Ramblings: Brains and interactions

I spent some time introspecting last week and here’s what came out.

I tend to explain what I do as computational neuroscience at a Vision Science PhD during the daytime and interactive stuff in the off-time. But I really shouldn’t keep qualifying them as separate, because my interest in both comes from the same source – both allow me to create, wonder and interact with my concepts of what people are.

My research is about deconstructing vision and then trying to reconstruct Mother Nature in software. And I’ve always been curious about how the brain manages to sort out our senses and bring them together coherently.  So, my career in science is an expression of curiosity and a search for understanding about the brain and the senses. My interest in making interactive experiences is just a complementary expression of the same impulses.

The heart of the similarity is about the content. As a designer, you are fabricating a world for someone to explore. It could be an authored world with a strict progression that should be followed or, it could just be a bunch of rules that create something emergent. In both cases, the screen becomes our eyes, the speakers our ears, mouse/keyboard/controller our appendages.  Our experiences of the real world are a product of our senses.  Your brain takes photons, vibrations, pressure, chemical bindings, temperature, the position of our internal organs, etc. and converts them into signals that neurons transmit between one and other. The world you experience is defined by your senses and how your sensations change over time. As a game designer, now you control that conversion of a ‘real’ world into the senses (screens, speakers, etc.). You have the potential to drop a player into a fabricated body in a fabricated world. But you have to know something about how we experience the world in order to create an understandable interactive experience. Even more importantly, you will learn more about how we experience the world by building things and seeing how people react to it.

Maybe you think you understand the rules the brain uses to figure out perspective.  So now you play with the rules – adhere to them, stretch them, break them and see what those experiences feel like.  Or maybe you are curious about what a world would be like without photons – having to rely on sound rather than vision.  By exploring the concepts, you deepen your own knowledge and possibly uncover something new.

The real difference between the science and the interactive work is that the latter is less structured and more human.

In science, you can have these lofty goals and have intelligent, speculative conversations with your peers, but at the end of the day, you always have to bring yourself back to the reality that research moves incrementally. The projects that usually get funded are ones that will take a clear, definable, tiny step forward. If your goal as a scientist is to completely understand vision, you’ll probably be dust before we get there. Still, you need those high floating goals to guide you in picking out what small problem you want to solve.  There’s a crucial interplay between the big and small ideas. The interactive medium is not beholden to the model of science funding.  You can take what might be considered too big of an idea in science and go right ahead and play with it.

So there’s a lack of enforced structure, but the more important difference is the human aspect with the interactive medium. The types of things I want to make in the future aren’t about strictly exploring what we are in a general sense. They are more about who we are in a more specific sense. Who am I? Who was my grandmother? How do we relate to one another? The medium opens up to areas of expression and communication with which science can’t compete.

An aside on science and process:

For me, science is about two things – curiosity and active learning. You start with a fascination with some piece of the world. Maybe you want to keep opening up Russian doll after Russian doll to find what kinds of stuff the world is made of. Or if you do it in reverse, you’re probably looking up at the sky and wondering about black holes. Or maybe you’d prefer to puzzle about the different ways that groups of people trade little pieces of paper. Personally, I’m taken by the mystery of how all these squishy neurons crammed into a skull constitute what we call a ‘person.’

Next, you try learning something new – something no one yet knows. This means creating a model of how the world works – one that makes testable predictions. Your model doesn’t have to involve you writing down math formulae. It doesn’t necessitate creating a software simulation. It just requires you to think about mechanisms. If you are studying a cell, what would happen if you zapped it with some electricity? If you are studying feeding patterns of sheep in Africa, what would happen if there were a drought? And many times you are working in a space where we don’t know much, so you let your intuition about how the world works guide you. Once you’ve got a prediction, you test it. Zap that cell. Analyze some satellite data over North Africa during the last drought. If you were right, test another prediction. If you were wrong, tweak your model or invent a new model.

Repeat and iterate ad nauseum, and then you’ve likely created knowledge that no one else has. You excavated some kernel of truth from the depths of the world, so you go share it.  Creating isn’t talked about as much as in science as it is in, say, film, but to me, it’s just as vital.  I should qualify this to say that isn’t what everyone in ‘science’ does, but this is what I mean when I say I do ‘science.’

There’s this similarity in the process of creating knowledge and the process of creating an interactive ‘thing.’ Building things for some specific purpose is exhilarating.  You are an information vacuum for a while and then suddenly ideas spill out.  Maybe it’s just an ego thing for people, but I prefer to think it’s mainly curiosity.  We think we’re following this breadcrumb trail up this mountain, and we just are absolutely floored by the possibility of the view from the top.  In reality, you might just be following some breadcrumbs carefully laid out on a devilish Möbius Strip – never to find “the top.” But that journey of creating is enticing whether that purpose is trying to deconstruct vision or whether that purpose is trying to create an expressive interactive experience.

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