Reality checks

Suppose reality checks were actual checks? I mean, suppose there were financial consequences for constructing and maintaining a self-delusional narrative of your own life.

Every time you mentally replaced the actual actions and beliefs of other people by your own fictitious version of those actions and beliefs, you’d be required to write a check. The greater the self-delusion, the bigger the check.

And everytime you got it right by managing to see people for who they really are, you’d receive a check. The greater your degree of honesty and self-awareness, the larger would be your cash reward.

Do you think that would work? Would an actual incentive system prompt people to be more honest with themselves, and sensitive to each other?

Or would people still prefer to cling to a cherished delusion, no matter how high the cost?

Virtually virtual

We will be moving our research lab here at NYU sometime in the next year to larger and fancier new digs. Needless to say, there have been a lot of meetings about this to plan out the space, work through the details, and make sure our new location will be everything we want it to be.

In particular, we will be getting a much nicer and larger virtual reality lab. Right now that VR lab exists only as a set of plans. Over the course of the coming months, a lot of construction work will be done to make it a reality.

Fortunately, the architects were kind enough to send us digital files that specify the size and shape of everything. This includes ductwork, columns, window locations, and all the myriad details that are part and parcel of a professional work environment.

That information was enough for our research team to create a virtual reality version of the envisioned space. Donning our VIVE headsets, we can walk around in the not-yet-real space, and experiment with lighting, furniture placement, configurations of the wired ceiling grid, and all the other details that go into making a successful VR lab.

It occurs to me that there is something very meta about all this. We are using our research in virtual reality to design a space for doing research in virtual reality.

How cool is that?

Time slip

“What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”
— Carol Bayer Sager

Tonight an old friend and I were having one of those free ranging conversations that travel effortlessly between the present and the distant past. Anecdotes from long ago mingled casually with up to the minute events.

I found myself thinking of the song “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror, and specifically the lyrics “It’s a bit of a mind flip / you’re into a time slip / and nothing can ever be the same.” And I found myself thinking, is that really true? Is it true that, as Wolfe said, you can’t go home again?

Suppose you could go into a time slip whenever you wanted, transport yourself back to when you were twelve years old, or five, or seventeen, and relive those moments in all their vivid reality. You couldn’t change anything, because then you’d negate the existence of your current self. But you could look, and hear, and feel. Like Emily Webb, you could relive a day long past.

Would you do this? My first answer upon pondering this question was an unequivical “Yes!”. But then I thought about it some more, and now I’m not so certain.

Memories are not literal. Rather, they are part of a narrative that we have each constructed for ourselves through the years, a sort of living defense against the randomness of reality. We need our stories, our personal myths. Just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, we each stand upon the shoulders of our younger selves.

But if we went back and had to face our past reality as it truly happened, we might discover all sorts of unpleasant truths. We might no longer be able to draw upon our most sacred truths.

Maybe that’s a good thing. On the other hand, maybe it’s not worth the risk.

Finishing the cat

I was talking with my mom this evening, and she reminded me of a time when I was little and I made a cat sculpture for a school assignment. She said that this sculpture had convinced her I was really into art.

I reminded her that I had never actually finished that cat sculpture. I can still remember, all these years later, the unfinished cat, its blocky form facing me accusingly, as though reproving me for having left it incomplete.

She said yes, that’s true, but that wasn’t the point. What she remembers is that I had described to her in great and enthusiastic detail just what it would take to finish the sculpture.

And she had realized in that moment that for me the point wasn’t to finish the cat, but rather to understand it. In my process, the important thing was not completing a task, but rather using that task to learn and to understand the process of creation.

After that, she and my dad paid for me to take art lessons. I am very glad that they did, because what I learned about visual expression in those lessons has been incredibly useful.

Thinking it over now, I realize that this has been my strategy ever since. I’ve gone into research rather than production. In research I can quickly prototype, and then iterate on those prototypes to explore new ideas as they come up. I don’t think I could have worked that way if I had been, say, working on feature films.


I was out of town for several weeks, attending a conference, visiting colleagues, gathering up energy from various sources. It was a wonderful experience, but at some point it was time to go home.

Arriving back on the red eye the other day, tired and jet lagged, I had to give a talk within hours of my plane landing at JFK. Which was wonderfully exhilarating but perhaps a little too heroic. 🙂

Yet the energy of reuniting with my team, these students and these research scientists, kept me going. It was a delight just to see all the wonderful work they had done, and to share with them my adventures and the great conversations I’d had along my journey.

These last three days back home have been a complete whirlwind of forward motion. There is something about going away for a while, and then coming back again, that creates its own sort of energy.

Tendrils of that energy gather and swirl and coalesce about us, into a spinning vortex of creative power, as though it is the most natural thing in the world. At such times I remember all over again why I love this place, and this work, and these people.

Subtlety as a sign of medium maturity

We are still in early days in consumer VR experiences. Not surprisingly, people are going for sensation: Dramatic shifts in point of view, giant creatures, swooping and gliding flight paths.

But no medium has ever been sustained by its own novelty. At some point we stop responding to the train speeding toward us on screen. This is more or less the point when we start learning a real shared language of that medium.

The is a language of cinema, a different language of the theater, and yet another language of storytelling via the written word. It takes time for each medium to find itself, and for artists to work out the most effective way to use that particular medium to reach an audience.

A key part of this process is that the audience also learns the language of any medium. For example, each of us has learned the unique “language” of appreciating a written story, or a play, or a movie, respectively.

Eventually the “language” of effective VR will mature and will become more subtle, just as earlier media have matured and increased in subtlety over time. At that point we will not be speaking about the novelty of the VR medium, but about the shared language of creation and experience for that medium.

Multi-institutional collaboration

Today I was in conversation with colleagues about a potential three-way collaboration between our various labs. Over the course of the discussion, something obvious occurred to me: The more institutions in your collaboration, the harder it is.

For one thing, everybody needs to get something out of it. We’re all busy and oversubscribed. So nobody is just going to volunteer to collaborate just because it’s good for everyone else.

But even beyond that, the collaboration needs to work gracefully for everyone, on an operational level. Hardware and software need to be compatible, students need to be able to speak the same language (both literally and metaphorically), and production practices need to be aligned.

So it occurred to me that whatever our eventual plans for collaboration, our first step should be to do something easy. Not as in “little work”, but rather as in “low technical risk”. We should start with a pure production project that makes good use of everyone’s existing capabilities, and that would be fun and engaging for all.

Once we manage that, we can start to get ambitious and try something that might surprise us.

Antique store

I wandered through an antique store today. There were lots of examples of long out of date technology, but I was especially taken by the Edison cylinder players.

I seem to have a complex emotional reaction to these machines. On the one hand, of course, I look at them and I think “how quaint”. After all, they predate even phonograph records, which are stackable and therefore far more practical.

On the other hand, the Edison cylinder is the very first of its kind: A way to reliably record music and speech so that it can be listened to later.

It is the most primitive and therefore quaint example of sound recording, yet also the most far-reaching and brilliant break from everything that had come before. A physical manifestation of the very first moments of a brand new future.

I guess that’s true of the very first example of any truly disruptive technology: Lenoir’s engine, the Fleming Valve, Shockley’s transistor, Sutherland’s “Sword of Damocles”. By today’s standards they seem weirdly primitive.

Yet such artifacts are, in fact, the very definition of the cutting edge: The precise moment when everything changes.

Architecture for alternate bodies

There is clearly a relationship between the needs of our bodies and the choices we make in designing architecture. The sizes of rooms, heights of ceilings, pitch and size of stairs, these and many other factors are influenced by the size and shape of humans.

Our bodies are also relatively defenseless against the elements, and so we design our buildings to protect us from heat and cold, from rain and snow. In this we differ from many bird species, who build their nests outdoors because they have evolved to be more comfortable with those elemental forces.

I am trying to imagine alternate species that have advanced civilizations akin to our own (eg: written language, electricity, the use of tools, etc.) but a very different physiogamy. What might their architecture be like?

We might be able to take a tip from other Earth species that build their own homes, such as rabbits, beavers, bees, wasps, birds. In each case, the typical home built by their kind is optimized for the physiological needs of members of their species, as well as their particular social organization.

Could we create a taxonomy of alternate architectures for hypothetical species with advanced civilizations? Even if we assume Earth-like conditions (gravity, rainfall, temperature range, atmospheric pressure, etc), I suspect there would be fascinating variations.