• "I didn’t think I’d ever do a thing this long. I might never again. But it turns out businesses are hard, especially when they involve atoms and even more so if you want to be profitable, legal and have good customer service. Not that much of that is to do with me." In amongst so much of the nonsense of the tech industry in 2014, and East London Technology in 2014, it always makes me happy that Newspaper Club is going so well, and that my friends are doing it.

Infinifriends

10 February 2014

Time to write up something that’s been sitting around on various disks for a while.

Many months ago, I saw Plotagon. It’s best explained as Xtranormal by way of The Sims: reasonable resolution, 3D-animated videos based on scripts; a desktop tool to generate them, and a site to host them.

Most interestingly, it’s scripted with what actually looks like movie scripts, and that got me thinking: what would it look like to feed it with procedurally generated scripts? Could you make the machine make videos? All I knew was two things:

  1. I know, for good or ill, how Markov chains work.
  2. All the scripts for Friends are transcribed on the internet.

After all, given Plotagon’s focus on semi-realistic forms, I decided that it was best suited to the great American artform of the 20th century: the sitcom.

The Infinite Friends Machine was born.

The machines does a few simple things. First, it scrapes Friends transcripts. For now, it works for most of Series 1. It then parses those scripts and chops them up into episodes, scenes, and lines attributed to individual characters. It also strips out some directions. Then, using all that, it offers ways to generate new scripts.

Markov Chains, as Leonard has frequently pointed out, are not always the best way of generating text alone, especially when the corpus you’re working from isn’t particularly consistent. He is, of course, right. Still, I enjoy the mental leap readers make in order to make generative prose actually make sense, and for this project, I mainly wanted to get to scripts as fast as I could.

Still, I didn’t want to hamper their relative crudeness, so I tried to skew things in their favour. To that end, the Infinite Friends Machine generates scripts by copying the structure of existing scripts. When it makes a new “episode”:

  1. it finds the scenes that are in the original episode it’s being copied from
  2. for each scene, it finds each line – who says a line at what point in the episode
  3. then, it generates a new line for the speaking character from their own corpus. That is: Joey only ever things derived from Everything Joey Has Ever Said. What this means is that the main cast have quite diverse things they might say, and the bit players pretty much only say the same thing. Gunther is quite boring.

That’s it. A few seconds later, it spits out a nonsensical episodes of friends. Here’s a scene:

Friends script
and this is a full episode.

The machine isn’t online because it’s quite crude and processor-intensive, but you can get at the sourcecode from Github.

Anyhow: machine to generate scripts. Next stage: get them into Plotagon.

This was where my troubles began. For starters, despite having a nice format for scripts, Plotagon really demands you enter them via its UI – you can’t paste a big block of text in, you have to enter it by hand. Painful.

Next: Plotagon only lets scenes have two characters in. I decided to make a single scene – the tag on the end of the episode. But this turned into many scenes in Plotagon, as four people in an apartment was a bit much for it. I had to keep track of who was where, who was talking to whom at any point.

And then I had to deal with the unfortunate truth: Plotagon is horrible. I mean, Xtranormal used its non-realistic avatars and computer-voices to comic extent. By contrast, here we had disappointing voice acting with clunky visuals. Also, I had to add some ‘acting’. This largely consisted of making Chandler say everything whilst doing the (crazy) emote, to really capture that Series 1 Matthew Perry vibe.

A quick sting later, and Infinifriends S1E1 existed:

It is not exactly high art.

Just one scene took long enough, and I think, proved my point to an extent, but probably can’t be improved on for now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to the Infinite Friends Machine, but it was an entertaining enough exercise, and the video rendition is probably worth it for the cringe factor alone.

Theme tune. Credits. Tune in next time.

  • "A bit like Doctor Who’s different incarnations, while still the same company, the spaces we’ve worked in have created very different feeling BERGs.

    And, a bit like Doctor Who, I guess you have one incarnation that you always think is the best, or ‘yours’." All of this.

  • "The ways in which people interact with computation are changing swiftly as we move into more casual relationships with our digital services on tablets, big screens, and across social networks. We believe we have some compelling answers about how digital experiences will evolve into these new contexts. Please, follow along with us and explore these playful, dynamic instruments of discovery together." These guys are going to be worth keeping a very beady eye on; what a team.
  • "I have been an avid gamer since the advent of Pong in 1972. At their best, videogames strike me as a form of art. Like all art, they can augment outer reality and shape our inner reality—but they do this by the very nature of the fact that they are not reality but a Place Apart. Being awestruck at "Halo" does not entail awe any more than "grieving" for Cordelia entails grief. Rather, art at its most serious is a sort of exercise, a formative practice for life—like meditation, only more fun." WSJ review of Reality is Broken; negative, but acute.
  • "This is the part that interests me: What happens to a person's experience of prettymaps when the echoes of their own life start to make up the map itself? What happens when the only streets on a map are those you and your friends have traveled?"
  • "It's the new urban Baroque! Install greenscreens everywhere in an optical infrastructure for the 21st century—a DIY industry of everyday special effects, little greenscreens popping up beside trees, in alleyways, behind buildings, atop roofs, the entire urban environment camera-ready and pierced like St. Sebastian by the arrows of parallel worlds, our cities become effects labs and every sidewalk a set." Chromakey Planet.
  • "I’m basically the James Cameron of PowerPoint 97." Making short films in Powerpoint because it's the only tool you've got. Brilliant.
  • "We create physical, social games for public space. Our games get people moving and talking. They stimulate their creativity and get them to connect." Kars has a name for his new venture.
  • "The interesting, or arguably uninteresting, thing about this programme is that it is completely lacking in any sort of narrative arc. All the other programmes on Saturday night are a gift for a narratologist: with their judges’ scores, audience votes and dance-offs/sing-offs, they are all crisis, crescendo and narrative resolution. But Hole in the Wall is different. It’s just celebrities going through these differently-shaped holes in the wall, again and again and again… Hole in the Wall is the groundhog day of Saturday evening light entertainment." Saturday-night audiences like a good plot.
  • "So to come full circle with the sense of dissatisfaction with open world games: I think the way we experience them, by comparison with linear games, says something about how our gaming imagination functions. We seem to understand that when linear games point us in a certain direction, that’s the way to go. When an open world game appears, its very structure suggests something about how we should behave, or want to behave, and predisposes us to judge on the basis of how it entices us to go somewhere that the game itself hasn’t suggested, and on how it then deals with that action." Jim on open-world gaming.
  • "While creepily capitalist in its language, the scholarship within it is sound – echoing theories that Jacobs, Alexander others presented decades ago. What’s more – it contains a lot of the same arguments for iterative design that you see in traditional game design tomes. (For a special treat – try replacing the phrases like “destination” and “retail” with “MMO” and “boxed-game”)"
  • "Appfrica Labs is an investment company and software development firm that facilitates and incubates technology entrepreneurs in East Africa. We do this by offering a physical space with a solid internet connection, servers, software and computers that allows entrepreneurs a place to develop their ideas in a constructive environment with industry professionals as mentors, outside of school. Entrepreneur projects are refined and prepped to help them secure funding and launch sustainable, profitable businesses." I met Jon who runs Appfrica at TEDGlobal last week; it's a great idea and, by the sounds of things, doing very well.