Down the rabbit hole

June 28th, 2016

After a few days reflection, I find myself changing my mind about the larger implications of Brexit. At first I had thought it boded ill for our own nation. After all, if Great Britain can manage to vote itself down from a major world power to a shrunken frightened little child, then the same could happen here.

But now that the charlatans behind that bizarre maneuver have had a chance to show their true colors, I am heartened. The mythical three hundred and fifty million pounds paid weekly to the E.U. has vanished in a puff of rhetorical smoke, just as the promised greater investment in British healthcare was revealed to be nothing but empty talk.

After the sad spectacle of Brexit, I had worried that people in the U.S. might also be taken in by a narcissistic no-nothing opportunist who doesn’t know the first thing about how government actually works. But now I realize that we have the example of Brexit to show just how embarrassing it is for a country to be taken in by nonsense talk from fools and knaves.

The U.S. now has a clear working example of what happens when racist isolationist opportunists steal the microphone. At the end of the day, we Americans tend to be a fairly pragmatic people, with a strong instinct for self-preservation.

Which is why I’m newly hopeful that we on this side of the Atlantic will not follow Great Britain down the rabbit hole of small minded and racist fear mongering. Because that’s how a great nation destroys itself.

Panel discussion

June 27th, 2016

I am typing this while sitting on a panel about visualization. The first of five panelists is currently speaking, and I will be the last of five.

As it happens, we are a very diverse crew, with very different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Between us we cover government, science, education, and virtual reality. And I think that’s a good thing.

There is an argument to be made for organizing panels around some evocative starting word (in this case “visualization”) and finding the most diverse group of people you can find to speak to that topic. For one thing, this structure will discourage any individual speaker from approaching their subject in any way that is too narrow or focused on fellow experts.

But more than that, it is a great way to engage an audience, to discover and perhaps to create surprising connections between fields. In short, when choosing panelists for a panel discussion, there is something to be said for going broad.

And, of course, choosing a good starting word.


June 26th, 2016

This past Friday, global financial markets lost about two trillion dollars, in the wake of the results of the Brexit vote. That’s a very large number, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it.

Here are are several ways to look at it: Assuming the market was open for eight hours, that’s two hundred and fifty billion dollars an hour.

Which comes out to a little more than four billion dollars a minute. Still a little difficult to grasp.

Fortunately, the financial markets lost only about seventy million dollars a second. Ah, now that’s a much easier number to understand. :-)

Home stretch

June 25th, 2016

For the last two years I have been working, with my students, on two related projects. One, called Holojam, allows people to walk around together in the same physical room, wearing very lightweight VR headsets, to share a kind of radical augmented reality: We are all physically together, but we are all visually sharing a fantasy world, as though we have entered the Star Trek Holodeck.

The other project, called Chalktalk, allows drawings to come to life, sort of like a real-life version of Harold and the Purple Crayon.

For months I have been working on putting those two projects together. Technically it has been very complicated. I needed to completely rewrite large portions of Chalktalk, build my own virtual reality modeling software and renderer, and learn more about web sockets and other bits and pieces of internet plumbing than I ever thought I’d need to know.

And just yesterday, it finally all started working together. I am able to draw things in Chalktalk and then see them come magically to life floating in the air before me. Other people can also share the experience with me.

The basic components are now all there, for example, to allow somebody to give a Chalktalk lecture in virtual reality for a group of people. Each person can each walk around the 3D animated chalkboard and look at it from his or her own perspective.

There are still a few wrinkles to work out, but things are now in the home stretch. And it feels great!


June 24th, 2016

I woke up this morning wondering how much of Great Britain’s vote to leave the EU was motivated by fear of immigrants. Whether or not we’re talking about full scale xenophobia, the fundamental message seemed pretty clear from the rhetoric employed by the “Leave” spokespeople: Too many foreigners are arriving on England’s pleasant shores.

In the course of the day, I discovered that everyone I spoke with had had exactly the same thought. And like me, they had all linked it to the Trump campaign.

Here is the worry, in a nutshell: If a campaign essentially rooted in fear, xenophobia, resentment and thinly disguised racism can sway a populace, we’re probably all in trouble.

Limits of the technology

June 23rd, 2016

I was at the NYVR MeetUp this evening. In one cool augmented reality demo, a woman pointed her iPad at the audience. Up on the projection screen we could see MeetUp attendees, in real time, in the live video feed from the tablet’s point. Those attendees began waving happily at the camera.

She then chose from a menu of items, until she had selected a Coca Cola vending machine (Coca Cola is one of their company’s clients). As soon as she did this, we could see, up on the projection screen, a full sized Coca Cola vending machine, as though it were right there in the room, next to those MeetUp attendees.

Gesturing on her iPad, she then proceeded to move the virtual Coca Cola machine around the room, then open and slose its doors, and finally replace the contents by other Coca Cola drinks like Fanta and Sprite. It was all very impressive.

“In the virtual world,” she said, “I can do anything I want.”

I didn’t agree. Turning to the person next to me, I said, “I don’t think she can fill the vending machine with Pepsi.”

Computers and visual iconography

June 22nd, 2016

There is a clash between our paper-based tradition of visual iconography and our use of computers. For centuries, if you wanted to write a visual mark — a symbol, or logo, or indicator of any sort — you expected it to be immutable.

But if we phase out paper as a primary means of visual communication (and there is good reason to believe we might), then that expectation of immutability will eventually shift. A “written” icon will no longer need to be fixed in appearance, but will be able to vary over time, depending on some changing context.

Whether we are looking at a logical AND gate, or a stop sign, or a right-facing arrow, we may find ourselves no longer satisfied with a particular appearance. Instead, we will expect that symbol to indicate some current state, and to change in appearance when that state changes.

Such expectations are still low, because marks on paper are still the cultural norm. But once paper starts to disappear from the equation, all bets will be off.

The best thing

June 21st, 2016

The best thing about
Getting a really bad cold
Is getting better

Parallel lives

June 20th, 2016

I recently watched a short documentary about Frank Sinatra. The film didn’t go into great detail — it mainly covered the dramatic outlines of his outsized life and career.

In a sense, Sinatra’s life was neatly divided into three acts. From the time he was started his singing career at 19, he quickly shot up through the ranks, becoming a superstar in a few short years.

Yet there was a hitch: It all came crashing down in his thirties, when his marriage to Ava Gardner fell apart just as his popularity and his career started to tank. In the sad second act, the once golden boy was now on the outside looking in.

But ever ambitious, Sinatra set about rebuilding his career. He created a third act for himself by systematically reinventing his legend, first as a serious actor in Hollywood movies, then as a wildly successful nightclub entertainer and entrepreneur.

But this was not at all the same Frank Sinatra. He was now older, heavier, more guarded, more in control. His focus this time was on building an unassailable power base, creating a fast empire under his command, and entering the corridors of power, from Hollywood to Las Vegas to Washington. He now demanded unquestioning loyalty from those around him, and could be ruthless when he sensed that loyalty wavering.

So here we have a man in three parts: The sweet gangly younth, fresh faced and honored as a wunderkind, then the exile to the wilderness, and finally the grizzled older warrior, powerful in his reach, dangerous when crossed. He is still charming, but now with an unmistakeable hint of menace just below the shiny surface.

One thing that strikes me about this narrative arc is how well it also describes the life story of Steve Jobs. Which makes me wonder, is this a common pattern?

Summer cold

June 19th, 2016

Suddenly out of nowhere, on a beautiful warm New York day in June, I am felled by a summer cold. Just like that. I feel so oxymoronic.

It’s probably my body’s delayed reaction to my refusal to take things more slowly after the stress of international travel. A kind of biological work slowdown, the employee’s union of my system sending a stern warning to management about unfair conditions on the job.

In any case, war has clearly been declared, and that war is being fought with yours truly as the battle zone. No sense in fighting it. All I can do now is get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of water.

Which is probably what I should have done before I ever got this summer cold.