The limits of collaboration

I was involved in a discussion about interdisciplinary collaboration with a very high powered group which included various people who create procedural characters, develop systems to compose interactive narrative, generate controllable language expression, and so forth.

We were discussing various ways we might all collaborate, when a professor of literature in the room asked “Yes, but what is the humanities research question?”

For a while that question stopped the discussion dead, and it took a while for me to understand why. The problem, I think, was that it was just the wrong question.

You can’t ask what the significance or cultural meanings are of work created in a new medium, until you’ve actually built the medium and somebody has created work with it.

The take-away lesson for me was that people who are creating new media should try very hard not to get pulled into conversations about what it all might mean. Rather, they should do everything they can to progress to the point where talented authors and creators can get their hands on the new tool.

Only then will the potential power (or lack thereof) of the medium come into view. And only then can the interesting cultural questions start to be asked.

Don’t look back

Bob Dylan’s 1966 London tour led to a landmark 1967 D. A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back, in my opinion one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

The movie contains a fascinating scene in a hotel room with Dylan and Donovan. Donovan was a wonderful pop singer/songwriter, but (to paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen), he was no Bob Dylan.

In the scene, Donovan plays a cute little song he wrote, after which Dylan performs “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The difference — between a mere entertainer and a great genius at the peak of his powers — is stark, and almost shocking.

Today I spent several hours talking with Bret Victor, during which we each shared our respective demos/prototypes and discussed thoughts and ideas for the future. The experience was wonderful and exhilarating.

And I felt like Donovan. 🙂

Beyond cool demos

Today a colleague from Microsoft was bemoaning the fact that they can’t seem to get enough press around the cool history visualization project ChronoZoom that uses their zooming technology. Apparently, when the project was demonstrated at Berkeley, one blogger’s response was “Saw a cool demo at Berkeley. Google should do something with this” (Microsoft wasn’t even mentioned).

I told my colleague that what Prezi and Google Maps both have is a compelling use: People want to give presentations and to find places in the world. Prezi and Google Maps each provide a nice way to do something people already know they want to do.

As cool as ChronoZoom is (and it is very cool), if Microsoft wants to really push its zooming technology, it will need to bundle it with at least one driving application that speaks to some capability people already know they want. Without that, the technology — as wonderful as it is — will never grow beyond the “cool demos” phase.


Today I was watching Anne Balsamo using the Prezi zooming presentation tool to give a great talk about the way history forgets who actually created various technologies. She was speaking specifically about how women have been written out of much of the history of technological innovation, and her talk referred to research reports with titles like “Notes for a revised history of technology.”

The whole scene was eerie for me, because I and my students had done the first foundational research on zooming interfaces. Our research at NYU led to a whole bunch of useful things elsewhere, including Prezi and Keyhole (which eventually became Google Maps).

Ironically, Anne herself was not aware that I had anything to do with the history of the technology she was using.

A few people in the room realized the irony, and gave me knowing looks. Sitting there, I was mostly thinking of it as a great opportunity for a blog post. 🙂

Cultural intervention

I saw a great talk today by Brenda Laurel. She touched on many fascinating and evocative topics, but one phrase really jumped out at me:

“Cultural intervention is introducing new DNA into a cultural system without activating its immune system.”

There is a lot of meaning packed into these few words. On one level the thought may seem evident, yet at the same time it is very profound.

After all, you can scream at the top of your lungs demanding change, yet be heard by nobody. But if you understand something about the cultural system you are addressing, you might be able to pass right through its protective cell walls and get your message across.

Reflecting on polarized light

Imagine looking into a room where everything looks completely ordinary. But when you look into the mirrors, then all sorts of spooky things appear about the room — images, faces, writing. This could be an interesting way to tell an immersive ghost story.

You could do such a thing using circularly polarized light. In ordinary linearly polarized light (as in many sunglasses and projectors), all the light waves vibrate at the same angle. But in circularly polarized light, the light waves spiral — either clockwise or counterclockwise.

Most 3D movies are shown with linearly polarized light. When you wear those funny glasses, the filter over your left eye shows only polarized light slanting diagonally one way, and the other shows only polarized light slanting diagonally the other way.

This works fine as long as you don’t tilt your head to one side or the other. If you do that, then the angles don’t line up anymore, and each eye ends up seeing both images, which ruins the effect.

Some more expensive 3D projection works with circularly polarized light. The left eye filter sees only light waves that spiral one way (say, counterclockwise), and the right eye filter see only light waves that spiral the other way (say, clockwise).

And the effect works just as well even if you tilt your head. In fact, you can rotate each filter all you want, and everything still works, because the light waves are still spiraling in the proper direction.

OK, here’s the really cool part: When you bounce linearly polarized light off a mirror, you just get the same linearly polarized light back. But if you bounce circularly polarized light off a mirror, the reflected light switches orientation — clockwise turns to counterclockwise, and vice versa.

You could make some really interesting installations with this. For example, imagine looking into a room, through a window that lets through only clockwise circularly polarized light. Counterclockwise circularly polarized light projected onto walls and statues in this room would be invisible. But if you looked into the mirrors in that room, then all of those projected images would become visible.

Imagine the artistic possibilities!

Apple invents time machine

In a major technological breakthrough, Apple Computer has been awarded a prize of more than $1 billion for its invention and dramatic demonstration of a time machine.

The award was in the form of damages to be paid to Apple from Samsung, which had the affrontery to employ a “pinch to zoom” gesture, among other things, in its Android phones.

The genius of Apple (and really, let’s be honest, the genius of Steve Jobs) was that it managed to invent this groundbreaking technology literally decades after Myron Krueger first demonstrated the pinch-to-zoom gesture in 1983.

How many companies have the brilliance and the foresight to invent something long after it had already been publicly demonstrated and widely known within the field, and then the business savvy to extract a vast sum from others for the violation of its patents on that invention?

As Apple continues to develop and refine this ingenious time machine technology, it will be exciting to see what other bold and innovative technologies from the past this company will manage to invent and to take ownership of.

Cyclic chirps

Thanks to Stephan Ahonen for suggesting the use of CDMA for sending homing info to a rossum of robots.

As an alternative, maybe we can very the well known technique of sending a “chirp” in radar or sonar. In the chirp approach, rather than just sending a really short sound (and then waiting to see how long it takes to travel), you send out a continuous tone that rises in pitch over time (which makes a sawtooth pattern, since when you get to the highest pitch, you go back down to the lowest pitch and start again). Since you are sending a signal continuously, rather than just at intervals, you can get a better result.

Unfortunately, as Stephan pointed out, when objects are moving toward or away from your beacon, then Doppler effects will raise or lower the perceived pitch of your tone, thereby introducing errors.

Maybe instead of sending just one tone that varies linearly over time in pitch, we can send two tones, each with a different base pitch. We make both tones wobble in pitch, varying one tone over time as a sine function and the other as a cosine function (rather than a sawtooth, our two pitches trace out a circle over time). This method will be impervious to Doppler shifts, since both tones will rise and fall together, and we only care about the difference between the two pitches.

So to broadcast homing signals out to our rossum of robots, we will end up generating a total of four undulating ultrasonic tones: two from the speaker on one end of our separating rod, and two from the speaker at the other end.

I’ve been searching over the internet, but so far I can’t find any examples of somebody having tried using this kind of cyclic chirp.

Legitimate train wreck

“It seems to be, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” — Representative Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, asserting that raped women don’t get pregnant

Of all the ways one could imagine to help Barack Obama get re-elected, probably nothing could top the effectiveness of the recent remark by Representative Todd Akin. It constitutes a perfect nuclear strike against the Romney campaign.

If there is a winning strategy for Mitt Romney this fall, it certainly does not lie in a discussion of abortion — and that’s why Romney/Ryan have carefully steered clear of this topic. It kind of brings to the surface the fact that Ryan was a co-sponsor of a bill that distinguishes “rape” from “forcible rape” (I’m not making this up), and that he has asserted that abortion should only be legal when the mother’s life is in danger.

If not for Akin’s outburst, those inconvenient facts might have stayed buried. Now, of course, they have become common knowledge. It kind of makes you wonder whether Akin is secretly on the payroll of the Obama re-election campaign.

A rossum of robots

Continuing from yesterday’s post, let’s explore this idea of calculating one’s location by analyzing the time delay from two separately located sound sources.

It would be easy to apply this principle to a swarm of robot vehicles. In this scheme, a stationary transmitter containing two physically separated speakers sends out periodic ultrasonic pulses. Each robot vehicle contains a clock, so it knows what time each pulse was supposed to have originated. By measuring the delay in receiving each of the two sounds, the robot can calculate its own location.

We can also do this in 3D, with a swarm of flying robot vehicles. In that case we would need a transmitter containing three speakers, physically arranged into a triangle, but the principle would be the same.

In any case, we can broadcast digital instructions saying where we want each robot to be. When any given robot is told where it should be, it will know which way it needs to go. This allows us to centralize the planning for the swarm’s behavior into a single computer, rather than requiring each robot to be smart on its own.

It would be fun to think of uses for such a swarm of robots — whether for artistic or practical purposes. But what would you call such a flock? A flock of crows is called a “murder” (hence the title of that work at the Park Avenue Armory). Bowing to literary precedent, perhaps it should be called a rossum of robots.