Archive for May, 2015

New Media

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Suppose you had never heard of “theatre”, and somebody invited you to see a play. Imagine how strange the experience would be.

All of those people up on stage, saying things that were actually the words of somebody else. You might be appalled at these odd people, walking about in what is clearly a make believe reality, acting as though everything about this made up world is real.

Every once in a while, one of these crazy people would look toward us — the audience — gazing out into the middle distance as though none of us is there. They might do something weird like launch into a lengthy speech, apparently to the empty air. Or even worse, they might express their deepest emotions by singing — without, apparently, ever realizing that they have burst into song.

“Hey!” you might be tempted to shout to the person up on stage, “Can’t you see us? We’re right here!”

But your major worry would be reserved for the audience. All of these apparently intelligent citizens, falling for an obvious trick. Why, you might ask yourself, don’t they realize that those people up there are merely pretending?

Normal inside jokes

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

This evening I was having dinner with some friends, one of whom was Paul Debevec. We were discussing the cultural shift in the general acceptance of smoking in public, and Paul remarked that smoking had become denormalized.

One of the people at the table really liked the word “denormalized”, and wanted to know exactly what it meant. Paul explained that he had meant it in the sense of a shift in what is generally considered to be normal behavior.

So I asked him, if everyone should some day start smoking again, whether we could then say that smoking had become renormalized.

Paul, tapping effortlessly into his inner computer graphics nerd, replied: “The norm always divides us.”

I agreed, adding: “And then it makes us one.”

So much for comforting thoughts

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Yesterday a colleague was showing a retrospective of seminal virtual reality artworks. One work in particular brought back a poignant memory.

It was early September, fourteen years ago. I was in Amsterdam watching the presentation by Tomiko Thiel of her brilliant interactive piece Beyond Manzanar (created in collaboration with Zara Houshmand). The experience immersed you in the point of view of a Japanese-American in one of those bizarre internment camps erected during World War II.

I remember thinking several different things while I was watching her presentation. One was how strange it was that you could be born in the U.S., a citizen of this country, and yet be locked up because you had an inconvenient ancestry.

I knew that a very large proportion of the U.S. population derives from German immigrants, and I found myself musing how strange it would be if our government had tried to pull the same trick on U.S. citizens of German ancestry. That would have required locking up a fairly large proportion of the U.S. population.

Interesting that they did that to native born Americans of Japanese ancestry, but not to native born Americans of German ancestry. What on earth could the difference be? The answer might be beyond the bounds of rational thinking. Maybe you can figure it out.

The other thing I was thinking in that moment was how fortunate we are that our country no longer looks in fear and loathing at entire segments of its population, just because they hail from a particular ethnicity. We’ve moved beyond that level of paranoia.

It was a comforting thought. And while I was thinking it, somebody came on stage and announced that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

So much for comforting thoughts.

After the panel

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Today I attended a panel about women in the special effects industry. At some point one of the panelists talked about Gamergate. Most of the people in the room — not being from a game dev background — hadn’t known about it.

She described the general level of polarization and acrimony that resulted from the conflict, and how a general tone of negativity and mutual accusation came to pervade much of the discussion. Among the sad outcomes of that sequence of events, she said, was a general feeling of disheartenment throughout the community.

This was particularly unfortunate because in the years leading up to Gamergate, there had been a sense among game developers of possibilities opening up, of new and innovative genres being created, and of an expansion of the audience for computer games. But in the wake of Gamergate, she said, that feeling of optimism largely gave way to a general sense of depression. Instead of being joyful and hopeful, many people in the community found themselves feeling sad.

After the panel, I told her that I really liked what she had said. I also suggested she might try to work through that lingering feeling of sadness by playing Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest.

The Holodeck is other people

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

I spoke at a conference session today in which the focus was on Virtual Reality. And I realized that there was at least one fundamental difference between my talk and all of the other talks in the session.

Everyone else was primarily concerned with what you see when you enter a virtual world, and whether you can see it with high quality. Some were concerned about realistic rendering, some about scientific data, and some about the fidelity and detailed modeling of objects in the virtual world.

Which brought home to me that my interest is not really about creating an alternate world, but rather in finding new ways for people to hang out with each other. To me the real attraction is always other people. If you and I enter the Holodeck together, we may discover (or invent) new ways to communicate with each other. And that’s the real power-up.

As long as the alternate world seems real and solid enough that you can feel you are really there (so issues like latency are still very important), the thing that really matters in our project is not the space itself, but the other people who are there with you.

So many futures

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

So many futures,
Yet only one will happen.
So please, chose wisely.

How many times I can snap my fingers

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

I am at a conference that I have been going to for quite a number of years. It’s really quite nice, with a great community, interesting sessions, and a really cool opportunity for all sorts of discussions.

But one thing is a little unnerving. Precisely because this is a small conference, and the number of people is relatively contained, it is all too easy to line up the different years in my mind: This year, the previous year, the one before that, and so on.

And this leads to an odd telescoping effect, as though no time at all has passed from one year to the next. It’s like some sort of strange fantasy story in which everyone ages a year every week.

I’m not complaining. To paraphrase Woody Allen, getting a year old every year sure beats the alternative. But still, it is unnerving to see the passage to time placed in such stark relief, and to bear witness to the clear juxtaposition of successive years, as though time had suddenly advanced with the snap of the fingers.

On one level it’s all very fascinating, but I’m not sure how many times I can snap my fingers.

My shortest poem ever

Monday, May 4th, 2015

I’m off, I’m off,
To Dueseldorf!


Day before a long trip

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

The day before a long trip (I will be out of town for six weeks) brings a special sort of anxiety. Not that I have anything to complain about. The next month and a half will bring me to Berlin and Paris, among other wonderful places.

But there is always the nagging feeling that something has been forgotten, an essential detail missed. It is a larger, more amorphous version of the classic panicked question “Did I leave the stove turned on?”

So I have one more day of worry, of neurotically checking todo lists, cleaning out the fridge, suspending the newspaper, paying a pesky bill or two, and making sure I have all my ducks in a row (whatever that actually means).

The payoff will come at liftoff, when I can at last sit back in my airplane seat and relax, secure in the knowledge that whatever I have forgotten, there is no longer a damned thing I can do about it. :-)


Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

Faulkner once said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Well, I just saw Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on the recommendation of a friend. It was a fabulous production, utterly heart wrenching, and it pretty much nailed what Faulkner was getting at.

The play starts out so light hearted, almost like a drawing room comedy. But then the clouds begin to circle and swirl, and before you know it you are lost in a dark mirror, reflecting upon the ways our past can come back to haunt us.

In real life, we all tell ourselves a few lies to make peace with the choices we have made. We may even come to believe that these lies are harmless. Ghosts reminds us that a life built upon self-deception is like a house built upon sand.

And it does so with remarkable economy and rigor. Every word and phrase and glance is important — nothing is wasted. This play is an exquisitely cut gem, all bright glistening facets and edges sharp enough to cause damage.

How odd that seeing so much pain on stage can bring so much pleasure to an audience. That might seem wrong, until you realize that we are responding not to the pain itself, but to the telling of truth, and the beautifully clear illumination of the human soul.