Women of the future

Judging by today’s news, Mitch McConnell has apparently decided to do everything he can to help Elizabeth Warren become our 46th U.S. President. So I figure that “women of the future” would be an appropriate theme for the day.

Today we invited twenty five ten year old girls to experience shared immersive virtual reality in our brand new VR lab at NYU. They were a Brownie troop here in NYC that, when asked what they wanted for a field trip theme, had voted for “Entertainment Technology”.

When they arrived at our lab we invited them, four at a time, into our FLOCK shared VR piece, and I have never seen a group of kids more excited. In no time they were laughing, running around, pointing at things, holding hands and giggling like crazy.

The experience wasn’t something you can get commercially yet. So these kids were actually being treated to a rare glimpse of the future.

Maybe a few of them will end up thinking “Hey, creating shared experiences with cutting edge technology is cool, I want to do this when I grow up.” I am sure President Warren would approve.


Today, in a remarkable show of solidarity, fifty of the fifty two Republican U.S. Senators abruptly resigned. It appears that they realized they were unsuited to their jobs for several reasons:

First, they had each had at least some experience in politics. Second, every one of them knew something about the work they were charged with doing. Third, not one was a rank beginner, lacking even the faintest idea of what the job required.

All of these faults made them, in the eyes of the President, hopelessly corrupt. After all, you can’t clear the swamp when you are the swamp.

There was many a moist eye in the room when Senator John McCain stepped up to the podium to issue the following heartfelt apology to the American people:

“My fellow Americans, I am deeply ashamed to have pretended to represent the great state of Arizona, given that I actually have experience in politics. One day I aspire to be like our great President, who comes into the office perfectly pure, with no political experience whatsoever. Or perhaps I can one day hope to be like our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is justifiably proud of the fact that she knows absolutely nothing about education, other than the fact that it involves shooting grizzly bears. To both of them, and to you, I apologize for the shameful competency that I have possessed all of these years. One day I too hope to be utterly unqualified for my job. When that day comes, I will be happy to once again serve this great nation of ours.”


The last few days we showed our Holojam shared mixed reality experience at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, featuring my colleague David Lobser’s brilliant interactive audience participation piece FLOCK.

It was a complete triumph. Professional dancers, filmmakers, and all sorts of interesting people entered into an alternate world together, sharing another universe while in the same physical room.

The technology worked flawlessly, and people were clearly very moved by the experience.

Best of all we got to do it at Lincoln Center, so you could say that culturally speaking we have made it to the big time.


Tools for students / tools for teachers

The difference between my recent bubble shader and subsequent bubble breakdown is pedagogical: The first shows you the code for a bubble shader and lets you play with it to see what happens. The second takes you through the process of building that code, step by step.

We can think of these two artifacts as the first and second steps in a progression. A logical third step in this progression would be to provide support for people to author their own shader breakdowns.

In other words, the first advance is to create an example of a lesson for students. The next advance is to provide support for teachers to build their own lessons for students.

If the interface to build such code breakdowns is intuitive and friendly enough, it will open the door to more pedagogical content. Rather than such narratives being built only by people like me who already know all the gnarly bits underneath, those narratives can then be built by any teacher who has a story to tell.

None of this removes the need for good storytelling. Building a narrative is, fundamentally, a literary endeavor, however technical is the material being taught.

To build such narratives, it is not sufficient to merely understand your material. You need to have a reasonable mental model of the learner. You need to take that learner on an interesting journey, adding new material gradially as you go, and always keep things interesting.

But a good interactive authoring tool will go a long way toward helping to create good pedagogical narratives. Guess I should get to work on making that authoring tool. 🙂

Notes on a native son

Today I saw the new film “I Am Not Your Negro”, about James Baldwin. And I was completely blown away.

I found his clarity of thought to be breathtaking. I was astonished at how, half a century ago, he was able to articulate the problems at the core of American society — problems which remain very relevant today.

Fundamentally, he points out something that should be obvious to everyone (but sadly, isn’t): That the “black problem” is actually a white problem. When one group of people desperately clings to a fantasy that it is better than another group of people, what is really going on is that the first group of people is damaged.

He is also quite specific about the cause of this damage: White America’s desperate need to pretend to be innocent of its historical (and in many ways, ongoing) brutalities. Of course in reality you can never really run away from your sins. Sooner or later you must look at them square in the face and deal with them.

As the film shows, Baldwin warned us, fifty years ago, that this damage to the psyche of white America, if not corrected, would eventually cause our society to destroy itself from within. And now that is exactly what is happening.

The embarrassing idiot in the Whitehouse (or, to use his own language, the “So Called President”), is a symptom of exactly this sort of desperate denial. Fortunately, his very cartoonish incompetence is causing millions of Americans to wake up to the harmfulness of the fantasy of white superiority that helped get him elected.

A lot of damage is going to happen between today and the midterm elections two years from now, when Republicans will lose their congressional majority. But the outcome down the road may be net positive.

As James Baldwin predicted half a century ago, white America may eventually wake up and realize the true cost of living an absurd hateful fantasy: In the end, it is an act of pure self destruction.

New lab

Today we moved into our new lab, a move that have have long been planning. This new lab is much larger and swankier than our old lab.

As I speak, industrious Ph.D. students are busily setting up the Optitrack motion tracking system, sorting through boxes, putting equipment into cabinets. My new office is still filled with boxes.

It feels like the dawn of a new era for our work. For the first time we have a dedicated space to conduct our research, rather than needing to rely on shared space.

The difference is that when you share a VR research space with classes and meetings by other groups, you are always tearing down your experiments and needing to set them up again. In the new space, we will have the stability to run longer term experiments.

It is daunting to gaze upon all of the boxes in my office, filled mostly with books. It will probably take me a full day to get myself sorted. Not that I am complaining. 🙂

Ray tracing breakdown

I am currently introducing the ray tracing rendering technique to my computer graphics class. I figured the “breakdown” approach that I’ve been describing here might be helpful.

So today in class I implemented for them the beginnings of a ray tracer. I just stood up in front of the class and implemented a ray tracer by doing live coding in a fragment shader.

My coding during the class was more or less improvised. I started with something very simple, and then built up the code bit by bit until I had the basic workings of a simple ray tracer.

After the class I thought over the sequence of events — what I had done first, then next, etc. And I converted that train of thought into a breakdown sequence, using the same framework that I had already built for the bubble breakdown I posted here recently.

Along the way I added a few improvements. For one thing, now when you are doing live coding, you get much better feedback along the way.

In particular, if you type something that stops the code from running, the system now gives you an error message, and highlights the line where the error happened. I’ve also gone back and added these same improvements to the bubble breakdown.

This approach is turning out to be a really useful way to teach people, while also giving them a chance to learn and explore for themselves, always at their own pace.

You can try the intro to raytracing breakdown here.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In his speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump surprised many by not mentioning Jews. As you may know, “The Holocaust” is a phrase usually used to describe the systematic effort by the Nazis to exterminate all Jews. Of course many others were also killed by the Nazis, but only Jews were targeted for total “racial annihilation”, through a systematic and highly organized process of extermination in which millions of Jewish men, women and children were transported in cattle cars to special camps where they were herded en masse into gas chambers and efficiently put to death by Zyklon B gas. When asked about the ommission, Whitehouse spokeswoman Hope Hicks said “We are an incredibly inclusive group.”

In his speech on Memorial Day, President Trump surprised many by not mentioning the people who died while serving in our country’s armed forces. However he did make a very effective pitch for the Trump International Hotel Washington (room rates and convention discounts available on request). When asked about the ommission, Whitehouse spokeswoman Hope Hicks said “We are an incredibly inclusive group.”

In his speech on Martin Luther King Day, President Trump surprised many by not mentioning black Americans, the legacy of slavery, civil rights, or, for that matter, Martin Luther King. When asked about the ommission, Whitehouse spokeswoman Hope Hicks said “We are an incredibly inclusive group.”

In his speech on Arbor Day, President Trump surprised many by not mentioning trees. When asked about the ommission, Whitehouse spokeswoman Hope Hicks said “We are an incredibly inclusive group.”