Sunday, February 29, 2004

This is a rarity: a gizmo with actual class. If these things aren't everywhere in ten years, some high-placed marketing executives will have a lot of explaining to do:

Mirror TV Reflects New Era in Consumer Technologies

"The Mirror TV uses a unique polarized mirror technology, which transfers close to 100 percent of the light through the reflective surface."

On a kitschier -- if more portentous -- note, check out "Valerie" at Android World. I don't know about you, but I'm extremely disappointed. The website makes Valerie out to be a no-kidding domestic servant, but in truth it's basically a department store mannequin with a voice synthesizer.* Judging from the oddly prurient pictures, I doubt Valerie can even move -- let alone do laundry or fetch lattes. And it costs nearly $60,000! What are you going to do with it? Sure, it's an OK illustration of concept. But anyone who forks over this kind of money thinking they're buying an artificial human (and there have reportedly been two so far) is bound to be sorely disappointed.

Even as a mannequin, Valerie fails to pass muster. Her eyes have a cheap, glazed look. Her expression, if you can call it that, is cadaverous. Android World assures prospective buyers that Valerie comes in your choice of ethnicity. Eye color and skin tone are up to you. But I don't see how any degree of tinkering could mask that dead-fish gaze and those bloodless, Sigourney Weaver-rish lips.

Fortunately, for an additional $2000, you can have the face custom-made, but I'm not sure how the garage-Frankensteins at Android World intend to accomplish this. To create a new face to customer specifications, they'd need a mold of some sort. So unless you're planning on having a duplicate made of a consenting acquaintance (a rather disturbing prospect, but hey), I suppose it's up to the customer to somehow provide the blueprints.

Which leaves the uniquely daunting problem of acquiring "rights" to a stranger's face. I'm thinking specifically of celebrities. There's doubtless a sizeable crowd of fantasy-prone males who would love to have their own soulless emulation of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton to boss around. But I don't foresee celebrities with desirable faces readily uploading wireframe models of themselves to the Net for public consumption. Autographs are one thing. But I would personally find it excruciatingly difficult to approach, say, Natalie Portman or Christy Turlington with a bucket of FX-quality silicon putty and asking them to kindly bury their heads in it so I could, um, commemorate them. There's just something too Ed Gein about the whole thing for my taste.

Not that it wouldn't be nice to room with a simulated supermodel. But until the technology improves (and it will), attempts to create convincing human facsimiles -- famous or nonfamous, male or female -- are doomed to fetishistic oblivion.

(Just the other night I was reading an interview with Michael Stipe, who commented on computers' increasingly dexterous "sampling" of celebrity voices. Mixing technology can duplicate a person's voice by recording an ensemble of syllables. Stipe found the prospect fascinating, but assured the interviewer that if some ad exec stole his voice to sell merchandise, a court case would likely result.)

*Note that I'm making a point not to call this thing "she." Maybe when domestic androids reach something close to the "Nexus-Six" stage (as depicted in "Blade Runner") I'll acknowledge gender. In the meantime, efforts like Valerie -- and the Mars rovers, for that matter -- will remain appropriately sexless.