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Angry Birds is an iphone game where you use a slingshot to propel exploding birds (yes, really) at various structures containing pigs, which you're trying to kill by hitting directly or by causing the structures to collapse on them.  

The funny thing about Angry Birds is that it's actually not a great game in one sense -- while playing the game takes some skill, skill is no guarantee of success.  

The trouble is that your only control method,  the angle at which the bird is launched from the slingshot, is the input to a chaotic system with sensitive dependence on initial conditions.  If you launch the bird at an angle of 72 degrees, it hits a block off to one side and then stops.  If you launch the bird at 73 degrees, it hits the same block off to the side a little bit harder, which starts a crazy chain reaction that causes much of the structure to collapse.  If you launch the bird at 74 degrees, it hits the block even harder, and the force whacks another block way out of place, but it does so in such a way that the structure remains standing, making it even harder to hit the pigs.  Basically, it's the butterfly effect, the favorite metaphor of chaos theorists to describe phenomena like the weather where tiny changes in initial conditions make a big difference.  

Since you can't precisely aim the birds, it's difficult to control the angle -- you just know that you sometimes get good results from hitting a particular area.  

If you graphed the score you got from the full range of launch angles, it probably would have fairly chaotic properties in high-scoring regions.  It would probably look like a one-dimensional version of this, which is a map of which magnet a pendulum ends up attracted to when started from different angles:



See those messy regions?  Those are areas where your predictive power is diminished, where the score isn't up to you but instead up to something effectively outside your control.  Psychologists have a name for this -- partial reinforcement.  This basically means you only sometimes get rewarded for a behavior.  The ironic thing is that this is more effective at entraining that behavior than full reinforcement.  

There are other sports, such as bowling, that also exhibit these chaotic characteristics, but good bowlers have found a stable region in the chaos that they can hit consistently.  

Angry Birds, once you reach a basic level of prowess, is less like a game of skill and much more like something else entirely -- a slot machine.  
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This article spends about three lines on the benefits and several paragraphs on the drawbacks.  

Let me correct that a bit:

Even as an infrequent commuter, I really love the fact that I'm no longer slowed down by 2-20 minutes just to hand someone $5.  That time doesn't benefit anyone -- it's a secondary toll, a "cost of collection" that simply vanishes.  Sometimes, though, the lines are long enough that I can't get to the fastrak lane without waiting for a while in the toll lanes.  

It's true that their implementation could be better -- rental cars should have fastrak support built in, with the bill automatically added into the rental.  The places to buy prepaid passes should be next to the bridge, not somewhere else.  Maybe there should be one toll-collection line kept open, and people will quickly learn not to use it anymore.  

I didn't realize some people form social relationships with their toll collectors, but it seems like the loss of brief social interaction with them is more than outweighed by the gain in social interaction you'll get by having more time at your destination.  


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This video reminded me of how a lot of our dreams about robotics over the last 50 years are coming to fruition.  Ideas that have been dreams long deferred are starting to roll out quickly in research labs.  There are of course significant barriers to deploying some of these systems for consumer use but I expect that to change quickly.  

Watch a team of autonomous helicopters build a primitive structure:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W18Z3UnnS_0 -- lj sucks... youtube embed is broken


The developments appear to be coming quickly now; I was very excited by Google's recent ambitious yet underreported Manhattan project to build a truly robust self-driving car.  
Here's what I think will make the robotics revolution happen easily:

- Complex semi-automated production lines that can build robotic toys like the Pleo, which has almost 2000 parts -- This will make production costs for complex robots low enough to be viable for home use.
- 3D vision technologies like the PrimeSense camera (which is used in the Kinect I'm so fond of) -- This will enable robots to easily see and maneuver through a wide variety of environments.  A lot of hard 2D vision problems are easy in 3D
- Standards for robotics software systems such as Willow Garage's ROS, which will simplify the development of hardware and software ecosystems for robotics.  Willow Garage isn't trying very hard to make money despite being for-profit, but they are helping create the substrate to give birth to a new industry.   

---

Anyway, I'm home sick.   Time for a nap.
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There's been a trend for several years now to lower the minimum effort required for social interaction.  Emailing is easier than letter-writing, blogging is easier than emailing, tweeting and texting are easier than blogging.  I predicted a couple of years back that soon services would come along and automate the horrible burden of tweeting mundane details of your life.

Now there's a new service that provides scripted sexy text messaging.  This way, you don't have to actually think about what you find attractive about your partner; you just choose between message "a" and "b".  Any button-pushing monkey can do that.  The dialogue system reminds me of early 1990s adventure games.  Of course the reason those dialogues were limited is because you were dealing with a primitive NPC (non-player-character) with no artificial intelligence.  In this case, you're dealing with two humans who (presumably) love each other, or at least want to get in each other's pants.

I doubt this is the decline of Western civilization; after all, Hallmark pre-packaged sentiment cards have been around for a while.  But I think if I found myself unable to carry on an actual conversation about my sexual desires with a partner, it would be time to move on, not use a handy crutch.  
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I've been working on other things with the Kinect, but I do want to keep making multiple reality videos.

I got a couple of friends who do acroyoga to come over.  Here's what we made:


In case you haven't been following along:

I wrote some software to merge multiple 3D video streams captured by the Kinect into a single 3D space. Objects from each video stream are superimposed as if they occupy the same physical space, with nearby objects from one video occluding more distant ones from another. Sometimes objects overlap, creating interesting mutant forms.
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As most of you know, I've spent the vast majority of the last 2 years not working -- instead I've chosen to focus on developing other skills and experiences, including traveling the world, fixing my insomnia, improving my nutrition, developing an exercise plan that's changed my body, improved my health, and taught me lots of fun physical skills (rock climbing, snowboarding, parkour, yoga, and hang gliding), doing lots of creative projects, and getting involved with the disorganization of the Ephemerisle festival.  

Despite the fun of my laid-back adventures, I've been missing working on a big, meaty, potentially worldchanging project.  I have looked at various opportunities, but I've been hesitant to jump into anything, knowing firsthand just how much work a startup can be.

However, at this point, I'm excited enough about new possibilities created by low cost 3D computer vision that I'm eager to start something new.  Technologies like the Kinect allow people to capture the world around them in 3D, enabling them to easily bridge between the physical and virtual worlds.  How important is 3D capture?  I think it will ultimately become as important as photography.  By capturing objects and environments in 3D, you will be able to do many things you cannot do with photographs.  You will be able to rotate around objects and see them from many perspectives, or walk through real environments as virtual worlds.  It's the difference between looking at a scene and being *in* the scene.  Better yet, you will be able to seamlessly mix physical and virtual worlds -- you could upload all your favorite physical objects into an online virtual world, drop virtual annotations and objects onto a physical environment, and preview changes to the physical world (such as new furniture in your living room or new clothing on your body), among numerous other things.  While many of these things are happening already, they have not been within reach of consumers until now.  

While some of the more far-out visions for the seamless merging of physical and virtual worlds will take years to come to fruition, I'm looking at some ways that I can provide some useful tools (and make some money) in the short term.  Unlike my last company, which took on a lot of funding and became divorced from the realities of the market, I intend to dramatically shorten the cycle of market feedback.  

I'm developing a toolset that will make it as easy as possible to use a Kinect for various 3D capture applications.  I should leave the specifics out of this public post, but I encourage those of you who share an interest in the possibilities of 3D vision to contact me.  I'm already working with two potential clients.  

This is all very exciting, which is exactly what work should be.
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A friend of mine saw my Kinect videos and contacted me about filming him doing Iaido.  

Iaido is a highly stylized Japanese martial art in which practitioners fight imaginary opponents in a scripted battle, playing each of the positions in the battle one at a time.  A lot of importance is paid to the position and timing of the movements, ensuring that they align with one another.  Basically, the Kinect software I wrote was perfect for assessing how well he did.  The filming conditions were not so good and I didn't have much time, so this is more like a proof of concept. Hopefully I'll get something better when he's next in town.

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If there was a *book* about a blue hedgehog that spins himself into a featureless orb as he dashes through an island filled with strange and highly distinct biomes, each meticulously constructed to both let him both revel in the pleasure of moving as fast as possible yet threaten him with constant (but temporary and thus perhaps meaningless) death from inexplicably placed spikes, giant springs, and pitfalls, with giant floating golden rings representing the abstraction of wealth that can somehow buy happiness if enough of them are attained, and with all other living beings on the island encapsulated by robots designed to mimic the appearance of those living things while simultaneously entrapping them and forcing their minds to commit evil deeds as mindless drones for a distant and aloof lone overlord, you would probably think it was an ironic commentary on animal rights and the nature of selfhood and self-determination in a transhuman future world as written by a creative writing major who enjoys hallucinogens on a regular basis.



What happens with these genres is that they evolved over time from something simpler, gradually becoming worlds unto themselves with their own tropes, in-jokes, and semantic structures.  For people who follow along its evolution or are surrounded by the end products from an early age, it doesn't seem strange at all.  It's happend with rap, Noh Theater, hentai porn, action movies, and lolcats, among other things.  However, it seems that this development is especially intense in certain video games.  I think it takes someone translating the genre to a different medium (eg Scott Pilgrim vs The World) to show how strange it's become.  
mattbell: (Default)
I wrote some software to merge multiple 3D video streams captured by the Kinect into a single 3D space. Objects from each video stream are superimposed as if they occupy the same physical space, with nearby objects from one video occluding more distant ones from another. Sometimes objects overlap, creating interesting mutant forms.


Next, I want to make 3D-merges of cats, dancers, silk aerialists, martial arts experts, that painting Nude Descending a Staircase, that scene from Alien, and much more...

Also, I want to take a moment to send some hate in the direction of WMG for blocking the original audio track on this video (KT Tunstall's Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, which was *perfect*), forcing me to re-edit the whole thing with a new song. They need to get with the internet age and realize that they shouldn't say no to awesome free advertising.
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Apparently Facebook messages are a major factor in divorces now.  This isn't surprising.  If you tell your spouse you'll be in Place A doing Thing A, but you end up going to Place B and doing Thing B, it's getting easier for them to find out.  Even if you turn off Google Latitude and other location-based services and don't post about your actions, you still might run into someone else who will photograph you, put it online, and tag you.

This goes for non-relationship things as well.  If you email someone that you're too tired to go to their party, but you really aren't going because you heard about another party that you want to hit up, they're more likely to find out now.  You could tell *everyone* at the party not to post online that you went, but that's a lot of work, it requires their cooperation, and it makes you look bad.  

I imagine that relatively soon there will be "stalker" software that will track a person's appearances, actions, and movements across multiple social networks and location-based services, allowing you to synthesize all online information about them available to you into a coherent story of their actions.  However, it won't be called "StalkPro"... it will be something more like "FriendFinderPro" and will be marketed as a way of seeing what cool stuff a specific friend is up to and what you could join in on.  It will be the newest, most efficient way to catch up on what the people you care about are up to.  Everyone will love it.  

Opting out of the digital world entirely is not an option, since others will post about you.  So ultimately, the only two options are to live honestly or quickly acquire a reputation for being dishonest.  Your choice.  
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 Lest I be getting lazy on a Friday night, I made a 3rd Kinect video.   Here is another fun thing you can do with your own software on a 3D camera:



By taking a 3D snapshot of the room with furniture in it, I can remove the furniture and then wander in the 3d "ghost" space left behind.
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I made some improvements to my program from yesterday.  Now I can control how multiple RGB/Depth images are merged together to create a virtual 3D sculpture I can walk through.  This stuff is seriously fun.

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I believe that consumer-level 3D cameras will have a huge impact on a variety of industries and will lead to the creation of many types of new products.  I've started to play around with the Kinect using the OpenKinect hack & open source codebase.  

For my first project I created a 3D sculpture tool.  In the video, parts of the sculpted image become updated when an object in that area moves closer to the camera than any other object has been in the past.  This lets you carve images in space by moving them closer to the camera.  This took a day of intense work -- I'm planning on making some upgrades to it over the next few days to make it even more interesting.

I also would love to shoot some more videos.  In particular, I want to do the following, though I'm totally up for experimenting and playing with different things:
- People doing acrobatics
- Dancing (especially couples dancing, like waltz)
- Recreating the painting Nude Descending a Staircase (nude or not-nude).  I need a better staircase than the one in my house
- A playful cat chasing things (preferably light or multicolored cat with short hair.  I don't think the camera would do as well with cats with long black hair)
- Moving the camera through lots of houseplants, or just one that is blowing in the wind.

Also, if anyone has a recommendation for a better Mac screencapture program, I'd love to hear it.  The one I downloaded last night hiccups and causes other issues.
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If you had access to every email, every voice conversation, every document, every photo, every work of art, every blog post, a person ever created, public and private, how accurately do you think a dedicated scholar and highly talented character actor could emulate them?  

Researchers are playing with pervasive life recording devices that will gather the data that could make this sort of thing possible.  I believe that in the future, an advanced artificial intelligence would be able to use this data to essentially bring this person back from the dead.  Even though you would not have access to their internal monologue, it's likely a lot of it could be guessed by observing the "boundary conditions" -- their actions in the world.  The task would be made even easier if, in the future, fully detailed (down to the synapse level) models of different human brains become available.  This would turn reverse-engineering a particular person's brain from a black box problem into more of a white box problem.
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Videosurf is a new video search engine that has somehow managed to design a better video search site than Youtube while getting permission from Youtube to use their entire database as well as the databases of other sites.  The interface is even more Google-y than Youtube -- it lets you refine the search by video length and other information, and offers little thumbnail snippets that are automatically chosen to give you a sense of the different parts of the video.  (It's doing image processing on the video to find the most relevant parts and to learn more about the content)  You can click the snippets to jump directly to the relevant part of the video, which allows you to deal with those annoying videos where nothing happens for the first minute or two. 

Check it out:

videosurf.com


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This is Apple's original logo:



It seems like the sort of thing that a couple of young idealistic hippie-ish founders, one of whom lived on an agricultural commune for a while, would come up with. 

The apple, in this case Newton's Apple, is a tool for the pursuit of insight, transformation, and progress.  It's a nice metaphor.  I am curious if the second Apple logo, with the bite on the side, is a metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden.  It would be a similar idea.



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This company promises to help you check the tone of your emails before sending them.  I have no idea how well it works, but it could be a great idea if implemented well.  I could see offering a variety of plugins for correcting specific issues -- eg you could create a filter to help you use Non-Violent Communication or apply Gottman's principles for communication. 





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It would be possible to have ads interactively pop up as you're writing an email.  Semantic analysis of your email-in-progress is difficult but not outside the realm of Google's capabilities.  So theoretically it should be possible to get a sense of where your email is going and start serving highly targeted ads that will make the email better, or at least more commercially lucrative for somebody.  The ads could be mixed with targeted search results relevant to what you're typing so that it feels more valuable to the user as opposed to a pure commercial play.  Like many of the other things google and facebook are doing these days, it could come off as several shades of creepy, but past experiences have shown that people quickly get used to these interactions.

So imagine...

- You're writing an apologetic email, and ads for gifts the email's recipient might specifically like start popping up (before you think it's an intrusion by google to share someone else's private info, ask yourself if you have a public blog or facebook account where this info could be gleaned)
- A friend asks you for advice, and as you're answering, links relevant to your answer (some determined useful by pagerank, some placed ads) pop up offering supporting documentation
- A frustrated email to customer support that you're writing starts popping up other people's experiences with the product that are similar to your own, as well as discount sites for replacement parts. 
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The WSJ has an interesting article about virtual girlfriends.

Japan's solution to any pressing shortage (eg elderly care) is usually technological (eg robots), and this is no exception.  New virtual girlfriend software for the Nintendo DS allows lonely guys to get (some smidgen of) the experience of having a girlfriend. 

What baffles me is that all the girlfriend characters appear to be very passive-aggressive and needy.  This was a deliberate choice by the software creators to sell more virtual goods -- if the girlfriend doesn't receive a certain amount of virtual gifts (paid for with real money), she sulks and becomes cold and withdrawn.  There are now real-world tie-ins, including a vacation resort town in which you can please your virtual girlfriend by going on a romantic weekend with her *in which you pay the couples rate* at the hotel.  If Farmville were like that, you'd have to periodically visit expensive real-world seminars on crop cultivation in order to prevent your virtual crops from dying. 

I don't understand why people who are into virtual girlfriends would choose a "challenging" one that so obviously manipulates them instead of one that's more supportive yet still interesting.  What they should have is one that helps them build social skills so that they can eventually get a real girlfriend.  Actually, it would be cool if some of the virtual girlfriend's behavior was puppeted by real-world people (say, a low-cost outsourced team in India) using instant messaging to provide more interest and variety.  Instead of spending their money on virtual goods, they could pay a monthly rate to have a live human create a much more intricate experience.

Then again, I don't understand the "shower a girl with lots of expensive gifts" mindset, so perhaps there is an appeal to the manipulative passive-aggressive virtual girlfriend.
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Facebook has a feature called Friend Finder that allows you to import your email contacts into facebook so that you can add all your contacts to your facebook friends list.  However, this requires that you provide Facebook your email address and password.  A lot of people don't trust Facebook, so people are understandably leery about providing the keys to their personal correspondence.

However, recently Facebook has started using peer pressure to convince you to use Friend Finder.  What they do is show a couple of your friends who have used it, and suggest that you use it too.  However, these friends are not chosen at random.  It always seems to suggest people who are either
(1) Very influential members of social circles I'm in
(2) Women I've dated that I'm still on good terms with
(3) Close friends

In other words, it's the people who are most likely to influence me.

It's not that hard to take guesses at who these people are.  (1) can be easily quantified by creating a formula that combines a person's # of friends, how many comments they get per day on their wall posts, how many events they organize, how many photos they've been tagged in, and how often people message them.  (2) and (3) can be determined by looking at how you spend your time on facebook -- the wall posts you comment on and the photos you look at.  I'm surprised Facebook hasn't turned it into a public metric, with people being given an influence and closeness level rating they can share.  It would make it more crass, but probably more addictive as well for a lot of users.

It's interesting to extrapolate forward what all this will look like in a few years.  Targeted advertising doesn't bother me.  I'd rather have the ads I see be interesting and relevant than uninteresting and irrelevant.  However, socially targeted advertising might be a different game.  Imagine an ad system that figures out your particular weaknesses and exploits them ceaselessly -- it can figure out exactly what you're insecure about and use the activities of your social network to embarrass, intimidate, frustrate, or otherwise pressure you into action.  For example a gym company could pay a social network to run ads of the form "[Name of girl who is more physically fit than you and who just started dating that guy who you had a huge crush on after he turned you down last week] loves going to [Name of gym].  Join now at a discount!" at the appropriately weak audience.  It's going to be an interesting future, and we'll have to learn to anticipate these sorts of tricks so as to be more immune to them.   (On a related note, see Paul Graham's Acceleration of Addictiveness)

On a side note, I think the password sharing issue is kind of silly because there's a fairly easy alternative.  Web services should allow you to have alternative passwords with limited access rights.  For example, gmail could have one password for full access and another password for read-only access to contacts only.  I'd give the second password to Facebook.  This would also fix my issue with Mint.com.  For Mint to work, you have to give them all your passwords to all your different financial accounts.  I like the fact that I have money in different places protected by different passwords, and putting them all in one place seems like a bad idea (eg Mint could be hacked).  If I could get a read-only password from each financial institution, I'd happily give those to Mint. 

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