Going for a walk in the Taj Mahal

I have been having so much fun hanging out in my virtualized lab space, that I’m thinking of moving much of my research there. It wouldn’t be a physical move so much as a perceptual one.

After all, I will still be in the lab. Anybody who wants to join me can simply put on a VR headset, grab a pair of controllers, and join in the fun.

In this alternate version of our lab, we will all have super powers. We can create objects simply by waving our hands, change the appearance of the world around us at will, draw animations in the air. Or maybe, just for fun. going for a walk in the Taj Mahal.

Of course we will know that we are not the real world, but that shouldn’t be a problem. When you read a book or see a movie, you also know that what you are experiencing is not actually the real world.

Any sort of virtual experience, be it a book, a play, a film or a computer game, is both less and more than reality. Broadly speaking, these are all forms of literature, tools for sharing and exploring alternate worlds of our imagination.

I wonder what will happen as we get progressively better at blending the serious purpose of collaborative work with the tools of shared immersive experience. Will our collective understanding of reality change as well?

I guess we will find out.


Forty years ago today
The Wall was taken down
Today’s the anniversary
Of something quite profound

Then three years ago today
(A date that still appalls)
We voted in a guy who vowed
To put up brand new Walls

Why then did we bother
To go through all that fuss?
It makes me wonder what the hell
Is wrong with all of us

The freedom of dreams

As I mentioned the other day, I have been overlaying a virtual world onto a section of this physical world, and creating a one-to-one correspondence between them. Items of furniture in my virtual world are exactly the same locations and dimensions as their physical counterparts, and walls are in exactly the same places in the virtual and the real worlds.

When I put on my Oculus Quest and walk around in this alternate reality, the distinction between the real and virtual worlds starts to blur. Why, I ask myself, can’t I just change the color of a wall here, or manifest a window there, or push up the ceiling to make it higher?

Once such transformations become easy, they seem like second nature. To live this way is simply to bring the freedom of dreams to our waking reality.

This has all been making me rethink my view of dreams. Once technology has become sufficiently advanced, instantaneous dreamlike changes to the physical world around us come to seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Perhaps our dreams have always been a window into our future reality.

Nunchi (when empathy is not enough)

There was an amazing recent article in the NY Times about the Korean concept of “nunchi”. I’ve been thinking deeply about this article.

Nunchi is, to a first approximation, “the subtle art and ability to listen and gauge others’ moods.” A person with “quick nunchi” can accurately read the mood of an entire room full of people.

It’s not a concept that is easy for many Westerners. This is largely because it requires the ability to actually shut up and listen.

The article in the NY Times discusses the difference between nunchi and empathy. You can be very empathetic, yet still misunderstand what is going on around you.

In contrast, a person with quick nunchi is able to correctly perceive whether empathy is even appropriate. This distinction is particularly useful when dealing with people who have narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies.

I’ve been thinking back on my own interpersonal interactions, and realizing that I would be well served by developing my own nunchi. Unfortunately, sometimes empathy is not enough.

Now I want to create worlds

Creating a 3D Web world in VR and sharing it with all of my students was so invigorating that now I want to create more virtual worlds. And that is what I am going to do.

Today I took a tape measure and measured off a section of our lab where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic. I am going to make that part of our lab my experimental “Metaroom”.

I am now building computer graphics versions of the tables and walls in that space, so that whatever I see when I walk around in VR, I will also be able to touch with my actual hands. Also, that way I won’t bump into the furniture! 🙂 Once that’s taken care of I can add whatever I want.

I plan to create floating artworks and creatures that respond to my presence. I also plan to make the world shareable so I can invite my friends to come and play.

After all, this is a Metaroom!

Never Metaroom I didn’t like

With apologies to Will Rogers, I just couldn’t resist the title of this post. 🙂

Today I’m mainly going to point you to the blog post I wrote for our Future Reality Lab. Today was a super exciting day at our lab: We surprised the students in my graduate computer graphics class by handing every one of them a shiny new toy: a brand new Oculus Quest that they can use for the rest of the semester.

In addition, we are going to show them how to create not just VR experiences, but “Metaroom” experiences, which I think are even cooler. If you want to learn more, you can read about it at my Future Reality Lab blog post.

Imagining the light bulb

Suppose the electric light bulb had not been invented yet. Which means that nobody had ever had any experience using a light bulb.

If you had asked people what they thought of such an invention, I imagine you would have gotten all sorts of vague and confused answers. For one thing, wasn’t this already a solved problem?

In the years before the invention of the light bulb, many cities had a well developed system for lighting via natural gas. There was a large infrastructure already in place to keep city streets light after the sun went down.

Yet after the light bulb had been invented, its many advantages seemed obvious. Not least of these advantages was the corresponding system of electrification.

Once electricity is running to every home, then it becomes possible to think about all sorts of electric appliances. As we now know, the cultural effect of having such appliances available in every home was utterly transformative.

What forthcoming technologies will be like the light bulb? Specifically, what inventions might seem pointless to us now in 2019, but will come to seem essential once they enter our future lives and manage to utterly transform our world?

I for one don’t want to just sit around and wait to find out. As Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Getting work done away from work

I noticed that when I was away from the lab, I was getting an enormous amount of work done. Not the same kind of work as when I’m at NYU — different work.

I think the everyday environment of an office or lab encourages a certain kind of productivity, but discourages other kinds. Once you are away from the every day regime, you find yourself thinking differently. That different way of thinking can be channeled.

This last week, traveling around, I ended up creating things that I don’t think I would have had the bandwidth to create if I were in my every day routine. It was all very satisfying.

Maybe I should travel more. 🙂

A new month

A new month is an entire world to explore, a vista of possibilities. It spreads out before you invitingly, asking you in, tempting you to take a stroll, to look around the corner.

Today is the first day of the month, and somehow that provokes my sense of adventure. What will happen that I could not have predicted? What changes will there be in my life and in the lives of those I love?

These are exciting questions because they touch on some very real existential issues. A month can be viewed as a contained experiment in the power of free will.

In the course of a month, you can set out to create a change in your life, and then see actual results of that change. And unlike a year, a month is a short enough span of time to assess and — if needed — to rechart your course.

I am looking forward to exploring the existential possibilities, to playing in my shiny new 30 day research laboratory.