Vrogging

January 21st, 2020

I am getting more and more comfortable creating things in our VR metaroom. As that continues, my views about my relationship with that other place are changing.

On a gut level, I am starting to feel as though the metaroom is simply an extension of the room I am in. It is feeling more and more like a part of the physical world. You just need special glasses to see that particular part of the world.

And that has gotten me thinking that the metaroom would be an interesting place for a daily blog. After all, it’s only because the Web is everywhere that my practice of blogging every day makes sense.

So why not blog in the metaroom, rather than on a two dimensional document? After all, anybody with the right VR or AR glasses can visit the metaroom from wherever they are, just like they now can visit the traditional Web.

And we are heading toward an era where a lot of people are going to have those glasses. I guess it’s nearly time to start vrogging.

Learned dad jokes

January 20th, 2020

I love dad jokes — the kind of joke that essentially relies on double meanings and language play. When I am with my young niece and nephew, I make them up pretty much all the time.

Today the two of them were visiting our lab, and on the way out my nephew noted how much fun it is to punch things in VR. So I made up a dad joke.

I said “Do you know why punching something in VR is so popular?”

“No, why?” they both asked.

“Because,” I explained, “it’s always a hit.”

Which is a perfectly appropriate joke to tell a nine year old and a thirteen year old. But then I noticed that I do the same thing with my grad students.

For example, this evening we were discussing physics simulations in VR. At one point I said “it’s ok to study differential calculus before learning about coefficients of friction, but you need to be careful.”

“Why?” they asked.

“Because,” I explained, “it’s a slippery slope.”

This was clearly a dad joke, but one that you might need to be a grad student to fully appreciate. Which suggests that there may be particular flavors of dad jokes that aren’t meant for little kids at all.

Perhaps there are dad jokes that only work if you tell them to, say, a personal injury lawyer, or a paleontologist, or a neurosurgeon. The jokes are still complete groaners, but in order to groan you need some advanced knowledge.

Maybe these should be called “learned dad jokes”.

Replicator ethics

January 19th, 2020

Continuing our theme of fictional speculation about speculative fiction, suppose the Star Trek replicator were real. Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that we could copy absolutely anything, down to the atomic level.

There are all sorts of philosophical and ethical issues to unpack here. For example, if you could perfectly replicate a human being, ethical issues would abound beyond anything we have ever needed to deal with as a species.

So let’s take something simpler. Suppose you could perfectly replicate food.

Would everyone who eats meat be then able to classify themselves as an ethical vegan? After all, with the right replicator technology, you can precisely copy the taste and flavor and texture of any animal product, and then replicate that food item an infinite number of times.

This essentially removes from the equation the primary issue of ethical veganism: In order for an animal-sourced meal to show up on your plate, sentient beings have suffered and died.

Does the Star Trek replicator effectively take that issue off the table (so to speak)? Or are there other aspects of this question that my analysis is missing?

Like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll

January 18th, 2020

I had a conversation with one of the graduate students in our CS department. His group does very different research from ours, so like most people, he hasn’t had experience with virtual reality.

He told me that over the holiday break, he went to a friend’s house and tried VR for the first time. The experience was just a simple fighting game with abstract shapes. Yet even that, he reported, gave him a powerful sense of immersion that he had not expected.

He came away a believer. It’s too early in the technology, he said, and I agree with him. But it’s kind of like seeing a movie in the very early days of cinema. You can already see how eventually it will take over.

This student now believes in the future of VR because he experienced it for himself. In particular, he told me that it really required that first-hand experience to make him a believer.

It’s like what John Sebastian once said about music:

I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul
But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll

Thinking like an immortal

January 17th, 2020

Imagine that you were immortal. In particular, imagine that you knew for certain that you were going to stay healthy and strong forever.

What would you do with that knowledge? Of course it’s a difficult question, because nobody has ever had that experience, as far as we know.

Our entire life, we learn to watch the clock. We may not be looking at it every moment, but on some level we can always hear it ticking.

We make our plans knowing that our life will have a certain arc, and we work to fill in that arc. This knowledge informs all of our decisions down to the day and even the hour.

Sometimes I read science fiction stories in which a character is immortal. Yet their way of thinking about time usually seems too familiar, too similar to our own.

Does anyone know of a story in which an immortal character’s way of thinking about time is truly informed by their unending existence? If so, I’d love to get a reference!

A bright and beautiful light

January 16th, 2020

Yesterday my sister and I took a trip to the New York Public Library to see the wonderful exhibit on the letters and memorabilia of J.D. Salinger. If you are currently in NYC and can manage to catch that exhibit between now and this coming Sunday (the day it closes), I highly recommend it.

I think the great majority of Salinger’s readers discover him in childhood by reading The Catcher in the Rye. But I discovered him only in my twenties.

Consequently, I ended up loving everything he published except Catcher in the Rye. That book probably would have spoken to me when I was thirteen. Yet by my mid-twenties, I was no longer speaking the same language.

On the other hand, I was utterly enthralled by Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. There was a time when I lived and breathed the travails of the Glass family.

So for me, as I imagine it is for many people, reading the letters of Salinger resonated on a deep emotional level. I felt as though I was searching for clues to an undefinable mystery.

Of course the man is not the work, and the work is not the man. Salinger himself wrote in his letters that the distinction must be respected.

But that’s ok. True genius casts a bright and beautiful light. For a few precious hours yesterday I felt myself bathed in the healing warmth of that light.

Double negatives considered mathematically

January 15th, 2020

When you use double negatives do
Not neglect to deny what’s untrue
For there’s evidence mounting
You’re actually counting
In binary modulo two

AR app store

January 14th, 2020

I was having a conversation with someone in the augmented reality industry today. We got onto the topic of how AR will eventually be used by ordinary people to give them various capabilities, without requiring them to become experts.

This reminded me of the Apple App Store. For the first year of the iPhone, third party developers had only one option: Implement something that would run on the Web in the Safari browser.

That all changed with the launch of the App Store a little more than a year after the introduction of the iPhone itself. Developers were now free to create things like maps, games, educational software, programs for visual artists, or pretty much anything else they wanted to offer to the public, without being constrained by the limitations of Safari.

It’s possible that we will see a similar arc after wearables come out. Third party developers will come up with ideas for useful power-ups that the makers of the hardware never thought of.

On the other hand, Web browsers are far more capable and developer-friendly now than they were back in 2007, while apps can be slow to download and to update, as well as posing potential security risks. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just put on your future reality glasses and run everything from a Web browser?

Extradimensional explorations

January 13th, 2020

Recently I have been doing a lot of work in VR to explore visualization and interaction with objects that have four spatial dimensions. It’s a fun topic that has fascinated me since childhood — but now I can actually do something about it.

Alas, our physical universe, as far as we know, only allows us to roam around in three spatial dimensions. Fortunately, newly emerging virtual reality technologies are making it ever easier to simulate that extra spatial dimension.

I am hopeful that this kind of research will help to give wonderful super powers to new generations of children. If you want to learn more about that, you can read it in my blog post today at our Future Reality Lab.

When information is everywhere

January 12th, 2020

It takes a certain amount of work to point your phone at something, isolate a particular physical object of interest, and read information about that object on your phone’s screen. This is true even if you have an easy-to-use app installed for this purpose.

But when SmartPhones are replaced by SmartGlasses, the same operation will take no work at all. The entire process will be so seamless and automatic, you won’t even think about it.

When that happens, all objects will be information objects. Furniture, houses, people, food, whatever you look at will contain information that is instantly available.

This will fundamentally change the nature of our relationship with the world around us. We will stop thinking of information as something different than physical reality.

The next generation of kids will grow up without any inherent separation between physical reality and digital information about that reality. Because of this, they will think about things in a way that is in some ways fundamentally different from the way you or I think about things.

They will grow up to develop ways of reasoning, of going about their day, of work and of play, that are hard for us even to imagine. And they will tell their children of a long ago time before information was everywhere you looked.

To their children, that ancient time will seem like a distant fairy tale. They might wonder what it must have been like to live in such a strange world.