Howard Stearns

Howard Stearns works at Teleplace, Inc., creating business collaboration technologies and products. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

What Goes Wrong?

I-Can-Do-It Beware of initial content loading.

We’ve just started our open Alpha metaverse at High Fidelity. It works! It’s sure not feature-complete, and just about everything needs improvement, but there’s enough to see what the heck this is all about. It’s pretty darn amazing.

It’s all open source and we do take developer submissions. There’s already a great alpha community of both users and developers — and lots of developer-users. We even contract out to the community for paid improvements — some of which are proposed directly by the community.

So, suppose you’re reading about High Fidelity and seeing videos, and you jump right in. What is the experience like? To participate, you need one medium-sized download called “interface”. Getting and using that is not difficult. To run your own world from your own machine, accessible to others, you need a second download called “stack manager”, which is also easy to get and use.  It’s really easy to add content, change your avatar, use voice and lip-sync’d facial capture with your laptop camera, etc. (Make sure you’ve got plenty of light on your face, and that you don’t have your whole family sticking their heads in front of yours as they look at what your laptop is doing. Just saying.)

The biggest problem I encountered — and this is a biggie — is that the initial content is not optimized. You jump in world and the first thing it starts doing is downloading a lot of content.  While it’s doing that, the system isn’t responsive. Sound is bad. You can’t tell what the heck is going on or what you should be seeing. We’ve got to do a better job of that initial experience. However, once you’ve visited a place, your machine will cache the content and subsequent visits should be much smoother.

Also, your home bandwidth is probably plenty, but your home wifi might not be. If your family are all on Skype, Youtube, and WoW on the same wifi while you’re doing this, it could make things a bit glitchy.

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What is the Metaverse?

Our Philip Rosedale gave a talk this week at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference. The talk was on what the Metaverse will be, comprising roughly of the following points. Each point was illustrated with what we have so far in the Alpha version of High Fidelity today. There are couple of bugs, but it’s pretty cool to be able to illustrate the future with your laptop and an ad-hoc network on your cell phone. It’ll blow you away.

The Metaverse subsumes the Web — includes it, but with personal presence and a shared experience.

The Metaverse has user generated content, like the web. Moroever, it’s editable while you’re in it, and persistent. This is a consequence of being a shared experience, unlike the Web.

A successful metaverse is likely to be all open source, and use open content standards.

Different spaces link to each other, like hyperlinks on the Web.

Everyone runs their own servers, with typable names.

The internet now supports low latency, and the Metaverse has low latency audio and matching capture of lip sync, facial expressions, and body movement.

The Metaverse will be huge: huge spaces, with lots of simultaneous, rich, interactive content. The apps are written and shared by the participants in standard, approachable languages like Javascript.

The Metaverse will change education. Online videos have great content, but the Metaverse has the content AND the student AND the teacher, and the students and teachers can actually look at each other. The teacher/student gaze is a crucial aspect of learning.

The Metaverse scales by using participating machines. There are 1000 times more desktops on the Web than there are in all the servers in the cloud.

The talk starts at about 2:42 into the stream:

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What do you want it to be?

balance We were featured at last week’s NeuroGaming Conference in San Francisco. Philip’s presentation is the first 30 minutes of this, and right from the start it pulls you in with the same kind of fact-based insight-and-demonstration as Alan Kay’s talks. (Alas, the 100ms lag demo doesn’t quite work on video-of-video.)

But everyone has their own ideas of what the metaverse is all about. This Chinese News coverage (in English) emphasized a bunch of “full dive” sorts of things that we don’t do at all. The editor also chose to end Philip’s interview on a scary note, which is the opposite of his presentation comments (link above) in which he shared his experiences in VR serving to better one’s real-life nature.

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Inventing the Future: Act II

Eleven and a half years ago, I started to blog.

I had just joined an open-source computer science project that aimed to use virtual worlds to allow people to work, learn and play together, and I thought it would be fun to narrate our progress.

Let’s try that again.


Today I started work at High Fidelity, a nice summary (and video) of which is in this Technology Review piece.

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I continue to find myself thinking about this photo shoot. There is something compelling such thought, and so I feel that one way to think about it is as art.

There are technical issues that can be thought of in artistic terms. For example, I seem to be upset about the variations of paint schemes. I like my aerospace to be engineered. Isn’t there A Right Answer(TM)? How can there be several best paint schemes? (I have the same objection to BMW’s line about “We only make one thing: the Ultimate Driving Machine.”) And yet my favorite paintings are not photographic. If “too perfect”, I would be instantly distracted by whether or not the display was Photoshopped or Computer Generated. But how can one create a Wabi-Sabi esthetic on an aircraft? Maybe the answer is variations.

Hmm. Not satisfying. If the variations were created as deliberate imperfection, I think a much better choice would be to have an artist deliberately create visual asperity in the same way that game artists make a flat glass screen look like rough and rugged material.

Maybe the variation is symbolic? After all, Airbus is uniquely a product of multiple countries. Maybe the variation gives one a feel for laborers of many countries coming together to put these great birds in the air.  Indeed, the making-of film does give a sense of this. Hmm, again, I think other designs could have achieved that better.

Another consequence of an artistic perspective is that it gives a lot of room for the enormous sums of money. How much is art worth? There is something stirring about the site of these planes, so who am I to say they did it wrong in some way? How much did this shot cost, and how much is it worth?


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Billion Dollar Program Management

This picture is from petapixel. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.
The cost of this photo shoot (fuel, chase planes, pilots, etc.) is estimated north of $75k.
The planes themselves are $300M each, or $1.5B for the five. BILLION.
But of the five planes, there are at least four different paint schemes. This is pre-release of the plane.
Think of of the direct cost to produce a new paint scheme for one of these, and the implications on schedule and coordination (e.g., getting the five planes in the same place at the same time with the paint dry), and that nonetheless, some number of project/program-managers approved the changes. Nay, demanded the changes.
  • If it was right to do so, there is a staggering amount of costs at stake, for what most engineers would mistakenly think is silly.  (Heck, I thought it was wrong. But I’m not sure I was right!)
  • If it was wrong to do so, there is a staggering amount of money and time being mis-applied.
Am I nuts to wonder about such things? Have I been too long at startups, where all I can think of is what it takes to get it out the door and not muck with the schedule and the dependencies?
(I’ll promise to post more with some reflection, respecting what people have already shared with me out-of-band.)
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What town contains Apple’s flagship Palo Alto store?

The answer is not Menlo Park. We’ve all made products that don’t work as well in the field as we’d like, but the Apple Maps folks really have to get out more.

Apple Maps showing labeling downtown Palo Alto as Downtown Menlo Park.

Apple Maps labeling downtown Palo Alto as Downtown Menlo Park.

And Safari froze when uploading this image to WordPress. Had to use Chrome…


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Making the Tech Tool Work

A classmate of my daughter was too shy to present her social studies final project. So my daughter offered to record her presentation at home, boost the voice, and give the recording to the teacher. Brilliant. The teacher has accepted.

It’s wonderful that this is not a particular remarkable use of technology these days. But in this case, my daughter and her classmate are special-needs students. I try to take to heart Alan Kay’s maxim that if technology works well for kids, it will work well for everyone, and doubly so for everyone who faces challenges. I cannot express how very proud I am that my daughter is using technology to give her friend a voice.

It takes a lot of work by technologists to make a success like this possible at all. It further takes a lot of work by technology advocates to make the possible a more commonplace part of our everyday culture. We all benefit when every one of us has the widest possible set of tools available to us, and it is advocates that make that happen. It makes me sad that critics of what they call technology solutionism would fail to do everything possible to enlarge everyone’s toolset.

Posted in Inventing the Future, KidsFirst, The Age of Imagination | Comments closed

Rest In Peace, Andreas Raab


What you’ve tried to teach me:

  • Do the simplest thing that can possibly work.
  • Be fearless in programming — except in matters of security.
  • You should be able to write one single sentence of documentation for each method.
  • Tell people when a colleague does good work.
  • Do what you want or must, but maintain control over yourself.


speaking at Boston Computer Museum's Computer Revolutionaries eventon the zeppelin over Silicon Valley

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I’ve created plenty of technical solutions that were demonstrably effective, yet failed to change the world because they were not integrated with the users’ personal culture (or lifestyle) and social culture (or ecosystem). For years I’ve been analyzing these connections on this blog, and I expect I’ll still be learning for years to come.

I think these interconnections ought to be part of the current national discussion that follows this week’s latest mass shooting.Yesterday, a parent at our son’s school wrote to the elementary school list inviting parents to join a gun protest in our little suburban downtown. When asked, I told my wife I didn’t want to go — that I felt deeply but that I didn’t know what I wanted to accomplish by protesting. “Shut up. You’re going,” she said. I ended up talking with a lot of people, and I feel I learned something.

Almost everyone seems to feel that it is now time to break away from our usual daily concerns to focus for a while on what the hell we’re going to do about this. It’s time. No one knows exactly how, but people want to help. They want to have a conversation. There’s a great overwhelming need for people to try to understand what it is that they think. To form an opinion. To accomplish some sort of effective change, because things are not ok, and our failure to address gun violence is no longer acceptable.

There also seems to be consensus that there are at least three components to the lethal events we are seeing:

  • the availability of a guns — i.e., a technical tool
  • an individual but widespread attachment to violence — i.e., a personal culture
  • an inadequate mental health system — i.e., our social ecosystem

My own views are still evolving, but I’m starting to collect some strongly held beliefs:

  • It’s best to address all of these in a comprehensive way. Leaving out any of the three elements may lead to failure.
  • We are becoming increasingly dependent on medicating children and relying on schools to monitor their mental health. This appears to create a problem as young men leave the school system.
  • Many people, almost always men, are drawn to a culture that celebrates violence for its own sake and as a means of settling issues. People are drawn to gore, bullying, and destruction. Most of us effected don’t act on such impulses, but I know that when I feel wronged and powerless, even my presumably healthy mind is constrained by only the thinnest of lines. Movies, music, video games, and advertisements celebrating aggression are either causes or effects of this culture. Maybe both. So are some sports, business, and political cultures. It is absurd to attack some of these potential sources of a culture-of-violence, without also considering the effect of gun fetishism itself. And I believe in shedding light on dark corners, but can we do this without making the killers famous? Please?
  • Guns are a hugely powerful force multiplier. When used as directed, the meekest can be lethal to many in just moments. We send out soldiers and policemen with assault rifles, shotguns and handguns — not swords, knives, or machetes — precisely because they are so effective. It is absurd to not consider having at least the same controls on the deployment or exercise of guns as we have on explosives, poisons, automobiles, radios, drugs good and bad, home ownership, bank accounts, marriage licenses, driving while black, or working while brown.

There are may things I still don’t understand. For example, I’m ignorant of what factors are driving the increasing medication of children or using schools for monitoring and assessment instead of for education.  I don’t understand why so many people stopped to thank us for protesting. Most were parents or grandparents. Quite a few, like the retired Connecticut State Trooper who spoke almost randomly with us for an hour, were not for gun control per se. But all those who walked up or leaned out their cars to thank us seemed to feel that it was desperately important to be doing something, and they seemed to feel that simply voicing our concerns and facilitating discussion was itself the start of doing something. People seemed to feel that their distress was not theirs alone, and that everyone should know that. By contrast, I don’t understand what some people — always older white women — were thinking when they shook their heads disapprovingly as they drove by our little protest. I don’t think these people were in favor of shooting children, but it seemed that they felt that such conversation or protest was inappropriate, or maybe beneath them.  Maybe they think we were being reactionary or sensationalist. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the most important thing that I just don’t get is a sort of fundamentalist interpretation of law. Not a small number of white men, never with children in tow, and who are were clearly had never been inclined to study either law or history, were somehow fervently devoted to what they felt was intended (though not actually written) into the constitution. I’m not talking here about discussion of what is or isn’t a problem, but rather the idea that some discussion is some sort of thought-crime that must not be spoken. Several such men yelled out their car window. One walked up to us and salaciously predicted that the next massacre would surely top fifty children dead. Another got into my daughter’s face and talked about how he enjoyed killing pigs. All swore that guns didn’t kill people and the second amendment said that they could, end of story. Frankly, although I know many nice people with guns, these guys made me feel like guns are for schmucks. (Unfair, I know. But that’s what these creeps made me feel.)

Anyway, I still don’t know the answer. I think there’s plenty of opportunity for technology to help “enforce the laws we have.” (If my phone can alert security folks or disable itself when in certain zones, so can a gun.) I think we can change laws. A neighborhood watch guy suggested that we team up with people like him — who may or may or may not be “gun nuts”, but who definitely want to help protect people.  The state trooper urged us to demand that sherif departments expand “D.A.R.E.”-like programs to include perhaps violence, bullying, and mental health. Campaign that Guns Are For Schmucks. The idea of taxing bullets is sounding less facetious. Or mandatory gun insurance. But let’s discuss this, and let’s not keep anything off the table.

Posted in I Fear These Things, Inventing the Future | Comments closed

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