Incompressible

May 3rd, 2016

I was away in Europe for a week, now am back in NYC for just five days, then will be off to California for two weeks. So a month’s worth of stuff that I need to do in NYC has to be accomplished in just those five short days.

Needless to say my schedule is very packed this week. Somebody cancelled a meeting for tomorrow and apologized profusely, but my reaction was actually elation. At last, a small window of time not already allocated!

But then somebody else “really needed to meet with me,” so even that little sliver of unscheduled time went away. Sigh.

I have been attempting to bank on the fluid nature of time, squeezing four weeks of meetings into five days. But I now realize that time is an incompressible fluid.

Uplifting art

May 2nd, 2016

I saw a talk a few days ago by Yehuda Duenyas. He was discussing his varied and wonderful art projects, which range widely in technique from immersive theater to virtual reality to simulated flight to motion tracked public performance.

But running through all of his creations, whatever their technical details, is a powerful positive message. Unlike much art I’ve seen in recent years, which reflects a general cynicism about the state of the world, Yehuda’s work always conveys a sense of possibility, an idea that we can build a better and kinder world together.

The last few words of his talk resonated with me especially well. He said that he wanted to create work that would “help us to become the magical beings that we are destined to be.”

I am totally with him there. And I could not have said it better.

Degrees of difference

May 1st, 2016

I just came back from Europe, where, like almost everywhere else in the world, temperature is measured in degrees Celcius. The U.S. and its territories still use Fahrenheit, a distinction shared only with the Bahamas, Belize, the Cayman Islands and Palau.

I hadn’t really appreciated the superiority of Celcius until I had the pleasure this past week of using a European shower that lets you press a button to increase or decrease the temperature in incrments of one degreee Celcius. In such situations you really come to appreciate the difference.

The shower starts off at 38oC, a fine temperature that many will enjoy. After clicking up to 41oC, I found my perfect shower. But here’s the thing: Every increment feels unique and useful. A 40oC shower feels clearly distinct from a 39oC shower, and so forth.

In Fahrenheits the quantum is too small. I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference between, say a 102F shower and a 103F shower.

After this experience, I am sold on the superiority of Celcius. Now if we could just get the U.S. to switch from the English system to the Metric system. In the U.K. they converted decades ago, and over there in London they actually are English.

Zeppelin

April 30th, 2016

Today I flew on a Zeppelin. It was amazing, and in some ways rather the opposite of airplane flight.

Getting a plane into the sky is, manifestly, an assault upon the elements. Everything is loud and rushing, as powerful engines force air against wings at high speed. It is as though humankind is literally hurling itself up into the heavens through sheer force of will.

But you don’t exactly fly in a Zeppelin, you float. As I told a friend earlier today, Zeppelins feel like graceful and gentle sea creatures gliding majestically through the sky. These magnificent floating apparitions are like something out of a beautiful dream.

I also learned that there are only twenty four registered Zeppelin pilots in the entire world. Only two of those are women, and one was our pilot, Kate Board. She was very cool, and we learned an awful lot from her about Zeppelins.

And don’t worry (just in case you were worrying), they fill them with helium these days. 😉

FrieNDA

April 29th, 2016

I was telling a colleague about my experience the other day where several participant on a panel I was running wouldn’t open up and talk freely, because they were representing large companies. “It’s frustrating,” I told my colleague, “because they were perfectly willing to speak freely with me over lunch just a few hours before the panel.”

“That’s because you were under a FrieNDA”, my colleague said. I had never heard the term, so he explained.

It’s sort of like an NDA, he said (it stands for “non-disclosure agreement”), except that a FrieNDA is not a legal thing. Instead, it’s the idea that if somebody tells you something in a one-on-one conversation, then they never really said it. They are essentially trusting that you will be smart enough not to publicly say “so and so from [fill in name of large company] said this.”

And that makes sense to me, because we all understand where the boundaries are. For example, it would be perfectly ok for me to repeat what they said in other one-on-one conversations, because that’s just me claiming they said something. There’s no real evidence chain proving that they really ever said it.

But if they themselves were to say the same thing in a public panel, then they have no plausible deniability. If their company gets pissed off that they’ve spilled the beans about something, they are screwed.

The end result of this process is that I get to know all sorts of amazing things that I would never tell you in this blog. But if you and I were just talking over beer, I might end up telling you some of those things.

After all, no matter what you might end up learning over that beer about what somebody told me, officially they never said it. That, my friend, is the beauty of a FrieNDA.

Less is more

April 28th, 2016

We’ve been doing our Holojam project for more than a year now at NYU. It’s a variant of Virtual Reality in which people hang out together in physical reality, except that everyone wears a motion tracked GearVR headset, so all participants see each other as avatars in a virtual world.

When you enter the space, it’s like walking into the Holodeck. The usual rules of reality are suspended, because you can see impossible things. In particular, we give people wands that they can use to draw in the air. We have found that people immediately get it, and they gleefully start drawing all sorts of shapes in the air.

We’ve been showing it this week at the FMX conference in Stuttgart. Except this time something went wrong. We had three people in the space, but one of the three wands stopped working. At first my students were panicked. What would happen if people were in the space, but couldn’t do anything there?

But then a curious thing happened: When there are three people in the Holojam world, but only two have wands, participants create a sort of game out of it. Two of them will draw something, while the third watches. And then they will start to hand the wand around.

Instead of everybody just drawing in the air, grooving on their new-found superpower, people are forced to interact with each other, because that superpower is now a scarce resource. Less is more, as scarcity creates comradery, participants turn the sharing of the wands into a new meta-game, and the experience becomes richer for everyone.

My students and I were astonished that it took us more than a year to realize this.

Threads

April 27th, 2016

The thread of today
Weaves a pattern we can’t see
Until tomorrow

Irony

April 26th, 2016

I hosted a panel today at a major new media conference. Roughly speaking, it was a panel about “Visions for the future”.

I managed to get some very high level people as panelists, from such places as ILM, Google and Valve Software. During the lunch meeting before the panel, there was some great energy flowing, with rousing arguments for every side of the issue.

But then when it came to the panel itself, those same people were quite subdued. No fiery answers, no bold conjectures, just a sort of pleasant chitchat.

And I realized that I was probably dealing with people who would rather not go on record in public with their real thoughts, because it might cause some problem for their company down the line.

So there’s the irony: audiences are drawn to a panel partly because of the big names of the companies its panelists work for, yet that very state of employment may stop those panelists from truly speaking their minds.

Obvious

April 25th, 2016

I was having a conversation today with some colleagues, and one of them described his experience taking courses at the NYU film school. It was very expensive, he said, and they worked you incrediby hard.

“You’re basically paying NYU this huge amount of money,” he explained, “to make you work your ass off from morning till night.”

“But was it worth it?” I asked.

Oh yes, he said, it was very much worth it. He’d learned an enormous amount, and still uses what he learned in his work today, many years later.

Then I noted that there was a general principle at work here: “If you want people to give you money, make them suffer.”

One of my other colleagues got very excited about this. He insisted that we write this statement down and that I sign it.

I was flattered, but a bit confused. “Of course that’s how you get people to give you money,” I said, “isn’t that just obvious?”

Two flights

April 24th, 2016

two flights in one day
(came home just to leave again)
is one too many