Subtlety as a sign of medium maturity

May 25th, 2016

We are still in early days in consumer VR experiences. Not surprisingly, people are going for sensation: Dramatic shifts in point of view, giant creatures, swooping and gliding flight paths.

But no medium has ever been sustained by its own novelty. At some point we stop responding to the train speeding toward us on screen. This is more or less the point when we start learning a real shared language of that medium.

The is a language of cinema, a different language of the theater, and yet another language of storytelling via the written word. It takes time for each medium to find itself, and for artists to work out the most effective way to use that particular medium to reach an audience.

A key part of this process is that the audience also learns the language of any medium. For example, each of us has learned the unique “language” of appreciating a written story, or a play, or a movie, respectively.

Eventually the “language” of effective VR will mature and will become more subtle, just as earlier media have matured and increased in subtlety over time. At that point we will not be speaking about the novelty of the VR medium, but about the shared language of creation and experience for that medium.

Multi-institutional collaboration

May 24th, 2016

Today I was in conversation with colleagues about a potential three-way collaboration between our various labs. Over the course of the discussion, something obvious occurred to me: The more institutions in your collaboration, the harder it is.

For one thing, everybody needs to get something out of it. We’re all busy and oversubscribed. So nobody is just going to volunteer to collaborate just because it’s good for everyone else.

But even beyond that, the collaboration needs to work gracefully for everyone, on an operational level. Hardware and software need to be compatible, students need to be able to speak the same language (both literally and metaphorically), and production practices need to be aligned.

So it occurred to me that whatever our eventual plans for collaboration, our first step should be to do something easy. Not as in “little work”, but rather as in “low technical risk”. We should start with a pure production project that makes good use of everyone’s existing capabilities, and that would be fun and engaging for all.

Once we manage that, we can start to get ambitious and try something that might surprise us.

Antique store

May 23rd, 2016

I wandered through an antique store today. There were lots of examples of long out of date technology, but I was especially taken by the Edison cylinder players.

I seem to have a complex emotional reaction to these machines. On the one hand, of course, I look at them and I think “how quaint”. After all, they predate even phonograph records, which are stackable and therefore far more practical.

On the other hand, the Edison cylinder is the very first of its kind: A way to reliably record music and speech so that it can be listened to later.

It is the most primitive and therefore quaint example of sound recording, yet also the most far-reaching and brilliant break from everything that had come before. A physical manifestation of the very first moments of a brand new future.

I guess that’s true of the very first example of any truly disruptive technology: Lenoir’s engine, the Fleming Valve, Shockley’s transistor, Sutherland’s “Sword of Damocles”. By today’s standards they seem weirdly primitive.

Yet such artifacts are, in fact, the very definition of the cutting edge: The precise moment when everything changes.

Architecture for alternate bodies

May 22nd, 2016

There is clearly a relationship between the needs of our bodies and the choices we make in designing architecture. The sizes of rooms, heights of ceilings, pitch and size of stairs, these and many other factors are influenced by the size and shape of humans.

Our bodies are also relatively defenseless against the elements, and so we design our buildings to protect us from heat and cold, from rain and snow. In this we differ from many bird species, who build their nests outdoors because they have evolved to be more comfortable with those elemental forces.

I am trying to imagine alternate species that have advanced civilizations akin to our own (eg: written language, electricity, the use of tools, etc.) but a very different physiogamy. What might their architecture be like?

We might be able to take a tip from other Earth species that build their own homes, such as rabbits, beavers, bees, wasps, birds. In each case, the typical home built by their kind is optimized for the physiological needs of members of their species, as well as their particular social organization.

Could we create a taxonomy of alternate architectures for hypothetical species with advanced civilizations? Even if we assume Earth-like conditions (gravity, rainfall, temperature range, atmospheric pressure, etc), I suspect there would be fascinating variations.

Future juggling

May 21st, 2016

I went to see juggling today. It was really beautiful and impressive and fun, and if you have ever seen a performance by a brilliant juggler you know exactly what I mean. There is something about truly great juggling that puts me in awe of the power of the human body and mind.

When I went into the show, part of me was thinking “Well, this is something that won’t be relevant to future VR-mediated reality.” After all, what’s the use of imposing a layer of computer-enabled illusion, when the whole point of juggling is to see what humans are capable of doing with just their hands, their wits, and some juggling balls?

But by the time it was over I had changed my mind. Advanced technology does not need to replace authentic human skill. There are plenty of examples of humans showing off impressive dexterity while using fairly advanced technology.

From concert pianists to race car drivers to stunt pilots to master chefs to great cinematographers, there are all sorts of fields in which experts use some kind of advanced technology not to replace their human skill, but rather as an opportunity to showcase that skill. Every new technological advancement leads to new opportunities for great performance.

So I won’t be surprised if in twenty years or so, when we are all viewing the world through those cyber-enhanced contact lenses, to see jugglers embracing the new possibilities of that shared future reality. My guess is that we will witness new and breathtaking feats of juggling that are as yet unimagined.

Nonlinear coding strategies

May 20th, 2016

Yesterday morning, in what was supposed to be a productive day of coding, I encountered an intractible bug. I tried this and then that, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the darned thing to work.

After spending way too much time beating my head against the wall, I found myself just going walkabout. I raided the fridge, watched eight episodes in a row of Veronica Mars, surfed the web for random things. The hours drifted by.

All this time, part of my mind was wondering “What am I doing? Am I just running away from my problems? Shouldn’t I be doing something productive instead of wasting a whole day? Shouldn’t I at least be reading a research paper or something?”

But no. Back to the fridge it was, then on to the next episode of Veronica Mars.

Finally the evening came, and I went out to meet a colleague for a pre-arranged dinner. And we had a fabulous time. Conversation flowed, new ideas bubbled up, plans for collaboration moved forward.

Over the course of the thirty minute walk back, I thought about what a strangely uneven day it had been. Arrived home, fell promptly asleep.

Then woke up about an hour later, opened my computer and changed two lines of code to fix the bug. Now it all works perfectly.

On balance, I would say it was a productive day.

Future fashion

May 19th, 2016

Humans from the CroMagnon age would probably be astonished at the appearance of modern humans walking about in public. Several tens of thousands of years of cultural advancement have resulted in a luxury of options for artificial outer skins.

We think nothing of walking down the street with today’s colorful choice of plumage: Red or yellow or chartreuse, mixing and matching materials and styles as we like. We think nothing of pulling items out the closet to choose our avatar for the day.

In on-line fantasy worlds, such as Second Life, people go much further. They walk about as giant cats or lizards, robots or ghostly wraiths, choosing an arbitrary appearance at will.

One would think that this might be a model for how fashion will advance after we are all wearing those cyber-enabled contacts or lens implants. But I am not so sure.

Second Life is, as it’s name suggests, meant to be an amusing alternative to real life, not a replacement for it. When you physically go about the world, you are always implicitly voting with your one and only body, your most truly precious and irreplaceable asset.

There is less room for fooling around not because of any limitation on technology, but because of the social and cultural implications of how you present your true self — or as true a self as one ever presents in public.

Even in that future time when we see each other as virtual versions of ourselves, there will be limits to how we will appear. These limits will not come from technology, but rather by our need to be taken seriously when it really matters.

Yet in that future reality there will be times during our day when we are really just out to have fun. In those moments, with the flip of a virtual switch, we may choose to slip into a virtual appearance that’s a little more fun.

Show and tell

May 18th, 2016

Today I went to Jaron Lanier’s house, and we traded demos. He showed me his favorite demos on the Hololens. Since Jaron was one of the key drivers of that project, it was particularly interesting to see which demos he liked the best.

The Hololens is a magnificent piece of engineering. The way it tracks the world around you to superimpose 3D graphics, using three different technologies in tandem (depth camera, edge tracking vision algorithm and inertial sensor) is a thing of beauty.

I hadn’t seen the Hololens since last summer, and I could really see that an entire team of people have been working hard to build demos for it. In general, everything noe looks more polished and better thought out, and the interaction is much smoother and more intuitive than it was ten months ago.

In return, I showed Jaron pretty much the opposite demo. Not AR, but VR. No fancy cutting edge hardware, but just a SmartPhone (with a pair of Wearality lenses). Not software written by a large team of designers and software experts, but just a VR-ready 3D modeler that I wrote myself in HTML5 in a few hundred lines of Javascript, running in a web browser.

By analogy, Jaron was showing me his fancy Tesla, and I was showing him the little electric car that I’d built from scratch on weekends in my garage. We both had a great time.

More uses of failure

May 17th, 2016

After building an entire optical simulation system yesterday which showed me that my theory was wrong, I started to rethink what I was trying to do. Seeing where the rays of light actually went gave me a much better understanding of how such a system really operates.

So today I jumped back in with a new approach to the problem. Fortunately I already had the tools built from yesterday, so the new approach took much less time. And this new approach worked!

Whether it will actually work in the real world is a whole other question. There are issues of materials, manufacturing processes and tolerances to work through, so even if the basic mathematical model itself checks out, the thing might still not be practically buildable.

But now, thanks to the insight I got from trying and failing, I’ve managed to go from “theoretically, this won’t work” to “theoretically this could work just fine.” And that’s progress of a sort.

The uses of failure

May 16th, 2016

As many have noted before, there isn’t a reputable scientific journal where you can report failures. Which is a shame, because failures are an extremely important part of scientific progress.

Today I spent much of the day testing a theory about optics. To do the required experiments, I needed to implement a particular kind of ray tracing program, as well as the math to support ray tracing to various sorts of curved surfaces.

After several hours of coding and testing, I realized that my theory was wrong. But I also understood why it was wrong, and quite a bit else besides.

Not only that, but I now have a handy dandy suite of software tools for testing and visualizing all sorts of optical ideas. Which means that the next time I have some crazy theory about optics, I’ll just be able to jump in and test it, without having to build all the machinery first.

Someday one of those theories is going to be correct, and maybe even useful. Whatever that future discover may be, it’s something I’ll be much more likely to find using my shiny new software laboratory, built on failure.