L’ecole d’escalier

April 18th, 2015

One day, perhaps not that many years from now, we will hold even our most ordinary conversations with the aid of very advanced software. We won’t be thinking about this software at all. It will just be doing its business quietly, turning real-time images of our facial expressions and body movements into emotive avatars that help to convey the subtleties of our communication across the world, perhaps representing us as virtual avatars.

The appearance of these avatars may vary, depending on the social or professional situation. We will think of them the way we now think of clothing: We wear them not to misrepresent ourselves, but rather as a kind of adornment, a way to better convey which side of our selves we are trying to bring to a particular situation.

One side effect of all this is that our every movement and facial expression will be tracked, and can be retrieved later for playback. If privacy laws are properly set up, random strangers will not be permitted to invade our lives by re-playing our every moment. But we ourselves certainly will be.

And that brings up an opportunity — one that is more or less new in human existence. We can examine, post facto, how we have expressed ourselves to others. If we became angry in a social situation, or acted awkwardly, we can use such recordings to learn how to do better. In ways never before possible, we will be able to hold an informed mirror up to ourselves, and perhaps improve our ability to communicate and share our feelings with others.

Instead of simply experiencing l’esprit d’espalier, the missed opportunity to say what we really meant to say, or to properly channel, in the heat of the moment, unexpected feelings of fear or distress, we will be able to look back on those moments, and perhaps learn from them.

Reunion

April 17th, 2015

This evening I had dinner with an old friend. The last time we had seen each other, we had both been much younger than we are now.

Fortunately, he has not aged a day. Which is great, because according to my friend neither have I. :-)

Virtual irony

April 16th, 2015

I gave a talk this evening about the possible future of shared virtual reality, to an audience of fellow VR enthusiasts. Everyone was very knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, and open to possibilities.

It was one of those talks where the feeling in the room is very positive, and we all end up grooving on the moment. I realized that I was drawing energy from the room, and that the people room were in turn drawing energy from me.

And I couldn’t help wondering whether such a feeling would be possible in a shared virtual reality. This sense that we had, that we were in a unique time and place, in a moment that mattered, this electricity that we were somehow all communicating with each other through our shared physical presence, could it be replicated on-line?

One gauge of shared VR might be whether it gives us the same feeling that we get when we are in a physical room together sharing a moment.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if that level of shared presence turns out to be unattainable?

The long nose, part 2

April 15th, 2015

If I were the head of a large high technology corporation, I’d be looking at the bottom line. And the bottom line ultimately rests on I.P. What do I own that my competitors do not?

That doesn’t give me a lot of room to fool around. If I direct my resources to focus on initiatives that won’t come to market for another twenty years, I am essentially dissipating my advantage.

In particular, if our company applies for patent protection on those initiatives, we are essentially just giving away valuable know-how to future competitors, since the patent will expire around the time anybody will benefit. It’s not a very good strategy.

On the other hand, if I am a young researcher at a University, I am not in a position to capitalize on technological innovation in any large scale way. The most important resource I have is complete freedom to pursue directions that others are not yet pursuing.

I probably won’t be rewarded for those pursuits with vast riches. But I will probably be rewarded by a life of complete intellectual freedom, as well as the steady financial support of large corporations that know full well the value proposition at work: If they keep lines of communication open with people like me — and with my students — then they will have an insight into what might lie just beyond the commercial horizon, and they can start preparing for whatever that may be.

When you zoom into a Google map, you are using my algorithms. When you play Minecraft or Diablo III or Worlds of Warcraft, you are using my algorithms. When you see a Science fiction movie, or an animation by Dreamworks or the Walt Disney company, you are seeing my algorithms at work.

In all these cases, you are mostly seeing the benefits of initiatives that I and people like me started long ago. And for the most part, we are no longer working on those things. We are busy working on things that you will benefit from in another fifteen or twenty years.

While it is understandable that Vasco wouldn’t know all this, it is very helpful that large corporations are keenly aware of it. And those corporations make sure that our University research labs get the funding we need to keep doing whatever we think needs to be done next.

They never tell us what to work on. But they are always extremely interested to see what it might be.

The long nose, part 1

April 14th, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the following comment by Vasco on my post the other day about the relationship between University research and the research done at for-profit corporations:

P(You spending time) << P(google spending time)
P(You doing research) << P(google research rezults)

It’s weird to me that people might think this is actually the relevant concept. Because it doesn’t come even close to describing the underlying value proposition.

When you use Google maps, and a server smoothly delivers a collection of power-of-two resolution image tiles that your web client then assembles into differently scaled views, do you really think that those algorithms originated at Google?

It is rarely the case that the fundamental work behind a product originated at a major corporation. Major corporations exist primarily to develop techniques and approaches into robust and viable products — a process which takes an enormous amount of focus and hard work by many people. Those corporations do not exist primarily to be the source of entirely new concepts.

The thing that Vasco is not taking into account is when time was spent, and the cumulative power of the decades of influences from the time an idea was first introduced to the time when it it ready for commercial deployment.

More on this tomorrow. But meanwhile I will leave you with a brilliant chart by Bill Buxton, which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post:

Ready Player Two

April 13th, 2015

Have you ever enjoyed a novel so much that you found yourself feeling sad at the realization that at some point it would be over?

I’m having exactly that experience right now reading Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”. I was reading it on the subway today, laughing out loud at inappropriate times (people tend to get nervous when you laugh out loud on the subway), when some fool pulled the emergency brake cord.

When that happens, the rules say that a conductor needs to walk completely around the train, doing a proper inspection, before the train can start again. All of the other passengers sighed stoically, doing their best to wait it out. I must say they were all good sports about it.

But I wasn’t bothered at all. I was only too happy to be getting another twenty minutes or so to just sit there, undisturbed, while I read a little more of Cline’s fabulous book.

I just hope the other riders, trapped in that car with no way out, were not too made too nervous about the grinning madman in their midst, gleefully cackling aloud at random intervals.

Antimarket opportunities

April 12th, 2015

If you work for a company, the bottom line pretty much comes down to market opportunity. Economic sustainability requires you to ask yourself what you can make that is of value, where “value” is defined by what people are willing to pay for.

But when you do university research, the question may be rather different. Often you ask yourself what has future value. That is, what will be of value to people ten or twenty years from now?

But then there is a second question: Of all the things you can work on that have future value, which of them have no current value? In other words, what might be valuable to people in ten or twenty years, but isn’t something people are ready to pay for now.

And those are often the things you should work on, because they aren’t being worked on by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Sony, Amazon, Adobe or Apple. Those companies generally cannot afford to spend their time working on things that won’t be able to pay for themselves for another twenty years.

So in some sense, while corporations are in the business of looking for where the market is, academic researchers are often in the business of looking for where the market isn’t. And when we find an exciting antimarket opportunity — something that is likely to be a hot new product in about twenty years or so — we know we’ve come to the right place.

Possible bodies

April 11th, 2015

Evolution doesn’t usually result in mechanisms that do only one thing well. Rather, survival over multiple generations depends on flexibility. Macro-evolution produces protean toolkits, from which micro-evolution selects different tools as environments change.

The brain is by far the most protean and semantically complex object we have yet encountered, and it is all about adaptability. Humans happen to have physically evolved in a particular way, but that doesn’t mean our brains are limited to inhabiting these particular bodies. If evolution is any guide, human brains should be capable of inhabiting some much larger class of possible bodies.

Some body configurations might make more sense to our human brain than others. We might not do all that well as a 1000 tentacled hydra, but other bodily features might seem perfectly natural and learnable, such as functioning wings to fly with, teleportation, seeing through walls, moving objects at a distance, and perhaps new forms of natural language, or finding our way through a four dimensional world.

We don’t exactly know what sorts of possible bodies our brains would be able to inhabit, but trying on different bodies in virtual reality might be a great way to start asking that question.

Neopaleolithic

April 10th, 2015

We now know that the people of around 40,000 years ago that are commonly known as Cro-Magnon were, genetically, human. Yet we know relatively little about their culture.

We have learned from the physical record that they buried their dead, that they practiced decorative arts, and perhaps that they played music. Their physiognomy indicates a fully formed capability for speech.

I wonder, thinking about those people from so long ago, what they would make of us, and we of them, were we to encounter each other. When I see busy New Yorkers walking down the street, dressed in their fashionable clothes, obliviously checking their texts, I cannot help but think that perhaps the differences are superficial.

We are, I suspect, just a shadow’s distance away from who we were 40,000 years ago. Our brains, our bodies, our emotions, our need for love, for laughter and connection, there is a good chance that these have not changed one whit.

As we boldly stride forth into the future, hoping to design shiny new media for the human of tomorrow, it might be good to keep this in mind.

Perchance to dream

April 9th, 2015

It has been pointed out many times that movies are somewhat like dreams. They contain sudden shifts in time and place, impossible points of view, and a sort of eerily voyeuristic quality in which you feel present yet not present at the same time.

Of course there are many differences between a film and a dream. For one thing, dreams don’t have frames. There is no rectangle around the outside of a dream to delineate its boundaries. When you dream, you are completely inside the dream world. Wherever you look, the dream surrounds you.

Which might be one reason so many people are embracing virtual reality, now that it finally appears to be ready for practical wide-spread deployment. We all dream. As far as we can tell, people always have. Dreaming is one of the deepest traits we share with our fellow humans.

Perhaps the tug of fascination felt by so many toward virtual reality not is not the pull of the new or exotic, but of the deeply familiar.