Hello World!

There is a convention in computer programming that the first thing you create is a “Hello World!” program. Not surprisingly, this is just a very simple program that does nothing but print out the text message “Hello World!”.

In some languages, such as Java, you have to do some work to write even this simplest of programs. Other languages, such as Javascript, make it much easier.

Right now we are setting up our virtual reality “Holodeck” at NYU. So our “Hello World!” program — our simplest possible implementation of a holodeck — is a program that lets someone walk around a single virtual cube that appears to float in the air.

If you can do just that much, then you can be fairly confident that you can build an entire virtual world for people to explore together.

So I guess in this case, “Hello World!” is literally “Hello World!”.

Musical gestures

Some weeks back I had the privilege of watching the Masters’ thesis presentations at NYU’s Department of Music Technology. There were many cool ideas on display, lots of innovative musical instruments, and ways of interacting with computers to controlling sound in aesthetically exciting ways.

Many of these presentations were very much centered on the relationship between music and the body. They were exploring how we, as humans, use our hands, our fingers, our ears, to create and modulate musical expression.

It all reminded me of something, but at the time I couldn’t place just what that was. Recently, I have figured it out.

It all reminded me of the expressiveness I see when people are speaking in American Sign Language (or its cousin languages British Sign Language, Nicaraguan Sign Language, etc.). These are also examples of the body, the hands and fingers, even the focus of attention, being used to create rich real-time expression for other people.

Now I want to do a project in which ASL is used as an instrument for playing and expressing music. We certainly have the means to explore this at NYU, since we have a wonderful motion capture lab, in which we can accurately measure even the finest movements of arms, hands and fingers.

On the one hand, using ASL to create music seems like an unlikely collision of two very different worlds. But maybe that’s ok. After all, being essentially deaf between 1822 and 1824 didn’t stop Beethoven from composing his Symphony No. 9 in D minor.

Immortality for fun and profit

This evening a friend and I were discussing what the world might be like if people were immortal. Of course we know that if a “cure” for mortality were ever discovered, it would most likely be reserved for the one-percenters — wealthy people who would then have literally all the time in the world to enjoy their life of privilege.

What would existence be like if there were no pressure to get your life lived within a span of eighty-odd years? There would be no urgency to get a certain amount done within any given decade, and therefore within any given year, and therefore on any particular day.

Without that implicit time limit always pushing in from the ends, immortals might simply react like a bottle opened in outer space — everything inside diffusing out to fill the infinite void.

So if this really happens, it is possible most people of means will adopt an attitude of “I’ll do it tomorrow”. They will stay at home, watch a lot of TV, play video games to fill the time and order their meals in. Or they might just lie in bed all day. After all, they can always get out of bed tomorrow, or maybe the day after that.

But a small group of enterprising humans will see this as an opportunity. All those captive consumers — ordering their meals in, spending all day at home hungry for entertainment, willing to pay good money to keep the boredom at bay.

And so we will get a new class of entrepreneurs, who will understand that immortals are the ultimate business model.

As I was describing this scenario I realized it reminded me of something — H.G. Wells’ description of the Eloi and the Morlocks. Or maybe a 1987 Peter Richardson film.

The curious incident

Today I saw a matinee performance on Broadway of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At one point in the play the main character, Christopher, a 15 year old boy who is autistic, calms himself down by reciting successive powers of two.

It was a very nice moment, and it made perfect sense. Except that the actor, Alex Sharp (who, by the way, was excellent in the role), got it wrong.

What he actually said was “1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 125, 256, 512, 1024”. That eighth number, so out of place, leapt out at me, and I was instantly yanked out of the story, acutely aware that I wasn’t in the presence of Christopher at all, just somebody playing Christopher.

The real Christopher, the one in Mark Haddon’s novel, would have been utterly incapable of inserting such a jarringly wrong note into such a beautiful sequence.

I know this because earlier in the afternoon, taking the R train to see that very play, I had spent much of the ride mentally tuning out the cares of the day — by reciting successive powers of two in my head.

Slippery slope

Today, being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is a good day to reflect on the preconditions of atrocity.

It would be comforting to look back on that unspeakable horror and disconnect it from our own lives, our own reality. But that would not only be incorrect — it would also be unwise.

Auschwitz was not only about death, it was about “unpersoning” — the systematic process of changing how people are perceived until that they are no longer considered to be people. Once someone is not a person, their life no longer matters.

I remember the precise moment back in 2002, viewing Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” for the first time, when the full horror of its story hit me. It wasn’t the scenes of explicit atrocity, but rather the moment when two laughing guards in the Warsaw ghetto tormented their suffering captives by shooting at their feet to make them dance.

I remember being struck by the fact that such a moment was only possible because those guards did not perceive their victims as human. And that this idea — that somebody else is less than human — was the root of all the other horrors on view.

I look around me today and I see, wherever I look, the conceit that one human life is worth more than another: White more than black, rich more than poor, straight more than gay, American more than Iraqi, Israeli more than Palestinian, nonimmigrant more than immigrant, Anglo more than Hispanic, the list goes on and on and on.

These beliefs are not innocent conceits. They are the seeds that Adolph Hitler and his cronies worked with. And the slope that descends from belief to action can be very slippery.

This day of remembrance may be a good day to ask yourself whether you are standing on that slippery slope.


This evening our region is being hit by a huge nor’easter. They are expecting up to three feet of snow around here, which is quite rare for down-state New York. The restaurants have all shuttered their doors, NYU has closed early and will be closed all day tomorrow. The city has shut down.

Apparently the word has gotten around. I have gotten emails from friends and colleagues in various points around the globe, including Paris and Beijing, wishing me luck.

Given that walking the short distance from where I work to where I live is not a hardship, for me this is mostly fun. I will get to hole up at home all day tomorrow, making stuff on my computer, raiding the fridge, having a “working day off”, and pretty much enjoying the peace and quiet.

Mother Nature is being very clear. She wants all of us hyperactive New Yorkers to go stand in the corner and take a time-out. I, for one, am not complaining.

Running in VR

This morning I went for a run in various places around the world, including a fjord in Iceland, a tropical waterfall, a canal in Venice, a bobsled run in Jamaica, a beach in Hawaii and various other exotic locales.

I was actually at home on my treadmill, my GearVR over my eyes, headphones over my ears, and one hand resting firmly on the treadmill rail (a necessary concession to reality).

It was great fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Enough so that I think I’m going to make VR a regular part of my exercise regime.

The fact that the GearVR / Galaxy Note 4 system is high enough resolution, that it has no wires trailing, that it responds without noticeable lag when you turn your head, all combine to make a compelling experience.

Sure it could be better: I need higher quality noise canceling headphones, the contrast is nothing to write home about, and of course higher pixel density would certainly be welcome. But that will be coming soon enough.

For now, this is a huge leap forward from anything I could have imagined I’d be experiencing at home on my treadmill.

There is one wrinkle though. After about twenty minutes, the Galaxy Note 4 heats up from the constant activity and I get a warning on my screen that I need to stop and let it cool off.

Fortunately, that’s one of the advantages of being at home. I just pop my phone in the freezer, and in about two minutes I’m ready to go back to that beach in Hawaii.

Battling APIs

Most of my programming experience is one of blissful unawareness. I find a nice quiet place to work that doesn’t involve too many complications — for a while it was Java applets, and in the last year and a half it has been HTML5, Javascript, WebGL — and from there I build up my own tools, happily constructing my little workshop and inventing shiny new toys.

Alas, you can’t always live in blissful unawareness. There are days when you need to open up your front door, walk outside, and breathe in the smog filled air of reality.

Today was one of those days. My colleague David and I spent much of the day wading through many APIs (abstract programming interfaces), trying to get to the point where we could create our own original content on the GearVR virtual reality headset that works with my fancy new Galaxy Note 4 smartphone.

We read instructions, we installed software, we downloaded libraries, we failed. We rethought our approach, we tried again, we failed again.

We looked at all the sites where people tell you where you may have gone wrong. We got on Google, we read on Reddit, we studied at Stackoverflow. We installed a plethora libraries from Oculus, from Unity, from Android, from Oracle, from other companies that provide services to those companies.

Hours went by. It’s amazing how an activity can be filled with constant activity and drama and yet still be boring. Very discouraging.

Except at the end of the day, we managed to get it working. Through sheer ornery persistence we hacked our path through the thorny thickets of third party software. And I found myself staring at a wonderful virtual reality landscape, a completely made up world, that stretched out to infinity in every direction.

Now the fun part begins.

Hologrammatical errors

OK, so here’s a puzzler.

Microsoft comes out with an extremely cool new device — the HoloLens — and then in their announcement they falsely describe it as a device for looking at holograms.

In fact, the HoloLens, as wonderful as it is, does not show you holograms. It doesn’t involve holography at all. Just to make sure, I asked somebody very high up on their technology team about this, and he confirmed the obvious.

What’s even stranger is that none of the major newspapers — not the New York Times, not the Washington Post, none of them — have pointed this out. They have all just repeated the obviously false assertion that this is a device for looking at holograms.

Why is it that in technology you are allowed to say any nutty thing you want, and nobody calls you on it? This generally does not happen in other sectors.

For example, if Paramount Pictures had opened Selma by saying “Martin Luther King was the leading figure in the struggle for the rights of Italian Americans”, would all the papers just have printed that?

I’m guessing that somebody, somewhere, would have called them on it.

Virtual irony

Tonight I went to a Virtual Reality Tech MeetUp. It was very nice, and the people there were all extremely enthusiastic. Brownies were served.

Quite a few attendees had brought their Oculus Rift DK2 or GearVR (and in some cases, both), and were taking turns putting them on and showing each other the virtual worlds they had made.

All of these excited happy people, who were mostly quite young, were clearly enjoying a sense of community, of hanging out, of being together with fellow travelers.

But I couldn’t help thinking that if all of this succeeds, there may come a time when a gathering such as this will seem as quaint as a horse and buggy. Why travel to a common meeting place, when you can have a face to face conversation without ever leaving the comfort of your own home?

Most people don’t miss the horse and buggy. In fact, most people don’t think about it at all. We have long since moved on.

So I wonder about that future world where kids grow up hanging out together without ever being in the same room, where brownies are “shared” by people who are in different houses, or on different continents.

When that day arrives, will the people I met this evening feel nostalgic for the time, long gone, when they once gathered in a room, to usher in a world where nobody ever gathers in a room?