Bruce Sterling and the convergence of humans and machines

Bruce Sterling is a tremendously inspiring science fiction author, futurist, design thinker and cultural critic. Menno Grootveld and Koert van Mensvoort had a great interview on nextnature.net with him about Artificial Intelligence, the Technological Singularity and all things convergence of humans and machines.

In this interview, Sterling explains in very clear terms how we are prisoners of metaphysical ideas when we believe in ‘thinking machines’ and entities which would become like artificial super-humans.

Of course, technologists are seduced by these ideas, but then their projects get unbundled into separate products and services.

It’s not that Sterling wants to prevent us from being too ambitious regarding computers and algorithms. In fact, he explains that by trying to think about our technological futures in anthropocentric terms, we actually limit what is possible.

Whether you are obsessed by the Singularity or not, this is a must-read interview.

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Avatars as digital personal assistants

Imagine that you don’t have to search for each individual app, select it, then use it according to its own little system. Instead you would speak to your device (smart phone, watch, headset, whatever) using natural language, and the thing would do whatever you instructed it to do. You could ask for a high quality French restaurant in a certain neighborhood of your city at a certain time and specify that parking should be easy and safe. Your device, or rather the “digital personal assistant” in it, would mobilize a number of apps and databases and book a table. That would be the era of the post-app, so Richard Waters explains in the Financial Times, writing about Artificial intelligence: Digital designs for life.

I wonder what form that personal assistant would take. A cute robot? Or rather something very small, almost invisible? In a virtual world setting such as Second Life and OpenSim it could be an avatar without a real life typist behind it, but chatting away like Siri responding more or less intelligently to questions and remarks. Such a bot could be the representation of a personal assistant.

However, such an avatar does not have to be confined to a traditional computer screen, just imagine what could be possible using Magic Leap or HoloLens. It would make our future digital personal assistant even more interesting…

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The anti-Minecraft

Lots of Second Life-people don’t like Minecraft. They consider it too primitive, too childish or whatever. I disagree, I think it’s a fantastic game helping young and not-so-young people all kinds of digital literacies. Joseph Flaherty Wired made me discover another game with Minecraft-like aesthetics, but with themed worlds which can be fully destroyed. It seems the worlds are not persistent, they are generated anew by starting a new session, yet no two sessions can ever be the same.

The new game is called Moonman and was funded via Kickstarter.

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Big tech in love with VR and AR, so we update our mindmap

Crazy times for virtual reality, or so it seems. ‘It’s the future’, people at Facebook say. Users will not only be able to experience immersive Facebook-experiences, but will also create them, Eric David posts on SiliconAngle. ‘Users’ means not just developer-types, but the average user. However, it is totally unclear when virtual Facebook-apps would hit the market.

While Facebook executives dream about immersing all of us in their product, some people at Apple share that dream for their own products. Apple was awarded a patent titled “Head-Mounted Display Apparatus for Retaining a Portable Electronic Device with Display,” which details a virtual reality headset powered by an iPhone or iPod, according to Apple Insider. The device does look not fundamentally different from other systems strapping your smartphones on your face such as Google’s Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus).

But we may still have to wait a long time before Apple presents a consumer-ready device, and that device could also be something rather different from Oculus and be more along the line of Microsoft’s HoloLens – as one could think looking at patents filed two years ago, BusinessInsider says.

Since I started a wiki mind map about Oculus Rift developments, quite some people added useful stuff to it. I now added these latest developments (use the icon with the arrow under the map to maximize):



Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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William Gibson captures the (gloomy) mood of the time

Don’t miss the latest episode of The Coode Street Podcast as it features author William Gibson. One of the topics is of course his latest book, The Peripheral, a story set in multiple futures. I guess ‘multiple futures’ sounds complex and the first part of the book is indeed bewildering. Wikipedia has a nice entry about The Peripheral (spoiler alert). I found the book intriguing because of the gloomy times we live in – think terrorism, war in Ukraine, societies in crisis, climate and environmental tragedies. In The Peripheral Gibson refers to a major crisis wiping out a big part of humanity, mysteriously called The Jackpot.

There’s no detailed account of what happens during The Jackpot except for some references to the climate. Yet the way in which Gibson talks about the Jackpot seems remarkably realistic:

And first of all that is was no one thing. That is was multicausal, with no particular beginning and no end.

A bit further it is described as

androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit

The climate change, caused by there being too much carbon, is an important driver of the catastrophes. People in the past “fucked it all up” so it is explained, at first they did not know what was going on and then they were unable “to get it together to do anything about it”.

But it’s not only the climate and the climate has multiple consequences. Like I witness it from our newsroom the world is an extremely interdependent, complex and delicate system breaking up at various places – environment, culture, society, economy, finance. It’s not an analysis I talk about here but a certain mood, and Gibson captures that mood brilliantly in his book.

If you wonder what a “peripheral” is in this context: it’s a cyborg avatar that users can connect to from another location. (Wikipedia)

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Why bother to blog

These latest weeks have been quiet on MixedRealities. I had some holidays end of last year, and the new year was one hectic rush of news about terrorism, the war in Ukraine and the elections in Greece. I continued online studying, however I did not participate in any Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but use other interactive ways of learning such as Treehouse for learning some programming skills. More importantly, there was this nagging feeling about blogging: why bother doing it now the world is flooded by Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook-updates (never mind Google+)?

When Andrew Sullivan quit blogging there was a new peak in the ‘blogging is dead’ debate. Kevin Drum on MotherJones responded with a post saying blogging isn’t dead but old-school blogging is definitely dying. He has a neat definition of old-school blogging: “a daily blog with frequent updates written by one person (or possibly two, but not much more)”. The reasons he mentions:

  • Conventional blogging doesn’t scale well. Nothing beats the engagement some good Facebook-posts can generate, and in order to make blogging sustainable, massive traffic and engagement are needed. Uber-bloggers such as Robert Scoble simply moved to Facebook.
  • Conventional blogging often takes the form of longer rants, which one can only fully understand if one is familiar with  previous posts and comments.
  • Professionalism. Big media hired good bloggers, experts and journalists started their own blogs but mainly link to content owned by the company they work for.

So, old school blogging is not cost-effective. What about new school blogging? A blogger can adapt to the reality that conversations often happen on social networks (and not only or even not mainly on Twitter, but on Facebook). This means self-contained posts with one theme. It probably also means tracking conversations which happen on social media and curating them on the blog.

There is something more. The reverse chronological order of the blog (and of Twitter) is no longer sacrosanct. Recency is no longer an absolute criterion as Facebook demonstrates with its possibility to organize the ‘stream’ based on importance and not recency. Maybe people want once again pieces of content which remain valuable over time, with a beginning, middle and end, beautifully crafted, finished and self-contained, as Alexis C. Madrigal said in The Atlantic. An example of this could be the longread format, think Snow Fall.

In the midst of all this doom and gloom about blogging I was rescued by Dave Winer. In a re-run of an old post he suggests this definition of what makes a blog:

If it was one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think — then it was a blog, no matter what form it took. If it was the result of group-think, with lots of ass-covering and offense avoiding, then it’s not. Things like spelling and grammatic errors were okay, in fact they helped convince one that it was unedited.

All of which won’t prevent Winer from using Facebook: “Because it’s a fixture. It will heavily influence the new systems of the decades to come.” In another of his posts, A note about blogging, I read:

Even if no one read my blog, I’d still write it. Not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s something like this — I would still cook even if I was the only person eating.

Winer refers to the Japanese hostages in Syria (both murdered now) and how they both kept blogs and their writing informed the reporters covering their story. Conclusion: “If you have something to say you should be blogging it.” For now, I stick to that.

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Microsoft’s HoloLens delivers a new level of augmented reality

Dieter Bohn and Tom Warren at The Verge had an amazing mixed realities experience at Microsoft. They tried out the HoloLens, a headset that projects holograms into real space. They report about having Minecraft on a coffee table and about an amazing experience during which an engineer who was communicating via Skype helped a reporter to fix a light switch, not only by talking but also by actually drawing on ‘his reality’. Sounds very weird but have a look at the video:

The applications go far beyond gaming of course: all kinds of support and learning situations could benefit from this.

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Virtual Reality as a Tool for Humanity

A short but beautiful video featuring the grandfather of virtual reality, professor Tom Furness. He can be situated directly into a tradition which goes back to Vannevar Bush, who in 1945 described the Memex-device in As We May Think – a technological dream of making knowledge accessible in ways corresponding to the complexities and challenges of the contemporary world.

Bush and Furness have a military background in common, and the desire to give humanity the tools needed to do something about very urgent and complex issues.

Without further ado, here is the video from Sebastian Sanchez:


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Virtuix works on virtual treadmill for military and police

Virtuix, the maker of the virtual reality treadmill Omni, prepares applications beyond gaming. Here you see the treadmill in a gaming context:

Roel Verrycken, the US correspondent of the Belgian newspaper De Tijd, had an interview with founder Jan Goetgeluk and asked which new applications his company is developing. Goetgeluk:

For training police or military personnel. We have a special military version which is a bit bigger and sturdier and which has some additional functions. Recently we participated at a specialized fair and there’s a lot of interest from that sector. Remember the attack on Osama bin Laden? The US military built the house in which he was hiding. Using the Omni the training coould be done virtually without having to build a complete house. Every possible environment can be programmed virtually for training purposes. We see a very important market there.

Asked how dependent Virtuix is on the development and commercial launch of the Oculus Rift headset, Goetgeluk explained Omni is compatible with all devices. He referred to the Samsung VR goggles, and said that smartphones will have the capacity to be transformed into virtual reality devices. “Everyone in the industry is determined to advance virtual reality. It’s still a fledgling industry, now we’ll have to gain mass market traction. That’s something for 2015.”

You can read the complete interview (Dutch language) on our newspaper website.

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Immersive journalism puts you in the middle of the news

How would immersive journalism look like? Immersive as in ‘immersing the reader/viewer/participant into a situation in such a way she learns something new’? Actually there exists a website immersivejournalism.com where journalist and scholar Nonny de la Peña discusses her work and ideas about this topic.
I first encountered this work of hers in Second Life in 2010:

But you’ll notice how she evolves and now uses virtual reality tools for her newest projects, about food banks…

…or about Syrian refugees:

Immersive video

Now I learned about a project by another team “which will be centered on live video, delivering an experience that feels more like documentary and photo journalism than a console game.”

They use new experimental cameras which are able to capture live motion 360° and 3D virtual reality footage.

The kit is made from 12-16 cameras mounted to a 3D printed brace, and then stitched onto a virtual sphere to form a 360 degree virtual environment. These new kits are also stereoscopic, adding depth of field.

The project is a partnership between Frontline, The Secret Location, and the Tow Center. You can read more about it on the Tow Center site.

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