The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

What is a HoloCoder?

holodeck

Over the past few years we’ve seen the rapid release of innovative consumer technologies that are all loosely related by their ability to scan 3D spaces, interact with 3D spaces or synthesize 3D spaces. These include the Kinect sensor, Leap Motion, Intel Perceptual Computing, Oculus Rift, Google Glass, Magic Leap and HoloLens. Additional related general technologies include projection mapping and 3D printing. Additional related tools include Unity 3D and the Unreal Engine.

Despite a clear family resemblance between all of these technologies, it has been difficult to clearly define what that relationship is. There has been a tendency to categorize all of them as simply being “bleeding edge”, “emerging” or “future”. The problem with these descriptors is that they are ultimately relative to the time at which a technology is released and are not particularly helpful in defining what holds these technologies together in a common gravitational pull.

definitions

I basically want to address this problem by engaging in a bit of word magic. Word magic is a sub-category of magical thinking and is based on a form of psychological manipulation. If you have ever gone out to Martin Fowler’s Bliki then you’ve seen the practice at work. One of the great difficulties of software development is anticipating the unknown: the unknown involved in requirements, the unknown related to timelines, and the unknown concerned with the correct tactics to accomplish tasks. In a field with a limited history and a tendency not to learn from other related fields, the fear of the unknown can utterly cripple projects.

Martin Fowler’s endless enumeration of “patterns” on his bliki takes this on directly by giving names to the unknown. If one reads his blog carefully, however, it quickly becomes clear that most, though not all, of these patterns are illusory: they are written at such an abstract level that they fail to provide any prescriptive advice on how to solve the problems they are intended to address. What they do provide, however, is a sense of relief that there is a “name” that can be used to plug up the hole opened up in time by the fear of the unknown. Solutions architects can return to their teams (or their managers) and pronounce proudly that they have found a pattern to solve the outstanding problem that is hanging over everyone – all that remains is to determine what each “name” actually means.

In this sense, the whole world of software architecture – which Glassdoor ranked as the 11th best job of 2015 -- is a modern priesthood devoted to prophetic interpretations of “design patterns”.

I similarly want to use word magic to define the sort of person that works with the sorts of technology I listed at the top of this article. I think I can even do it quite simply with familar imagery.

A holocoder is someone who works with technologies that are inspired by and/or anticipate the Star Trek Holodeck.

 

 

interpretations

 

holodeck

The part of the definition that states “inspired by and/or anticipate” may seem strange but it is actually quite essential. It is based on a specific temporal-cybernetic theory concerning the dissemination of ideas which I will attempt to describe but which is purely optional with respect to the definition.

But first: how can a theory be both essential and optional? This is an issue that Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, tackled frequently. In the early 30’s Bohr was travelling through eastern Europe on a lecture tour. During part of the tour, a former student met him at his inn and noticed him nailing a horse shoe over the door of his room. “Professor Bohr”, he asked, “what are you doing?” Niels Bohr replied, “The Inn Keeper informed me that a horse shoe over the door will bring me luck.” The student was scandalized by this. “But Herr Professor,” the student objected, “surely as a physicist and intellectual such as yourself does not believe in these silly superstitions.” “Of course not,” Bohr answered. “But the Inn Keeper reassured me that the horse shoe will bring me luck whether I believe in it or not.”

Here is the optional theory of the Holodeck. Certain technologies, it seems to me, can have such an influence that they shape the way we think about the world. We have seen many examples of this in our past such as the printing press, the automobile, the personal computer and the cell phone. Furthermore we anticipate the advent of similar major technologies in our future. These technologies have what is called a “psychic resonance” and change the very metaphors we use to describe our world. To give a simple example, whereas we originally used mental metaphors to explain computers in terms of “memory”, “processing” and even “computing”, today we use computer metaphors to help explain how the brain works. The arrival of the personal computer caused a shift and a reversal in what semioticians call the relationship between the explanans and the explanandum.

wesley in the holodeck

Psychic impact is transmitted over carriers called “memes”. Memes are basically theoretical constructs that are phenomenally identical to what we call “ideas” but behave like viruses. Memes travel through air as speech and along light waves as images in order to spread themselves from host to host. Traditionally the psychic impact of a meme is measured by the meme’s density over a given space. Besides density, the psychic impact can also be measured based on the total volume of space it is able to infect. Finally, the effectiveness of a meme can also be measured based on its ability to spread into the future. For instance, works of literature and cultural artifacts such as religions and even famous sayings are examples of memes that have effectively infected the future despite a distance of thousands of years between the point of origin of the infection and the temporal location of the target.

While the natural habitat of bacteria like e coli is in the gastrointestinal tract, the natural habitat of memes is in the brain and this leads to a fascinating third form of mimetic transmission. At the level of microtubules in the brain where memes happen to live, we enter the Planck scale in which classical physics do not apply in the way that they do at the macro level. At this scale, effects like quantum entanglement create spooky behaviors such as quantum communication. While theoretically people still cannot communicate with each other in time since that level of semiotics is still governed by classical physics, there is an opening for mimetic viruses to actually be transmitted backwards in time as if they were entering a transporter in one brain and rematerialized in another brain in the past. This allows for a third manner of mimetic spread: in space, forward in time, and finally backwards in time.

Riker in the Holodeck

As an aside, and as I said above, this is an _optional_ theory of psychic impact through time. A common and totally valid criticism is that it appeals to quantum mystery which tends to be misused to justify anything from ghosts to religious cults. The problem with appeals to “quantum mystery” is that this simply provides a name for a problem rather than prescribing actual ways to make predictions or anticipate behavior. In other words, like Martin Fowler’s bliki, it is word magic that provides interpretations of things but not actual solutions. Against such criticisms, however, it should be pointed out that I am explicitly engaged in an exercise in word magic, in which case using certain techniques of word magic – such as quantum mystery – is perfectly legitimate and even natural.

Through quantum entanglement acting on memes at the microtubule level, a technology from our possible future which resembles the Star Trek holodeck has such a large psychic impact that it resonates backwards in time until it reaches and inhabits the brains of the writers of a futuristic science fiction show in the late 80’s and is introduced into the show as the Holodeck. Through television transmissions, the holodeck meme is then broadcast to millions of teenagers who eventually enter the tech industry, become leaders in the tech industry, and eventually decide to implement various aspects of the holodeck by creating better and better 3D sensors, 3D simulation tools and 3D visualization technologies – both augmented and virtual. In other words, the Holodeck reaches backwards in time to inspire others in order to effectively give birth to itself, ex nihilo. Those that have been touched by the transmission are what I am calling holocoders.

 

and/or

Alternatively, this theory of where holocoders come from can be taken as a metaphor only. In this case, holocoders are not people being pulled toward a common future but instead people being pushed forward from a common past. Holocoders are people inspired directly or indirectly by a television show from the late 80’s that involved a large room filled with holograms that could be used for entertainment as well as research. Holocoders work on any or all of the wide variety of technologies that could potentially be combined to recreate that imagined experience.

the dreamatorium

Anyways, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. More importantly, these technologies are deeply entangled and deserve a good name, whether you want to go with holocoding or something else (though the holodeck people from the future highly encourage you to use the terms “holocoder”, “holocoding” and “holodeck”).

 

appendix

There are two other important instances of environment simulators which for whatever reason do not have the same impact as the Star Trek holodeck but are nevertheless worth mentioning.

danger_room

The first is the X-Men Danger Room which is an elaborate obstacle course involving holograms as well as robots used to train the X-Men. While the Danger Room goes back to the 60’s, the inclusion of holograms actually didn’t happen until the early 90’s, and so actually comes after the Star Trek environment simulator.

WayStation(Simak)

Clifford D. Simak published Way Station in 1963 (and won a Hugo award for it). It actually anticipates two Star Trek technologies – transporters as well as an environment simulator. Enoch Wallace, the hero of the story, works the earth relay station for intergalactic aliens who transport travelers over vast distances by sending them over shorter hops between the way stations of the title. Because he is so isolated in his job, the aliens support him by allowing him to pursue a hobby. Because Wallace enjoys hunting, the aliens build for him an environment simulator that lets him do big game hunting for dinosaurs.

How to Read Star Wars Comics

wrecked_ship

Are you trying to find a guide to reading Star Wars comic books online? You’ve come to the right place. And obviously -- Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Lucas Film just released the second teaser for Star Wars VII. My wife and I found ourselves tearing up as we watched it on her ipad, demonstrating that nostalgia is the only thing stronger than the Force.  We are of the generation that first saw Star Wars in a theater in the 70’s. We remember a time before Star Wars existed and yet it has always been the background myth of our lives as we grew up. What Gilgamesh was to Mesopotamians or Siegfried and Brunhilde to Germans, Luke, Han and Leia are to us.

Timed with the release of the teaser, Marvel Comics has added a ton of Star Wars related comic books to their digital comics service Marvel Unlimited. These comic books span a period from the 90’s to the present in which Dark Horse Comics started spinning up stories from the Star Wars expanded mythology (many based on the books) that fill in gaps left by the movies as well as extending the storyline beyond Star Wars VI. In 2015, Disney, which owns both the Star Wars franchise as well as Marvel Comics, moved the Star Wars publication rights from Dark Horse Comics to Marvel Comics, which is apparently how these classic Dark Horse comics are now appearing online.

 

accessing the digital comics

 

If you want to know what happens in Star Wars after the battle of Endor (but before J. J. Abrams retcons over it) then this is your opportunity. You can even do it for free if you want. Go to the Marvel Unlimited website and enter the promotion code starwars to get one free month – though I’d recommend skipping this and getting an annual subscription for $69. Marvel Unlimited has a decent web interface, but the best way to use the service is with the iPad app.

(Scott Hanselman has a good but critical review of the service written in 2011 that deserves to be read. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the service as well as the UX have greatly improved over the past four years.)

Once you have your subscription your main problem is going to be seeing the trees for the forest. There are thousands of comics in the Marvel catalog and they tend to be listed in alphabetical order. This is sensible, but not particularly helpful if you want to read the continuing Star Wars saga in mythologically chronological order. Additionally, while Marvel is offering large chunks of the Star Wars graphic novel canon, there are pieces missing. This is an additional difficulty in trying to get the full story straight.

 

reading in the correct order

 

While there are lots of comics available through the subscription that are contemporaneous with the events in the movies, in this post I’m just going to try to help you to read the Star Wars comics being offered through Marvel Unlimited in the correct order starting just after the battle of Endor.

TwinEnginesOfDestruction

The first comic of the New Republic Era available is Star Wars: Boba Fett – Twin Engines of Destruction (1997) -- I’m using the titles as they are listed in the “browse” tab of the Marvel Unlimited app and including the year to highlight the difference between the chronology and the publication order. I’m also heavily indebted to Wookieepedia (you read it right) for all the correct timeline information.

The story picks up with what is known as the Thrawn Trilogy. In Marvel Unlimited, these are cataloged under three different series of about 5 comics each:

Heir6

Star Wars: Heir to the Empire (1995 – 1996)

 

Dfrtpb

Star Wars: Dark Force Rising (1997)

 

Tlctpb

Star Wars: The Last Command (1997 – 1998)

 

This leads us into the Dark Empire Trilogy in which the emperor turns out not to be as dead as he could be. Dark Horse’s first Dark Empire series is also in many ways what first made the Star Wars comics attractive as a vector for transmitting expanded universe stories. A few comics slip in between Dark Empire II and Empire’s End of which only the Boba Fett story is currently available on MU.

 

Darkempire1

Star Wars: Dark Empire (1991 – 1992)

 

De2_1

Star Wars: Dark Empire II (1994 – 1995)

 

Bobafett_agentofdoom

Star Wars: Boba Fett – Agent of Doom (2000)

 

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Star Wars: Empire’s End (1995)

 

Boba Fett grew as a character mainly because he had an awesome costume and fans just wanted to see more of it. The same could be said of the main character in the next two series. Crimson Empire follows the exploits of one of Emperor Palpatine’s elite bodyguards.

 

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Star Wars: Crimson Empire (1997)

 

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Star Wars: Crimson Empire II – Council of Blood (1998-1999)

 

Chewbacca_TPB

The Chewbacca series (2000) is a commemorative four issue run with stories told by Chewbacca’s friends because he is dead at this point in the Star Wars chronology (::sniff::) which will be overwritten by J. J. Abrams faster than you can unsay “Kaaahhhhhn” as J. J. retcons the expanded Star Wars universe.

At this point we leap a century forward and get into the Star Wars: Legacy comics where we follow the adventures of Cade Skywalker, Ania Solo and lots of other people with familiar-but-not-quite-right sounding names. MU lists three collections in the browse tab.

 

3starwarslegacy

Star Wars Legacy (2006-2010) – 50 issues!

 

Legacy_war_I

Star Wars: Legacy – War (2010 – 2011) – six issues

 

Legacy2

Star Wars: Legacy (2013 – 2014) [aka Star Wars: Legacy II] – 18 issues

 

then what … ?

 

And that’s as far as it goes for now. If you need more to read, you can go back in time and start pounding the 55 issues of Knights of the Old Republic digital comics which will provide the Jedi back story from thousands of years before the movies. On the other hand, you might also want to branch out and see what else MU has to offer. Here’s some other books on Marvel Unlimited that I would highly recommend.

 

nick fury

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #1 (1968)

This single issue written and illustrated by legend Jim Steranko changed the game in comic books. Even as pop art was bringing high art low, Steranko lifted the comic book genre and opened the possibility to start considering comics an art form – or as we prefer to say today, start considering “graphic novels” an art form.

 

Marvel_1602

Marvel 1602 (2002-2003)

While there have been many takes on alternate Marvel timelines, Neil Gaiman’s turn with these eight issues is one of the most interesting. He imagines the classic Marvel heroes finding their place in 17th century Europe.

 

eternals

Eternals (2006)

In the 70’s, Marvel experimented with making Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods the basis for a comic book and had mixed success. Decades later, Neil Gaiman came along and wrote a seven issue series based on the earlier work to create an amazing story of aliens turning ancient humans into super heroes for their own mysterious purpose. The aliens in question, by the way, happen to be the Celestials who are part of the back story for James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie. See – everything ties together in the Marvel universe.

 

gg

Guardians of the Galaxy (2008)

The comics are as good as the movie. There are a few more characters and the ones you know are slightly different. Rocket and Groot are the same, though.  This run of the comics basically revives a bunch of Silver Age characters, modernizes them and throws them together to amazing effect.

 

conquest

Annihilation: Conquest – Starlord (2007)

But if you want to do it right and find out how Peter Quill aka Starlord first meets Rocket, Groot and Bug (who’s Bug you ask?) then you might want to also read the four issues of Annihilation: Conquest – Starlord which is just a part of the much bigger Marvel space event called Annihilation: Conquest. Really, all of Annihilation: Conquest is worth reading because then you’ll get to know more about Quasar, Ronan the Accuser, the Heralds of Galactus, and the Nova Corps.

 

annihilation_4

Annihilation (2006 – 2007)

But if you really really want to do it right, then you’ll read the Annihilation comic event before you read either Annihilation: Conquest or Guardians of the Galaxy. This is where Peter Quill first gets retconned into the contemporary world. In the case that you are fully committing to the effort, the correct order for reading most of the back story for the Guardians movie would be:

Annihilation Prologue (2006), Annihilation (2006 – 2007), Annihilation: Quasar / Annihilation: Nova / Annihilation: Ronan / Annihilation: Silver Surfer / Annihilation: Super Skrull [these are all overlapping series], Annihilation: Conquest Prologue (2007), Annihilation: Conquest (2007), Annihilation: Conquest – Quasar / Annihilation: Conquest – Starlord / Annihilation: Conquest – Wraith / Annihilation: Conquest – Heralds of Galactus, Guardians of the Galaxy (2008), The Thanos Imperative: Ignition (2010), The Thanos Imperative (2010), The Thanos Imperative: Devastation (2010).

It’s totally worth it.

 

Agents_of_Atlas_Vol_1_1

Agents of Atlas (2006 -- 2007)

Agents of Atlas, like Guardians of the Galaxy, is an instance of Marvel retconning characters that were abandoned in the 50’s and brought together for a series in the 00’s. Interestingly, this is the second time they have been retconned. The first time was in a What If? one-off from the 70’s. FBI agent Jimmy Woo leads a rag-tag team of super-powered beings against the nefarious criminal organization known as the Atlas Foundation. His team includes Namora of Atlantis, the goddess Venus, Marvel Boy the Uranian, Gorilla Man and M-11 the robot. Chronologically in the Marvel universe, Jimmy Woo’s team is actually considered the original Avengers formed to rescue President Dwight Eisenhower from the clutches of Atlas and then later mysteriously disbanded. This series of six issues from 2006 uncovers what really happened to the team. Another series of 11 issues of Agents of Atlas was released in 2009, which was followed up in 2010 by a five issue series simply titled Atlas.

 

nextwave

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.

A twelve issue S.H.I.E.L.D. parody written by comic legend Warren Ellis and beautifully drawn by Stuart Immonen. Super powered heroes discover that they aren’t working for the good guys after all, but that their organization are actually the baddies. They decide to do something about it. Ellis said of the series, “It's an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It's people posing in the street for no good reason.”

 

runaways

Runaways (2003 -- 2004)

Misfit, middle-class teenagers discover that their parents really are evil after all when they accidentally witness them performing a human sacrifice to Elder Gods. They also come to discover that, like their super-villain parents, they possess super powers.

 

journey

Journey Into Mystery (2011)

The god of mischief Loki is dead but a young boy appears claiming to be Loki reborn. He struggles however because, being Loki, everybody hates him and nobody trusts him. Written by Kieron Gillen, this is the story of how Loki attempts to redeem himself. It is by turns hilarious and heart breaking. Start with issue #622 if you can and try to at least get to issue #645 which wraps up the Loki story.

 

Secret_Avengers_Vol_1_20

Secret Avengers #20 (2010)

The entire Secret Avengers series is great. I would especially recommend that you read issue #20 which follows a single storyline in the life of Natalia Romanov, aka Black Widow.

 

marvel_zombies

Marvel Zombies (2005-2006)

Marvel Unlimited gives you every variation on Marvel zombies you could possibly want, from the original series to the five follow ups to Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol to Marvel Zombies vs. Marvel Apes. I recommend at least having a taste of the first five issue run.

 

secret warriors

Secret Warriors (2008 -- 2011)

In the first comic of this 28 issue run, Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. discovers that for his entire career, his arch enemy Hydra (“Hail Hydra!”) has been secretly controlling  S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. The last 60 years of secret wars have been a farce scripted by the Nazi Baron Strucker. (This is actually the basis for the storyline in the film Winter Soldier as well as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.) But Nick doesn’t give up. Instead, he pulls together a team to take Hydra down once and for all.

One Kinect to rule them all: Kinect 2 for XBox One

two_kinects

Yes. That’s a bit of a confusing title, but it seems best to lay out the complexity upfront. So far there have been two generations of the Kinect sensor which combine a color camera, a depth sensing camera, an infrared emitter (basically used for the depth sensing camera) and a microphone array which works as a virtual directional shotgun microphone. Additional software called the Kinect SDK then allows you to write programs that read these data feeds as well as interpolating them into 3D animated bodies that are representations of people’s movements.

Microsoft has just announced that they will stop producing separate versions of the Kinect v2, one for windows and one for the XBox One,  but will instead encourage developers to purchase the Kinect for Windows Adapter instead to plug their Kinects for XBox One into a PC. In fact, the adapter has been available since last year, but this just makes it official. All in all this is a good thing. With the promise that Universal Windows Apps will be portable to XBox, it makes much more sense if the sensors – and more importantly the firmware installed on them – are exactly the same whether you are on a PC running Windows 8/10 or an XBox running XBox OS.

This announcement also vastly simplifies the overall Kinect hardware story. Up to this point, there weren’t just two generations of Kinect hardware but also two versions of the current Kinect v2 hardware, one for the Xbox and one for Windows (for a total of four different devices). The Kinect hardware, both in 2010 and in 2013, has always been built first as a gaming device. In each case, it was then adapted to be used on Windows machines, in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

The now discontinued Kinect for Windows v2 differed from the Kinect for the Xbox One in both hardware and software. To work with Windows machines, the Kinect for Windows v2 device uses the specialized power adapter to pump additional power to the hardware (there is a splitter in the adapter that attaches the hardware to both a USB port as well as a wall plug). The Xbox One, being proprietary hardware, is able to pump enough juice to its Kinect sensor without needing special adapter. Additionally, the firmware for the original Kinect for Windows v1 sensor diverged over time from the Kinect for Xbox’s firmware – which led to differences in how the two versions of the hardware performed. It is now clear that this will not happen with Kinect v2.

Besides the four hardware devices and their respective firmware, the loose term “Kinect” can also refer to the software APIs used to incorporate Kinect functionality into a software program. Prior to this, there was a Kinect for Windows SDK 1.0 through 1.8 that was used to program against the original Kinect for Windows sensor. For the Kinect for XBox One with the Kinect for Windows Adapter, you will want to use the Kinect for Windows SDK 2.0 (“for Windows” is still part of the title for now, even though you will be using it with a Kinect for XBox One, though of course you can still use it with the Kinect for Windows v2 sensor if you happen to have bought one of those prior to their discontinuation). There are also other SDKs floating around such as OpenNI and Libfreenect.

[Much gratitude to Kinect MVP Bronwen Zande for helping me get the details correct.]