I’ve been thinking about James Shaw Jr., the brave young man in the Tennessee Waffle House who wrestled an AR-15 from a deranged killer who was in the process of shooting everyone in sight. What Shaw did was such a beautiful act of heroism.

But then I can’t help but also think about the recent incident in a Starbucks, where two businessmen were arrested and hauled away, solely for the crime of WFAFBOWB. What if Shaw had been arrested for the same crime?

The news reports say that at the time of the shooting, he was having breakfast with a friend. But suppose that friend had been late, and Shaw had decided not to order right away, but rather to wait for his friend before ordering, so the two of them could enjoy their breakfast together?

He would then, of course, have been guilty of WFAFBOWB. The next thing you know, the management would have called the cops to haul him off to jail for his crime, to be duly arrested and fingerprinted and locked up for the next nine hours or so.

But then when the deranged killer burst into the Waffle House with that AR-15, every last person in the joint would have been brutally shot to death, including the manager who had helpfully called the cops. It would have been absolute carnage.

I am wondering now if I need to spell out what WFAFBOWB stands for.

A shadow in a dream

It melted in the moment that I thought to light the flame
I felt its taste upon my tongue before I took a bite
I heard an echo in the room and then I spoke its name
A shadow in a dream that I will dream tomorrow night

I’ve yet to learn the stories that I knew when I was small
From prophecies I read within a room devoid of light
I learned in future memories but now cannot recall
A shadow in a dream that I will dream tomorrow night

I stole into a house I hope to visit someday soon
Where everything was in its place and not a thing was right
Until I saw reflected by the light of the new moon
A shadow in a dream that I will dream tomorrow night

Cinematic prototyping

At the SIGCHI conference this week, I saw a talk that discussed the idea of “cinematic prototyping”. The fundamental concept is that you can start a discussion about something you’d like to build by making a short film about it.

In your short film, you pretend that the thing already exists, and you show people using it. Such a film doesn’t generally aim to explain how the technology works, but rather gives a sense of what it could be good for, and why you might want it.

Of course, if you are serious about developing something, cinematic prototyping contains pitfalls. It is just as easy to create an impossible science fantasy film as it is to create one about a plausible technology.

If you show a time machine or a Star Trek transporter, you might end up with a very fine and entertaining short movie. But you won’t really have helped to advance an actual potential technology.

Still, if done responsibly, showing your idea as though it already exists confers a number of benefits. For one thing, it can help you to convince other people to bankroll the development of your idea.

But perhaps more important, it will give you insights about your own idea that you might not have gotten otherwise. There is something about seeing something actually being used by people that helps us to better understand it.

We humans may be creatures of ideas, but we are also creatures of practice. To truly understand a tool or a technique, we need to see it used in practice.

VR and the body

A colleague of mine, one who has great insights about things, said something surprising to me today. She told me “VR that doesn’t involve moving your body is stupid.”

I disagree with that statement, but I think it reveals something more interesting than a simple difference of opinion. I think it shows that she and I, although we both work in what is usually called “VR research”, are actually working in somewhat different fields.

To her, and to many good researchers, virtual reality is primarily an exploration about the possible ways we can connect with our bodies. I completely agree that this is a great problem to explore, and there are many exciting questions to ask in that direction.

Yet for me, the most interesting questions about VR center about how people relate to each other. Such questions can involve moving one’s body, but they don’t need to. They can, for example, focus on how we tell each other stories.

The promise of VR is, after all, the promise of sensory immersion into other worlds. Those alternate worlds can potentially affect us in profound ways, and those ways can be intellectual, emotional, spiritual or physical.

From my perspective, learning how to use VR to help achieve a profound connection with another human being, even when we are both simply sitting down in one place, is a valid direction for exploration.

It is not that I am against the vast space of how we might use VR to connect with possible worlds through the movement of our bodies. That is indeed an incredibly rich area for exploration.

It is more that I think that as a researcher I prefer to think less in terms of “What is the right direction for VR?”, and more in terms of “What are the many possible directions?” For me (and I speak only for myself here), the latter question is much more exciting.

Center of the dome

This evening I went to see a multimedia show in the really great dome in Montreal at the Société des Arts Technologiques. The dome is fifty feet across, and it is a thing of wonder.

There are no chairs in the dome. Instead, the floor is covered with beanbags.

When you come in, you just pick the nearest open spot and lie back to watch the show. I am a friend of one of the artists, so I came early and was able to pick my spot.

So for the first time in my life I achieved a childhood dream: I got to sit in the very center of the dome. Always before I had to sit off to one side or another, and I had always wondered what it would be like to sit dead center.

One of the great things about the exact center of a dome is that when you start to talk, your voice sounds very strange. The sound of your voice takes 50 milliseconds (1/20 second) to reach the dome surface and then return to you, and that happens the same way in all directions.

So it sounds like your voice is talking back to you 1/20 second after anything you say. It is a strange and wonderful sensation. If you’ve never tried to stand in the center of a dome, I highly recommend it.

Of course the best part was that I got an undistorted view of everything they showed. It was wonderful, and now I can day that I have fulfilled my childhood dream of watching a show from the very center of a dome.

Stupidity is worse than venality

I’ve been thinking about the specter of members of Congress grilling Mark Zuckerberg recently. And I’ve been thinking about how absurd that was.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think of Zuckerberg as a “good actor”. As far as I can tell, his position is essentially amoral: Facebook is in the business of maximizing its profits by selling ads.

As CEO of Facebook, he will likely take whatever course of action best furthers that agenda. This includes whatever actions (like politely testifying to Congress) which succeed in portraying Facebook as “the good guys.”

But here’s the odd thing: Zuckerberg is quite open about his essentially venal agenda. He does not hide the fact that his loyalty is to his shareholders, and that advertisers — not the general public — are his customers.

Yet Congress does not have such a clear sense of itself. This is the same Congress which passed a law last year which gave Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner fairly unfettered rights to go through your entire web history without your permission, gathering all of that info for monetary gain.

Their argument (this is so stupid that I’m having trouble believing it even as I type this) was that Google and Facebook do it, so why not Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner? Of course the answer to that is very obvious:

You can go through your life perfectly well these days without using either Facebook or Google. But unless you are extremely unusual, you cannot go through life these days without access to the internet.

Was the Republican majority that voted for that horrific policy cognizant of how stupid and misguided it is? Were they simply snowed by slick industry lobbying? Were they paid off by the telecoms to vote in a corrupt way?

My worry is that the real reason is just that they are stupid and ignorant. And if that is the case, then what are they doing trying to get the best of Mark Zuckerberg?

Oh right, I remember now: They were being idiots.

Internet for non-humans

Would it make sense on any level to think about an Internet for non-humans? What would the internet for a dog look like? A cat? An elephant?

I find this to be an interesting mental experiment because it forces us to realize the many ways that other sentient beings on this planet are different from us. They don’t merely look different — different species think in radically different ways.

Which means that many of our core assumptions underlying good design practice for the Internet might need to be thrown out and started afresh. To me this doesn’t seem to be such a bad idea.

Sometimes you need to shake things up a bit.

Private AR and ethics, continued

In our discussion about what would constitute “reasonable” privacy in future augmented reality, my colleagues and I settled on some core principles. To review, the question on the table was the following: Suppose you allow yourself to see a synthetic overlay through your augmented reality glasses which is socially unacceptable to others. Under what circumstances is that ok?

The conclusion we reached was that it all comes down to whether you’ve taken reasonable steps to lock down your private info. An example of not taking such steps would be if you just left your AR overlay content lying around on the table, just waiting for somebody to slip on your AR glasses.

The key here is the word “reasonable”. For example, if you lock the door to your apartment, and somebody still breaks in, the law generally acknowledges that you were not negligent. The “bad actor” who broke into your apartment was violating well established norms — both cultural and legal.

The same principle will apply to the question of “What can I see privately in my AR glasses?” If you’ve taken reasonable steps to protect your privacy, then it is not your fault if somebody else violates the law.

Private AR and ethics

I think most people would agree that hate speech is problematic. The vandal who spray paints a swastika on a synagogue door is engaging the entire community in an ethical challenge.

These days, most communities would respond to such a challenge in a very negative way. Such an act would be labeled hate speech, and there would be consequences for the perpetrator.

But what about “speech” that is intended for nobody but oneself? Suppose, for example, you enhance your (slightly in the future) augmented reality glasses to draw a virtual swastika on the front door of every synagogue you can see — an intervention intended for your eyes only.

Have you committed an ethical violation of community standards? Have you, in fact, even engaged your community in any way?

Today I had a rousing debate with some colleagues about these very questions. We didn’t come up with any simple solutions, but we did work out some basic principles.

More tomorrow.