The far corners of possibility

What if you could fly like a bird, turn into a stream of water, float to the heavens like a diaphanous cloud? How would that feel?

What if your human intelligence, your childlike capacity for wonder, were freed from the particular human frame of your birth? What would you do with it?

What if your consciousness could radiate out into the waiting universe like starlight, plunge headlong down into the deepest ocean, become a musical instrument that plays mad cool jazz with likeminded souls? Where would you go?

When our virtual selves reach the far corners of possibility, will we joyfully embrace such power? Will we become more free within our unlimited minds? Will we feel that we have finally come home?

Reality and push buttons

During a panel discussion at SXSW last week we talked about buttons. One of the panelists explained that if you implement a virtual push button in VR, you need to do it right.

When users of your VR system presses a virtual push button with their controller, it’s not good enough for them to see the button go down. They also need to have some indication that their controller is touching the button, even before they actually push it. This feedback can be visual, vibrational, or both.

We then discussed how, in this sense, the semantics of a virtual push button in a VR world is pretty much the same as the semantics of a virtual push button on your computer screen. When you position your mouse over a virtual button on your computer screen (such as any hyperlink on a web page), you see the button change color.

This visual feedback is very important. It tells you for sure that your mouse is positioned over the correct button, before you ever click down.

We talked about how we get this feedback for free with a physical push button, like in an elevator or on a computer keyboard. In that case the feedback is tactile: We can feel our finger pressing against the button, so we know we’ve made contact. And then we can decide whether to go ahead and press the button.

At that point in the panel discussion, I pointed out that all push buttons are virtual, including old-fashioned physical ones. After all, there is no such thing in nature as a push button. They only exist because we made them up.

It just happens that we used to make all our push buttons out of atoms, because that was the only way we could. But that doesn’t change the more important point: Push buttons have always been a kind of virtual reality, even the physical ones.

Rogue movies and others

Only sometime in the last few days did I learn that Star Wars: Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards. Somehow I had not gotten around to seeing this film.

There is always lots to do, life is busy, the friends I had wanted to see it with had already seen it. There are a million excuses for not seeing a first-run blockbuster film.

But then I found out who the director was, and I knew I had to see it. Gareth Edwards is the plucky guy who, seven years ago, directed Monsters, one of my favorite Sci Fi films of all time.

And the beautiful thing is that it was something of a rogue movie. Edwards’ budget for this feature film was $15,000. Not $15,000 for special effects, but $15,000 total.

Like any truly groundbreaking film, its user ratings on IMDB are mostly either 10 stars or 1 star. People were either completely enthralled by it, as I was, or they were deeply offended by it.

Even though Monsters featured giant scary extraterrestrial creatures, it was nothing at all like the sort of big budget super-heros and villains CGI heavy extravaganza that today passes for science fiction. At its core it was a relationship film, about two people who weren’t even likeable.

In other words, it was the opposite of a fan-boy friendly comic-book film. I loved everything about it.

So when I found out that Gareth Edwards had directed the latest Star Wars film, I rushed out and saw it, just this afternoon. And I was not disappointed.

Unlike most movies that pass for science fiction these days, Star Wars: Rogue One actually makes thematic sense from a psychological perspective. The exposition makes clear, on a moral and ethical level, in a way that emerges naturally from character development, why the good guys are the good guys, and the bad guys are the bad guys.

And it doesn’t do that in a cheap or easy way. It makes its characters earn their right to be on the side of goodness.

It’s interesting to compare the two films in terms of budget. By my calculations, Star Wars: Rogue One cost about 10,000 times as much to make as Monsters.

Yet both are good. That’s quite a range. Three cheers for the brilliance of Gareth Edwards.

These immigrants

I guess it’s easy to understand the resistance toward these immigrants to the United States. Strangers coming to our shores with their odd ways, bringing an alien culture with them.

Many of them are poor and uneducated. They worship some strange religion that differs from ours in many ways. A lot of Americans are concerned that these immigrants will follow the teachings and leadership of their weird religion, rather than respecting the secular laws of our beautiful democracy.

They dress oddly, and they talk with a funny accent. Sometimes you can’t even understand what they are saying. Their music is different, and they seem to prefer to stick with their own kind.

Of course some Americans will actually side with these invading hoards. “Hey,” such people might say, “maybe one day those immigrants’ children and grandchildren will rise through society, become well educated. Maybe even graduate from Harvard. Maybe even become President!”

But even that feels like a threat. These first immigrants may already be taking low paying jobs that we could be getting. Now it seems their grandchildren will take the high paying jobs too.

Perhaps those grandchildren will even start to think that they are real Americans. In their confusion about their own questionable origins, they might even object to some future wave of impoverished immigrants.

Of all the nerve! Who do these immigrants think they are?

Happy St Patrick’s Day!!!

Making coffee in the morning

South by South West was wonderful, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of fascinating people and events. It will take me time to process all of the varied and thought provoking conversations I had during the heady compressed days of the conference.

But also wonderful was being home again, back in my apartment. Waking up in the morning, making coffee reading the newspaper, doing the crossword puzzle. These prosaic touchstones of every day existence are easy to take for granted, but you really start to notice them when you have gone too long without them.

The first morning I was back from SXSW I made myself a nice little pot of coffee. And it was delightful, just going through the familiar ritual of preparing the coffee and drinking it.

It was so delightful, in fact, that I turned right around and made myself a second pot of coffee. It may seem simple, but it felt like pure luxury.

Best episode ever

I’ve been binging on Person of Interest ever since my friend Kaelan told me how conceptually cool it is. So for the last month or so, I’ve been racing through the series to get to her favorite episode.

And tonight I finally got there: Season 4, episode 11, entitled “If, then, else”. The episode was written by Denise Thé, and in some ways it may be the best episode ever.

I don’t mean just the best episode of this TV series. I mean the best episode ever.

It contains a high concept twist that is so profound and awesome that it can make you rethink the very idea of episodic television.

I won’t spoil anything here. But I will tell you that you should not just watch this episode in isolation. To appreciate its awesomeness, you need to go back and watch the series in order, from the beginning.

When you finally get to season 4, and you see this episode in context, you’ll know just what I’m talking about, and you will thank me. Trust me on this.


One of the key elements of the research at our lab at NYU is that people in virtual worlds should spend time together. And not just virtually together — physically together.

We see such experiences as being just one more extension of what people do best: Hanging out with each other. We suspect that the current focus on single person VR experiences is mainly due to temporary limitations of the technology.

Which made it especially odd to take a walk around the VR exhibition space at the SXSW conference today. There were many VR products on display, and in every one of them you could see people in a in a headset all by themselves, not interacting with other people — or even able to perceive other people in the room with them.

I was with someone who is not from the VR community. She found it very eerie to see all of these people lost in a VR world, disconnected from the people around them. And those people were being stared at by other people who had no idea what the person in VR was experiencing.

My friend said to me afterward that it was all very unnerving to behold, and that it seemed to make television look good by comparison.

That inspired me. So here’s my proposed new slogan for single-person VR:

“Virtual reality: We make television look good.”

I’m not sure this slogan will catch on within the industry. Note that none of this is a problem if one sees single-user VR for what it is: an important transition technology, the modern equivalent of the Kinetoscope.

Miyazaki in the Moonlight

At lunch today at SXSW, I had a fascinating discussion with the VR artist Isaac Cohen. At one point our conversation turned to the subject of art, and the difference between authentic and inauthentic artistic expression. He argued that authentic art needs to retain some of the messiness found in real life.

He used an example from the animator Miyazaki. In “Swept Away”, he pointed out, there is a hopping lantern. The lantern itself is a fairly random thing — a lantern that hops around. Yet that lantern, and myriad other random things, contribute to a film that ends up forming a cohesive whole, and in fact achieves greatness. The very messiness of such apparently random elements lends authenticity to the result.

I replied that his thought reminded me of the difference between Moonlight and La La Land. Moonlight wone the Academy Award for best picture, I argued, because of its emotional messiness.

La La Land was fairly cut and dried from a character level. The two main characters were just quirky enough to serve the plot, and no more. While the result was entertaining, it didn’t go very deep, because the characters themselves were not allowed to go very deep.

Moonligh, in contrast, is a roller coaster ride of apparently random moments. “People are messy,” is one of its take-away messages. We are highly complex and messy creatures, each of us containing layers upon layers of identity.

The resolution at the end of the film arises directly from this very messiness of the psyche and the spirit. It is this ability to tie the apparently random fragments of life experience into a meaningful whole that elevates the movie to become more than mere entertainment.

What more can you ask for in a work of art?