Virtual dystopia, part 1

Continuing from yesterday … there are so many ways that things can go wrong if we all eventually move to a virtual world.

I am defining a “virtual world” as one in which everything we see (and, most likely, hear) is filtered through some electronic intermediary. This would be the case, for example, if everyone gets artificial retinal implants (I give that about thirty to forty years).

One consequence of this will be that it will become possible for someone tapping into the “cloud” to know not only what you are looking at, but your eye movements — even those subtle saccades your eyes make when something catches your attention or interest. With that sort of high quality data, it won’t be too hard to figure out an awful lot about what you might be thinking.

As I said yesterday, the fact that this will be possible doesn’t mean that it will happen. As we start to approach this level of technology, there will be societal forces pushing back, for many reasons. The possibility of total information is not the same as the fact of total information. Still, it’s something to keep in mind.

More tomorrow.

Virtual dystopias

Yesterday Zoltan asked, sensibly enough, what are the potential dangers of virtual reality. This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, but one that is difficult to discuss properly, because it is far too easy to sound alarmist.

After all, the possibility that something might happen is very different from the probability that it will happen. We see this in other spheres as well.

For example, in the U.S. a lot of people drive cars, and every one of those cars has the potential to become a lethal weapon. Yet only a small percentage of people end up around running anyone over.

What’s the connection? Well, imagine if we lived in a world where cars had not been invented. Then somebody says, “Imagine a future in which anybody could own a machine that they could easily use to kill other people.”

In a world where cars didn’t exist, such a possibility — presented as a hypothetical — might seem terrifying, since the distinction between “could kill other people” and “will kill other people” might not be so clear. Therefore the act of handing so much power for destruction to so many individuals could seem like an act of insanity.

So before I start talking about the potential dangers of virtual reality, I think I should make it clear that I don’t think all of these terrible things are actually going to happen. As new technologies emerge, societies have a tendency to readjust their customs and laws accordingly, and things don’t usually end up going completely to hell.

Valve demo, revisited

I saw the Valve VR demo again today, about seven months after I first tried it.

I had been worried that the experience would not hold up to my memory, that maybe I had talked myself into thinking it was better than it actually was.

Fortunately, that is not at all what happened. It not only held up, but it made me realize what the Valve VR demo achieves, which I have not seen yet in any other version of VR:

You don’t think that you are in virtual reality. You look around and things are just there, you reach for an object to pick it up, and it is exactly where you think it will be. Your sense of proprioception and your peripheral vision never fail you.

In other words — and unlike any VR demo I have yet seen — you are simply in reality, as rock solid as you would expect reality to be.

It just doesn’t necessarily need to be this reality.

A new pair of eyes to look through

When I do a project I often first create a character. I don’t exactly know what this character will look like, how he or she will think, or do, or believe, but once the character exists, all of those things become evident.

It’s as though I need a new pair of eyes to look through, and once I am seeing things through those eyes, I can see what they see.

I wonder how wide-spread is this way of working. Do many storytellers, songwriters, playwrights, animators, novelists, try first to find their characters, and then let everything flow out from those new identities?

For me it seems so much easier to work this way. There are so many important questions, insights, ways of seeing, that to me would be completely mysterious. But to the character I’ve created — once he or she has been found — everything is clear.


Young people today remember Rosie the robot from “The Jetsons”, but they have no idea who Hazel was.

Several students I asked today were quite familiar with Jean-Luc Picard, but they’d never heard of Jean-Luc Godard.

Quite often in pop culture, one sees an homage to a hyper-famous person or character of the day, a reference so obvious at the time that it would never occur to anyone to question it.

But then time moves on, first in years and then in decades, and the original influence becomes lost to future generations. The only thing that is handed down is the echo.

It would be interesting to compile a book of such influences, those once timely homages to long lost cultural icons, now echoing mysteriously through the corridors of time.

Listen up!

Several conversations I’ve had this week have focused on how hard it is to listen. In my experience, many people know how to speak, more or less, but far fewer know how to effectively listen to the response they get in return.

So the topic came up — why not teach listening in school? Shouldn’t listening be acknowledged as one of the fundamental skills one needs to master, in order to become a high functioning adult? Surely it is right up there with reading, writing and arithmetic.

And why isn’t this skill already being taught? Hmm, perhaps there is some deep seated societal aversion to the entire topic.

After all, if we were to acknowledge the need for such a course, we’d have to examine our own inadequate listening skills. That may very well be the point in the discussion at which people just stop listening.

I dunno — what do you think? I’m listening.

Zen and the art of interactive diagrams

I spent much of the afternoon today making interactive diagrams. These are for a class I’m teaching at NYU in computer graphics.

To make these, I start by writing down rough notes for the lecture, so I can see the sequence of things. Then at each point in that sequence I think about what picture (if any) I would draw on the blackboard to get that particular point across.

Where there is such a picture, I ask myself, “What is the story this picture wants to tell?” It’s usually a mini-narrative — a single concept that I am trying to get across in that moment.

In the case of computer graphics, this mini-narrative is usually some key insight about an algorithm. If I were lecturing about “Pride and Prejudice”, each picture would probably represent a transition in the relationships between characters over the course of a scene.

Then comes the fun part. Using the tools I’ve built in my Chalktalk system I sketch the thing out in code, first as a static picture to draw, and then with gradually more behavior.

I usually spend way too much time tweaking each diagram, but that’s because working on them is do darned fun. I’m very much in a state of flow while I’m making them, having a grand old time.

I’m also learning all sorts of things at once — about effective design, about how to improve my tool set, about storytelling, and about the subject that I’m teaching.

If you ever want to know a topic better, I strongly recommend trying to teach it. 🙂

Over coffee with Mom

I was having a coffee with my mother today, and she asked about my research. After explaining what we are building at NYU, I described some of the longer term consequences of this kind of collaborative VR work, after the technology has matured and become widely available at the consumer level.

“For example,” I said, “you and I could be having this face to face conversation over coffee, and decide to move our discussion to a mountain in the Himalayas, or to a cafe overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.”

My Mom approved wholeheartedly.