Self driving furniture

February 8th, 2016

For quite a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of furniture that reconfigures itself according to use. I wrote about this in a post here several years ago.

But it’s been hard to get people excited about the concept. You need to explain about modular motor platforms, power solutions, vision and path-planning algorithms, in addition to the down to earth parts of it all, such as room scheduling and accommodating mixed use.

Now, with the gradual emergence of untethered virtual reality, furniture that can get out of your way, or can reconfigure itself to allow a single room to mimic different physical locations, is newly relevant. It’s not just a convenience — it becomes integral to research into future reality.

And I realize that phrases like “robotic furniture” just don’t cut it. There’s too much that needs to be explained. So I’ve started rebranding this idea as “self driving furniture”, which evokes a much clearer and more detailed image of what is going on.

Today, during a space planning meeting at NYU, I mentioned that in several years I would like our lab to transition to self-driving furniture. This got the attention of my colleague whose research is in machine learning. I could tell from his appreciative laugh that he didn’t quite believe that I have every intention of doing this.

But he knew exactly what I was talking about.

There are moments

February 7th, 2016

There are moments when
Your life turns a corner and
You need to show up.

Only I know the difference

February 6th, 2016

I’m working on a fairly large software project. There are many pieces, many features that need improving, much more left to do.

Yet I find myself revising inner parts of the project that nobody else but me can see. Oh sure, one day somebody might find the revised code easier to read, more logical in its flow, more robust and harder to break.

But don’t think I’m doing these revisions just for those reasons. It’s also that I feel, on some gut level, that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. As I learn more about this project, seeing the contours of its shape gradually develop before my eyes, I begin to understand that some of my initial decisions were inelegant.

Not wrong precisely, bue inelegant. I feel this strong need to fix that inelegance, to create something that is beautiful not just on the outside, but also on the inside.

In many cases, only I know the difference. Yet I believe it is a difference that matters.

Aha

February 5th, 2016

Today my colleague Ann Senghas explained to me Piaget’s concepts of Assimilation, Disequilibrium and Accommodation. When we are little children, many things happen that seem to make sense. Objects fall down, beds are soft, hands fit inside of gloves. These things are comprehensible to us because our minds have the capacity to assimilate them. It’s not just that they are happening, but that our brains are capable of making sense of them.

But then we encounter something that we cannot assimilate. Perhaps we see a helium balloon for the first time. This object is not falling down like it should — it’s breaking the rules. When things like this happen we enter a state of disequilibrium, and we feel that something has gone screwy with reality. Children usually respond to these events by creating new ways in their head of making sense of the world. This process of accommodation, sometimes called an “aha moment”, is usually quite pleasurable.

As we get older, fewer things surprise us, and these events become more rare. The price we pay for wisdom is that such moments of delighted astonishment can become few and far between.

When I heard this I thought about my recent musings on why we like puppets. The properly performed puppet, with its childlike expression and its intense gaze, is like a person in a state of continual transformation from disequilibrium to accommodation. We are entranced because its entire existence seems to consist of “aha moments”. We see this and we are reminded, perhaps unconsciously, of such rare and precious moments in our own lives.

Forms of magic

February 4th, 2016

There are many forms of magic, and right now I am watching one of them. My colleague David Lobser is showing a room full of people how to create an entire interactive virtual reality world in a single session.

He is showing things that for most people would take hours, and he is doing it incredibly fast. Before our eyes entire worlds, cities, creatures, animations are coming into existence and then coming to life.

Most of the people here already know quite a bit about 3D modeling and animation, but even for them this is delightfully magical. Everyone in the room is watching in rapt attention.

I’ll bet most of them are thinking the same thing I am thinking: It is wonderful to see a great artist at work.

A good test

February 3rd, 2016

I had a great dinner the other night with some very interesting people, most of whom are either running start-ups related to VR or are investing in start-ups related to VR. The conversation was fun, wide-ranging, and incredibly interesting from start to end.

At some point early in the evening, while everybody was standing around holding a drink and happily chatting away, I said “You know what would be a good test of success for VR? If we could all have this good a time while meeting in VR.”

Everybody agreed that was not going happen any time soon. I think this has something to do with those drinks everybody was holding.

I gave a talk

February 2nd, 2016

I gave a talk this evening, to a really wonderful crowd of enthusiastic people. And I made mistakes.

In particular, I spent too much time on the canned portion, the platitudes, the sound bites reiterating receive wisdom. Not nearly enough time on the live demo, the good stuff.

After all, it’s the live demo, the high wire act, the part that might at any moment fail, which puts the audience on the edge of their seat. That’s how they know you really mean it, that you are putting yourself at risk, that you are not merely reciting platitudes from some position paper you wrote back in the day.

Next time, caution be damned. It’s all going to be live demos.

VR and the elephant

February 1st, 2016

I was having some great conversations this evening with people who are passionate about virtual reality and its possibilities. But I noticed that everybody has a different idea of what those possibilities are.

Some of the conversations were amazing, but other conversations were slightly surreal, as people spoke past each other, coming from very different ideas of what they want.

I was reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man, trying to understand the elephant, feels a different part of its body.

The blind man touching its sturdy leg says “The elephant is like a tree.” The blind man touching its massive side says “The elephant is like a wall.” The man touching its floppy ears says “The elephant is like a flower.” Whereas the man touching its trunk says “The elephant is like a snake!”

Of course they were all right, and they were all wrong. VR is indeed everything its defenders or detractors claim it to be. And it is also something else entirely.

Virtua vérité

January 31st, 2016

Cinéma vérité often uses a shaky hand-held camera to emphasize the fact that one is seeing something being filmed. Of course, audience members are still sitting in their seats, and all this apparent shakiness is taking place within a rock-steady rectangular frame — the screen itself.

You can’t quite do the same thing in virtual reality, because there is no frame. In the content itself, you need to keep the horizon line steady. Once the visual horizon line becomes shaky, people quickly become nauseous, and sometimes they fall over.

Film doesn’t have this problem because the screen border itself creates a physiological horizon line, whatever the on-screen content. Which leads to the question: What other fundamental differences are there in the way we perceive “reality” in a film and in virtual reality?

If we take the frame of the screen as a metaphor, perhaps there are other ways that removing the cinematic frame can alter the experience. For example, what about the flow of time itself?

A filmmaker asks only that you face the screen, offering an implicit promise: As long as you are looking in the proper direction, the film itself will do all the work of directing your attention. Cuts, camera movements, changes of scene, these are all done for you.

But this may not be the case in virtual reality, where there isn’t necessary a “proper” direction. In a sense, our narrative horizon line might not be there. Which means we may need to create that narrative horizon line some other way.

It’s not yet entirely clear how best to do that.

The gaze of the puppet

January 30th, 2016

I was watching a puppet show this evening, and it struck me how uniquely powerful the gaze of the puppet can be.

Humans are burdened by our literalness. We have human faces and bodies, we have real lives of our own, we are flesh. This limits our ability to embody abstraction, to focus down our essence to a single powerful idea.

As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics, on some deep level we identify a photo-realistic representation of a person as “the other”, whereas we identify a simplified representation of a person as “the self”.

This transference, augmented by an uncanny stillness, operates when we watch a puppet on stage. We are not seeing the puppet the way we see an actor. We see the puppet as ourself. When the puppet looks at something, we feel that it is we who are looking, through the puppet’s eyes.

And it’s what happens next that makes it all exciting: We find ourselves questioning why we are looking, how it makes us feel, what it all really means. We project our emotions onto the puppet, and through that projection we are able to see more deeply into our own soul.