette is the French term for it, it means literally a little sour or a little sharp, but in colloquial French, it just means garbage wine, bad wine. So any French speakers who are listening to this, are thinking, "Oh God, piquette. Please get it away." So a friend of ours showed us a book called, The Red and The White: A History of Wine in 18th Century France and Italy. And it had this passage on piquette and he's like, "Hey, did you ever think of trying something like this?"
KRISTEN: And that question launched Todd on his own piquette journey. Yep, piquette is what Corey and I were tasting just a few minutes ago. For Todd, piquette was a way to
introduce a new kind of beverage to the natural wine community. It's got a lower alcohol content. It's funky. It's bubbly. And it appeals to cider and beer drinkers, too. Most importantly, it's a way to use what would otherwise go to waste. It’s sustainable, exciting, and perhaps what's most innovative about it, is that he's breathing new life into a centuries-old practice.
TODD: We’re just squeezing every bit we can out of it. So it definitely is, it's a more sustainable practice. And it's less vineyard land that needs to be under vineyard management, because we can get more product out of less land. And I think the sustainability of the business can't be discounted. I know that's a discussion that people have all the time, where sustainability has to include your business because if your business isn't sustainable then who's going to be the person taking care of the land when you're gone? And so definitely it's helping keep us afloat as well.
KRISTEN: Since Todd first released his piquette in 2017, others have followed suit.
Now you can get a piquette from a handful of wineries in Willamette Valley, Oregon, or from a wine grower in Maryland. Todd also has fellow New Yorkers joining in on the piquette making trend. And piquette has really become a coveted drink in its own right. It's been written up in food and wine magazines with headlines like, quote, “Pet-Nat and Skin-Contact Wine Are So 2019. In 2020, We're Drinking Piquette."
KRISTEN: So, piquette is taking off, and it’s helping Todd make the most of the grapes he has, which is important, because when we went to see where he grows some of the grapes, Todd noted that some of his plants were struggling.
TODD: So you've got um, pinot noir in the front, which is the newest planting that we've hilled up here. The Chardonnay I didn't hill up this year because that's where we lost most of the crop, and we're going to replant it with a hybrid. But you can see these little baby vines are very tiny and fragile. So that'll hopefully come back up in the spring along with the rest of them that are still alive here.
KRISTEN: He's decided to plant more hybrid grapes in place of the struggling varieties.
TODD: So we work with a lot of hybrid grapes here which are cold, or hardy, but they're names that you're not familiar with. So it's not the Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon that you've heard. It's things like Marquette and Frontenac, and grapes that were developed either at Cornell or at the University of Minnesota to be cold-hardy and less disease prone. And so there are people who have pushed that out and really let the market kind of learn about those things so that when I come along with my carbonic Marquette, not everyone is going to say, “Oh Marquette. I love it,” but more people will say, “Oh, Marquette I've heard of that” than would have 10 years ago.
KRISTEN: Hybrid grapes are sometimes looked down upon by serious wine drinkers and winemakers.Tradition carries a lot of weight in wine culture. And even when winemakers try to make a hybrid grape
taste like the European varieties, they just don't. The flavors are unique after all. But because hybrid grapes are native plants crossed with those European varieties, they grow well here in the US.
TODD: Bordeaux actually just allowed new varieties to be planted for the first time in hundreds of years because they're hedging their bets against, "Okay, what happens when we can't grow what we've been growing for 2000 years here?" So they allowed these new varieties to be planted experimentally in very small amounts, but it's kind of moving in that direction where, "Uh, let's see what's going to happen." It’s the uncertainty I think that's really making it scary for some people. But also fun and interesting for small new producers like me to think about, "Hey, what can I be doing in 20 years? What can we grow here? What's going to be successful? And, you know, what is the future of wine growing going to look like?"
KRISTEN: Well, what do you think it's going to look like?
TODD: I think it's going to look like more hybrids all over the world, even in places that shunned them previously. You know, and it's gonna be hopefully more
open and interesting. And there's great parts of historical winemaking. It's amazing that the monks in Burgundy spent thousands of years figuring out what vines to plant where, and where the best wines were made. It's cool. It's romantic. It's amazing. But you can make great and interesting wines from new and interesting varieties all over the world. And I think as people start to realize that, and start to work with that idea in mind, that great wines will start to come up elsewhere. And it doesn't have to be world class, perfect wines, but just a wine that's interesting and alive and speaks of place. That's what I want. And that's what I want to make. And I think you can do that anywhere.
COREY: You know, Kristen, after listening to that story, it got me wondering about what’s happening to the wine industry in the middle of this COVID pandemic that’s clearly affecting every other part of the economy. Just looking around our neighborhood in Brooklyn -- boy, every company that
relies on restaurant and bar sales must be taking a huge hit.
KRISTEN: Yeah, clearly, when I’m not going to restaurants and bars, the neighborhood does suffer!
COREY: Well, it's not just you. Lots of people like wine.And we all really need our little pleasures during the pandemic. By some estimates, grocery store and convenience store sales have gone up 38 percent. And online sales have grown even more dramatically. According to one major industry survey I came across, compared to last year, online alcohol sales have more than doubled.
KRISTEN: And, Corey, I was wondering about how all of this is affecting the guests that we had on the show. Luckily, Todd already had a method for selling directly to consumers, and he was busy getting ready for that this spring. Unfortunately, what was once a communal bottling celebration, though, turned into a solo job this year.
COREY: What about Krista? How is she doing?
KRISTEN: Well, Krista told me she was busier than ever this spring, preparing for the season’s release. She’s seen a rise in demand, and says she’s been selling out of all the wines she’s put up for sale.
COREY: I'm glad to hear that. What about Nicolas Gaume and the wine in space?
KRISTEN: Oh, I know you love some wine in space, Corey.
COREY: You like your wine on the ground. I prefer mine in orbit. It's, they're just different styles.
KRISTEN: Well, luckily, Space Cargo Unlimited told me that things are going smoothly on the space station and with the Bordeaux. Everything will return to earth at the end of 2020.
COREY: Innovation Uncovered is a podcast from Invesco QQQ in partnership with T Brand at the New York Times.
KRISTEN: Don't forget to subscribe, rate, and review Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts and tell your friends about the show. For our next episode, we’ll be exploring the ways technology is changing music.
HOLLY: So I think about AI as basically also a kind of sophisticated human
coordination technique. It's just a more recent one. But it's really, I see it along a trajectory from, you know, early vocal techniques, early polyphonic singing. Yeah, I, I don't see the laptop as this separate thing. I see it as part of this human intellectual project that we share.
COREY: Thanks for listening. See you next time. [glasses clink] Cheers.
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Invesco is not affiliated with TBrand Studio, New York Times, Corey S.Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Todd Carvallo of Wild Arc Farms, Nicolas Gaume of Space Cargo Unlimited and Krista Scruggs of Zafa Wines and Co Cellars. This should not be construed as an endorsement for any of the companies discussed in this podcast.
Can an algorithm write a hit song? Hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer discuss how artificial intelligence and other new technologies promise to upend the music industry — and create new opportunities for sharing and composing music.
HOLLY: I think that music composition should be a kind of living, breathing art form that should be responding to the material conditions of life around us right now. I don't think it's interesting to try to just kind of recreate music that was created in an entirely different time.
COREY: Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times, about the ideas and discoveries that are driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect. This episode, we’re looking at music. Technology has made its way into almost every part of our lives today and music is no exception. But, how far should it go? Could something like artificial intelligence ever make… art?
COREY: I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-
Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the origin of life. And I’m joined by my fabulous co-host...
KRISTEN: Hi Corey.
COREY: Hi Kristen.
KRISTEN: Yes. I am Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. In this series, I’m out in the field — well, the virtual field at least, thanks to social distancing — reporting on the people and ideas that are reshaping so many aspects of our daily life.
COREY: We bring a little science —
KRISTEN: And a little culture —
COREY: To conversations about innovations impacting our world today.
COREY: So Kristen, in this episode we’re talking about music, and we’re talking about technology. And they're not two different things. In many ways, music history really is a history of technology. It made recording music possible, for one thing. Without tech, there would have been no gramophones, no vinyl LPs, no cassettes, no cds.
KRISTEN: Well I love my gramophone.
COREY: Oh, who doesn't love a good gramophone?
KRISTEN: And it's also really revolutionized the way people are making music, too. Maybe you’ve been to concerts, I mean, prior to the pandemic, Corey, where instead of guitars, drums and keys, there were just a few laptops on stage. Everything you heard was all happening thanks to a computer.
COREY: You know, I came of age in the 1980's when synthesizer music was everywhere. It was all that dance pop, all that synth pop. And music and technology and sort of progress all seemed just totally wound together, that these bands were making it the sound of the future. I know there are a lot of people who are put off by it, but I love the idea that music is still evolving. That technology is still changing the way people are creative.
KRISTEN: Exactly, and artists are now able to make music with digital synthesizers, MIDI keyboards, and specialized software. They’re creating sounds that previous generations couldn’t have even imagined. And in this episode, we’ll be taking a look at two cutting-edge
technologies that are pushing music, and musicians, even further.
KRISTEN: When I set off to explore this intersection of music and technology, I knew exactly the person I wanted to talk to.
HOLLY: My name's Holly Herndon and I'm a composer and performer based in Berlin, Germany.
KRISTEN: As I see it, or as I hear it, Holly is one of the most influential voices in this world. Over the course of her musical career, Holly has made four highly-rated albums, and earned a PhD from a program that encompasses both computer research and music composition. Holly grew up in northeast Tennessee and started out the way a lot of musicians come to the art.
HOLLY: When I was younger, I started out performing in church choir and school choir. And then I was also taking guitar lessons and piano lessons like a lot of kids.
KRISTEN: As a teenager, Holly moved to Berlin
as an exchange student. And that’s where she first experienced electronic music and club culture.
HOLLY: So when I moved to Berlin, I deeply embedded myself in the club culture there. I was basically like a club kid for a couple years
KRISTEN: But it wasn’t until she moved to California and enrolled in an art school that she found her instrument.
HOLLY: When I started working with the laptop, that's when I really felt like I found my own voice as a composer, but also my own performative voice. I always say that one of my best attributes is that I have kind of a average voice. Because if it was, if I had like a fantastic voice, then I would never have maybe created all of the kind of digital layers that I've needed to make it sound special or more interesting.
KRISTEN: Holly is known for making what’s been called ‘laptop music.’
HOLLY: So you know, when a composer sits down to write, often they'll sit down to a piano, or maybe to a guitar or something, you know, people write in many different ways.
For me, my starting point is with the laptop. So I also make some of my own software. And, it almost seems passe to say that now, that I sit down and start at the laptop, 'cause so many people do that now. But when I started, I guess, 15 or so years ago, that was, especially in the academy, that was this kind of, like, contentious thing of like, "Is a laptop really a valid instrument?"
KRISTEN: When I first heard the term, "laptop music," I imagined DJs on club stages, staring into the blue glow of their screens. You know, lots of synths and electronic music. But that’s not really the kind of music Holly makes.
HOLLY: If I look at it from a wider time horizon, and I think about my kind of origins of coming from singing in choirs, and then moving on to the laptop and being obsessed with vocal processing, and essentially, I think I was always looking for a way to
transcend the limitations of my physical voice by augmenting it with my computer, and digitally.
KRISTEN: So yes, Holly uses a computer and lots of software and processing, but she also incorporates choral elements. You hear a lot of human vocals.
And, inhuman vocals.
For PROTO, her album that came out in 2019, Holly and her team built a very special collaborator.
HOLLY: So who is SPAWN? SPAWN is what we call our AI baby. And it's basically a metaphor for all of the experiments that we did using machine learning and music.
KRISTEN: I love this child metaphor they chose for SPAWN. And SPAWN, quite simply, is an artificial intelligence that makes music with Holly. The child metaphor really holds up.
HOLLY: You know how people say,
"It takes a village to raise a child." That, that really this is like such a nascent technology that we see this as something that it takes a community of people to raise. It is trained on a community of people's intellectual work. And we hope that we can influence, from an early start, the kind of direction that this technology goes.
KRISTEN: Now, Holly isn’t the first musician to turn to an AI to make music. In fact, all the way back in 1957, a mathematician and composer teamed up to produce the first piece written entirely by artificial intelligence. Since then, computers have gotten more sophisticated, and other researchers and musicians alike have turned to AI to make music or write lyrics. But it’s been done with varying success, and it’s still not common. Holly’s place in this goes even beyond the music: She’s thinking deeply about the technology she uses, and in a way, the method is part of her art.
So how does it all work? Well, to borrow Holly’s metaphor:
in a very basic sense, the way you teach a machine is similar to the way you teach a child. You give the machine information for it to analyze and understand and learn from. And, like with any child, Holly and her team had to make big decisions about what to teach SPAWN, and how. For an AI to learn, it needs a lot of information inputs. And so to build up that base of information, you could draw from anonymous databases of recordings, for example. You know, use hundreds of thousands of recordings of anonymous voices. But Holly and her team decided against that.
HOLLY: And that meant, you know, performing audio and recording audio with our ensemble to then train our AI. And so we wanted to really keep it contained so that we could name and compensate everyone who went into training our models.
KRISTEN: They also decided to just teach SPAWN using audio files. Often researchers train an AI using MIDI files. MIDI files don’t actually contain
any sound, though. They just tell a computer what sound to make. Instead, Holly and her team recorded thousands of sounds, including their own voices. And then, SPAWN takes those sound files and tries to understand the logic behind them, slicing up sounds sample by sample, to figure out what should come next. In the end, SPAWN responds with her own sounds that she’s created, based on what she’s learned.
HOLLY: And what was really exciting about that is some of the sound material that we were getting really early on sounded really similar to some of the earliest recorded sounds. Using my own imagination, I could really see how this could, you know, in several decades time be super high fidelity even though right now it still kind of has that scratchy early recording sound.
KRISTEN: What Holly is referring to there is the sound that SPAWN produced, based on her learnings. I would have assumed that it might sound digital or robotic, but really, it’s more like an old, scratchy analogue sound. So, SPAWN has a ways to go.
She’s still very much a baby AI, after all.
HOLLY: Usually I feel like I have more control over my tools in the studio. And this was a situation where I felt like I had to just be more relaxed, and kind of go with the flow.
KRISTEN: Holly explained that as time went on, she felt a connection to some of the challenges SPAWN had.
HOLLY: When you're dealing with something like spoken language, statistically speaking, when you pronounce a vowel, like "ooh," often when you're making an "ooh" sound, the sound sample-by-sample that comes next is also an "ooh." Whereas when you're saying like a "tee" or a "puh" sound, they're very short. So often the system would get stuck on vowels. And hearing things like that, even though it sounds, like, very nerdy and specific, those were like really beautiful moments in the studio because I felt like I was understanding why she was getting stuck. I felt like I understood her logic. It felt like there was more of a closeness there, or like an intimacy with that.
KRISTEN: Making a full length album with SPAWN was
an unusual experience. It’s not often you have to actually teach a collaborator what music and language are before sitting down to compose a piece together. But, Holly also found that in a way, it was pretty similar to working with human collaborators.
HOLLY: You provide material and then that's interpreted through the performer, whether human or inhuman, in a way that's surprising and exciting, and you learn as a composer through that performance. So I think about AI as basically also a kind of sophisticated human coordination technique. It's just a more recent one. But it's really, I see it along a trajectory from, you know, early vocal techniques, early kind of polyphonic singing. Yeah, I don't see the laptop as this separate thing. I see it as part of this human intellectual project that we share.
MUSIC BUMP / STINGER
COREY: Kristen, I've been interested in music and technology for a long time. Some years ago I covered a project at MIT's Media Lab where they were creating what they called "hyper instruments." These are enhanced instruments that make sounds that kind of go beyond what a normal acoustic instrument can do. And over the years I've gone to a lot of different music and technology festivals. They're fascinating but they do sometimes feel a bit like you're in the middle of giant laboratory experiment. You're hearing unusual sounds that are interesting because they're unfamiliar, but not necessarily beautiful. But what Holly's doing is very beautiful. It's very personal. It's very human. And it's, it's really, it's wonderful to hear technology being used that way.
KRISTEN: I agree with you, Corey. I've been to some of those music festivals. I've been exposed to some of that kind of music. And sometimes it feels more like you're trapped inside a computer rather than connecting with other humans. And that's not what Holly's doing.
COREY: Right. It really feels like Holly is taking a brave stance as an artist.
Not just creatively, but also, in a sense, economically.
KRISTEN: Yeah, Corey, and speaking of the industry, it is a big and powerful one. In 2019, recorded music alone generated more than $11 billion in revenue. And that’s an increase of 13 percent over the year before. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that a lot of that growth is coming from the way tech is creating new ways to consume and enjoy music.
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KRISTEN: Now, Iet’s go a little deeper into how technology and algorithms are changing the way we listen to music. For that, I want you to meet Lars.
LARS: Yes, my name is Lars Rasmussen, and I'm currently co-founder and CTO of a music tech startup called Weav Music.
KRISTEN: And just to be up front here, Lars is not a musician. He’s a technologist.
LARS: Well, I've been in tech for what, three decades now.
KRISTEN: His first success was mapping software that is now almost universally used. And so Lars is coming at music and tech a bit differently than Holly. In the most basic sense, Weav is a startup that uses proprietary software to alter the tempo of a song without changing its musicality. Lars calls this adaptive music. Recorded music has long been something that’s static.
LARS: The first recording machines
were invented in the 1870s, so like 150 years ago. And then there's been this tremendous progress in the record industry. It went from vinyl to CDs, then it was all digital downloads, and now it's all streaming, of course. But the concept of a record didn't change much throughout all that. A record today, no matter how you get it, it's just this one static audio file. And all you can change when you listen to it is the volume. And that we now believe is really a restriction that comes from back when record players were mechanical devices.
KRISTEN: So what Lars is saying is that unless you have the skills and technology to remix it or edit it yourself, your only choice is to listen to music as it was recorded, and turn the volume up or down. When you speed up a song, it starts sounding high pitched and squeaky, "LIKE THIS." When you slow it down, it gets low and bassy, "LIKE THIS."
That is, unless you’re listening with Weav.
LARS: What happens when you change the tempo of music, it stops sounding like music. And we didn't quite understand why at the time, as we're not from a music background, but we have some friends who are, and they explained, "Look, when an artist and their team makes a song, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the genre, the vibe of the song is very much tied to the tempo."
KRISTEN: And so, Lars figured out a way to speed up and slow down music to match the mood or speed you need, without sounding like chipmunks or someone trying to disguise their voice.
LARS: We're all familiar with this. If we hear an acoustic version, an acoustic cover of a song, that's typically slower than the original that you, might be a pop tune. But likewise if you go to dance club and you hear a radio hit you're familiar with, you'd typically be listening to a dance remix that is faster. And, and then we thought, okay, so it'd be fun to build a thing,
a new piece of software, where the listener can change the tempo of the song, and whatever tempo you picked, our software would remix it,
KRISTEN: To do that, he borrowed an idea from DJs who make remixes. DJs typically use something called stems. These are individual recordings of each instrument, the drums, the guitar, the piano, the vocals, the bass, the synthesizer and so on. All of these recordings usually are mixed together to create the full song. But, since they’re recorded separately, they can be altered separately, too.
LARS: The listener can change the tempo of the song, and then the song changes its arrangement, it becomes a remix of itself on demand so that no matter what tempo the listener wants, it still sounds like a delightful piece of music, following by the way, the instruction of our producer friend. Our software doesn't figure out what it should sound like, the artist tells our software what it should sound like, and then our software makes that happen in real time.
KRISTEN: Right now, you can test this out yourself with their app,
Weav Run. The app registers how fast or slow you’re running, or, in my case, walking, using the accelerometers on your phone. They translate that pace into a bpm, or beats per minute. And the song you’re listening to in the app will speed up or slow down accordingly. Go for a run, and the music adjusts to your pace.
LARS: It's the soundtrack that, that top notch professional artists have carefully done for the movies that now is, now can happen automatically in real time, in your life as you're out running.
KRISTEN: And for runners, it’s an extra motivator to keep your pace and keep running. Or you can set your whole playlist to the pace and try to keep up. Oh, and I also noticed a pattern here. Remember how I mentioned Lars isn’t a musician? Well, he also wasn’t a runner before all of this.
LARS: I was not a runner at all when I got started. And now, little by little, you know, there's
a lot of walking, and a lot of walking and running, in the beginning, but now I run a mile every day at least. So I think I'm at,
LARS: Today was, it's going to be my 457th run in a row.
KRISTEN: Oh my gosh.
LARS: Every day.
KRISTEN: Now, that is impressive. But, beyond inspiring people to get out and run more, Lars is also hoping to not just alter music after it’s been recorded. But also change the way musicians think about writing songs.
LARS: The shift in mindset that we're trying to accomplish here is that, the fact that a record today, every time you listen to it, it sounds exactly the same. That we think of that as an unnecessary restriction on the artist. That's not a feature to us. That's a bug. And we're, we're trying to fix that bug. That record should not sound the same every time you play it. It should sound different based on all of the aspects of the context that we listen to it in. And that's the way it should be.
KRISTEN: He sees this
as an asset for musicians and music lovers alike.
LARS: We're going to make adaptive record, and we're going to try and make it really like a whole new era in recorded music, which is a tall order. It's not going to happen overnight. But, we think it's, without a doubt, the future of the recording industry that the record itself becomes adaptive. And actually we believe in that so strongly that we think even if we fail, which we're not going to do, but even if we do, someone else will figure this out.
KRISTEN: Personally, I find all of this fascinating. Holly is creating music with an AI baby she’s training. Lars has built software that can seamlessly change the sound of a song, without stripping it of its artistic integrity. And so, we’ll rocket toward the future of music created by artificial intelligence that’s no longer static, thanks to adaptive software. But is that a good thing?
COREY: Kristen, all this technology in music,
it's exciting and it's a little bit unsettling that so much is changing and that the role of the, the artist as a creative force is changing. I'm just wondering, how does it make you feel? You've been immersed in it. You've been hearing a lot of it. Do you feel good about where music is going?
KRISTEN: Well, I have to say, Corey, after talking with Lars and Holly, they make me feel a little optimistic about it compared to how I kind of went in being, I'll admit it, somewhat suspicious. Because you know, I was afraid that the technology that was being enlisted would eventually take the heart out of the music. But, if anything, they're just finding new ways to bring the heart forward, for us to connect better with the music, and to build a bridge between technology and ourselves, and other people.
COREY: I was thinking, you know, one of the pieces of technology that I rely on the most in life, in my creativity, is one of the oldest pieces of technology around, which is eyeglasses. And people don't normally think of that as a technological enhancement, but, how much of my creative process, sitting down and writing,
I wouldn't really be much use doing those things without that, that basic piece of technology. In a sense, every art form is a form of technology, from drawing on a cave to making the first musical instruments, all these things were about pushing ourselves forward.
KRISTEN: So I also really wanted to pose the big question to the folks I was talking to. "Is AI taking over music, and is that a good thing?" And Holly has a similar perspective on this whole AI versus human debate.
HOLLY: AI is just us in aggregate. AI is a part of humanity. I don't see technology as a separate thing. I see it as something that comes out of, you know, human society. It's part of us. We made it. Technology should really free us up to be more human together.
KRISTEN: I thought that was such a beautiful idea. That technology is helping us be more human together, not taking away the humanity of music. But, Holly is still collaborating with SPAWN,
not just letting her run free and make music on her own, yet. She’s working with SPAWN to explore what’s interesting in her own creative process. But, could an AI ever do it alone? To Holly, it depends on what kind of music you’re talking about.
HOLLY: Yeah, I think we could. Whether or not that's what we really want is another question. I mean, already pop music kind of functions in this writing by committee way, anyways. You know, it's like, a lot of us don't know where a lot of these songs come from. You know, they'll have like, 60 different people writing credits on some of the biggest songs that we hear. And of course, that, that will be cheap and will, you know, you'll be able to kind of automate the process in a cost efficient kind of way. And so I see people being interested in that but yeah, whether or not that creates the most interesting or fulfilling music is another question.
KRISTEN: I posed the same question to Lars. And he had a more romantic vision of music as an art. He was skeptical it could ever really happen. He views what he’s doing as more of a
tool than a replacement for human interventions.
LARS: What we've invented is a richer canvas for the artist to make richer artistic experiences for their fans. And we've invented a bunch of paintbrushes, as well, to help the artist make those richer artistic experiences. I also think from maybe a philosophical point of view, I'm not sure it's a terribly good idea to have art made by computers and AI. That's just my, my personal opinion. I think we should use computers and AI to do the work for us, and so that we have more time to make art, but not the other way around.
KRISTEN: Before we said goodbye, Holly gave me another perspective on the AI/human divide, specific to how she’s been processing life lately.
HOLLY: The kind of day-to-day mood of living through a pandemic is something that I as a human am processing in ways that I might not even be fully aware of the entire time. And then that kind of seeps through and, and makes its way into my music.
Our daily lived experience does find its way into the kind of music that we make, whether that be the kind of tonal palette that we use, or the lyrics that we're writing. Of course, our, our kind of lived experience finds its way in there. And I think that that's really beautiful. I think it, it also can happen in ways that are really unexpected and in ways that I don't fully understand yet. I would say my biggest takeaway from this is that I really, really miss live performance and performing with my ensemble, and I will not take it for granted ever again. [laughs]
KRISTEN: From a strictly business standpoint, Lars has also noticed a difference in his work due to Covid-19.
LARS: Once lockdown started going into effect across the country, our daily run counts almost doubled just in the span of a week.
LARS: And even,
LARS: You know, we can see that on our own team, you know, because outdoor running is one of the, one of the few remaining encouraged way to exercise, as the gyms have closed,
as group exercising is just not safe right now with the, with the virus out there.
KRISTEN: And so, seeing that spike in interest, Lars and his team decided to make the app free for as long as the lockdown continues.
KRISTEN: Holly’s SPAWN AI and Lars’ adaptive app are both making music that’s helping them, and others, cope.
COREY: You're really making me think about how much music has meant to me during these past few weeks. We've all been in isolation. We've all been kind of cutting down our contacts. But being able to listen to music, being able to hear all different genres, all the different types of creative voices out there, it's, it's boosted me. It's boosted my family. I know that's true for a lot of other people as well. It would be very hard to get through this if we didn't have music, and if we didn't have technology that was helping us get that music.
KRISTEN: It’s hard to imagine when we’ll be able to actually safely go to a packed concert hall again, or when a band will be able to get together to even record again.
COREY: Yeah. It's a, it's a tough time for all kinds of creative people. It's a tough time for everyone but hopefully, artists and technologists will keep coming up with new innovations that allow them to make music to communicate with us in ways that let us have access to those feelings, to all that beauty, wherever we are, whatever we're doing.
KRISTEN: And I know once they do, you and I will be there listening.
COREY: Innovation Uncovered is a podcast from Invesco QQQ, in partnership with T Brand at the New York Times.
KRISTEN: Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts. And tell your friends about the show. For the next episode, we’ll be looking at aging, and the technologies that are aiming to keep us connected as we get older.
LAURA CLIP: We've spent so much time looking at things like
smoking and obesity, and believe it or not, some of the recent research has demonstrated that loneliness or social isolation, in particular, may be just as damaging to our overall health and well-being as smoking. So it absolutely plays a very big role in how we age.
COREY: Thanks for listening. See you next time and, rock on!
Innovation Uncovered is brought to you by Invesco QQQ. From tech innovators to lesser known biotech and media companies, Invesco QQQ is more than just a tech fund. It’s an ETF that allows you to access the NASDAQ 100 -- some of today’s more innovative companies that are changing the world. To learn more about what this ETF can mean for your portfolio, visit Invesco.com/QQQ. The NASDAQ 100 Index
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Invesco is not affiliated with TBrand Studio, New York Times, Corey S.Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Holly Herndon or Lars Rasmussen of Weav Music or Weav Run. This should not be construed as an endorsement for any of the companies discussed in this podcast.
Can V.R. help older people feel less lonely? Hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer uncover the new V.R. technology that’s helping seniors feel more connected — to the world and their loved ones — and how it’s improving their health.
KYLE: We're all being put into a situation where for the first time we're experiencing the realities of older adults. We went from having the entire world at our fingertips to all of a sudden we are holed up in our homes with not a lot that we're really able to access, and not a lot of people that we're able to access. And the amazing silver lining is that it's going to allow people to really develop this empathy for what it means to age, and why it's so important that we create things like this technology for this demographic.
COREY: Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times. It’s about the ideas and discoveries driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect.
KRISTEN: And being connected to those we love and care about has probably never felt as critical as it has these last few months. It’s been especially hard for older people.
COREY: It really has been. But there’s also good news: innovators are now adapting tech for folks who are over 65. Their goal is to bring people together in new ways, no matter where they are. And to do that, they’re taking familiar technologies, things like tablets and virtual reality, and they're reimagining them in ways that are far beyond their mainstream uses.
COREY: I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the origin of life.
KRISTEN: And I'm Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. I’m going to be your eyes and ears out in the field.
COREY: We bring a little science,
KRISTEN: And a little culture,
COREY: To conversations about innovations impacting our world today.
KRISTEN: Corey, I know a lot of us have been feeling isolated over these past few months, and I can only imagine that it’s worse for older people who are far away from their families.
COREY: I mean, listen, it’s been tough enough for me!
KRISTEN: You know, this makes me think about my late Nanna, who was my role model
KRISTEN: She had the most active social life of anyone I've ever known. She volunteered with who she called, "The Old People," even in her 80's. She was in two choirs. She was active in her church. She was in two bridge clubs. She always was doing something. She dated up until the end and she always said her active social life kept her sharp and happy. And unfortunately, not everybody is able to do what my Nanna did. Not everybody's able to get out there and do as much as she did. Some people have, you know, mobility issues, or other reasons why they can't be in two choirs and dating and so on, in their 80's.
COREY: Right! And studies show that more than a quarter of older Americans live alone. That adds up to at least 13.8 million people. And that’s a big deal, especially during a pandemic.
KRISTEN: And especially because being isolated isn’t just about feeling lonely. It can have real consequences.
COREY: Exactly. Right now, even the people who are physically able to go out still can’t do it. Which means we really need to lean on ways to connect virtually.
KRISTEN: Yes. Like we are right now, Corey.
COREY: Yes. This is nice. And, you know, my own parents, they're in their 80s, but they very quickly adapted to social media when it came along. And now they're doing video calls. I maybe spend a little more time doing tech support for them than I'd ideally like, but, you know, they're doing it.
KRISTEN: A lot of folks have trouble with video calls and social media, Corey. Some even more so than your parents and they're not lucky enough to have you for tech support.
COREY: Oh, those poor souls.
KRISTEN: And that’s exactly why technologists have been working to solve this problem for years. And they’ve come up with some pretty innovative solutions that we need now more than ever.
** MUX BUMP / STINGER ** // THEME MUSIC OUT
KRISTEN: To learn more about how technology is keeping folks connected as they age, I spoke with Isaac Lien. About seven years ago, Isaac and his dad Scott were trying to stay in touch with Isaac’s grandmother. She lived across the country, and when they
tried to talk on the phone, they noticed it just wasn’t working anymore.
ISAAC: You know, we'd want to do phone calls, but we had a challenge where, due to her hearing impairments, phone calls just didn't work well for her, and it was a problem that hearing aids and making the volume louder wouldn't fix. So that left us in a predicament where, you know, we'd call her but she couldn't understand us, so it created this barrier of communication.
KRISTEN: And so, they tried video calls. But eventually, she didn’t want to do those, either.
ISAAC: It was really sad for my dad and I, and we were kind of like, "Why doesn't she want to do video calls with us? What's wrong?"
KRISTEN: It turned out, the technology itself was wrong. The interface was frustrating, and it wasn't intuitive. Sometimes her wi-fi would cut out. Or the app would update, and then all the sudden, everything she’d learned to navigate looked totally different.
ISAAC: And the thing that really threw us over the edge in terms of looking for a solution was, it was in December of 2013 and we were visiting her back in Iowa for our family Christmas. So my dad and I spent the entire Christmas getting the viruses off her computer, resetting her wifi router,
upgrading her internet, all these things. And on our way home from Christmas, when we were driving back, we realized, "Oh my gosh, we just spent the entire family Christmas trying to fix the very technology that doesn't even keep us connected while we're apart." And it was at that moment we realized, "Wow, this, this is a problem. You know, we don't want this ever to happen again." And, "What would a solution look like?"
KRISTEN: And so Isaac did what any grandson would do, he started a company with his dad. It’s called GrandPad. Together, they developed a device that would help his grandma, and, eventually, more than 700,000 others, connect to their loved ones. First, they tested out their idea.
ISAAC: It has a big button that said, "Video Call Scott and Isaac." We put it on a preloaded tablet that was connected to the internet and sent it to her. She could press the button and it would connect with us in a video call on the other end. So by doing that, we proved if we make the technology seamless, where she's not worried about wi-fi passwords or logins, she can actually really enjoy it and get benefit from it.
KRISTEN: From there, they hit the ground running. They knew they couldn’t
just make an app. Instead, they had to make the entire experience more streamlined, and intuitive. They needed to build the software and the hardware. And while GrandPad might look just like a regular tablet, what makes it so innovative is that it’s been completely redesigned around older people’s needs.
ISAAC: It has dual front facing stereo speakers, so the speakers are facing the user. They're very loud, crisp and quality audio. So it's louder than your standard tablet. And most people, even with moderate hearing loss can still hear quite well on the GrandPad. But then beyond that, we've added in features like real-time text, which means when I'm calling my grandma, I can be typing from my computer, and as I type character for character, those actually show up on my grandma's GrandPad screen. So let's say I'm telling her that I'm coming by to visit at 7:30, I can say it, she can read my lips, but I can also type in the characters on the GrandPad, so that shows up for her as well.
KRISTEN: The GrandPad also has a wireless charger, so that you don’t have to fiddle with plugging it in, and it’s
designed to be ergonomic and comfortable to hold. Isaac also told me about another hardware challenge they had to tackle when building the tablet that I hadn’t even thought of before. Neither had Isaac or his team until they talked to one of his users.
ISAAC: Yeah. She was the seventh oldest person in the entire world, and her name was Anna. Amazing lady. We got to show her an early version of GrandPad. And one of the things we learned was, for her, when she would touch the screen, it wouldn't register her taps. It wouldn't register her finger on the screen of the GrandPad. And what had happened for her was because her hands were quite dry, just something that happen with, with old age, being 114, it wouldn't register her taps on the screen. So we had to look at, "Okay, how can we solve a problem like that?" We include a stylus. We adjust the sensitivity of the screen and do different things that make it so when Anna touches the device, it'll work just like our smartphones would when we try to use them.
KRISTEN: Beyond the tablet itself, the GrandPad team has taken care to build a user interface that is extremely easy to navigate,
because they consult the very people who will be using it.
ISAAC: We actually employ people who are in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. Our oldest employee is 106 years old. He advises us on our design, our product process, and we get his wonderful feedback on everything new that we're doing. So we're not designing it, you know, in a vacuum or just coming up with these ideas on a whiteboard of, you know, "What would, what does someone who's 106 want to do? What problems does he have?" We actually visit him in his home, get his feedback, get his wisdom, and get his input on what we ultimately build.
KRISTEN: And it seems to be working. Isaac sent us a few interviews with users that the company did a while back. One of those users was Joan.
JOAN: When you’re alone, you’re not alone. You just go push a few buttons and everybody’s there. And I see these great grandkids now, there’s 16 of them, I get pictures from them all the time and I see them grow up. And when they go on vacation, I follow right along.
KRISTEN: And staying up to date on all of those kids and grandkids keeps her busy.
JOAN: And I’m connected to all my grandkids and all my kids, and you’re only connected to who you want to be connected to. So, I got a big family, I get a lot of pictures.
KRISTEN: Ultimately, the GrandPad experience is not about flashy new apps or fancy features. It’s the lack of frustration and stress involved in learning how to use a new device.
ISAAC: We've had cases where people send a GrandPad to their parent and they assume that they would set it up when they go visit them this weekend. They assume their parent couldn't do it on their own because they've struggled with technology in the past. But then that same day when the GrandPad arrive, they look at their smartphone and they get a video call from their mom, who's in her 90s, and, you know, it's the first time that she's ever done a video call and she did it on her own.
KRISTEN: This isn’t just about making it easy to call family, though. There are real health issues
connected to isolation and loneliness that technology like GrandPad can help address.
LAURA: We've spent so much time looking at things like smoking and obesity, and believe it or not, some of the recent research to come out has demonstrated that loneliness, or social isolation in particular, may be just as damaging to our overall health and wellbeing as smoking. It absolutely plays a very big role in how we age.
KRISTEN: That’s Laura Zettel-Watson. She’s a professor in the psychology department, and is the chair of the Aging Studies Program at California State University, Fullerton.
LAURA: My particular focus is on the social relationships of older adults and more specifically, older adults who may be at risk for a lack of social support. So I look at different populations of older adults, those who have been widowed, maybe who were never married or aging without a
spouse or children.
KRISTEN: I turned to Laura to better understand how this problem of loneliness and isolation shows up as we age, because it's not just about feeling a little sad. For folks who are isolated because they live alone, and are stuck at home, for example, not having human contact actually has a big effect on your mental health.
LAURA: From a mental health perspective, people can feel like their freedom or independence has been lost. And for older adults, that can be just as damaging as losing their, you know, driver's license, or a spouse. Related to that, is the stress that we suffer from being on our own. For other people who are socially isolated, this can mean that they're unable to get to their routine appointments or to religious services. And for many older adults, that might be their primary means of social interaction.
KRISTEN: What many people don’t realize is that loneliness can also have severe physical effects.
LAURA: We know that there is
cognitive impairment among folks who are isolated. And then there's the obvious things like depression or anxiety. Being isolated can lead to a decline in our positive health behaviors. So that is our diet, our sleep, our exercise. This could be that as fresh foods become harder to access, our diet becomes less balanced. That can harm our nutritional health, that can increase our obesity risk. We're also worried about hypertension that is associated with social isolation. And in severe cases, can lead to stroke or heart attack.
KRISTEN: Remember, older adults living alone, this is a big population. About 13.8 million people. And this is likely to become an even bigger issue as time goes on. Especially as baby boomers are getting older. It’s not just Americans: Around the globe, populations aged 65 and older are the fastest growing group. By 2050, one in every six people will be over
65, according to the United Nations. And if there’s any upside from the last six months, I think we all are more concerned about the wellbeing of the older people in our lives.
COREY: As you just mentioned, Kristen, this really is a huge, global issue. Fortunately, some countries have been coming up with innovative ways to help their aging populations for a while now. I’m thinking about Japan in particular. More than a quarter of the population there is over 65. It's the country with the highest proportion of older adults in the world right now.
KRISTEN: And they’re really embracing that challenge with simple innovations to keep city life possible as folks age.
COREY: Right, some of them seem small but they're extremely important. In Tokyo, public buildings and train stations are widely equipped with ramps and elevators to help the elderly. And the ATMs and traffic lights there, they will talk to you.
KRISTEN: And, Japan is not alone. There are other technologists out there, there are other societies that are also embracing aging as we all
should, hopefully. I mean, my dream is that I do become an older adult some day. And, that's why I love what Isaac is doing with GrandPad. It's accepting that we're gonna get older and it's also being really helpful and really simple. He’s addressing the problem of connection, and making it easy to use.
COREY: Kristen, you know, you've inspired me to look back into the history of technology designed to assist people as they get older. And there have been, honestly, quite a few fascinating attempts to do that over the years. Some of them might seem a little eccentric at first. Here's an example: I don't know if you've seen the robotic seal? It's modeled after a baby harp seal and it debuted back in the early 2000s.
COREY: Yeah. I know. It really looks like a baby seal.
KRISTEN: Oh my gosh, I need a robotic baby harp seal, Corey. How do I get one of these robotic baby harp seals?
COREY: Kristen, it's not for you, at least, not just yet. Give it time. The robotic seal was actually designed to help older adults, especially those with dementia, you know, providing the comfort of a pet without all of the feeding and cleaning and all those difficult tasks that can get more and more difficult
as you age. And really, that’s just one example of how roboticists are trying to address this huge problem of social isolation. They're using robots to do things like check in on people at home, in hospitals, or in retirement communities, for instance.
KRISTEN: And Corey, you know, there are other folks out there who are also doing that. They're looking at futuristic technologies and how they can help foster connection as we age. One way they're doing that is through virtual reality, which I am so excited about. We'll have more on that after the break.
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KRISTEN: I’ve often thought of virtual reality as something that’s showcased at video game and tech conventions. But, Kyle Rand is turning that idea on its head, and bringing virtual reality into retirement communities.
KYLE: My name's Kyle Rand. I'm one of the co founders and CEO of Rendever, a company that's using virtual reality to overcome social isolation through the power of shared experiences.
KRISTEN: And the whole idea for Rendever was also inspired by a grandma. Kyle’s grandma.
KYLE: We moved her into a community and she, at first, spent a lot of time wandering the halls trying to act as a nurse, because she was a nurse. She was a nursing professor. But tried to actually act as a nurse for other residents for a while, ultimately was redirected back to her room, and just spent a lot of time in her room, and it's there that she kind of just spent too much time watching TV, not really interacting, not really having the kind of life that she always had,
and her, her cognitive decline ended up happening pretty quickly.
KRISTEN: Kyle had also done a lot of work with older adults, and understood that his grandma’s loneliness and isolation was a part of a broader trend. And so one day, he had an idea that virtual reality might be able to help.
KYLE: We take what kind of typically happens in a senior living setting, which is people go and they play bingo, or they'll do arts and crafts, and play card games, and we give them the opportunity to really experience the world, and to remove this physical limitation of, you know, the four walls of their community. And so we'll have a group of residents all sitting around a table. They'll all put on a VR headset, and then they'll all go somewhere together. So they'll be transported to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or they'll go and they'll walk around. Because if you just put a headset on someone, then they're just experiencing something by themselves. They're actually kind of isolated. But if you're all doing it together, you're all looking at the same things together, then you're having this natural conversation form around the experience, and that's where the real magic comes in.
KRISTEN: And the magic is real. Kyle told me about one example of a resident at a senior community in Connecticut. Her name is Mickey, and she was the life of the community, outgoing. She knew everyone by name. Then, she was diagnosed with dementia, which made it so that she couldn’t really talk, or form sentences. And that really affected her socializing.
KYLE: So we put her in a room full of golden retriever puppies. And I kid you not, it was like the lights just turned back on. All of a sudden, this huge smile came across her face. She started, like, reaching out and calling out to the puppies and telling the how cute they were, just like these little micro sentences, and like, these micro moments of joy, from being surrounded by these cute animals, to the point that she actually took that headset off, and she had this look of amazement, and followed us out of the building telling us that, A, she loved it, but B, that she thought that we should be doing this with kids and we should be selling this into schools, and, like, how amazing
would it be if you could learn using this technology? And, you know, if you really pause, what that means is she went from, you know, being unable to speak in full sentences, to actually pitching us business ideas just after one VR session.
KRISTEN: And it’s this communal connection that I found so compelling about Kyle and Rendever. Because it’s not just for all the residents in a senior living facility. Family and friends can also participate. You’re seeing the same thing. You can talk about that experience together. So, even if you can’t actually visit France as a family, you can do it in VR.
KRISTEN: Of all the amazing VR experiences Kyle told me about, traveling the world, hanging out with puppies, even riding a roller coaster, I think my favorite one was a little more personal.
KYLE: We have an integration in, in which we're able to essentially type in any address in the world and bring somebody there in VR. So if you imagine that you can take someone back to their childhood home, or you can bring people back to, you know, the high school that they went to, or the college they went to,
or even where they got married, right? All these really meaningful places. And it's one thing to look at them on a computer screen or to look at old photos, but to be in VR and have, like, have that childhood house be life size in front of you, it makes you actually feel like you're there. And when you have that, right, it's this, like, really crazy visual stimuli, where all these stories and memories just kind of start to spill out because it's so powerful.
KRISTEN: Kyle tried this with his own grandfather.
KYLE: And we stayed up until 2:00 AM, just walking around his favorite hotspots in Long Island, and like, all the places he used to live. He would talk to me about the place he used to get hot dogs across the street from, like, one of his homes. It's, it's just there, there's something about the parts of your memory that, like, you actually lived and experienced, that were so significant.
KRISTEN: And in the future, Rendever is hoping to make it easier to make new memories, not just share the old ones.
KYLE: One of the other things families can do, which is just a little bit hard right now is, they, they can actually take a 360 camera, and they can film, you know, a personal event that their loved one can't make it to.
So you can imagine, you know, especially right now, a wedding, if, all of my friends' wedding are being canceled, so maybe this is a bad example at this moment. But, you know, even if it was a small scale wedding, you could take a 360 camera, film it, and then upload it to the platform. And then your loved one, who's stuck and unable to leave the senior living community, they can actually put on a VR headset and they can be there at the wedding, sitting front and center alongside, like, the rest of their family.
KRISTEN: Right now, Rendever is in about 150 senior living communities in the US and Canada, and they just released in Australia, as well. And they’re hoping to keep fostering these relationships, with old friends and family, and new connections, too.
KYLE: I think what we're doing, and what this tech is doing, is it's really kind of enabling these new connections to be formed, right? Through what, you know, we think of as a positive shared experience, because that, that's where, you know, our, our core hypothesis is that the foundation of human relationships are
shared positive experiences. So if you stay aging with the people who you've had a lifetime of experiences with, great. You have that connection. If you move into a setting where you don't have any of those connections, what we're enabling now and what's new and exciting about what VR can do is, it's giving people these shared experiences to kind of form new relationships on.
KRISTEN: So, Corey, have you ever tried out VR?
COREY: I'm gonna betray a little bit of my own age. I first tried out VR, ooh, 20 or 30 years ago, in the very early days of,
KRISTEN: Oh my gosh.
COREY: The technology.
KRISTEN: Wow. I didn't even know it existed back then.
COREY: Back then it was, the headset was like putting a bowling ball on your head. The displays were, like, looking at little squares moving around. You remember the very early days of video games, what they looked like?
KRISTEN: Oh, yes. Yes.
COREY: And I thought, "You know, this technology, it's an interesting idea. It's a lot of hype.
This thing is going nowhere." And then, just recently I tried out a virtual reality simulator at a science museum with my daughters and, whoa! It was like being inside a movie.
KRISTEN: I've only tried VR in the last couple of years and that was my experience, too. I really felt like I was being dropped into the middle of a different universe. And I was so immersed in it and began walking around in it. I didn't even realize I was about to fall down the stairs until somebody caught me and said, "Hey, hey, hey! Sit down while you're using those glasses!"
COREY: Right, well that immediacy, that power, it's what makes VR so interesting, but it's also what makes it so useful. It's being used successfully to help people deal with all kinds of problems, to quit smoking, to heal post-traumatic stress, or to deal with fears like, fear of heights, for instance. Getting people past that giddy feeling that you get when you look down. Does that ever happen to you?
KRISTEN: It does when there's not a guard rail. For crying out loud, put up guard rails people!
COREY: Listen, I, I get that feeling sometimes. Even in the movies, when there's a scene on the ledge, or the edge of a mountain,
my palms get all sweaty. So, I might need just a little dose of VR therapy.
KRISTEN: Well, VR therapy isn't just for heights, and for people who have phobias. It goes beyond that, some developers are now even using it in reminiscence therapy. If you’re not familiar with reminiscence therapy, it’s kind of like what Kyle was talking about just a few minutes ago. It’s a treatment to help folks who are experiencing cognitive decline, like dementia, and it involves all the senses to remember moments from their past and places from their past. And some senior facilities have done this by recreating entire towns from people's childhoods. It’s basically an elaborate movie set they've made to make it look like the 1950s, with storefronts, beauty shops, a diner and so on.
COREY: And, of course, with virtual reality, you don’t have to build an actual, physical movie set. And you could even personalize it for each individual.
KRISTEN: While there is not a cure for dementia, these immersive environments do seem to help some folks feel less distressed, more
engaged, and happier.
KRISTEN: Now, living through this pandemic, staying home, staying away from friends and family, I'd like to think it’s given everyone a bit more empathy. Kyle Rand has certainly noticed this.
KYLE: We're all being put into a situation where for the first time probably in a lot of our lives, we are, we're experiencing the realities of older adults' daily lives. We went from having the entire world at our fingertips, you know, the cities that we lived in, the towns that we lived in, the planes that we could quickly board, and the friends that we could visit, to all of a sudden, we are holed up in our homes with not a lot that we're really able to access, and not a lot of people that we're able to access. And I think everyone right now is feeling the real pains of what that sudden transition is. And the amazing silver lining is that it's going to allow people to really develop this empathy for what it means
to age, and why it's so important that we create things like this technology for this demographic.
KRISTEN: That’s something that showed up in Isaac Lien’s work, too. He’s seen a huge uptick in folks using GrandPad. And he’s hopeful that the stress of this present moment will lead to a change in the way technologists and caregivers think about their work in the future.
ISAAC: People are seeing now that it's so critical to have connected devices in the home that allow that communication and caregiving to take place virtually with their, with their caregivers, with their medical providers. And, you know, that need has just been so highlighted by COVID-19 and there definitely will be a fundamental shift in the world after this. After we recover from this pandemic, the world will never look the same. And I think it's going to enable a lot of great and innovative solutions, some that are in progress now and some that haven't even been conceived yet. But what we do know is, when another pandemic like this may happen, the world needs to be much more prepared for it and have solutions in place that allow us to care for those who are most at risk.
KRISTEN: I’m looking forward to the time when we can all safely get together again. And when that happens, Isaac hopes that GrandPad can actually inspire a deeper connection.
ISAAC: A technology is a means to an end where someone can do a video call with their grandmother, but really the important thing is the two human beings who are connecting on each end. That's what's important. Our goal ultimately is we would love for GrandPad to help families actually be inspired to spend more time together in person. So let's say that the grandson is off at college who wasn't really connected with his grandma, can start doing video calls because of GrandPads, and now he's actually inspired to go and visit her when he's back home because now he knows her a little better, and spend more time together in person. That's the ultimate goal that we have. Our goal is not to replace any in-person communication with technology. We'd love to actually increase the amount of human-to-human in-person communication.
KRISTEN: I guess what I take away from all of this is that whether you’re young or old, connection is important for health and well-being, and
just overall happiness. And in a way, what Kyle and Isaac are doing could help everyone feel a little less isolated, no matter what their age.
COREY: You know, Kristen, this whole conversation has me thinking, by the time we're old, are we gonna be doing hologram visits to each other? Are we gonna be sending our robots to check in on each other?
KRISTEN: Well, I have zero doubt that there will be all sorts of interesting technologies we’re not even dreaming of.
COREY: You know, one surprising effect of this pandemic is how much it makes me feel like we’re living in the future right now. When I was a kid, it seemed like every science fiction story I read, or TV show I watched, showed people communicating with some kind of futuristic high-tech video phones. Well, over the past few months I’ve had video phone meetings, or at least I've had video work meetings.
KRISTEN: Oh, and let's not forget, video recording sessions, Corey, like the one we're on right now.
COREY: Yes, some great video recording sessions with you.
Video game nights with a whole new group of friends who I've met online. Video Passover seder with a bunch of relatives who I hadn’t seen in years. It’s all helped to make this period of isolation feel a bit less lonely, and it's made me truly optimistic about where the technology of connection will take us next.
COREY: Innovation Uncovered is a podcast from Invesco QQQ, in partnership with T Brand at the New York Times.
KRISTEN: Throughout this series, we’re taking a look at all of the innovative work that goes into the things you love. Next week: How visual effects artists are on the quest to recreate reality in film.
CLIP: There's an argument to be made that by insisting that our special effects be so stubbornly realistic, we are depriving a new generation of their imaginative capacity.
COREY: Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts. And tell your friends about the show.
KRISTEN: Thank you so much for
listening. We'll see you next time. Don’t be a stranger!
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Invesco is not affiliated with T Brand, New York Times, Corey S.Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Isaac Lien of GrandPad, Laura Zettel-Watson of the California State University, Fullerton and Kyle Rand of Rendever.
Can special effects make reality more … real? Hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer examine how movies are changing our perception of reality — especially when actors and crews can’t be together — and explore what the future of movies looks like.
JOSH: Film itself is a technological process. It's creating a kind of reality all through this machine really, the camera and the sound recording and all the effects that go into a film. And there's an illusion of life. There's an illusion of reality, but that's all created by technology.
COREY: Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times. It’s about the ideas and discoveries that are driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect.
In this episode, we are going to the movies. Innovators are constantly pushing the boundaries of what visual effects can create, or recreate, on-screen. Now, maybe you’re thinking of a scene you saw in some science fiction epic or a fantasy film. But it turns out, the hardest thing to achieve with digital effects
might be scenes that land a lot closer to reality.
COREY: I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the origin of life. And I’m joined today by my fabulous co-host.
KRISTEN: I'm Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. And I’m going to be your eyes and ears out in the field or in this case, in the theater.
COREY: Bringing a little science,
KRISTEN: And a little culture,
COREY: To conversations about innovations impacting our world today.
COREY: Now Kristen, I know I often think of visual effects as something digital, done with powerful computers and software. But, it’s actually something that filmmakers have been using since the very beginning. I mean, the way beginning, dating all the way back to the late 1800s. In those early days, effects were done in a physical way with colored lenses, miniatures, and projected images.
KRISTEN: Yeah, and as I understand it,
Corey, things were done mostly analogue for quite a long time after that, too.
COREY: Exactly. It wasn’t really until the early 1990s that computers were fast enough and powerful enough for visual effects to go digital.
KRISTEN: You know, when I’m watching older movies, Corey, the effects sometimes stand out, and not in a good way. They look dated and obvious. And that’s something visual effects artists are still grappling with: How do they make a scene look real or believable?
COREY: It’s a fascinating problem: Can you even make something that’s been constructed with software look like it’s a part of the real world?
KRISTEN: Well, new computer and camera technologies are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
COREY: Which could be especially useful now in the middle of a pandemic.
KRISTEN: Right. They’re using visual effects to help solve new problems when filmmakers can’t be on location.
COREY: Ooh, nice. Moviemaking by remote control.
KRISTEN: Maybe. But at the most extreme end of things this raises a question: Could these effects replace humans with virtual actors? And, is that what we want?
KRISTEN: To start this journey into special effects, I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone who’s worked on some of the most groundbreaking film innovations.
PABLO: My name is Pablo Helman. I'm the Visual Effect Supervisor at ILM. Been there 24 years.
KRISTEN: ILM, also known as Industrial Light and Magic, is a visual effects company based in San Francisco. They’ve been around since the 1970s, and they’re known for pioneering a lot of production techniques used today. Plus, they’ve helped bring to life countless beloved films that have become cultural touchstones. In all of Pablo’s 24 years at ILM, he’s worked on a wide variety of movies. Some have been set in space, in galaxies far, far away, some have giant apocalyptic explosions. Some have killer robots, and aliens. But I was surprised to learn that he
actually likes working on realistic films more than those flashy sci-fi worlds.
PABLO: Like, in the case of the Irishman, it was not science fiction, it was reality, which I love reality more than science fiction, to be honest, because in reality I have all the reference I can possibly get because it's right in front of me.
KRISTEN: Pablo is referring to the famous 2019 mob film. For this movie, Pablo worked on the de-aging effects. The film follows its characters throughout many decades of their lives. And, it was important to the director that those characters were played by the same actors, rather than getting a younger actor to play the character at a younger age. So, Pablo had the task of digitally de-aging them. In the early days, filmmakers would have to use makeup and hair dye, and, you know, some sneaky camera tricks, like soft focus, to make someone look older or younger. As technology advanced, visual effects artists started to adopt different tools. Digital effects made aging or de-aging an actor
look more realistic than ever before. But in order to film scenes that would get these effects, actors had to look kind of ridiculous, with markers that look like ping pong balls stuck all over their faces.
PABLO: The reason why the markers are there is because you're basically having the computer take a look at a visual cue of what the camera is getting, right? And the computer takes a look at those markers, and it creates what's called a mesh, or a surface, based on those markers and has some depths. And that was basically the only way that you could measure and create geometry from a performance. But I think the challenge in Irishman was to say, "Well, if you don't have the markers, then how can you create geometry from that?"
KRISTEN: That was Pablo’s challenge: To find a way to capture this visual data, and build a meaningful image based on it. And beyond creating something that looked real to the audience, the director also wanted the actors to have an
authentic connection while they were playing out the scene. He wanted them to be looking right at each other, reacting to one another. Not trying to ignore the fact that they had ping pong balls all over their faces.
KRISTEN: And so, Pablo and his team had to invent a new method. The first step was to capture the actors doing a variety of boring things, like opening and closing their mouths, smiling, frowning, looking outraged. Those images were then fed into special software the team built to create a digital version of the actors, in a sense. But, the team didn’t just create a computer-generated version of these actors, and then make scenes of the movie that way. Remember, the director wanted that real, authentic scene with real actors, who look totally normal, no markers, nothing. To do that, they needed to build a new camera rig altogether, one that would give them three points of view.
PABLO: So the center camera is a director camera and the other two cameras are called witness cameras,
and are left and right of the director's camera. And once you have three points of view, then you can create 3D geometry because the computer takes a look at those, those three lenses and they are like three eyes. That's why we have two eyes, right? When we look forward, the left and the right eye are telling us depth. They're giving us depth information and position information.
KRISTEN: Pablo and his team worked on this innovation for four years. Because after they built the camera rig, and after all the scenes were shot, they still needed to go through a long post-production process, to digitally de-age the actors.
KRISTEN: Four years, for visual effects that, when you think about it, should be unnoticeable. They should look seamless and real. And yet, even with all that work, there’s still more to be done.
PABLO: One of the main things that the computer has a lot of problems with is ambiguity. So, it was really important for us to kind of dissect all, all the things that make a
performance ambiguous. And that is present in every one of these performances, because in the Irishman, it is about murders and it's about the uh, mobsters and a bunch of different things about lying. And when you lie, there's usually, you know, something in your face that is not lying, and that's ambiguity, right? If your eyes are saying one thing, but your mouth is saying another thing, and maybe your cheek is doing something else, and you're sweating, and your body posture is different. So you put it all together, and you get some kind of a performance that says something. And that's ambiguity. A computer cannot deal with that.
COREY: You know, Kristen, what Pablo was talking about there reminds me of an idea that I always found so interesting: The uncanny valley.
KRISTEN: Ah yes. The valley of uncanniness.
COREY: Exactly. It's an idea that originated in, all the way back in the 1970s, when was first discussed, not by a film critic actually but by Masahiro Mori,
a robotics expert at Tokyo Institute of Technology.
KRISTEN: Now, I gotta be honest, Corey. I have used the words, "uncanny valley," in my own life many times, but I have no idea where the “valley” comes from in "uncanny valley."
COREY: Well, then I'll be your History of Tech Guy, because, it’s a fun bit of tech history. Mori was talking about the quest for robots that look like real humans. He described it as "a hike up a mountain.” In his metaphor, the peak is achieving believable humanoids. But, on the way there, he realized, roboticists are bound to hit a valley. And that's what he called, "the uncanny valley." That’s where you’ve gotten close enough that the robot looks mostly human. But you’re not quite at the top yet, so it’s not yet believable.
KRISTEN: Ah, yes. Anyone who's been to the movies knows that feeling.
COREY: Yeah, and even though this idea has been around for decades, scientists still have not been able to truly understand the psychology of why it happens, why we get so creeped out by the uncanny valley, whether or not we could someday get past it.
KRISTEN: Well, on the journey to get past that valley, technology is helping filmmakers really stretch the boundaries of what's real
and what's fake.
KRISTEN: This idea of the uncanny valley is something that came up a lot when I was talking with film critic, Josh Rothkopf.
JOSH: Any critic has to definitely accommodate this idea of the technology that goes into making a film. Because, film itself is a technological process. It's creating a kind of reality all through this machine really, the camera and the sound recording and all the effects that go into a film. There's an illusion of life. There's an illusion of reality, but that's all created by technology. I feel like I am more prone to accepting and understanding the presence of special effects in genre films where it makes sense that they're creating an alternate reality that doesn't exist or, you know, a futuristic world or a scary horror supernatural villain or something, where a special effect would make sense.
KRISTEN: And when viewers can’t suspend their disbelief,
Josh says it turns into a pretty negative experience.
JOSH: And if for whatever reason we are thrown out of that engagement as viewers and we are no longer thinking about the story, and we're no longer scared or we're no longer thrilled, then that's a fail. It's always a question of pushing the technology to the point where we believe it, but not quite past that edge.
KRISTEN: I asked Pablo about the uncanny valley, too. And I found it interesting that he said his goal wasn’t to exactly replicate what an actor looked like 40 years ago. Instead,
PABLO: What was the most important thing to create a behavioral likeness, which is what makes you look the way you do. And what makes you look the way you do is the process by which you go from A to B, you know? Like if you're, if you're happy and then you become sad, you do it in a very specific way that is iconic to what you are. So that
for me, is the most important thing that is necessary for a performance to be believable. To have the performance, to have the behavioral likeness, to have the behavior that makes you who you are.
KRISTEN: Pablo and his team had this unique challenge: Audiences know and remember what these famous actors looked like when they were younger. So that could contribute to what makes something look uncanny. It doesn’t look quite like what you’d expect. But the film was still an innovative feat. In its first week of release, tens of millions of people watched it, and it bagged plenty of award nominations too.
KRISTEN: Now I also want to get to another idea that Josh brought up: Maybe trying to get past the uncanny valley comes at a cost.
JOSH: There's an argument to be made that by insisting that our special effects be so stubbornly realistic, we are depriving a new generation of their imaginative capacity.
Now we have such awesome technology and the tools to correct everything. What are we correcting it to? We're correcting it to a different aesthetic that in and of itself is a choice. And not only are we depriving a viewer of making that sort of imaginative leap that's necessary in the older special effects, but that realistic aesthetic, that digital artisans are so persistent in trying to achieve, that effect in and of itself is going to seem dated.
COREY: Kristen, I think that’s a really interesting point that Josh makes, that reality also has its own aesthetic. That sometimes what we see as realistic in a film is still just a projection of what feels real.
KRISTEN: And another aspect of that came up when I was talking with Josh about black and white film, versus color.
COREY: Right. It's a, a surprisingly old creative choice that filmmakers have had to face. Most people don’t realize that simple color movie technology was available very early on, before 1910. But even when realistic color film became an option in
the 1930s, there were technological hurdles to adopting it. Color films required more lighting, for example, and actors overheated on set. But what I find really interesting, there were also ideological hurdles. Some people thought that watching a color film would be too distracting, or too tiring. Or it seemed like a gimmick. And then other people thought seeing a color film portrayed reality too brightly, that it looked weirdly too real.
KRISTEN: Yes. And, I mean, obviously, today filmmakers still have the option of filming in black and white, or color, even though most of them choose color. When they choose black and white it's often because it reflects their ideas of reality or history, or just their aesthetics. But, I also want to keep thinking about the future here. Something that kept coming up in my research was the possibility of creating a totally digital version of an actor.
COREY: Hmm, you know, I used to think that idea of a digital actor was silly.
KRISTEN: You used to?
COREY: I, yes, I, I did. But I changed my mind. And you know why?
COREY: Looking at face swapping apps and deepfakes. On social media
it's so easy these days for kids to take their face and slap them on somebody else's face. And deepfakes, they've really developed over the years to become a simple, DIY way to make it look like an actor or a politician is saying something they never said. It’s like face swapping on steroids. If it's already so easy to make believable fakes on social media, then a beefed-up version of the same tech could probably work to make a believable virtual actor in a big-budget movie, right?
KRISTEN: More on that, after the break.
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KRISTEN: I was really curious about this
idea of a virtual actor, too. So obviously, I had to ask the experts. Pablo told me that what works for deepfakes doesn’t necessarily work on the big screen, yet.
PABLO: The problem right now is that the, all the images that we have are very low-resolution. And so all the things that you're seeing online with what's called deepfake and things like that, I mean, they're really good for what they are, but they cannot be put in display, in a 4K display with a screen that is 40 feet by 50 feet or something like that in a theater, because the images don't, don't scale up.
KRISTEN: But that doesn’t stop people from trying.
JOSH: In fact, this is already happening to some extent where the estates of dead actors license out the usage to a technologically savvy crew that recreates them and recreates the actor's visage for a new performance that they never really did.
There are examples where Hollywood is talking about reviving some of its most beloved long dead icons and recasting them in new roles.
KRISTEN: Maybe you’ve seen the same headlines as Josh. And, to be honest, that does sound a little frightening. And so I had to pose that question to Pablo, too. Technologically-speaking, how close are we to that reality?
PABLO: I don't think, you know, I know where you're going, because I've been asked before, you know, do I think that we're going to be able to create a completely synthetic human that is available to do any kind of performance? And, the answer is no. We're not going to be able to do that.
PABLO: See, this is the thing. We are the result of a bunch of experiences and connections that we make throughout our lives, right? So we are born, we, you know, are raised, and whatever. And we, we collect all kinds of things, experiences that come in. And we make connections that are genetic, and so, those
connections are very complex, but they're also the thing that pushes the results, the choices that we make when we talk, or when we act in a specific way, or we make a choice about this or that. It's very difficult to me to think that programming a computer, even if you spend, you know, 90 years doing that, is going to make the same kind of connections, and it's going to learn from those connections the way we humans do. We are very complex.
KRISTEN: There are plenty of ethical and philosophical questions to ask about the future of visual effects. But now, there are also some very practical questions to consider as well. COVID-19 has disrupted the film industry. Key aspects of making a film, like travel and having hundreds of people on set, those pose serious health risks. For some filmmakers, recreating reality onscreen is
less of a fancy add-on now, and more of a necessity.
JOHNNY: Usually a film set is literally where a disease could run rampant. So you have hundreds of people all interacting physically, very closely, stressed, working hard.
KRISTEN: Johnny Fisk is the vice president of production at the visual effects company FuseFX and he runs their Los Angeles facility.
JOHNNY: Crowds. A lot of people in a tight room. You know, really a lot of stuff that, you know, we were all doing a couple of months ago, that we probably can't be doing for quite a long time. We're going to have to be helping replicate with visual effects.
KRISTEN: Because film and tv sets have been drastically downsized, more world-building now needs to happen in post-production. Essentially, visual effects artists are tasked with doing more, with less. Fewer scenes taped in real-world locations. More green screens and shoots with no extras.
None of that real life texture. So the question is, how are visual effects artists going to keep creating believable worlds for movies and tv shows?
JOHNNY: In the future, I think the type of work is going to change. And the scope will grow a bit based on the type of things we'll need to be doing in visual effects. So, there's quite a bit of talk amongst a lot of studios now, about how we handle some of these scenarios. How we're able to bring visual effects to a different need, you know, whether that's not being able to go to a location, whether that's not being able to have the same people in the same places. You know, there could be things that we still haven't necessarily planned for. Virtual production is definitely a burgeoning aspect of visual effects. We've been doing green screen, blue screen for many, many, many, many, many, many years, right? But virtual production is basically taking an environment and being able to replicate that environment in your shooting environment.
production is an innovative approach that may be the key for unlocking the challenges of film production. In many cases, virtual production is powered by video game technology. It uses giant LED stages to create environments for actors to work and interact in.
JOHNNY: The large advantage of that is, you know, all of your lighting is real, all of the reflection and beautiful bounce and all of that, that you would get in a real world environment, you're going to get if you're in a projected environment.
KRISTEN: It’s complex technology, but at its core, it’s reminiscent of an age-old visual effects trick: rear projection. You’ve probably noticed it in old movies. Maybe the main character is driving their car, and you can see a very fake-looking background zipping by out the window.
JOHNNY: Now we have much more control about what's being projected in there. It's not just stock footage thrown up on a scene and then, you know, an actor running away from something that's not there. It's very different.
KRISTEN: An actor’s virtual environment isn’t just limited to a static backdrop anymore. Computer graphics could be recreating a number
of different elements of a scene.
JOHNNY: You could potentially be rendering a lot in real-time in a scene, in an environment. You could have elements in that background. So you could have full CG characters. You could have full CG vehicles, elements. You could have potentially, some effects, things like that going on.
KRISTEN: And the power of virtual production means that the director can see it all in the camera, while the actors are acting. All of the graphics that build the scene, the backdrop, the CGI creatures, the explosions, they’re all there on the camera monitor, being created in real time. Directors no longer have to wait to see everything in post-production.
KRISTEN: And so FuseFX’s clients are getting more and more interested in exploring what a future of virtual production, and other visual effects solutions could look like, to keep production on schedule, and perhaps even improve the film in the end. And so film shoots will likely look different in the near,
and far future.
JOHNNY: So, you know, we're going to shoot a couple actors on a green screen and we're going to do some work in compositing. I think there's going to be more of that. I think there's going to be fewer people, you know, shooting, and where they're shooting might change. You know, where they're shooting might be their living room. I think we're seeing it now. We're seeing a lot of the stuff that is currently making air on network television and online, people are working from their home. They've got a green screen up and, you know, we're replacing that environment that they're in. So, you know, I think it's going to be a culmination of techniques here to reduce the number of people and reduce the risk of anyone getting sick.
KRISTEN: With the complications of the pandemic, the challenges that visual effects artists face remain the same, and maybe have an even greater consequence. How do you create, or recreate, a reality on screen? Maybe it's a reality we've never seen before, an alien world, or fantasy environment. Maybe it’s one that mirrors our own experiences. Or maybe it’s a reality that
just doesn’t exist anymore. Johnny, however, is optimistic:
JOHNNY: I think the future's still bright. We live in a world where people will find a way. I think humanity in general tends to grow and thrive in scenarios where we're stretched, where we're challenged. And I think having that challenge and being challenged forces us to be greater and explore new options and invent new ways of doing things. I mean, that's progress. You know, that's innovation. That's, that's, that's how you move forward.
** MUSIC TRANSITION **
COREY: You know, Kristen, it’s great to hear that technology could make it possible to keep making movies during these difficult times. Because, I don’t know about you, but I could use a dose of good escapism right about now.
KRISTEN: Yes, but as much as I love some cinematic escapism, Pablo Helman from Industrial Light and Magic, also gave me a different way of looking at
things. Let me share this quote with you.
PABLO: I talk to younger people, and they say, you know, "What advice can you give me? How can I get into visual effects?" I say, "Well, just look at life. So, just looking at your life around you and realizing that there's a lot of beautiful stuff there, there's a lot of stuff that is not beautiful, and you're going to have to recreate it. And what is it that makes something real? That is the kind of the job that we have."
COREY: So maybe this is also a good time to appreciate the complexity of reality all around us.
KRISTEN: And there’s plenty of complexity, especially right now. Some Hollywood productions are actually moving forward, trying to capture the reality of this moment. They’re making masks, social distancing, and the pandemic part of their scripts and their aesthetic decisions.
COREY: That, plus all of the tech innovations they already have in their arsenal, it makes me very curious to see what kind of art and entertainment is coming next.
COREY: Innovation Uncovered is a podcast from Invesco QQQ, in partnership with T Brand at the New York Times.
KRISTEN: Throughout the series, we’re taking a look at all of the innovative work that goes into the things you love. Next time, we’re looking at an evolution happening behind the scenes to change the game of basketball.
ALEX WU CLIP: And then we were sitting there thinking to ourselves, "Wow, this is really awesome. It's only accessible once a year to like the 0.1% of basketball players out there. What if we could bring this type of experience into people's homes, their driveways?
COREY: Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts. And tell your friends about the show.
KRISTEN: Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you next time, at the movies.
Innovation Uncovered is brought to you by Invesco QQQ. From tech innovators to lesser known biotech and media companies, Invesco QQQ is more than just a tech fund. It's an ETF that allows you to access the NASDAQ 100. Some of today's most innovative companies that are changing the world. To learn more about what this ETF can mean for your portfolio, visit Invesco.com/QQQ. The NASDAQ 100 Index comprises the 100 largest non-financial companies traded on the Nasdaq. You cannot invest directly in an index. Risks are involved with investing in ETFs, including possible loss of money. ETFs are subject to risks similar to those of stocks. Investments focused in the technology sector are subject to greater risk and are more greatly impacted by market volatility than more diversified investments. Before investing consider the fund's investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. Visit Invesco.com for a prospectus containing this information. Read it carefully before investing. Invesco Distributors Incorporated.
Invesco is not affiliated with T Brand, New York Times, Corey S.Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Pablo Helman of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Josh Rothkopf, Johnny Fisk of FuseFX or Alex Wu of HomeCourt.
What do rocket science and basketball have in common? Hosts Corey S. Powell and Kristen Meinzer discover how technology used to track missiles is now being adapted to help players and coaches excel.
GAL: For basketball, it's really endless, because you're talking about dribbles, you're talking about passes, you're talking about dunk, blocks, fouls, speed, the number of passes before shot, where you are on the field. The number of data points are so big and the combination between them are so, is so big, it's exponential.
COREY: Welcome to Innovation Uncovered, a podcast from Invesco QQQ and T Brand at the New York Times, about the ideas and discoveries that are driving our culture forward — from how we play, to what we consume, to how we connect. This episode, we’re exploring how data and analytics have quietly changed the game of basketball.
COREY: I'm Corey S. Powell. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine, and as a science writer, I’ve covered everything from dark matter to the
origin of life. And I’m joined by my fabulous co-host.
KRISTEN: I am Kristen Meinzer. I’m a culture critic and journalist. In this series, I’m out in the field, well, the virtual field at least, thanks to social distancing, reporting on the people and ideas that are reshaping so many aspects of our daily life.
COREY: We bring a little science,
KRISTEN: And a little culture,
COREY: To conversations about innovations impacting our world today.
COREY: Kristen, when was the last time you went to a basketball game?
KRISTEN: Sadly, it’s been a while, Corey. I usually try to see a game a couple times a year. And while I’m not what you would call a die-hard fan, I do miss all of the energy of the crowd. I miss the cheering. I’m always so blown away by the athleticism.
COREY: Oh, I miss those things too. I also really miss just seeing things that I can only dream of doing, like, I don't know, dunking a basketball.
KRISTEN: Oh, come on Corey, you can totally dunk a basketball.
COREY: Well, sure I could
dunk a basketball if you give me a ladder. I'm fine with that. In fact, it's one of the reasons I love watching other people do it. But you know, the game seems a bit different to me recently. And I don't mean because of the pandemic. I mean, way before that. Dunking doesn’t seem to happen as often as it used to.
Kristen: Yeah, there have been some big changes in basketball because of data.
COREY: Yeah, data ruins everything. Wait! What am I saying! I love data. My whole life is data! You know, on the whole, I’m a fairly casual basketball fan, but to me looking at the sport from a data perspective actually makes it extra fascinating to follow.
KRISTEN: Yeah, and I know you’re obviously kidding about data ruining everything, but you know some people do feel like “big data” is taking something away from the game.
COREY: Well, yeah, and basketball is obviously not the first sport to incorporate data. Baseball, famously, has been using statistics and data for years. And that’s paved the way for all kinds of other sports. Still, I do understand the fear that relying on numbers, or statistics, to help us make choices is unnatural,
somehow. But as I see it, it's really just an efficient way to improve something.
KRISTEN: I mean data is a great resource but it’s not very helpful without people to interpret it. Basketball organizations are developing entire departments for data analysis and the game is changing as these departments become more sophisticated.
KRISTEN: For decades, basketball teams and fans relied on box score and play-by-play data to get an overview of what happened during a game. You know, the kind of basic info you used to flip through in the Sports section of your newspaper.
IVANA: So the box score is just the shots, rebounds, assists and it's really just outcome basis. It doesn't give you any context on how these events happen in a game. And then, play-by-play is one step further. It includes the time when each of these events happen. So we have a little bit of
context in terms of which players were on the court when each shot happened, when each rebound happened. But it still doesn't give us the complete picture. It doesn't tell us where these players were in the court.
KRISTEN: That’s Ivana Seric. She’s a data scientist for a professional basketball team. And you’ll hear more from her in a bit. So, along with these two resources, the box score and the play-by-play, coaches would have to pore over hours of taped footage, trying to glean whatever insight they could. But, those numbers and tape only provided so much information. Coaches would make informed decisions, based on their experience. But, they’d also rely a lot on feeling or “intuition.” Especially when they didn’t have the facts to back it up. Maybe a bench player seemed like he was about to go on a hot streak, well, let’s give him more minutes. Maybe it felt like a night where the team should run the fast break hard in the first half. Or if I was the coach, I might start the player that brought me a breakfast
sandwich that morning. These are all decisions based on emotions.
KRISTEN: In 2005, that all began to change. There were two entrepreneurs in Israel, named Miky Tamir and Gal Oz.
GAL: My name is Gal Oz. I'm an entrepreneur in the sport tech industry.
KRISTEN: Gal finished his bachelor’s degree and then spent 10 years in the Israeli army.
GAL: In the intelligence unit I was doing many things regarding the pictures and satellites and all kinds of things that w-, that require an understanding of images and video. And after 10 years, I decided to go to the private market. After I finished my master's degree in biomedical engineering, and I was hoping to find the cure to the cancer, but I found myself in sports tech company.
KRISTEN: It’s a pretty big shift, to go from wanting to cure cancer to starting a sports tech company. But Gal's army experience
using video as an analytical tool turned out to be a game-changer, literally.
GAL: When I met with Miky, and he has this idea of SportVu, I was, fell in love with it and join him and together we, we build the company and, and its a best combination of fun, technology, sport, television. It's all combined and it's very appealing and, and very exciting environment.
KRISTEN: Miky and Gal co-founded SportVu in Israel, and at first, they focused on soccer. They put three cameras around a soccer field, and started collecting data, teaching their technology how to track players and balls on the field. After about three years, the company was acquired and Gal and the team got to work developing the technology to work in a basketball arena, instead.
GAL: We saw a huge difference between the usage of the stats in basketball and in soccer.
In the basketball it was much stronger than the soccer because you have much more data point that are interesting. In soccer, at the end, you have distance, you have acceleration, you have passes. For basketball, it's really endless, because you're talking about dribbles, you're talking about passes, you're talking about dunk, blocks, fouls, speed, the number of passes before shot, where you are on the field. The number of data points are so big and the combination between them are so, is so big, it's exponential. So, you reach to a point that you don't know what to ask. You go to the field of big data that you all you want to do is, "What should I do in order to win this game?" The computer give you the inputs and idea that, that you never thought about asking.
KRISTEN: To capture this more complex set of data, SportVu would deploy six cameras, instead of three, in the rafters of the basketball arena. Three on each end of the court. The cameras were trained to track the
players and the ball throughout the game and then, they would send that data back to the team’s analysts. People like Ivana Seric.
IVANA: The cameras in the rafters are collecting the video during the games, and from the video they're extracting players' locations on a court. So we have XY coordinates of each player in 25 frames per second. And for the ball, we have XY and the height also in 25 frames per second. And on top of this real data, we also have additional markings, which is all the passes, all the dribbles, all the pick and rolls, and other actions.
KRISTEN: 25 frames per second. That is a staggering amount of data on every player on the court. And it gave coaches insights they never had before. Gal told me that a big perk of SportVu’s tech was that it was passive. The teams didn’t have to
change the way they trained or traveled, because the cameras were just automatically in the rafters of the arenas. And players also didn’t need to wear any sort of tracking devices that could hamper their performance. That doesn’t mean everyone was on board. Gal told me there was some trepidation at first. I think this is a process a lot of people go through when new technology is introduced.
GAL: I think it took time until the coaches and the analytic team understood that this is helping them and not replacing them and not give them any risk of their job, but on the other side they have more data now, they even, they need more people. They contributed more to the game. So I think at the end it's helped them but they definitely took time.
** MUX BUMP / STINGER **
COREY: You know, Kristen, I find it remarkable how quickly people are getting past those doubts. It got me wondering where else data analytics is being used in basketball, and with a little poking around I realized that we’re now seeing it at the college level, too. It’s not
so evenly spread out there, in part because college budgets vary so widely, but over the past few years, more and more college coaches have turned to data to boost their teams.
KRISTEN: I guess that makes sense. I mean, if it works for the pros, why not college teams?
COREY: Exactly, and the rules of the game are changing along with the tech. For the first time ever this past season, that's the 2019-2020 college basketball season, ten of the 32 conferences were given permission to experiment with electronic devices during games. Meaning, for the first time ever, during a game, coaches could receive real-time analytics reports about their team’s performance.
KRISTEN: Sounds more NASDAQ than NCAA!
COREY: Doesn’t it though? It used to be that college teams were allowed to use this kind of tech only during practice. And now, these select teams can get live reports on a cell phone or a tablet as the game unfolds. And they can make adjustments in real time. It’s a pretty radical change, when you think about it. Now, of course, I mean, COVID cut the college season short this year, so we haven’t had a chance to really gauge the impact. But when the stadiums reopen, I’m
sure we’re going to notice a difference.
KRISTEN: I’m curious to see how that changes on the college side, but again, I think it’s so cool to think of how “coaching” a game kind of extends to these people crunching numbers behind the scenes now too. It’s not just the person courtside, pacing and getting red in the face. Data analysts are applying a level of scrutiny to any given game that a coach, or even a team of coaches, just can’t do on their own.
KRISTEN: As a data analyst, Ivana digs into reports about each game to break down even the smallest moments.
IVANA: We can look at all the different actions and see how players perform in different actions. So we can tell how good are their passing, how good are their shooting out of different situations on a court.
KRISTEN: And from that data, she can apply her own proprietary blend of analytics to determine what went wrong, and what went right.
IVANA: I think because we have all this data, it's a lot easier to see
players' weaknesses and players' strength. Because we can analyze the data, we don't have to watch as many clips as it's been done in the past. We'll still do that, but we also have the data to actually put like a measurable value on it.
KRISTEN: SportVu co-founder Gal Oz thinks of his innovation in terms of questions. Coaches are asking themselves questions constantly during, and after a game.
GAL: I think the big difference is that before SportVu, the number of question you can ask yourself was quite limited. So, for example, what is the potential of this player and this player and this player?
KRISTEN: Now, this access to more detailed data has made it so that coaches can ask much more specific questions.
GAL: So it can be how many dribble you did before you made the shot? How many seconds you hold the ball? Who is the person that guard you? When you take your rebound, how many people around you and what are the distance of the people from around you? So, at the
end for example, taking five rebounds is nice for a game. But the question is how hard was this rebound?
KRISTEN: And perhaps more importantly, Gal told me that thanks to big data, coaches can also ask much simpler questions, to greater effect.
GAL: Because you have a lot of data for many, many games, the idea is that the brain of the system, the AI of the system, can give you the question and the answers that you didn't really know what to ask.
KRISTEN: Ivana told me that overall, this is a good thing for the game. It’s breeding a generation of better, more efficient players.
IVANA: Using this we can help players improve much faster because they can really just put their time into things that they actually need to be improved. And we can also track their progress and see how are they improving and these things over time.
KRISTEN: And those better players are also able to make more informed decisions. One example: three-point shots.
Thanks to all this data, it became clear that even though a shot taken closer to the basket is more likely to go in, a three-pointer is worth the risk.
IVANA: Well, the emergence of the increased three point volume really boils down to as simple as three is greater than two. So for example, if somebody shoots 35% from the three point line, that's still better than shooting 45% for, um, inside the three point line.
KRISTEN: Teams have heeded this math. In 2012, the average basketball team took about 18 three-point shots per game. By 2019, that number was 33. And analytics is also changing who is making those shots. The power forward or small forward would have made a majority of the shots in the 1980s. Now, it’s the shooting guard and point guard that end up with nearly 50 percent of the team’s possessions in a game.
** MUX BUMP / STINGER **
COREY: It's no wonder that relying on all of this data in basketball has gained a number of vocal critics. It seems like even some former pro ball players are criticizing the data-driven approach. Some say that focusing on stats isn’t the right way to go, because it’s messing with the game, or making it predictable, or “programming” players. Others say that all the focus on data and crunching numbers just doesn’t really work to make a better team.
KRISTEN: Yeah, I mean, there are also player attributes that have a huge impact on a team or a game that maybe aren’t as quantifiable. Like, maybe a player is super hard working, which inspires their teammates, or their locker room antics boost morale on the team in a significant way. They have hustle or heart, but, how do you measure something like that?
COREY: I get that. On the other hand, those of us who love stats do see one benefit to all this quantifiable data. Fans will tell you that there are a lot of teams that deserve more credit than they get, and the statistics bear that out. I read that by one calculation, in pro basketball, underdogs win almost a third of the time.
32.1 percent of the time, to be data precise. Let’s use the numbers to recognize the underdogs!
KRISTEN: I love an underdog! I, I am cheering for all of you underdogs. I’m also really intrigued by what’s happening off the court, though, Corey, especially as data makes its way into things like scouting. That really could change the whole face of the sport. And that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about next.
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KRISTEN: Now, I want to take this conversation to where pro basketball players get their start. You know, that kid who’s just learning the sport. Maybe they don’t have a trusted coach nearby, or they can’t afford to join a league. Maybe their school doesn’t offer basketball as a sport. Or maybe, they live Taiwan, and don’t have the access that a lot of kids in the U.S. do. Can technology help? That’s exactly where Alex Wu started.
ALEX: My name is Alex Wu. I am on the founding team here at HomeCourt.
KRISTEN: In 2018, Alex and his team released an app called HomeCourt. It’s basically a shrunken-down version of what the professional ball players have access to. But instead of six high-def cameras and teams of data analysts, HomeCourt’s power is all housed within a smartphone. The idea behind HomeCourt is that high-level basketball coaching and training should be available to
anyone who has a smartphone, regardless of where they are. They're essentially trying to democratize the sport.
ALEX: You know, when we practice basketball until recently, you get zero feedback, like, I guess you can see if the ball made missed or not, it feels very binary. But you know, you didn't know over time, if you were getting better. You would put up you know, a lot of our users say, "I used to put up thousands of shots. And maybe I was getting better, or maybe I wasn't." I think what we're able to do, and I think this is really key into actually helping someone learn something, is you got to be able to provide feedback in a very, very obviously informative way, but also very quickly, especially in something like basketball.
KRISTEN: Anyone who loves basketball can open up the app when they’re out shooting hoops. It activates the phone’s camera, and it harnesses artificial intelligence and computing power within the smartphone to track the player’s shots, or offer corrections to form and technique.
ALEX: So we give information and insights such as your release time. So how long does it take you to actually get a shot up?
Your release angle. So, one of the things we look at is, like, are you shooting at an optimum release angle, consistently. And the release time is also important because you know, if you're in a game, you don't have a ton of time to shoot. So actually practicing with all those things in mind and being able to hear somebody tell you, "Hey, I need you to get that shot a little bit faster. Your arc needs to be a little bit higher." All those things are really important.
KRISTEN: But Alex and his team realized that the app was providing much more than just data-based training tips. There’s one user, a twelve year old who's been using HomeCourt for a while now, and she’s tracked thousands and thousands of shots. And the company could see she’s racked up a lot of data.
ALEX: One of the things that her coaches and dad would tell us is that it's really improved, you know, noticeably, her confidence on the court. So she was being more of a hesitant shooter. And that's such a big part of the game that I don't think people think about enough, right? A lot of it's mental. Do you feel ready to take the shot? And you know what, you, you know, what makes you feel more ready? When you feel like you've made the right preparation.
KRISTEN: The big picture
potential of this technology could actually change the makeup of professional teams. In May 2019, the HomeCourt team attended an event in Chicago where the pro teams go to scout new players.
ALEX: And then we were sitting there thinking to ourselves, "Wow, this is really awesome. It's only accessible once a year to like the 0.1% of basketball players out there. What if we could bring this type of experience into people's homes, their driveways."
KRISTEN: And so that’s exactly what they did. In early 2020, Alex and his co-founders launched another app called GlobalScout. This app builds on what they’ve done with HomeCourt to help democratize who gets to play in the pros.
ALEX: So for example, you can measure your hand span, just using the front facing camera on your phone, using the HomeCourt app. We can measure your vertical. So you set up your phone and you jump and we can measure your vertical, your wingspan, your standing reach.
KRISTEN: It’s not so easy that if you measure up in GlobalScout, you’re automatically
drafted into the big leagues. But, it is a big step toward making the scouting process more democratic.
ALEX: That idea is to open up other opportunities that may have not been accessible to that player, because nobody really knew that they existed.
KRISTEN: And in some ways, it’s the data itself that allows teams and scouts to understand and work beyond their own biases.
ALEX: What I hope it does, and I think, you know, you look at somebody like one of our advisors, Jeremy Lin, and, you know, he was certainly famously under-looked in his basketball journey. You know, a lot of it can be due to you know, just not a lot of people seeing people that look like Jeremy playing at that level. And so there is a bias there. You know, not intentional, but it, you know, just happens to be there. I think what we try to do is like, "Hey, what is the truth?" Right? You know, now you can start to see things like, data capturing stuff like work ethic. If you see somebody in the app, and it's like, hey, this kid's workin. He's waking up 6am three times a week, putting up shots by himself. Like, that's up, that says something, right?
KRISTEN: These apps are both still pretty new. Take that 12 year old who started playing with more confidence after tracking her progress. She still has years to develop before she can even start thinking about playing in college, or for the pros. But when everyone was stuck at home without their teams or their coaches, HomeCourt was ready to bridge that gap for amateurs and professional players alike. Before the coronavirus pandemic, HomeCourt users would log about half a million dribbles a day. But since then, they told me that they’ve had days where users logged 10, or even 15 million dribbles. And they’ve even seen interest from other athletes. That includes people who play soccer, roller derby, and more.
KRISTEN: It’s been about 15 years since SportVu was first developed. And data and analytics in basketball are only just getting started. But lest you worry that all this technology is taking the human element out of the game, our experts don’t see it that way.
Alex Wu believes analytics and intuition actually go hand in hand with each other.
ALEX: Data in and of itself is not that useful. It's the insights that come with it. It's how you're looking at it over time. Data can help validate intuition.
KRISTEN: And, at the end of the day, according to Ivana, there’s one thing that facts and feelings have in common. What is your favorite part of the job?
IVANA: Winning. I'm not even joking.
** MUX BUMP / STINGER **
COREY: You know, Kristen, it’s remarkable to think about how data and numbers are changing the physical nature of the game. But whether people like the changes or hate them, it doesn’t seem like fans are losing any interest in the sport.
KRISTEN: And since fans can also get their hands on more stats, it’s only feeding the enthusiasm.
COREY: Oh yeah. Maybe it will even give data nerds more reasons
to enjoy the game. I know the next time I get to watch, I’ll be paying a lot more attention, trying to guess what strategies might be the result of analytics, and which ones are more inspired by gut feelings.
KRISTEN: Well, I cannot wait to get in the stands and cheer with our neighbors again. That means me and you, Corey, cheering for our home team.
COREY: Neighbor! Yeah! Let's go!
KRISTEN: Don’t forget to subscribe, rate and review Innovation Uncovered wherever you get your podcasts. And tell your friends about the show.
COREY: This brings us to the end of the season, but thanks so much for coming on this journey with us, exploring the innovations that are driving the world around us.
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Invesco is not affiliated with T Brand, New York Times, Corey S.Powell, Kristen Meinzer, Ivana Seric, Gal Oz and Miky Tamir of SportVu and Alex Wu of HomeCourt.