Oulipo sequels

Our lab is doing a major production for an audience in shared VR to premiere at the forthcoming SIGGRAPH conference (this Aug 12-16 in Vancouver, CA). The narrative is, in a sense, an origin story for virtual reality.

It takes place in Paleolithic times and tells a tale about the possible origins of cave paintings. The title is CAVE.

Today some of us were discussing what projects we might do after SIGGRAPH. What sorts of follow-on pieces might we produce, so that we can continue to learn about telling stories to large audiences in shared VR?

I suggested that we use a sort of Oulipo technique. All of our stories could be successive sequels, with narratives suggested by their titles.

In our first sequel, we find in our cave a lonely character named Dave, and the next story occurs in a place where Dave rescues a friendly bat. Then a story in which the bat learns what Dave likes, followed by one where the bat gives Dave a present, and finally a story about the wonderful result of that generosity.

The titles of these productions would be, respectively:


I think that would be quite enough. Besides, I somehow doubt everyone will agree with my plan. 🙂

Available Wi-Fi networks

When you open the Wi-Fi tab on your computer or phone in lower Manhattan, you get a long list of available Wi-Fi networks. Nearly all of those networks are private and password protected.

The fact that you can see them strikes me as vaguely odd. The whole system feels like a hold-over from an earlier technological age.

Imagine, as an analogy, if every time you went to a restaurant, the waiter brought you the menus of all nearby restaurants. Maybe this evening you and your date find yourselves at a nice little Italian bistro, and you are looking through all of the menus.

When the waiter arrives, you order the Chow Mein. “I’m sorry,” the waiter says, “but we don’t serve Chow Mein.”

“But then why is it on the menu?” you may well ask.

The waiter gives you a kindly but pitying look. “That’s not our menu. That’s the menu for Shanghai Cafe down the block.”

You are about to ask “Then why did you give me that other menu to look at?” when suddenly you notice that your date is staring at you, so you decide to hold your tongue. Clearly there is something here that you do not fully understand.

That’s sort of how I feel about that list of “available” Wi-Fi networks.

Best marketing lesson

The best marketing lesson I ever learned was in the form of a little cartoon I once saw in a magazine. I can no longer remember exactly where I saw it, but the lesson has stuck with me all these years.

Today I drew the cartoon on a whiteboard, the way I remember it. I think the image speaks for itself.

Although I will say this. Somewhere, I suspect, the founder of Starbucks is smiling.

Post post commentary

Today’s post is a commentary on yesterday’s post. You might say it is a post post commentary.

In my previous post I pointed out that a stereogram provides a taste of what virtual reality might be like. Yet it is not actually a form of virtual reality, as we generally understand that term today.

In a sense, a stereogram is a simulacrum of virtual reality. That makes it a virtual virtual reality.

Which reminds me of the way Amazon describes its Mechanical Turk system, a marketplace where real people simulate the work of computers. Amazon refers to this process as artificial artificial intelligence.

We can go further with this theme. Rosie M Banks was a fictional author who appeared in the books of P.G. Wodehouse. Rosie wrote romance novels with titles like Only a Factory Girl. Which makes Only a Factory Girl a fictional fictional book.

Speaking of fiction, in an imaginary story by Kurt Vonnegut’s beloved terrible science fiction author Kilgore Trout, there was a character named Albert Hardy. This would make Hardy a imaginary imaginary character.

Similarly, consider the tale of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Gryphon is an actual mythical creature, with a pedigree dating back to the ancient Greeks.

In contrast, his companion the Mock Turtle isn’t a real mythical creature at all. Carroll simply borrowed the words from mock turtle soup. So you could say that the Mock Turtle is a mythical mythical creature.

Speaking of exotic creatures, at some point scientists came to believe that the Brontosaurus had never really existed. According to prevalent scientific opinion, the mighty thunder lizard was just a variant of Apatosaurus.

Fortunately in the last few years the prevailing scientific consensus has evolved. The extinction of genus Brontosaurus is now extinct. The Brontosaurus, I am happy to report, is no longer an extinct extinct dinosaur.

A taste of virtual reality

Many people I know — myself included — first got excited about binaural recording when we heard the Binaural Haircut recording. The effect is truly remarkable.

The more you learn about binaural recording, the more you appreciate the difference between recording a binaural experience and synthesizing one. In the first case, the scene cannot change when you move your head. In the second case it can — and that turns out to make a big difference..

You can create a great binaural recording without any computation. All you need is a good quality dummy head and high quality audio recording equipment.

But if you want the sound to change in response to a user moving their head, then dummy head recording won’t suffice. You’ll need to go the much more difficult route of building a computational model of the soundscape, and then generating or otherwise modifying all of the sounds dynamically on a computer.

It find it fascinating how analogous this is to the equivalent visual situation: If you want to create a realistic stereoscopic image, you just need to take two side by side photographs. But if you want the scene to change in response to a person’s movements, you need to create and manipulate some sort of computer model of the scene.

In a sense, the ability to record 3D reality is a kind of teaser. It gives us a taste of what virtual reality could be like, but only a taste.

In order to interact with that virtual reality, to truly enter another world on a sensory level, we need to do a lot more work. The good news is that when you put in that work, you learn that it was well worth the effort.

Sure, ok

The other day, during a discussion at our lab about virtual reality and the nature of perception, I related a variation on the wonderful story about Picasso on the train. You may have heard a version that goes something like this:

Pablo Picasso got into a conversation with a businessman during a train ride. Recognizing the famous artist, the businessman remarked that he didn’t get all this modern art. “If somebody paints a portrait of my wife,” he said, “I want it to look like her.” Picasso asked what the man’s wife looked like. The businessman took out a photo from his wallet. Picasso pondered the image for a while, then said “She’s very small.”

One of the people in the room, somebody I had just met, said “Oh, that’s a dad joke.” I hadn’t expected that response.

I was tempted to disagree. I wanted to reply that this parable was, in fact, a profound meditation on the dynamic relationship between our ever changing technologies of representation and our shared language of aesthetic norms, and the effect this relationship has on the resulting evolution over time of our cultural consensus on the nature of reality.

But then I remembered that I didn’t know this person, and that I shouldn’t assume too much. So instead I said “Sure, ok.”

Magic by any other name

This evening I went with a friend to see part 1 of the two part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway. It was an astonishing experience.

When I was a teenager I spent one summer working at a performing arts camp. There was a professional magician on the payroll, and one day he and I got into a discussion about the difference between stage magic and theater special effects.

He told me that the difference is entirely one of framing: If you are watching a magic act, then it’s stage magic. If you are watching a play or musical, then it’s theater special effects.

This evening my friend and I witnessed what I am quite sure is the most magical thing I have ever seen on a stage. And I have a feeling that what we will see tomorrow evening will top even what we saw tonight.

I know that technically speaking, since it was in the context of a play, what we saw should be called “theater special effects”. But to me, it was just pure magic.

Meetings in different places

It’s one thing to have lots of meetings in a single day. But it’s something else to have lots of meetings in different places.

This morning I had to cut short a phone meeting, so I could travel to Brooklyn for a sit down meeting. Then I had to end that meeting in time to attend a talk.

I needed to leave that talk before the Q&A was over so I could travel back to Manhattan where I was scheduled to give a talk. Then I needed to leave that event in the middle so I could get back to our lab for a weekly production meeting.

Finally I left the lab to meet with an old friend, which doesn’t really count as a meeting because we had dinner. And besides, he is an old friend.

I have had other days with more meetings than this, but there is a qualitative difference. When you need to physically travel between meetings from one place to another, actually transport your body through space and time, the whole “meeting filled day” thing definitely feels crazier.

I thought the Internet was supposed to fix all that. 😉

So there’s that

I’ve been trying to avoid politics here. But that can be really hard to do after our U.S. Supreme Court committed such an astonishing act of economic violence against American workers yesterday.

One interesting thing about the Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis decision is that the swing vote justice who wrote this monstrous 5-4 opinion — Neil Gorsuch — is only on the Court because of the outcome of our recent presidential election. So if you are a worker and you voted Republican, your vote succeeded in taking food out of your own family’s mouth.

I wonder how many workers who voted Republican realized at the time that this is what they were voting for. Well, if they were intending to vote against their own economic interests, I guess they got their wish.

So there’s that.