Archive for April, 2021

On-line conference jury

Saturday, April 10th, 2021

I am on a jury to review computer graphics conference submissions, not for the first time. This year we are doing the entire process on-line.

I have been on this review panel in previous years, and the usual process has been getting on a plane to Chicago and getting put up in a hotel somewhere. Then we spend several days sitting around a large table and going through several hundred submissions together.

To my surprise, I find the on-line version of the process to be much better. There are things that Zoom is better at than real life, and this is one of them.

I think it’s because of the context. When you need to go through a lot of material together, and you need to be thorough, good on-line tools really help the process.

And this year there was a much stronger focus on good on-line tools, for obvious reasons, so everybody became an expert on using them.

In a sense, to compensate for what was missing, we all ended up attaining a kind of shared super power. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

I wonder whether we will end up going back to an in-person jury next year. And if we do, will we miss this collective on-line experience?

Harry and Marv

Friday, April 9th, 2021

I recently rewatched Home Alone. This time I was particularly struck by two of the characters — the hapless villains Harry and Marv, memorably played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

I think it’s because they remind me of two people I have encountered in real life. Both are bad actors, but one is the ill-intentioned and unknowingly incompetent leader of the duo, and the other is the willfully oblivious follower.

Once you encounter people like this in your own world, the underlying dynamics take on new resonance. Which of the two is more culpable — the amoral yet inept cult leader or the morally lazy acolyte?

I’m leaning toward the latter. The former is beyond saving, so there isn’t really much to talk about. The latter can break your heart, because on some level you believe they could do better.

What question are you asking?

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

As a university research lab, our Future Reality Lab always needs to keep our focus clear. There are so many cool things we could be working on, but that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the heck we want.

In everything we do, the driving force can be boiled down to “What question are you asking?” There can be no research without a well-formed question.

Before we think about anything else, we need to think about what question is framing everything we do. If the question is too narrow, it is not interesting. If it is too broad, it is useless.

I know it can sound trite when stated outright, but it is a principle that is worth keeping firmly in mind: There can be no good answers without good questions.

One hour a day

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021

Suppose you received a metaphysical gift of one extra hour a day for a year. That’s it — no extra money or other resources. Just a 25 hour day for the next 365 days.

What would you do with it? Would you invest it in learning a to play a musical instrument, reading a particular set of books, learning a foreign language?

It’s a question worth pondering.

Now let’s take that principle and try applying it to our own non-metaphysically altered reality. Wouldn’t it make sense to set aside one hour from the existing 24 for similar reasons?

Imagine what you could get done with a single dedicated hour every day! I know we don’t usually think about time this way, but maybe we should.

The state of ice cream

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

Years ago I met a man who lived in my neighborhood and we got to talking. I learned that he was our area’s representative for Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

I learned from him that people in different regions of the the U.S. have different tastes in ice cream. Taste in Texas and NY are quite different. That did not surprise me.

I asked him whether some U.S. states likes ice cream more than others.

“That’s interesting,” he said, “guess which state has the greatest consumption, per capita, of ice cream?”

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” I replied.

“Turns out,” he said, “that it’s Alaska.”

Now that surprised me.


Monday, April 5th, 2021

Sometimes, the best choice is simply silence.

The tricky part

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

Sometimes silence is the best response. Sometimes it isn’t.

The tricky part is knowing, in the moment, which is the right choice.

Wireless brain interface

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Today I read with fascination an article about the first wireless direct brain interface. I realize that it is just a first step, but it is the first step into what in the future will be a vast new universe.

There will come a point when we will be able to control anything anywhere in the world just by thinking about it. This is so far beyond the way we think about our interactions with the world now that the impact is difficult even to imagine.

I don’t know whether to think of this as a good thing or a bad thing, but then again I am looking at this from the point of view of someone, to use an analogy, who is trying to imagine what written language will be like in a world before written language.

I imagine that to future generations this will all seem perfectly normal and ordinary. They may look back on us with pity that we did not have this power.

Talking about science

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

Sometimes I need to talk about technical or mathematical or scientific things in a way that aims to be understandable and interesting to people who don’t have the level of technical knowledge shared by people in my field. I always find it to be a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge.

Of course I need to avoid using jargon. It drives me crazy when I’m talking to doctors and they use words like “sagittal” and “transverse”, although I understand that’s how they talk to each other.

But other than that, probably the main thing is to leave out details that matter very much to experts, but not at all to anyone else. This sounds like it should be easy, but it can be psychologically difficult.

The problem is that when I am talking with somebody else who also does math or computer graphics, I feel like I want to explain it to them completely. That is what I do every day, and what I am used to doing.

Practitioners don’t like to leave out details when talking to each other, because the goal is usually to make sure that they can do everything for themselves after the conversation is over. Whether it’s explaining an algorithm or describing how some piece of machinery works, we are always striving to help each other to be fully functional and self-sufficient.

But that’s not your goal when explaining science to a lay audience. There is no expectation that they will suddenly become practicing scientists.

Your goal here is to give people a general idea of what is going on, what is important, and what might matter to them. You can’t say anything false, but you also must not burden them with every detail of the truth.

It’s a balancing act, but an important one. People have a right to understand the things that happen in their world which might affect them. Our obligation as scientists is to help make that happen in a way that is both honest and approachable.

Redirected coffee

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

Yesterday Stefan made an astute comment regarding my post about Future Furniture. If your physical furniture has rounded corners, but your virtual view of it doesn’t, then you might miss the table when you try to put down your coffee mug.

We can tackle that problem by adopting techniques earlier used to help people walk around in VR without bumping into walls, by developing redirected walking. The basic idea is to show you a modified reality that keeps you away from obstacles. When you walk within a VR world you might believe you are turning around a 90 degree corner, but in fact you are turning 70 degrees or 110 degrees.

Other researchers have since applied these ideas to reaching for and picking up objects. In mixed reality, you can give people an altered view of their hand and arm position (and therefore the position of the coffee cup they are holding).

So they can think they are putting down their coffee on the corner of a sharp-cornered table. But in reality they are placing the cup down a slight distance away — within the safe confines of a table that has rounded corners.