Elastic reality

This week my young colleague Yuichiro Takeuchi presented ClayVision: The (Elastic) Image of the City, winner of a best paper award this year at SIGCHI, describes a system that lets you look “through” an iPad screen into an altered world. The image recorded by the back-facing camera is digitally processed, permitting you to see the city around you in interestingly distorted ways. Buildings can grow, shrink or sprout awnings, tall towers can spring from fountains, monuments can sway and dance, crooked streets can become straight.

There is a potential dark side to such an elastic reality, given that it is a lot easier to engineer the virtual than it is to engineer the physical. Think of the wholesale transition in Hollywood movies over the course of the last two decades from model miniatures to computer graphic special effects.

One day, after we are all wearing our eccescopic contact lenses, and the ability to visually transform our world becomes an everyday reality, perhaps civic engineers will no longer bother to keep our cities in good repair, beyond the minimal need to prevent structural collapse.

As long as we are all “wearing”, we will find ourselves sharing a golden age of gleaming towers, graceful airships that soar serenely above candy colored trees, and clear blue lakes that reflect the movements of glittering sculptures in the sky. Needless to say, this lovely cityscape will change every day for our collective pleasure and delight.

But anyone thoughtless enough to pop out their hi-tech contact lenses will be faced with a bleak reality of neglected buildings with shattered windows facing cracked and blackened sidewalks, where piles of uncollected garbage roll through the gray and rotting streets. Not that anybody would ever be so foolish as to take out their contact lenses.

After all, when was the last time, after having enjoyed a great meal at a favorite restaurant, that you demanded to go back to the kitchen to confront the underlying reality?

Mind reading in North Carolina

Now that North Carolina has made it illegal for people of the same sex to love each other, I wonder what might happen, should science develop an effective way to read minds.

I have this image of large numbers of fire breathing right leaning politicians and their supporters being outed. Throughout the state, various scions of their community, having built their entire lives around denial and suppression of their own homosexuality, would suddenly be found out for being that most feared and hated of all creatures — an adult human being capable of feeling love and caring for another adult human being, without first checking to see whether their particular love is politically correct.

Eventually, one presumes, North Carolina will outlaw all forms of caring and affection, such emotions being an affront to God and Jesus and all that is right and holy. Parents found caring for their children will be rounded up and shot like vermin, as bonding and emotional attachment gradually come to be recognized as obscene and un-American.

Especially if this whole mind reading technology thing happens. In that case, the entire citizenry of North Carolina may find itself outed. People who, for fear of being labeled as social deviants, had desperately hidden their love and affection for parents, siblings, children and neighbors, will come to be seen for what they are — human beings capable of love, apparently the ultimate and most unforgivable of crimes.

I am afraid that when this happens, all the citizens of North Carolina will, in the name of simple decency, proceed to shoot each other on sight, until the entire populace lies dead in a collective pool of blood.

Because, if the new law in North Carolina is to be believed, we cannot have something as unforgivable as the simple feeling of love between one person and another. Not among decent God fearing people.

The romance of ancient technologies

This evening I had the pleasure of wandering through a museum that featured old technologies. I found myself hovering, fascinated, over the exhibits, my mind trying to work out the steps that had led up to each ancient invention.

There is something lovely about revisiting old technological innovations. Every age of humanity is faced with a unique set of challenges, a particular world view, and its own grab bag of prior art from which to draw.

What can be better than to trace this sweet history, the moment when some beautiful thought — perhaps electromagnetism, perhaps the invention of the Calculus — made its way into our culture, and managed to change us forever.


The ancient Greeks believed that there was a special class of deity — the Muses — who collectively provided the inspiration that begat human invention and achievement in the arts and sciences. The reality may be even more interesting than this.

I have noticed that random meetings with individual people at some opportune moment can often inspire me to work on something new. Perhaps I’ll be thinking about some idea, somewhere in the back of my mind, but then I will have a great conversation with someone who shares that interest or particular set of obsessions. Suddenly my brain shifts from dreaming mode to problem-solving mode. The very fact that somebody else is interested in the same thing creates a feeling of reality around the goal, and my mind instinctively starts to move toward that reality.

At any moment, you might run into somebody — a colleague or just a friend of a friend — who has been thinking about some of the same things that you have been thinking about. Perhaps our brains are wired for such meetings. They invoke a feeling of community which elevates and focuses those thoughts in our minds, and we immediately become more inspired and creative.

In a sense, we are all the Muses for each other.

Order and chaos

There is a balance somewhere between order and chaos where things become the most aesthetically pleasing.

Very few people are drawn into a shape or pattern that is completely ordered. We tend to find these patterns dull, boring, overly simplistic. At the other extreme, most people also tend to find completely random and chaotic patterns to be boring and devoid of meaning.

But somewhere in the middle, it all starts to happen for us. Whether it be smoke, water, fire, clouds or marble, many natural phenomena are poised in balance between order and chaos, and these are the phenomena to which we are most strongly drawn.

I wonder whether there could be a way to measure this balance, to look at any given object and assign it a rating, describing how perfectly and pleasingly balanced that object is between order and chaos.

Situated learning

Since teaching is one of the things I do, I often look at things in terms of “how would I use this to teach something?” Recently I have caught myself in everyday situations, say at a meal or while playing a musical instrument, thinking about how I would add interactive computer graphics to teach something, perhaps a music lesson, or perhaps a foreign language.

For example, I find myself picturing little interactive animated characters hovering over things and posing challenges or games to help learning, and then I work through how I would author those characters and games — or create a way for other people to author them.

I think the fact that Google’s Project Glass is now being publicly talked about has changed my assessment of how near all this is. The other big players who are working on augmented reality glasses are still keeping mum, but it only takes one to move the conversation from the dreaming stage to the planning stage.

These events have also energized my graduate students, and certain research projects in our lab are shifting into higher gear. Twenty years ago the Web went from being a gleam in Ted Nelson’s eye to being a practical reality, eventually changing all sorts of educational practices. More recently, mobile phones have had a similar impact — particularly in the third world.

I think we are about to enter an exciting and transformational period in the development of situated learning, especially as the costs of the technology come down over time. If it is done properly, everyone can benefit.


Today I spent quite a bit of time at the Le Musée d’art contemporain in Montréal. Looking at the array of work on display, from cubist to abstract expressionist to electronic minimalist, I became acutely aware that I was being invited to participate in the addressing of various questions.

In each case, these were questions that have been under discussion for many years, between extremely thoughtful and passionate people. What does it mean to look at something? To express emotion in a non-figurative way? To examine our core assumptions about form and meaning?

Every field has its defining questions, and any particular work within that field becomes meaningful only if you catch the drift of the larger discussion. For example, if you were to attend, without any context or preparation, a major computer graphics research conference, you might not be nearly as excited as I am by what you see, because you would be unlikely to know, just by looking at the work, what ongoing questions are being addressed, or why any given result is interesting within that context.

Perhaps it is fair to say that any shared field of discourse is defined not primarily by the answers it provides, but by the questions it seeks to ask.

Alive on the planet (with applets)

Today I gave a talk at a conference, and decided that the talk would consist of demonstrating fifty of my Java applets, with nary a PowerPoint slide in sight. This ended up being an interesting choice, because each applet, as it turned out, connected to several others, and themes began emerging of which even I had not been fully aware.

The entire experience was fun, in the way that live performances are always fun. You never entirely know what will happen in a live performance — what might go right and what might go wrong — and this sense of heady danger creates a kind of bond between everyone in the room. As Bill Murray said so memorably about theatre in Tootsie, “These are people who are alive on the planet.”

I may just give up entirely on prepared slides!

Alien filter

We take so much for granted as humans in our perception of the world, from bilateral symmetry to the privileging of human faces and voices in our observation of the world around us.

It makes perfect sense that we are this way, since our higher brain functioning evolved largely to facilitate complex and subtle interactions with other humans (as well as the occasional co-evolved species, such as dogs).

It would be interesting to be able to temporarily impose an “Alien filter” on our perception, to remove our human-centric bias from the way we perceive the world around us. You would certainly want such a filter to be temporary, since using it would, from a certain perspective, make you functionally insane.

But the insights to be gained from such a visit to an alien’s point of view might be quite beneficial. We might discover how to see familiar objects and concepts in new and potentially useful ways.

Picking the right day to visit

The first time I ever visited Oslo (which I believe is the nearest I’ve been to the North Pole while on the ground) it happened to be June 20 — the longest day of the year. I had a magical and slightly surreal experience wandering around the town in the excellent company of the friends I was visiting, in a city without night. As midnight came and went, and darkness never quite arrived, I felt not tired at all, but rather exhilarated.

The first time I ever visited Albuquerque it happened to be the weekend of the annual hot air balloon festival — one of the zaniest and most fun sights to be seen in these United States, with giant balloons in all sorts of surreal and eccentric shapes floating over the landscape. I didn’t realize at first that this was a once-a-year spectacular, so my initial thought was that I was witnessing a very civilized, if unusual, way for a town to be organizing its daily transportation needs.

The oddest such experience was the first time I visited Nice, after having attended a conference in nearby Monte Carlo. I was delighted to discover that the streets of Nice were filled with jugglers, magicians, stilt-walkers and clowns, street fairs and puppet shows. Wherever I went, people wearing giant papier-mâché heads were walking around in broad daylight, to the general delight of children. I found myself wondering at how tourist friendly Nice was, while pondering how on earth such a city could maintain a sustainable economic model. “Wouldn’t this be a great place to live all year round!” I thought.

It took a while before I realized that I had just happened to wander into town during Carnival.