Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Crayon Physics Paradox: V1,000,001

Here's a thought experiment in response to Assaf of Physically Incorrect, who gave me some good fodder to chew regarding my post "When Virtual Reality Approaches Reality". I agree with Assaf in that there is intrigue in the act of digital creation. Also agreed that virtual reality and reality are different systems.  

I still think, however, that there is something odd that takes place at the boundary between the virtual and the real. It is easiest to wrap my head around it by reducing it to a simple system of single ball drop onto table. If the ideal for virtual reality is to approach reality, then there is a continuum between unrealistic and realistic systems, culminating in an actually real system. Part of this is tongue and cheek, but I'm also genuinely interested in the math of this thought experiment. I suspect that a form of Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox of Motion is at the foundation of this. 

And now the thought experiment. Let's use Crayon Physics.   Let's imagine that the first iteration of the program was crude.  They could digitally create a ball that dropped and hit a table, but the bounce wasn't realistic.  It just bounced up and down repeatedly at the same height, not losing momentum.  Also, if you drew an oblate sphere it still bounced straight up when it landed on a side that, in reality, would clearly send it rebounding at an angle.   It was cool to bounce the Version 1 (v1) ball but not cool enough because it was far from reality.  Version two is vastly improved and a giant step was made to get closer to reality.  The v2 ball lost momentum as it should but the rebound angle wasn't solved.  The V3 Ball took another big step toward reality by adjusting the angle of incidence and reflection.  That was even cooler than v1 and v2.  However, the makers weren't satisfied because it didn't take into account the introduction of wind, air resistance, elasticity of the ball, etc...  So they make V4, V5, V6... each time taking one step closer to reality, and each time the ball drop system increased on the "Cool Factor Scale", albeit at a smaller amount with each iteration.    

Now here's where it gets fascinating to me.  Let's jump ahead to V1,000.  At this time Crayon Physics has become adopted by the Federal Government and there are NSF dollars invested in the project.  The ball drop is now extremely cool and very realistic, in fact the "Cool Factor vs Reality" graph has been changed to a logarithmic scale on both axes.    At V1,000,000 the project goes international.  The Large Hadron Collider project has been abandoned in favor of Crayon Physics.   It is now the BIG SCIENCE project (neglect the corrupting influences of politics and other Big Science inefficiencies and garbage.)  Billions of dollars are spent.   It reaches the point that you are immersed in a 3D holographic VR chamber.  The virtual ball is transmitted though integrated biotechnological circuits into your brain so that you actually feel the temperature, weight and texture of the ball.  Crayon Physics shamed the VR system in The Matrix long ago, way back around V754,982.   Movie stars, literati, dignitaries are paying six figures to "Drop the Ball" because it is so cool.  

Then the funding dries up and the plug is threatening to be pulled on the entire project. (A comet struck the earth, caused global cooling and all the money was diverted to discovering ways of heating up the planet.)

Under tremendous pressure from trade unions, the Prime Minister of the "International Ball Drop Consortium" comes up with a brilliant idea. He figures that since V1,000,000 is so close to reality that nobody will be able to tell the difference if he substitutes a real ball for the virtual one.    And since people are still lining up and paying big bucks to "Drop the Ball" he makes V1,000,001:  a real ball dropped on a real table.  Nobody could tell the difference because the prior version was soooooo realistic.  The V1,000,001 scam went well for a decade and was a closely held secret within the consortium.   The IBDC made millions in revenue (not to mention the endorsements deals!)  

That is, until Snerd Jackely got disgruntled.  Snerd was the Junior Undersecretary to the Sub-Warden of the Security Division of the IBDC (JUSWSD - IBDC) and got passed over for a promotion to become SUSWSD - IBDC.  Oh he was mad!  His revenge?  He turned states evidence and informed the world that the VR ball was in fact real!  After the U.N. tribunals and World Court trials, what was left?    The cool factor of dropping the real ball dropped like a stone.  The "Line of Reality" was crossed.    

Forgive please the drama and tongue-in-cheek of this thought experiment.  Set aside the economics of supply/demand in dropping V1,000,000 versus V1,000,001.  There's calculus in here.  I know it.  And there still lies a paradox and something strange occurs when the limit of reality is approached in smaller and smaller increments.   In fact, I'm going way out on a limb* and coining a new paradox: The Crayon Physics Paradox.  

And, I'm also going to be the first to shorten the paradox name to CPP.  And I'm going to go drop a ball in the kitchen.

Thanks again Physically Incorrect.

Fine Print

*Or I'm exposing my ignorance of an ancient debate in the VR community by naming that which has already been named and elucidated much clearer than above.


  1. Would some people stop playing second life if it were too much like first life?

    I mean, the draw of VR is that it looks and feels like reality, and the realer the better, but in some way an emotionally enhanced reality. Like, I hear you get to have wings if you want them.

  2. Second Life (or other SIM games) is probably an even better example than Crayon Physics! The first avatars were pixelated, crude. Movement throughout the environment was jerky. Activities were limited, etc. Replace Second Life for Crayon Physics in the thought experiment and the paradox is even more apparent.

    What I want to do is zoom in with a magnifying glass closer and closer to the "Line of Reality" and see what happens at the boundary between "unreal" and "real".

    Even though Second Life is a better example, I'm not changing the name "Crayon Physics Paradox". That tanker is in deep water with too much momentum to easily turn. [Inserting tongue into cheek...] The world community just wouldn't be able to handle such a drastic shift.

    Thanks for your take Marilyn.

  3. Oh, no, I'm not learning any more acronyms. Not in this lifetime. Forget it.

    Is there something wrong with me that I'm asking myself why people would want to play with a fake ball for a bundle when I can buy one for a couple bucks at Toys R Us?

    Perhaps you can see why I'm not very popular.

  4. I sometimes consult on Federal and military projects. TMATYCSASA.

    (There's More Acronyms Than You Can Shake A Stick At)

  5. If you're trying to scare me, forget it. When I was the EVA Safety Lead for the Hubble servicing mission, the Hubble servicing mission has their own list of acronyms (which don't count (a) general NASA, (b) Shuttle or (c) EVA). It was 57 pages long, single spaced, in three columns. This was less than a 14 day mission.

    That's when I reached acronym saturation and I can't learn any more without losing one I have randomly (and I don't know which one). *Sigh* I wish I could remember what NASA stood for.

  6. 57 Pages!!! Was there an acronym for the list of acronyms? What's fascinating to me about the space program isn't just the space... but also the program!

    Acronyms do a number of things don't they? I think they satisfy our incessant drive, hard work and yearning to be lazy. In my business its much easier to say DCP than than dynamic cone penetrometer. There is some efficiency realized by the jargon I suppose.

    But "shop talk" serves another interesting purpose I believe, it is a gatekeeper for the outsiders of any organization. Everybody who is "in" my company knows exactly what are R/C, R/M, R/S, SS/W, and P/T. And if you don't know, then I'm not telling*. Because those who don't know aren't quite part of the family yet. It is an initiation to be able to learn the new language in organizations of any size.

    I also think there's a sense of "insiderness" among those who can rattle off the jargon.

    Stephanie, when you get together with work buddies outside of work, don't you toss in a few gems from those 57 pages?

    *Just kidding. Reinforced concrete, reinforced masonry, resteel, structural steel and welding, post-tensioning.

  7. No, as a matter of fact I don't, but most of the HST folks work in a different state and, besides, I couldn't remember them all.

    I do give them points for trying (in general) to find name that were easy to say like NOPE, SOPE and COPE (and, no, I don't remember what those stood for).

    I don't remember people's names worth a darn either.

  8. So Brian you know what EVA means right? I had to google it coz I swear Stephanie never tells us what it means on her blogsite :-) OK, I know, I could have asked the Rocket Scientist a few Fridays ago but it would have been a bit lame!

    Not sure about Zeno or calculus but surely this is pure psychology. I'm not in to VR at all but the way you described your thought experiment, the only difference in what caused customer satisfaction was their expectation. People still think it's cool that computers can simulate reality very well and that was surely the product in your scenario.

  9. I think we may be somewhat protected against crossing the "line of reality" by the moat of the "uncanny valley", at which things start creeping us out specifically because they're close to, but not quite, real. :) But I agree that people can be led to want/pay for virtually anything, no matter how mundane, if it's simply framed properly.

  10. Bioephemera, I agree about your moat. With more technology, the creepy factor sure does rise. Hopefully there's no draw bridge across the moat! Thanks for stopping by, hope to hear more from you.



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