Archive for January, 2016

Unfont design

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

The word “font” derives from the old days, when printing was done with real metal pieces that were used to press ink onto paper. A font was a complete set of such pieces that shared a particular weight, size and style.

For a given font, the letter “A” always looked the same, as did the letters “B”, “C” and so forth. And this is essentially still true today, in the computer age. When printing with a given font, a particular character always appears the same.

Consider, for example, the following word in my new line font:

In the word “chalktalk” above, the letters “a”, “l” and “k” each appear twice, in each case without any variation. This is part of the definition of a font: The appearance of any printable character is completely determined. This is in contrast to, say, handwritten text, in which characters look somewhat different every time they are written.

But sometimes I want text in my Chalktalk system to have a casual handwritten quality. Because this is a procedurally defined font, I can just add noise to make that happen:

Now any given letter, such as the “a”, “l” and “k” above, will look somewhat different every time it appears. Which means that this is no longer a font — it violates the very definition of a font.

Yet it is recognizable. The statistical average of all occurances of any given letter converges to the original line font, even though no letter is actually in that font. And although this is not a font, we perceive it much the way we would perceive a font.

I guess you could call it an unfont.

Font design

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

The reason I was thinking about fonts yesterday was that this week I designed my own font. I needed it because I am moving my Chalktalk interactive drawing program into VR, so I need text that can be “drawn in 3D space” like any other drawing.

I couldn’t use the standard font design tools, because those tools don’t let you create characters that can be drawn as lines and curves in space. So I wrote my own font design software, which actually only took about an hour (it’s a lot easier if you’re only going to design a single font). The design of the font itself was really fun, and took a few hours, mostly because I really got into the stylistic details.

Fonts are like chess sets — all of the characters need to “feel” like they belong together. You’re basically asserting a coherent design space, and all of the characters in that space need to play well together, so that they reaffirm each other aesthetically. But some of them also need to be just a little bit cheeky and impertinent.

Below is what I have so far. I’ve already switched Chalktalk over to use this new font, and it looks a lot better than the off-the-shelf one I was using before:

And here’s something I wasn’t able to do with my off-the-shelf font — let people walk around text in virtual reality, like any other object in the 3D shared virtual world. And that’s the real payoff!

Metonymic haiku

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016



Deadline time

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Something there is that doesn’t love a deadline,
That sends the frozen Google doc under it,
And spills the upper sections into the clipboard;
And makes gaps in logic even two can pass abreast.

There is something about a paper deadline. In our case it is the SIGGRAPH 2016 technical papers deadline.

As such a deadline approaches we seem to turn into living embodiments of Xeno’s paradox: The nearer the deadline becomes, the faster we work. If this continues, we will end up writing half of the paper in the very last second before the clock strikes. Although I suspect that practical limitations will prevent such a thing, if not quantum-mechanical limitations.

It is now 20 hours before the deadline. A minor consideration like sleep seems, for the moment, unimportant. Yet I know from experience that sleep will come to seem very important about a day from now.

Meanwhile, the hour awaits. We are fueled by adrenaline, forward thrusters on go and full speed ahead. We are all enjoying the rush of working together this way. Good deadlines make good neighbors.

Greenland time

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

Some months ago my Android phone mysteriously shifted two hours forward. At first I simply marveled at this crazy turn of events. How could a phone that got its time from the internet possibly get the time wrong?

After several days I navigated to the phone’s settings to see what was up, and whether I could fix it. At which point I discovered that my phone thought that I was in Greenland. I looked on the Web, searching high and low for a clue, but nowhere could I find even a description of these symptoms, let alone a solution.

I have never been to Greenland, and if you’d asked me before this incident, I would have had no idea that Greenland time is two hours ahead of New York time. But there it was. And apparently, there I was. According to my Android operating system, the phone and I were hanging around somewhere between Kujalleq and Qaasuitsup.

And no matter what I did, no matter how I tweaked the settings, no matter how often I rebooted, my phone stayed stubbornly on Greenland time.

I was curious to see what would happen when I went to other time zones, and I soon found out. All along the West Coast, I was to discover, from San Diego to Vancouver and all points between, I was still on Greenland time. Which meant that in order to figure out what the local time was, I now needed to subtract five hours from the time on my phone.

This mysterious state of affairs continued on, in its oddly stubborn way, until just this morning. I happened to turn my phone off and then on again, something I’ve done many times in recent months. But this time it snapped back to New York time.

Apparently I have been released from my Greenlandic bonds. I am now once again a citizen of the world, free to be a New Yorker when in New York, a Los Angeleno when in Los Angeles, and a Portlandian when in Portland.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Greenland.


Saturday, January 16th, 2016

As the 2016 U.S. presidential race moves through its erratic paces, I find myself in a familiar situation. I admire the purity of Bernie Sanders, his unswerving adherence to principle, yet for those very reasons I don’t think he would make the better president.

I actually like the fact that Hillary Clinton is promising to be a pragmatist. I tend to be more comfortable with leaders who don’t lead overwhelmingly with ideology, because too much focus on ideology is more likely to back you into a corner, and you just end up compromising your principles.

After all, politics is the art of the possible. It is less important to be always right than to actually get things done: To spur the economy when needed, keep unemployment down, to make sure the citizenry has access to food, health, education and other services, to form stable international alliances that promote national security.

Many of these goals are consistent with a sense of idealism. Yet actually achieving them requires continual negotiation and compromise between people who disagree about a lot of things. Right now the pragmatism that Hillary Clinton is promising seems much more attractive to me than the unwavering idealism of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

This difference is particularly important given the possibility that the Republican candidate might turn out to be Donald Trump. I know, that sounds crazy. After all, to our credit, American voters have never ended up voting for the hate-mongering bully. But just in case, I’d be more comfortable with a relatively centrist pragmatist running against the Donald.


Friday, January 15th, 2016

I was talking with an old friend today who is, as a rule, very thoughtful, intelligent and considered in her opinions, and the subject of David Bowie came up. She wondered aloud whether Bowie’s reported ambisexuality affected his marriage to his wife Iman. Did they have an open marriage?

My emotional reaction to this line of thought was surprisingly intense. I said that to me this was not a legitimate topic for conversation. It’s none of our business, I said, what a public person does in their private life.

My friend countered that it was legitimate, because Bowie’s art was so intertwined with questions of sexual ambiguity and provocation. When such issues are so central to a public person’s work, it is legitimate, she asserted, to examine how those questions relate to that person’s own life.

I realize, I told her, that mine is a minority opinion in today’s culture, but I have a number of hyper-famous friends, people who regularly get stopped on the street by well intentioned fans. And perhaps that makes my perspective unusual.

Because I know, firsthand, that their artfully constructed persona is generally not the actual person. When you stop a famous person on the street and you address them as though they are the character they’ve created, you are actually engaging in a mistake, an unintended crossing of boundaries.

In reality, people who create highly outgoing or flamboyant characters, and then play those characters on stage or on screen, are often nothing at all like the character they’ve invented. Their real selves, the ones that may be quiet or shy or thoughtful or sad, comes out only in their real life — their private life.

Yes, if you stop them on the street they will usually be polite, and indulge you because they know you mean well. But the person you are actually talking to is more often than not nothing at all like the image you’ve been seeing on screen, or have read about in the gossip pages. They are somebody else entirely.

So no, for me it is not legitimate to talk about a public person’s private life based on the persona they’ve created in their art. I suspect that most people are never going to agree with me on this.

Future improvisational dance

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

There is an interesting relationship between an improvisational dance troupe and an improvisational jazz ensemble. Both rely on the participants having a highly developed understanding of each other before the performance begins.

Group improvisation is not a free-for-all. Rather, it is an artfully constrained group activity in which collaborators work from a shared vocabulary and grammar. It is this very system of constraints that allows freedom of action during an improvisational performance, since dancers or musicians can be confident that the variations they explore will mesh together.

But musicians have one advantage over dancers: They can always hear what each other is playing, whereas dancers cannot always see what each other is doing. Dancers can see only what is in their field of view, not what is behind them.

Imagine an improvisational dance troupe working within a properly designed shared virtual or augmented reality environment. It should be possible to design a system of visual feedback so that dancers can be aware of all movement in the space — not merely behind them, but even on the other side of opaque walls.

This could open up new possibilities in improv dance, greatly empowering performers who understand how to work with such a visually enriched space. A group of like-minded people (I count myself as one of them) share an interest in how this space might develop.

Eventually, as such techniques mature, ensemble improvisational dance could evolve into a new and fascinating kind of visual music.

Inspiration haiku

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

An open doorway:
Inspiration. A closed door?
Look for a window.

Elmer’s Glue, revisited

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Yesterday, for the first time since I was a child, I used Elmer’s Glue. The occasion was a prototype I made for a user interface device we want to use for our research.

I didn’t need to actually build the device yet. I just needed to understand how big it should be, and how it would move. So all I really needed was cardboard, adhesive tape (for the hinged parts) and Elmer’s Glue.

Fortunately there was Elmer’s Glue in our lab’s supply closet. I had never looked for it before, but sure enough, there it was. I tried the Elmer’s Glue Stick first, but that turned out to be totally useless on cardboard. So I upgraded.

The Elmer’s Glue worked like a charm. It did exactly what it was supposed to, with no fuss or muss.

And it had one other very important property that I had completely forgotten about since I was about seven years old: If you make a mistake and glue the wrong things together (which I did the first time yesterday), then you can pull them apart and try again, as long as you do it in the first few minutes.

In other words — user interface designers take note — it has an undo function!

I seem to recall, from very early research back in my younger days, that Elmer’s Glue is also edible. I did not try out this feature.