The Imaginative Universal

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

On The Gaze as an input device for Hololens


The Kinect sensor and other NUI devices have introduced an array of newish interaction patterns between humans and computers: tap, touch, speech, finger tracking, body gestures. The hololens provides us with a new method of interaction that hasn’t been covered extensively from a UX perspective before: The Gaze. Hololens performs eye tracking in order to aid users of the AR device to activate menus.

Questions immediately arise as to the role this will play in surveillance culture, and even more in the surveillance of surveillance culture. While sensors track our gaze, will they similarly inform us about the gaze of others? Will we one day receive notifications that someone is checking us out? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? To the eternal question who watches the watchers, we finally have an answer. HoloLens does.

lacan gaze

Even though The Gaze has not been analyzed deeply from a UX perspective, it has been the object of profound study from a phenomenological and a structuralist point of view. In this post I want to introduce you to five philosophical treatments of The Gaze covering the psychological, the social, the cinematic, the ethical and the romantic. To start, the diagram above is not from an HCI book as one might reasonably assume but rather from a monograph by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.


A distinction is often drawn between Lacan’s early studies of The Gaze and his later conclusions about it. The early work relates it to a “mirror stage” of self-awareness and concerns the gaze when directed to ourselves rather than to others:

“This event can take place … from the age of six months on; its repetition has often given me pause to reflect upon the striking spectacle of a nursling in front of a mirror who has not yet mastered walking or even standing, but who … overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the constraints of his prop in order to adopt a slightly leaning-forward position and take in an instantaneous view of the image in order to fix it in his mind.”

This notion flowered in the later work The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze into a theory of narcissism in which the subject sees himself/herself as an objet petit a (a technical term for an object of desire) through the distancing effect of the gaze. Through this distancing, the subject also become alienated from itself. What is probably essential for us in this work – as students of emerging technologies --  is the notion that the human gaze is emotionally distancing. This observation was later taken up in post-colonial theory as the “Imperial Gaze” and in feminist theory as “objectification.”


Michel Foucault achieved fame as a champion of the constructivist interpretation of truth but it is often forgotten that he was also an historian of science. A major theme in his work is the way in which the gaze of the other affects and shapes us – in particular the “scientific gaze.” Being watched causes us discomfort and we change our behavior – sometimes even our perception of who we are – in response to it. The grand image Foucault raises to encapsulate this notion is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison in which everyone is watched by everyone else.

THE HOUSEHOLD OF PHILIP IV or LAS MENINAS by Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo (c1612-15-1667) after Diego Velazquez (1599 - 1660), at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Where Lacan concentrates on the self-gaze and Foucault on the way the gaze makes us feel, Slovoj Zizek is concerned with the appearance of The Gaze when we gaze back at it. He writes in an essay called “Why Does the Phaullus Appear” from the collection Enjoy Your Symptom:

Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) - The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 12 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Let us take the ‘phantom of the opera,’ undoubtedly mass culture’s most renowned specter, which has kept the popular imagination occupied from Gaston Leroux’s novel at the turn of the century through a series of movie and television versions up to the recent triumphant musical: in what consists, on a closer look, the repulsive horror of his face? The features which define it are four:

“1) the eyes: ‘his eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. All you can see is two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull.’ To a connoisseur of Alfred Hitchcock, this image instantly recalls The Birds, namely the corpse with the pecked-out eyes upon which Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) stumbles in a lonely farmhouse, its sight causing her to emit a silent scream. When, occasionally, we do catch the sparkle of these eyes, they seem like two candles lit deep within the head, perceivable only in the dark: these two lights somehow at odds with the head’s surface, like lanterns burning at night in a lonely, abandoned house, are responsible for the uncanny effect of the ‘living dead.’”

Obviously whatever Zizek says about the phantom of the opera applies equally well to The Walking Dead. What ultimately distinguishes vampires, zombies, demons and ghosts lies in the way they gaze at us.

While Zizek finds in the eyes a locus for inhumanity, the ethicist Emmanual Levinas believes this is where our humanity resides. These two notions actually complement each other, since what Zizek indentifies as disturbing is the inability to project a human mind behind a vacant stare. As Levinas says in a difficult and metaphysical way in his masterpiece Totality and Infinity:

“The presentation of the face, expression, does not disclose an inward world previously closed, adding thus a new region to comprehend or to take over. On the contrary, it calls to me above and beyond the given that speech already puts in common among us…. The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other – language is justice. It is not that there first would be the face, and then the being it manifests or expresses would concern himself with justice; the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity…. Like a shunt every social relation leads back to the presentation of the other to the same without the intermediary of any image or sign, solely by the expression of the face.”

The face and the gaze of the other implies a demand upon us. For Levinas, unlike Foucault, this demand isn’t simply a demand to behave according to norms but more broadly posits an existential command. The face of the other asks us implicitly to do the right thing: it demands justice.


The final aspect of the gaze to be discussed – though probably the first aspect to occur to the reader – is the gaze of love, i.e. love at first sight. This was a particular interest of the scholar Ioan P. Couliano. In his book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance Couliano examines old medical theories about falling in love and cures for infatuation and obsession. He relates this to Renaissance theories about pneuma [spiritus, phantasma], which was believed to be a pervasive fluid that allowed objects to be sensed through apparently empty air and become transmitted to the brain and the heart. In this regard, Couliano raises a question that would only make sense to a true Renaissance man: “How does a woman, who is so big, penetrate the eyes, which are so small?” He quotes the 13th century Bernard of Gordon:


The illness called ‘hereos’ is melancholy anguish caused by love for a woman. The ‘cause’ of this affliction lies in the corruption of the faculty to evaluate, due to a figure and a face that have made a very strong impression. When a man is in love with a woman, he thinks exaggeratedly of her figure, her face, her behavior, believing her to be the most beautiful, the most worthy of respect, the most extraordinary with the best build in body and soul, that there can be. This is why he desires her passionately, forgetting all sense of proportion and common sense, and thinks that, if he could satisfy his desire, he would be happy. To so great an extent is his judgment distorted that he constantly thinks of the woman’s figure and abandons all his activities so that, if someone speaks to him, he hardly hears him.”

And here is Couliano’s gloss of Bernard’s text:


“If we closely examine Bernard of Gordon’s long description of ‘amor hereos,’ we observe that it deals with a phantasmic infection finding expression in the subject’s melancholic wasting away, except for the eyes. Why are the eyes excepted? Because the very image of the woman has entered the spirit through the eyes and, through the optic nerve, has been transmitted to the sensory spirit that forms common sense…. If the eyes do not partake of the organism’s general decay, it is because the spirit uses those corporeal apertures to try to reestablish contact with the object that was converted into the obsessing phantasm: the woman.”


[As an apology and a warning, I want to draw your attention to the use of ocular vocabulary such as “perspective,” “point of view,” “in this regard,” etc. Ocular phrases are so pervasive in the English language that it is nearly impossible to avoid them and it would be more awkward to try to do so than it is to use them without comment. If you intend to speak about visual imagery, take my advice and pun proudly and without apology – for you will see that you have no real choice in the matter.]

HoloCoding resources from Build 2015


The Hololens team has stayed extremely quiet over the past 100 days in order to have a greater impact at Build. Alex Kipman was the cleanup batter on the first day keynote at Build with an amazing overview of realistic Hololens scenarios. This was followed by Hololens demos as well as private tutorials on using Hololens with a version of Unity 3D. Finally there were sessions on Hololens and a pre-recorded session on using the Kinect with the brand new RoomAlive Toolkit.


Here are some useful links:


There were two things I found particularly interesting in Alex Kipman’s first day keynote presentation.


The first was the ability of the onstage video to actually capture what was being shown through the hololens but from a different perspective. The third person view of what the person wearing the hololens even worked when the camera moved around the room. Was this just brilliant After Effects work perfectly synced to the action onstage? Or were we seeing a hololens-enabled camera at work? If the latter – this might be even more impressive than the hololens itself.


Second, when demonstrating the ability to pin movies to the wall using Hololens gestures, why was the new Mission Impossible trailer used for the example? Wouldn’t something from, say, The Matrix been much more appropriate.

Perhaps it was just a licensing issue, but I like to think there was a subtle nod to the inexplicable and indirect role Tom Cruise has played in the advancement of Microsoft’s holo-technologies. Minority Report and the image of Cruise wearing biking gloves with his arms raised in the air, conductor-like, was the single most powerful image invoked with Microsoft first introduced the Kinect sensor. As most people know by now, Alex Kipman was the man responsible not only for carrying the Kinect nee Natal Project to success, but now for guiding the development of the Hololens. Perhaps showing Tom Cruise onstage at Build was a subtle nod to this implicit relationship.

The HoloCoder’s Bookshelf


Professions are held together by touchstones such as as a common jargon that both excludes outsiders and reinforces the sense of inclusion among insiders based on mastery of the jargon. On this level, software development has managed to surpass more traditional practices such as medicine, law or business in its ability to generate new vocabulary and maintain a sense that those who lack competence in using the jargon simply lack competence. Perhaps it is part and parcel with new fields such as software development that even practitioners of the common jargon do not always understand each other or agree on what the terms of their profession mean. Stack Overflow, in many cases, serves merely as a giant professional dictionary in progress as developers argue over what they mean by de-coupling, separation of concerns, pragmatism, architecture, elegance, and code smell.

Cultures, unlike professions, are held together not only by jargon but also by shared ideas and philosophies that delineate what is important to the tribe and what is not. Between a profession and a culture, the members of a professional culture, in turn, share a common imaginative world that allows them to discuss shared concepts in the same way that other people might discuss their favorite TV shows.

This post is an experiment to see what the shared library of augmented reality and virtual reality developers might one day look like. Digital reality development is a profession that currently does not really exist but which is already being predicted to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2020.

HoloCoding, in other words, is a profession that exists only virtually for now. As a profession, it will envelop concerns much greater than those considered by today’s software developers. Whereas contemporary software development is mostly about collecting data, reporting on data and moving data from point A to points B and C, spatial software development will be more concerned with environments and will have to draw on complex mathematics as well as design and experiential psychology. The bookshelf of a holocoder will look remarkably different from that of a modern data coder. Here are a few ideas regarding what I would expect to find on a future developer’s bookshelf in five to ten years.


1. Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan – written in the 60’s and responsible for concepts such as ‘the global village’ and hot versus cool media, McLuhan pioneered the field of media theory.  Because AR and VR are essentially new media, this book is required reading for understanding how these technologies stand side-by-side with or perhaps will supplant older media.

2. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin – while the whole work is great, the essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is a must read for discussing how traditional notions about creativity fit into the modern world of print and now digital reproduction (which Benjamin did not even know about). It also deals at an advanced level with how human interactions work on stage versus film and the strange effect this creates.

3. Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton – this classic was quickly adopted by web designers when it came out. What is sometimes forgotten is that the book largely covers the design of products and not websites or print media – products like those that can be built with HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus Rift. Full of insights, Buxton helps his readers to see the importance of lived experience when we design and build technology.

4. Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze – though Deleuze is probably most famous for his collaborations with Felix Guattari, this work on the philosophical meaning of the term ‘’virtual reality’, not as a technology but rather as a way of approaching the world, is a gem.

5. Passwords by Jean Baudrillard – what Deleuze does for virtual reality, Baudrillard does for other artifacts of technological language in order to show their place in our mental cosmology. He also discusses virtual reality along the way, though not as thoroughly.

6. Mathematics for 3D Game Programming and Computer Graphics by Eric Lengeyl – this is hardcore math. You will need this. You can buy it used online for about $6. Go do that now.

7. Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory by Robert Stoll – this is a really hard book. Read the Lengeyl before trying this. This book will hurt you, by the way. After struggling with a page of this book, some people end up buying the Manga Guide to Matrix Theory thinking that there is a fun way to learn matrix math. Unfortunately, there isn’t and they always come back to this one.

8. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty – when it first came out, this work was often seen as an imitation of Heiddeger’s Being and Time. It may be the case that it can only be truly appreciated today when it has become much clearer, thanks to years of psychological research, that the mind reconstructs not only the visual world for us but even the physical world and our perception of 3D spaces. Merleau-Ponty pointed this out decades ago and moreover provides a phenomenology of our physical relationship to the world around us that will become vitally important to anyone trying to understand what happens when more and more of our external world becomes digitized through virtual and augmented reality technologies.

9. Philosophers Explore the Matrix – just as The Matrix is essential viewing for anyone in this field, this collection of essays is essential reading. This is the best treatment available of a pop theme being explored by real philosophers – actually most of the top American philosophers working on theories of consciousness in the 90s. Did you ever think to yourself that The Matrix raised important questions about reality, identity and consciousness? These professional philosophers agree with you.

10. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – sometimes to understand a technology, we must extrapolate and imagine how that technology would affect society if it were culturally pervasive and physically ubiquitous. Fortunately Neal Stephenson did that for virtual reality in this amazing book that combines cultural history, computer theory and a fast paced adventure.