I am starting to fully absorb the fact that what is happening here is unprecedented in our lifetime. Here in privileged parts of the world like the United States, we’ve been able to take the view that life goes on essentially unchallenged by the natural world.

Sure, there have been terrible natural disasters in particular regions, like the tragedies of hurricanes and earthquakes.

But in these modern times, the entire human world has never faced this kind of full-on attack by Nature itself. We’ve never been asked to think so deeply about just how fragile is the fabric of our everyday human life.

If we do manage to get out of this, I hope we will emerge with greater humility and wisdom.

Everyone is going home

Starting tomorrow, NYU classes will be conducted remotely on-line. And today we wound down our in-person operations at the lab.

Starting next week, we are planning to start having lab meetings remotely in VR. It will be a good opportunity to compare different VR meeting platforms, and hopefully to learn how we can create one that is even better.

Out in the physical world, it seems that everyone is planning on going home to family. Many people from the U.S. hail from smaller cities far from the West Coast or the Northeast.

People who come from such places have the option to flee the centers of international travel where the outbreak is worst. Unfortunately many of our international students don’t have that option.

For those who are able to travel home during the outbreak, there is something appealing about the idea of people working together at the cutting edge of technology, yet also able to connect with their families. Maybe it suggests a better vision for the future.

Realism in VR teleconferencing

Vi Hart visited our lab today. She and some of the grad students and I had a great conversation about holding meetings in VR — a topic which is obviously of great interest at the moment.

One of the things we agreed upon was that it is not all that useful to focus on realism in the avatars of the participants. When you are meeting in VR, the important thing is that everybody can focus together on the task at hand.

The shared “information physics” of the objects you can see, hear and manipulate together is of paramount importance. Your view of each other doesn’t need to be literally correct, because you can use your innate human intelligence to convey meaning.

This will work for the same reason that talking on the telephone works. We don’t need to see each other to talk on the telephone — we just need to make sure our meaning is clear.

So in a sense, working together in a VR teleconference is like having a telephone call where you can see where people are looking, and also what their hands are doing. I don’t think you need realistic avatars for that to be a very rich interaction space indeed.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. This is the day of the year when we celebrate about half of the people in the world.

In addition to population count, there are other ways to add things up. We could count total wealth. We could also count total number of people across the world who are able to vote in their own country. We could count the number of people who have never been sexual assaulted.

Alternatively, we could count how many people are valued more for their abilities than for their appearance, or who have never been denied an educational or job opportunity because of their gender, or have never been summarily interrupted while speaking with colleagues.

If you use any of those criteria, half the world’s population loses out big time. Which is one reason we need International Women’s Day.

Jedi council

For obvious reasons, the idea of many people gathering in one place is, at the moment, not so attractive. This changes the relative benefits of meeting in the same place physically versus virtually.

While it is not clear at the moment just how things will get with this virus, one short term prognosis is already clear: Try to stay away from crowds.

To that end, we’ve been starting to think of our research in this area in terms of the Star Wars Jedi council: You want everyone to be in their own body, and to have the feeling of being in the same physical place.

But they don’t actually need to literally be in the same physical place. They might, or might not. The point is that, as much as possible, it shouldn’t matter.

To me that seems like a pretty cool stretch goal.

Clever strategy

I’m surprised to see so many headlines declaring that Michael Bloomberg failed. Apparently the idea is that since he spent $500M and did not secure the Democratic nomination, he is a loser.

But I see it quite differently. The man set out to achieve something, and he succeeded spectacularly in his goal.

His stated goal was to stop the current inhabitant of our White House from being reelected. Clearly he would also want to help flip the Senate away from Republican control. Both of those things are much more likely to happen with Biden rather than Sanders as the Democratic torchbearer.

So he made a big noise, turned himself into a target, and got Elizabeth Warren and others to focus their attacks on him. By doing that, he allowed Joe Biden to arrive at Super Tuesday unattacked and unscathed.

Now Biden (whom Bloomberg likes) is ahead of Sanders (whom Bloomberg dislikes). In addition, Biden, being a moderate, is far more likely than Sanders to help win Democratic Senate seats in November.

And of course Bloomberg has wholehearted thrown his support (and his very large pocketbook) behind Joe Biden. I think the whole thing was absolute genius.

Future object appearance

Continuing the theme from yesterday, let’s posit for a moment that we are actually living in the world described by Vernor Vinge in his novel Rainbows End. Everyone is wearing augmented reality contact lenses, and the world around us looks like whatever we each want it to look like.

Yet that world will still be physical. A knife could still hurt you, and a cool glass of water will still be refreshing.

Will we gradually see a divergence from physical essence and subjective appearance? Will the actual appearance of manufactured physical objects gradually cease to matter, once we are all looking at them through our contact lenses?

Will the true appearance of a future coffee table or a grand piano actually be drab and nondescript, once nobody is looking at the naked object itself? Will people cease to hang pictures on their walls, once a framed picture can simply be “dropped in” to any room as a virtual object?

After all, we don’t decorate the electrical wires that run behind our walls, or the pipes that carry water to our kitchen sink. Nobody ever looks at those things, unless they are an electrician or a plumber.

Appearance modulation

Let’s say we all suddenly acquired the ability to modulate our physical appearance. In order to remove any inessential issues about technology, imagine we were all given the superpower that Mystique has in the X-Men universe.

What would end up happening? Would appearances converge or diverge? I can imagine a boring scenario in which large numbers of people simply choose to look like their favorite pop star.

But perhaps people will be more adventurous than that. Maybe appearances will start to diverge, in some interesting and exciting way.

Wouldn’t it be cool if people were to experiment with new forms of physical presentation. Clothing choices might end up being just one among many aspects of future fashion.

On-line virtual communities have already been playing around with some of these capabilities for quite a while. But I have a feeling the results would be different if those same capabilities were to suddenly show up out here in the physical world.

Dealing with the inner child

Yesterday I acted irrationally angry toward somebody whom I love very much. We both realized afterward that it was what is colloquially called my “inner child” who was throwing the tantrum.

That realization does not take away from the destructiveness of the moment. We all have a part of ourselves that is small and scared and still dealing with issues from a long-ago time. Yet we are also adults, with a responsibility to be kind to one another.

As we seek to protect our inner child, we need also to engage it, to speak with it honestly about what is causing us stress. If we try to simply protect it from all stress, eventually the child will react unfavorably to being removed from the conversation, and the result will not be pretty.

I am going to seek to do better to figure out how to talk honestly, yet of course gently, with my inner child, about the issues that cause me grief in my adult life. That is, in any case, far better than finding myself watching helplessly as my inner child, feeling unheard, lashes out at somebody else.