We can see the Sun set every day, and yet we still perceive a sunset as something wondrous and beautiful.

If this doesn’t convince you that life is filled with grandeur and mystery, then nothing will.

The perils of architecture

Some years ago I was having drinks with a colleague, an artist, in an outdoor cafe at La Defense, near Paris. My colleague was very excited, because it was the first time that he had ever been there, and the Grand Arch reminded him of his own work which employed hypercubes.

He waxed rhapsodically about the architecture for quite some time. Then at one point he excused himself to go use the restroom. When he came back he had an excited glow in his eyes.

He told me that when he got there, he realized that even the restrooms employed a futuristic hypermodern architecture. For example, he marveled at the unusual and daring shape of the urinals.

Then, he said, he turned around and saw a perfectly ordinary looking urinal. That was when, he told me, he realized his mistake. That other thing wasn’t a urinal.


“But,” he added, “it should have been.”

Levels of reality

We all know, on a gut level, what is real and what is fiction. For example, we know that Albert Einstein was a real person, but Hamlet was fictional.

What are there levels of fiction? For example, is Hamlet more real than a character that we only hear about in a play but who is never on stage?

Could we create a hierarchy of fictional realities, through some reasonably objective criteria? If so, what would those criteria be?

Breaking the fourth wall

Continuing the theme from yesterday…

Movies rarely break the fourth wall. When they do, it usually doesn’t go well.

But amusement park rides do so regularly, as standard practice. And audiences seem to love it.

There seems to be something inherent in the nature of immersive entertainment that the the audience should be acknowledged, and in non-immersive entertainment that the audience generally should not be acknowledged.

I wonder whether this is really an inherent property, or is merely a consequence of the way these genres have historically developed. Does greater physical immersion necessarily correlate to greater acknowledgment of the audience?

Amusement park rides

Anyone who has been on a moder amusement park ride knows that modern amusement park rides are a combination of the real and the virtual, a kind of sleight of hand trickery.

Physical movement on a motion platform is combined with cleverly constructed computer graphics to create the illusion that one is moving great distances, rising to great heights, or falling precipitously. In reality, you are pretty much in the same place, but the combination of visual and proprioceptic sensation tells you otherwise.

I wonder, in the far future, whether virtual reality will get to the point where messing with your visual system and your proprioceptic sense can become individualized and shrunk down. Can we be made to feel as though we are going on vast journeys without ever leaving home?

Magic in the real world

We find Harry Potter charming because his world is non-threatening. We get an easy fix of retro charm, and a bit of magical realist Steampunk, without our universe ever being disturbed in any practical way.

But what if it were all real? What would be our relationship to it then?

Would we feel threatened by it, the way the Dursleys feel threatened by Harry and his world? Or would we embrace it, and collectively harness magic as a force for positive change?

Harry Potter and the future of user interfaces

I read the first Harry Potter book not long after it was first released in the U.S. I wasn’t very far into the book when I had a revelation.

I realized that J.K. Rowling had a really useful take on user interface design. Rather than starting with “what can technology allow us to do”, she was starting with “What do we want our interfaces to do, if they could do anything at all?”

So we were treated to a world where people in newspaper photos could come to life, where you could look at a map to see where somebody was at the moment, where you could magically conjure a ride to take you places, no matter where you happened to be

At the time, these were widely seen as amusing fantasies. Now they are accepted as everyday realities.

I really like this approach to future user interface design. I think we should continue to use it.

Reading group

We have a reading group in our lab. The goal is to present research results by others elsewhere that can inform the work in our own team.

I’m really appreciating the energy of this process. Rather than always looking inward, the reading group helps us to understand that everything we do is part of a larger world of like-minded folks.

Holding a regular reading group makes it easier to see that research, at its core, is not a competition, but a grand cooperative venture. Every researcher everywhere is contributing to the larger goal.

At core, this is a good way of teaching gratitude and generosity. And that’s a very good thing.

The song that makes you cry

Have you ever had such a powerful reaction to a song that it made you cry? I don’t mean tears born of sadness, but tears born of overwhelming emotion.

Each of us may have a secret cache of songs, secret even to ourselves. These are songs we have not heard or even thought about for a long time, perhaps for many years.

But when we finally hear that song, it can act as a kind of time machine, suddenly transporting us back to another time, to an earlier version of our self. And when that happens, the outpouring of emotional feeling can be so powerful that we unexpectedly find ourselves in tears.

This is not a bad thing.