VR and Halloween

I was discussing VR today with some colleagues here at the SIBGRAPI conference in Rio de Janeiro. At some point the conversation turned to the representation of facial expression.

I said that I wasn’t so worried that lack of facial expression would hold up development of social VR. I mentioned the fact that more than 140 years ago people started communicating with each other as invisible avatars.

The fact that you can only hear someone’s voice on the telephone turned out not to be a show stopper. Consumers in the late 19th century didn’t run out of the room screaming because invisible people were talking to them. They simply accepted the nature of this new medium, and embraced it.

At that point in the conversation somebody pointed out that today is Halloween. On this day of the years people take to the streets en masse wearing fanciful costumes.

Many of those people wear masks which completely hide their facial expressions. That doesn’t seem to bother anybody — it’s all part of the fun.

Maybe the early years of VR-enhanced social experiments will feel a bit like Halloween. When people join the party, they will choose the mask that best fits their mood that day.

I suspect people won’t be bothered all that much if they can’t see each others’ facial expressions. They are much more likely to be bothered if they can’t share a beer.

The end of history?

Last night I mentioned to some colleagues here in Rio that I blog every day. One person at the table, who is in his 20s, looked up my blog on his phone, and then seemed unhappy that two days ago my blog post was very short. Apparently I was not playing by some rule he had formed in his head.

What I think he missed was that the very brevity of that post signaled its importance. To me the death of Robert Evans is enormously significant from a cultural perspective. My hope was that readers would look him up and find out why I had honored his passing.

Yet earlier in the conversation, this same person, who does professional research in VR, drew a blank when I mentioned the Star Trek Holodeck. Someone of his generation, he explained patiently, wouldn’t know about such an out of date cultural reference.

To me the two moments seem related. My extremely short post on Robert Evans was a pointed invitation to do research into an historically important figure in popular culture, a key to understanding how we get to where we are in 2019.

And of course the Star Trek Holodeck was central to the origin of our current interest in Virtual Reality. It was, in a very important sense, one of the tentpole moments in the cultural evolution of VR.

All of which makes me wonder — are the young people in Gen Z completely uninterested in history? If so, how can they hope to understand where they are going, without understanding the path to how we all got here?

Are we entering a time in history where young people will stop paying attention to Shakespeare because he’s just some old dead guy? Will Jane Austen, Amadeus Mozart and Mary Shelley come be considered irrelevant?

Are we becoming culturally stupid?

Successive approximations

Today I gave a keynote at the combined Brazilian Computer Graphics, Computer Games and VR conferences in Rio de Janeiro. I used the occasion to give some predictions about the near future of shared immersive experiences, and to talk about how our lab is helping to make that future happen.

I realized afterward how incredibly useful it is for my own process to give such talks. When you need to convey to others what you are aiming for in your own work, you gain a better understanding yourself.

As I give such talks, I feel as though I am achieving, by successive approximations, a better understanding of my own mission. Also in this case the audience was extremely perceptive, and asked excellent and highly thoughtful questions about such topics as privacy, provenance and the digital divide.

I guess it’s true what they say: The best way to learn is to teach.

Lost in Rio

Today I visited my friend Luiz at IMPA, which is in the Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro, about an hour’s taxi ride from my hotel at Riocentro. After driving up a long winding mountain road the driver dropped me off.

The view was breathtakingly beautiful — it seemed to be a very popular spot for tourists. Also, just around the time the taxi drove away I realized I was in the wrong place.

My Google phone has no reception here in Brazil, and I had a moment of panic. But then I realized that tourists have phones, which meant I could try to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Fortunately I knew just enough Portuguese to explain my predicament. A kindly Brazilian tourist with a cellphone called my friend Luiz for me.

The two of them were still talking on the phone when, to my surprise, my taxi driver walked into view. He gave me a happy smile and a friendly wave.

I gestured the driver over, and explained to the astonished tourist with the phone that this was the very same taxi driver who had dropped me off not ten minutes earlier. Apparently the driver had decided to park his cab down the road so he could take some photos of the great view from the mountain.

The tourist promptly handed his phone to the taxi driver so Luiz could give the driver proper directions to IMPA (it would end up taking another hour to get there). I profusely thanked the kindly Brazilian tourist, and we were off.

The good news, as you can see from this photo I snapped with my phone, is that it really was a spectacular view.



I am about to fly to Brazil to speak at a conference. It is the first time I will be there since their recent election, which brings up interesting questions.

When I go to academic conferences around the world, I rarely encounter anyone who supports the current U.S. administration. I don’t find this surprising.

After all, academics who travel to other countries to meet with colleagues tend not to be isolationists. It is our nature to reach out to people from other cultures and find common ground.

In case you missed it, Brazil recently elected a president who is even more isolationist than ours, difficult as that is to imagine. I don’t expect to find many colleagues from Brazil who support his policies.

So I feel that I will find common cause with my Brazilian colleagues. Yet I wonder how best to approach the situation.

It seems to me that it would be rude to criticize the government of a country in which I am an invited guest. Yet as a citizen of the U.S., I believe I am free to get up in public and speak freely about my own government.

In particular, I am free to criticize the leaders of my own country when they promote hateful and isolationist ideologies. That is not merely my right — in a democracy it is my obligation.

The people listening in my host country might find themselves drawing certain parallels. And that is certainly their right. It is, perhaps, their obligation.

Letter to a future friend

I like to develop successively faster methods for typing text on different portable devices, as advancing technology allows. It’s been a long term hobby of mine — and of others as well.

Yet as speech-to-text gets progressively better, and as SmartGlasses begin to replace SmartPhones in the next few years, the entire issue might become moot. Typing on a keyboard may eventually go the way of the quill pen.

I would find that to be sad, because I really like to write by typing. In fact, I am typing this on my MacBook keyboard right now, and the feeling is immensely satisfying.

Then again, even when we get to those direct-brain interfaces (scary thought), everything doesn’t need to be up to date. I’m sure nobody will object if, every once in a while, I write a letter to a future friend with a good old fashioned quill pen.

Dynamic Duos

I was listening to the Beatles today and I remembered that since I was a kid I always wondered about Rose and Valerie. If you are a hardcore Beatles fan, you probably have wondered that as well.

As humans, we seem to have a fondness for naming anything that comes in twos. I remember as a child being fascinated by the goldfish in the TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Eddie named them Chet and David, and every night he would say “Goodnight Chet. Goodnight David.”

I thought that was a very cool move, and it made me feel very sophisticated as a child, because it was a very meta moment of one TV show slyly calling out to another. Some of you probably know the reference.

I have friends with two dogs, a boy dog and a girl dog. They named the boy Simba and the girl Nala. It’s great for me, because I have no problem remembering the names of their dogs.

I also have colleagues in Columbia University who do research with cuttlefish. There was one pair of cuttlefish they hoped to mate. They called them Becks and Posh.

Alas, the love story turned out to be a tragedy. Cuttlefish are very territorial, and when my colleagues finally put the two creatures together, it turned out Becks and Posh were both male. Becks promptly killed Posh.

Fortunately for Eddie, goldfish are more peaceable. Come to think of it, we have no way of knowing whether Chet and David were both boy goldfish.

Then again, it doesn’t really matter. Eddie was cool.

Word choices

Today the U.S. President referred to the impeachment hearings against him as a “lynching”. It’s an odd verb to use to describe a legal procedure that was set up in the U.S. Constitution for Congress to follow.

Some Americans feel that the word is inappropriate, because people like them have had experience with actual lynchings. But it might be hard for other Americans to fully appreciate that.

So I suggest that the President mix it up a bit by rotating his verbs from day to day. That would allow more Americans to participate in his fascinating experiment in language stretching.

For example, on some days he might refer to the impeachment hearings by saying he is being raped. Women in particular might then be given an opportunity to appreciate how powerful certain unexpected words can be when coming from their President.

On other days, he might refer to it as a genocide. That will have the advantage of bringing Native Americans on board.

Personally, I would hate to see my own ethnic group left out of the process. So maybe every once in a while, our President can just refer to this annoying inconvenience as a Holocaust.