Goodnight moon

March 26th, 2015

David, a member of our research team, is working on a beautiful and inviting VR room. Today we all tried it out.

Imagine that you are in the book Goodnight Moon, except that it is a real place, and you can actually go up to the window, and look outside to see the moon and the stars. It was like that.

Taking off the headset was a bit of a shock. Suddenly you’re back in the harsh realm of reality, without no lovely storybook fireplace, or cozy little bed or night table.

After emerging back into the real world I said, to nobody in particular, “I hated to leave that place.”

One of the students nodded her head and said, “Yes I know. I could have just stayed in there all day.”

I thought about that for a moment, and then I said to the students, “Maybe this is it, right here. The beginning of the end for humanity.”

They knew exactly what I meant.

Lush life

March 25th, 2015

I recently started watching Twin Peaks on streaming Netflix. I hadn’t seen it at all in the nearly twenty five years since it went off the air, and somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why I’d started to rewatch it now.

I should mention that I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. When Twin Peaks first came out, I didn’t appreciate the full extent of what David Lynch was up to. It’s completely unlike anything that had ever been on television before.

For one thing, every shot is gorgeous. The colors and tones are excruciatingly lovely, the framing perfect, the play of light upon the faces of the actors luminous and haunting, and the music that flows in and around the story is unearthly yet mournful.

There are countless visual moments that simply take my breath away. The very possibility that you could do something like this on TV, this kind of lavish chiaroscuro in a muted technicolor palette, was not even part of the conversation back in 1990. Until David Lynch and his team did it.

Just yesterday I realized why I had sought out this particular TV viewing experience: Because last week I had watched The Tales of Hoffmann (in a gorgeous Technicolor print at the Film Forum). I had found myself immersed in the take-no-prisoners hyper-romanticism of Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger, and I had wanted more.

Lynch is clearly the direct aesthetic descendent of Powell and Pressburger, a fellow worshiper of the lush yet artfully overripe as pure visual opera.

These are not the grand but visually cold offerings of a James Cameron or a Christopher Nolan, nor the slightly coy toy box aesthetic of a Tim Burton or a Wes Anderson. No, these are full-blown romantic visions, dark, dangerous to the touch, bursting with heat and erotic suggestion.

I’ll take that over an Avatar or an Interstellar any day.

Superman is listening

March 24th, 2015

One year at sleepaway camp, I think I was about eleven years old, I was reading a Superman comic book, and I got to my favorite part, where they publish letters from kids. Often readers would write in to ask various questions, and some of these questions were of a technical nature.

In this particular issue, an intrepid reader had noticed that Superman had caught some bad guys by using his super hearing to eavesdrop on their nefarious conversation. Because he is Superman, he’d been able to do this from halfway around the world.

What the kid wanted to know was this: With all of those billions of people chatting away, many of them a lot nearer than those villains, how was Superman able to pick out a single conversation through all that chatter?

The editors of D.C. Comics had an answer ready: Because Superman has super hearing, he is not only able to hear all the conversations in the world at once, but he is also able to distinguish each conversation from all the others. From there, it’s just a matter of choosing the particular conversation he is listening for.

Oh.

If you are like I was as an eleven year old kid, you might be deeply suspicious of answers that merely repeat the question using different words. On the other hand, you might think that was a fine answer, in which case you may have have a bright future in politics.

And yet the scenario they were describing is something we now take for granted: If I mention your name in my blog, wherever you may be in the world, within a few minutes you might very well get a helpful alert from a Bot informing you that I was talking about you — even if you’ve never before heard of either me or my blog.

When I was a little kid, this kind of thing would have seemed about as plausible as a guy from outer space flying through the air in tights and a colorful red cape.

And yet, as Edna says, here we are. Some day soon, when we have cast away those silly smartphones, and information technology moves, as it inevitably will, into our eyes, our ears, our fingertips, those Bots will have a much richer meal to dine upon.

Imagine a cafe, perhaps twenty years in the future. You are sitting with a friend, settling into your second Bermuda highball and trading gossip. Or maybe not. For whenever you name-check someone, whoever or wherever they may be in the world, a tireless Bot is ready to whisper your words into their ear.

Superman is listening.

Open source

March 23rd, 2015

I’ve been using some open source software called THREE.js, and I like it a lot. It’s a software library that provides a common way for programmers to specify three dimensional objects and scenes in a web page.

Some coders don’t like to use such libraries. They say “Why should I use somebody else’s stupid library, when I can write all that stuff myself?” But the real advantage is that an entire community of programmers ends up following the same conventions.

It doesn’t even matter much what those conventions are. The important thing is your code and my code will work together, because we’ve both agreed to use something like the THREE.js software library.

Which is all great, until those conventions change. Now, officially, software libraries are not supposed to alter the names of things without a lot of warning. It’s kind of like trying to move a railroad track while the trains are running. Bad things are likely to happen.

Alas, THREE.js has done this to us several times. For example, some months ago somebody decided that the shape called “Cube” should instead be called “Box”, so they just renamed it. Which is great, except that if you had any cubes in your little webpage scene, your page just broke.

On the whole, I’m happy with the open source approach. It builds community, everyone shares their work freely, and the energy is more about creativity and openness than about somebody else getting rich. And it’s not like renaming a “Cube” as a “Box” is the end of the world.

At least not yet. One day, several decades from now, when everybody is seeing everything through those little cyber-contact lenses or retinal implants, some hotshot programmer is going to come up with a better word for “Box”.

And all around the globe, in a single instant, all of the buildings in the world will disappear from sight.

Less is more

March 22nd, 2015

The mission statement of our start-up company has been gradually evolving. Because our technology came out of a University research mind-set, for the longest time we were focused mainly on how cool and innovative our technology was.

When people would ask us what our product does, we would describe our ingenious technology, and talk about how amazing it was. People would then inevitably ask “So what’s it good for?”

That was always a tough moment, because when you’re the proud parent of a fancy new technology, you find it hard to believe that people don’t already see it the same way you do. Maybe, you think, they are asking the question rhetorically, since the answer is so obvious.

A good analogy might be showing photos of your newborn baby. Obviously everybody in the world is going to take one look at your kid’s darling face and realize that this is the most beautiful and brilliant child in the entire world. And if they don’t, then clearly they are complete morons.

This, my friends, is not the best energy out of which to create a successful marketing strategy.

What you gradually realize — and this can take quite a while — was that other people will not fall in love with your baby on first sight. But people will respond to a clear story about how your baby might grow up to help the world become a better place.

Now, here’s the really tricky part: When you tell that story, you need to leave out almost all of it. You may know that your technology is capable of solving a million different problems. But you need to talk about only one problem — one very focused problem that is clearly out there in the world, and that your technology can help with.

All of those other cool things? Take them off the table. This is a case where less is more. A single narrative, one market focus, a well defined group of customers and users — that’s the only story the world is capable of hearing about your wondrous little hatchling.

And what if your little baby chick one day grows up and happens to accomplish other great things as well? Well, nobody is going to complain. But that’s only going to happen if it manages to leave the nest.

NPCs on the Holodeck

March 21st, 2015

Let’s fast forward to a time when technology has advanced to the point where we can share a fully immersive virtual world. We can walk around — or fly around — at will, pick up objects, have eye contact with each other, and all the while feel perfectly comfortable hanging out together in that physically plausible alternate space.

Now suppose that we decide it would be fun to populate that space with virtual beings — what in computer parlance are called “non-player characters”, or NPCs. What do you suppose they will be like?

In particular, will they be as photo-realistic as we can make them? Will they be indistinguishable from us humans in every way — or at least, indistinguishable from the avatars of ourselves and each other in this shared world?

Or will they be deliberately stylized, marking them as a separate species, much as in earlier times we would stylize animated characters such as Bugs Bunny or Woody the Cowboy?

I’m not sure it’s a question of what is possible. It might be more of a question of what we really want from these characters, and how we prefer to think of them.

Equinoxious

March 20th, 2015

Today New York City is covered in snow
Flights are all cancelled, there’s nowhere to go.
The few people out are all bundled up good,
Some stores haven’t closed up — but maybe they should.
You just never know what the weather will bring.
What can I say? Happy first day of Spring!

Trans-human

March 19th, 2015

This evening a fellow film geek and I were comparing notes on the fact that Scarlett Johansson has become the go-to representative of the trans-human in American cinema.

In Her, she plays an artificial intelligence program that evolves beyond the comprehension of mere humans. In Lucy, she plays a down-and-out drug courier who evolves beyond the comprehension of mere humans.

Leaving aside the intriguing parallel between AI and drug mule (maybe somebody will one day make a film about an artificial intelligence program that becomes a down-and-out drug courier), there are questions here that touch on the limits of human intelligence — or at least on the limits of the intelligence of Hollywood screenwriters.

In particular, my friend was a little bit dismayed by the plot arc of Lucy. “She continues to evolve,” he said, “turning into successfully more powerful beings throughout the film, until finally she evolves in to a USB stick.”

I was sympathetic. Films often disappoint us, leading us on with fascinating premises, only to deliver crass and predictable Hollywood endings. Yet we continue to go to the movies, taking our seats in the darkened theater, buying our popcorn and Raisinets, hoping against hope that the next cinematic offering will meet our bright expectations.

“In a way it’s kind of poetic,” I said, hoping to make him feel better. “After all, at the end of Her, it is we humans who are the USB sticks.”

Reality shift

March 18th, 2015

At dinner this evening a friend and I were discussing the way reality seems to stop and then start again when you go to sleep and then wake up the next morning. And it occurred to us that there is no way to know, for sure, that the reality you wake up to is exactly the same one that existed when you went to bed.

After all, memory is notoriously slippery. We have all had the experience of being quite sure we remember something a certain way, only to be proven wrong by the facts. So it stands to reason that if reality shifts while we sleep, our memories of reality would shift right along with it.

Have you ever gotten the sense that something is slightly off? Perhaps that a person at work doesn’t seem quite right? Well, maybe that person didn’t even exist in your reality the night before. Maybe you are just experiencing an incomplete shift between worlds, a trace of the slightly different world you had left behind the moment your head hit the pillow.

If this is true, then there might not be much we can do about it. This text you are reading might not even exist when you wake up tomorrow morning. Or if you are reading it the next day, perhaps it didn’t exist the day before. How would you know?

Truth, reality, dreams and illusion. There are mysteries here, between the world of what was, and the world of what is about to be.

Something to sleep on, anyway.

Soapmaking

March 17th, 2015

I had to reschedule a meeting with a colleague, and so sent him an email suggesting some times on a Thursday afternoon. I know my colleague is pretty busy at work, so I didn’t know whether my suggested times would work for him. But I hoped that with a little luck, our schedules might mesh.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the answer I got back:

I should be soapmaking in the afternoon.

I was utterly charmed by this response. Here we are, all of us, running around like crazy, going to committee meetings, supervising student research, writing grant proposals. Finally somebody bucks the tide and just takes an afternoon off, in the middle of the week, to do something wonderfully old fashioned and artisanal.

I was trying to imagine the exact scenario. Is this a project he and his wife or kids are doing together? Is it a form of meditation? Perhaps there is a backstory involving a transformative trip to some exotic country, and a desire to embrace its cultural associations in his everyday life.

I had about a million thoughts like this. But mostly I felt admiration for the guts of this guy, to simply step out of the system, buck our collective workaholic tradition, and do something truly refreshing.

So I suggested other times for our meeting, and got back the following reply:

Soapmaking!!!!! my smart phone is gone crazy!! I thought I wrote that I was free Thursday afternoon after 2pm.