Karaoke in Berlin

October 17th, 2018

For my last night in Berlin, I went with sone colleagues to a Karaoke bar, You have not lived until you have sung in a Karaoke bar in Berlin.

There is something wonderfully freeing about getting up front of a group of people and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon”. With original lyrics.

I admit it’s not an experience for everyone. But for me it was pretty good.

Vision talk

October 16th, 2018

Today I gave a “vision talk” here in Berlin. Vision talks are a new thing at the UIST conference — this is the first year they have it. The idea is to invite a few senior researchers to present their vision for the future.

My vision talk essentially boiled down to the proposition that augmented reality will create an opportunity to evolve natural language itself to include an expressive computer-enhanced visual component. This is important because the most powerful thing about humans, I argued, is our ability to communicate with each other.

I had only fifteen minutes to work with, so it was a bit challenging. Then again, constraints create opportunities.

I focused my thesis down to the essentials, and showed a few carefully chosen interactive examples of the possibilities. Being able to use my Chalktalk program to show a live demo of all these ideas helped a lot.

The feedback I got afterward was very positive. With any luck, I’ve helped to steer the conversation about augmented reality away from a misplaced focus on mere technology, and into a more nuanced, open ended and human-centered direction.

Alexanderplatz

October 15th, 2018

At the opening session of the UIST conference, the conference chair talked about East Berlin. It’s where the conference is taking place, and it’s also where he grew up.

He showed us pictures from when he was born — when East Berlin was still under the thumb of the USSR. The difference was stark. In place of the vibrant Alexanderplatz of today, we saw something very bleak and desolate.

Then he showed a photo of the Berlin Wall, in the process of being torn down. He narrated the picture with these words:

“At this time in the century when people are talking about building walls, maybe we can use this as an example. Or at least, we have a spare wall if you need one.”

Everyone in the audience cheered. It was good to hear a voice of sanity.

In Berlin

October 14th, 2018

I arrived today in Berlin for the UIST conference. I love Berlin — it is my second favorite city after New York. Maybe because it reminds me so much of New York. :-)

Just arriving, I am greeting old friends, colleagues and acquaintances from years past. Time may changed me, but I can’t trace time.

As this day has progressed, memories have been coming back to me of earlier times in this wonderful city. Memories of people I knew, and of conversations I’ve had.

My first time in Berlin was in May 2001, and since then I have returned a number of times — most notably for an entire summer visit in 2006. In the days to come, I am going to let those recollections wash over me, and see which ones rise to the surface, in the magic eight ball of my memory.

Reading gothic horror stories

October 13th, 2018

As part of our research for our SIGGRAPH 2019 project, my co-creator Kris and I have been reading lots of classic gothic horror stories. Yesterday morning I re-read Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

This morning I read Perdval Landon’s Thurnley Abbey and The Hanging Stranger by Philip K. Dick. The latter is most definitely gothic horror, despite having been first published in 1953 in a Science Fiction magazine.

When you read a lot of gothic horror in a short amount of time, its general theme really starts to resonate. There is a sense that reality itself — or what you thought was reality — turns out to be a mere veil. Once that veil falls way, something far darker and more terrifying is revealed.

The key here is that we’re not talking about anything as simple as a monster jumping out of the closet. The “monster” turns out to be reality itself. The emotion one feels is not mere fear of pain or of death, but true existential terror — the Universe itself has been compromised.

Very cool stuff. :-)

Future selfie

October 12th, 2018

At our lab today we were discussing how various everyday activities will change when everybody has those future Augmented Reality wearable specs. I was speaking enthusiastically about all the cool things we will be able to do that we can’t do now.

“But what about selfies?” one of the students objected. “If you are wearing the camera on your face, how can you take a picture of you and your friend together?”

I took a small coin-sized object out of my pocket and held it up at arm’s length. “This is my future camera,” I said. “And I can also preview what the selfie will look like, because I can see anything I want through my wearables.”

The point was that a camera can be as small as you want, once it no longer needs to be attached to a physical screen. When you are wearing those future specs, the “screen” will be wherever you want it to be.

Future object permanence

October 11th, 2018

When you were a small child you learned about object permanence: Even when you are not looking at an object, it continues to exist. If you put your teddy bear on a particular shelf in your closet before you leave for school, it will still be there when you return.

When we are all wearing mixed reality glasses (or contact lenses or implants) object permanence for many things won’t be a necessity. More and more of the “built world” we see around us will be virtual constructs, unconstrained by the laws of physics and inertia.

Yet we may choose to impose a virtual object permanence anyway. When we place a virtual object in a particular place in the physical world, we might wish to impose constraints upon that object’s behavior, so that it stays where we have put it.

To me the question of how much — or even whether — we will do this, in the long run, is quite deep. It comes down to the following question: Is object permanence an intrinsic feature of our biological human brain, or is it simply an adaptation that our brain makes in childhood in response to encountering the physical world?

If the latter case is true, that increases the possibilities for a mixed reality future. If object permanence is not an intrinsic feature of our human brain, we may end up evolving as a social species to replace it with something far more fluid and flexible.

Of course children will still want to find their teddy bear when they get home from school. But in the future, maybe they will just Google it.

Not Virtual Reality

October 10th, 2018

For the last four years our lab has been equipped with much of the latest in Virtual Reality technology. To try many of our research experiences, people put on VR headsets and run VR software. So it would seem logical for me to talk about predominant VR practices when discussing our research, and then discuss how our work veers away from those practices.

Yet a friend who attended a talk I gave in Paris this past week pointed out to me the problem with this approach. She said it sounds as though we are setting ourselves up as a kind of alternative to predominant VR practices.

In fact, she said, we are not actually doing research in Virtual Reality, as that term is usually understood. We are doing research in future practices for reality itself.

Predominant VR practices focus almost entirely either on experiences for one person or on experiences shared by people who are remotely located from each other. Our research focuses almost entirely on experiences shared by people who are in the same physical room, perceiving each other in their actual locations.

So at the most fundamental level we aren’t actually researching “Virtual Reality” as that term is usually understood. Rather we are attempting to model what will, in the future, be the everyday ordinary reality for people who will still be moving around in the physical world with their physical bodies.

You might say that what we are researching is “Future Reality”. I agree with my friend that I really need to get that message across more clearly.

Fortunately our lab is called the “Future Reality Lab”. So that helps.

Analysis of Oceans Eight

October 9th, 2018

I have a good friend who is concerned, as am I, about the representation of women in public discourse. Which is why she had held out high hopes for Oceans Eight. It’s sequel of sorts to Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the Rat Pack heist film Oceans Eleven, but this time with an all female cast of thieves.

She said that she had wanted to really like it, and was surprised by how unengaged she felt watching it. She told me she wondered whether this was due to some unexamined gender bias on her own part.

Having not seen the film, I asked her a few questions, after which I developed a theory that the problem lay not with her, but with the script. Both iterations of Oceans films spent a lot of time working through the relationships between the men. You cared about the heist because you cared about them, and you cared about them because you saw them work through their interpersonal issues with each other.

Today on my flight back from Paris I went ahead and watched Oceans Eight. And it was exactly as I had predicted and feared. The entire cast was wonderful, the action scenes were perfectly executed, the general look — cinematography, lighting, costumes, sets — were a marvel.

But nothing actually happened between the principal characters to make you feel that they had worked to develop their bond with each other. It was all simply assumed, and never tested. So for all of the great acting on screen by Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and others, nothing they did truly felt like it mattered on a human level.

The takeaway for me is that if you want to move the needle on films involving women out in the world, you still need to do the work of building a story that focuses on how the relationships between them are tested and worked through. That is a principle which holds true for all storytelling — no matter what the gender focus.

Or as old Shakespeare might have put it: “The fault lies not in our Stars, but in our screenplay.”

White Mirror mirror

October 8th, 2018

I realized that my blog post today at our Future Reality Lab is a bit of a manifesto.

So today I am going to link to that post, in order to help the conversation around the issues I discuss there.