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Displacement Theory

July 19, 2013

I really like this story from the New York Times about how NASA (or whoever will be in charge of space exploration when there’s enough money in the economy to actually pay for it) are planning to provide recreational computer games for astronauts traveling to distant planets (Mars, for instance…or even Uranus…). I’m taken with the mental image of a very bored space man on a long journey during which absolutely nothing happens becoming less bored by pretending to be a space man on a long journey during which many exciting things happen – hordes of gorilla space zombies or something, perhaps…

This is actually something I’ve been pondering for some time (not the space zombies…the other thing!).

When I was much younger I played the trumpet in a youth orchestra. We had a number of different conductors (some of whom – in hindsight – could easily have been close personal friends with Jimmy Saville), one of whom was a small Welsh gentleman by the name of Mr Morris (this was in a time when you called teachers by their surname). He was an awful conductor really. Before every concert he’d say to us “if it really starts to get out of control, I will pull out my pocket handkerchief and wave it around. Then everyone needs to really concentrate.”

…he pulled out his pocket handkerchief in every single concert.

On a number of occasions I remember Mr Morris telling us all that the era of work was over, and that machines were about to take over. According to him, within a decade we’d all have so much free time that we’d be very glad of our ability to play music so that we wouldn’t be bored.

That was in about 1980, so his predictions turned out to be off by quite a long way, but the subject of engagement and boredom in the workplace is something that remains quite intriguing.

dodgemI’ve never been one to get excited about flashy cars, and although it’s nice to get where you’re going without too much delay, I don’t drive excessively fast or dangerously, in fact I’m probably what you’d describe as a defensive driver. But I see an awful lot of people on the road who are exactly the opposite. They can’t ALL be idiots (even though that’s what I occasionally feel compelled to shout at them as they cut me up…or something like that…), so they must be driving like that because they have to. It’s a mental state of being, or a genetic or hormonal thing that isn’t going to be fixed with a few public information films (or by me shaking my fist at them), so we need to find a way to accommodate their behavior in society without it causing so many accidents.

My idea was that we should replace all cars on the road with identical electrically powered bumper cars that travel at a maximum speed of 15mph and are computer guided through a centralized traffic command and control center. There wouldn’t be any congestion and no accidents, so no delays. Journey times would be optimized and would be unlikely to differ massively from the current highly variable ones.

Inside each vehicle the driver would be subjected to an artificial reality rendering of his own choosing. You want to drive a Ferrari like a maniac? No problem. You want to drive a Hummer through a war zone? Great. You do that in your own little simulated bubble, but the vehicle in which you are sitting  will still bimble along at 15mph, perfectly coordinated with all of the other little bumper cars and their psychotic occupants.

Personally I think this is a much better solution than the current situation – not just because it reduces the opportunity for carnage on the streets, but it allows drivers to really push the envelope, drive in pre-organized races, championships or tournaments. They can drive on any road they want, in any vehicle they want and under any conditions they want. It’s like real-life Grand Theft Auto…and you’re playing it instead of making that dreary drive into the office.

Win – win!

Another thing that’s quite boring is being a control room operator monitoring security cameras in a fixed area with low traffic. Everyone knows the stats about how poorly the human brain copes with doing boring jobs – such as watching monitors for activity – and the state of mind of operators performing these activities makes them really bad at reacting to events when they do occur.

I think this is the perfect environment into which games can be introduced to keep the operators motivated and responsive. By electronically overlaying potential target images onto the live feeds we can simulate real life incidents all day long and score the performance of the operators on this simulated data instead of waiting for a real incident to occur (when it’s too late to find out if your operators are awake or not).

I can think of dozens of ways this technology could help get more out of the operators, and also give security managers an accurate sense of the performance levels their teams are achieving – something they very rarely have right now.

And besides all of which – wouldn’t it be fun!? Space aliens and vampires running through the oil refinery. All you’ve got to do is find them!!

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