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Where technology meets magic

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Advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic, a legendary author once said. At Disney World, the two have been combined in a dazzling way, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The location is Disney World in Orlando. The scene is the World of Avatar, the newest major attraction at the theme park, based on the most successful movie ever.

Avatar lends itself to superlatives.

We are entering the most realistic fantasy world yet created as a theme park ride, the Na’vi River. Here, luminescent vegetation brushes our boat, glittering creatures bound past us, and the elusive Na’vi people lurk in the background.

“I helped create that sentry,” says my traveling companion, pointing to a magnificent, eerily real Na’vi guard that watches over the boats that brave this river. Even with this reminder of the manufactured nature of the scenery, the illusion persists.

“Arthur C Clarke one said that any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says my guide, Ron Martin, referring to the great science fiction author who wrote, among other, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ron himself is something of a specialist in mixing technology and magic. He is vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, which has consulted on some of the great science fiction movies of our times.

This division of Panasonic has collaborated closely with movie-makers in the research and development of visual image processing technologies. It also works with cinemas in cutting edge projection technology. This legacy was brought strongly to bear on the World of Avatar and the planet Pandora.

“Our projection technology enables this lifelike imaging on the Na’vi River,” says Martin. “We sat down with Disney Imagineering, we listened to their creative vision, and we applied technology that satisfied that vision. We don’t move them to what we want, we make technology that enables the creative vision. It’s what I call technology under creative control.

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“Anywhere you see something non-physical, a projected image, that is our projection technology. All the physical elements, the lighting, the plant life that is illuminated, are built by Disney. But the characters and animals you see moving, and the multi-layer environment that creates the illusion of depth and looking deep into the jungle, is all Panasonic projection technology.”

The end-result is, as intended, both other-worldly and visually compelling. It is designed to elicit both oohs and aahs at the dazzling visual feast, and a sense of wonder at the exquisite detail, complexity and richness of the alien environment.

The biggest surprise of all is the extent to which the technology behind it is entirely invisible. It stands in stark contrast to “traditional” Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, where decades-old animatronics – in effect robots programmed with limited movements – are used to bring pirates and their  environment to life.

Or, at least, a semblance of life. The creaking technology is all but visible, as the characters make their stilted and jerky movements.

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“The key is that we don’t want to be pushing technology for technology’s sake, but for the story’s sake,” says Martin. “If we achieve that goal, the guest is going to respond, gasping for joy, rather than saying. ‘Gee, that looks fake’. Everything we do in this arena is to that end, to not being a distraction, to make the story the thing.”

The World of Avatar is simultaneously evidence of how realistic ally a movie world can be replicated as an experience, and the beginning of a new wave of immersive theme park attractions. This year Disney World will open Toy Story Land, in which the visitor appears to have been shrunk to the size of a toy. Next year, it will debut Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which will be the theme park culmination of Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise.

“More and more, that level of entertainment is media-driven, so what we want is media that fulfils the creative vision,” says Martin. “It includes issues like resolution, brightness, and colour imagery, so that imaging blends into environments precisely. In a theatrical story-telling environment, precision is everything. When we come in and blend that into a physical  environment in a theme park, everything must blend in and complete the story rather than be a distraction from the story.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

“Projection will continue to feature heavily in this process. These are contributory technologies to the idea of taking the cinema world and turning it into physical worlds you explore. The evolution of projection has to go forward, and brightness and colour accuracy and colour reproduction are a big part of the competitive nature of what we want to achieve.”

Having worked on ground-breaking titles like Avatar and Gravity, Martin is no stranger to both the imagination and technology it takes to create new worlds. He won’t go into detail on the specific technology that is used, but is happy to elaborate on his work on the original Avatar movie.

“The Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory worked very closely with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in the development of the 3D imaging systems for Avatar, both on the cinema in terms of the specifications for the 3D cinema and for home video and the production of 3D Blu-ray and 3D televisions.

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“We’ve worked very closely with many film-makers. Much of the movement in home video in particular and in theatrical presentation was done through some of the work of Panasonic through research and development at the Hollywood lab.”

Martin is a personal friend of Cameron and has worked with him since the making of the record-breaking Titanic movie, but is reticent about elaborating on his personal role.

“It’s a collaborative effort when we sit down with directors and cinematographers and post-production teams, to determine work-flows, colour correction systems and presentation systems, transmission systems to get the data out to the theatre, or out to the home user, whether in packaged media or streeaming services. This is part of Panasonic’s broad reach of technology in the entertainment sector.”

Ultimately, the technology will go beyond movies and theme parks, spilling over into destination resorts, museums and the like. But don’t expect an overnight revolution, Martin advises.

“Technology moves at a slow developmental incremental pace and, the smarter we can be about that evolution, working with creative companies, whether it’s on the theatrical cinema side or the theme park side or the home video side, it’s an advantage for us to be part of that.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

Inside Pandora

The World of Avatar, an expansion of Disney World’s’s Animal Kingdom, sees a recreation of the The Valley of Mo’ara on the planet of Pandora. The back-story is that the valley is undergoing a rebirth long after a destructive mining operation known as the Resources Development Administration (RDA) ceased operation. In other words, the theme park attraction is a sequel to the Avatar movie, which ends with the shutting down of the RDA operations.The company provided the following highlights of what visitors can see:

* The iconic floating mountains in the Valley of Mo’ara – there are 22 – peak at about 130 feet above the valley floor. Sharp-eyed adventurers will see Pandoran Stingbats nesting in the mountains.  A team of more than 60 artisans from the U.S., Peru, France, Portugal, Japan and Ireland contributed to creating the art-scape of the floating mountains.

* On Pandora, a diverse ecosystem is rebalancing as a variety of colorful plant life flourishes.
Plants have names like Puffball Tree, Dapophet, Vein Pod, Scorpion Thistle, Episoth and Flaska Reclinata.

* Many plants are bioluminescent, with internal lighting or material that makes them glow. Plants are interactive. Guests can see and sense the energy of the plants that moves in waves.

* No matter where guests go in Pandora, they will feel the presence of many animal species: The pack hunter, the Viperwolf with six legs and opposable thumbs;  the Direhorse, a six-legged domesticated riding animal; Mountain Banshees, with wingspans averaging approximately 45 feet.

* At Avatar Flight of Passage, 48 guests at a time can enter a state-of-the-art theater and board mountain banshees as avatars for the ride of their lives across Pandora.
Immersion in the world of Pandora is complete thanks to a projection screen 69 feet wide and more than 97 feet high.

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Huawei Mate 20 Pro matches camera benchmark record

A benchmark by DxOMark sees the triple-cam handset tie with the P20 Pro for best smartphone camera on the market.

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The Huawei Mate 20 Pro has come out top in a camera benchmark test that assesses all aspects of smartphone camera performance.

DxOMark, which conducts rigorous hardware testing and is trusted as an industry standard for image quality measurements, has just released the results of its in-depth analysis of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone camera. 

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the Chinese manufacturer’s latest top-end device. Building on the P20 Pro’s camera technology, the Mate 20 Pro comes with a Leica-branded triple-camera setup, but swaps its stable-mate’s monochrome camera for a super-wide-angle module, offering a 35mm-equivalent focal length range from 16 to 80mm—the widest of all current smartphone cameras.

The handset is in direct competition with the Apple iPhone XS Max, the Google Pixel 3 XL, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, among other. How does it fare?

“With a total photo score of 114, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro ties the record-setting score of its cousin, the P20 Pro,” says DxOMark. “The overall Photo score is calculated from sub-scores in tests that examine different aspects of its performance under different lighting conditions.”

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro achieves a photo score of 114 points. In stills mode, the Mate 20 Pro’s triple camera captures images with good target exposure and a wide dynamic range, recording both good highlight and shadow detail even in difficult high-contrast situations. Noise levels are well under control down to low light levels, and the camera’s white balance system and colour rendering settings produce a pleasant colour response in almost all circumstances.

At 97 points, the Mate 20 Pro is very close to the best for video as well, thanks to a fast and smooth autofocus system with good tracking performance, accurate white balance as well as pleasant colour rendering, and low levels of noise, especially in bright shooting conditions. Our testers also liked the exposure system’s ability to adapt quickly and smoothly to changes in illumination.

It was not all good news. DxOMark also had some criticism for the device.

Click here to read about the drawbacks of the Mate 20 Pro camera, and other positives.

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SA car wins
Dakar Rally

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The final stage of Dakar 2019 drew to a close at the bivouac in Pisco, Peru, and saw Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa’s Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel bring home their South African-built Toyota Hilux for an historic victory. Not only was it a first win for Toyota, but it was also the first petrol-powered car to win the Dakar in the South-American era.

The Qatari driver ensured his French navigator, who turned 43 years old on Thursday, 17 January, received a great birthday present, when the pair arrived at the final time control of Dakar 2019 with teammates Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz in close formation. The two Toyota Hilux crews completed the entire stage together, as De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz waited nearly 55 minutes for the leaders to start the stage, in order to shadow them to the finish.

The emotions bubbled over for Team Principal Glyn Hall, who found himself without words as his two crews drove into the media area after the time control. “This victory was long overdue,” he finally managed, before being swamped in a sea of well-wishers.

The winning driver, however, was much more vocal: “We are so happy to win the Dakar – not only for ourselves, but also for Toyota and the entire Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team. Everyone has worked so hard for so long, and really deserve this. Thank you for letting us drive this car.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing SA led Dakar 2019 from the first to the last stage, with Al Attiyah/Baumel drawing first blood, before handing the mantle to De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz during stage 2. But then a disastrous Stage 3 saw the Qatari retake the lead – a lead he didn’t relinquish despite some of the toughest stages yet seen on any South-American Dakar.

“When we first heard that the rally was going to take place only in one country, we were skeptical,” said Hall after regaining composure. “But the organisers made sure that this year’s race will long be remembered as one of the toughest tests in the last decade.”

Al Attiyah / Baumel’s victory at Dakar 2019 means that Toyota Gazoo Racing has now won both of the world’s toughest automotive races – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the DakarRally.

Click here to read Glyn Hall’s comment on winning the Dakar Rally, as well as the rankings.

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