Art is a conversation with the world

October 29th, 2017

When you talk with your artist friends about ideas and creative struggles, and you have wonderful conversations, and they show you what they are working on, you can momentarily forget that anybody else is listening.

But art is always engaged in a larger conversation. And part of that conversation involves the world publicly recognizing the work of artists.

A case in point is my old friend, the brilliant Toni Dove. In addition to being a really delightful person, Toni is a groundbreaking and pioneering artist in the ever evolving world of interactive multi-media art installations.

Just recently Toni invited me to her loft. We spent some time talking about our various projects and ideas, and had a wide ranging conversation about what might come next in interactive computer-mediated art. I also got the chance to experience her fantastic and complex latest work, The Dress that Eats Souls.

So today I was thrilled to see a review of this very same work in The New York Times. It is being shown as part of a larger retrospective of Toni’s work at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

Fortunately the NY Times reviewer seemed to really understand and appreciate the piece, which — like everything Toni creates — challenges its viewer to be open to the many ways that sculpture, AI, genre narrative, robotics, political commentary and philosophical inquiry can come together in a single work. It’s good to be reminded, in such a pleasant way, that art is a conversation with the world.


October 28th, 2017

I sometimes go to the Wikipedia page for whatever date of the year it happens to be. Starting from the top, I learn about all the historical events that happened on that day of the year, followed by notable births, followed by notable deaths.

I don’t do this all that often, but when I do, I read the page all the way through, and I always learn something. Today, for example, I learned that October 28 was the publication date of Gulliver’s Travels. Also that today is Bill Gates’ birthday, in case you want to send him a congratulatory email.

So many fascinating historical events happen to fall on any given day of the year. It occurs to me it might be really fun to build a course around that fact.

Imagine a University course structured entirely around the exigencies of chronological happenstance. On any given day, students would learn about the most notable events that happened on that particular day of the year throughout history.

The purpose of the course would not be to do a deep dive into any particular topic, but rather to provide a structure for providing a broad base of knowledge on many topics.

I could imagine, given just the events listed today, learning about music, politics, religion, mathematics, sports, literature, medicine, technology and many other topics. It might be interesting for individual students to track one or two themes, and see how those particular themes evolve and tie together as the year progresses, day after day.

I couldn’t really tell you what kind of structure would emerge by imposing such a willful layer of apparent randomness. But I can assure you it would be interesting!

Dreaming up new ideas

October 27th, 2017

I often have the experience of dreaming about some cool new idea, only to wake up and realize that the idea was actually silly or pointless. Many times I have felt myself awaken in a burst of excitement over some great new dream-time discovery, only to see the sad reality revealed within the few seconds it took for me to come fully awake.

But this morning I had a different experience. I was in a dream, describing an idea to my research collaborator. After hearing my idea, the dream version of my collaborator said “Hey, that’s a really good idea!”

Then a little later, within another dream, I found myself watching the idea play out, and saw to my excitement that it was really working. Then I woke up.

And the idea was still pretty cool! Hey, I might even try it. But first I’ll probably check to see what the non-dream version of my collaborator thinks of it. :-)


October 26th, 2017

I arrived today at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport several hours before my flight, because I caught a car ride today from Quebec City thanks to a very kind friend and colleague. Which means that I have been enjoying several hours of quiet time, just me and my trusty MacBook, with no interruptions.

Fortunately this is one of those civilized airports where they don’t loudly blast TV shows into every corner. As they wait for their flights, people are speaking in hushed tones, or just working quietly away on their computers or on good old fashioned paper.

It may be odd to think of an airport waiting lounge as a welcome refuge, but right now that is exactly it is. Particularly after a whirlwind several days of non-stop conference activity.

And sometimes a simple refuge is just what you need.

Minds on fire

October 25th, 2017

This year the UIST conference was on the small side, because fewer people end up going to Quebec City than to, say, Tokyo (which was the site of last year’s conference). But that very smallness was wonderful.

A small number of attendees may not be good for the financial health of the organization, but it’s great for the people who do attend. There is a certain intimacy, a complicity, that starts to fall off when the numbers get too large.

After seeing all the great work presented over the last few days, I am left with lots of thoughts about where to go next in our own lab’s research. That’s what always happens after this conference — my mind is on fire up with exciting possibilities.

Several of the grad students in our lab came to the conference this week, and gave brilliant demos. Perhaps, after seeing our students’ great work, other attendees are finding their minds on fire with exciting possibilities.

Good design doesn’t need underlining

October 24th, 2017

I was having a conversation at the UIST conference this week with Bill Buxton, one of my heroes in the field of HCI (Human/Computer interfaces). We realized that we both disapproved of the idea of computer interfaces that tell you where you are supposed to focus your attention.

Essentially, if an interface needs to tell you where to look, then it is doing something wrong. If the interface is properly designed, you should already be looking in the right place.

Consider earlier media, such as cinema. A great film director, such as Bigelow or Scorcese, knows how to steer your eye around the screen, without you even realizing they are doing it. They don’t need to tell you to look at a certain place — you are already looking there.

To invoke an even earlier media technology, think of novels that you have read and loved. You can clearly remember the most vivid passages, the ones that had a deep impact on you.

Theoretically a novelist could tell the publisher that certain passages need to be underlined in red. “These are the places,” the hopeful author might explain, “where the reader really needs to pay attention. Let’s highlight those passages just to make that clear.

If I were a publisher, I would seriously question this strategy. And so should you, if you are an HCI designer.

That moment

October 23rd, 2017

That moment, when the tricky and ambitious new computer program you’ve been working on, the one you weren’t sure would ever work, the one that was way too ambitious in the first place, the one that was producing such crazy results that you were beginning to doubt your very sanity, the one that had made you start to think you had seriously overreached, the one that had somehow turned into a full-blown existential crisis, the one that had recently been giving you nightmare visions of Sisyphus forever pushing that giant rock up a mountain, the one that was making you put aside such distractions as doing laundry and remembering to feed yourself, that moment…

Yes, that moment. The moment when it finally starts to work.

That moment has now arrived. I think I will go for a nice meal.


Full disclosure

October 22nd, 2017

The recent fall of Harvey Weinstein was breathtaking in its scope and rapidity. This was one of the most powerful and influential individuals in popular culture, possessed of a vast network of alliances extending into seemingly every corner of the globe.

Yet when he fell, he fell completely. His carefully constructed public reputation dissolved in an instant, like tissue paper in the rain.

I am wondering whether this moment was connected to advancing technology. In some ways it reminds me of the Mitt Romney “47% incident”. While running against Obama in 2012, Romney was at a private fund raising event, giving a speech which was intended to be heard only by his fervent political supporters.

Yet when a bartender at the event secretly recorded the moment on his SmartPhone, the video went viral. The entire world saw Romney accusing nearly half the U.S. population of being freeloaders who wanted only to live on government handouts. It did not bode well for his chances at the election booth.

Perhaps something similar was going on with Mr. Weinstein. He came to power at a time when it was still possible to keep secrets — a time when a sexual predator could make unwanted advances to a powerless young person in a hotel suite, and nobody could prove a damned thing. What went on in the hotel suite, stayed in the hotel suite.

But now every young person carries a recording device, and knows how to use it. If somebody acts inappropriately toward you, you can not only record the moment, but also upload it instantly to the Cloud.

Many influential people over a certain age don’t quite understand this. This sort of thing simply wasn’t possible when they came to power, and it still doesn’t occur to them that they now live in a world in which information can be captured and disseminated instantly, on a global scale.

In today’s world, if you want to remain in power while being a predatory creep, there is only one way to inoculate yourself against modern information technology: Don’t hide your monstrosity, flaunt it. Constantly attack people for no reason, and never hesitate to just make stuff up. Even better, shamelessly change your story whenever anybody calls you on a lie, preferably while starting another random attack upon yet another startled victim.

You must always act disgusting and hateful with your public face, not merely in your private behavior. Be openly racist, homophobic and mysogynist, brag proudly about groping women and girls, remember to say nice things about Nazis, and make sure to create a public record of shamelessly and blatantly causing many others to suffer just to line your own pockets.

It seems that in a world of full disclosure, this is the only effective way you can still get away with being a monster.

A different kind of Augmented Reality

October 21st, 2017

Today I enjoyed a luxurious six hours of uninterrupted time on my flight from Los Angeles to Montreal (actually more, because of flight delays).

There was nobody except me and my computer and my music.

Sure, there were people all around me in the plane, but I was able to tune them out, and focus on the many things I wanted to work on on my MacBook.

It definitely helped that I had in my Bose Hearphones. All of the outside sounds faded away to a distant dream, and I was free to float in my own world, listening to my favorite songs and getting lots of work done.

As the flight approached Montreal, I switched the music to Leonard Cohen.
Which I suppose is obvious, but it was also completely wonderful, just Leonard and me.

When people think about augmented reality these days, they usually think about enhancing what you can see with your eyes. But maybe, when we think about the possibilities of augmented reality, we should also be thinking about what you can hear with your ears.

Snap chats

October 20th, 2017

Snap Inc is tucked away inconspicuously less than a block from Venice Beach in L.A. The company’s presence here is almost totally stealth — if you didn’t already know where it was, you would be hard pressed to find it.

I was here to visit for just one whirlwind day (flying in from NYC late last night, then flying off to Quebec City for the UIST conference tomorrow morning). This morning I gave a guest lecture, and then, over the course of the day, met with a lot of very cool and brilliant people.

I hadn’t been completely sure what to focus on for my talk, so I had given a sort of overview of various thoughts and experiments. Then, after meeting with all those great people one on one and in small group discussions, I developed a better understanding of what I should have focused on in my talk.

I kept thinking, all through the day, “Ah, if only I had shown that demo, or described this project.” But of course, when I’d given my talk in the morning, all of those great conversations had not yet happened. And outside of a Ted Chiang story, nobody can actually see the future.

So I consoled myself by noting that those very thoughts meant that this is probably just the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. And the next time I come here for a visit, I will probably know exactly what to lecture about. :-)