Interface devices

Today a representative from a leading VR hardware company was visiting our lab. There was a certain amount at stake, since we were hoping his company would make a significant equipment donation to our lab.

At one point he asked whether we were interested in eye tracking. “I’d like to say,” I replied, struggling to keep a straight face, “that we are looking at it.”

Part of me realized it was a risky thing to say. What if my silly humor only managed to convince this person not to take our lab seriously?

Fortunately he smiled, clearly appreciating the slightly nuttier turn in the conversation. “Well then,” he grinned, “what are your thoughts about new tactile interfaces?”

“I think,” I replied, “we can touch on that later.”

Between you and me

Recently I have noticed, as I walk around Manhattan’s crowded streets, that I have been trying out an alternate way of looking at the people around me. Rather than seeing each person simply as a individual human being, I’m finding myself focusing more on the space between those individuals — the conversational space.

Two people together, whether they are walking or talking or just hanging out, create a unique energy in the Universe that other humans are very good at perceiving. It’s as though there is another living being floating between them, invisible to the eye but quite visible to the soul.

This is all perfectly consistent with our shared evolutionary heritage. Our one and only true superpower is our extraordinary ability to communicate with each other. This superpower is so much an innate part of us that we simply take it for granted.

Yet nearly all human activity centers around this collective superpower. We define ourselves largely by how others perceive us, and make sense of the world around us through an implicit prism of shared understanding.

In the realm of the human, to be an “individual” is to be in relationship to the whole of humanity. For of what use is our individuality, unless we can share it with each other?

The good show

I recently finished bingeing the second season of The Good Place on Netflix (created by the brilliant and prolific Michael Schur). Happily, a forthcoming third season has been announced.

Usually I can give a simple reason why I like a TV series. Shows can be clever, or absurd, or laugh-out-loud funny, or emotionally engaging, or dark and disturbing, or daringly innovative and rule breaking, or philosophically challenging, or are able to teach you things you didn’t know.

The Good Place is all that and more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV series hit so many bases at once.

The premise is simple. Essentially, it takes a certain well known existentialist play and refashions it as an absurdist comedy for the Millennial age.

But where it goes from there is wondrous. After having seen the first two seasons, I now find myself regarding the people around with greater appreciation, and with gratitude for our shared humanity. How many side-splittingly funny comedies can claim to have that effect?

While I wait for the third season, I may just go back and watch the first two again. 🙂

Choose your own adventure

A colleague from industry told me today that Hollywood is all abuzz with the possibility of using Virtual and Mixed reality to tell stories where audiences can choose the ending. I think that will lead to a dead end.

I say this because I don’t think the problem with this approach is technological. In fact, the means to create “choose your own adventure” stories has existed for quite a long time.

There is a tradition stretching back through the centuries of story-games. I suspect such things have been tried in many cultures, and in many different ways.

It’s not that they are wrong, but rather that they seem to end up being marginal, culturally speaking. People love playing games, but “playing” is not the primary purpose of telling stories.

We tell each other stories in order to work through questions of shared culture and values. The fictional characters in stories, and the challenges we watch them face, represent issues that are meaningful and relevant to our particular tribe.

Loyalty, ethics, humor, prejudice, metaphysics and mortality, the tension between rational thought and primal emotion, these are the building blocks of narrative. As we watch characters work through such issues, we are being taken on a journey by proxy.

If you remove the proxy and instead ask the audience member to directly make those decisions, then the “characters” become reduced to game tokens.

If you are going to remove the agency — and therefore the power to teach — from story characters, you might as well embrace the fact that you are creating a game, not a story. And if you are going to do that, why maintain the pretense that you are “telling a story”?

A good game is difficult enough to design, without the constraint of pretending it is something else. A “choose your own adventure” experience should be designed, from the ground up, as a form of game, rather than being mislabeled as some sort of alternate version of the protagonist driven narrative.

Designers of such experiences really aught to understand the difference. Otherwise, they will continue to scratch their heads and wonder why interactive stories never really seem to work very well.

The new Brick and Mortar

Today I was attending a meeting of NYU’s Research Technology Faculty Advisor Board (FAB) when a slide came up with a quote on it. The quote looked vaguely familiar.

Soon I learned why. The person presenting the slide explained that it was a quote of something I had said in an earlier FAB meeting.

The exact quote was: “The high speed research network is the Brick and Mortar of the 21st century.” Apparently I had asserted this during one of our meetings some months earlier, in a moment of gung-ho techno-enthusiasm.

I only vaguely remembered having said it, but I certainly agree with it. So I’m glad somebody had thought to write it down.

That said, my thoughts these days tend toward more fundamental shifts in societal focus. Young people today seem less interested in physical constructions than in mental constructions.

When you look at it that way, the new Brick and Mortar is Rick and Morty.

Free association using Google word suggestions

Free association health magazine article of course schedule maker studio apartment therapy dog shaped eyebrows threading salon centric brake pad thai food network marketing strategy game changing table saw horse head start up to have mercy college board of mice dropping acid rain barrel roll call home away bag lady bird bath salt lake placid blue ribbon snake eyes wide world cup cake stand by proxy war machine gun broker fee for sale tax return address label printer paper airplane movie theater seating chart house party dress shoe rack and then she devil may day trade fair use case study music store credit union square root canal street fighter jet lag screw anchor tattoo design pattern recognition memory foam mattress cover girl scout law school bus Stop

First class

First class of the semester this evening. It’s an advanced graduate level class, and I find those to be especially fun.

That’s because for one thing, the students are coming in at a very advanced level, with mad skills and original ideas. For another, advanced classes tend to be small, which means that every student has a good opportunity to contribute their individual voice and perspective.

I tend to organize these advanced classes as projects courses. Each student proposes and then implements two original projects over the course of the semester.

That gives them a chance to do original research in a relatively structured and guided setting. Also, sometimes their class project ends up getting published as original research in very cool places.

The project of one of the students in last fall’s class ended up becoming a very well received paper at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference. It’s really exciting to get to work with students who have the combination of talent and drive it takes to do that.

To be sure, teaching advanced students is more challenging. To do it right, I need to bring my best game.

But hey, what’s wrong with that? It’s always better when you can do things first class.

Novel television

I was having a conversation with my cousin, who works in film and television production, about the difference between working on a TV show intended for broadcast, and one intended for internet distribution. It turns out they are quite different.

When you work on a show intended for broadcast, you need to produce a finished episode each week. Even as each finished episode goes out on the network to be seen by the public, your crew is already working on later episodes of the season.

But when you create a show intended for internet distribution (eg: a show commissioned by Netflix), you generally deliver the finished season all at once. Audiences are then free to watch one episode at a time, or to binge the entire season. It’s entirely up to them.

This means that up until the moment you deliver the finished season, you always have the possibility to go back and modify earlier episodes. My cousin tells me that in some cases, the show runners realize that a character arc needs to be adjusted, or an extra shot needs to be inserted in an earlier episode to help clarify something seen in a later episode.

In extreme cases, they can even decide, late in the production schedule, to add a new character. In that case they can shoot and then insert new scenes between that character and the show’s principal characters, to distribute into multiple past episodes of the season.

This greater freedom to go back and tinker allows creators to make decisions based not just on the script as written, but also on discoveries made in the course of production itself. The process is less like writing a diary, and more like writing a novel.

There was a time when nobody except Joss Whedon could produce long form commercial episodic television with the character depth, resonant overlapping story arcs and meaningful psychological growth that we associate with novels. Thanks to internet distribution, such things can now also be accomplished by mere mortals — albeit very talented mortals.


One thing we seem to lose as we make the transition from childhood to adulthood is our easy sense of wonder. I still remember very clearly the feeling when I was six years of encountering a forest in the summer just after the rain had stopped, or lying on my back looking up at the sea of stars at night, or watching a hot air balloon take off and sail gently away into the afternoon air.

I didn’t think “I know how that works,” or “Here is this fits into my idea of science / eternity / The Universe / God …” I just took in the magic of it all, and felt pure wonder.

There are times when I can still do that. But it’s harder now. My head has become crowded with thoughts of what needs to be done, which tribes I belong to, the urge to attach significance to everything.

Sometimes I think that as we leave childhood, we are in continual danger of forgetting one of the most important aspects of our existence — our boundless capacity for wonder. If we can just manage to hold on to that one superpower, while also embracing the complementary superpowers of our adult minds, just think of the wonderful world we could create for each other.

Talking about movies in 1860

Suppose you were to take a time machine back to 1860. While you are there you meet Charles Dickens. Knowing him to be an intelligent and literate person, you try to describe to him the future medium of cinema.

You know that he would already know about photography, which was about two decades old at the time, and he would certainly know about theater. So you might tell him, imagine a combination of photography and theater — a kind of play consisting of thousands upon thousands of photographs one after the other. So far so good.

But then you start to explain that the faces of the actors may be up to twenty feet tall. Also that every few moments the point of view will suddenly change, perhaps from very far away to mere inches from an actor’s face, and then back again.

As you start to describe the conventions of movies, Mr. Dickens gradually gets a look of disbelief on his face. At some point, he realizes that you are probably insane.

“Nobody in their right mind,” he tells you, indignant that you have wasted his time, “would ever sit through something like that.”