Practical question from the future

As we were discussing our plans for the future at our lab yesterday, one very practical question came up. What I like about this question is that it helps to simplify and frame our goals, in a sort of pass/fail way.

In short, the question is this: What would it take for two people who are sitting physically across each other in a meeting, to both put on VR headsets and continue that in-person meeting in an alternate reality?

Note that a number of questions immediately arise in response to the above question. For example, would it be necessary for us to see each others’ facial expressions?

Or could there be benefits to moving into that alternate world that are so compelling that we wouldn’t miss that? Suppose, for example, we were so focused on the super power of whatever we could see and hear and do together that we are willing to forego some of the qualities of direct sensory experience.

There is a sort of analogy to the telephone. Well over a century ago, people were so happy to be able to communicate at a distance, that they had no trouble foregoing the power of being able to their conversant.

It’s hard to predict what shared super powers would be so compelling that we would be willing to forego seeing the literal face of a person with whom we are physically face to face. On the other hand, we are now used to super powers that only a generation ago would have been very difficult to explain.

Imagine, for example, trying to explain the usefulness of Google search to nearly anyone in 1992. It would be a rare individual indeed who would even have understood what you were talking about.

2020 vision

Today, as the very last meeting in 2019 of our Future Reality Lab, we held a brainstorming session. I led the group in front of a large whiteboard, and people tossed out ideas.

The goal was to figure out what our direction and focus should be in 2020. The goal was to work at a high level, rather than worrying the details.

I told them “Don’t think of this as something you do over coffee. Think of this as something you do over beer.” Although I suppose, having said that, I probably should have served beer. 🙂

My job was largely to keep things on a level of “yes, and” rather than “yet, but”. We didn’t consider any ideas to be bad ideas — they all went up on the whiteboard.

Yet everyone could tell when somebody came up with an idea that was particularly good. You could feel the energy in the room rising at those moments.

I decided to mentally bookmark those particular ideas to myself, so we could go back to them later, rather than calling them out on the whiteboard. After all, we didn’t want it to be a competition. You never know what is going to be the next great idea.

So now we have lots of raw material to work with. The hard part is going to be putting them into action.

Oh well. As a friend of mine once said about good ideas: “Conception is always easier than delivery.”

Palindrome days

Today is the 353th day of the year. Which means that it is a palindrome — writing the digits forward is the same as writing them backward.

It would probably be relatively easy to count up the number of days in the year that are palindromes. And a good computer programmer might be able to write a program to answer the question faster than most people could count it up manually. Consider these as exercises for the reader. 🙂

This leads to a more general question: For any given number (in this case 365), how many palindromes are there in the numbers counting up to that number?

And that leads to other questions. For example, how quickly do palindrome numbers increase? Is the palindrome number of 1000 ten times larger than the palindrome number of 100?

These may seem like crazy questions. But you never know with math. Every once in a while, asking seemingly crazy mathematical questions leads to the discovery of something surprising and wonderful about the nature of the Universe.

Train of thought

I am writing this on a train heading to Newark airport to pick up a friend. Actually, I am dictating this on my Android phone.

When I am on a flight, I don’t really think about the fact that I am hurtling around the Earth at some incredible speed. The distances involved are simply too great for my poor human brain to encompass.

But on a train, I can actually see the trees and buildings and roads go by. I remain acutely aware that at every moment I am at a different location.

In my mind, I imagine the words in this blog post spilling out behind me. Together they form a trail that marks the precise location where each moment of thought occurred.

We are all leaving such trails behind us throughout our days, aren’t we? The stories of our lives spool out endlessly as interlocking trails, forming loops and knots and intricate patterns which tie us all together upon this Earth.

Song triggers

There are certain songs that I avoid listening to because they remind me of particularly painful breakups in my life. I don’t have this reaction to movies or books or paintings or poems or pretty much anything else.

But songs have a unique primal power, which distinguishes them from the other arts. The right combination of words and music seems to be able to reach us at some deep emotional level, cutting through all of our defenses and speaking to us where we live.

Why are songs like that? Is this connected to some sort of evolutionary adaptation? Perhaps 200,000 years ago, in the Paleolithic era, some early human heard another human singing, and mysteriously found herself beginning to cry.

Final class projects

This evening the wonderful students in my graduate computer graphics class showed their final class projects. The amazing work they produced exceeded my expectations, and then some.

I am deeply inspired by what happens when you give brilliant young people the tools they need to create something new. Especially when you also realize that the best way to support them is to stand back and get out of their way.

If you are curious, and want to read a bit more about it, feel free to drop in on our Future Reality Lab blog.

Magic Schoolbus as metaphor

As I’ve said here before, I’m always looking for apt metaphors for the future that our lab’s research is enabling. There are so many metaphors to choose from: Faerian Drama, the Holodeck, The Matrix, the Jedi Council and many others beside.

The other day, as I described our research to a colleague, he said “What you are creating is The Magic Schoolbus!” And I realized he is right.

We are giving people a way to physically gather, and then be whisked off together on a guided tour of fantastical worlds. The possibilities are limited only (as my friend Lance Williams used to say) by the imagination.

This evening I watched an episode of The Magic Schoolbus, and it was completely delightful. I won’t tell you which episode I watched, but I can say that my favorite line was “We’re up Ralphie’s nose???

Normally I would say that the future is nothing to sneeze at. But having just seen that classic episode, I’m not so sure.

Voice with cello

This evening I am thinking of going with a friend to attend a solo concert. The musician plays cello and sings.

Until today I had never heard of such a thing. The idea of somebody singing while playing the cello seems so exotic to me.

Yet I find myself wondering why I think this way. After all, I have attended many concerts where somebody sings while playing the guitar, or the piano.

What is it about the cello that makes the situation seem so different? I have been pondering this, and I have yet to come up with a good answer.

Any ideas?

A new language for visual storytelling

Perhaps the most important element of the language of cinema is montage. When a filmmaker creates a cut, and the camera suddenly moves from one point of view to another, the viewer is effectively being taken inside the mind of either the storyteller or a character in the movie.

We don’t respond so much to what happens in any one shot, but rather to the relationship between shots. Cutting to an actor’s face at a key moment can create a profound identification between the audience and the character the actor is playing.

But what will happen when shared cinematic experiences become completely immersive? When we can simply walk into the world of a narrative, will montage even be necessary?

It’s exciting to be working on completely immersive storytelling media at a time when the answers to such questions are not yet clear. These are early days, and the language of immersive media has not yet been worked out.

Perhaps we, like Méliès and Eisenstein before us, will get to create a new language for visual storytelling. Exciting times!

Mission statements

Every time I give a talk about our research and our mission, I make some kind of change. So in some sense the talk is a kind of evolving creature, growing a tentacle here, losing one there.

To do this, I generally go by the energy I get from the audience. Sometimes I feel that I have glossed over something important, and need to add a bit of connecting tissue. At other times I feel that I’ve belabored something inessential, which distracts — and therefore detracts — from the main points.

It’s a constant process of editing, and it feels very productive. Not just because it’s good to get out our message, but because for me it’s an essential part of understanding our message.

I suspect this is true for all of us: You don’t fully understand your own mission until you are able to clearly explain it to others. And at the end of the day, there’s nothing more satisfying than understanding your own mission.