Archive for May, 2021

Precision economy

Friday, May 21st, 2021

When you program computers, you are often dealing with questions of economy. Much of it comes down to how precise you want things to be.

In computer graphics you can squeeze a red, green or blue color value into a very small space, but for the x,y, or z coordinates that describe where something is located, you need a much larger space.

It occurs to me that this is a kind of metaphor for things we deal with in everyday life. We need some things to be very precise, but other things can stay sort of fuzzy.

If you want to pick up and use a knife or fork, you had better know exactly where it is. But you don’t need to know exactly how much money you have in your bank account, unless funds are very very tight.

We only have some much attention to pay to things, so we generally keep a lot of things fuzzy in our minds, reserving precision for just a few things that need to be absolutely correct.

In a way, we are constantly negotiating a kind of precision economy. Because our time and attention is limited, there is only so much precision to go around. A precision economy is the inevitable result of an attention economy.

People tend to be very good at this without even thinking about it. After all, if we thought about it too much, that would not be an economical use of our limited attention budget. 😉

Blurring the distinction

Thursday, May 20th, 2021

Here is what I think is one good goal for practical collaboration using virtual reality: Participants should not care whether or not they are in virtual reality.

While working with other people on creating things, I should be able to seamlessly go back and forth between looking at a screen and being immersed in a virtual world. When I do that, there should not be any radical change in what I’m doing — only a change in my point of view.

There are several implications to this. For example, if I can use hand gestures to create and modify things in VR, I should be able to use the same hand gestures to create and modify those same sorts of things while looking into a computer monitor.

Reality and VR each give us a different — and complementary — set of powers. As we work together, we should be able to freely move back and forth between the two modes of viewing, depending on what is most useful at any given moment.

Normal tourist visit

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021

It’s funny how phrases can suddenly enter the lexicon. A new brand new entry is “normal tourist visit.”

In particular, last week U.S. Representative Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) compared the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol building to a “normal tourist visit.” This might seem surprising, coming from somebody who spent several hours that day helping to barricade the door against those same “tourists”.

But suppose we go with this a moment, and give the man the benefit of the doubt. What if Rep. Clyde really believes that an angry mob smashing down doors, injuring many people, and causing extreme panic and mayhem is a “normal tourist visit?”

Does that mean he would welcome such a visit into his house in Jackson County, Georgia? Is anything at all those tourists might do within his home that he would not consider proper?

If somebody asked him that, I wonder what he would say.

Happy accidents, part 3

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

In 2017 our Future Reality Lab spent several days at the Future of Storytelling festival putting on a live theater event with everyone — both audience and actors — walking around wearing untethered VR headsets in the same physical room. The story was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

We put a lot of work into making sure that everyone’s location in the virtual room matched their location in the physical room. We felt that correspondence between real and virtual was essential for people feeling that they had been transported together into another world.

We did a lot of technical tests between shows, to make sure everything was working before the public came in. For the most part, things worked, thanks to the hard work of our awesome grad students.

But during one of our tests, in which I was in the experience with our art director Kris Layng, something went really wrong. We were hanging out in Alice’s virtual drawing room, and the tracking failed us.

All of a sudden, Kris and I were floating upward. We soon found ourselves hanging out around the chandelier, abut eight feet off the virtual ground.

Thinking back on it now, it kind of reminds me of the I Love to Laugh scene from Mary Poppins. Except, of course, that we weren’t watching it up on a screen — we were inside it.

And it was totally awesome. Of all of my memories of that virtual experience, that moment is the most vivid and powerful.

Sometimes the best way to create a vivid experience of an alternate reality is to break the rules of reality.

Happy accidents, part 2

Monday, May 17th, 2021

In 2014 our lab started putting multiple people in free-roaming VR in the same room, and gave them shared activities like drawing in the air together in 3D. There was no equipment at the time that would support this, so we cobbled together our own technology using an OptiTrack motion capture system, GearVRs and WiiMotes (so people could press buttons on hand-held controllers).

Over the next few years we demonstrated this system at various conferences, such as Siggraph 2015. One of the places we showed it was the 2016 FMX conference in Stuttgart Germany.

We brought with us a PC, an OptiTrack system, three GearVR headsets and three WiiMotes. The idea was that three people at a time could hang out together and collaboratively draw in the air in VR. It was supposed to run for three days.

On the morning of the second day, disaster struck. One of the WiiMotes stopped working. Since we were far from home, there was no way to replace it in time.

Practically, this meant that one of the three people would have no way to draw in the air. We thought the experience would be severely compromised, and were debating whether to reduce it to only two people or else to shut it down altogether.

But in the end we decided to go on for the next two days with a system that supported three participants but only two controllers. To our surprise, the experience suddenly got a lot better.

The participants started to share their controllers back an forth. Everyone was very generous, and would help out the others, making sure everyone got enough time drawing in the air.

We had accidentally discovered generosity in VR. It was a very happy accident.

Happy accidents, part 1

Sunday, May 16th, 2021

Sometimes the best outcomes are the ones you never planned for. My next few posts will be about happy accidents that happened in the course of our lab’s research.

More tomorrow.

Be careful how you pronounce things

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

Some years back my sister had a pet dog, an adorable Bichon Frise named Susie. Everybody loved Susie. She was the sweetest and most good natured dog you could imagine.

It happened that around that time I was invited to speak at a conference in France. During one of the conference dinners, the topic of conversation came around to pets.

I said that I didn’t have any pets, but that my sister had an adorable Bichon Frise named Susie. To my surprise, everybody started laughing.

I was confused, until somebody explained the result of my mispronunciation. Apparently, the way I had said it, I had just told everyone that my sister had a fuzzy pigeon.

For the rest of the conference, I was known as that guy with the fuzzy pigeon. In retrospect, it was pretty funny.

The Pandemicon

Friday, May 14th, 2021

Thirty years from now, people who were little kids during the pandemic will talk about this past year as a defining event in their lives. Novels and movies will be made, and the process of mythologizing will begin.

And so civilization will do what it always does, as it collectively compiles the great cultural work that may eventually become known as the Pandemicon.

Children born in the years to come will have missed the direct experience of this last year or so of insanity and tragedy. All they will know is the perhaps somewhat mythological version that we will construct for them and for future generations.

Alternating real and virtual meetings

Thursday, May 13th, 2021

Suppose you knew that you were going to meet with a group of people regularly, half the time in real life and half the time on-line. Armed with that knowledge, how would you organize the series of meetings?

Clearly there are things for which real life is better. People have a much greater intuition for each other when they can see and hear each other in the same room. Subtleties of intent and mental state can be effectively conveyed in person. Those same subtleties are often simply lost on-line.

But on-line is good for other things. Let’s look at just one example among many.

Suppose you wanted several dozen people to each give a presentation, complete with visuals, within an hour. Theoretically that could be done in person, although much of the time would be wasted just moving people around.

Yet on-line that is not a problem at all. People could just take turns sharing their screens in a Zoom call. I’ve done this sort of thing, and it works great.

So that suggests a possible structure: Have free-wheeling discussions in person, followed by more formal presentations on-line.

But that’s just one strategy. I suspect there are many others. And I suspect that in the years to come, we are going to have a lot more experience with all this.

A Limerick for Edward Lear

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

Edward Lear, you were born on this day
In the year 1812, 12th of May
    I know you don’t need this
    Since you’re dead and won’t read this
Oh well — what more can I say?