Archive for September, 2020

Virtual time zones

Friday, September 11th, 2020

With so many people working remotely, it is becoming more normal for colleagues to work across large distances. On a recent workday I found myself juggling meetings across five different time zones.

Suppose you are working at a company where most of your co-workers are clustered in a single time zone, but you are somewhere else in the world. For them it may be morning, whereas for you it is late afternoon or nighttime.

Until recently this would have marked you as an outlier — the one member of the team who is not showing up in person to the staff meeting. But now, in the age of COVID-19, everybody is working from home.

So it might make sense for you to virtually adjust your time zone. Right now that would be awkward, but with advances in AR and VR technology, it might become easier, and even commonplace.

People might choose to shift, during parts of their work week, into virtual time zones. During those times, the sun will rise and set when you find it convenient to do so.

This might be very good, or very bad. Or maybe both. :-)

Realism versus immersion

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

Yesterday we had a discussion about the relative benefits of realism and immersion. It was in the context of using technology for socially hanging out.

Suppose you are socially hanging out with somebody over a distance. Given the current level of technology it would be very difficult to achieve a high degree of visual realism of the other person while also giving you both the feeling of being physically immersed in the same room.

You can certainly achieve visual realism alone. All you need for that is a video camera and commercially available software such as Zoom.

You can also achieve the feeling of physical immersion. We did that with our Siggraph project The Outpost.

In that project, everyone definitely has the feeling of being in the same physical room. But that room is an alien planet, and everybody looks like a robot.

Personally, I find shared physical immersion to be far more compelling than visual realism. Given a choice I would generally choose immersion in a heartbeat.

But that choice assumes several things, including high frame rate, low network latency, correct head and hands positions, and shared spatial audio. Without those, the shared feeling of physical immersion tends to fail.

I wonder whether, as technology improves, we will end up adding ever greater visual realism to the experience of shared physical immersion. Or will we abandon visual realism entirely, in service of other goals?

I guess only time will tell.

Back to back meetings

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

Meetings today back-to-back
My pandemic schedule’s whack
Though travel is nil
It’s still such a pill
Well at least there is nothing to pack

Reality reversal

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

Picking up on yesterday’s theme, let’s talk about some possible ramifications of future superpresence. It’s a tricky topic to discuss, because we are only now at the beginning of our collective journey toward such capabilities.

Nobody comes away from a Zoom meeting and thinks it was as good as an actual face-to-face meeting in person. There are so many things that are still deficient about the technology we have today.

But at some point there may be a cross-over moment, when the capabilities give us tools for social awareness and communication beyond what can be achieved in person. And then things might flip.

People might choose to take their meetings via remote superpresence, even if they have option for an in-person meeting. At some point, it might simply be better.

If that happens, then we will see a kind of reality reversal. To truly communicate with somebody on a deep level, we might collectively choose to use such technologies, rather than face-to-face interaction.

I don’t think such a thing will happen any time soon. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that one day we might get there.


Monday, September 7th, 2020

It has long been a dream of many to effect truly successful transmission of presence. For example, that was one of the central research goals of the MIT media lab when it was first founded back in 1986.

I think we are finally getting to the point where, in the coming few years, we will be able to beam a quite reasonable representation of one person’s physical presence into another person’s physical space. That will be very exciting, but it will raise more questions than it answers.

After we have taken for granted that you and I can have what feels like a fully embodied face-to-face conversation over distance, what comes next? We will inevitably turn to adding features.

there are many things you can do when you are looking at someone’s virtual being, rather than speaking to them in the flesh. For example, you might be able to read their body temperature, know what they had for breakfast, or be aware of their favorite color.

On a technical level, anything that can be done through a combination of sensors, local computation and the power of the Cloud is fair game.

Such powers of superpresence can be used for either good or evil. In one bad scenario, they could be used to help enable a police state, and to take away values that we cherish, including privacy.

Yet those same capabilities could be used to help promote empathy and understanding. Perhaps we will have an enhanced ability to see that a person is becoming visibly angry not because they feel belligerent but because they feel fear and are in need of reassurance.

As with all new capabilities, superpresence will be subject to Kranzberg’s first law of technology.


Sunday, September 6th, 2020

There are so many ways that constructing software is like constructing a house. From a systems perspective they have a lot in common.

In both cases there are layers. The bottom layers are essential, yet essentially generic. You need a foundation, plumbing, electricity, proper management of heat and light.

At that level there are standards for everything, and if you deviate from those standards, you are going to run into trouble. Fortunately, at that basic level a lot of the rules have long ago been worked out by other people, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

But as you go up from the lower layers to the upper layers, the design criteria change. You can experiment more, start to take risks, invent.

Now you are transitioning from the general to the more particular. You have an opportunity to make your individual statement.

I suspect that all systems of construction follow a similar pattern, whether in the field of songwriting, physics or philosophy. There are basic foundational rules that you need to observe, simply to have a space upon which to build.

After that, as you move up to the higher layers of design, you have the freedom to play. But first you have to make sure you have those basics in place. After all, it doesn’t matter how cool your house looks if it’s going to fall apart a week after somebody moves in.


Saturday, September 5th, 2020

I would not have believed an animated TV show could be so sublime, but Guillermo del Toro’s 2016-2018 animated series Trollhunters really turned me around.

It’s currently available on Netflix, and as long as you are sheltering at home anyway, you should binge it. I certainly am.

More than that. I am drinking it up like a long cool glass of water on a hot summer day.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. This was, after all, created by Guillermo del Toro.

Past visions of the future

Friday, September 4th, 2020

When trying to predict the future, it could be useful to look at past attempts. The game of asking “hey, this is what the technologically enabled future will look like,” is an old and venerable one.

It might be useful to look at which visions of the future turned out to have a good correlation with the eventual reality. Some have done a good job weathering the test of time, and others not so much.

What are the qualities that successful predictions of the future have in common? Can we find any patterns of commonality?

For example, is there some intrinsic quality about Captain Kirk’s communicator that made it such an uncannily good predictor of talking over the SmartPhone? I wonder whether anyone has seriously studied this question.

Maybe they should.

The metaphysics of Guys and Dolls

Thursday, September 3rd, 2020

Continuing on our topic of classic musicals, I have been thinking about the one I just rewatched the other day. I am going to assume you are familiar with Guys and Dolls.

If you aren’t, you should go right now and watch it on Netflix. I guarantee a sublime experience.

The central romantic tension of G&D is between Sky Masterson, a high rolling gambler — a man who will bet on anything — and Sarah Brown, a devout missionary who is vainly trying to convert sinners in a city filled with sin. It would appear to be the very definition of “opposites attract”. How, the audience is encouraged to wonder, could a devoted Believer and a sinful Atheist ever end up together?

In this fictional world of relatively benign gangsters — based on the short stories of Damon Runyan — all men are always referred to as guys, and all women are referred to as dolls. Even Sarah Brown — who is as far removed from the ethos of gangsters as one can get — is referred to as a “mission doll”.

Yet Sky’s central song, in some ways the linchpin of the story, is Luck, be a Lady Tonight. The song takes the form of a conversation with “Lady Luck”. He is pleading with her to allow him to win the dice roll that will allow him to get into the good graces of Sarah, with whom he has fallen in love.

In a world where absolutely all women are “dolls”, it is significant that Luck itself is referred to as a “lady”. I think this a clue that Sky is actually pleading with his own deity for divine intervention.

I believe that Frank Loesser’s lyrics were carefully chosen to clue us in here. Sky worships and believes in his Lady Luck every bit as devoutly as Sarah worships and believes in her Christian God.

When you consider this, the metaphysics of Guys and Dolls makes a lot more sense. In the end we have a true marriage of two true believers. Both partners believe in a divinely ordered universe. They just have different names for it.

Mashups of musicals

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

I always wondered how Nellie Forbush from South Pacific would respond to Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls. Or would Henry Hill from The Music Man be intrigued by Anna Leonowens from The King and I?

If Anna started to sing “Getting to Know you”, would Henry realize that he just has to get to know her? Or would the chemistry be all wrong?

What if we started from the premise that we can mix and match characters from different classic Broadway musicals? Could such a pastiche produce something interesting?

I am open to suggestions!