A year of shared virtual reality

2018 has been a strange year, at least from my perspective. Our Future Reality Lab at NYU has been doing spectacular work. Showing our shared virtual reality immersive cinema experience CAVE to about 2000 people at the SIGGRAPH 2018 conference in Vancouver was a real delight.

The positive cultural ripples from that event continue to radiate outward. This may be the beginning of a new medium for shared experiences on a mass scale. If so, this medium will likely evolve its own visual language, just as the visual language for cinema itself evolved away from that of live theater. It will be fun to be there for that. 🙂

In contrast, the national and world stage this last year has been dominated by a different kind of shared virtual reality, one dominated by some sort of unhinged performance artist. Reading about you-know-who in the news has felt like watching late career Andy Kaufman staging a performance of Ubu Roi while in full Tony Clifton mode.

Maybe this is the year that virtual reality, in all its varieties, has finally overtaken the real thing.

Hot and cold

You can come down with a cold, but never with a hot
What is it that cold has, that hot hasn’t got?

People ask you for a light, but never for a dark
Why does one feel right and the other miss the mark?

People party to get high, they don’t party get low
Does anybody know a good reason this is so?

We sometimes go to war, yet we never go to peace
It all seems so confusing, my questions just increase!

Now my little song is over, but it never could be under
What does it all mean? It really makes me wonder.

Baby it’s bad out there

There is a charming scene in the 1949 MGM movie Neptune’s Daughter in which Betty Garrett’s character wants Red Skelton’s character to stay over, and he makes a show of resisting, before happily agreeing in the end to stay. It’s a delightfully playful exchange between two characters who clearly adore each other, and it’s all done to the now classic Frank Loesser song Baby It’s Cold Outside, which had its cinematic premiere in this film.

There’s one moment where Red Skelton, trying to find a graceful excuse to say yes, looks at his glass and says “Say, what’s in this drink?” In recent cultural discussions, some people have used that line of dialog to claim a connection between this scene of mutual seduction and Bill Cosby’s infamous use of date rape drugs.

This leads to all sorts of interesting questions. If Betty Garrett’s character had succeeded in knocking out Red Skelton’s character with drugs, would that then have allowed her to have her sexual way with him? It seems to me that a man passed out unconscious on her bed wouldn’t have been much fun at all.

So how could a suggestion of date rape possibly have been the filmmakers’ intention here? Am I missing something?

If Troy Donahue can be a movie star…

There is a point in the original production of the musical A Chorus Line where a character sings “If Troy Donahue can be a movie star, then I can be a movie star.” At another point in the musical the same character sings this line a little differently: “If George Hamilton can be a movie star, then I can be a movie star.”

In both cases the rhythm of the name is essential to the lyric. So how do you find names with a particular rhythm?

There are tools on-line for finding words by meaning or by rhyme. But as far as I can tell, there are no Web tools out there to help find words or names by their rhythm.

It turns out that this rhythm is not all that common. In a list of the hundred most famous people, it shows up exactly zero times.

But just thinking about it a bit, I was able to come up with a fairly substantial list of hyper-famous people whose names would have worked with the rhythm of that song lyric: Anne Hathaway, Art Garfunkel, Cab Calloway, Drew Barrymore, Duke Ellington, Faye Dunaway, Fran Lebowitz, Fran Tarkenton, George Hamilton, George Harrison, George Steinbrenner, George Washington, Jack Nicholson, James Madison, Jim Morrison, John Carpenter, John Kerouac, John Lasseter, John Malkovich, John Mellencamp, Jon Anderson, Jon Oliver, Karl Lagerfeld, Mark Zuckerberg, Pat Benatar, Phil Donahue, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Roy Orbison, Sam Worthington, Sean Connery, Shel Silverstein, Ted Kennedy, Troy Donahue, Van Morrison and Wes Anderson.

There are also lots of people with this name rhythm who are hyper-famous if you happen to be in the right literary / political / sports / cinema / etc. sub-world. A few examples are: Bob Balaban, Bob Kaliban, Booth Tarkington, Dag Hammarskjold, John Anderson, John Connolly, Joy Adamson, Ken Lonergan, Pam Oliver, Ralph Bellamy, Ralph Richardson, Ron Oliver and Thor Heyerdahl.

There are even fictional people with this name rhythm, such as Deuce Bigelow, Jack Skellington, John Anderton, Nick Carraway, Sky Masterson and Tom Bombadil.

There tend to be more men than women on these particular lists. I suspect the fact that men are more apt to have a single-syllable first name contributes to this disparity.

Suppose you wanted to find lots of names with a particular rhythm. How would you go about it? Maybe there should be an App for that.

This week I built a bridge

Back in August 2013, when Oracle decided to kill Java Applets (thereby wiping out many years of work I had done building cool interactive animated diagrams for the Web), I pivoted to Javascript and WebGL. In the Fall semester of 2013 I built lots of interactive diagrams in Javascript for my computer graphics course notes on the Web.

Then in early 2014 I started working on Chalktalk, and abandoned those lovely early Javascript experiments. Alas, no more cool interactive diagrams for my on-line course notes.

This past week I revisited those experiments from 2013, and started to rework them so that they would also work in Chalktalk. Today I finally completed the bridge between the two.

I can now use the identical code for both an interactive diagram embedded in a Web page document (ie: on-line course notes) and an animated sketch performed in Chalktalk. For those of you who are computer programmers, I do this by providing two very different support libraries that just happen to share the same API.

This means I will be able to use Chalktalk’s capability to be a “magic whiteboard” for the live storytelling part of teaching computer graphics, and then put exactly the same code on the Web for the interactive course notes, so that students can explore those examples for themselves when they review the notes on-line.

I feel really good about this. Now I just need to get it all working in volumetric video…

My number one rule for research

Today at my annual medical checkup, I told my doctor that my number one rule for what research areas to work on is very simple: I only work on things that my six year old self would have thought were cool.

He responded wistfully that he wished he could follow that rule in his own work. Then he paused and thought for a moment, and said “Come to think of it, when I was six I wanted to be a doctor.”

In my post today for our Future Reality Lab daily blog, I described how I recently discovered a new research window. Reading over that post, I see that I am indeed following my own rule.

But don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself.

The irony of Christmas

The core idea of Christmas is very beautiful: Jesus taught that each of us, no matter how humble, is possessed of divine Grace. By giving gifts we are reminded not to put ourselves above others, for there is divine Grace within every human being.

Yet that’s not how it ends up playing out. In a modern consumer economy, everything becomes an impetus to spend money. The promotion of such behavior is, in fact, the core wealth-generating engine of a consumer centered capitalist economy.

So when you watch a movie about Christmas, the gifts that Santa brings end up being commercial goods, rather than made by hand. These run to things like board games, dolls, ice skates, Nerf guns, game consoles — items made of plastic and metal, produced on a massive scale in a factory somewhere.

A key word in that last sentence is “somewhere”. The relentless U.S. consumer economy can no longer be supported by domestic manufacturing. The things we buy — and give to others for Christmas — are now made in parts of the world where the minimum wage is the equivalent of between $2.00 to $2.50 per hour.

Ironically, our yearly expression of generosity exploits people who work for slave wages. It’s not that we are bad people, but rather that this inequity is by now baked deeply into the very structure of our economic system.

If any of this bothers you, and you are wondering whether there is a better way next Christmas to honor the divine Grace of others, there are alternatives. You could give a gift of cookies that you baked yourself, or something you painted or knitted or quilted or perhaps crafted out of clay, or a poem or a song that you wrote.

There are so many gifts you could give which come from your true self. You would be honoring the divine Grace in human life everywhere, without being a de facto participant in a vast cycle of exploitation.

Just don’t expect to see too many people on TV or in movies doing likewise. That kind of generosity is not considered good economic policy.

Miss Brill in Penny Lane

When I was a child I was a big fan of The Beatles. I knew all their song lyrics by heart — I still do.

I also loved the writing of Katherine Mansfield. When I read her 1920 short story Miss Brill, I was struck by how similar it was to ideas within the song Penny Lane.

In particular, when Paul McCartney writes “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway,” he is essentially summing up the entire story arc of Miss Brill in a single line. This isn’t completely surprising, when you consider that when McCartney was a boy in Liverpool, he would very likely have been introduced to the work of Mansfield.

In any case, this would certainly not have been the only time he snuck literary references into his lyrics. To take just one example, McCartney’s lyrics for Maxwell’s Silver Hammer open with a clear shout-out to one of his literary heroes, the absurdist late nineteenth century writer Alfred Jarry.

What is curious to me is that nobody seems to ever have noticed the reference to Miss Brill within Penny Lane. I’ve scoured the Web — supposedly the container of all random human knowledge — and there appears to be no mention of it.

Like the song says — very strange.

I feel bad for bridge players

I’ve noticed recently that hearing a formerly innocuous common verb now has the power to send people reeling in involuntary disgust. If a bridge player says, for example, “my heart *****s your diamond” or a scientist says “this principle is *****ed by that principle,” people are now prone to grimacing, as if in a sudden spasm of unbearable pain, at the mere sound of the word in question.

Alas, this formerly useful word has now become associated with a certain intellectually and emotionally challenged individual in political office. How strange that a person can be in a position to rain unspeakable destruction upon our world, while lacking the ability to, say, read and understand a letter of resignation written by his own Secretary of Defense.

I feel especially bad for bridge players, who cannot avoid the now tainted word. I myself have started to carefully avoid it, because of the look of agonized horror I see upon people’s faces the moment they hear the sound of it.

Instead, I find myself reaching for some other word, even if the resultant meaning is less exact. After all, common decency *****s grammatical precision.

Quiet work day

One good thing about this whole “retreat” business at the end of a semester is the freedom to simply get work done.

Today there are just three of us in the lab. We are all taking the opportunity to quietly work at our computers.

To some people it might seem odd that anyone would come into work on a Saturday when they don’t need to. On the other hand, it’s different if you really love your work. Getting to spend a whole day doing what you love, without any interruption, is a true luxury.

After all, at the end of the day (metaphorically speaking), all we really have in this life is time. The freedom to spend that time however we wish to is a priceless gift.