End of an era

Today I was behind another guy in line at the local CVS. As the teller was handing the man his plastic bag, he told the customer that today was the last day that CVS would be providing plastic bags.

“Starting tomorrow,” he explained, “we will provide paper bags, if you need one, for a charge of five cents per purchase.”

The man looked at the plastic bag in his hand thoughtfully, and then a big grin broke out on his face.

“So this isn’t just a bag,” he said happily. “It is now a valuable historical artifact.”

Inflection point

For any technology, there is a point of inflection. That is the moment at which it transitions from a curiosity to a fundamental part of our everyday reality.

You can go back through history and identify the inflection point for various technologies. Some examples that come to mind are mass publishing, universal air conditioning, radio, cinema, television, the Web, SmartPhones and more.

Clearly every inflection point has a “before” and an “after”. Yet it may not always be obvious what is the decisive moment when everything flips.

I wonder whether there is a formal way of defining the inflection point for mass adoption of a technology.

In recent days

As I talk with people in recent days, I sense a sort of amorphous fear underlying every conversation. People try to be chipper, to stay on message, but everyone knows what is nagging at the edges.

Nobody knows what is going to happen with the coronavirus. People obsessively look at the news, pore over those world maps with the little colored dots on them, and hold hushed conversations.

The outbreak is already a terrible tragedy — every senseless death is a tragedy. But the potential is there for a much larger tragedy.

We need to not let this overwhelm us, and of course we should hope for the best. But we also need to be prepared. And when it counts, we will need to remember to help each other.

Expired phone number

I was going through the list of phone numbers in my SmartPhone today, and noticed that one of them is not useful anymore. I would delete that number, except for the reason it is not useful.

It’s not that the person has moved to another place on this Earth. Rather, it’s that the person is no longer on this Earth at all.

I find myself hesitating to delete the number of a deceased friend. Somehow it seems disrespectful.

It feels as though the number within my phone is a sort of mini-shrine to our friendship. Were I to delete it, that would somehow feel as though I am severing an emotional connection to someone I still care about.

This is undoubtedly silly, from a practical point of view. After all, that phone number is useless. Were I to dial it, I am sure a complete stranger would pick up, and would no doubt be annoyed by the intrusion.

Still, I refrain from hitting “delete”. I shall keep this number on my phone, together with my other cherished memories of my friend.

The Mandalorian, considered formally

Warning: spoilers ahead.

When considered formally, the denouement of the first season of The Mandalorian follows a classic pattern for children’s fantasy adventure stories. Let us consider.

The title character himself is clearly the Tin Man. Over the course of the season, he gradually finds his heart.

Greef Karga is clearly the Cowardly Lion. In the course of his character arc, he finds his courage.

The only character I can’t figure out is Cara Dune. If she were the Scarecrow, then her journey would be to find her brain. Maybe it counts that she gains in wisdom over time.

For example, she comes to truly appreciate the title character and his young charge (who is, of course, on a journey to return home), but I’m not entirely convinced.

Oh well, it’s only a theory.

A grasp of the future

Today on our Future Reality Blog I talked about one of the challenges of working collaboratively in mixed reality: How can you give people a reasonable experience of reaching out their hands and grasping, holding and manipulating a mixture of real and virtual objects?

It’s a deep and challenging question, since real and virtual objects behave quite differently. In fact, I don’t think there are any shortcuts to getting good answers.

Here were my thoughts about it today on our lab’s blog.

Non-human subjectivity

Because we are all human, we share a certain kind of subjectivity. All of you reading this are processing your thoughts through the use of a human brain, which is our shared heritage after millions of years of evolution.

We know that there are non-human sentient creatures out there. For example, an octopus is highly intelligent, but in a way that is vastly different from us.

In the first chapter of T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, Merlyn teaches valuable lessons to young Wart by magically turning him into various species of animal.The boy comes away from these experiences with a profoundly expanded view of reality, which will help him to rule wisely when he eventually grows up to become King Arthur.

As I think on this, I find myself wondering, what is the shared subjectivity between one octopus and another, or — a bit nearer to home — between two cats, or two hawks or badgers? Two intelligent beings that have the same biological brain structure will have an intuitive understanding of each others’ view of the universe around them.

We literally cannot comprehend the world as it is comprehended by a dog, or a cat, or a horse, or a badger, or an octopus. Yet we know, intellectually, that there is a shared understanding between all the members of any intelligent species.

I wonder whether we ever could get a non-trivial insight into the world-view of another species. And if we could ever do that, would we come away with new kinds of wisdom?

Day off

For me today was that rarities of rarities: A day off. Just a day to hang out at home, relax, eat good food and watch The Mandalorian.

I didn’t bring any work home from the lab last night. So it was a day at home without any work commitments.

Now, in the evening, I feel relaxed, well rested, and wonderfully balanced. I suspect that I will be more productive this week for having done this.

Maybe I should try this every week!

Future gestural interfaces

One fascinating topic that has been coming up recently in our lab’s research meetings is the near future of gestural interfaces. That’s because a radical change is coming within the next few years.

Sometime in the next five years or so we will reach a point technologically where you will just be able to reach out a finger and draw something in the air. You and the other people in the room will be able to see a glowing 3D trace of your drawing, floating in the air.

What happens next is the interesting part. That drawing will be able to change into various things as you speak and gesture. With just a few spoken sentences and movements of your hands you will be able to create cities, creatures, thought experiments, entire worlds.

A new and powerful way of expressing ourselves to each other will begin to emerge as a fundamental part of the human experience. Children will take all of this for granted, while we grownups struggle to play catch-up.

But here’s the odd thing: Even though this new power of communication will change everything, we have no way of actually knowing what it will really be like.