Future present

If sometime in the future we are all walking around in the physical world, and we are sporting eyewear that lets us see whatever we want, then we are going to be shown things that are consistent with the immediate physical world around us. Walls, chairs, tables, and other potential physical hazards are going to be made visible.

But beyond that, anything is possible. In particular, we might find that the question of whether an other person is “present” becomes interestingly complicated. For example, we may see another person standing in the room with us, but that person might actually be physically located in another part of the world.

Or perhaps that’s not a real person at all, but an NPC (non-player character), a behavioral simulation created through an Artificial Intelligence algorithm.

Another possibility: Maybe there really is a person standing in front of you, but you can’t see them — in this alternate view of reality they are invisible. This option would be useful, for example, for immersive theatre. When you open a window, you can feel the wind blowing in your face. You just don’t see the person standing in front of you holding a fan.

Yet another possibility: You see a person, but you are actually physically interacting with a robot. When you shake that person’s hand, you are actually shaking a puppet hand. The robot can either be teleoperated by an actual human being, or can be actuated algorithmically by computer.

The more you think about this, the more possibilities present themselves. I don’t know how things will end up playing out, but I’m already convinced that future reality is going to be a very interesting place.

Weimar States of America

When Adolph Hitler was rising to power during the time of the Weimar Republic, he didn’t need to personally beat up, terrorize and assault all of those who would oppose him. Instead, he relied on a large coterie of bullies, known as Brown Shirts, who did that dirty work for him.

If you were one of his political opponents, you might one day find your windows smashed in, your name smeared, your family members attacked and brutalized. Potential opponents realized, fairly quickly, that the personal costs of politically opposing the future Chancellor of Germany were prohibitive. In the face of such unchecked terror, opposition melted away.

I am not sure there is an essential difference between the tactics of the National Socialists in 1932 and those of the Trump campaign today. Sure, all Trump and his spokespeople actually do is fabricate crazy charges against those who offend them. For example, that’s what they did to Cheri Jacobus, a Republican strategist who recently dared to criticize Trump for skipping the Iowa debate.

They knew that their on-line Brown Shirts would do the rest. Jacobus was promptly set upon by an army of on-line Trump followers: terrorized, slut-shamed, threatened with death, smeared relentlessly — horribly brutalized as a cautionary example for those who would dare oppose The Donald.

As far as I can see, Trump is essentially promising, with every speech, that he will continue these scorched earth tactics if he is elected. The concept of “representative democracy”, as we now define it, will come to seem a quaint notion, a silly idea doomed to failure, just as the Weimar Republic came to be seen.

The Western world has already lived through one Hitler in the last century. And he wasn’t the only such bully — he was just the one with the most successful brand name. What astonishes me is that anybody in this country would vote for a candidate who promises, once again, to create a society based on naked bullying and intimidation.

Virtual absence

The Architecture Machine Group at MIT, which evolved in 1985 into the MIT Media Lab, was very concerned with issues of “virtual presence”. How can we use technology to help us feel that we are in the same place, even when we are not?

Soon, with the help of future reality technologies, we will be able to do the opposite. You will be able to walk through a crowded physical space, and if you like, perceive only those people who are nearest to you (the ones that you would physically bump into if you weren’t able to see each other).

In such an experience, people will by default seem to materialize only when they are nearby. Yet if there is one particular person in the large crowd that you are trying to find, that person can be made visible to you even when they are far away.

It can go the other way as well. People can choose to “go stealth”, and become invisible to anyone other than their nearest physical neighbors. Many permutations are possible.

In time, we might come to regard “virtual absence” as something so normal, that we will forget it was ever any other way.

Virtual fidelity

Today I participated in a round-table discussion that touched on the culture of on-line virtual communities. At some point, one of the participants pointed out that in Second Life people have been known to maintain a rich parallel existence.

For example, she said, couples have gotten married in Second Life, and have even used that on-line virtual world to conduct illicit affairs. I found these two concepts both intriguing and puzzling, when considered together.

“If you marry someone in Second Life,” I asked her, “Does it still count as cheating if you only cheat on them in real life?”

Solid seeing

When you ask most people what “stereoscopy” means, and you get any answer at all, they usually say something like showing a different image to your left eye and your right eye. But that’s not what it actually means.

When you break it down, “stereo” is from a Greek word for “solid”, and “scopy” is from a Greek word for “to see” or “to look”. So it’s not really about two eyes at all, but rather the idea of seeing solid things.

This explains why one of the more popular and original 3D printing technologies is called “stereolithography”. It’s a word that literally means “solid printing”, which is exactly what 3D printing is.

This distinction may seem subtle, but I think it is one that is going to become more and more important. A stereo movie is a particularly deficient form of “solid seeing”, because it pretty much forces you to keep your head in one place. Moving your head from side to side actually starts to destroy the illusion that you are seeing something solid.

But as we get closer and closer to future reality, synthetic objects will appear in consistent location even as we walk around in the world. When that becomes commonplace, the word “stereoscopy” may no longer be misunderstood. Rather, people will come to understand that it is not really about seeing things with two eyes, but rather seeing the synthetic visions we create as something solid, and accepting them as part of the world we share.

Airport time bubble

Only after getting to the airport today was I informed that my flight was canceled. Fortunately they were able to put me on a flight departing two hours later.

Which means I am writing this from within an unexpected bubble of time, hanging out in a mostly empty airport waiting area, just me and my laptop computer, a few scattered fellow travelers, and a large television on one wall set to CNN.

One you learn how to ignore the TV, it’s actually quite pleasant here. Everyone is having their own quiet time, although it is “quiet” here only in the metaphorical sense.

But I am counting my blessings. Bubbles of uninterrupted time can be hard to find. So when they unexpectedly come my way, I am grateful.

By the way, I have never met anybody who didn’t find the airplane waiting area TV set annoying. Does anyone actually like it? And if not, why is it there?

Self-driving iPads

When people end up widely adopting self-driving cars, it is possible that cars will become anonymous. Rather than being objects of status and privilege, automobiles might evolve into a more granular version of buses. When you need a car, one will show up, but it won’t matter which car, any more than you currently care (in most cases) which car you are getting into when you take a taxi or Uber.

When the iPad first came out, I thought that would be the best way to think about it. Rather than being singular objects of status conscious owners, interactive tablets would be arguably be more useful if they were completely anonymous.

In this scenario, when you pick up any iPad, its camera looks at your face, retrieves your data from the Cloud, and then becomes, as long as you are holding it, “your” iPad. And this would happen for any digital tablet you pick up, for just as long as you are using it.

If you think of the growing data Cloud itself as the more “real” part of our shared digital ecosystem, then this makes perfect sense. After all, when you look out of any window in your house, you are looking into the same world outside. Reality itself doesn’t change based on which window you look out of.

But this way of looking at things goes against Apple’s revenue model, which is based on selling their hardware as a highly marked up object of status and privilege. Yet there is nothing that inherently dictates such a relationship between user and machine. One day the market might drive both the car and the digital tablet in the same practical direction: to become an interchangeable window into our shared digitally enhanced world, freely interchangeable with any other such window.

Old music, new music

Our little research group is in production. We are working on a forthcoming future reality performance in which we plan to combine a futuristic computer-generated soundscape, interpretive dance, and an immersive virtual reality world.

Today we received a visit from a colleague of one of our collaborators who works in a very different medium — Tibetan singing bowls. Rather than rely in the latest of computer-mediated technology, her art makes use of beautiful hand-blown glass bowls that produce deep and powerfully resonant tones as she rubs a special mallet around their rim.

As I listened to our visitor play these instruments, my analytic left brain was telling me “Oh, that’s just [blah blah, fill in boring physics explanation here].” But my intuitive right brain became filled with a growing sense of awe and wonder. As you feel these sounds all through your body, you cannot help but be profoundly moved.

We are looking at ways to combine the singing bowls with our forthcoming high-tech performance. Our hope is to merge and dissolve between the ancient Tibetan tones and the new sorts of sounds that we can generate via computer to be experienced in a virtual space.

I am not sure how it will all turn out, but at this point I feel very inspired.