If you could assume any temporary form

If you had the human mind that you have now, but could temporarily assume any physical form you wish, what sort of form would you choose?

I think we need to set some ground rules here. Obviously if you were to show up at the office tomorrow as a ten foot tall giant squid, it might cause a certain commotion among your co-workers. So let’s just keep this on a theoretical level, and put aside real-life social considerations.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should restrict your hypothetical temporary form to the nearly human. Perhaps you could choose to live in a four dimensional space. Or you could become a vast cloud of particles drifting through the galaxy. Or your consciousness could collectively inhabit ten million bees around the world. Or you could spend the day as a gentle rainfall in Hawaii.

Once you start thinking this way, it’s not really clear what are “better” or “worse” answers. I guess it depends what sort of adventure you want to have.

Any ideas?

Recent advice

Just this past week I have picked up three great bits of advice that are directly relevant to my life. They come from a remarkably disparate set of sources, and I suspect they would be directly relevant to many peoples’ lives.

One was a piece of advice I read just the other day that the financier Warren Buffett once told his shareholders. I am now finding it very helpful when thinking about the best ways to commercialize research we’ve developed in our lab:

“A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse — not a remarkable mathematician.”

Another was told to me by my cousin, who happens to be a renowned spiritual leader and political activist. He was told this many years ago by his own spiritual teacher. It’s probably the best advice I have ever heard about how to run a multiperson project:

“It’s not how much you do. It’s how much you get done.”

The third bit of advice may be the most useful of all. It was given to me by a close friend just last week. She said she was told this by her snowboard instructor, back when she was taking snowboarding lessons. I think the underlying principle applies to just about every situation in life:

“Don’t look at the tree.”

Future fun

Things that are fun in computer games are often the same things that are very unpleasant in real life. Transposing an ostensibly tedious task into a game can transform that task, turning ennui to enchantment.

Take for example Eric Zimmerman’s brilliant game Diner Dash, in which the player essentially waits on tables in a busy diner, trying to satisfy customers’ needs throughout a high stress shift. In real life, this could be a nightmare. But when you’re playing it as a game, it’s fun.

I think this disparity may have great relevance for future reality, as we become able to use the tools of virtual and mixed reality to seamlessly merge physically lived experience and simulation. Ostensibly thankless tasks performed within the “magic circle” of game play may end up feeling like great fun, even if the tasks themselves remain exactly the same.

Traditional computer games are played while sitting in front of a computer screen. But emerging virtual and augmented realities are going to allow those tasks to be performed in the real world itself. What if the difference between “fun” and “not fun” turns out to merely be a question of context? What if the same physical act can feel very different, based on what we believe is going on?

Perhaps in future reality, all physical chores — doing laundry, taking out the garbage, shoveling the sidewalk — will be recontextualized as games. While doing those activities we will be able to gain points, move up leader boards, master tutorial levels and play challenge rounds with our friends. What today is the most thankless chore will become a fun pastime that we cannot wait to do again.

Something old, something new

Today I spent some time at the headquarters of Verizon in Basking Ridge, NJ. Some of you with long memories might remember this campus as the former headquarters of the once mighty AT&T.

It looks the same, yet not the same. Different logo at the entrance, some redecorating, a gloss over everything to add a bit of contemporary hipness. But underneath their new skin, these buildings have the same old bones.

This is my third such experience in about a week. Last week I paid my first visit to the Facebook campus in Palo Alto. The last time I had visited that campus it was still headquarters for Sun Microsystems, a fascinating and storied company which sadly is no longer with us.

Back in the Sun days the campus was very stark and no-nonsense, reflective of the serious tone of the company itself. Now it has all been made over to project a casual spirit of youthful fun, sort of the architectural equivalent of adding party balloons and a large Mexican hat.

Similarly, at the Google headquarters in Mountain View the other day, I knew I was walking into buildings that I had originally visited when that site was the headquarters of Silicon Graphics, back in its glory days. A few of the original buildings still remain, although Google has expanded the campus enormously.

Google didn’t even need to change the signature bright purple of the two formerly-SGI towers that loom over its campus. Their bold color scheme actually meshes perfectly with the playful architecture of Google’s other buildings.

Today as I was checking through security, the man behind the reception desk at Verizon asked me whether I had ever been there before. After a moment’s hesitation, I gave the most accurate reply I could: “Not since before this was Verizon.”

The man smiled. I am guessing he might have heard that response before.

The perfect customer

Broadly speaking, there are two major ways that entertainment experiences are monetized: Through payed content and through ad revenue. Game platforms like Microsoft XBox and SONY PlayStation generally rely on paid content — a very reliable and high quality form of income.

Aggregators like Google and Facebook rely mainly on ad revenue. This is a lower quality form of income, in that many users are needed to accumulate sufficient value to advertisers. Each user provides only a small amount of value by virtue of his or her ability to act as a target for ads. On the other hand, you can accumulate a lot more users if you give them stuff for “free”.

It’s already clear that the early tethered VR systems coming out in the next few months — SONY Morpheus, Facebook Oculus and Valve/HTC VIVE — are going to roll out with high quality content, and that will be paid content. But this is not a model that will generalize. Hard core gamers may expect to pay for their entertainment experience, but most people just want to get stuff for free.

So are we going to live in a world where most people are going to see ads popping up wherever they look? I don’t think so, because I think it’s going to be even weirder: The “free” wearables that will be provided by aggregators like Google will be able to detect exactly where you are looking, all the time. They will even be able to track your level of pupil dilation. They will therefore be able to aggregate your interests so well that they will no longer need to show you ads.

But the next time you go to buy anything, be it clothing, groceries, wallpaper, or just a stick of gum, you will see the choices that advertisers have personalized for you, based on everything they have learned about you.

You will love almost everything you see, and will want to buy it. You will be the perfect customer.

Realism considered harmful

Continuing on with the theme of future reality and experience jockeying…

When you and I enter a shared immersive virtual world together, using whatever forthcoming technology will support that, we have a choice as to what level of realism we want. We can choose to be extremely abstract characters, or extremely realistic ones.

It’s not clear to me that there are inherent advantages in opting for greater realism. Rather, it depends on the context and the situation. For one thing, choosing a more abstract and less detailed, or more “cartoon-like”, representation for everyone would make it easier to believably populate our shared virtual world with a mix of human avatars and software robots.

That might make things more interesting. Or it might just make things more confusing. I am reminded of the 1999 Cronenberg film Existenz, which took place almost entirely in a VR game. Characters were never entirely sure whether they were talking to a real person or to a Bot. The results were definitely interesting.

It will probably be quite a while before we are able to simulate the subtleties of human movement and speech with sufficient fidelity that a realistically rendered Bot would pass the Turing test. But if we abstract things enough, say by placing everybody in a cartoon world, it is possible that Bots could “pass” as human, at least for brief encounters.

And that might be fun.


In the last few days I have visited labs within both Facebook and Google where my colleagues are doing cutting edge work in VR technology. In both cases I signed NDAs, so I can’t tell you (or anybody else) what I saw.

But I can say that I am thrilled and delighted to see that so many smart people are pouring so much intelligence and serious engineering chops into advancing the field. Things are moving forward by leaps and bounds, and future reality is indeed rapidly becoming reality.

One thing that always strikes me when I visit such places is the culture of the campus. You need to pass through security to get in, but once you are inside, it fees like you’re a kid in a candy store. They treat people very well at these places. Exercise rooms, massages, snack bars, mediation centers, plentiful and delicious food any time of day, and of course fancy high-tech coffee bars wherever you go.

Each corporate technoplex is a sort of endless summer camp. But a summer camp for extremely smart and hard working people. On the other hand, maybe “work” is not the most accurate word for it, given how much people at these places seem to love what they are doing.


Many interesting thoughts have come from my conversations with various people over these last months. Here is one of them:

After future reality reaches its tipping point (as I described yesterday) new forms of entertainment will emerge. Just as movies create a demand for popcorn vendors, restaurants create a demand for waiters and dance parties create a demand for disk jockeys, new sorts of services will start to exist.

For example, if we are all hanging out together in a party situation, and we want to have a fun experience together, we might organize some sort of theater game, perhaps a kind of 21st century version of Dungeons and Dragons, with one participant as designated Dungeon Master.

Except that this experience of thing won’t be limited to Tolkienesque fantasy worlds. We might decide to be characters in a Wild West movie, or space pirates, or dolphins swimming together as we explore an ocean reef.

In all of these cases, the experience can benefit from having somebody at the controls, just as in a dance party a good disk jockey will sense the mood and pick just the right next song to play.

As we gain in understanding about these sorts of experiences, better and better tools will be developed to operate those controls. Eventually some users of those tools will get sufficiently proficient that others will be willing to pay them.

This is completely in line with recent trends in which new economies are being created by combining interactive experience with social networks. For example, a top ranked gamer can already make a decent living on Twitch.

Over time, a new class of professional will emerge, somewhat parallel to the disk jockey or video jockey. Maybe we should call this person an experience jockey.

Future reality tipping point

I’ve been having lots of conversations over many months with friends and collaborators about what experiences of “future reality” might be like, as technology continues to progress. When I say “future reality” I mean, essentially, more advanced versions of the way we already live now: Everyday social reality becoming progressively more mediated by technology.

As Sally has pointed out, drawing from her work with her collaborators on “PolySocial Reality”, this progression is a continuum. Written language, photographs, telephones, movies and television, the Web, mobile phones, these are all examples of social reality being mediated by technology.

But I am thinking about a particular tipping point along this continuum, when technological mediation of our everyday visual perception becomes the social norm. There will come a point in not too many years when people will take it for granted that they can just put on a pair of lightweight glasses in order to see and interact with a rich socially shared world of information in the physical space around and between them.

“Virtual reality”, “mixed reality” and “augmented reality” are phrases that mainly emphasize the means by which this may happen, rather than on the resulting social transformations that would ensue. This is why I prefer to use the short-hand phrase “future reality”: I am more interested in conversations that focus not on the technology itself, but rather on its social impact.

Just one story

A friend was telling me today about a storytelling class he took. It ended up being a much deeper experience than he was expecting, because it turned out that you couldn’t just get up and tell stories.

Rather, the teacher insisted that each story needed to come from a true, personal, and emotionally significant experience in your life. At first, my friend said, most of the students didn’t think they had much to tell.

But after some digging, it turns out that everyone had quite a few such stories. And finding those stories, then finding a way to tell them out loud, invariably turned out to be rich and powerful experience for everyone.

Hearing this got me to thinking. Suppose you were to go through the effort to dig up your own personal stories — the ones that were most deeply powerful for you. If you really did the work needed to call them up, you would probably end up with quite a collection.

And then suppose you could choose just one among them — the one personal story that meant the most to you, the one nearest to your soul. That would probably be quite a story indeed.

If we were to take everyone’s chosen story, and we collected all those stories together into a single book, it would make for one hell of a book. I don’t know about you, but I would love to read that book.