When I think of classic films I tend to go fairly old-school. My thoughts run to Casablanca or The Third Man, or perhaps On the Waterfront.

Our lab recently decided to start a weekly movie night. We created a Slack channel where people could contribute suggestions for what to watch.

There were a number of interesting suggestions, but one in particular jumped out at me, mainly because of the wording:

the princess bride is classic

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “that’s a good movie, but how is it classic?”

Except what I was actually doing was staring intently at the word “classic” and thinking to myself “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

And that’s when I realized he was right — it’s a classic.

Octopedic arias

Today we did a solid day of rehearsals for the collective VR theater experience that we will be showing at the SIGGRAPH conference in July. It was exciting to see talented actors applying their wonderful stage smarts and improvisational wit to characters who will be seen on an entirely virtual stage.

The characters in this particular piece will look human (more or less), but for future productions that does not need to be the case. For example, using this sort of technology, it would be possible to put on a stage musical where every character is a different species.

But what would that be? Would it be akin toe July Taymor’s stage production of “The Lion King”? Or would it be more like the Disney film of the same name that it was based on?

Or would it be something else entirely? I for one would quite enjoy a love duet sung by an octopus and a tarantula (when they realize they have so many things in common). But I’m not sure exactly what to call the medium itself. Is it animation, puppetry, theater, immersive cinema, or something else entirely?

Anatomically modern human fashion

The anatomically modern human (AMH) has been around, as far as anthropologists can tell, for about 190 million years. At least that’s the age of the earliest fossil evidence for people who were us, rather than Neanderthals or Denisovans.

One thing I’m curious about is whether we AMHs wore clothing right from the very beginning. Obviously we wore clothing in the colder climates, but what about in equatorial regions, where temperature was not an issue?

Did we always cover our private parts, in all regions of the world? The reason I find this interesting is that it touches on the question of culture versus heredity.

If every AMH tribe, right from the beginning, wore at least some variety of what we would now think think of as a loin cloth, then it’s a good bet that the urge to wear clothing is an instinct. This would put costumery in the same general category as, say, natural language or tribal cohesion.

We all do lots of things that are not instinctive. For example, we read books and ride in cars. Neither of those two activities is dictated by instinct.

But things that are instinctive — like the sex drive or the love of one’s own children — are in a different category. They are not cultural imperatives, but rather biological imperatives, passed down in our DNA.

Is fashion a biological imperative? I suspect that some anthropologist knows the answer.

A fire extinguisher filled with kerosene

I got into a disagreement with an old friend, without intending to. It was one of those weird situations where everything I said or did managed to make the situation worse. I felt as though I was carrying around a fire extinguisher filled with kerosene.

In a way it was like that wonderful Woody Allen short story The Gossage—Vardebedian Papers, in which the two characters find themselves inhabiting diverging realities. It’s very amusing when you read about it as fiction, but quite unsettling when you yourself are one of those characters.

On the other hand, I am finding that this experience has made me enormously appreciative of the relative normalcy of my other human connections. My Theory of Mind has moved into high gear, and I’m working much harder to understand the point of view of other people.

Which can’t be all bad.


If I were going to create a company about wordplay I would want to call it “Margana”. I like this word so much that I looked it up.

It turns out it’s the name of a genus of moths. It was also the name of a town in the vicinity of ancient Greece. Intriguingly, nobody alive today knows exactly where that town was.

The word has a few other associations as well. For example, Margana Wood was the 2017 Miss America contestant from Houston Texas who was asked to comment on our president’s assertion about the violent white supremacist rally in Charlotteville that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protest.

She was given at most 20 seconds, and here is what she said:

“The white supremacist issue, it was very obvious that it was a terrorist attack. And I think that President Donald Trump should have made a statement earlier addressing the fact, and making sure all Americans feel safe in this country. That is the number one issue right now.”

Rather brilliant insight, in my opinion. Seems like something everyone can agree on, unless they are white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers.

But the real reason I want my company about wordplay to be called “Margana” is sort of backward. I like the fact that it’s an anagram.

It’s official

Well, it’s official. Our Future Reality Lab‘s multi-person VR narrative experience Cave is going to be part of the Immersive portion of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Here is the description in the announcement on the Tribeca Film Festival website:

Cave is a coming-of-age story told through cutting edge Parallux technology, featuring a fully immersive holographic VR experience that can be shared by many audience members at once.

It’s a real privilege to be working with the amazing team of people who made this happen.

To our Children’s Children’s Children

When you work in developing new forms of media, you can’t help but keep one eye on the future. Many of the things you work on will amount to nothing, but every once in a while you will get it right.

It’s interesting to look back through history to identify times when people “got it right”. There are so many examples: movable type, the gramophone, radio transmission, projected cinema, binary digital encoding. The list goes on and on.

I wonder how many of the people who developed those innovations realized that they were shifting the very course of history. I wonder how many people today know when they are doing so.

Every once in a while someone is fortunate enough to come upon a new way of communicating that continues to echo down through the ages. What better privilege can there be, than to be able to bestow a gift to our children’s children’s children?

On the Threshold of a Dream

I wonder how many filmmakers in the silent era thought about the idea of talking movies. From a design perspective, we now know that the addition of synchronized sound transforms cinema into a radically different medium.

But we know this only because people actually went through the process of making talkies. Intrepid filmmakers experimented, tried out different things, failed and then tried again.

The technology of sync sound is very different from the design of movies created for sync sound. Knowing such a thing is possible, but having no experience of it, is like being on the threshold of a dream, but not having the dream itself.

We are now in a similar place with shared augmented reality. We understand the technology, and we have some theories about what people will do with it. We’ve even seen some cool demos.

Yet the real work of designing AR experiences for ordinary people has not yet really started. We are standing on the very threshold of a dream, but the dream itself has not yet begun.

Days of Future Past

When we try to describe the new immersive cinematic medium that our Future Reality Lab is creating, exemplified by CAVE at SIGGRAPH 2018, it’s difficult to properly convey the idea to people who haven’t seen it.

We can’t just say something like this: “It’s like going to the movies crossed with theater crossed with being in a video game.” If we do that, people usually get the wrong idea about what we’re up to. They think that it’s a video game, or that it’s like Facebook Spaces or High Fidelity, when it’s really very different from any of those things.

I find myself imagining a futurist in 1926, in days of future past, trying to explain the soon to be released film The Jazz Singer. Maybe this visionary could say: “It’s like a movie, but with sound.”

But that wouldn’t work, because movies already had sound. Pretty much every movie you went to back then had a score, and a very talented organist playing along.

Maybe the futurist could say: “It’s like a movie, but people are talking.” But that wouldn’t work, because actors already talked in movies. And the intertitles were right up there on the screen, to tell you what they were saying.

Maybe it would have worked best if the futurist had said: “It’s like a movie crossed with radio.” That might have sounded completely crazy to people in 1926, but they probably would have gotten the idea.

We need to find our equivalent, for what we are doing in 2019, to “It’s like a movie crossed with radio.”

Come Saturday morning

Come Saturday morning, I find myself sadly reading about the death of Andre Previn. Which makes me think of Dory Previn, which makes me think of the song Come Saturday Morning, for which she wrote the lyrics, which makes me think of the movie The Sterile Cuckoo, for which that was the theme song, which makes me think of Liza Minelli, who starred in that movie.

The film is a tender coming of age story in which Liza plays a young woman who falls in love with a man who seems also to be in love with her. But then it turns out he’s more attracted to men than to women.

Liza then went on to superstardom in Cabaret, a musical drama set in Germany between the Wars in which she plays a young woman who falls in love with a man who seems also to be in love with her. But then it turns out he’s more attracted to men than to women.

During the years when both these films were produced and released, Liza Minelli was married to singer/songwriter Peter Allen. He seemed also to be in love with her. But then it turned out he was more attracted to men than to women.

Once, in my younger days, I took a girl I liked to a Peter Allen concert. At some point in the middle of the concert the young man sitting on the other side of me, to my great surprise, made a pass at me.

I thought it was very rude of him. Regardless of his theories about my preferences, it was obvious I was there with someone else.

Now, many years later, as I look back on the semiotics of all this, a different theory comes to mind. Perhaps that young man wasn’t insulting my date, but subtly complimenting her.

Perhaps that was just his roundabout way of suggesting that the young woman beside me was the Liza Minelli of our generation.