The Liminal Space

Quick Read: Motion blur in animation, the current pandemic times and quadratic voting systems have one thing in common – they magnify and normalise that moment in time/space/perspective that’s neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’. And that could have its own benefits.

Motion blur is an interesting concept in animation.

In fact it’s a unique technical challenge that consumed Ed Catmull and his team during his early days leading to Pixar Animation. Quoting from his book Creativity, Inc.

Another technical challenge that occupied us was the need for something called motion blur. With animation in general and computer animation in particular, the images created are in perfect focus. That may sound like a good thing, but in fact, human beings react negatively to it.

When moving objects are in perfect focus, theatregoers experience an unpleasant, strobe-like sensation, which they describe as “jerky.”  When watching live-action movies, we don’t perceive this problem because traditional film cameras capture a slight blur in the direction an object is moving. The blur keeps our brains from noticing the sharp edges, and our brains regard this blur as natural. Without motion blur, our brains think something is wrong. So the question for us was how to simulate the blur for animation. If the human eye couldn’t accept computer animation, the field would have no future.

-From Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

Today, motion blur has its own place in the craft of visual expression across still photography, film making, animation and video games.

Figure-Animation2 (1)
Two animations: with motion blur (left) and without (right) Source

Without that, we’d have no way to capture and process the concept of ‘something being in a state of motion’ – that state of being neither here nor there, that state of ‘in-betweenness’.

At its purest, motion blur could be said to be the visual expression of an abstract concept called ‘liminality’.

What is liminality?

In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. (wikipedia)

Evidently when liminality as a concept was first developed, it was more in the anthropological contexts of rites and rituals. But today, the usage of the term has broadened to describe socio, political and cultural changes across contexts. Sample this, again from Wikipedia..

During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.

Wikipedia on liminality

Reminds you of something?

To be in today’s pandemic crisis is to be betwixt and between. Our conception of space and time is unmoored from the conventional constructs of ‘home’ and ‘work’.

What does this liminality mean to our individual and collective consciousness? How does this change our relationships with institutions – our offices, schools, places of worship? How does this redefine our notions around concepts like commute, entertainment, socialising? Who knows?

But at least these liminal times are forcing us to question our deeply held assumptions and mental models and be a bit more tolerant to well considered alternatives while arming us with a better compass to help navigate our complex world.

In fact, I tend to wonder if the current Covid times and the recent mass mobilisations in support of movements like Black Lives Matter have a good degree of causality associated with them. Which leads me to..

Liminal Thinking

It might be instructive to take a closer look at the word liminal. It’s a derivative of a Latin root that means threshold – which literally means doorway.  Seen with that lens, a threshold is essentially a boundary that marks a point of transition between one state and another.

How do you then find, create and use ‘thresholds’ to create change that matters? How do you deliberately create those opportunities to make a transition from one world view to that of another? What is obvious to you that is not so obvious to someone else? And how do you recognise that?

Liminal Thinking is Dave Gray’s answer to this question through his book by the same name. A quick whiteboard version of his book here.

Our world today, a boiling pot of divisions and polarisations could perhaps do with a dose of liminal thinking so we seek out and normalise that middle ground versus prying it out of shape and character in an attempt to take one side or the other.

And speaking of polarisation

One just needs to look at the democratic politics today to see that one of its key problems is the lack of a middle ground. The result: political polarisation and amplification of extreme views.  Now juxtapose that with another key element of our reality – that while we may seem more divided than ever before, many people on all sides of the political spectrum care about the same handful of issues — education, healthcare, pensions, and etc.

So how do we make a provision for the expression and capture of a more nuanced voting preference in a participatory democracy.

One potential answer: quadratic voting. Unlike a binary “yes” or “no” vote for or against one thing, quadratic voting allows a large group of people to to express the degree of their preferences, rather than just the direction of their preferences through a decentralised voting system.

In fact, the Colorado’s legislature has successfully become one of the first test cases for quadratic voting in the public policy realm. This is the remarkable story of how it deployed Quadratic Voting to normalise the middle ground (vs amplifying the bi-partisan extremes) and how it managed to get a ‘better signal with less noise’.

Seventy-second General Assembly first regular session.
Chambers of the Colorado Capitol where the quadratic voting took place. Source

So there we have it, while we see ourselves stuck in an unfavourable state of liminality in the current times, sometimes it is these very liminal spaces that could potentially make allowances for solutions that magnify and normalise perspectives that are unfettered by extreme/bi-partisan imperatives.

And just sometimes it might mean that we become a bit more tolerant, a bit more inclusive in our beliefs and a bit more optimistic as we hope to see our world become a better place.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this post:

[Featured Image: Motion Blur expressed through Still Photography, Source: BGU

Marketing Nostalgia – Retro Innovation

The first thing you notice about Paperman – an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film (2012) –  is how different it seems from most modern cartoons.

paperman_title

See the full 6mins version here. It has a distinct retro black & white look not just because it is a story based out of 1940s Manhattan, but also because it clearly feels like as if real people have drawn it  it on a piece of paper as opposed to say – like machines creating it on computers.  The result of Disney’s new in-house software called Meander, it seamlessly  blends the best of ‘hand drawn cartoon kinda’ look with CGI animation in a way the animation industry has never seen before; a game changing animation style so distinctive, innovative and beautiful that WIRED magazine even bills it as the future of animation as a whole!

This can be called out as an example of a unique kind of innovation – new technologies, new products or experiences that are designed around connecting us with the past that is nostalgic. Something that  calls as Retro Innovation.  In this FastCompany article he writes that Retro Innovations roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Innovations that authentically mimic a product or experience of the past to transport the user back into a gone era.
  2. Innovations that use a nostalgic format to meet a new need.
  3. Innovations that use a new format to meet an old need.

Read the whole article here and get a dose of some 10 emerging examples of Retro Innovations. My favorite example is Moleskine, regarding which he says..

The Italian paper notebook maker MDleskine, whose recent IPO was valued at more than $600 million, is a stunning anachronism in a business environment that glorifies tech startups and digital business models.

There are reams of case studies out there that extol the brilliance of Moleskine’s branding. But the best example of its retro innovation is its Moleskine Evernote Smart Notebook that bridges the digital and the analog world.

The key insight on which most successful retro innovations thrive on is brilliantly articulated in this Washington Post article that says..

With the rise in computing power, there has been an acceleration of the rate in which we build on new information technologies, leaving us clutching awkwardly for things we recognize from the past. The pace of change at times seems so overwhelming that it’s no wonder that sometimes we want to be transported back to an earlier era.

Think about this insight and you could possibly have explanations for things like:

  • The emergence of  a ‘modern retro’ trend in the  retro gaming culture.
  • The popularity of Mad Men – the only basic cable series to win Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series besides 14 other Emmys and 4 Golden Globes. (source)
  • Brands like Adidas and Puma having a dedicated innovation pipeline specially meant for their retro line ups: Adidas Originals and Puma Classics. In fact by many accounts, Adidas Originals can be considered to be a top of the pyramid brand in terms of their positioning and price points. Besides, the corporate logo of Adidas is distinctive from that of Adidas Originals recognizing the unique appeal and potential of this retro innovation line up from the sports brand.
  • The popularity of classics that are remastered to the new digital world – Jurassic Park 3D anyone?

And  in extreme case it might possibly even explain the rationale behind the existence of Skeuomorps – which might be a different discussion altogether!

While the jury is still out to argue whether the ‘retro trend’ actually cripples innovation, a few venture capitalists do concede that  retro innovation is indeed the most lucrative kind. After all, if innovations are about elevating and enriching human experiences, there would always be a market that values a more traditional notion of this experience and that’s where Retro Innovations kick in.

What other examples of Retro Innovations can you think of?