Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.
This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.
Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.
Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).
Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.
Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.
White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.
Today I’m attending the Social Mobile Media Workshop at Stanford University. It’s organized by researchers from Stanford’s HStar, Tampere University of Technology, and the Naval Postgraduate School. What follows is some still jagged thoughts that were prompted by the presentation this morning, rather than a straightforward account of the presentations.1
A big theme of the workshop this morning has been transitions among production and consumption — and the critical role of annotations and context-awareness in enabling many of the user experiences discussed. In many ways, this workshop took me back to thinking about mobile media sharing, which was at the center of a good deal of my previous work. At Yahoo! Research Berkeley we were informed by Marc Davis’s vision of enabling “the billions of daily media consumers to become daily media producers.” With ZoneTag we used context-awareness, sociality, and simplicity to influence people to create, annotate, and share photos from their mobile phones (Ahern et al. 2006, 2007).
Enabling and encouraging these behaviors (for all media types) remains a major goal for designers of participatory media; and this was explicit at several points throughout the workshop (e.g., in Teppo Raisanen’s broad presentation on persuasive technology). This morning there was discussion about the technical requirements for consuming, capturing, and sending media. Cases that traditionally seem to strictly structure and separate production and consumption may be (1) in need of revision and increased flexibility or (2) actually already involve production and consumption together through existing tools. Media production to be part of a two-way communication, it must be consumed, whether by peers or the traditional producers.
As an example of the first case, Sarah Lewis (Stanford) highlighted the importance of making distance learning experiences reciprocal, rather than enforcing an asymmetry in what media types can be shared by different participants. In a past distance learning situation focused on the African ecosystem, it was frustrating that video was only shared from the participants at Stanford to participants at African colleges — leaving the latter to respond only via text. A prototype system, Mobltz, she and her colleagues have built is designed to change this, supporting the creation of channels of media from multiple people (which also reminded me of Kyte.tv).
As an example of the second case, Timo Koskinenen (Nokia) presented a trial of mobile media capture tools for professional journalists. In this case the work flow of what is, in the end, a media production practice, involves also consumption in the form of review of one’s own materials and other journalists, as they edit, consider what new media to capture.
Throughout the sessions themselves and conversations with participants during breaks and lunch, having good annotations continued to come up as a requirement for many of the services discussed. While I think our ZoneTag work (and the free suggested tags Web service API it provides) made a good contribution in this area, as has a wide array of other work (e.g., von Ahn & Dabbish 2004, licensed in Google Image Labeler), there is still a lot of progress to make, especially in bringing this work to market and making it something that further services can build on.
Ahern, S., Davis, M., Eckles, D., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R., et al. (2006). ZoneTag: Designing Context-Aware Mobile Media Capture. In Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp (pp. 357-366).
Ahern, S., Eckles, D., Good, N. S., King, S., Naaman, M., & Nair, R. (2007). Over-exposed?: privacy patterns and considerations in online and mobile photo sharing. In Proc. CHI 2007 (pp. 357-366). ACM Press.
Ahn, L. V., & Dabbish, L. (2004). Labeling images with a computer game. In Proc. CHI 2004 (pp. 319-326).
- Blogging something at this level of roughness is still new for me… [↩]