virtual reality in education

The other day Dav shared an article that referenced this brilliant TED talk by Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine. Here two short excerpts:

It’s a machine, but inside of it, it feels like real life, it feels like truth. And you feel present in the world that you’re inside and you feel present with the people that you’re inside of it with. […] And that’s where I think we just start to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality. It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 00.46.05

I was hesitant so far to jump on the VR excitement train, but now I am definitely on board! Also because this semester at Uni we will be coding around with 3D pedestrian simulations viewed with a google cardboard, yay!

One thing I remembered while sitting inspired by Chris’ talk, were my synthetic synesthesia ideas from spring 2012. Two threads came together back then: learning about synesthesia and being super fascinated by it – and the other one was visiting Olafur Eliasson’s installation Your atmospheric colour atlas in Aarhus, Denmark. The installation was a room full of dense fog with light coming in different intense colors from the ceiling. You were intensely immersed in colors as you walked through it – other people with you in the room appeared only as vague outlines as they emerge from and vanish into their realm of colors.

Picture from Your atmospheric colour atlas by Olafur Eliasson.

It thought about the following addition I would make to the installation: wireless wristbands that send position and current emotion (measured by skin conductivity and heartbeat) to a computer that controls the colors of the lights in such a way that you are at all times soaked in colored light that represents your current emotional state. Let’s say red for anxious, light blue for relaxed or some scheme like that. As you encounter other people the emotional state of everyone is fully transparent by the colored aura surrounding them. Emotions, and therefore colors, might change when you meet someone. Which might turn out to be amusing, embarrassing or something else – but likely an impressive and novel experience.

This extended version of the atmospheric colour atlas, let’s call it “emotional colour atlas”, fits under the self-invented term synthetic synesthesia: temporarily faking synesthesia-like perceptional abilities by technical means with the purpose to deepen “situational awareness” and “creative presence”. So a visitor of the emotional colour atlas might feel inspired to develop a higher awareness of people’s emotions he interacts with in his life as an effect of being confronted with them in the form of intense colors. And so on… more thoughts about it with more ideas for “installations” here. Be warned though, it might be a laborious read, for it was merely a compilation for myself back then.

Besides empathy and sensitivity, could this approach serve in other fields as well? As some of my previous posts indicate, I am increasingly interested in education with the focus on elegant teaching concepts. Meaning not the circumstances of teaching but the pure point of “transmitting content” as to construct a “maximal useful and sustainable new neuronal structure” in the students brain :)

Let me reference once again Alan Kay‘s excellent TED talk from 2007: A powerful idea about ideas. THE most meaningful TED talk ever for me personally. In previous posts I referred to the excellent example he uses about the qualitatively different approaches to teach the pythagorean theorem. Now I like to show screenshots from a demo he gives using the software that he developed for the $100 Laptop with the Viewpoints Research Institute and others:Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 01.01.00

What you see there is the recording of a ball thrown from a roof, split into frames. Despite equal time between frames, you see how the distance the ball travels increases from frame to frame: acceleration. But what kind of acceleration?Untitled

To find out, Alan stacks the rectangles together that he inserted to measure the distance between the ball positions. Now it becomes visually obvious that the acceleration is constant, because the height of the rectangles increases linear! Finally he uses those insights to code a tiny program that models a ball falling down. And now comes the part where the teaching loop closes – he uses the video recording to show that the virtual model is accurately reproducing what physical reality does! Here a snapshot of the real and the virtual ball falling down side by side:


Now we come to the point of this post. In that sprit… how about using VR to augment a students vision with “Iron Man features” like tracking objects, velocities, trajectories and alike in real-time? The software could learn about object properties and help assemble experimental setups. For instance to countdown the moment to kick off the ball from a slide so that it’ll land exactly on the Lego train’s chimney that will pass by a few seconds later. Maybe the physics engine wouldn’t be parametrized correctly to begin with… maybe the student has to find the correct formula first or the right constant to put into the formula? In that way the “tangible reward” of getting the formula right are overlays of the physical world that are actually correct! Imagine a setup where a whole class has to find a set of formulas in that way in order to assemble a grand experiment where the digital model predicts accurately the physical experiment – awesome! Or a spellchecker of your handwriting? A fact-checker of what the teacher says… ?

So analog to “synthetic synesthesia”, the basic idea is: using technological augmentation of senses and perception temporarily in order to stimulate an inherent desire to expand ones own abilities and knowledge.

It stands to reason that cool, immersive and highly experiental stuff with much wow-factor is being tried out in the VR market because stakeholders want to grab their portion of the public attention. However, I think in the context of schools and universities it is also advisable to stay close close to the curriculum with VR experiments as to not further the gap of “exciting new stuff” and “boring school stuff”. Also the tool must step out of the way as soon as possible! This thought has to be living at the very base. Students should not become dependent on the VR tools, but get excited about learning the underlying knowledge themselves. Having it solidly anchored in your own brain must be the desire they should feel when using edu-augmenting technology.

primal fearscinations

Last weekend I was visiting my dad in his hometown Waal, a lovely little village in Bavaria. He told me he walked pass the church (here is a neat fullmoon-shoot of its pinnacle we took 4 years ago) earlier, where construction work is taking place. There he saw a skeleton being excavated by an archeologist. Of course I wanted to go there! Unfortunately the skeleton was already gone. It was however still visible where it was located for the past decades or centuries – until maybe just a few hours ago. Then we discovered next to the containers with demolition waste a tub filled with human bones, including skulls! Kind of creepy but also kind of cool! And probably normal routine for workers that move earth on sites were graveyards used to be?

Well, the remains of 100 billion humans have to go somewhere. I subtracted the current 7 from the 107, which is the estimated number of homo sapiens who have ever lived since 50.000 BC as shown here.

I do seem to have a little bit of a morbid side – at least I am weirdly fascinated by seeing pictures of excavations of skeletons! Two famous recent providers of which are the Homo Naledi in the Dinaledi Chamber (here the full paper), and in 2012 King Richard III of England. See a time lapse of the archaeological dig at the burial site in this article. At some point I would like to join a summer school in Archeology. “Ask a Mortician” is an entertaining and informative youtube channel on the topic by the way.

As a child I had terrifying fantasies (likely infused by the depiction of time travelling Terminator and alike) of beaming going wrong and subjects ending up in walls, under the surface or just deep enough under water so that they can’t make it back up in time.

Two primal fears/fascinations come together here. One more general that most people will resonate with: the reminder about ones mortality and the irreversible progression of time. And one that I might share with fewer people? Namely this (obvious) insight how intensely compressed and dense the 6×1024 kg mass is below our feet! And that grotesque shift in density from below the surface to the above-surface world. Again, obvious all the way, but mind-blowing to me nevertheless every time I drift into it during day or night dreams.

Did you know that “most of the known volcanic hotspots are linked to plumes of hot rock rising from two spots on the boundary between the metal core and rocky mantle 1800 miles below Earth’s surface”? More here, so cool!

And then there is deep water of course! Look at this picture, it fearscinates me so much! It exudes this silent void that is terrifyingly empty and promises complete freedom at the same time…

DrowningManNot sure about the original source, probably here.

To conclude this blog post I want to share Derek Muller’s brilliant video “Our Greatest Delusion” from his absolutely subscribe-worthy channel Veritasium.

mental capability

As a teenager (not anymore) I would occasionally lock myself into my room and smoke weed all by myself. While I was enjoying the giggly effects it had on social dynamics, I was more fascinated by the “psychonautic” journeys it enables one to go on. One of my self-imposed stoned mental task was simply to remember the start of a thought-trail. Which, as some of you might know, turns out to be an almost impossible task unless one gets very creative with mnemonics to a degree that the thought-trail itself contains hardly anything besides crutches to remember the thought of just seconds ago.

Another mental dynamic that both enchanted and irritated me fundamentally were recursive loops in the style of: “What am I thinking about what I am thinking. How might I think about in the future what I am thinking right now. How much of what I am thinking now could I have anticipated in the past. How much of all possible thoughts can I possibly think of now”. Deep enough into this rabbit hole I would again and again “feel” a quite tangible mental barrier which is not “transcendable”! As much meta as I am trying to climb, I will always only be able to think about me from inside me, no complete outsider perspective possible… obviously.

Wanting to challenge this kind of barrier might very well have played a role in my bygone venturing into spirituality and terminology like collective intelligence, awakening and alike. Of which older posts (before 2012ish) on this blog are vivid and amusing products of.

I returned to the path of science and programming. But also here, and especially here, I am confronted with my mental limitations constantly. In the context of my bachelor thesis I am currently investigating which design pattern in software architecture makes most sense for our challenge. A pattern here means a conceptual structure that has proofed useful in various contexts. It does take time to understand such a pattern and I am definitely the type of learner who needs to see and ideally rebuild little examples to comprehend a concept. I guess I need to rebuild the design pattern literally as neuronal structure in my brain to be able to use it in my active thinking? Obviously not “one to one” and the functioning of the ridiculously massive knowledge graph that makes up ones brain is beyond current scientific comprehension, but to some degree this simple transfer-analogy holds true I like to believe. Having useful structural concepts, categorization schemes, readily available in one’s mind can be worth the world – and that’s what expertise in general is all about, isn’t it? It does change your brain, physically. Learning is never of additive nature but it reworks the knowledge graph and therefore changes what can possibly be thought of by this brain.

Anyways, I admit to be really bad at comprehending new abstract concepts at times! I get annoyed with not being able to grasp it. If motivation trumps over quitting I try to work my way in from various angles. Taking breaks helps, going running or sleeping over it. I have seen people on my educational level being much better than me at incorporating new stuff into their thinking. I don’t see it as reason to be ashamed though, it only means I must continuously find crutches and creative highways for my tenacious brain to digest stuff. Or ways how to outsource or blackblox complex parts. Or, yeah, ignoring them long enough until someone else has to deal with it might be an option too.

Paradoxically I am drawn to the very abstract concepts that I seem to comprehend often so slow and troublesome. (Well, it seems often that way, doesn’t it? People get professional at what they were once bad in or vulnerable about.) It might very well be a driver for my interest in well composed and thought through educational content – wanting to reduce the mental pain of fighting through bad and inelegant materials.  And I don’t mean (only) aesthetically bad, bad are also and especially subtle choices of introducing concepts for instance in ways that might please the educators mind, but are likely to confuse learners systematically.

I am extremely curious about the mental capabilities people have and are developing. I find it so very beautiful if one is honest and playful about theirs. I love imagining what people could do together just looking at the union of their bare mental toolkits and temporarily ignoring social and cultural swamps that might weaken or hinder them to bounce off each other.

Here is a great piece about mental capability in Rich Hickey’s talk “Simple Made Easy“:

Then we have this other part though, which is the mental capability part. And that’s the part that’s always hard to talk about, the mental capability part because, the fact is, we can learn more things. We actually can’t get much smarter. We’re not going to move; we’re not going to move our brain closer to the complexity. We have to make things near by simplifying them. But the truth here is not that they’re these super, bright people who can do these amazing things and everybody else is stuck because the juggling analogy is pretty close. Right? The average juggler can do three balls. The most amazing juggler in the world can do, like, 9 balls or 12 or something like that. They can’t do 20 or 100. We’re all very limited. Compared to the complexity we can create, we’re all statistically at the same point in our ability to understand it, which is not very good. So we’re going to have to bring things towards us.

After all that talk about limited mental capabilities I’d like to highlight this section from Dr Sean Holden in this video [7:40 to 8:48] about our grand advantage over current AI. That is “knowing” what to ignore and doing so immediately and effortless:

[…] our ability to have a focus of interest. By which I mean: in our heads we have huge quantities of information and almost every single bit of it is completely irrelevant right now. I could be the worlds biggest expert on the mating habits of the Patagonian fruit bat. But the fact is, I am sitting here talking to you on a particular subject. Now I am immediately excluding what I know about Patagonian fruit bats without having to consciously think what bits do I need to exclude. […] Everything is unconsciously and immediately filtered out. And that’s a big problem for AI software because it doesn’t have the ability to do that in the way in which your brain does that.

To conclude this blog post I want to quote Randall Lee Reetz from this post:

[…] what ends up mattering, isn’t how fast your computer, all computers are and always will be, limited by the locality wall, what matters is knowing what to compute and what not to compute. That is what evolution seeks. That is what intelligence is.

a platform for elegant teaching concepts

Some years ago I saw Alan Kays TED talk “A powerful idea about ideas” and am ongoingly impressed by his story about the many different (in terms of their quality and “neuronal sustainability”) ways to teach the Pythagorean theorem.
This notion of looking at different conceptual approaches when conveying something and then choosing the one with the deepest reach (the best neuronal basis for future concepts) really stuck with me and grew into the following idea:
A platform to hone in on the most elegant approaches for teaching scientific concepts that have maximum in-domain depth and cross-domain reach.
Many times throughout the last semesters while studying for subjects like software engineering, theoretical informatics or linear algebra, I had the strong sense that there must be an obvious “symphony of connections” between these subjects – but I would always only get short glimpses of it and professors seem to rarely speak to, or encourage seeing connections to other subjects than their own. There is much going on regarding MOOCs, we have a lot of funding for ‘excellence universities’ in Germany and there are many players in the field of education that do good work.
But what I haven’t seen yet are places where didactics are discussed down to the actual level of which angle and analogies to choose for introducing a concept and how one approach is more meaningful than another one when looked upon solely asking about the quality of the “new neuronal patterns” this approach leaves in the students brain – how well and how sustainable this sets him or her up for comprehending future related concepts. I would imagine these kind of inquiries are happening in the field of didactics, when a textbook is created, when a professors plans their first lecture series after having earned their title etc.?
I am wondering though if it might be interesting to pull this “into the daylight” and into a broader range of participants. So I imagine a platform that is centered around this idea of honing in on elegant approaches for teaching concepts. I read Siddhartha from Hermann Hesse many years ago, there is this one image that fits nicely. It talks about being the stone in the water and letting yourself sink to the ground. No matter what turbulence you go through in the process, eventually you will reach the ground. In that way I imagine different approaches to be compared, deconstructed and reconstructed until the ground of a particular matter is reached – the deepest point in the valley where the river flows the fullest and fastest. Concepts might merge into a higher abstraction and “spines” emerge that tie things together.
On a practical level I imagine the first to invite to such a platform to be educators that are interested in such an experiment and put the future-quality of their teaching before the ways the already do it. Concepts and approaches can be submitted and are all their own entities that are bound together only through links so that maximal ‘recombinability’ is possible and encouraged. Readily developed material is welcome as well as just vague ideas. The structure of the platform encourages – and in part computes automatically – the continuous structuring of all present entities. In the spirit of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language, each entity could have fields for connections to other domains, related analogies, stories etc. The template for an entity is subject to the platforms recursive development itself. Quantitative measures will be introduced that allow for automated computational support in honing in on the most elegant knowledge graph…

graph edge-force play-tool

The prelude of this weekend brought me to remember some earlier musings about the workings of graph layout algorithms. Namely how a graph might behave, if its edges have target-lengths assigned. Deviation from that value cause expanding or contracting forces onto the two nodes it is incident with.

Then, for the rest of the weekend (quite literally) I implemented said algorithm. And… as it always happens, some little extra features around that core functionality found its way in. I am very happy about the result. Despite the lack of applicability I find it quite enjoyable to play around. To see how different setups behave and create strange structures or beatiful ones, symmetric and balanced like a diamond.

Go try it yourself if you wish, here it is.


situating oneself within vector fields

Ok, this one will be a bit all over the place…

Isn’t it peculiar to think what drives people to live their lives. It’s differences, it’s vectors of change that drive us – especially as singular devotions such as religions are fading away. Most parents want that their children have it ‘better’ than they had it. More happiness, less pain, more money, less conflicts with relatives… those are all vectors into a direction, not just points. Of course there are singular drivers (called goals) as well, like a certain career, a project, a family and so on. But what is the context of those? Family, society in the context of its history… biology as a whole eventually? Since there is no absolute scripture that commands us how to live our life we can’t help but orientate ourselves within a vector field of infinitely many possible directions for change, for development, for betterment, for stability and whatever else we call the thing that is supposed to happen at a certain density along a vector.

Situating ourselves within differences seems to be a pretty universal pattern for the human experience, no? One subset of the social space in which this comes to light clearly is for instance the ‘checking each other out’ type of behaviour. You can’t really know instantly if someone is trustworthy so you are ‘filtering’ him through a social field. See how he behaves with others, how others relate to him and maybe tell you about him afterwards. The net of relative positioning needs to tighten before you have an idea of his personality.

We (have to) build compressed representations of things, people, knowledge, etc. as our inner model of it. How accurately this model maps the real thing can vary drastically, depending on the mind that builds the model. This is like data sense-making works… aggregate as much metadata as possible and then have that collapse in a set of entities and identities.

A certain degree of ‘objectifi-ability’ needs to be exhibited (by a person) to allow continuing the outside-in approach of having metadata (reactions, 3rd party opinions…) tighten the representation of identity.

What’s an ‘opinion’. It’s an output of your inner model. It’s a shortcut to be able to make decisions without knowing a full system. Very few system can be fully known. An opinion is kind of like a statistical prediction… but then there is the emotional part in it that can be bent so very easily depending on ones traumata, wishes, fears and so on.

What’s the solid ground laws are based on. Obviously a set of moral and ethical learnings from history that tell us how societies become/stay stable, economies prosper, a set of values like personal freedom are protected and so on…

The human experience: suspended in gradients without absolute ground, deploying strategies to tighten enough vectors into something solid that feels like a purpose and a meaning :)

the one rule to install in your world view

A world view of some sort is fundamental to every person. How sophisticated it might be and ones ability to express it – that’s a different story. In a very real way it’s the causal basis of a brain. It’s a physical structure. It’s a graph of vertices (neurons) and edges (synapses). It’s a particular way billions of neurons connect to each other.
What’s really uncomfortable is when this mental basis gets cracks, crumbles or falls apart entirely. In an emotionally safe environment, ideally provided by parents, kindergarten and school, children can form their world view with a lot less hassle than any changes on it cause if they happen later in life. That’s why world views beyond childhood are mostly of additive nature instead of recursively shaped when it comes to their core. Adding, some editing, some suppressing, but rarely fundamental changes. The “costs” are too high of such a deep restructuring.
From the point of system stability it makes sense if a world view is actually working to stabilize itself. The more solid a fundament the easier life decisions become. The ability to ignore dissonances here is not to be underestimated. That ability can outperform almost any other mode of brain operation apart from half-automated basic modes like survival instinct. A brain has to compare the costs of a change to the much cheaper costs of simply ignoring or bending the disturbance into the existing model. These costs can directly be derived from the fundamental (computational) operations one can perform on graphs. Navigating (reading) a graph is by far the cheapest operation, next comes adding, then deleting and finally editing as the operation with the most cycles required. Think about a simple graph and the steps required (the algorithm) for each operation and you’ll see.
Science works the opposite way. As soon as a you encounter an empirical contradiction of your model you are forced to change your model or throw it over board. No matter how attached you are to it. Notice that throwing over board doesn’t necessarily mean the theory is plain wrong, it might just mean you found a case that’s not covered by it and you are thereby invited to find a higher abstraction that encompasses all of the old model plus accounts for what contradicted the previous model. Measurements can’t lie, so all scientific measurements ever taken will always be true, it might (should) just be the case that our models to explain results evolve to more comprehensive ones.
Just imagine the following. Imagine a person that decides at some point of there life that truth is more important than how one feels about it. Just that simple insight. So so radical and so so rarely. Applied as a rule it means to enact the scientific method on ones own model of the world (again, we all have such a model). It means to adapt or change ones world view as soon as one encounters contradictions. It means to be especially careful to ones resonance or sympathy with any topic or opinion because it might just mean that ones world view is in the process if tightening in on itself… maybe just getting one step too comfortable. Imagine how unbearably exhausting this must be, practically ready at any moment to dump your core in favor of the search for the next more comprehensive iteration. The social pressure on such a person would be immense because social fields are always slow to adapt to fundamental character changes of their members, given they stay members. Yet, imagine what an immensely powerful instrument for truth-finding such a person would be. The starting point in terms of age, culture and class is arbitrary as long as that one rule is carved into “mental stone”. That being said of course a person living within a stable and rich infrastructure has to spend way less energy on worrying than a person worrying about how to avoid going to sleep hungry today. If basic needs are not covered it gets almost impossible for a brain to focus on anything else than the next step in surviving.
So if you can, by all means, do install this one rule in yourself and become a system capable of iterating it’s own operating system. It means leaving behind a lot of places of comfort, but you’ll be better off in the long run. Without the rule your world view just does what it’s architecture compels it to, become more dense and evermore resistant to fundamental change. A ship sailing onward on its self-created ocean, only possible to do so because the infrastructure is sophisticated enough to provide – independent of the quality of what’s in your brain. Of course you can find a group that supports your special kind of world view. A group of like minded validate themselves, that’s what they do. Social validation though is worth nothing compared to scientific validation. Worse, social validation can be very dangerous.

I should not finish this post without talking about myself, not doing it would be weird and dishonest after all of the above. I had a fundamental change of world view initiated in 2011, stable in the next iteration by 2012 and still noticing the ongoing reconfiguration. Very recently I was told something that I have to work to integrate if I want to follow THE rule. So a big chunk of my current model is now labelled as ‘ready for remodeling or phasing out’ and I am expecting this process to happen over the coming years. To be more specific is not in the scope of this post. It helps to write the above observations and thoughts as a way of pep talking myself :) I am not the imaginary person described above, yet I am striving to be it.
Notice that the thoughts expressed in this post are my own, though I would most likely not have them without the influence of Randall Lee Reetz.