The Renaissance of the Third Dimension: Stefano Baldassi at TEDxLA (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of neuroscientist Stefano Baldassi’s TEDx Talk: The Renaissance of the Third Dimension at TEDxLA conference. This event occurred on December 3, 2016. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

Stefano Baldassi – Neuroscientist

It says a lot that in a world filled with so much technology, we still rely on our Post-it notes. Even with phones, tablets, wearables, we still scramble to jot down our thoughts and post them all over desks, whiteboards, and sometimes even the very devices that they were supposed to replace in the first place.

As I was preparing for this very talk, I was juggling voice memos recorded from my morning run, files all over my laptop – texts, images, personal notes, you name it. Each day, this tangle of information got bigger; a new train of thought will generate a whole new dimension of ideas, running totally perpendicular to one another. Like a tree that kept growing new branches at bizarre angles.

Human creativity is a beautiful kind of chaos. We should support it, even when it’s messy. And yet, every device we use can only seem to show us flat, rectangular glimpses of it. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that this is not how humans evolved to think. Instead, imagine a world where technology is expected to accommodate the way we naturally think and act. In this world, our ideas would be organized in three-dimensional space, surrounding us with the content we need for our tasks and letting us reach right into it without clumsy middlemen like keyboards and screens. This would get us away from our desks and finally look up from our screens.

Our relationship with information would become a natural part of our physical lives rather than a separation from it. Instead of putting ourselves in a digital world, we could bring its best features in the real world we already live in. And this would be more than just the next thing. Our thinking has transitioned from two to three dimensions before. In fact, this transition was the singular innovation at the heart of the period we now call the Renaissance.

Since the first forms of human graphic expression, all the way to the Middle Ages, art was trapped in a crude, flat world. Well, this changed in Florence in the 15th century when the architect Filippo Brunelleschi opened the third dimension in art by being the first one to use linear perspective. From Brunelleschi onward, painted imagery began to feel less like an abstraction of our world and more like an extension of it. And this transition from flat to three-dimensional was more than just an upgrade for artists. It was a revolution in human ingenuity that extended far beyond painting for centuries.

For example, Galileo relied on his perspective drawings to discover properties of the Moon observed through the telescope, providing a key spark to ignite the Copernican revolution. Well, let me argue, today’s computers are due for a renaissance of their own. For years, I reached my lab in Florence by walking through the Duomo, the Baptistery, Piazza della Signoria, and across the Arno River. Each morning, I would walk by the work of those very artists, who opened the third dimension to the world in the Renaissance.

But in the last three years, I’ve been absorbing the new Florence, Silicon Valley, by participating to a new journey into the third dimension through a new technology called Augmented Reality. In augmented reality, the interface is no longer a flat screen but holograms projected into the world around us. We can reach out and touch them with our hands, we can attach them to real objects and access a myriad of information, or we can create new holograms, no longer Post-its, straight from our ideas and test in the blink of an eye how that fits in the real world, with our partners in crime.

But, wait a second, what’s neuroscience got to do with all this? Well, with augmented reality, we’re moving computers from desks or palms to our eyes, our senses, our brain. Our computers will no longer be mere objects in our space; they will create the very space in which we live and work. So, they’ll have to fit to our brains like a glove to a hand.

So, let me give you a few examples of how my team and I have been using neuroscience to accomplish this mission. We all get notifications of all sorts, don’t we? Well, in augmented reality, notifications can not only be distracting, but they can also be dangerous. Neuroscience of attention comes of great help here. Our brain has a circuit that ensures our continuous focus on our tasks. It’s the areas in blue in this figure.

When sudden, unexpected stimuli occur, the circuit highlighted in yellow takes over and breaks our flow on our task to redirect attention to this new event. Except, in our modern life, this circuit-breaking stimulus is no longer a tiger jumping at us in the jungle but our next Black Friday extended sale notification in our phone.

Another fundamental line of study comes from the observation that as much as one third of our brain processes visual information. But today’s computers are using only half of this potential. You see, our sense of sight consists of two distinct pathways.

The first is the ventral pathway, it answers the “what” questions by recognizing familiar objects, like faces, words, or objects, like this chair. But equally important is the dorsal pathway, which answers the “where” and “how” questions. If the ventral pathway tells us what we are looking at, the dorsal pathway helps us to understand the larger scheme of things and how we fit into it. The dorsal pathway is extremely sensitive to movement and closely tracks the space around us, so it plays a vital role in our actions, from intercepting a volleyball to the fine movements of an artist. That’s why today’s computers so easily frustrate us. They’re essentially designed for the ventral pathway only.

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