The future is here! And it’s even not that unevenly distributed!

In the previous post I briefly mentioned the Kinect as possibly being a part of the further evolution of virtual worlds. I was very interested finding a presentation by former Linden Lab employee Kyle Machulis about the OpenKinect community. Which is kind of neat, because that community demonstrates that one can do some very futuristic stuff without huge research budgets.

I was aware of some open source developments around the Kinect camera, but quickly lost track of what’s going on. Now, this video does a great job giving an overview of the projects from day zero onwards. Kyle Machulis is an engineer working on projects ranging from haptics to driver reverse engineering to audio research to teledildonics (or haptics as it’s called in a slightly less suggestive way), so you’ll gets tons of inspiration whether you’re interested in industrial and research applications, adult entertainment or new media projects.

Read Nerd Nite SF which also has a handy list of essential links.

Nerd Nite SF: “OpenKinect: One Month In” – Kyle Machulis, 12/15/10 from nerdniteSF on Vimeo.

Existential questions about virtual worlds

It has been interesting to be away from virtual worlds stuff for a few weeks. I had some catching up to do, but at first sight it seems not much has changed.

There is another famous Linden Lab employee leaving the company, Jack Linden. Other virtual worlds are presenting themselves as alternatives for Second Life, such as OpenSim. Blue Mars continues to promote is’s nice graphics and Twinity it’s mirror worlds.

But looking at all this from a distance, it seems the momentum of those projects and companies is lost, at least for now. Outside the feverishly working communities of those virtual places, nobody seems to care. What’s hot right now is Zynga, Facebook, Twitter, the iPad and the epic struggle between Android and Apple, and of course there is Microsoft’s Kinect. People wonder constantly whether Second Life is still around, and as far as Blue Mars, OpenSim or Twinity is concerned, well even most accomplished geeks won’t know what you’re talking about unless they happen to be members of those tiny niche-communities.

I was not surprised at all reading Botgirl’s post about Pew research which points in the same direction:

According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It’s pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it’s clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.

I couldn’t agree more with Botgirl’s solution:

After reading the report, I’m more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.

Wagner James Au at the New World Notes has been suggesting this Facebook Connect option for quite some time now, but in his post discussing Botgirl’s article he says he’s “starting to think there’s an even better way to make 3D virtual worlds more mass market: Integration with Kinect and Xbox Live.”

So I went to watch the latest Metanomics video for inspiration in times of crisis in virtual worlds. As usual there were distinguished guests such as Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, Brian Kaihoi of the Mayo Clinic and Terry Beaubois, Professor of the College of Architecture and Director of the Creative Research Lab (CRLab) at Montana State University, being interviewed by Robert Bloomfield, Professor of Accounting at the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management.

All these people invested lots of time and money in Second Life projects, at one point they really believed this was an important part of the future (I do not exclude some of them still do believe that). Now they are still very active, but they admit times are different now. The financial crisis made institutions look hard to save costs, but there is more than that. The Gartner Cycle of Hype was mentioned and I confess, being a slightly cynical journalist, to me that sounds like “yes, we completely lost traction, but hey, fancy consultants tell us that it’s nothing to worry about: after the Disillusionment will come the Slope of Enlightenment and we’ll get to the Plateau of Productivity.” Yeah, right. Maybe. Or maybe not.

So is this some convoluted way of saying that I lost all hope virtual worlds will have a bright future after all? Well, it’s convoluted because it’s a complicated matter. As the folks at the Metanomics show said, there is the technology (and the business), but there’s also the community. It remains true that the Second Life community is awesome: highly creative, inspiring people, not just using new technologies but actually living technology.

It’s also true that there’s a lot to be learned in “social technology”, such as using text backchat during live shows, ways to produce chat shows, to integrate live events with video, chat, social streams etc. I actually apply stuff I learned in Second Life in the context of my newsroom, facilitating a virtual community, organizing chat sessions etc. But I don’t use Second Life, because of just too many practical hurdles and a cost/benefit which I cannot justify.

As some of the panel guests said, Second Life and similar environments are a “third place” where you “go” to actually meet other people. But then again, a CoverItLive chat box is also such a third place where people meet each other. I do know the arguments explaining why virtual environments are more intense: the representation by a virtual body means that people actually apply real world principles while meeting each other (maintaining a certain “physical” distance, for instance), implying that what goes on is somewhere in between “just chat” and “actually meeting”. But maybe people just want to attend an online chat event without any hassle, and they’ll use forums to connect with others…

All of which means, for my practice, that I’d love to have a lite version of Second Life or a similar world, very scalable, browser based, and yes, also allowing for using mobile devices. Also, in some way we’ll see further down the road Augmented Reality applications combining the physical and virtual worlds, and maybe the Kinect can facilitate a revolution as far as interfaces are concerned – all of which means that Second Life as we know it will have been a useful stepping stone on the road to somewhere very different.

Finally, traveling in SL via the web

In the meantime I managed to try out Second Life via the Gaikai’s cloud-rendered web access, following a tip on the New World Notes. Even though it’s still an experiment, it was a very smooth experience with pretty fast teleporting.

traveling in second life via the web

I tried out surfing and it worked just fine. In fact, I did not notice any major differences between moving around using the viewer and moving around via the web. For now the access it limited to selected places in Second Life, I cannot wait to see access enabled for the whole of Second Life so that people can attend shows, discussion groups or music events in-world but via the web!

As I explained in my previous post, combined with augmented reality and wearable devices this could open up whole new media dimensions…

Affordable AR glasses plus virtual worlds on any device gives us…

Let’s do something wild and combine two fascinating developments. The first one is about augmented reality. As I said in a previous post, I’m not totally convinced that looking through a smartphone camera is such a compelling experience. What about glasses? The conventional wisdom says that it won’t work: people won’t put some ugly device on their face and walk around like total nerds (okay, some would be happy to do it, because they are nerds geeks, but I’m talking about mainstream folks here).

But can we be that sure? After all, 3D movies are very popular now, and professional augmented reality glasses can do amazing stuff – but they are very expensive. Well, it seems that prices are coming down: Aaron Saenz on the Singularity Hub talks about $2000 dollar (made by Vuzix). Pretty expensive, but clearly the price is getting lower. Here is the video:

Maybe the idea of staring at 3D-dragons is not exactly your idea of great entertainment, but there is also stuff about publishing and education in the video and the story. This being said, a sure sign that this kind of stuff goes beyond the very early adopters will be when the first ‘adult content’ publishers start using it.

Now the second development: the current experiments of running Second Life in a browser. I could not yet check it for myself, but the first reactions on Twitter seem to be positive. Really Engaging Accounting has a first-hand story about the experiments and this video:

Now imagine to combine both developments. The glasses could ultimately replace the traditional smartphone hardware, and virtual worlds such as Second Life or Blue Mars (more a platform for virtual worlds) will run in the cloud and you will be able to use them on lower end laptops, tablets, and I guess smartphones – and so, in a not too distant future, they could also run in those fancy glasses. So start dreaming about seamless integration of virtual, augmented and physical realities (or at least, read some science fiction about it!), and what it will make possible.

Augmented Reality platform Layar gets second round of funding

The Dutch augmented reality platform Layar got a second round of funding, about $14 million, led by Intel Capital. In total (both rounds) Layar got $17,4 million. Layar says the next phase in the life of the company will be all about content:

The next phase is all about content. In the last year we have built a global platform for Augmented Reality. The coming period is about identifying the content formats that can attract and build an audience. We will not wait passively but will be actively involved in supporting our publishers in this process.

The company remains based in Amsterdam but is also opening a US office in San Francisco. So, is this yet another example that augmented reality becomes big business? Not so fast. Robin Wauters on TechCrunch says

The question remains: is augmented reality a fad or poised to go mainstream?

The jury is still out on that, but Intel Capital and Layar’s initial backers are clearly betting on the latter to happen in the near future, and on the Dutch startup to help make it a reality.

Well, let’s hope it works out. I have Layar on my iPhone, and even though I played with it, it remains one of the apps I hardly use these days. It seems that my old-fashioned Google maps (combined with location based services such as Foursquare) cover my needs most of the time. I could imagine interesting applications such as putting layers of historical images on the physical reality of all major cities. Maybe there are not enough content creators to provide such cool layers (instead of yet another listing of restaurants), and so users give up on it, making that potential content creators are frustrated because of the limited user base.

Kevin C. Tofel on GigaOm gives an example of historical information on Layar. Now just imagine ways to have this kind of view in a more compelling way than through your smartphone camera and also imagine to have these layers in an ubiquitous, interactive and real time way – then I think something like mainstream traction becomes very probable.

Shooting video in virtual worlds and games with a virtual handheld camera

Machinima is a crucial aspect of the use of virtual environments for journalism. It basically involves shooting video inside virtual environments and games, eventually mixing this with video from the physical world. Examples can be found for instance on the YouTube channel of Draxtor Despres.

The blog Phasing Grace now has great news for machinima makers: the development of a virtual camera which can be used in a very intuitive way as a handheld camera in a virtual world or a game. The new development in virtual cameras at the University of Abertay Dundee is developing the pioneering work of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar using a Nintendo Wii-like motion controller – all for less than £100:


Read Phasing Grace for more details!

More news about the use of virtual & augmented reality in newsrooms can be found in this post by Terri Thornton on PBS MediaShift, where she explains how augmented reality invades newsrooms, kids’ shows and ads.

Qwiki wants wikis to act human

homepage qwiki

Just a quick shout here about Qwiki, which does something extra with wikis: “working to deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search.” The site explains:

We’ve all seen science fiction films (or read novels) where computers are able to collect data on behalf of humans, and present the most important details. This is our goal at Qwiki – to advance information technology to the point it acts human.

It’s pretty cool: Qwiki tells you in voice about your selected topics, showing pictures and videos, automatically generated. They’re working on a platform allowing any web publisher to turn their content into Qwikis.

Just do some searches and be surprised about the slick results, and imagine how things could evolve in a not too distant future. How cool it would be to have this service on a wearable device, enabling you to command it using simple voice, and getting the voice response and pictures wherever you are.

The service is in private alpha but you can join and suggest improvements.

Hat tip to my colleague Raphael Cockx who found out about this new service.

That dangerous Singularity

Talking about the future: I’ve been reading insightful posts by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing and Annalee Newitz on i09 about the Technological Singularity, described by Wikipedia as

(…)a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so extremely rapid, due in most accounts to the technological creation of superhuman intelligences, that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. It has been proposed that a technological singularity will occur in the 21st century via one or more possible technological advances.

Doctorow discusses Newitz’ post and agrees with her identifying

a common flaw in futuristic prediction: assuming that technology will go far enough to benefit us, and then stop before it disrupts us. For a prime example from recent history, see the record industry’s correct belief that technology would advance to the point where we could have optical disc readers in every room, encouraging us to buy all our music again on CD; but their failure to understand that technology would continue to advance to the point where we could rip all those CDs and share the music on them using the Internet.

I think in the media industry most of us learned to see the disruptive effects of technological change. But as mentioned in my previous post, one of the common themes in near-future science fiction is security, which goes far beyond the upheaval in particular industries and has to do with our survival.

If the bold predictions by the singularity-thinkers are even remotely true, the growth of our technological capabilities risks to enable even small groups or individuals to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. These weapons could very well be designer bioviruses (read Doctorow’s interview with Ray Kurzweil).

In order to avoid such a catastrophic event to happen, authorities could try to establish a Big Brother regime. They could try to heavily regulate the dissemination of technology and knowledge. Kurzweil does not believe that would be the right response:

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the rationale for the totalitarian system was that technology was too dangerous and needed to be controlled. But that just pushes technology underground where it becomes less stable. Regulation gives the edge of power to the irresponsible who won’t listen to the regulators anyway.

The way to put more stones on the defense side of the scale is to put more resources into defensive technologies, not create a totalitarian regime of Draconian control.

This of course acknowledges the danger in a rather optimistic way – science and technology will deliver the tools necessary to stop the ultimate evil use of that same science and technology.

We could expand this discussion to media in general. Our networks, our beloved internet and the way it allows us to spread and discuss ideas, also helps those who are sufficiently alienated to dream of mass destruction. Even discussing how difficult it is to design a biovirus capable of erupting and spreading silently with long incubation periods, could incite some disgruntled young man (for a number of reasons, it seems primarily young males have such destructive desires) to actually try it out. But then again, talking about it openly could make more people aware of the dangers ahead and stimulate ideas and policies to deal with them.

What is fascinating as well as frightening is that the blending of augmented reality, virtual reality and the physical reality is a very fundamental process. Often we think of augmented reality and virtual worlds as ‘constructed’ environments while the physical reality is more stable, more solid. In fact, what we call ‘physical reality’ changes all the time – the ancient insight of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We humans are working hard trying to control matter on an atomic and molecular scale, adding insights from biology and using our ever-expanding computing power – which one day could no longer be ‘our’ power.

Somehow the question in this ‘mixed realities’ world is whether we’re realizing the old dreams of ensuring the conditions for prosperity and happiness for all or whether the endgame of humanity is near.

Learning about globalization, terror, and media by reading near-future sci-fi

How will the future look like, for media and for society in general? It’s impossible to predict, but what we can do is work with plausible scenarios. One of my sources of inspiration is literature, more specifically near-future science fiction which seems to extrapolate trends we already see happening today. These are books I’ve read recently or which I’m reading now:

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. There is lots of augmented reality in the book, and the world has to deal with major security issues. Among the many fascinating characters: an anthropomorphic virtual rabbit. What about media? There are still paparazzi (maybe more than ever) and Vinge dedicates the novel to the internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives such as Wikipedia and Google. There are still physical books, but in danger of extinction. Laptops are still being used – by those who are resistant to change. I think it’s possible to use this book as a starting point for a meditation on the radicalization of instant messaging, online networks and gaming and online cognitive tools, discussing the challenges and opportunities of these developments.

Halting State by Charles Stross is a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Once again it’s about security issues but also about finance as the software house is a public company. If you don’t have first-hand experience with Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or Alternate Reality Games (ARG), chances are that this book will make you want to try it out.

Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart, Gary. What I like particularly in this book is the fact that the state of the economy plays an important role here. Things look bleak with China (and even Europe) in a very strong position while the US suffers a terrible crisis with massive social implications. Streaming media are a big hit – but do not necessarily contribute to the quality of public debate. Wearable devices double as tools for the security services. Physical books are still around, but they are considered weird.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow also deals extensively massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It’s about globalization, economics, virtual goods and labor. Independent news media production (in China!) is another important element here.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in 2027 Istanbul. Once again trade, security, economics, globalization and (nano)technology are prominent elements in the story. There are not only paparazzi in the future, but also investigative journalists using stealthy, secretive surveillers – as does the state.

Online social networks, effortless and pervasive instant messaging, the menace of mass destruction or of Big Brother, the transformation of reality in a mixture of the physical world (manipulated on nano level), virtual reality, gaming and augmented reality, the globalization and its geo-political and social consequences are themes in which you can immerse yourself by reading those books.

My project: organizing some meetings about these books, discussing what they tell us about different possible futures. My personal interest would be the future of the media, but others would be more than welcome to look at these and other books from other angles.

We would meet (of course) in a virtual world, most probably in the virtual town of Chilbo in Second Life. If you have suggestions for other books (or games, or videos… ) about the near-future, please let me know.

Tools which help us to live in the information streams

We’re living in streams or flows of information: think status updates, tweets, texting, rss-feeds… It’s an era of niche markets, of networks rather than destinations and what we need are tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content. That is what Danah Boyd eloquently explains on Educause Review. Danah is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I liked her Educause article Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media because of the ‘streams’ and ‘flow’ metaphors which in my opinion are very appropriate to describe today’s social media experience.

She deals with the issues of democratization, stimulation, homophily and power in a lucid way, not only talking about how awesome social media are but explaining the awkward and even threatening issues as well.

I’m especially interested in how we can create tools to provide context and meaning. Danah says:

We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.

This is rather abstract, which is good, because one needs a bit of higher level reasoning to see the structural issues at stake. However, I wonder what kind of tools Danah would suggest here. Google’s Living Stories are somehow a way to provide flexible context to breaking news, but I guess we should innovate more in order to help contextualizing things wherever people are or whatever they are doing.

The other major topic is that of the business models new media will use. Danah offers some high-level ideas, but leaves it to us  to propose concrete solutions:

Figuring out how to monetize sociality is a problem, and it’s not one that’s new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. The most common model involves second-order consumption of calories. Venues provide a space for social interaction to occur, and we are expected to consume to pay rent. Restaurants, bars, cafes—they all survive on this model. But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol.

I think virtual environments and augmented reality are interesting cases in this context. Virtual worlds are somehow islands in the information streams, inciting people to pay attention for a longer time, to immerse themselves. But at the same time those worlds are internally characterized by streams: for instance by the flows of group text chats and individual chats.

Augmented reality can put layers of context on the physical reality – layers which can consist out of more or less static information such as Wikipedia entries or out of streams like nearby tweets. Of course, augmented reality, virtual worlds and the physical reality can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways.

Or can they? As Danah remarks, the social media tools often are clunky. It takes learning curves to master them, and a geeky attitude. It’s not that very enjoyable to stare though your smartphone camera in order to see often clumsy little texts or virtual objects. Often the tools are the creations of computer scientists and engineers who’ve forgotten how ignorant, clumsy and resistant to change most people are, and it seems they’re not interested in providing tools which are fast, fun and easy to use. The Living Stories are a nice example: it’s a fascinating Google project, which was stopped and is now as an open source project available for others to develop – but it’s not beautiful, it does not seduce the common social media consumer (same story applies for Google Wave – made by software engineers for software engineers). Compare this to Apple (and let the engineers and true geeks howl): it’s slick, it’s beautiful, and all of a sudden the ubiquitous internet goes mainstream.

I’m convinced augmented reality and virtual environments will be important in helping us live in the streams – but we’ll need tools and objects which make us feel happy and which seduce us: fast, fun, easy and beautiful tools.