2020 vision

The ending of the year’s at hand
A time of great division
I think what we all need right now
Is 2020 vision

The entire world is torn, it seems,
By hatred and derision
I truly hope next year will bring
Some 2020 vision

I know the future can’t be known
With meaningful precision
But we can cope if we just hope
For 2020 vision

Happy New Year everyone!

Future Reality and the 3dbb

Today, in my blog post for our Future Reality Lab at NYU, I talked about a childhood experience that deeply influenced the research that I am working on now.

It involved a certain cartoon with a penguin and a walrus, and a really fabulous invention, which as a child I referred to affectionately as the 3dbb. I would tell you more, but you might as well read about it here.

Communication technologies move into the body

There is a tendency for communication technologies to move from the world around us into our bodies. This is a consequence of Moore’s Law, which states that computer technology becomes exponentially more powerful over time.

Ideally we would have all of the communication technologies we want at our fingertips. After all, given the choice, we generally prefer to communicate with other humans wherever and whenever we want.

And so at different moments in history we have seen all such technologies make the leap from “you need to be in this physical place” to “you can be wherever you want”. This has held true for every such technology, from printed books to audio communication to moving pictures and beyond.

At this moment in history, it is very useful to think about this principle, for one simple reason: The same principle will always continue to hold true in the future.

Think, for example, of any mode of communication which today requires you to be at a particular physical place. There will come a time when you will be able to engage in that same form of communication wherever you happen to be.

For any given communication technology, we don’t know exactly when that transition will happen. But we know for sure that at some point it will.

Opening notes

A while back I started noticing something interesting and odd about songs. Songs that are completely different from each other can start out in exactly the same way.

I think we don’t usually notice such things because we are generally looking for the larger meaning of a song. Particulars of melody are received by us as merely part of a larger emotional story that the song is telling.

For example, think of the title song from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane. It would be hard to think of two songs that are more different in genre and in underlying emotional message.

Yet the first five notes of the melody of these two songs are identical (modulo transposition). They both start out 1-2-4-3-1 (do re fa me do) in the major diatonic scale.

With a little thought, you can probably think of other pairs of songs that share this property of identical opening melodies. I wonder whether there is a word for this phenomenon.

I’m open to suggestions.

Star Wars review

Just saw the new Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and I don’t see what people are so upset about. It’s a perfectly entertaining, inoffensive space opera with all the right ingredients.

It has breathtaking special effects, non-stop thrills, chills and excitement, adorable little ready-to-buy robots, insanely over the top cackling villains, and a hardy band of intrepid young heroes fighting together to save the Galaxy.

There is also, of course, a crazily dysfunctional love story right gob smack in the middle of it all, as in your face as a giant alien squid dropped from the sky onto New York City. What more could a moviegoer want?

In short, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is totally a popcorn movie, but if somebody really forced me to analyze it for deeper meaning, I would start with Rey as Dorothy. From there it’s pretty obvious who is the Lion and who is the Tin Man.

It took me a little longer to figure out who the Scarecrow is, but I finally realized it’s Kilo Ren. Dorothy liked all her friends, but she and the Scarecrow always had a very special relationship.

I am definitely going to see it again.

When fantasy becomes an every day reality

This evening we watched Jumanji — the 2017 version. I had seen it before, and it was great fun watching it again. It’s one of those movies that holds up very well under repeat viewings.

The entire time, part of my mind was thinking about the fact that we were watching a movie about people being transported into a fully immersive make-believe world. This is a trope that comes up quite often in cinema. We’ve seen it in Mary Poppins, TRON, The Matrix and many other films besides.

There will come a point when cinema itself will become completely immersive. Rather than watching stories on a flat screen, future audience members will find themselves transported into a story world that appears to be all around them.

When that happens, I wonder what people will make of old films that used the concept of immersion as a kind of fantasy. Will people be able to appreciate that fantasy of the future, after it has become their every day reality?

I guess it’s a bit like young people of today watching the classic Star Trek TV show. When first Captain Kirk first talking into that futuristic communicator, it seemed wondrous and amazing.

Now everyone has one of those gadgets in their pocket, and it’s no big deal. I guess that’s what happens when fantasy becomes an every day reality.

In days of the future

In days of the future in virtual worlds
We’ll have time both to talk and to think

But what shall we do, should we ever decide
That we want to go out for a drink?

      It sounds nice, but alas
      If we can’t see our glass

      All too soon, so I fear,
      We would all spill our beer

      Then perhaps, I suppose
      Get it all on our clothes

      And the outcome, I guess
      Would be one giant mess

I feel this dilemma should not ruin our day
Or give us much trouble or pause

The answer, both simple and elegant, is
To do all our drinking through straws

Reflections on blinking

The technology we currently use for our shared VR metaroom doesn’t let us know when people are blinking. So when we look at each other as avatars, we need to add our own procedural blinking. That helps a lot to make the avatars of other people look more natural.

Yesterday I implemented a mirroring capability, so that people in our metaroom can see their own avatar, as in a mirror reflection. Interestinglly, I realized that I should not have the mirror reflections blink, because when you look in a mirror in real life, you never ever see yourself blinking.

In fact, one subliminal clue as to “Is this me, or is this somebody else?” is whether the person you are looking at is blinking. If they are blinking, then they are somebody else. If they are not blinking, then you are looking at yourself in a mirror.

Mirror reflections have been around forever. So it’s odd to realize that before the advent of movies in the late 19th century, no human being in all of history had ever seen himself or herself blink.

What we like is what makes us work

It’s fascinating to me the way people enjoy experiences that make them work. Many people love a good crossword or jigsaw puzzle.

I personally wait all week for the New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle, because that’s the one that makes me work the most. The more difficult they make my life, the better I like it.

Why is this so? Why do some people love fiendishly difficult video games, while others love the challenge of mastering Liszt’s Campanella?

I think it comes down to a fundamental survival trait: We are drawn to activities that increase our skills or abilities.

Were that not the case, our primordial ancestors would have spent their entire lives just lazing around doing as little as possible. But if that were the case, our species would never have managed to survive, and you wouldn’t be reading this blog post.

So here’s a takeaway: If you want people to love your creation, then create something that requires them to put in some effort. It seems that what we like is what makes us work.

What world would you create?

In recent posts I have been discussing the possibilities of creating virtual worlds that people can physically enter together. It would be as though there were a parallel universe, right next to this one, that you and your friends could step into and explore.

One of the interesting things about this sort of proposition is that there are very few limits. Unlike a theme park, such as world has no physical costs of construction or maintenance.

This means that over time, as we develop the right tools, such worlds might become extremely inexpensive to create. And that, in turn, means that we soon may see a day when anybody at all can create a custom world to their specifications, to visit and enjoy with their friends.

Which leads to the obvious question: If you had the power to create any world you wish, what world would you create?