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Cool Find: Waifu2x – a cool image processing tool to help upscale (not just anime) image files

Waifu2x DemoIf you’re a fan of anime (and one would hope that you are, since you’re here reading this blog) then you probably have a rather large collection of anime-themed graphics files sitting on your computer and/or smartphone/tablet. Perhaps you’re using them for desktop wallpapers or a photo screensaver, or as forum avatars, or to jazz up your blog posts, or maybe you just like to sit for hours and stare longingly at your 2D waifu. (Come on guys, admit it. Confession is good for the soul.) But, odds are that many of those images are fairly low-res. (Actually this is somewhat less true nowadays, thanks to more powerful and cheaper CPUs and HD quality source material; however there are still quite a few lower-resolution images to be found out there.) And trying to view those low-res images on today’s ultra-high-res monitors is an exercise in pain and frustration. You could upscale them in a graphics program, sure, but that would end up turning a nice-looking, if small, image into a giant smeared blob of yuck that’d make you want to tear your eyes out. (Ok, I admit this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true that upscaling a smaller image does make it look grainy and blotchy and pretty nasty.) So what is a red-blooded image-loving otaku to do?!

Well guess what, Japanese Github user “nagadomi” has come to the rescue with a truly awesome piece of (free!) software. Waifu2x is an image processing app that uses some pretty freaky cool technology to upscale image files while preserving line detail and shading, and vastly reducing graphical glitches/artifacting. It does this using “convolutional neural networks,” a technology that even I can’t wrap my head around (and I work in the technology industry!) Basically (and this is in extreme layman’s terms) a neural network is a way for a computer system to “learn” a particular task, similar to how the human brain “learns” by forming neural pathways. Specifically, the convolutional neural network that Waifu2x uses is specially designed to simulate the way we process visual information; which explains why it’s so good at what it does (processing image files.) What exactly does it do? It is designed to optimally upscale images while preserving the strong lines that an animator uses when drawing characters’ features, etc., while minimizing artirfacting and digital noise. And the results are, in a word, stunning. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the sample images on the project page on Github. In the words of one Redditor, “[T]his performs unbelievably well on images with clean linework and shading, creating near-perfect upscales.”

And lest you think that this piece of software is a frivolous waste of time and energy, there are people using it for other (non-anime) tasks as well. It is, after all, an image upscaler, and the neural network can actually “learn” to process different types of images. One enterprising individual is using it to upscale traditional Japanese artwork that is not available in high-quality scans, only small reprints in a book. There are even some enterprising souls that are using this to upscale video as well.

Unfortunately, all this computational awesomeness comes at a rather high cost. These heavy-duty computations are too much for even the beefiest of CPUs, and requires a fairly high-grade GPU for its processing power; specifically, an NVIDIA GPU that supports the CUDA parallel computing platform and Compute Capability 3.0 or later. If you’re one of those hardcore gamers, then you’re probably set, so go ahead and download and install it! (it’s not too difficult, just follow the instructions.) But if your hardware isn’t up to snuff, fortunately the author has set up a demo site that you can try out with your own images.

Going to Anime Expo? Interested in Hatsune Miku? Then be sure and check out this exhibit!

Hatsune Miku Dreams of Electric Sheep Nucleus Art Gallery and StoreIn our recent episode on budgeting for an anime convention, we recommended that you should set aside some money for those “oh crap!” type moments — accidentally overspending on something, dealing with various forms of Travel and/or Con Drama (lost luggage, roommates you just don’t get along with, etc.) and so on. Well, another (more positive) reason that you may want to keep a little bit of extra money in your budget is that, while you’re at con, you might catch wind of some cool and/or fun event that happens to be in town while you’re at con, that you might want to take an evening to go and visit. Having a little extra cash on hand makes this kind of serendipitous event possible.

Case in point: if you’ll be going to Anime Expo, and if you are a fan of (or are even at least a little bit interested in) Hatsune Miku and/or Vocaloid in general, then you might want to check out this cool event hosted at the Gallery Nucleus, a mere 12 miles from the LACC. “Hatsune Miku Dreams of Electric Sheep” is an exhibit being put on by Crypton Future Media in partnership with Gallery Nucleus, and features an exciting line-up of original art featuring our favorite blue-haired, leek-wielding virtual diva, Hatsune Miku. The exhibit features a large and exciting collection of original art featuring Miku & Co. done by various artists, each depicting Miku in their own unique artistic style. This collision of worlds will no doubt surprise and entertain fans and curious onlookers alike.

In addition, there will be some merchandise available for purchase, including limited-edition prints, T-shirts, a gallery exhibition catalog (which includes a download card for a special Hatsune Miku EP) and many Snow Miku goods available for the first time outside of Japan. (Another reason to have some extra cash lying about.)

The exhibit will be running between July 2, 2015 – July 19, 2015 (just in time for Anime Expo) at the Gallery Nucleus, located at 210 East Main St, in Alhambra, which is only about 12 miles from the LACC (check out the route on Google Maps or in the map embedded below this post). It’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 noon until 8 PM (they’re closed Mondays.) The Opening Reception, which will be held on Jul 2 from 6:00PM – 10:00PM, will feature a Hatsune Miku concert screening (tickets are $5, must be purchased online and are limited to 200, so better act quickly if you’re interested.) Otherwise, the exhibit is open to all and is completely free and does not require a reservation. (though you will need to get yourself there, either driving or public transportation, hence the “why you might need to keep some extra money around” comment earlier.)

Continue reading Going to Anime Expo? Interested in Hatsune Miku? Then be sure and check out this exhibit!

Well that was fast: Preliminary Anime Expo 2015 schedules are now up!

Anime Expo 2015 LogoMurphy’s Law strikes yet again here at Otaku no Podcast. (Seems to happen a lot around here.) Mere hours after we released our most recent episode — in which we talked about Anime Expo 2015 but couldn’t really give any details because the schedules weren’t out yet (and we didn’t think they’d be out until at least the middle of the month) — Anime Expo goes and drops a bombshell on us, in the form of the AX 2015 preliminary schedule.

(In the fantasy world inside my head, I am imagining the AX staffers crowded around their computers, listening to the podcast, when one of them (the leader, who, naturally, has adopted the Gendo pose) calmly intones, “So, they don’t think we can release an event schedule until way closer to the event, do they? Well we’ll show them! Mwahahaha!!!” complete with that little smirk that Gendo puts on whenever he says something devious. The reality, being much more boring, is that it was probably just nothing but coincidence. 🙂 )

Anyway, yes indeed, Anime Expo announced that the preliminary schedule for AX 2015 is now available online for your viewing pleasure. With over 200 hours of programming already entered, this is definitely shaping up to be one awesome weekend — and they’re nowhere near finished filling in the schedule yet! Definitely keep an eye on it. In particular, this schedule does not include any autograph sessions, video room schedules, gaming schedules, or any event/guest/whatever that they haven’t yet announced. (Surprise 11th hour guest/programming announcements, anyone?)

Now for the bad news: there is not (as far as I can tell) a downloadable PDF version of the schedule as there has been in the past. Maybe they’ll make one available closer to the event; this is, after all, still early days. Also there is no word on whether the schedule will be made available through some sort of mobile-friendly format (hopefully Guidebook again… fingers crossed…) Again, I’m guessing that they’ll probably wait until very close to the final version of the schedule before releasing that.

However, they did set up a web portal where you can view the schedule, using the SCHED app, which they’ve used before in the past. As web portals go, it’s pretty decent. You can view the schedule in one of several formats: as a simple list of events ordered by time, as a list ordered by location (room) or as the traditional schedule grid. The events are color-coded to make identifying the various types of events (panels, main events, workshops, etc.) easy. There is a search function that lets you easily find a particular event or panel you’re looking for. And finally, you can create an account on the site, and mark down events that you are interested in, which puts them in a special “My Schedule” section for easy access. (Note: there are two ways you can register for the site; either by supplying a traditional email and password, or by using your Facebook account. I could not, for the life of me, get the email/password to work; I had much better luck going through my Facebook account.)

Go check it out today!

AnimEigo launches Kickstarter campaign to fund our namesake, Otaku no Video! (Updated)

Otaku no VideoCrowdfunding is one of the many unique and innovative ideas to come out of today’s Internet-savvy, high-speed connected, social media-saturated world. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it possible for a person or a group who have an idea for a cool product or service, but not a lot of money, to potentially attract interest and gain enough funding to turn their dream into a reality. It still requires a lot of effort — you still have to get noticed, which means you need to get the word out about your product — and even if you get enough backing, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to successfully bring your product to market — but a successfully crowdfunded project at least has a fighting chance at becoming reality.

Crowdfunding initially gained popularity with the tech industry, with tech-related products making up the first wave of crowdfunded projects; however now other industries are waking up and taking notice of these successes, including the entertainment industry, who have successfully crowdfunded several movie & TV shows, including a few fan favorites.

Now the anime and video game industries are getting in on the action too. It seems that not a day goes by when I don’t see some news article about some crowdfunded anime or video game or whatnot. Sadly, there have been a few notable failures; still, the successes are impressive. Well, the latest one of these to garner the public’s attention is one that is particularly near and dear to our hearts, since it involves a unique animated classic that just happens to be the inspiration for the name of this very blog and podcast.

Otaku no Video, created by the folks at Gainax, is an oddball but delightful animated tale which tells the story of Ken Kubo, a normal, average-Joe college student, who one day runs into an old high school friend, Tanaka, who turns out to be a hardcore otaku. Soon he and Tanaka start hanging out and Ken finds himself drawn into the world of the otaku, to the extreme annoyance of his girlfriend and other “normal” friends. Soon Ken’s transformation is complete, and he dives headlong into his new otaku lifestyle, with the ultimate goal and desire to become “King of all Otaku,” or “OtaKing.” Interspersed with the animated segments are a series of really odd yet humorous “real-life” interviews with otaku of various persuasions (all of whom just happen to be members of Gainax.) The entire piece serves as a delightful “mockumentary”-style homage to the otaku culture, and is also, in a way, an animated telling of the history behind the studio Gainax. (And yes, like I said before, it also serves as our namesake. “Otaku no Video” can be translated as “Geeks’ Video” — hence our name, “Otaku no Podcast,” or “Geeks’ Podcast.”)

Well, as it turns out, next year is going to be Otaku no Video’s 25th anniversary, and to commemorate this momentous occasion, AnimEigo announced that they would be crowdfunding a brand new Blu-ray release of Otaku no Video, just in time for its 25th anniversary. People who back the campaign will receive the “OtaKing Edition,” which includes the entirety of Otaku no Video, presented using a gorgeous new HD transfer of the film that was created for the Japanese Blu-ray release which shipped last year. It’ll include Japanese audio and English subtitles. In addition, the disc will feature four audio commentary tracks (Japanese with English subtitles) featuring commentary from various people involved with the project. The discs will not be region-coded, and will be available to ship anywhere except Japan. Their goal is US$40,000, and if the project exceeds its funding goal, AnimEigo will also throw in some additional “stretch goal” perks, including patches, art books, dōjinshi and more. AnimEigo has successfully funded a previous Kickstarter campaign — a rather nicely-done Blu-ray release of one of my favorites, Bubblegum Crisis — so I have high hopes that they’ll succeed in this venture as well.

The Kickstarter will go live at 10 AM Eastern time on Tuesday, June 2. I’ll update this post once the Kickstarter page has gone live. In the meantime, you can check out a video that they produced (which shows off the excellent HD transfer they’ll be using) at Vimeo or via the embedded player below the cut.

Update 06/02/2015: The Kickstarter campaign is now live! Their goal is $40,000; however after less than a day of being up, they’ve already amassed over $35,000 of that! This one looks like it’s in the bag!

Update 06/02/2015 only just a little bit later than the above update: They’ve met their $40,000 goal in less than a day! Amazing!

Update 06/03/2015 late evening: This thing’s riding to number one with a bullet – not only have they exceeded their $40k goal, they’ve almost doubled it – the kickstarter is at $60,900 as I write this, and there’s still 21 days to go, if you’d still like to get in on the action.

Continue reading AnimEigo launches Kickstarter campaign to fund our namesake, Otaku no Video! (Updated)

Cool Find: Japan Animator Expo showcases talented up-and-coming animators!

Animator Expo LogoYeah, I know, it’s only been a day or two since I posted our last Cool Find. Please forgive me. The reason for this, though, is a good one, as you’ll soon see: there is a time limit involved.

Japan Animator Expo (not to be confused with that other Expo with a similar-sounding name) is a cool, relatively new (started in November of last year) joint venture between Hideaki Anno’s (yes, that guy) studio, Studio Khara, and Dwango, a telecom/media group in Japan and parent company of famous Japanese video streaming site Niconico (formerly Nico Nico Douga, that offers relatively new animators exposure to a worldwide audience by giving them an opportunity to produce a series of anime shorts, with fairly little creative restrictions, which are then streamed on NND. You’ll also see a healthy sprinkling of more seasoned talent in the mix as well, in both the production side as well as the voice acting side. Still, these shorts are a great showcase of the sort of new, up-and-coming talent that is brewing in the Japanese animation industry. The animation styles and character designs are as jaw-droopingly gorgeous as they are eclectic, and the storylines/plots are just as unusual and widely varied. (You can read about some of them on the Wikipedia page.)

Japan Animator Expo will produce a total of 30 shorts, one each week. We’re currently on week 24; however some of the older videos are about to expire. At midnight Japan Standard Time (use this link to convert that to your local timezone) on the morning of Monday, June 1 (that’s less than a week from now) videos #1-12 in the series will no longer be viewable. Hopefully this venture has generated enough interest and buzz to convince them that it’s worth doing something like this again. Having this as a once-a-year event would be great, and would really spread the word and continue to bring new talent into the industry. Be sure and check them out today! (Note: unless you read Japanese, be sure to click the “EN” button at the upper right of the page.)