Michael Vick Plays Hockey

vickhockey.jpg“What the fuck is Michael Vick doing playing hockey?!?!?" was my first reaction. I caught a glimpse of the television out of the corner of my eye while surfing the internet as the superstar Atlanta Falcons quarterback skated in for a goal. There he was, hockey stick in hand, gracefully gliding in and slipping the puck into the back of the net. In case you have absolutely no idea what I am writing about, Nike has created a "What if?" commercial which features various superstar athletes playing sports other than those which made them famous. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is Vick's hockey-playing teammate, tennis player Andre Agassi plays shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, runner Marion Jones is a gymnast, cyclist Lance Armstrong is a boxer, baseball pitcher Randy Johnson is a bowler, and tennis player Serena Williams is a beach volleyball player.

armstrongboxing.jpgWhat is so great about the commercial is how real it looks. I watched every college football game Michael Vick ever played at Virginia Tech and have seen him up close in that Big Room with the Big Blue Ceiling. Even I was amazed at the flawless fidelity with which his person was generated on the ice, yet I am fairly certain he does not know how to skate that well, if at all. Every nuance of his body movements is precise, every angle of his head accurate, and every detail of his face dead-on. Similarly, when Agassi fields a ground ball bare-handed in the Fenway Park infield and makes the lunging throw to first base, it is his characteristic stubble-covered face that is rendered in full detail. When Armstrong delivers the knockout jab, he does it with the functional precision of a seasoned boxer.

It is unclear to me how exactly Nike made the commercial, but I am relatively certain Marion Jones cannot perform flips off a pommel horse and Serena Williams cannot serve aces on the beach sand like she can on the hardcourts. And although I have looked for the usual giveaways of computer-generated images-- the subtle silver outline of the body transposed onto a separate background, the discrepancies between the wind and its effects on the players' hair, the change in body habitus when the body-double steps in-- I cannot find any. Moore’s Law has made the real virtual and the virtual real.

agassibaseball.jpgThe Nike "What if?" commercial is just one more example of how special effects technology has become so ubiquitous in modern society. Convincing yet fake nude pictures of various celebrities are scattered across the internet. Hollywood is at the frontlines of what can be created out of thin air on the silver screen. This summer’s blockbusters feature a broom-riding boy wizard, the launch of a thousand Greek ships, and apocalyptic worldwide climatic changes. In our living rooms, video game technology is constantly pushing the envelope of just how far synthetic escapism can take us.

As Reason magazine showed the true power of ubiquitous surveillance technology on its June cover, the “What if?” commercial holds special significance within the larger context of the societal ramifications of bleeding-edge special effects technology. As the June issue focused on the benefits rather than drawbacks that come with the ‘databasification’ of society, the "What if?" commercial shows another reason why the future will not be a dystopian world of panopticon horrors. As the power of special effects technology grows, the fraction of verifiable information surveillance technology can produce falls.

The only reason I was able to discern the use of computer-generated images in the commercial was due to crucial aid of context. The very thought of Michael Vick on the ice was completely far-fetched. Indeed, the entire point was to intentionally make the unreasonable reasonable. To someone who was not familiar with Vick, however, no such reaction would have been elicited. What he saw would have been seamlessly realistic.

Although context played a vital role in my determination of the authenticity of the images, at other times, the context is not helpful. One of the more controversial episodes in John Kerry's campaign so far has been the infamous pictures with Jane Fonda from the Vietnam Era, both of which were readily accepted at face value by most of the public, but so far, only one has been convincingly proven not to be a fake. In this case, the context-- Kerry attending an antiwar event with Jane Fonda-- was entirely believable, and was of no aid in evaluating the veracity of the pictures. Most of life and the law similarly deal with the mundane. There is no juxtaposition of the familiar beside the foreign to help us evaluate the facts surrounding accusations of wrongdoing. Instead, the circumstances are entirely plausible, and the determination of the accuracy of the facts remains a challenge.

One can imagine a hypothetical court trial in which the defendant “caught on tape” provides his own videotape in which the person seen committing the crime is none other than the judge himself. Or even John Kerry. When individuals take full advantage of the tools provided by cutting edge technology, an honest legal system would gain very little from simple video footage. Just as today, the usual forms of evidence will be necessary to make a conviction. The existence of easily falsifiable video evidence makes eyewitness accounts, fingerprints, fiber traces, entry and exit points, tracks, plausibility, and a logical explanatory chain of events all the more important. How can the evidence incriminating you hold up in an equitable court if it can be easily created on Photoshop or a future Pixar for Windows? When the billions of prying eyes produce evidence of guilt, who is going to believe it if just as convincing phony evidence can be created by hand?

The steady proliferation of highly effective surveillance equipment is rightly seen as a grave threat to the privacy of citizens. Yet, scary new technology can be countered with more technology. Special effects technology can greatly reduce the reliability of evidence captured by cameras and satellites. The John Kerry Vietnam pictures, the phony Abu Gharib pornographic pictures that accompanied the real ones, and the questioning of the authenticity of the Nick Berg beheading video show such a trend already taking place. As the tools needed to create these shams become more powerful, the signal-to-noise ratio of video evidence falls. When it becomes easy to create lifelike bogus images, the resources needed to filter out the actual from the counterfeit increase drastically. When the powers that be are inundated with vast amounts of such data, the cost of actionable intelligence rises dramatically. The solution to Big Brother capturing reality on film is to fabricate reality itself. Embrace the technology that makes it happen, and Big Brother remains the cumbersome annoyance he is today instead of becoming Orwell’s nightmare creation.

The underlying theme of the "What if?" commercial is to ask– What if the superstar athlete was given a different piece of equipment as a child instead of what made him famous? What if a young Andre Agassi had been given a baseball bat instead of a tennis racket? Would that wicked forehand have instead have developed into a powerful home-run swing? Would the passion of the athlete's drive to win translate into success in any sport on any field? The commercial answers in the affirmative.

Similarly, the relevant question in the face of a growing surveillance society is– Will individuals who desire personal privacy and freedom of association have the technology to counter the challenges presented by the surveillance society? The commercial answers in the affirmative.

In the face of an intrusive panopticon society, forgery and deception might just be the ultimate weapons. When you see footage of Michael Vick playing hockey, how do you know he is really playing hockey? How do you even know it is really him?

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they (nike)succeeeded with

they (nike)succeeeded with thier message, which is a good one. anythings possible, no matter who you are.

BTW, i work on those kind of spots all day long. if you think thats cool ,wait till you see the next gen video games coming out. its mind boggling. its not 'easy' to do those sorts of things but with the right software it just takes time. just a few years ago it was impossible.i am really impressed by the programmers. I went to I,Robot the other night and it was a saw off. 50/50 which isn't bad for a modern fx driven movie. too bad it can never live up to Blade Runner. what sci fi movie can? its kind of hard to watch when half the shots were done in your neighbourhood (Vancouver junkie town)

huh? are you saying those

huh? are you saying those clips aren't real? probably the same argument could be made for phone taps in the future.

The marion jones gymnastics

The marion jones gymnastics bit was the only one that looked fake- the body didn't fly through the air correctly. But you're right, Vick on Ice was flawless. I was shaking my head saying "how'd they do that??"

:smitten: Hey are you single

:smitten: Hey are you single ? Because I was wondering If you would go with me.