Somewhere between North Dakota and Michigan

June 26th, 2018

For the last week or so I have been living under a sort of cloud. I made a number of improvements to the software project I’m working on, but the new version was not quite working yet. Until I finished making all of the changes and switching everything over, the whole thing was essentially broken.

So I have been in the awkward position of showing demos using an old version — one that has all sorts of little bugs, and does not have any of the shiny new features I’ve been working so hard to add. But unlike the newest version, that older version at least had the virtue of not being broken.

Finally last night, on a red eye flight from Seattle back to NYC, I decided to forego a few hours of sleep and push through to finish the new version of the software. In a way it was a logical decision, since airplane flights are very good for coding, yet very bad for sleeping.

I arrived at Newark Airport this morning tired but happy. Somewhere between North Dakota and Michigan, I had managed to get the new version working.

All of those shiny new features are now available, and the big cloud that was following me everywhere has dissipated. Maybe now I will go and get some sleep.

The night Emma Lazarus rose from the dead

June 25th, 2018

One night Emma Lazarus rose from the dead
And swatted our President upside the head.
“Donnie,” she said, “did you look at my poem?
“Your own family were immigrants, surely you owe ’em.”

“You don’t know a thing Em,” the President noted
“We need some new enemies, voters have voted.”
“But you’re fomenting hatred — that’s a disgrace.”
“Em, I’m just trying to play to my base.”

“Are you trying to tell me you have no beliefs?”
“Yes I have one. Remember those First Nations chiefs
“That we lied to? Those treaties we handily broke?
“I believe in distractions. Now people are woke

“And soon they will notice that most of us here
“Are illegal immigrants, gripped by the fear
“That the truth will win out and we’ll all need to go
“As the Sioux and the Navajo watch us eat crow.

“Now I’m playing the role of buffoon most uncouth,
“To distract everyone from unfortunate truth.
“And so far it’s working, they’re singing my song,
“‘Cause people are losers, they just go along.”

“Mother of Exiles!” Emma replied,
“You knew all along, and yet you just lied.”
“How can you stand to create such despair?”
“It’s easy,” he said, “I am rich. I don’t care.”

Future illusions of reality, part 3

June 24th, 2018

Continuing from yesterday…

The next morning I woke up and I had thought of a counterexample. When I saw Steve the next morning I described my scenario.

I said to Steve “Suppose you wanted a soda so you gave me five dollars to go to the deli. I put your bill in my pocket, go to the deli counter and order a bottle of soda.

“The guy behind the counter scans my bill and says ‘This is counterfeit.’ I end up coming back without any soda. You go thirsty.”

“What,” I asked, “is the essential difference between that and the scenario you described?”

We both realized that culturally speaking this was essentially the same scenario, despite the large difference in technological enablement. In both cases you sincerely believe that you are living in a well defined shared physical reality. Yet at the end of the day, you don’t get to have a sip of that soda.

Which speaks to my larger point: The key element here is not physicality, but culture, sociology and psychology. And those factors are really about us humans, not about any given state of technology.

Future illusions of reality, part 2

June 23rd, 2018

Continuing from yesterday…

As it happened, there was a bottle of soda on the table, within easy reach. Steve asked me to consider the question of whether this bottle was real or just an illusion created by augmented reality.

Of course we cannot ask that question today in any practical sense, because the underlying technology isn’t here yet. But sometime within the next decade, it may very well be.

“Suppose,” he said, “I were to reach out to take this bottle. If it is real, then I can take a swig of its contents. If it is an illusion, then I will go thirsty.”

He pointed out that this is different from the question of whether an image on a computer screen is “real”, because we already understand that such an image has no tangible substance. We never think that what is being represented might be part of our immediate physical world, and therefore we would never think to rely on its literal existence — for example, as a way to quench our thirst.

This sounded like a reasonable point, yet I was skeptical. It’s too easy to think of the technological advancements of one’s own time as being fundamentally different from the advancements that have come before, and I suspected Steve might be falling into this trap.

Precisely because any newly emerging technology is unfamiliar to us, we tend to credit it with outsized power. In contrast, we tend to dismiss the significance of advances from earlier times, because they are so familiar to us: Technological familiarity breeds technological contempt.

After all, we know quite well the cultural, social and psychological norms that bracket existing technologies, and therefore we understand the limits of their effect upon us. Yet we don’t have any knowledge of future cultural, social and psychological norms, so we tend to view future technological advances as being separate from any meaningful cultural context.

That is all well and good in principle, but objecting on principle was not good enough. I needed a more concrete argument. It wasn’t until the following morning that I worked through a counterexample that revealed the flaw in Steve’s logic.

More tomorrow.

Future illusions of reality, part 1

June 22nd, 2018

I was having a conversation about Augmented Reality yesterday evening with my colleague Steve Feiner, who is one of the great pioneers of AR research. We were discussing changes in human perception that will accompany the coming age of wearables. In particular, we were debating whether those changes will be fundamentally different from the changes that have accompanied earlier technologies.

We both agreed that when wearable technology becomes mature, we will find ourselves seeing 3D objects in the world around us that are not actually there — other than in our perception. The debate centered around whether this difference between perception and reality will be fundamentally different from those provided by previous sensory interfaces that “defy reality”, such as, for example, the telephone or television or Skype.

Steve argued that the implications of the sensory illusions made possible by coming wearables would indeed be fundamentally different from the implications of previous sensory illusions. I argued that there was no fundamental difference — that in fact all such differences are determined by cultural forces and constraints, rather than by the nature of any specific technology.

I realize that this all may sound highly theoretical. But when we got down to cases, the discussion got interesting.

More tomorrow.

Remembering names

June 21st, 2018

Nobody seems to remember phone numbers anymore. After all, why would they?

Back when I was a kid, in an era before phones had gone mobile, we all kept long lists of phone numbers in our heads. Sure, you could write down a phone number. But for people you knew it was more convenient just to memorize seven digits (the area code was usually easy).

With that knowledge in your head you could dial them from anywhere, on any phone that happened to be nearby. We didn’t think of this memorization as a chore. It was something we just took for granted, built into the fabric of “the way things are”, like remembering somebody’s name.

Speaking of which, after we enter the age of wearables, we won’t need to remember peoples’ names anymore. Just today I greeted a colleague, somebody I see all the time at conferences. We gave each other a big hug, and were genuinely glad to see each other. Except I couldn’t remember his name.

It didn’t really matter in that situation. On a social level, you only really need to remember somebody’s name when you are introducing them to a third person. Still, it would have been nice, and I found it somewhat distressing that the name of somebody I know and have liked for many years had managed to elude me.

But once we are all “wearing”, there won’t be any need for such a skill. The ability to keep peoples’ names in your head will come to be seen as one of those arcane skills, like typesetting with metal fonts or tying a proper cravat, which belong to a bygone age.


June 20th, 2018

Saxophonic music reaching up to the Divine
Notes of purest heaven turning water into wine
Saxophonists swaying to the rhythm of the night
Music flying, colors sighing, dancing in the light
Saxophonists singing to the Angels with their sighs
Careful or they’ll melt you with the color of their eyes

Saxophonists playing everything from Bird to Tosca
Swirling round your spirit like the finest Ayahuasca
Saxophonists riffing with a rolling razzmatazz
Worshiping a goddess with the holy name of Jazz
Saxophonists singing to the Angels with their sighs
Careful or they’ll melt you with the color of their eyes

Saving grace

June 19th, 2018

I was exchanging missives today with a dear friend, one whose thoughts invariably inspire me. Our correspondence had meandered into a discussion about how strangely self-destructive we humans can be.

That is indeed a sad thing, and I thought it might be pleasant to at least attempt to put a positive spin on it. So I ended up writing the following:

When faced with any situation in which the stakes seem to be high, people have an unfortunate tendency to do exactly the wrong thing. The upside of this is that it leads to all sorts of great plots for books and plays and movies. Where would literature be without the spectacular ability of people to act like complete idiots?

I wonder whether that counts as a saving grace?

Narrative threads

June 18th, 2018

Today marks the start of the second cycle of our Future Reality Lab blog. Two weeks ago we agreed that fourteen members of our lab would collectively maintain a daily blog, with each person posting once every two weeks.

Now that everyone has written their first post, I can see several distinct topic threads emerging. Some talk about language, others about telling stories with VR, still others about spatial audio or interactive animated characters or simply the philosophy underlying our Lab’s collective vision for the future.

As each lab member develops their theme, it will be fascinating to observe how these discussions influence one another. In the weeks to come, I look forward to seeing these narrative threads weave together, to create a beautiful fabric of new thoughts and ideas.


June 17th, 2018

Because I keep a daily blog, I often find myself, over the course of my day, thinking of ideas for things I might want to write about. For the great majority of these ideas, an hour later I cannot recall them at all. Alas, they have fallen into that great “Pit of Forever Forgotten Fleeting Thoughts” (PFFFT) where they are destined for all eternity to remain.

Sure, I could have taken out a pen and paper and scribbled something down, or grabbed my SmartPhone and dictated my thoughts into it. But depending on where I am and what I am doing, such actions are often not an option.

But one can imagine some variant of augmented reality, perhaps involving wearables and subvocal speech, in which as soon as you get a thought in your head, you can instantly record it. In such a scenario, you could record such transient thoughts without the need for any real task switching that might interrupt whatever you are already doing.

So there is the potential there for many more ideas — the ones that spring spontaneously out of our heads in response to whatever is happening in the moment — to actually make it out into the world. Fewer ideas would end up going PFFFT, and more would end up in the intellectual space between us.

That can’t be a bad thing, can it?