Virtual Blackness at #CES2016

Denzel Washington in Virtuosity (1995), Paramount Pictures

Denzel Washington in Virtuosity (1995), Paramount Pictures

There were two themes that unexpectedly intertwined for me during the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas: Virtual reality (VR) and the representation of Blackness at the annual trade show. VR uses a headset that enables you to experience a simulated world in all three dimensions: you can look behind, in front, above, and below you. I look like an absolute dork with the headset on, but the experience is worth it.

Believe it or not, I'm flying through space in the game Eve Valkyrie for the Oculus Rift

Believe it or not, I'm flying through space in the game Eve Valkyrie for the Oculus Rift

Oculus stole the show with its premium Rift headset for PCs and Gear VR headset for Samsung mobile phones. The Rift is a $600 beast that requires a very powerful computer to run, resulting in unparalleled visuals. Gear VR can add an immersive effect to many videos, most notably videos shot by athletes doing crazy athlete things on a GoPro mobile camera.

The Samsung Gear VR let's me surf ... Which is something I'd never do otherwise

The Samsung Gear VR let's me surf ... Which is something I'd never do otherwise

As I dipped in and out of these virtual worlds, I imagined the potential of bringing new experiences and cultures to the user. What if a kid in rural America can get a sense of the warmth and togetherness that can be experienced in areas that constantly top the country's homicide list?  And vice versa? As I pondered that future, my mind was consistently brought back to the present whenever I observed the towering product displays that each company paid way too much money for. I was pleased to see a diverse array of races and gender represented on the displays. Unfortunately, the displays were more likely to serve as virtual representations of Blackness - my skin, my hair, my body - than the conerence attendees that I networked with.

Blackness was on display at several CES booths. 

Blackness was on display at several CES booths. 

This was most apparent in the exhibit hall, where there were many brands that sold the image of Black Cool (shout out to Rebecca Walker) for their headphones, sound systems, and photos.  Yet the very people staffing the booths and speaking the company line rarely looked like me. This introduces a conflict that I am slightly ashamed of. While I am happy that the power of using Blackness to sell products is not ignored due to a fear of scaring off a majority non-Black tech conference audience, I wish that the Black representation was not limited to a virtual screen or celebrity.

Wyclef serenades the crowd at CES 2016

Wyclef serenades the crowd at CES 2016

Whenever a Black celebrity appeared, there was always a sense of awkwardness on both sides.  Most of it was pretty harmless, like an old white gentleman asking me "Who is T-Pain and I am too old that I shouldn't care" (he was talking about Flo Rida). But there was also the intentional misuse of slang, with several people yelling out rap catch phrases ironically and then giggling afterwards.  "Hey, look at this person who is so unlike us - let's gawk at the creature!"  I often thought that these people didn't DESERVE this level of awesome Black celebrity.  It's the same feeling I had 18 years ago when I saw a bunch of fellow college students barely responding to a still-underground Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform Redefinition in the way I always knew that they could.

Flo Rida entered into a collboration with IK Multimedia for a new mobile mic recording solution.  

Flo Rida entered into a collboration with IK Multimedia for a new mobile mic recording solution.  

Some may say that I am adding unnecessary issues to a tech conference. But unfortunately, being Black in this country means that I can't opt out of seeing things from a certain perspective.  Even something as well meaning as a drone reconnaissance van for taking photos of sports events can bring to mind an overzealous Ferguson police department unleashing advanced hardware against peaceful protestors. I am still hoping for the day where Blackness at major tech conferences is not only virtual, but realized both in the products being sold and the people selling them.

NASA Does The New Year Right

Check out what NASA has in store for 2016!

Highlights are:

 

Watch the SpaceX Falcon Rocket Launch ... and Land

This is simply incredible. SpaceX has successfully used a rocket to launch a spacecraft, and returned that same rocket back to Earth unharmed.  

Uploaded by SpaceX on 2015-12-22.

This will significantly decrease the cost of space travel.  Why? It takes a lot of fuel and rocket power to give spacecraft enough speed to leave the Earth's atmosphere.  Usually, this fuel is burnt up and the rocket is detached from the spacecraft and burns up in the atmosphere. 

Less resources on fuel means more resources on the actual spacecraft. Most importantly, less debate in a cost cutting political environment!

If you want to geek out over the full livestream, please see below:

With this mission, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will deliver 11 satellites to low-Earth orbit for ORBCOMM, a leading global provider of Machine-to-Machine communication and Internet of Things solutions. The ORBCOMM launch is targeted for an evening launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.


The Hubble Can Rent a Car, Fix Your Eyes

Astronauts train for certain missions, including Hubble service repair, by performing in special underwater tanks.  This simulates a zero gravity environment.

Astronauts train for certain missions, including Hubble service repair, by performing in special underwater tanks.  This simulates a zero gravity environment.

Many widely known images of the galaxy have been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 25 this year (time to rent a car!). NASA has created a fantastic video to discuss one of the later repairs to the Space Telescope Imaging Spectograph (STIS). It's a great example of geniuses at Johnson Space Center in Houston having to quickly come up with a solution when astronauts on a spacewalk could not correctly perform a repair.

The advances from fixing the Hubble's mirror will be rolled into the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as ... your eyes. Check out the following video to see how the technology is used to improve LASIK vision correction.

Check out more Hubble goodness here at the official NASA site, or the Hubble 25th anniversary site.

Big Stars, Bigger Nothing

Space is truly awe inspiring - and amazingly empty.  It's often hard for us to conceptualize both the immense size of planets, stars, and other bodies with the incredible amount of space between them.

To show the immense size,  introduced me to a fantastic YouTube video compared planet and star sizes. The video does a great job of showing relative size - once you think you're at the largest size possible, another body comes along and knocks it out of the park!

 

 

All of those wonderfully huge (and woefully undersized) bodies are faaaaaaaaaaaaaar part.  Check out this interactive scrolling game from Josh Worth (props to Steve Greenwood for linking me to this).  If you can scroll the entire way, I commend you.

 

This background knowledge helps to fully appreciate the Pluto news as covered by the latest This Week in NASA video - check it out!

After a nearly decade-long journey, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto on July 14 - passing by at a mere 7,750 miles above the surface ... resulting in an absolutely breathtaking image - the closest ever of Pluto. Initial congratulations included a Twitter post from the White House ...