Hear Now

June 8th, 2018

I am currently attending the Hear Now Festival in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a gathering of many of the greats of voice acting, film, TV, animation and audio book narration, and related fields.

I am also getting to hear members of Firesign Theater weave their beautiful insane story magic multiple times. I cannot begin to tell you how happy that makes me.

This morning I attended a round table discussion by a group of top voice actors. We were invited to listen in as they discussed the state of their field.

At one point they were discussing the long grueling hours that voice actors and readers of audio books often put in. Which led, not surprisingly, to a discussion about burn-out.

One of the panelists, Donna Postel, then said something incredibly profound. She talked about her gradual recognition that you can’t just keep working non-stop.

In the long run, in order to continue to be good at your craft, you need to take care of your general health and well being. But the way she phrased it was beautiful.

I loved what she said so much that I wrote it down: “Self care is part of my job description.”

Origin stories

June 7th, 2018

This evening I gave the opening talk at this year’s Hear Now festival. I spoke about our work at NYU, ending with our forthcoming CAVE project, a narrative in shared VR which goes back 10,000 years to tell about the origin story of narrative in shared VR — Paleolithic cave paintings.

Yet earlier in the day I had experienced a different kind of origin story. I was taken to the place where right here in Kansas City, in 1922, Walt Disney opened his very first production house for animation: Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

Seeing this little building, the place where it all started, filled me with awe. Somehow I doubt that old Walt, or Ub Iwerks and their other colleagues, could have imagined just what sort of giant would emerge from such humble beginnings.

Then again, maybe Walt knew. He seemed to have a knack for knowing where things were heading long before they got there.

How I spent this evening

June 6th, 2018

In Kansas City
As folks from Firesign Theater
Told us jazz stories

A great idea, but…

June 5th, 2018

I greatly enjoyed the moment in Solo where Lando Calrissian gets his drink refilled by a hovering drone. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “that is a great idea. We could totally do that today — and we wouldn’t need to be in a galaxy long ago and far away!”

So I started thinking about the idea of a bar where the “bartenders” would be drones that came to your table to bring you a drink — or refresh the drink you have. What could be cooler?

But then I started seeing the difficulties. What happens if a robot drone bartender gets it wrong. What if it knocks over a drink or accidentally injurs a bar patron?

And how would those expensive drone bots fare in the presence of inebriated customers? Would they be able to avoid playful swats from overly enthusiastic drunken patrons?

As cool as it sounds, I’m not sure we have reached the stage of Moore’s Law where robot drone bartenders could really be a thing. Like many cool ideas, it may sound great on paper, but in real life it probably wouldn’t fly.

A new daily blog

June 4th, 2018

Today I am very excited to announce the beginning of a new daily blog. Unlike this one, the new blog will be a collaboration of all the members of our NYU Future Reality Lab.

Since there happen to be fourteen of us, each of us will write a post one day every two week. Each person will write about what cool things they are thinking about or working on (or both) as members of our lab.

Today I wrote the inaugural post. You can follow the daily evolution of our blog — and our lab’s research — by going to our lab’s website.


Watching Solo solo

June 3rd, 2018

This evening I went by myself to see Solo. All of my fellow Star Wars fanatics had already seen it, and the name itself suggested that a solitary experience might be apropos.

I found it to be an excellent action adventure film, and I liked the way it smoothly filled in the gaps in Han Solo’s history. Weirdly, though, he was definitely not the character that Harrison Ford played more than four decades ago.

This guy is simply too nice. Han Solo is one of modern pop culture’s best exemplars of that classic literary figure, the lovable rogue.

He is our era’s equivalent of Lord Byron, who was, as Lady Caroline Lamb famously quipped, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know.”

Back when Star Wars first came out, everybody fell in love with Han Solo precisely for that wild streak. For all his charm, there’s something dangerous about him, and that’s his real super power.

Kind of like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, come to think of it. Which is why I was vaguely disappointed when the movie ended and our hero never actually said the line I was secretly hoping to hear: “Chewie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The magic coin

June 2nd, 2018

I’ve been mulling over the concept of “the magic coin”. In my thinking this is the sort of fantasy story where a stranger gives you a magic coin, and says “use it wisely”.

At first you don’t know what it’s for, or even if it’s all a joke. But then one day something happens and you realize that the coin is giving you a super power.

In order for this concept to really work, the super power cannot come for free. Every time you use the magic coin, there is a cost.

In really good versions of this, there would be something poetic about the relationship between your super power and the price you pay for using it. For example, the coin might let you repeat any day — and thereby fix any mistakes you had made on that day.

But then an appropriate price would be that you lose two days off the end of your life. It seems like a fair trade: one special day for two regular days.

So that is the basic set-up, the space in which to play. What is the super power? What is the price it will exact? Is the benefit of the former worth the cost of the latter?

I could imagine an anthology TV series, “The Magic Coin”. In every episode there is a different super power and a different corresponding price.

Each episode would be written by a different guest writer, and every writer would have a chance to create his or her unique vision. I don’t know about you, but I’d watch it.

Oulipo sequences

June 1st, 2018

After yesterday’s post, now I am starting to wonder about questions that touch on sequences of words with mathematical properties embedded in our English lexicon. For example, what is the longest run of words like the six words (Cave, Dave, Eave, Fave, Gave, Have) in yesterday’s post?

More specifically, what is the longest run of words created by marching the first letter up through the alphabet? Allowing slang and technical words makes it easier, as in: Bat Cat Dat Eat Fat Gat Hat. But that may be cheating.

If you make easier rules, as in “all words that vary in just their first letter”, then the space grows considerably larger. For example: Bar Car Ear Far Jar Mar Oar Par Tar War Yar.

Under that second set of rules, what is the largest set of words possible? Can somebody reading this figure that out?

Oulipo sequels

May 31st, 2018

Our lab is doing a major production for an audience in shared VR to premiere at the forthcoming SIGGRAPH conference (this Aug 12-16 in Vancouver, CA). The narrative is, in a sense, an origin story for virtual reality.

It takes place in Paleolithic times and tells a tale about the possible origins of cave paintings. The title is CAVE.

Today some of us were discussing what projects we might do after SIGGRAPH. What sorts of follow-on pieces might we produce, so that we can continue to learn about telling stories to large audiences in shared VR?

I suggested that we use a sort of Oulipo technique. All of our stories could be successive sequels, with narratives suggested by their titles.

In our first sequel, we find in our cave a lonely character named Dave, and the next story occurs in a place where Dave rescues a friendly bat. Then a story in which the bat learns what Dave likes, followed by one where the bat gives Dave a present, and finally a story about the wonderful result of that generosity.

The titles of these productions would be, respectively:


I think that would be quite enough. Besides, I somehow doubt everyone will agree with my plan. :-)

Available Wi-Fi networks

May 30th, 2018

When you open the Wi-Fi tab on your computer or phone in lower Manhattan, you get a long list of available Wi-Fi networks. Nearly all of those networks are private and password protected.

The fact that you can see them strikes me as vaguely odd. The whole system feels like a hold-over from an earlier technological age.

Imagine, as an analogy, if every time you went to a restaurant, the waiter brought you the menus of all nearby restaurants. Maybe this evening you and your date find yourselves at a nice little Italian bistro, and you are looking through all of the menus.

When the waiter arrives, you order the Chow Mein. “I’m sorry,” the waiter says, “but we don’t serve Chow Mein.”

“But then why is it on the menu?” you may well ask.

The waiter gives you a kindly but pitying look. “That’s not our menu. That’s the menu for Shanghai Cafe down the block.”

You are about to ask “Then why did you give me that other menu to look at?” when suddenly you notice that your date is staring at you, so you decide to hold your tongue. Clearly there is something here that you do not fully understand.

That’s sort of how I feel about that list of “available” Wi-Fi networks.