On the Future and Poetry of the Calibration Pose

7 June, 2011

Interesting stuff here from Tom Armitage on a subject that's been much on my mind lately: Waving at the Machines.

How does a robot-readable world change human behaviour?


How long before, rather than waving, or shaking hands, we greet each other with a calibration pose?

Which may sound absurd, but consider a business meeting of the future:

I go to your office to meet you. I enter the boardroom, great you with the T-shaped pose: as well as saying hello to you, I’m saying hello to the various depth-cameras on the ceiling that’ll track me in 3D space. That lets me control my Powerpoint 2014 presentation on your computer/projector with motion and gesture controls. It probably also lets one of your corporate psychologists watch my body language as we discuss deals, watching for nerves, tension. It might also take a 3D recording of me to play back to colleagues unable to make the meeting. Your calibration pose isn’t strictly necessary for the machine – you’ve probably identified yourself to it before I arrive – so it just serves as formal politeness for me.

Nice little piece of gesture recognition sci-fi/design fiction here looking at how the knowledge that we're surrounded by depth sensors and pose recognition systems may alter human behavior and custom.

I'm fascinated by (and deeply share) people's fixation on the calibration pose. It comes up over and over again as people have their first exposure to the Kinect.

The use of this particular pose to calibrate gesture recognition systems seems to have originated in security procedure where it's known as the "submission pose", but in the academic computer science literature it tends to get referred to by the much drier "Psi pose".

On the one hand this calibration pose is comforting because it represents a definable moment of interaction with the sensor system. Instead of simply being tracked invisibly it gives us the illusion that our submission to that kind of tracking must be conscious — that if we don't assume the calibration pose then we can't be tracked.

On the other hand, we find the pose disturbing because it brings the Kinect's military and security heritage to the surface. The only other times we stand in the submissive pose are while we're passing through security checkpoints at airports or the like or, even more vividly, when we're being held at gunpoint. Intellectually we may know that the core technology of the Kinect came from military and security research funding in the last decade's war on terror. When the Kinect first launched, Matt Webb captured this reality vividly in a tweet:

"WW2 and ballistics gave us digital computers. Cold War decentralisation gave us the Internet. Terrorism and mass surveillance: Kinect."

However, it's one thing to know abstractly about this intellectual provenance and it's another thing to have to undergo a physical activity whose origins are so obviously in violent dominance rituals every time we want to play a game or develop a new clever hack.

I think that it's the simultaneous co-existence of these two feelings, the oscillation between them, that makes the existence of the calibration pose so fascinating for people. We can't quite keep them in our minds at the same time. In the world we know they should be parts of two very different spheres hence their simultaneous co-existence must be a sign of some significant change in the world, a tickle telling us our model of things needs updating.

Technically speaking, the necessity of the pose is already rapidly fading. It turns out that pose tracking software can record a data sample for a single person and then use that to obviate the need for future subjects to actually perform the pose themselves. This works so long as those people are of relatively similar body types to the person who performed the orientation.

I wonder if the use of the calibration pose will fade to the point where it becomes retro, included only by nostalgic programmers who that want to create that old 11-bit flavor of early depth cameras in their apps. Will we eventually learn to accommodate ourselves to a world where we're invisibly tracked and take it for granted. Will the pose fall away in favor of new metaphors and protocols that are native to the new interface world slowly coming into existence?

Or, conversely, maybe we'll keep calibration around because of its value as a social signifier like the host in Armitage's story who goes through the calibration pose as part of a greeting ritual even though it's not necessary for tracking. Will it sink into custom and protocol because of its semantic value in a way that preserves it even after it loses its technical utility?

Either way, it's a post-Kinect world from here on in.