Custom black t-shirt

The other day I did what may be one of the nerdiest things I have ever done. I ordered a custom black t-shirt.

But not just any custom black t-shirt. Printed on this black t-shirt, in a monospace white font, is the code for the new and improved version of my noise function.

The print consists of about a dozen lines of fairly dense GLSL shader code. The code itself won’t mean anything to someone who isn’t a graphics programmer. Yet as a work of aesthetic expression, I think it will work for anyone.

I don’t think I did this primarily as a fashion statement. Rather, I think it was a way for me to memorialize, for myself, a particular personal achievement.

Of course other people will see the t-shirt when I wear it, so in a way it is, by definition, a communication with the world. Yet what it is communicating on the outside is mainly a reflection of a particular feeling that I have on the inside.

Come to think of it, isn’t that what fashion is all about?

To a first approximation

Happily, today my brilliant Ph.D. student Connor DeFanti defended his dissertation. He is now officially Dr. DeFanti.

During his presentation Connor used a number of words that have well known meanings in the field of computer science. For example, at one point he used the word “binary”. At another point he used the word “handshaking”.

Computer scientists usually use the word “binary” to denote the “base two” number system, in which every digit is either zero or one. “Handshaking” is generally used to describe the software protocol that allows two computer programs to communicate with each other.

But since Connor’s thesis was about shared virtual reality, he had alternate meanings for both of these words. In the case of “binary”, he was referring to “non-binary” avatars. In other words, in our shared VR worlds, participants are not required to appear as — or identify as — male or female.

In the case of “handshaking” he was referring to the distinction between what is possible in shared virtual worlds in the same physical room and what is possible in shared virtual worlds with remotely located participants.

The distinction between the two can be neatly described as follows: When two people are in the same physical room, they can shake each other’s hand.

Of course they can also engage in lots of other interesting activities together that two people can’t do unless they are in the same room. But from a computer science perspective, those other activities are all really forms of handshaking, to a first approximation.

Hobnobbing with our fellow wizards

Well, people seem to really like CAVE. Today I read a very nice article about it on techradar.

Last night at a small party thrown by Bose, we got to spend a lot of time in deep philosophical conversation with Paul of Felix and Paul. I’ve been a fan of their pioneering VR work for years, so it was fascinating to meet him and to get his perspective on all this.

Then this morning, of course, I made sure to watch the new Felix and Paul VR piece Gymnasia, which is also showing at Tribeca. It was beautiful, as well as disturbing in all the right ways.

I think people are really starting to figure out this medium. And that is not is not so easy, because it requires a new visual language.

After all, after the Lumiere brothers started to popularize projected cinema1, eight more years had to pass before someone finally created the very first movie close-up2. So I guess we are not doing so badly.

1. In 1895
2. The Great Train Robbery, in 1903

CAVE at Tribeca

Today is the beginning of the Tribeca Film Festival, where for the next ten days we are showing CAVE as part of its VR program. This is particular exciting because CAVE is the world’s first (and so far only) immersive narrative for a collocated room-scale audience. Or, to put it a different way, a movie that transports an entire audience onto the Holodeck.

It was fun and exciting showing CAVE at Siggraph last summer, but Tribeca is a different thing entirely. Siggraph is a technical conference, whereas Tribeca is a major film festival.

To put it bluntly, the New York Times film critic is not going to show up at Siggraph. Which means that now our work is no longer just part of a technical conversation. It is now part of the cultural conversation.

What CAVE is really asserting in that cultural conversation is that a narrative experienced in VR should not merely be “a movie for one person”. Rather, it should be an experience that many people can share together, with all of the the age old magic that happens when people gather together to be told a story.

There have been some really supportive articles written about us showing up at Tribeca with CAVE. Here is one of them.

With any luck, the cultural critics who attend the festival will understand what we are up to, and will receive our work kindly.


Today a good friend of mine proudly emailed me a photo of his new membership card. He has just joined the Democratic Socialists of America.

I, of course, immediately emailed him this (slightly altered) excerpt from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

REG: We’re the Democratic Socialists of America. Listen. If you wanted to join the D.S.A. you’d have to really hate the Republicans.

BRIAN: I do!

REG: Oh, yeah? How much?

BRIAN: A lot!

REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Republicans are the fucking American Democratic Socialists.

P.F.J.: Yeah…

JUDITH: Splitters.

P.F.J.: Splitters…

FRANCIS: And the American Popular Democratic Socialists.

P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…

LORETTA: And the Democratic Socialists of America.

P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…

REG: What?

LORETTA: The Democratic Socialists of America. Splitters.

REG: We’re the Democratic Socialists of America!

LORETTA: Oh … I thought we were the Popular Democratic Socialists.

Funny blog

Today I was talking on the phone with a reporter about our lab’s research. She had clearly done her homework by looking up everything about me that she could find on the internet.

Which includes, for example, this blog. Now here is something you should understand: Unlike publications in my professional life, this blog is really all about my unrestricted personal musings on the state of the world.

So when the reporter, after discussing my personal profile, started talking about my blog, I was intrigued. Where was she going to go with it? What might she pick up on?

To my relief, she just observed that this blog is very funny. Which is pretty much all I would ask of anyone who manages to find their way here.

Earth Day

Today’s Google Doodle for Earth Day is so positive and upbeat and happy. It’s easy, when looking at something to gosh-darned pretty, to be lulled into forgetting that we are still busily polluting our way to rapid self-extinction.

I don’t think the Earth particularly cares if we poison ourselves out of existence. The planet itself will go on just fine, the way it did after that large extinction event some 65 million years ago.

I am sure that after we manage to make this world uninhabitable for our own species, the Earth will come up with some other wondrous and fascinating species to populate itself with. It always does.

Maybe we need to go back to the very first Earth Day poster in 1970 to help jolt ourselves awake. That’s the one where Walt Kelly summed up the problem rather succinctly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Ability, choice and quantum theory

I was flying back from Pittsburgh this evening when the young man across the aisle from me noticed that I was programming. “What language is that?” he asked.

I explained that it was GLSL, the language used to program shaders that run in GPUs (graphics processing units), like the one in your phone or laptop.

We got to talking, and he explained that he does statistical programming for a financial firm. He told me that he had tried taking computer graphics in college, but had realized that he had no visual sense.

I nodded sympathetically and told him “We choose what we’re good at.”

But then I got to thinking, and realized that what I had said to him could be interpreted in two different ways. One interpretation is the obvious one — when we are good at something, then that’s what we choose to do.

But another interpretation is that we choose to be good at things. More specifically, we put in the time and effort to get really good at something when we enjoy it and are highly motivated.

I suspect both interpretations are true: We choose something because we are good at it because we have chosen it, in an endless hall of mirrors.

Ability and choice always co-exist in perfect quantum superposition.