The real test, reconsidered

Yesterday I posted a tongue-in-cheek answer to the question “When will everybody embrace VR?” For better or verse, I argued that it will happen when we can all share a drink together in VR worlds.

Well, maybe it’s sort of like that, but maybe not exactly. Perhaps the important thing to share will be a meal, or a cup of coffee.

What these experiences all have in common is that they transcend the virtual and involve a real commitment with our physical selves. When we imbibe food or drink, we are involving our biological self, and thereby committing to our sensed reality.

I am not sure exactly what will be the threshold for all of us agreeing to believe in a shared world which is actually a technologically enabled consensual hallucination. But I suspect it will involve some level of commitment which is not just of the mind, but also of the body.

VR Zoom backgrounds

Today I changed my Zoom background. So instead of being virtually in our NYU lab, I am now in a pleasant traditional room with a lovely view of a tree outside the window.

But every time I jump into VR in my Oculus Quest 2, that background becomes irrelevant. But at some point, we will be having the equivalent of Zoom meetings in something a lot more like VR than video.

When that happens, what will be the equivalent of Zoom backgrounds? Will we all share the same virtual world? Or will we each bring our own vision of a virtual world into the shared social space?

Will I see us all in a Lego world while you see us basking on the beach in Hawaii? And if so, will that change the nature of our social interaction with each other?

I guess only time will tell.

Number of clicks

We’re working on some VR research projects at NYU that we want to eventually release to the public. One thing we need to force ourselves to keep in mind is what I call the “number of clicks” problem.

When you are working on something for a long time, elbows deep, you tend to forget how many steps it takes to do things. After a fairly short while, you become a sort of expert.

You know, without thinking, “oh, I just click on this, then that, then that third thing.” It eventually becomes so second nature that you don’t even realize you are doing those things.

But other people are not experts. To anyone having the same experience for the first time, all of those clicks seem like work.

What’s worse, if someone gets even a single click wrong, they hit a dead end. That makes people feel stupid. And people don’t like feeling stupid.

So as we design things meant to be used by the public, we always need to keep in mind that our final version needs to be very accessible. Which means, ideally, no more than one click.

Future stuff

We all accumulate stuff. Books lamps, dishware, that weird lamp your aunt got you for your thirteenth birthday.

Stuff grows around us, in our closets, on our desk, within our bookshelves. Over time it grows, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

When the world starts to shift to technologically enabled mixed reality, some of that stuff will go digital. The toy puzzle on your desk might be a four dimensional hypercube, seemingly part of the physical world, but actually only a sequence of bits stored in the Cloud.

We will still accumulate stuff in our house or apartment, but the stuff will be different, perhaps odder and more mutable. We will continue to resist tossing it out, for sentimental reasons.

But there will be one dramatic change: When we pack up our things to move from one house to another, future stuff will be a heck of a lot easier to take with us.

Creative marketing

Today I ventured out to a coffee shop that had a very impressive looking array of desserts. So I bought some and took them home.

Alas, none of them were at all tasty. It was a major disappointment.

But it got me thinking. If I were the head of marketing for this establishment, how would I handle this? Is there something positive I could say, which would also be true?

I’ve put some thought into this, and now I think I have it. Here is what I think would be a great slogan for this place:

“Try our desserts. They look even better than they taste!”

Future bots

Given the current state of technology, it makes sense that consumer-level A.I. bots are audio-only. You are likely most familiar with Siri and Alexa, but there are plenty of others out there.

At some point, when everybody will be putting on their mixed reality glasses to mingle with the crowd, such bots will acquire a visual component. Those bots may be private — visible only by you — or they may be shared, either with just your friends or with everyone.

Will people accept such a thing? Or will visual bots be quickly rejected, going the way of Microsoft’s Clippy?

One reason to ponder this question is that visual perception and audio perception are processed in the brain very differently. Our ears can take in many independent stimuli at once without conflict, but we can really only focus on one thing at a time with our visual field.

It’s possible that even with the most advanced technology, consumer-level infobots will always remain an audio thing, like in the movie Her. But hopefully a little less scary.

Odd parallels

Yesterday I talked about the odd parallel between the seven days of the week and the seven notes of the diatonic musical scale. I wonder how many other such odd parallels there are in our cultural consciousness.

One that comes to mind is around the cards in a deck of playing cards and the weeks in a year. I especially like the way each of the four suits maps into the four seasons of the year.

Other parallels seem a little more iffy. For example, we could map, one-to-one, the difference in temperature, on the Fahrenheit scale, between freezing and boiling water and the angle between the Earth’s South Pole and North Pole. Both are 180 degrees, intriguingly enough.

Can you think of any others?

Week notes

Since I was a child, I have always associated the seven notes of the diatonic musical scale with the seven days of the week. In particular, A through G are Saturday through Friday.

So when classes were scheduled in school on various days of the week, I would think of them as musical chords. A class scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday was a C major chord: C,E,G.

Similarly, a class scheduled on Tuesday and Thursday was like the the first two notes of a D minor chord: D,F.

I suppose, if I were to plan my academic schedule around this notion, I would plan my week accordingly. I would take courses in my Major either on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, on Thursday, Saturday and Monday, or on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday.

I would take courses in my Minor either on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday or on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. I would reserve Mondays for learning the fundamentals.

And I would definitely take lots of notes. 🙂

Conflict management

I am working on a software project with multiple people. We are all in different locations, so we meet over Zoom and manage our shared software via Github.

The software is scattered over many files, and some of those files change more often than others. A few of them change a lot.

Every time two people make a change to any one of these files, there is a potential for conflict. The computer doesn’t know whether your change and mine might cause a conflict — it just knows that we both trying to change the same file.

And so it complains, and doesn’t let us do that. Instead, the computer expects us to manually resolve our conflict, or what it perceives to be our conflict.

So we develop practices of splitting our programs up into many little separate files. That minimizes the chances that you and I will want to make software changes in the same file at the same time.

In the coming years, as our world becomes ever more virtual, and when we all start to embrace mixed and augmented reality on the job, I wonder whether this principle will start to apply more to workflow out here in the physical world.

If we want the computer to help us, will we need to start breaking down our tasks into little pieces, so the computer can figure out how to support multiple people working together?