Thyme machine

February 15th, 2020

Every time I cook my morning breakfast, I imagine wistfully that the container of thyme on my kitchen shelf is actually time. I look at the clock, realize I’m running late, and wistfully imagine.

If only I could just add enough of this yummy spice, I say to myself, it would whisk me back twenty minutes and I’ll have plenty of time this morning. Then I add the little thyme leaves to what I’m cooking in the skillet and cross my fingers. Alas it never actually works that way — I still end up running late.

On the other hand, it does definitely make my breakfast taste better. That’s worth something, I guess.

No Mandalorian spoilers

February 14th, 2020

For weeks at our lab, there has been a big message written near the top of the whiteboard: “No Mandalorian spoilers!” Some of us had not yet gotten around to seeing it, so the people who had were reminding themselves to be considerate and not ruin any surprises.

Well, today I finally got around to starting to watch it. No spoilers here, but I can say that is is vastly better than any Star Wars movie I have seen in the last forty years.

Not since the original Star Wars film has somebody actually taken the care and time to create something so genuinely filled with humor, with a sense of delight, and with just a hint of absurdity. Over the years, the franchise became so heavy, so consumed by some idea of mythic self-importance, that it long ago lost those qualities which made the original so much fun.

But here we are with The Mandalorian, finally back where we should be. I mean really, what could be more fun than a SciFi Western?

That is, when the people making it remember not to take the whole thing too seriously. This perfect valentine to Star Wars is the perfect thing to watch on Valentine’s Day!

Sketching on two sides of the brain

February 13th, 2020

When I want to draw an idea out from my head, I like to draw it on paper. Usually I use a 0.7mm #2 mechanical pencil, a gum eraser, and a fresh clean sheet of white paper, usually just the ordinary printer paper we have in the lab.

I tend to work with a stack of paper, so if I don’t like what I’m sketch I can just start fresh on a new sheet. By the second sheet, I’m usually drawing what was in my head.

There is an incredible freedom to this process, and I find it very pleasurable. After all, anything that’s in my head can go onto that sheet of paper.

If I want to refine what I drew, I’ll sometimes use a head-worn x2 magnifier as I sketch in fine details. This is because the limit to how accurately I can draw fine details is never in how my hand can move, but rather always in what my eyes can see.

I have an entirely different creative process for illustrating animated mechanisms. In that case I write code, using a library of helpful tools that I’ve built up over many years. The advantage of this approach is that I can directly show process, rather than just a static snapshot.

These two ways of creating are so different, and so complementary. The first is very right brain, and the second is very left brain. I wish I could figure out a way to join them together into a single creative process.

My Chalktalk program creates the impression of doing so, but that is somewhat of an illusion. Chalktalk is very useful for showing ideas to others, but the work of visualizating those ideas takes place largely in code. Sketching is mostly used for presentating the result of that creative process.

I am hopeful that at some point I will find a way to better join these two ways of describing ideas. Guess I’ll just have to keep trying.

Exercising in VR, part 2

February 12th, 2020

So how can we use VR to help motivate people to do healthful aerobic exercise right at their work desk? One approach is to figure out how to integrate the experience seamlessly into that space.

We’ve been experimenting with off-the-shelf below-desk pedal exercisers. To that we add another off-the-shelf device from VirZoom, a wireless device that straps onto one of the pedals, counts how many times the pedals go around, and sends that info to a computer. In the photo below, you can see that the VirZoom device is held on by a small purple strap:


VirZoom has its own virtual reality software system, but instead of using theirs, at our lab we are experimenting with our own approach, using the Oculus Quest VR headset, preferably using the Oculus hand tracking option rather than controllers. The idea is to allow our students to create experiences that let people fly around in virtual worlds while playing all sorts of fun games together.

Imagine you and your friends taking a break from work in the middle of the day to play a healthful game of Quidditch. No actual brooms needed.

If this works out, maybe people will start exercising more. I know I will. :-)

Exercising in VR, part 1

February 11th, 2020

It’s not that difficult to gather the hardware for exercising in VR. All you need is a VR headset such as the Oculus Quest, and a treadmill or an exercise bike. But that might be aiming at the wrong problem.

People who are inclined to use a treadmill or an exercise bike are probably going to exercise anyway. They are already used to the adrenalin and the dopamine rush that comes with aerobic exercise, and they don’t need much more motivation.

A more useful target for VR exercise may be the far larger group of people who don’t use exercise bikes or treadmills. In our lab we’ve been figuring out ways to reach those people.

One question we ask is: Can we use VR to help motivate people to do healthful aerobic exercise right at their work desk? And we’ve made some progress answering that in a positive way.

More tomorrow.

My cool Future Reality Lab post

February 10th, 2020

My post for our Future Reality Lab blog today is a sort of manifesto for our lab’s research. I put a lot of thought into it.

And, of course, I added a silly picture of a robot holding a tropical drink. As one does.

But don’t take my word for it. You can check it out for yourself here.

Not nominated

February 9th, 2020

When I think back on the three films I most enjoyed watching in 2019, I primarily think of The Farewell, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Little Women. There were other excellent films last year, but those three in particular stand out for their heart, their emotional depth, and the intelligent layers of psychological nuance in their visual presentation.

I am confident that all three of those films will become part of the cinematic cannon. They will be watched and rewatched by future generations of filmgoers, and their brilliant and original directorial choices will continue to be studied in film schools for many decades to come.

Yet here is something odd: Not one of the directors of those three astonishing films received a best director nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Perhaps those three directors have something in common that has caused them to be devalued by the Academy, despite the astonishing brilliance and originality of their respective creative achievements. If so, I wonder whatever that could be.

Political asymmetry

February 8th, 2020

I was discussing with a friend today the merits of the various contenders for Democratic presidential nominee. One issue that stood out had nothing to do with the political stance of each candidate, yet everything to do with politics.

It boils down to a very unfair reason to hope Sanders wins the nomination. Namely, he is the only Democratic candidate with fanatical followers.

If Sanders wins the nomination, the other candidates are likely to throw their support behind him, and effectively rally their supporters to vote for him. But that almost certainly would not work in the other direction.

Anyone who beats Bernie in the nomination is going to be perceived by hard-core Berners as The Enemy. This feeling will be so strong, they may very well forget who their real enemy is.

That asymmetry is not fair, but it does suggest why Sanders might be the most effective candidate. Berner fanaticism arises from the nature of the man’s own personality. He has a tenacious and very focused way of campaigning and of framing the issues. Bernie takes no prisoners.

That pitbull-like quality reminds me of one other U.S. politician — the guy he would ultimately be running against in the general election. Which means that Bernie Sanders, whether you like him or not, may be the only Democrat who can avoid getting eaten alive in November by He Who Must Not Be Reelected.

Dark animation

February 7th, 2020

I attended part of an animation festival this evening. The program mainly consisted of a collection of award winning short animations.

Most of them were emotionally dark. Very very dark. The general tone was tragedy, nihilism, despair, the inevitable inability of one human to relate to another. Even some of the funny ones were filled to the brim with nihilism.

I loved it, the rest of the audience loved it, we all loved it. At the end of the evening everybody agreed that it had been a wonderful experience.

So what’s going on here? Why do we all find ourselves grooving on darkness and despair? Is there some strange gene that causes us to seek out tragedy in our entertainment — even in our animated entertainment?

I suspect two things: (1) This is not an easy question to answer, and (2) Whatever the answer should turn out to be, it would explain a lot about human nature.

The talk before the talk

February 6th, 2020

Today I visited Yahoo New York, and gave a talk there. It was simultaneously broadcast to their other campus, so even though there were only about twenty of us in a little conference room, it might actually have been seen by about 150 people altogether.

Usually when I visit a company, I first give a talk and then meet with people. But this time they arranged it the other way, with my talk coming at the end of the visit.

Presumably this was because we were in NY, whereas the other campus is in California. Our afternoon lines up with their morning.

And that turned out to be a really great thing. As I spoke with different research groups, I kept modifying my talk, dropping a few slides here, adding some images there, to align with my emerging understanding of our common research interests.

By the time I gave the actual presentation, I was able to directly address very good questions that had come up in conversation only earlier that day. Which is really what everyone wanted out of the visit.

It’s so much better this way. There shouldn’t be a talk before everyone has had a chance to talk.