50 words

The synopsis for our Siggraph submission, due soon, must be 50 words. An interesting restriction.

Suppose all explanations had to be 50 words. How would that alter communication?

Would humanity express itself more clearly, rise to the occasion, become better? Or would we just blow each other up in frustration?

Non-copresent beer

One of my favorite ways to emotionally bond with somebody is to just go out to a bar and share a beer. And maybe some fries and ketchup.

Then we just talk about whatever we are moved to talk about. Life, love, work, movies, relationships, whatever — it sort of doesn’t matter. There is something about just sitting across a table at a bar somewhere and shooting the breeze that brings people together.

One thing I’ve been wondering is whether this experience can be replicated for two people who are not physically co-present with each other. Assuming technology were advanced enough to support very high quality visual and auditory holographic telecommunication, would it work to share a beer with someone who was actually physically elsewhere?

I think it’s an important question for the following reason: Whatever the answer turns out to be, it will shine light on something fundamental about the connection between the human mind and the human body.

Suppose it turns out that true bonding over beer requires actual physical co-presence. In that case, I think we will have learned something fundamental about the limits of human telecommunication.

Those limits would not be about technology itself, but about something innate within ourselves, informed by millions of years of evolution. To wit: In order to truly bond with somebody on a deep emotional level, we must actually be in the presence of each other’s unique and vulnerable physical body.

Freedom from the tyranny of appearance

Eventually, as technology permits, video pass-through wearables will become more powerful than optical see-through wearables. So instead of simply seeing ghostly computer images superimposed on reality, everything we see through our smart glasses will be first captured by cameras, then run through a computer, then displayed again in high resolution.

Which means that whatever we look at may be transformed in arbitrary ways — magnified, edge-sharpened, or otherwise altered. In particular, in the future our view of other peoples’ faces can be modifiable under software control.

Your face, as seen by other people, will therefore become like a sort of homepage, which you can customize to your heart’s content. When you go out in public, you will be able to choose the facial appearance you present to the world.

Of course some people might choose to simply take off their glasses when in public, but eventually this may become illegal. Such an antisocial act might come to be considered an invasion of privacy — akin to barging into a stall in a public restroom while somebody is using it.

In such a world, you will have freedom from the tyranny of appearance. No longer will you be judged by the shape of your nose or eyes, or by an awkwardly shaped chin.

When your appearance can be whatever you want, then you will be judged more by your character, by your social grace, and by the ethical choices that others see you make.

This will be a good thing.


Eventually, as wearables replace SmartPhones, we will develop new ways of looking things up. We will use some combination of voice, gaze and gesture to quickly and unobtrusively summon up any factoid or other item of interest.

Children who are born into the coming era of wearables won’t even think about this — they will simply do it intuitively. To those of us hold-overs from the pre-wearable era, the facility with which our children are able to look things up may seem miraculous.

Within a generation, it will be taken for granted that we can all unobtrusively summon up any knowledge while holding a conversation, without interrupting the flow of that conversation. The entire concept of not having knowledge at your fingertips will have gone the way of the dodo bird and the steam engine.

What effect will this have on society? Will we be better for it because we will all have more immediate access to vast amounts of knowledge? Or will we be worse off, because nobody will know what it means to put in thought and care to acquire that knowledge?

The normal alien

We are currently designing a social VR experience in which all the participants are aliens from another planet. But we also want participants to feel at home.

In other words, we want people to feel what it would be like to be a normal alien hanging out with their alien friends, as though it were no big deal. This raises all sorts of fun and interesting design challenges.

For example, we’re guessing at this point that it is necessary for each “alien” participant to have a clearly identifiable face with two eyes, because those qualities are fundamentally important to us in our social interactions. We probably also want them to have two recognizable hands to gesture with, even if those look like claws or fins or something else.

So let’s suppose that those two constraints are a given. What kinds of things can we continue to play with, to create a feeling of being at home together in an alternate alien world?

Obviously we will need to try out lots of ideas and just see what feels right. I keep going back to what my colleague Mike Woods said back in 2014: “Anybody who claims to know what will work in VR, without having tried it in VR, doesn’t know what they are talking about.”

Thoughts while watching a play rehearsal

Today I observed a play rehearsal. It was the first rehearsal of this production in which the actors were working “off book”. In other words, in this rehearsal they all needed to have their lines memorized, rather than looking at the script.

The director was excellent, and as I observed her at work, I learned a lot about process. Not only does a director need to have a clear overview of the arc of the play, but she needs to have an acute understanding of the tone of each scene, as well as the dramatic function of every moment in that scene.

It becomes clear when you watch a the process of a great director watching with a talented cast that much of a the meaning within a theatrical script is implicit. It is not until a good play is performed that all of its layers of meaning begin to reveal themselves.

And this presents a striking difference between a play and a movie. When you watch a film, all of the artistic choices have already been made. No matter how good a movie is, at the end of the day, there is only that one movie.

But a play can change dramatically between one production and the next. This variability opens up the possibility that the same play can convey many different meanings — even contradictory meanings.

In this way, theater is far more generative than cinema. Although it is the older art form, in some ways theater is far more radical, since a good play has the ability to continually reinvent itself, even across a span of centuries.

Museums and emerging technologies

Today I had a really great conversation with a museum curator. We were talking about how virtual and augmented reality, and other emerging technologies, can be used by museums.

I realized at some point in our meeting that there could be a misconception that such emerging technologies compete with museums. That argument might go something like this: If people can just put on a VR headset and experience art, then why would they bother going to a museum?

It’s not a difficult misconception to dispel, when one considers the special relationship humans have with physical artifacts. Such artifacts clearly speak to us on a deep emotional level.

For example, a vast number of places on-line allow you to see an image of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. You can see it at very high resolution and at extremely high quality.

Yet the Louvre in Paris is always jam packed with museum-goers thronging to see the real thing. I think this is because, on an instinctively level, we understand the importance of unique physicality. Possibly this is because we understand, on a profound level, that we ourselves have only one unique and precious physical identity.

More generally, as any form of communication technology moves from the realm of the exotic to the realm of the everyday, we tend to use it not as an end in itself, but rather in a utilitarian way that supports our larger goals.

For example, the Web is a technology that was considered exotic once upon a time — and even viewed by some as an alternative to the physical world. Yet now, in 2020, the Web is understood to simply be part of the human fabric of communication. In fact, the museum that I was visiting today relies on its Website to tell people how to visit the museum itself!

Amtrak to Boston

I dearly love the regional Amtrak train from New York to Boston. Right now I am typing this while riding that train.

You park yourself in the cafe car, get settled in and order a coffee. Then you can sit there and get work done while beautiful New England scenery rolls by for several blissful hours.

It’s basically a kind of a cozy mobile office. Except that at the end of a short work day you end up in Boston.

I highly recommend it.

Speaking in code

Recently I’ve been practicing memorizing Puck’s closing speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s one of my favorite speeches, and I think that I now have it down.

Except of course when I am nervous. Unfortunately the thing that makes me nervous is reciting it in the presence of other people. Oh well.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the lines of Puck’s speech start with a lot of familiar words. In particular, the following words all appear at least once as the first word in a line:


If you’re a programmer, you will recognize that these are all keywords that are widely used in modern computer programming languages. So what does that mean? Are the lines in Shakespeare plays actually runnable as valid computer programs, if only we can find the right compiler?

Maybe our modern programming languages were influenced by the great Bard. Or maybe Mr. Shakespeare was the first computer programmer.