Through the Looking Glass

(Hi, friends! And welcome, new ones. Old friends may have noticed that I took last week off. My Grandmother passed away after 100 years of intrepid life, so I went up to Nyack, NY to see her off. She lived well — remaining in her own home, bookworming, playing bridge, drinking sherry, and walking downtown twice a week to volunteer at a local thrift shop — up until just a few weeks before the end. Here’s a story her local paper did on her last summer. She’s on to new adventures and will be remembered well back here.)

Picture me consoling the same pup who jumped up onto the kitchen counter earlier this evening to steal and devour a slice of this homemade pizza. Because after we discovered this atrocity, we unleashed a torrent of “NO! NO! NO! NOs” with severe pointing and cast her out into the backyard. Twenty minutes later, when we let her in again, she followed me upstairs just to show me how droopy and sad she was and so I gathered her up in my arms and all was forgiven. Twenty minutes really is the maximum sentence for a dog. Beyond that, you risk them concluding that they’ve always lived in the back yard and they’ve never even seen a pizza before…

CB, January 29, 2015

By now you’ve no doubt heard that Microsoft is cool again. If not, let me quickly bring you up to speed. Last week, Microsoft announced a pretty impressive new thing, which they call the HoloLens. It’s something they’ve been working on for many years; quietly, steadily, undistracted by the PR nosedive the Microsoft brand has taken since, well, Vista? Needless to say, it’s impressive that they’ve had this project running for so long and never even tried to leak the slightest tidbit to help them in the schoolyard of tech opinion. No, they pressed on, and here they are in 2015 with something way beyond marketing spin. And you know what? That alone — that commitment — is cool. Now, at first glance, it might look like an Oculus chaser, but it’s not. Not really. Yes, both are headgear. And, yes, both immerse you in virtual space. But unlike the Oculus — which completely obstructs your view of your immediate surroundings and replaces them with a 3D projection — the HoloLens is a translucent visor which projects holographic imagery on to what you see in front of you. Not virtual reality, but augmented reality. And, the HoloLens is smaller and lighter than the Oculus, yet it packs an unprecedentedly serious computing punch. As noted in an enthusiastic WIRED review:

“[HoloLens inventor Alex] Kipman’s prototype is amazing. It amplifies the special powers that Kinect introduced, using a small fraction of the energy. The depth camera has a field of vision that spans 120 by 120 degrees—far more than the original Kinect—so it can sense what your hands are doing even when they are nearly outstretched. Sensors flood the device with terabytes of data every second, all managed with an onboard CPU, GPU and first-of-its-kind HPU (holographic processing unit). Yet, Kipman points out, the computer doesn’t grow hot on your head, because the warm air is vented out through the sides…”

So, pretty neat. This is a computer, on your face, that you can see through, that projects holograms onto your field of view. So Oculus, Microsoft just called, and right now, I don’t think you have the cards. Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft, we can all agree on one thing: Thank god Ballmer’s not around anymore to be caught on video celebrating this. Nobody needs to see that again.

The HoloLens is going to be an interesting lightning rod for the next wave of computing. It represents a variety of dreams, both technological and existential, finally come true. Let’s start with a recent example: a less-dorky look! A lot’s been made of how HoloLens is basically the new white-men-wearing-Google-Glass, but at, like, David Copperfield levels of dorkiness. But let’s be fair. It’s not nearly as dorky as it could be. It’s no Google Glass at your wedding. Nope, not that awful at all. Nor is it nearly as adorable as Grandma wearing Oculus. It’s somewhere in between; the Goldilocks of face computers. Which, for now, is safe. I’ll allow it. But watch yourself, McCoy…

Another longer-held dream, of course, is ubiquitous computing. Not just that you can bring a computer anywhere; we’ve had that sort of ubiquity for long enough that imagining we had it earlier is at least four minutes of LOLz. No, what I mean is computing everywhere. If you can project a hologram with enough fidelity, every surface is a display. And if you can wear the computer and control it with your hands and voice, then our old friends — the peripherals — can retire. So long, keyboards and mice. It’s been nice. The HoloLens just made the world our computer. I mean, not really, but you get the idea. Some tech pundit is actually going to say that, and it’s going to sound pretty over the top. So, before we go dreaming extra big with this new toy, we should get real about the challenges. Because there are a few…

Voice interfaces, for one. Nuance gave us Siri — well, they sold Siri to Apple (too bad, Apple gets all the glory for that one) — and they’ve kept working on their own product, Dragon. Both are pretty decent. I rarely use Siri, to be honest, but I’ve used Dragon quite a bit to transcribe talks. And they work, surprisingly well! We also have Google Now. And we’re getting Amazon Echo. And I’m sure there are others. But the point is, none of them is perfect. None of them is as conversational as we’d want them to be, or really, as consistent as we’d need them to be in order for face-computers to untether us from our desks. All the geeks working on this stuff watched the same Star Trek, so we can trust they’re working on it. But that level of sophistication comes with a level of parallel computing that remains a bit beyond us. We’ll probably get there. The question is whether we can do it without melting these nifty visors. Chips be runnin’ hot! Which brings me to the next challenge.

Miniaturization without implantation. Look, everyone seems to assume a sort of Moore’s Law of industrial design, but things like lenses and power supplies and CPUs can only get so small and so transparent. With Google Glass, a lot of the crunching is done in the cloud. So yeah, you get a smaller face thing. With Oculus, much of the face-box is there to support the 3D screen. HoloLens, on the other hand, is surprisingly small given what it is: a standalone computer you can wear on your head and not look like the alien from… Alien. I mean, it’s impressive! But it’s not going to become a contact lens anytime soon. Honestly, I could see us figuring out some kind of implant a la Black Mirror, Episode 3, before we can figure out how to put everything that’s in the HoloLens into a transparent pair of contact lenses that stay in sync and don’t give their users cancer after a decade of use. Of course, who am I kidding: The Entire History of You is going to end with A Very Special Cancer.

Last one: Gloveless gesturing. Actually, there are very few HoloLens gestures at the moment — I think I read somewhere that there are two or three — but for this thing to be as sophisticated as all our dream scenarios would require it to be, there will need to be more. Way more. And then you’ll have to learn them all! And do the moves right. I’ve watched too many Zumba classes through the glass at my gym to believe that’s ever going to happen. Seriously, though, how many people do you know who know sign language? Right. Not many. Why? Because it’s hard. So, the gestural language is going to have to be simple. Second, most of the sickest real-life Minority Report interface demos depict dudes wearing handwear lifted right out of Audrey Hepburn’s bureau. These guys are going straight for the ball. They’re scrapping Google Glass and going right for Google Tiara. My point is, they’re not as futuristic looking as the ones Tom Cruise had to wear, and you’ve got to wear them! Are we going to be wearing gloves all the time? If so, then go ahead and set up now. It’s going to be a problem.

Enough already with the challenges. What are the possibilities? Well, there are several possible applications described in all the HoloLens reviews so far. Playing 3D Minecraft. Live electrical help by way of a major Skype upgrade. Walking on Mars (without buggin’ out Total Recall style). Pretty cool stuff. What else could we dream up? Here are a few, just off the top of my head:

  • Live sports infoporn. You’re at the sportsball game, wearing a big puffy sweatshirt, freezing and uncomfortable and everything, but hey, you can see the yellow line and the arrows with the downs and all of that. Live stats! That could be big.
  • The best film extras ever, like being able to switch to raw footage as easily as turning on subtitles, or director commentary overlays, show-me-the-wires, what-city-is-that?, hey-that’s-a-stand-in, etc. It would be like Pop-Up Video, only less cute and way less annoying. People who bought The Criterion Collection also bought…
  • Try-it-before-you-buy-it… anything! How does that sofa look in your living room? Will the washing machine fit there? Do these pants make me look fat? All without leaving the house. Remember the IKEA sequence in Fight Club? That. But without the post-materialism punk vibe.
  • Going the full 2-Pac with museum docents. Instead of the person with the umbrella, why not let Da Vinci himself tell visitors about the Mona Lisa? Anything to get them to stop with the selfies for god’s sake.
  • While we’re at it, why not city tours? Here’s Liam, he’ll show you around Edinburgh. He’ll show you where the city is centuries deep! He’ll draw you a diagram. He’ll overlay pictures from the olden days. And guess what? No Segways. We’re walkin’ folks, with face-computers. That seems safer than Segway-ing with face-computers, right?
  • Oh, I dunno. Novelty events. Like The Game only safer. Less “wait, what is real right now,” less destruction, and — spoiler alert! — less driving-you-to-suicide. I’m thinking like mystery dinner theater, or Clue-level intrigue here. But something you might pay $50 to do. This is going to be big for Salem, MA.
  • And that just made me think of better laser tag. Like, paintball without the paint. Actually, more like Goldeneye without the Nintendo64! Bros running around shooting each other in the face in an empty basement that, with HoloLens, looks like an empty basement. I kid. But the more I think about it, everything I was grouchy about with the Oculus just seems better with the HoloLens. And folks, I’m no Microsoft fanboy. I’m a Mac guy, so don’t even.
  • Heads-up-you’re-doing-surgery displays. You know, in case you forget where something important is, like, say, the spleen. Public health could probably find a million uses for this thing.

That’s a lot of possibilities! Whatever we do with this thing, if someone even mentions this as killer biz tech that will bring LinkedIn to real life, so help me… I don’t want to see one text bubble, one tweet, one “like” heart, nuthin’. Give me wonder or give me dirt. Keep the marketing graffiti to yourself. Oh, and one more thing to consider: The HoloLens is going to be just like most other new tech toys we get: All novelty and very little immediate use. We’re going to have to figure out what to do with it. Think about it: Do any of the demoed applications — or any of the possible ones I just listed off — exist as common problems today? When was the last time you thought to yourself, I really wish I could Skype in my electrician and let him holographically draw on my wall so that I can install this light switch myself? And really, how much point is there in that scenario? Surely, the electrician is still going to charge for her time. No, you probably haven’t run into that problem yet. But once the HoloLens is out there, we’ll start reverse-engineering problems to validate its existence. Just like we do right now with our smartphones. Few apps are the long-awaited solution to an age-old problem. They’re mostly the solution to the problem of what do I do while I wait in this line, which is really the solution to the problem of why do we have these things in the first place? And not that there’s anything deeply wrong with this. We’re creative animals. That’s a part of who we are. We make things. Some of them practical, many of them not. When something like this comes along, a common impulse is to immediately crystal-ball-up some listicle futurism. Something that says, hey, I know what this means. This is going to change this, this, and that. We do that because we want to both know how the story will end and know that we are a part of it. But the truth is, we don’t know because we haven’t written it yet. That’s a scary truth, and one that comes with responsibility. The response we owe the HoloLens is not to predict how the HoloLens will change our world, but to choose what we will do with the HoloLens, and what we won’t.

At the risk of going the full Thoreau, is there not one view, one place, one experience, one object, which remains better unwired? (So to speak people, because, yes, I get that “wired” is an anachronism now.) And, I say this aware of the particular Thoreauean hypocrisies of which we are all guilty. He, of living the “primitive” life whilst laundering his clothes back at Mom’s house; we, of drawing our own baroque lines of demarcation between the “real” and the digital, knowing full well that we will overstep them ourselves with impunity, and, of course, in loneliness, as we will find virtually no compatibility between our rules and others. I say no screens in bed, you say, OK, but do Kindles count? In other words, to navigate our digital engagement is to wander blindfolded through a labyrinth and claim to always know where you are, where you are going, and not mind if you ever get there.

What will we do with the HoloLens? I don’t know. But it’s at least worth considering that maybe it’s nothing more than a toy, or an entertainment surface. Not to suppress it, or keep it there on some Luddite principle, but just to hold at bay the assumption that it must be a whole new paradigm — the inception of a new wave of computing that is so ubiquitous as to erode whatever lines between real and virtual still exist. Or, more likely, the already faint line between work and not-work. It’s a matter of choice. It has to be. But I’ll admit, I’m not exactly optimistic about this. Just the other day, Matt Webb of BERG fame was ruminating on the trajectory of the internet of things and wrote, “the internet won’t stay trapped behind glass.” Indeed, it won’t. But it looks like we might. Unless we choose not to.

On Screen: He Took His Skin Off For Me is probably the most powerful visual metaphor for intimacy I’ve ever seen. This is an impressive work hiding out in a scrappy, kickstarted, 10-minute student film. You should watch it. Today. What I love about this little film is that it takes something truly grotesque and deliberately presses in to it. Commits to it. This is a perfect way to make a film that is, ultimately, about a deepening relationship between two people. Often, intimacy is terrifying. It’s the sort of fear our body reacts to — in an involuntary way — before we’re even conscious of it. One partner may push the other toward growth by exposing themselves first — leading, in a way that may, at first, feel alienating or frightening. And then the other, having been thrust forward in some way, may look back and offer a hand to the other, as if to say, I’m here now, join me. This film, in it’s first and last moments, perfectly encapsulates that experience. It’s opening line sets it up: “Is this what you want, he asked. And I said yes. So he took his skin off for me.” And then, in its final moments, he, having been pushed forward by her, reaches back — quite literally — to draw her out.

Also On Screen, But In a Different Way: 12 hours of ambient sound from Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner. 12 hours of pure Enterprise drone. 11 hours of rain. 10 hours of old Enterprise bridge sound. 12 hours of DS9 drone. 12 hours of 2001’s EVA Pod idling sound. 10 hours of submerged U-boat. 12 hours of Babylon 5 ambient sound. 1 hour of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s bridge sound. 12 hours of Death Star. 12 hours of Dune sandworm. 12 hours of TARDIS. 12 hours of International Space Station ambient noise. 1 hour of Gaia. 12 hours of the deep bass stylings of The Nebuchadnezzar. And if any or all of that doesn’t drive you absolutely bonkers insane, here’s 10 hours of Imperial March. Or, 12 hours of red alert. Tell your friends.

Recent Tabs: “A bunch of dolls just kill everybody because they’re all so busy staring at their phones,” or, Next, On Black Mirror. As much as I’m a “fan” of the remix of Jeff Golblum’s weird laugh, I’m actually a fan of Jurassic Park Theme slowed down 1000% (h/t @vruba). “I literally died last night” actually means, “I am very much alive, but the only way to describe my behavior at the bar last night is to imply that I died.” This week, in presidential mic drops. And, this week in missed opportunities after presidential mic drops. You think Oculus is cool? Think again. “My secret to a long life has been staying away from men.” She’s 109, so, trust. This is a digital clock made by hand, with every single part — every resistor, capacitor, and wire — spread out and exposed to see. “The Jetsons, you see, got it wrong: It’s not Rosie who turns into the robot; it’s Mr. Spacely.Missed connections/capers. Do we call this a #longcomic? Wow, this footage taken by the Cassini Imaging system. “The blizzard? Well, I’m in favor of it.” “Me too.”

Written by Christopher Butler on January 29, 2015,   In Essays

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