As a comic book story, Greg Pak and R.B. Silva’s The Vision Machine is a glimpse into a future where advanced technology turns threatening and gets used for malign purposes. Fortunately, while The Vision Machine iPad app is also a glimpse into the future using advanced technology, the intentions are far less malevolent, exploring the iPad’s potential to translate paper comics into a digital experience through music, animation, voice-over performances, and Internet networking. Attending The Vision Machine‘s New York Comic Con 2012 panel were writer/director Greg Pak, musician/singer/songwriter Jonathan Colton; musician David Libby; actor Phil LaMarr (who voices the lead character Buddy); Ian Stynes and Barrett Fox of Coco Studios, who developed the game; and Karim Ahmad of ITVS, who provided funding for the project as part of its FutureStates initiative. Moderating the panel was Chicago Sun-Times columnist and technology writing personality Andy Ihnatko.
Pak and Ihnatko launched the panel by giving out free trade paperbacks of The Vision Machine (which was originally released as a free Creative Commons comic via multiple digital comics services), and by announcing that Apple had approved The Vision Machine iPad app that morning. The story centers on a major technology company that releases the iEye, a pair of glasses with embedded network connectivity, video cameras, and editing suites, allowing its wearers to connect with other iEye wearers and record their experiences to share with others. Unfortunately, the iEye is a mask for something far more sinister, as government and business seek to exploit the iEye to form the ultimate Big Brother monitoring system, all with the willing and enthusiastic consent of the monitored.
The Vision Machine app itself sits between a traditional comic book and full animation, while also mixing in elements of video game interactivity. The Vision Machine iPad app shares many basic features with the digital comics available from comiXology and other comparable services, letting readers zoom in on panels or change the orientation of the device to get a better look at the artwork. However, The Vision Machine has many more multi-media elements and exploits connectivity to the Internet in interesting ways. The comic comes with a full voice cast, as well as a soundtrack and score that had to be written to handle the individual pacing that someone will choose to read the comic. Unlike the average motion comic (which, thus far, has often combined the worst aspects of comics and film while failing to capitalize on either of their strengths), characters aren’t turned into crippled shadow puppets; animation in the app comes in the form of moving backgrounds and 3-D artwork that lets you peek behind a character or a prop and see the layers underneath it. The app also allows you to tap on “IRL” icons, for “In Real Life” videos or other behind-the-scenes and making-of material, such as concept artwork or videos of film students discussing the potential and hazards of an iEye-like device in real life. Twitter is also integrated into the app, as tweets with the #visionmachine hash tag will appear in the app as they stream live; Pak discussed the idea of Twitter conversations and events held through The Vision Machine app.
Fox and Pak both spent some time discussing the challenges and possibilities that The Vision Machine app raised, some of which expands on a blog post Pak made about the potential for digital comics when the iPad was originally introduced. The app really seems like a true transmedia work, with multiple different art forms involved in making it, but fundamentally, experiencing the work still feels like reading a traditional comic book rather than a movie or a video game. Both noted that the panel-by-panel navigation of The Vision Machine allows the viewer to control how fast the work is experienced, vs. full-animation which operates like film and takes that control over timing and pacing away from the viewer. The ability to control that pacing is really what makes The Vision Machine feel more like a comic book, as Pak, Fox, and LaMarr (a longtime comic book reader) pointed out in different ways throughout the panel.
A question from Ihnatko prompted some discussion on the future of digital comics, prompting some radical ideas from Pak (getting rid of the linear aspect of the narrative and having adventurous ideas about panel layout on Scott McCloud’s proverbial “infinite canvas” that the Internet offers) and some simpler ones (ensure the art was done in layers to avoid having to draw-in all the background elements obscured by objects in the foreground); one thing he wasn’t ready to jettison was stories that had beginnings and endings. Fox felt that while technology was advancing at an incredible rate, there are plenty of tools for creating new experiences available right now, making an analogy between the history of video games and how many gameplay and storytelling innovations weren’t from better tools as much as learing how to use the existing ones more effectively. LaMarr asked if the story would work as well outside the sci-fi venue (“would an enhanced app Captain Carrot comic have any value?”). Pak replied that any story that works can use new or different tools to be told, citing a video game named Spider as an example. Composer David Libby added that the new platform provided interesting opportunities for musical cues triggered by events.
The panelists also discussed the idea of upgrades to the app (with Pak joking that, “If we had enough money to be evil, you’d all be in trouble, but we don’t have enough money.”), though more in theory than in practice. The initial comic was funded by the Ford Foundation, and ITVS made the app possible, and near the end of the panel, several of the panelists agreed that the time and resources required to make the app a reality are prohibitive for anyone without funding to repeat the experiment. Still, everyone seemed eager to push the boundaries of the media further, and Jonathan Colton pointed out the similar disruptive influence that digital technology had on the music industry, and how this disruption changed the way people looked at and interacted with music.
While there are no major upgrades or changes planned for the app at this time other than bug fixes, the project was released under a Creative Commons license, so anyone can take The Vision Machine material and repurpose or expand on it as long as you don’t make money and credit the original source (which prompted someone to ask where Greg would be OK with 50 Shades of Vision Machine someday). Unfortunately, there are no plans to bring the app to Android due to funding constraints.
The Vision Machine app is available now via iTunes, and the comic is also available as a free download from comiXology or as a PDF from www.visionmachine.net. The website also offers PDFs of the comic without dialogue balloons for remixing and repurposing under the Creative Commons license. The app was made possible from ITVS’s Future States series of socially conscious sci-fi; check them out at FutureStates.tv.