To a first approximation

Happily, today my brilliant Ph.D. student Connor DeFanti defended his dissertation. He is now officially Dr. DeFanti.

During his presentation Connor used a number of words that have well known meanings in the field of computer science. For example, at one point he used the word “binary”. At another point he used the word “handshaking”.

Computer scientists usually use the word “binary” to denote the “base two” number system, in which every digit is either zero or one. “Handshaking” is generally used to describe the software protocol that allows two computer programs to communicate with each other.

But since Connor’s thesis was about shared virtual reality, he had alternate meanings for both of these words. In the case of “binary”, he was referring to “non-binary” avatars. In other words, in our shared VR worlds, participants are not required to appear as — or identify as — male or female.

In the case of “handshaking” he was referring to the distinction between what is possible in shared virtual worlds in the same physical room and what is possible in shared virtual worlds with remotely located participants.

The distinction between the two can be neatly described as follows: When two people are in the same physical room, they can shake each other’s hand.

Of course they can also engage in lots of other interesting activities together that two people can’t do unless they are in the same room. But from a computer science perspective, those other activities are all really forms of handshaking, to a first approximation.

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