Farm worms, share memes

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - MICHAEL GIRARD,

In 1996, I was run­ning my own 3D-an­i­ma­tion com­pany, Un­real Pic­tures. Au­todesk, which cre­ates de­sign soft­ware for en­gi­neers and ar­chi­tects, hired us to de­velop a pro­gram that would let peo­ple an­i­mate dig­i­tal models. We in­cluded sev­eral demon­stra­tion models to which users could ap­ply a danc­ing mo­tion: a di­nosaur, a woman, and our fa­vorite, a baby.

When peo­ple bought our soft­ware, in­stead of us­ing that baby to prac­tice an­i­ma­tion tech­niques, they ex­ported the danc­ing ver­sion, which they called “Baby Cha-Cha.” Peo­ple be­gan shar­ing it through email, then adding it to web­sites and selling it on cloth­ing. In 1998, it even ap­peared on the tele­vi­sion show Ally McBeal. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had cre­ated the first-ever dig­i­tal meme.

I think it spread be­cause the file was a GIF you could eas­ily at­tach to emails, and the baby seemed care­free and op­ti­mistic. But mostly, and kind of dis­turbingly, peo­ple en­joyed ridi­cul­ing it. I wanted my work to be taken se­ri­ously: I’d pre­vi­ously stud­ied hu­man mo­tion with top chore­og­ra­phers. This baby was far less grace­ful and artis­tic; it was just a lit­tle un­canny-val­ley GIF. As its pop­u­lar­ity eclipsed our soft­ware’s, I got cyn­i­cal. I didn’t want to be as­so­ci­ated with the an­i­ma­tion, even though the ex­po­sure was great for my com­pany.

Re­cently I vis­ited the Com­puter His­tory Mu­seum in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia. It has a 25,000-square-foot per­ma­nent ex­hibit that dis­plays 2,000 years of com­put­ing his­tory. And the very last panel is a pic­ture of Baby Cha-Cha. It’s bit­ter­sweet watch­ing your cre­ation be­come fa­mous when you’re not par­tic­u­larly proud of it.

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