Archive for November, 2015

Authenticity knob

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Speaking of architectural style, today I had lunch at a restaurant in Vancouver that had a particularly vivid interior design. Sadly, this is the last day of my visit to this wonderful city, so perhaps I was making sure to take especially careful note of my surroundings.

There was something very precise about this restaurant’s decor: Tall ceilings, support columns made of rough vertical timbers, lots of exposed unpainted air ducts crossing high in the air above our heads. It all felt vaguely industrial, but with a particular sort of rustic flavor, subtlely evoking the way Vancouver itself might have been when many such towns were early western outpost for the lumber mill trade.

Of course there were also wine racks built into the walls, a gleaming bar, a well turned out wait staff, and plenty of polish to tell you that this was, in fact, an upscale establishment. If you had any doubt on that score, you had merely to glance at the prices on the menu.

We have equivalent restaurants in New York City, although I am so used to them by now that they barely register. They tend to be brick and wrought-iron, sporting tall ceilings covered with embossed tin-plate. The goal there is to evoke the long lost New York of the the Industrial Age, a colorful and storied place now lst to history, where the robber barons ruled Manhattan, and the Irish mob ruled Five Points out in Brooklyn.

I thought about those actual original nineteenth century houses of food and drink, and these fashionable new restaurants which evoke them with such artful subtlety. And I thought about all the points between, from that time to this.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have an “authenticity knob” that one could turn, to see the continuous transformation from original to its ersatz echo? I think that would be a great use for virtual reality.

Promenade time machine

Monday, November 9th, 2015

I was walking along a street in Vancouver yesterday, and I noticed that the house numbers were on the order of 1841, 1847, etc., and were gradually increasing. And I had the obvious thought: These house numbers seem an awful lot like historical years.

And suddenly I had a thought about a possible use for virtual and augmented reality. Imagine you are walking down the street, and you can switch in to an alternate view mode in which, wherever you are, the number on the house corresponds to what year it seems to be.

You can start out in the 1700s, and gradually walk your way up through history, through the 1800s, the 1900s, and beyond. All of the architectural details, the vehicles, the way people are dressed, would gradually change as you progress up the street.

If you really like a particular year, you can make a right turn onto a side street. Here you will find different places around the world. Perhaps Florence, or London, or Bucharest or Rio de Janeiro.

Then, if you are really curious, you can take the next left and keep walking. At some point you will end up in the future. And that could be really fun.

Unless you find, after a few blocks, that the street dead ends. That would be a major bummer.

Dia de Los Holos

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

Speaking of video records of memorable events, it has now been exactly a week since we put on our shared virtual reality event at NYU/MAGNET, inspired by the Mexican “Day of the Dead”. More than a hundred people came through over the course of last Sunday afternoon, sharing the experience of being a spirit in a virtual spirit world, in the midst of a joyful celebration.

The production was the result of the hard work and collaboration of many people, mostly students, who did it just out of the sheer jooy of working on something cool and wonderful.

Video footage of that experience was then edited down by the masterful David Lobser, and posted on Youtube. Of course it’s not the same as having been there.

After all, mere video cannot viscerally transport you into another world the way that shared VR can. But this should give you a sense of how much fun was had by all:

Dia de Los Holos

Finally got it right

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

I’ve been giving a number of talks about this whole “vision for the future” thing lately, but I think the one I gave in Vancouver yesterday finally got it right. It was one of those talks where everything came together. The audience was great, the demos all worked, and the “flow” of it all was exactly on target.

Also, as part of the talk, I got to play some piano music. :-)

And the best part is that they recorded it! As soon as that shows up as an actual video, I will share the link.

The gold standard

Friday, November 6th, 2015

I am about to give a talk at Emily Carr University. Just one day after having given a talk to a wonderful group of VR enthusiasts in New York City. I am actually typing this from up at the lectern here in Vancouver, as the audience slowly drifts in.

I feel like a globe trotter. Although, admittedly, a slightly jet lagged globe trotter. :-)

It’s funny to think about how this all works. My talks these days generally circle around ideas of “Future Reality”, of people being able to fold physical space itself, so that they can be present with each other wherever they may be in the world.

Yet ironically, in order to most effectively convey that message, I still need to be in the same room with the people I am talking to. Actual presence is, not surprisingly, the gold standard of “presence”.

Maybe it will always the the gold standard.

Flight

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

I am about to get on an flight.

That’s nothing new. I’ve been doing this for years, and on one level it’s completely normal.

Yet on another level, part of my mind still reels at the absurdity of this possibility. I get into a giant metal can along with several hundred other people, and we launch into the sky, traveling hundreds of miles per hour at 30,000 feet off the ground, and then arrive a continent away.

I mean, come on, isn’t there a part of you that say “Wait, that can’t be right!” It’s one of those aspects of modern life that splits my mind into two parts. There’s the part that simply accepts this as “normal” reality, and the other part that tells me that nothing so completely crazy could possibly be normal.

Then again, I often have conversations with people who are half way around the world, and I also consider that normal.

Maybe there has never been a “normal” in the human condition. Perhaps the very first people who ever built a fire, or drew pictures of animals on cave walls, were already stretching and changing the definition of the word “normal” in a way that would have startled their ancestors.

Maybe that’s just what it means to be human.

Every love story is a ghost story

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

The title of this post was one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite phrases. He said it quite a few times in his various writings, always attributing it to others.

This evening I saw the Pinter play Old Times on Broadway, and was struck by how literally it adheres to this dictum. Three characters circle around each other in an intense yet abstracted emotional space, talking elliptically about their entangled romantic history.

It is very much a ghost story: Everything these characters are now is rooted in events that happened between them twenty years before — passion, betrayal, youthful intrigue.

The thought makes me think of old loves that I have had, and lost. The actual people are physically existent, on this planet, living their lives. But to me they are in some way ghosts, walking spectres of another person who was so very real and important in my life.

A lost love can seem as refracted and ephemeral as some ghostly vision spotted in a country graveyard on a moonless night. And it may be our fate, with the passage of time, to become each others’ ghosts.

Every love story is a ghost story.

The purpose of nightmares

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

This morning I had a nightmare. It startled me clean awake.

The experience, even now burned within my memory, was vivid, completely believable at the time, yet highly implausible in retrospect, as nightmares usually are. Even now I do not dare describe it, silence being my only totem against its worrisome power.

It is not all that often that our darkest demons rise up, emerging in suddenly crystaline form from the murky depths below, and announce their disturbing presence. So when they do, it is best to pay attention.

It turns out that I had had a very pleasant dream earlier in the night. Even now I remember thinking, while still asleep, that upon awakening I would recount this first dream for my amused friends.

But that was before the morning nightmare played its trump card, before I was forced to stare my darkest fears full in the face. After that, there was no room for pleasantries.

And yet, today during the day I found an odd sense of calm. I engaged in no self-destructive acts, no nagging doubts, no awkwardly missed opportunities for true communication.

It is as though the nightmare had burned me clean, leaving no tendrils of self-defeating thought within its wake. At least for now, I am stone cold sober, focused, alert, and well aware of the wolf lurking just beyond the campfire.

Perhaps this is the purpose of nightmares. We spend so much of our waking lives in blissful slumber. But like a hated yet always reliable old acquaintance, the nightmare comes when we need to be startled awake.

November

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

I love the fact that it is now definitively November, the month of autumnal weather, of pumpkins, of bright scarlet leaves, of winter threatening to encroach upon our lives, but not yet arrived. This seasonal space is delicious in its potential and possibility.

A lump of clay

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

I had been struggling for months to get something working within a very popular and well written package of open source software. And I wasn’t getting anywhere.

It’s not that there was anything wrong with the software package. It’s more that it was more of a mismatch o goals: The package was built for chopping logs, and I was trying to perform delicate surgery.

Finally, a few days ago, I gave up trying to work within somebody else’s framework, and I just implemented everything I needed from the ground up.

Generally you are told that you are not supposed to do this, to “reinvent the wheel”, as it were.

Except that in this case the results were spectacularly successful. My stripped down implementation works incredibly well. And because I wrote it, I actually understand it. Which means that I know how to customize it in any way that might be needed.

It was as though I had opted to walk away from a sophisticated machine shop, and instead had chosen to work with a simple lump of clay.

It’s true that there are many things you can create with a high powered machine shop that you can’t make out of a lump of clay.

On the other hand, it’s also true that there are many things you can create with a simple lump of clay that cannot be fashioned with even the fanciest of machines.