Archive for August, 2017

Sensory superpower

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Some years ago I posted a recollection of scuba diving in the company of deaf people, and how they were able to seamlessly continue their conversation under water. It was a wonderful example of a characteristic that is generally thought of as a disability becoming flipped, situationally, into a kind of superpower.

I was reminded of this just recently when an old friend told me that he was starting to lose his hearing, and so he had had an in-ear hearing aid installed. The tech is pretty cool. For example, the battery is integrated into the unit, and charges via induction. He keeps the charger under his pillow and it recharges every night while he sleeps.

But the coolest part is that he has it set up to integrate with his SmartPhone. When he gets alerts or messages, he can privately hear them, without needing to look at his phone. To me this feels like an early prototype of some future, less obtrusive, form of augmented reality.

It’s fascinating to witness two such clear examples of a disability flipped into a superpower — one in an encounter with our natural heritage, and the other in an encounter with our cyber future. Perhaps, with some creative thinking, we will eventually discover other sensory superpowers can be at our fingertips (maybe literally).

Tonight at Sea Island

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Tonight, at Sea Island,
I swam in the ocean
Under the stars,
With the moon on one side
And Cassiopeia
On the other.
The sea was warm, inviting.
Waves crashed carelessly
Against my naked body,
While time itself
Seemed to stand
Perfectly still.

Purest heaven

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

There is a beautiful moment in Act I of Romeo and Juliet, when the two teenagers meet for the first time at a masked ball, and immediately start flirting. They really are just two young kids (Juliet is only thirteen) but in Shakespeare’s heightened reality, transcendent emotion calls for transcendent language.

So without either character realizing it, their words of flirtation (leading to their first kiss) blend together perfectly to form one of Shakespeare’s greatest sonnets. I repeat this magical bit of dialog below, so you can see for yourself.

It’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare: The characters on stage generally have no idea that the words they speak just happen to form some of the greatest poetry in the history of the English language. But we in the audience do, and the effect is purest heaven.


If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Two mathematicians

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Today in the New York Times I saw an article that caught my eye, because of the accompanying photos. The two images were of top mathematicians, both recently deceased. One was Marina Ratner, the other Maryam Mirzakhan.

For one wild crazy moment I fantasized that the article was just going to talk about their ideas, honoring them as mathematicians, and outlining their intellectual accomplishments. But we do not live in that world.

The article did discuss their ideas, translated very well into lay terminology. But the major point of the article — written by Amie Wilkinson, herself a mathematician — was the dearth of women among the ranks of mathematicians, and the consequent lack of successful female role models for young women contemplating a career in mathematics.

Of course this is a real issue, and the passing of two top mathematicians is a good occasion to raise it. There is woeful gender disparity in this field.

But in that crazy moment, I imagined that I had glimpsed an alternate saner world. In that saner world I was simply reading an article in the New York times about the brilliant work of two top minds.

Sure, they happened to be female, but in my imagined alternate world we would have long ago realized that mathematics is gender neutral. That alternate version of the article would be about the fascinating and intellectually elegant work of these two mathematicians, and what we might all learn from it.

Lego bricks of VR theater

Monday, August 7th, 2017

I am currently working with a diverse group of people at NYU to create live theater in shared VR. Generally speaking, our project is inspired by Janet Murray’s seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, although I am starting to suspect that there may be a contradiction in that title.

Specifically, it may be that Shakespeare’s emphasis on using words to carry the dramatic action stands in direct contrast to the need in VR to carry dramatic action through spatial awareness. It is possible that these two divergent sets of priorities can be reconciled, but I do not yet see a way to do that.

One thing we have discovered, not surprisingly, is that there is no way to reason your way into knowing what works and what doesn’t work in VR theater. You need everyone to get into the space, put on their VR headsets, and try things out. Ideas that seemed perfectly plausible on paper tend to fall apart when you actually try them, and vice versa.

In a sense, we are looking for what might be called the Lego bricks of VR theater. What are the equivalents to elements of film vocabulary as establishing shots and cut on action? Or of elements in traditional theater such as blocking and sight lines?

We are starting to figure these things out, through the slow and highly iterative process of workshopping. But it’s worth it. After we have all our Lego bricks together, we will be able to use them to build a Lego castle.

But maybe not in Elsinore.

Emerging trends in gangster fashion

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

When I was in LA my cousin told me that in order to discourage gangs, the local government had passed an interesting ordinance: People who were suspected of being gang members were not permitted to talk with each other in public.

I found the entire concept of this approach to law enforcement to be somewhat mind blowing. I understand the logic behind it — it could very well be an effective means to deter gang activity. Yet it also means that under the right circumstances, simply talking to your friend on the street is a crime.

I told my cousin that one way around this law would be for these individuals to become mimes. They could completely embrace the mime culture — white face paint, gloves, striped shirt with suspenders, maybe a little bowler hat.

I can already picture them, walking abreast, doing their slow motion power walk: Roving gangs of feral mimes.

The streets of Los Angeles would never be the same.

Lifestyle contrast

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Today is my last day in LA. After a wonderful excursion to the always inspiring Museum of Jurassic Technology, I am spending a last lovely afternoon relaxing in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, just hanging with my cousin.

It is hard not to make mental comparisons with where I will be tomorrow — back home in the heart of Manhattan. The two locales are a study in contrasts.

Here, all is peaceful and calm. The sun is out every day, there is always a gentle breeze off the lake, and people walk with that slow unhurried gait of the truly relaxed.

In Manhattan, all is staccato and noise. People rush about, their very bodies seemingly compelled to be anywhere at all but where they happen to be at the moment.

Even the weather in NY is abrupt. If there is a nice summer’s day, you can be sure it will be followed by a raging storm, or a dramatic temperature dip in either direction, as though Somebody up there is flipping a coin.

I love both lifestyles, but I love one of them more. My cousin prefers the other one.

And there you have it. Fortunately, he’s always here in Silverlake, where we can hang out together on a perfect sunlit day and compare notes.

Interconnected advances

Friday, August 4th, 2017

When Captain Kirk first flipped open his communicator in 1966, millions of people felt that they were witnessing a vision of the future. And not merely a fictional future, but one that might some day be possible in our own lives. They were right, but as usual there was much more to the story than just a cool gadget.

This week, while I have been attending the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference, I’ve stayed at my cousin’s house, which is about a fifteen to twenty minute car ride away from the conference site, depending on traffic. It’s a total win, because my cousin and I really enjoy hanging out, and we’ve had great conversations while I’ve been here.

This is the first year I haven’t stayed at some stupid impersonal conference hotel. And it was made possible by Captain Kirk’s communicator — the real life version, together with all the other things that became possible when that communicator entered real life.

Because the real life version of that communicator — the SmartPhone — isn’t just an isolated gadget. It’s connected to map programs, to text messaging, to methods for automated payment, to services such as Lyft. An entire economic ecosystem has grown up around the device that everyone has in their pocket or on the dashboard of their car.

Your driver no longer needs to have expert knowledge of her route. And you can quickly summon that driver from pretty much any location at any time. At the end of your ride, you no longer need to fumble for change.

Before all of these interconnected advances, it would have been completely impractical for me to stay with my cousin during this conference. My colleagues who stayed at an Airbnb this week — which is far less expensive than a hotel room — had a similar experience of freedom.

Over the course of the next decade, as we start to migrate to wearables, the changes to our economic ecosystem will be even more profound and far-reaching. Whatever happens, it probably won’t be good for hotels. But it might be very good for other services that will help us in our daily lives — including some we haven’t even begun to think of.

The far vision of old-timers

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Listening to what people here at SIGGRAPH are excited about, I have noticed a trend: Younger people are completely caught up in the feeling that “Hey, we are living in the future!” But older people have a view that is, arguably, more interesting.

Researchers in their twenties and thirties are totally grooving and the amazing effects of Moore’s Law. Techniques that were considered hopelessly slow when they were students are now real-time and interactive. The difference feels magical and exhilarating.

But by the time researchers get into their sixties and seventies, they’ve been through quite a few of these magical transformations. They’ve already been doing active research for forty or fifty years. Their longer experience of the past gives them a lever to obtain a longer view of the future.

When faced with today’s blindingly fast computation times, high bandwidth data transmission rates and vast memory storage capacities (and all of the things those enable, such as Cloud computing, fast machine learning algorithms and photorealistic real-time rendering), they don’t think of these capabilities as an end in themselves.

Rather, they tend to ask “OK, what will things be like in another forty or fifty years?” And then they start to follow through with potential models of usage and possible societal implications, based on those projected future capabilities.

So maybe, if you want to get a good sense of the future, you just might want to ask somebody who has had a more comprehensive experience of the past.

Future glasses

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

The very first technical paper I saw this morning at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference was about a pair of glasses. But not just any glasses — future glasses.

One of the authors of the paper is an old friend and former colleague of mine. I was super excited to see him as one of the contributors to such an important paper.

The key innovation is to replace the usual optics usually employed for Virtual and Augmented Reality by a very cleverly designed holographic optical element — essentially, a custom-made hologram. The end result is something that looks like an ordinary pair of glasses, but with the high visual quality of the best VR headsets.

Sometime in the next few years this technology will be turned into a product. When it does, the impact will be as profound as were the impacts of the Web and the SmartPhone.