Future personal info

When everybody is walking around with those future wearables, it will be technically possible for you to see all sorts of information about a person you are meeting for the first time. For example, you might see an annotation telling you that person’s age, or their net worth, or their prison record.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean those things will happen. As rules about privacy shake out, it might become illegal to see certain kinds of information about another person.

Clearly the concept of privacy has been evolving, as new generations embrace the convenience of SmartPhones. People really like the ability to see where they are on a map, or hail a car whenever and wherever they need one, or quickly order things on-line.

With such conveniences at one’s fingertips, niceties such as not being on the radar of governments and major corporations tend to get overlooked. But will that trend continue when we make the transition from SmartPhones to wearables?

Will there be certain kinds of information that could certainly be looked up with some effort (such as a person’s age or religion or sexual preference), which will be deemed inappropriate to be instantly accessed by random strangers on the street? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I think this is a good time for us to start asking the question.

Teaching operational knowledge

I wonder whether there are ways we can encourage people to learn the difference between having knowledge you can reason with, and just having isolated and unconnected facts. The first gives you real power. The second doesn’t give you much of anything.

For example, the student I discussed yesterday who knew that the Sun is about 8 minutes away from Earth — in terms of the speed of information in a vacuum — had a solid basis for working out solutions to interesting problems. The fact that she didn’t need to look it up meant that she had that knowledge available at her fingertips.

Perhaps we should refrain from teaching “facts”. Instead we can focus on encouraging students to think in terms of working toolkits.

Ultimately, I suspect the best sort of education is one where we learn to work creatively with some set of tools. It’s ok to be able to follow a recipe, but far better to understand how to create one.

Operational knowledge

A few days ago in my computer graphics class at NYU, I was talking about why we can often get away with assuming that light rays are parallel. It’s because we are used to seeing things lit by the Sun, and the Sun is so far away that its rays are extremely close to parallel.

In the spirit of class participation, I introduced the topic by asking the 30 students in the class how far away the Sun is from the Earth. “Can someone tell me?” I asked.

Dead silence.

One student volunteered that it takes 8 minutes from the light from the Sun to reach the Earth. To her credit, that was correct. To get the distance to the Sun from that, you would just need to multiply 186,300 miles per second times 60 seconds per minute times 8 minutes. But I was still hoping somebody would give me a direct answer.

Finally, after another minute or so of silence, another student piped up. “Google says about 93 million miles,” she said.

In that moment I became very sad. I tried to explain to the class the enormous difference between factoids and actual operational knowledge.

Now I worry that this is generational. Are we getting a crop of students who are being discouraged from having working operational knowledge? Is Google inadvertently destroying a generation of thinkers and potential innovators?

Frankly I am worried.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Last night in Kansas City I saw a fabulous production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have seen various productions of this play on stage, and so far, this is my favorite.

I remain astonished by Shakespeare. There is so much to unpack in this one play that you could spend years analyzing it, and still merely scratch the surface.

I find myself particularly drawn to the relationship between the rational mortal realm of Athens ruled over by Theseus and the wild faerie realm ruled over by Oberon and Titania. They represent opposing principles which all of us carry inside us at all times.

In particular, there is a delightful contrast between two characters who seem set up as exemplars of their respective realms: Bottom and Puck. Bottom is a working class human in the world of reality, yet his every thought and emotion seems disconnected from any real perception of reality.

Puck is a working class Hobgoblin, a creature of pure fantasy, and yet is an engine of actual change in the mortal world. The most important and positive psychological shift in the real world during the course of the play — the emerging love of Demetrius for Helena — is brought about with Puck’s assistance.

And so we seem to have a disquisition on the contradictory nature of human beings. Maybe that’s one reason we all love this play so much. That, and the fact that it’s incredibly beautiful and funny.

Thyme machine

Every time I cook my morning breakfast, I imagine wistfully that the container of thyme on my kitchen shelf is actually time. I look at the clock, realize I’m running late, and wistfully imagine.

If only I could just add enough of this yummy spice, I say to myself, it would whisk me back twenty minutes and I’ll have plenty of time this morning. Then I add the little thyme leaves to what I’m cooking in the skillet and cross my fingers. Alas it never actually works that way — I still end up running late.

On the other hand, it does definitely make my breakfast taste better. That’s worth something, I guess.

No Mandalorian spoilers

For weeks at our lab, there has been a big message written near the top of the whiteboard: “No Mandalorian spoilers!” Some of us had not yet gotten around to seeing it, so the people who had were reminding themselves to be considerate and not ruin any surprises.

Well, today I finally got around to starting to watch it. No spoilers here, but I can say that is is vastly better than any Star Wars movie I have seen in the last forty years.

Not since the original Star Wars film has somebody actually taken the care and time to create something so genuinely filled with humor, with a sense of delight, and with just a hint of absurdity. Over the years, the franchise became so heavy, so consumed by some idea of mythic self-importance, that it long ago lost those qualities which made the original so much fun.

But here we are with The Mandalorian, finally back where we should be. I mean really, what could be more fun than a SciFi Western?

That is, when the people making it remember not to take the whole thing too seriously. This perfect valentine to Star Wars is the perfect thing to watch on Valentine’s Day!

Sketching on two sides of the brain

When I want to draw an idea out from my head, I like to draw it on paper. Usually I use a 0.7mm #2 mechanical pencil, a gum eraser, and a fresh clean sheet of white paper, usually just the ordinary printer paper we have in the lab.

I tend to work with a stack of paper, so if I don’t like what I’m sketch I can just start fresh on a new sheet. By the second sheet, I’m usually drawing what was in my head.

There is an incredible freedom to this process, and I find it very pleasurable. After all, anything that’s in my head can go onto that sheet of paper.

If I want to refine what I drew, I’ll sometimes use a head-worn x2 magnifier as I sketch in fine details. This is because the limit to how accurately I can draw fine details is never in how my hand can move, but rather always in what my eyes can see.

I have an entirely different creative process for illustrating animated mechanisms. In that case I write code, using a library of helpful tools that I’ve built up over many years. The advantage of this approach is that I can directly show process, rather than just a static snapshot.

These two ways of creating are so different, and so complementary. The first is very right brain, and the second is very left brain. I wish I could figure out a way to join them together into a single creative process.

My Chalktalk program creates the impression of doing so, but that is somewhat of an illusion. Chalktalk is very useful for showing ideas to others, but the work of visualizating those ideas takes place largely in code. Sketching is mostly used for presentating the result of that creative process.

I am hopeful that at some point I will find a way to better join these two ways of describing ideas. Guess I’ll just have to keep trying.

Exercising in VR, part 2

So how can we use VR to help motivate people to do healthful aerobic exercise right at their work desk? One approach is to figure out how to integrate the experience seamlessly into that space.

We’ve been experimenting with off-the-shelf below-desk pedal exercisers. To that we add another off-the-shelf device from VirZoom, a wireless device that straps onto one of the pedals, counts how many times the pedals go around, and sends that info to a computer. In the photo below, you can see that the VirZoom device is held on by a small purple strap:


VirZoom has its own virtual reality software system, but instead of using theirs, at our lab we are experimenting with our own approach, using the Oculus Quest VR headset, preferably using the Oculus hand tracking option rather than controllers. The idea is to allow our students to create experiences that let people fly around in virtual worlds while playing all sorts of fun games together.

Imagine you and your friends taking a break from work in the middle of the day to play a healthful game of Quidditch. No actual brooms needed.

If this works out, maybe people will start exercising more. I know I will. 🙂

Exercising in VR, part 1

It’s not that difficult to gather the hardware for exercising in VR. All you need is a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest, and a treadmill or an exercise bike. But that might be aiming at the wrong problem.

People who are inclined to use a treadmill or an exercise bike are probably going to exercise anyway. They are already used to the adrenalin and the dopamine rush that comes with aerobic exercise, and they don’t need much more motivation.

A more useful target for VR exercise may be the far larger group of people who don’t use exercise bikes or treadmills. In our lab we’ve been figuring out ways to reach those people.

One question we ask is: Can we use VR to help motivate people to do healthful aerobic exercise right at their work desk? And we’ve made some progress answering that in a positive way.

More tomorrow.