The great synthetic media debate

I participated in a public debate today about whether synthetic media (media that involves digital altering of images or video) is more good or more bad. I argued for the “more good” side. To my surprise, our side lost the audience vote.

But then my teammate pointed out to me that given how overwhelmingly negative is the current view of synthetic media, we probably won handily, as compared with how the audience would have voted before our debate. We probably swayed a number of people to our side — just not enough for a majority.

I guess the good news there is that if we’d been running for president, “not enough for a majority” would have been enough to win. 🙂

My concern about this negative attitude toward synthetic media — founded on the reasonable observation that it can be used to fool people — is that it’s yet another triumph of the forces of fear over the forces of hope and possibility. We’ve had quite a lot of that recently, and I’m getting very tired of it.

One thing I wished I had articulated more clearly during the debate is that you can’t really defend any very new medium on cultural grounds, because the greatness of its cultural contribution lies in the future. Take movies, for example.

Back around 1903 when Georges Méliès was making movies where people magically vanish in a puff of smoke, it would have been possible to dismiss movies as a shallow gimmick, so arguments against the medium of movies on moral grounds would have been easy to make. But then we got Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Piano, Chinatown, The Godfather, Raging Bull, Gone with the Wind, Sunset Boulevard, Vagabond, Rear Window, 12 Angry Men (the list obviously goes on and on).

It would have been very difficult to make the argument for movies in 1903 by drawing from examples, just as in the earliest days of the printing press it would have been very difficult to make the argument for novels, without being able to point to Don Quixote or Middlemarch.

I wonder whether we are doomed to forever make the same mistake. Each time a powerful new medium comes along that can offer new possibilities for how to communicate, the arguments of fear make more sense to people than the arguments for possibility.

Shocked — shocked!

As the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have hit a snag, Mitch McConnell seems very upset that the Democrats are making things difficult. I am sympathetic, because we all know how deeply McConnell respects a sitting President’s right to select candidates to the Supreme Court.

The image that comes to my mind when I think of the situation is from of one of my favorite movie scenes — that moment in Casablanca when Captain Louis Renault utters his most famous line of dialog.

You can probably guess what that line of dialog is. It’s amazing how up to date that particular scene feels right about now.

A reflection on a reflection

I took the following screenshot yesterday to include as part of a rapid talk I gave about our future reality research. In the picture, I’m in the middle of explaining some of the math behind four dimensional rotation. When I saw it, I was reminded of something I wrote in this blog about seven years ago (before I had the gray beard).

One thing to note about this image is that the text in the glowing matrix to the left is forward, yet the “Future Reality Lab” logo on my shirt is mirror reversed. This reversal would make perfect sense if we were doing a Skype call, because it would ensure we are both looking in the same direction when we read any text between us.

But it wouldn’t work in the physical world. After all, when you and I are standing in front of each other in the flesh, we are not actually mirror reversed, and that can create a problem for shared text in augmented reality.

It’s the same problem that arises if you write a message on the glass surface of a window. If I am standing on the other side of that window, to me your text will look backwards.

I described one possible solution to this problem in this blog in 2011. Back then, I figured sooner or later those AR wearables would be coming, and we’d need to deal with this. Now that those glasses are a lot closer to becoming a reality, I am going to actually implement the solution I proposed then, and see how well it works.

Smokey or the Bandit, part 2

It is interesting, in our current political climate, to ponder the semiotics of Smokey and the Bandit. In 1977 the second highest grossing film in America centered on two lovers who each represented opposing archetypes that are with us to this day.

Sally Field’s character maps very well to our current concept of “Coastal Urban Sophisticate”. Her energy is quite reminiscent of the energy projected by Hillary Clinton in our recent presidential election, a triumph of intellect over intuition, of relying on logic rather than on one’s gut instincts.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s opponent appeared to embody opposing virtues that are prized in the less urban parts of our country. Trump seemed to be saying “Don’t trust those elites with their fancy words, respect the regular working guy, screw the Man.” It was the sort of philosophy that Bo “Bandit” Darville — the character played by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit — could get behind. It’s easy to see why working people who had felt betrayed by liberal promises would go for such a message.

Yet in the movie, the characters played by Field and Reynolds, despite their cultural differences, end up showing each other great respect. They both understand that they will never have the same tastes and values, yet both remain open minded, willing to accept into their tribe somebody from a radically different culture. Audiences clearly responded to that call for mutual respect and tolerance.

This sort of reaching across divides is not at all what Trump has been doing since getting into office. In contrast, his vision of building “a big beautiful wall” serves as a metaphor for all of his policies. He seems focused on hardening the boundaries between tribes, essentially turning every conversation into a debate about “us versus them.”

One couldn’t even imagine Bo Darville doing such a thing. Throughout the film he invariably viewed each individual he encountered with deep insight and honesty. He never made the mistake of reducing people to mere labels. That sort of self-defeating reductionist thinking was the province of Jackie Gleason’s character.

And so, forty one years after its release, I am struck by the odd resonance of Smokey and the Bandit for today’s political arena: Many people voted for Donald Trump because they were able to convince themselves that their candidate was channeling Bo “Bandit” Darville. Yet with every passing day, the man seems more and more like Buford T. Justice.

Smokey or the Bandit, part 1

In honor of the late great Burt Reynolds, the other day I rewatched the wonderful 1977 Hal Needham movie Smokey and the Bandit, which I had not seen for many years. I was quite young when I first saw it, and now I can better appreciate why it was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite films.

The movie is chock full of coded cultural messages, and is surprisingly relevant to our age. It’s basically a triangle between three wildly divergent archetypical characters who play, respectively, the South, the North, and Authority.

Reynolds’s character is a particular idealized fantasy come to life — the proud and free (and always relaxed) authority-defying hero of the American South. Another, played by Sally Fields, is his cultural opposite: A tightly wound refugee from the Broadway theater scene up North. Where he loves Conway Twitty and monster truck rallies, she loves Elton John and Stephen Sondheim musicals.

The third character, played with delightful comic spin by the incomparable Jackie Gleason, represents buffoonish Authority. Sheriff Buford T Justice (awesome name!!) is so puffed up with self-importance, he has no idea he is completely ridiculous — and very, very funny.

What fascinates me about this triangle is that the avatars of the Urban North and the Rural South (Fields and Reynolds) are actually on the same side. They quickly join forces in opposition to Authority, and the movie makes it very clear just who are the good guys in this struggle.

It seems to me that this particular cultural triangle, and what it said about American culture in 1977, has implications for our current political situation. More tomorrow.

Work, yet not work

Technically I was working all day today, and that’s not supposed to be good. After all, today is a Saturday, half a weekend, a widely recognized day of rest.

I say “technically” because I came in to the lab this morning to work on something I really enjoy doing, and ended up staying the entire day. I didn’t come into work today because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was working, but I was also playing.

Maybe we need some other word, one not as laden with other meanings as “work”. Perhaps somebody could coin a new word to describe the act of working on one’s profession while also being in a continual state of utter bliss.

The mysterious sign on the door

Some time in the future, people going out to the movies will slip on a comfortable lightweight pair of glasses. Through those glasses they will be able to have experiences far beyond the capability of today’s movies.

Stories will take place all around and between people, as though the entire audience has become transported to another world. The rectangular frame that we now associate with visual storytelling will come to seem quaint.

In such movie theaters there will be an otherwise unused room, way in the back, that contains all of the computers which actually run this experience. The room will be isolated for sound, so audience will not hear the whirring of the powerful cooling fans that keep all those GPUs from melting.

On the door of this room will be an arcane sign that nobody will understand. People will just assume it to be some sort of mysterious code for “the room containing the computers.”

Still, people on the staff of the movie theater may, from time to time, find themselves wondering why a room full of computers is labeled with a phrase that makes no sense at all. They will read the sign and scratch their heads at its mysterious message: “Projection Booth”

Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Solitude

I was having a conversation with colleagues today about a topic that comes up quite often when Virtual Reality is discussed: Will VR connect us, or will it isolate us?

I think it’s an ill-formed question, because the underlying technology of Virtual Reality can be used in so many diverse ways. VR can be used to create experiences that put you on an uninhabited planet, but also to create experiences that thrust you into a sociable crowd of other VR users. Just like the printing/publishing technology that came before it, the medium is insufficient to define the message.

Speaking of which … That conversation today reminded me of a panel I was on last year. The topic was Virtual Reality, and its potential impact on society (for better or worse).

At one point somebody expressed concern that if people were to spend a lot of time in VR, they might become disconnected from reality. Experiencing completely imaginary realities within a VR headset might become a form of addiction. If so, that might grow into an epidemic that society would need to deal with.

A bit later in the conversation, panelists were talking about their cultural inspirations. One panelist described with enthusiasm how only that last weekend he had read through all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

When I heard this, I jumped in and said: “How awful. Spending an entire weekend immersed in a completely imaginary reality. Maybe we should do an intervention!”

A good day?

Today was a good day in my life. I had a wonderful breakfast with my mom, I fixed a bug in my software that had been haunting me for days, and I started working with some great new students.

And yet it is the eleventh of September. How can it be a good day? I still recall, as though it was just yesterday, the unspeakable murder of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers. What does it mean when one has experienced the anniversary of such a horror as a “good day”?

One possible answer lies in what is meant by “good”. My day was filled with love and connection with a diverse group of people — of many ethnicities, many religions and countries of origin — all of whom enrich my life with their kindness and their ability to be open to the wondrous diversity of humankind.

We seem to be in a dark time these days, when crass opportunists rise to power by appealing to fear, tribalism and xenophobia. This kind of hateful and destructive view of the world is the sort of thinking that led to that tragic day seventeen years ago.

We can best defy such hate by working together, side by side, to bring wondrous things into existence. I cherish the people in our lab who are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Null, and they cherish each other. Together we defy the forces of hate by working together to build a kinder and more beautiful world.