Those unstable populations of virtual environments and cities…

It is said that in a few decades time 80 percent of world population will live in cities. Those cities will depend on a superstructure of networked technology in order to provide food, water, energy and communication. The Impakt Festival 2010 Matrix City in Utrecht, the Netherlands, will discuss

(…) both the growing dependency of urban societies on their technological superstructures as well as the phenomena of massive online virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre. This connects to the physicality of real-urbanism that loses its own purpose and function without networked technology, and to virtual environments that are losing their purpose without the physicality of human presence.

Interesting thought, “virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre.” The organizers continue:

Virtual flight depicts the slow movement from the autonomous exclusive realm of virtual worlds, toward something that is more connected to real world physicality. During the last 5 years, we witness a stagnation in the development of virtual worlds. World of Warcraft with its “hack and slash” concept still dominates online worlds, while Second Life remains lost in defining the purpose for its own existence. This stagnation shows how technological, virtual platforms are dependent on a meaningful raison d’etre for individual participation, and that the massive euphoria around virtual online worlds from the mid 2000s ended in ontological dead-end, mostly because it didn’t take into account the complexities of social laws. More and more examples point currently to fusions between virtual environments and “real” social events, where the virtual framework is mirroring offline realities.

The conference about Superstructural Dependencies takes place on Friday October 15.

I won’t be able to attend but the ideas expressed in the announcement are fascinating. Augmented reality, location-based networks and games, alternate reality games (very interesting Wikipedia entry!) are ways to mix virtual and physical realities. All those genres can be ‘for entertainment only’, and/or have commercial, educational and transformative purposes.

(hat tip to Bruce Sterling who mentions this event on Beyond the Beyond and comments on it).

Telling the Living Story of The Metaverse in Turmoil

I’m trying to use Google Living Stories for a project about the Metaverse in Turmoil. The project is important to me because Living Stories could help bloggers and journalists to combine breaking news and context in a very user-friendly way – that is at least what Google promises.

Google made the project open source and in April a plugin for WordPress was introduced. Google as a company stopped developing the tool, so it seems. Here is more about the project (which of course was also a nice PR gesture to the newspaper industry):

Now, what are my intentions? I’m pretty sure we’ll see all kinds of interesting developments in the Metaverse during the next year. Augmented reality, mobile computing, ubiquitous internet access and virtual worlds will combine themselves in new and often surprising ways. We’ll watch closely what that will mean for Second Life, Linden Lab, new and old media.

Living Stories can help to bring all this together on one page, providing categories, a time-line, summaries etc. I just started developing the page The Metaverse in Turmoil, so you can expect that the page will gradually grow. If you’re interested in participating in the development of this Living Story, let me know!

Invading the MoMA NY using AR

This seems a very nice project: artists organize an exhibition in the New York  MoMA, and a few days before the opening the museum is “not involved yet.” How is this possible? The answer seems simple but there is quite an intellectual puzzle behind it: augmented reality.

Here is the invitation:

Opening October 9th, 4PM

Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek cordially invite you to their temporary exhibition in the MoMA NY, featuring augmented reality art in its proper context: a contemporary art museum.

At the same time, the ‘art invasion’ annex exhibition showcases the radical new possibilies and implications Augmented Reality is bringing to the cultural and creative field.

(PS The MoMA is not involved yet)

The artists are kind enough to explain:

Augmented Reality (AR) is the phenomenon adding virtual elements into our physical reality. These addition are viewable by pointing your contemporary smartphone to the world around you. The phone knows where you are (because of GPS) and with this data it connects to the internet to get the relevant images, visuals, 3D shapes and it puts them into your view.

‘AR’ technology allows anyone to (re-)shape anything, anywhere!

An example: the MoMA building NY will host a ‘virtual’ augmented reality show on the 9th of October 2010 But, they don’t know about it yet. The infiltration is part of the Conflux Psychogeoraphy festival.

Visitors are required to use iPhone or Android phones running the Layar Augmented Reality browser. Looking through their cameras visitors will be able to see the AR artwork. So, is this an invasion of the museum? Could the museum have any reasons to forbid this taking place, as demonstrated by a fictitious sign “no augmented reality beyond this point, please?”

Fictitious sign-post at the MoMA, no augmented reality beyond this point

Maybe you just shrug because this project seems innocent enough. But what if the AR exhibition would involve very disturbing pictures and documents? Would we still be so sure there would be no questions about a manifestation which after all is public – only the public can only see through smartphones, making the others virtually blind.

It also makes us wonder about the topic of exclusion. AR capable smartphones are not cheap (or they come with expensive data plans) – making the exhibition only accessible for the well-off, those visitors who don’t have the required tools are left wondering what the others see and discuss.

Which is okay, because it makes us wonder about the more general situation of societies with increasing inequality and what this implies in terms of access to ubiquitous knowledge and connections…

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.