Punk orange

In the spirit of yesterday’s post, last night a friend issued a two word challenge. I needed to spin something out from the words you see in the title of this post.

The following is what I came up with.



MacDougal Street at 3am was quiet as a ghost. Stray trash littered the street, and stray thoughts littered the mind of Bobbie Sue as she strode from Third Street down to Houston, scowling, hands thrust in her pockets. She was late, and Draco didn’t like when you were late. Not when he was finally gonna let you deal some smack.

So the last thing she wanted to see was Eddie in his green hoodie, standing in the middle of the street.

“Hey, yo, Bobbie Sue, what’s shakin’?”

“Can’t talk Eddie, gotta go, got a connection to make.”

“Can’t you slow down for an old friend?” He smiled shyly — the same shy smile that had drawn her in all those months ago. Before she’d gotten wise.

“Man, really no. Business is business.” But even as she said it, she felt herself slowing, coming to a stop.

He looked serious for a moment. “You hangin’ with the punks these days Bobbie Sue?”

“None of your damn business,” she snorted. “You gonna get out of my way or what?”

“It’s just,” he said, “I’ve got something for you in my pocket…”

“Jeez Eddie.” Why the hell had she even bothered.

He dug into the pocket of his hoodie and took out an orange, “… and I thought you might wanna share.”

She gave the orange a long look, and then she gave Eddie an even longer one.

“Yeah, OK.” And for the first time in ages, she smiled.

Two words

This evening I was discussing with a friend a fascinating idea for a game.

Each of you gives the other two words. With the two words you are given, you need to spin out a tale, which can be fantastical, moving, suggestive, ridiculous, or heart-breaking. It’s entirely up to you.

The important thing is that you use those two words as random seeds to fan the fires of your own imagination.

What I like about this game is its perfect reciprocity. Each of you is providing the sand for the other’s pearl. Neither of you has any control over the spark that will light the flames of your creativity.

As games go, this one is pretty good.

Big screens and piracy

There was a time, not that long ago, when it was easier than it is now to make a movie at modest cost, and maybe even turn a profit. But those days appear to be gone.

Young people nowadays seem to have no qualms about watching pirated downloads of new releases. If you try to question their ethics, they can just shrug and say “it’s all freely available”.

Which may account for the precipitous rise in recent years of the Hollywood special effects blockbuster.

The economic logic of these big budget films is unassailable: The only way to lure young people into theaters is to create visuals that are so spectacular, they need to be seen on a giant screen.

The one remaining defense against the attitude of “all films want to be free” is to make a movie that can’t really be seen at home.

Progressive tax

In the early 1950s, the idea of running commercials on free television broadcasts really hit its stride (although the first television ad in the U.S. actually dates back to 1941).

Now that content can be delivered asynchronously over the internet, the entire premise of broadcast television may be on its way out. Once people can watch a show whenever they want — and in particular, can skip over ads — subscription models, like the one employed by Netflix, may be the only commercially viable alternative.

Which in a way would be sad, because commercial television is a pure example of something difficult to achieve: A perfectly progressive tax.

When you watch television shows that are paid for by ads, you “pay” with your time. Whatever your time is worth, that’s essentially what it costs you to watch.

For example, somebody who is earning the current U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is paying approximately twelve cents to sit through a one minute TV ad.

In contrast, Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, who earned $77,000,000 in 2013, is essentially paying about $640 to watch that same one minute spot.

It makes sense that this perfect form of progressive taxation emerged with the rise of the middle class in the U.S. after World War II — a time when the American Dream was truly becoming a reality for a large percentage of the population.

Of course, we now live in much different times. These days, if you are born poor, the pretense that you have a fair shot at merit based success has become a grim and unfunny joke, at least in the United States. For millions of citizens, just the crippling cost of paying off loans to get a college education is placing that dream hopelessly out of reach.

How fitting that one of our most perfectly progressive forms of taxation seems to be heading for the dustbin of history.

Action figures

Today I was on a transatlantic flight coming back home from Europe, and I got to talking with the pleasant young man sitting in the next seat. He told me that he is in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, and now traveling home for a brief leave.

A few minutes later we were joined in our row by a young woman, and we all got to chatting, as people do. She said she is originally from Hungary, had been working in Germany, and was going to spend a few months in New York.

At some point the soldier asked the young woman what she did for a living, and she explained that she is a professional model.

Whereupon I blurted out, with genuine enthusiasm, “Wow, cool, a soldier and a model. I get to sit next to two action figures!”

Fortunately, they both thought this was funny.

Building impact

Thinking back on the discussion these last few days, I’m thinking that invention and impact are radically different things. You can be the person who first invented something, and yet your invention by itself may have very little impact. If your goal is to have impact, then you need to work on maximizing impact.

And I’ve come to realize that the discussion about who did what first, on a technical level, may be nearly irrelevant when discussing the adaption arc of the Oculus Rift. Their major accomplishment lay in how they led the conversation.

Various VR “solutions” have been around for quite a while, but until now nobody managed to convince the entire game development industry that a credible consumer level platform would be arriving within a year. And the way Oculus did this was particularly brilliant.

They not only made a highly plausible platform, but then they sold development kits for the same low price that a final product would cost. Keep in mind that if you only make a few thousand of anything, your per-unit costs are far greater than if you make millions of something — often by an order of magnitude or more.

So it looks as though they were subsidizing their dev-kits, spending capital from their investors to create the illusion that the product was already a mass-market item.

It worked spectacularly well. Thousands of game developers bought the dev-kits at low cost, and then collectively spent perhaps a billion dollars to build various games. So the idea that “this is the commodity platform of choice” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At least in this sort of commercial space (building a new platform), the key is not just to spend money. It’s to get lots of other people to spend their own money.

Oculus rifts

Thanks to everyone for your wonderfully thoughtful comments over the last few days in response to my posts about the Oculus Rift. I’ve really learned a lot from reading them.

Yesterday evening I got a very nice email from Palmer Luckey, who laid out for me the chronology of his involvement with this technology. It is now clear to me that, independent of whatever Mark Bolas had been doing, by the time they first met Palmer had already been thinking about achieving wide angle stereo VR by placing cheap plastic lenses in front of a single SmartPhone screen and de-warping the resulting distorted view.

Then, coincidentally, I had a long chat this morning with an old friend who spent several years as a venture capitalist, focusing on funding Silicon Valley tech start-ups. He had an interesting take on the whole thing.

My friend said that VCs don’t really care who came up with something first — as long as nobody is suing anybody for IP theft. VCs are focused only on execution. In other words, the most original idea in the world will fail in the marketplace if badly executed, whereas a very unoriginal idea can be wildly successful if brought to market well.

And so my thinking about this whole space has evolved in the last few days. It could be argued that, as proud as he is of having come up with the Oculus tech, Palmer’s real triumph has been of a different nature.

More tomorrow.

The hero myth

To expand on yesterday’s post, I don’t think the problem with Mark Bolas being written out of the Oculus Rift story was the fault of Palmer Luckey. Rather, it was the fault of us, collectively.

In the U.S. we tend to frame all such stories as a “Hero myth”. The first question we ask is often “who was the individual who did this?” The idea that a story can have multiple heroes (which in reality is generally the case) is often too complex to form a compelling national narrative.

So we say that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lightbulb, that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, that James Clerk Maxwell invented Maxwell’s equations. None of these statements is really true, but they are all convenient myths that have satisfied somebody’s agenda, and that were much easier for people to keep in mind than the far messier and more complicated reality.

The disappearing inventor

Mark Bolas, a professor at USC, an astonishingly prolific innovator, has invented or co-invented many things. One of those things was FOV2GO, an ingenious way to make a very inexpensive, very wide angle virtual reality display.

You start with two really inexpensive lenses, put a SmartPhone screen a few inches away, and wrap the whole thing in an inexpensive housing — which can even be cardboard. If you already have a SmartPhone, you can make one yourself for a few dollars in parts.

One of the students working on this project — Palmer Luckey — spun the basic idea out into a start-up company, Oculus Rift, which added an orientation tracker, more solid packaging and support software, and was recently purchased by Facebook for two billion dollars.

As you might have guessed, Mark is not now wealthy.

This week I’m at the FMX conference, and it seems that at nearly every session Palmer Luckey’s name comes up, but Mark Bolas is never mentioned.

I don’t want to take anything away from Palmer’s contribution. It takes a lot of work to make a successful commercial enterprise, including a level of financial investment, marketing and engineering that is simply not needed in an academic project.

So yes, I understand why Mark is not getting the financial payoff here. Still, in all the hype in the press and elsewhere, shouldn’t a primary inventor of the technology at least be mentioned?

Shouldn’t an inventor get at least a little credit for his own invention?

Mary Poppins revisited

On a flight across the Atlantic today I decided to rewatch Mary Poppins. It is a film that I revisit often, but I had not seen it in several years.

As it happens, one of the talks I will be giving this week is on the future of interactive cinema. And I realized, watching this Walt Disney movie for children that is now exactly half a century old, that it has much to say for our time.

The vision of being able to paint a picture, and then simply jump into that image to visit a desired alternate reality, is one that still, after fifty years, speaks to the child within us.

The difference is that now we suspect that soon we may be able to make it a reality.