The glorious immersiveness of the ordinary

Yesterday, invited a dinner party in London, I decided to walk. The first part of my several hour walk followed the river, along the Thames Walk.

But then I turned inland, and found myself far away from the tourist parts. I passed by the sorts of shops, markets and casual hangouts you see in real life, far from the somewhat constructed fantasy of London that tourists often see.

I can best describe it as the London equivalent of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Equivalent, but definitely not the same.

For example, at one point on my journey I encountered a gray fox. We both stopped, the fox looked at me, I looked at the fox, and then we each went on our way. As far as I know, there are no gray foxes in Brooklyn.

There is something about the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life that sets it apart, that gives it a special place in our experience. No matter how advanced virtual reality becomes, I don’t think we will ever want to give up on the simple quotidian pleasures of picking up something at the market or sharing a beer down at the local pub.

And that’s a very good thing. We should never take for granted the wonderful and glorious immersiveness of the ordinary.

Commercial VR storytelling outside the home, part 2

Yesterday I presented an argument that commercial VR storytelling must start outside the home, because it’s the only real way for that market to grow. Today I’m going to discuss the nature of the product that will evolve for that platform.

First of all, when you have lots of people in a physically shared space, putting them into solitary experiences is a non-starter. People who go out for the evening expect the thrill of a crowd.

Yet most existing VR storytelling content is essentially “a movie for an audience of one”. All of the aesthetic decisions have been made with the idea of focusing on a single viewer in one location. Which means that most of that existing content won’t work for a crowd.

So what is a good way to present VR narratives for multiple people? First and foremost, audience members need to be aware of each other.

Think about it — every single experience that people have when they go out for the evening involves awareness of other people in the experience. This is true for theater, concerts, bars, restaurants, museums, galleries (the list goes on).

This reiterates the theme that people who go out for the evening are seeking the primordial tribal campfire. Their instinct is not to wander out into the wilderness, but rather to merge with the tribe.

In VR, what form might this mutual awareness take? I’ll talk about that next time.

Why commercial VR storytelling needs to start outside the home

Today I attended a panel in which a number of people from the VR industry talked about the future of consumer level VR storytelling. And I found the focus confusing.

The problem was that most of the industry people on the panel kept talking about the home market. And that just didn’t make much sense to me.

In order to serve VR storytelling to people in the home, you need those homes to have good VR headsets. And other than people who play computer games, pretty much nobody has a good VR headset at home.

Meanwhile, there is a large opportunity here that is being missed. People will always like to get out of the house on a Friday or Saturday night, which for millions of people used to mean going out to the movies.

But these days, lots of people feel silly paying to watch a movie in the theater. After all, they are already paying streaming services to see perfectly good movies at home.

The only notable exception to this trend are the big effects films, like the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Going to the opening of one of those films is still an “event”.

So why not fill the need of people to get out of the house by creating new sorts of experiences in shared VR? I’m not talking about experiences for one person, but rather experiences that are truly shared by large audiences, somewhat the way audiences of today share an experience of a movie or a play or a concert.

This is not going to happen by trying to convince people to buy VR headsets. When an entertainment technology is still new and relatively expensive, people are much more likely to go out to a venue to experience it, rather than pay capital equipment costs for a home experience they don’t yet know much about.

After all, it took quite a few years from the time cinema became truly shared (when the Lumiere brothers started popularizing projected film) to when television began its cultural ascendency.

Early moviegoers went out of the house. Only later did movies arrive within the house.

At the end of the day, young people still need to leave the safety of the cave from time to time and gather together in the larger space of the tribal campfire. This is something they have been doing for well over a hundred thousand years.

And they do this for one very important reason: They are hoping to get lucky. That’s what keeps the human race from dying out.

And that’s why the first commercially successful VR narrative experiences will be outside the home. Technologies may change over time, but human nature never does.

Outside London pubs

Just arrived for a several day trip to London. I’ll be speaking on a panel tomorrow, and its nice to be here again (and to realize that my Oyster card still works).

Today at around 6:30pm I wandered out, in the neighborhood of Charing Cross, to do a little food shopping. My short journey from hotel to grocery store took me past several pubs.

Outside each pub was a sizable crowd. People of all ages and descriptions were gathered outside the pubs, happily chatting away.

Everyone had a beer in hand, and everyone seemed supremely delighted to be there. I was struck by the general mood — a sort of cheerfully jovial atmosphere that you don’t generally see in public places in New York City.

I loved the feeling of it, friends and colleagues gabbing happily away on assorted street corners, beer in hand, absolutely delighted to be in each others’ company. With Brexit looming, this may not be the easiest of times for Londoners, but there is something to be said for a People who have the capacity to share a simple moment of pure joy.

Object permanence, or not

I had a really interesting discussion last weekend with my colleague Julie Williamson about object permanence. It’s something her research lab has been focusing on.

We all learn, at an early age, that the object you see and the object that I see are one and the same. Somebody picks up an apple and hands it to me, and sure enough, the same apple still exists when I close my hand around it.

But once you start interacting in virtual or augmented reality, object permanence is a purely voluntary thing. We can choose to both see the apple, or we can choose not to.

Interesting questions come up when you start looking at the latter option. What happens when your sense of physical reality starts to diverge from mine? Is there any case where this is actually preferable?

In the world of computers we deal with this kind of thing all the time. If you and I have different file permissions, then a directory that I can see may be completely invisible to you.

But once VR and AR start becoming pervasive, these notions of diverging reality may start to invade our interaction with the physical world itself. This might end up seeming really weird.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be more like one of having different keys to different rooms in a hotel.

If you and I are staying in different rooms in a hotel, I can use my key to enter my room any time I’d like. You believe that my room exists, but you cannot enter it, or even see what it looks like, unless I invite you in.

It could be that diverging experiences of object permanence in VR and AR will end up feeling somewhat similar. Sometimes you won’t be able to see some object floating in the air between us, unless I give you permission to do so, and vice versa.

Maybe, after we’ve been doing this for a while, it will all just end up seeming, like, normal.

Dudgeons and Flagons

I game up with a new game today, pretty much by accident. To test my new text editor, I created a list of words in alphabetical order, picking the first word that came into my head. My word list looked like this:


But then I decided it would also be useful to have full sentences, so I just expanded each of those words out to a sentence. Without really thinking about it, I ended up telling a little story:

apple is a kind of computer.
banana is a kind of fruit.
cat is a small furry animal I keep in my car that likes bananas.
deli is where I get my bagels.
eatery is where I dine tonight because I do not feel like bagels.
friend is who is dining with me.
garage is where we will park the car while we eat.
hacksaw is what the thieves will use to break into the car to steal our cat.
internet is where we will look for the cat on our apple computer.

I was sort of surprised that the resulting string of sentences made any sense at all as a story. But it gave me an idea for a game.

A storymaster presents a random string of words in alphabetical order. The players all need to use those words, in order, within an original short story.

The winner is whoever the storymaster thinks wrote the best story. And to keep it fair, people take turns being the storymaster.

But we can also make it a drinking game to keep things interesting. Every time you lose, you have to down an entire beer.

Of course people will get upset when they lose — particularly after they’ve lost a lot of rounds. Which is why we should call it Dudgeons and Flagons.

George and Leonard

Today I went to see the wondrous exhibit about Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum here in New York City. A good friend reminded me that it is closing in a matter of days.

In my hand the whole time I was clutching a paperback edition of Lincoln in the Bardo, my current subway reading. I find the connection between the two to be fascinating.

Here we have two deeply brilliant and profoundly talented literary creators, each grappling with the mysteries of love and connection and human existence. One was born in Quebec, the other in Texas, but both are very much citizens of the world.

Even more interesting, Saunders was raised Catholic, but then migrated to Buddhism. When you read his work, you really get a strong sense of both his Catholic upbringing and his Buddhist beliefs. He uses the mystery of Catholicism to explore Buddhist ideas.

There is quite a precise parallel going on with Leonard Cohen. He was raised Jewish, but then migrated to Buddhism. When you listen to his songs or read his poems, you get a strong sense of both his Jewish upbringing and his Buddhist beliefs. He uses the mystery of Judaism to explore Buddhist ideas.

If you go to see the Leonard Cohen exhibition, make sure to catch Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber. It is a perfect way to experience Cohen’s transcendent conflation of the world of the spirit and the world of the body.

It also feels very much like being physically immersed in a George Saunders story. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Palate cleanser

My first lecture of the semester is only about a week away. This is going to be a very intense semester. For these last few weeks I’ve been working on my course notes, but I know there is still plenty more to do.

So I’ve decided to take a break from course preparation and work on a completely unrelated weekend programming project. My weekend project is small and self-contained, and doesn’t really anything to do with the course.

But it’s a way to sharpen my hacking chops in preparation for the semester ahead, without obsessing too much about the class itself. Sometimes, when you know you are about to dig into a really large meal, you need to start with a little palate cleanser.