Archive for December, 2017

Wearing some device on your head

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

One argument people frequently make about future wearables is that nobody is going to want to walk around in public wearing some device on their head. This is a reasonable point, and it has been made before.

In 1972, when Andreas Pavel tried to get major corporations, including Yamaha and Philips, interested in his portable music player, they all turned him down. The general argument was that nobody would ever want to walk around in public wearing headphones. So instead he patented it.

When Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka pushed a similar initiative about six years later, he was able to throw the full weight of his company behind it. In 1979 the Walkman came out, and quickly took over the world.

It seems that Pavel had been right all along. And after decades of legal battles, Sony eventually agreed to pay him for his invention.

So maybe yes, if it is useful and it makes people happy, lots of people will be ok walking around in public wearing some device on their head.

The sound of one pendulum swinging

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

The effect on millions of Americans of the tax bill that just passed in Congress will be quite negative. It’s going to be interesting to see how that will play out as homeowners across the country realize just how much their net wealth has decreased.

If history is any guide, the 2018 election is not going to be very pleasant for Republicans. But I guess that’s the way things usually go in the U.S.

The party in power — whether Democrat or Republican — manages to screw things up and alienates its base. And so the pendulum swings the other way. Until the other party gets into power and manages to screw things up.

Advanced class

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

The computer science graduate class I taught this semester was officially called “Advanced Computer Graphics”. But actually it was something different.

There were nine students in the class, and we had no exams. I just asked them to do a midterm project and a final project. For each project they were required to produce a written paper, a video and a live demo.

The first project was really just for practice, to loosen them up and build their confidence. By the time they started working on their final project, they were all in the groove.

In class we would discuss the larger implications of changing technology, graphics to create alternate realities, surveillance via machine learning, the potential for good or ill of wearable headsets. I played for them short videos of visions for the future, both utopian and dystopian, and a few in between.

Mostly we did a deep dive into trying to understand what it means to be a technologist right now. To be a person capable of evolving what is possible with computers in a world where societal norms seem to be changing with each new paradigm shift in the social network.

This evening they all demonstrated their final projects, and they were brilliant. It’s amazing what enthusiastic young minds can create when you just give them permission to follow their bliss.

Afterward, we all hung out in the VR lab and played with little plastic dinosaurs. Which somehow seemed exactly right.

Star Wars reconsidered

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Star Wars is now an iconic part of our culture. After forty years it has become an integral part of modern-day America, much as the Hollywood musical was in its heyday.

For the last few days my friends and I have been having intense debates about the latest release in the franchise, The Last Jedi. Discussions have been surprisingly heated, with some people loving the film and others seriously disliking it.

Everyone agrees that TLJ was entertaining, but not everyone agrees that it was a good film. I suspect that this has less to do with the movie itself, and more to do with the legacy of Star Wars.

Somehow the ideas of Star Wars, what it represents in terms of notions of good people looking out for each other in the face of tyranny, and the personal sacrifice that entails, has taken on a life of its own. The resonance of those ideas seems to have traveled well beyond the confines of “escapist entertainment”.

We are in an unprecedented time in our nation’s history. Our federal government is in the process of systematically siphoning astonishingly a vast amount of wealth away from working families, and gifting that wealth to the already enormously rich.

Here in our so-called real world, the very idea of “good people looking out for each other” no longer even seems to be part of the conversation. No wonder people are looking toward fantasy worlds to find some semblance of a moral center.

Star Wars, at its core, is a conversation about good people standing up to naked corruption by those in power. And that is always an important conversation to have, even when it is taking place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

Appearance in the far future

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that in another five years people in many parts of the world will start walking around in public with wearables replacing the phones in their pockets. This means that we will no longer, strictly speaking, be looking at the world around us with our literal human vision, but rather with our vision altered in some way.

People who currently wear glasses or contact lenses (or have had Lasix or cataract surgery) are already used to technological enhancement of their vision, and those people don’t think of themselves as part-human and part-machine. So it’s a good bet that once everyone you know is “wearing”, we will all just seem normal.

I wonder though, as we begin to accept that our enhanced vision can show us anything at all, will we still continue to choose to see each other as literal humans? There is a strong argument that we will not.

After all, our clothing — which hide our literal bodies — generally don’t contain textures to emulate the bits that they are hiding. Rather, the clothes we choose to wear are more likely to deviate from the literal appearance of our naked bodies, in ways designed to flatter and to conceal.

Maybe, years from now, we will choose to create non-literal views of each other that are more direct representations of personality. Eventually, as we walk down the street, we might see each other as a kind of pure energy — a cloud that shows the mood we wish to project, connected to some idealized representation of our face and our hands.

After seeing The Last Jedi

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

how come scifi films
this year are so much about
Harrison Ford’s kids?

Some weeks are longer than others

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Have you ever noticed that some weeks are longer than others?

I know that on one level that statement sounds very strange. After all, every week is 7 days long, or 168 hours, or 10080 minutes, or 604800 seconds.

Those numbers are pretty irrefutable. Yet still, some weeks are longer than others.

This week was a particularly long one for me. Not a bad one, just a long one. I think it’s not that so many things happened, it’s that so many different things happened.

It was the fact that these things happened in different parts of my life, within mutually exclusive worlds that did not know about each other. I think that feeling of doubling or even tripling up on existence is what makes a week seem long.

Not that I’m complaining. I’ve enjoyed traveling along the many the parallel lines that go into making a week such as this one. I just don’t think I could do it every week.

Fortunately, some weeks are shorter than others.

Dimensions of shared VR

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Suppose you are in a Virtual Reality experience together with some friends. This can mean many different things.

In our lab’s research, I find it useful to tease apart the different dimensions that characterize such an experience.

One such dimension is that of collocality. Are you physically in the same place as your friends, or are you only virtually co-present? By analogy, having dinner with a friend is an example of collocality. Talking on the phone with that same friend is an example of non-collocality.

A second dimension is that of agency. Are you able to modify the outcome of the experience, or are you merely a passive observer? By analogy, playing a game is an example of having agency. Watching a movie is an example of not having agency.

A third dimension is that of liveness. Are you experiencing a performance that was already created, or are you witnessing a story that is literally being performed as you watch, by a fellow human being. Generally speaking, a social experience (such as a conversation with a friend) is live, whereas a movie is not.

The above three dimensions describe a kind of abstract cube. We have been having fun placing various kinds of experiences within this cube, and understanding the possibilities of VR from that perspective.

Moment of sanity

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

I am just enjoying this feeling. After such a crazy, hateful and destructive year, there was a nice moment of sanity yesterday in Alabama.

I wonder whether this is a harbinger that the U.S. might finally be ready to find its way back to being a nation of grownups. At the very least, our nation is now officially not in the business of electing Senators who think slavery was a pretty good idea.

Phone drinking

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

You sometimes hear about “phone sex”, but you don’t usually hear about “phone drinking”. In fact, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard the phrase. I had never heard of it until I thought of it today.

I’m using “phone drinking” to describe the hypothetical practice of calling up a friend and hanging out over the phone while you both gradually get drunk. I do not describe this hypothetical practice in order to recommend it.

Rather, I’m interested in the difference between collocated and non-collocated social interaction. Some things it makes sense to do over the phone. Other things, not so much.

Going out to a bar and having a beer or two is a time-honored way for friends to bond, or to start forging a bond of friendship. And the core of that bonding experience is the establishment of trust. When you and your friend go to a bar for a drink, or do anything together that lowers your defenses, you are essentially building a trust relationship.

And I think our communication technology is still at the point where certain signals needed for building trust require physical presence. In fact, it’s not even clear yet what all of those signals are.

Many and varied physical signals can be involved in assessing the trustfulness of another person. These may include subtleties of head position, eye movement, facial muscles around the eyes, tension in the body and shoulders, timing of one’s gestures and hand movements, resonance of the voice, the smell of one’s skin, and most likely quite a few other factors that nobody has thought of yet.

All of which means that phone drinking is not going to become a thing. At least not yet.