Gorree: ‘avatars are everywhere. Let’s use them even more!’

Avatars are everywhere nowadays. Not only in fully immersive virtual worlds but also on social networks in Flatland such as Twitter, Facebook etc. They come in many forms and one might even say there have been avatars for centuries, like the heads of kings on coins or of presidents and other important people on paper money.
At the MetaMeets conference in Amsterdam I interviewed Tim Gorree, IT Solution Architect at Nokia, about avatars:

Previous posts about MetaMeets:
MetaMeets:”We are at the beginning
MetaMeets Day 2: “Going beyond virtual worlds, machinima, avatars…
“Kitely asks for some help to get virtual worlds on the web

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Kitely asks for some help to get virtual worlds on the web

I’ve been very busy covering the European debt crisis, but now it’s time for something completely different: the future of virtual worlds. At MetaMeets in Amsterdam, almost two weeks ago now, I interviewed some very inspiring people. I’m working on a story for a mainstream audience about virtual worlds, but I’ll publish some stuff now already on this blog.

Ilan Tochner is the founder of Kitely, a company which works on a project allowing users to create their OpenSim-based virtual world as easily as posting a YouTube-video. Just give it a try, it actually works!

Tochner however realizes that also the guests visiting those virtual worlds should have a very smooth, basically one-click kind of experience when entering those environments. He claims it’s possible to build web-based virtual world viewers – all Tochner needs is a little help from his virtual world friends.

I hope he is right about this – it would help tremendously offering a web-based access. People are used to the web, they want frictionless, instantaneous gratification. Every click extra, every hurdle they have to take means that your number of visitors dramatically decreases.

Remember: it’s not about convincing those who are willing to experiment with virtual worlds. It’s about offering some activity which interests a specific audience – an activity which probably has nothing to do with virtual worlds as such, virtual worlds would just be a cool platform. So getting people into your venue should be totally non-geeky and straightforward.

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MetaMeets Day 2: going beyond virtual worlds, machinima, avatars…

Beyond the beyond is the name of Bruce Sterling’s famous blog on Wired. It’s a habit of sci-fi people to think beyond what is anticipated by the mainstream, eventually to think about how ‘change‘ or ‘beyond’ itself gets new meanings.

It seems also virtual people love to think ‘beyond’: beyond virtual worlds, avatars, machinima. That at least is the conviction I have after attending the MetaMeets conference about virtual worlds, augmented reality and video/machinima in Amsterdam. I’ll give a very fast overview of the second and last day of the conference to illustrate this.

Heidi Foster is involved in the management of a new breedable pet in Second Life, Meeroos, with a large customer base. Meeroos are mythical animals, Foster explained, but they are mostly very cute and they ask to be picked up. To be precise: the project launched on May 21 and now there are 22,000 players and 250,000 Meeroos in Second Life. It’s conceivable that the Meeroos will invade the rest of the Metaverse by spreading to other virtual worlds such as OpenSim. In the discussion it was suggested to expand to mobile devices as well. That would be awesome I think: develop and launch on Second Life, spreading throughout other virtual places and ending up on smartphones and tablets.

Not a potential but a real move to mobile devices was presented by Timo Mank, an artist-curator at the Archipel Medialab. In 1999 he co-founded Art Hotel Dit Eiland (This Island) in the Dutch village of Hollum on Ameland. The Medialab initiates Artist In Residences focused on cross reality projects. Many artists from PARK 4DTV worked on Ameland creating content for web based virtual islands. Until recently Timo was curating Playground Ameland Secondlife.

Early this year the Foundation Archipel Ameland shifted focus from yearly media art interventions to transmedia story telling for iPad. The project is called TMSP TV and it connects twitter with guests at the TMSP studio in Diabolus Artspace Secondlife. The LiveLab uses the daily on goings in the World Herritage Waddensea and brings this material as live feed to virtual space where it’s playfully reevaluated, mixed and redistilled by guests and performers.

Toni Alatalo is the CTO of a small games company, Playsign, and the current lead architect of the open source realXtend platform. He explained that not every virtual world needs avatars. Imagine a virtual environment allowing to explore the human body by traveling through the veins, or just think Google Earth. Technologically speaking avatars do not need to be part of the core code of the virtual environment, instead the code could be modular. Which could lead us indeed to virtual worlds without avatars, or to avatars in environments which are not perceived as classical virtual worlds (think augmented reality, smartphones).

metameets audience looking at 3D video

Of course there were things which seemed very familiar to seasoned users of Second Life or Open Sim. Melanie Thielker (Avination) talked about roleplaying, commenting a video depicting the awesomeness of user-generated content. ‘Content’ is an awful word used by publishers when they mean all kinds of stuff such as texts, videos, infographics, images. In this case it refers to impressive builds made by users of the virtual worlds, but Melanie emphasized rightfully that the most important content items are the storylines people create, the characters they build, the backstories they provide, the communities they form. They write their own books in a very experimental, fluid, ever-changing setting.

But even this well-known practice is going somehow ‘beyond’ as it takes place in Melanie’s own virtual world, independently from Second Life. Melanie is an entrepreneur in the Metaverse.

Karen Wheatley is the director of the Jewell Theatre in Second Life. She goes beyond theatres and beyond some existing Second Life subcultures. She runs a theatre in Gor. The Gorean subculture is known for its traditions (based on novels by John Norman), is fond of a warrior ethos, (mostly) female slaves and dislikes furries (avatars with animal-like features) and kid-avatars. All of which does not prevent Wheatley to organize her Shakespearian performances in Gor, open for all avatars. She gets sponsoring and so we could consider her being an entrepreneur too.

Draxtor Despres goes beyond in various ways. In his video reportages he combines ‘real’ footage with video shot in virtual environments. He presented his newest big project: a documentary for the German public television ZDF, Login2Life which will come out mid-July. It goes beyond Second Life as it also shows World of Warcraft.

Stephen M. Zapytowski, Professor of Design and Technology at the School of Theatre and Dance of the Kent State University presented another example of crossing boundaries: April 2011 saw the premier of his avatar ghost for Kent State’s production of Hamlet. This ghost played “live” on stage with real life actors in a blend of virtual and real worlds. Which of course made the audience dream of avatars and humans playing nicely together in the augmented reality (please stay calm: we’re not there yet).

Talking about playing together: that’s what the music panel with JooZz & Al Hofmann talked about. They want even more sophisticated means for people from all over the planet to jam together in perfect synchronicity.

Chantal Gerards showed us a few machinima videos, and I sensed a bit of frustration. In one of her creations she used music from the director David Lynch. Unfortunately, he did not even want to watch the video as ‘he does not like machinima’.

Chantal said: “I have a scoop for you today. I stop making machinima”, adding a bit mysteriously that she will move ‘beyond machinima’. Her advice goes beyond machinima as well: create together, with all kinds of people and platforms, move beyond the platform so that what you create gains wider relevance.

Read also my write-up of the first day: “we are at the beginning

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MetaMeets: “We are at the beginning”

logo metameets“We are not at the end of the road but at the beginning;” That was how Tim Gorree, IT Architect, Web Technologies at Nokia, concluded the first day of MetaMeets in Amsterdam.

The conference was started by another Nokia person, the director of organization development Ian Gee. He told us that the concept of “change” is changing. Television shows deal with spectacular changes of individuals and help define how people look these days at change. He also challenged the audience to think out of the box, to give one example: why don’t we stop working at 40 and come back at 60? He learned me a new word: metanoia, change beyond that what can be anticipated and predicted.

Noah Felstein showed us how difficult it is to make predictions about change, commenting on the bewildering variety of life forms in the early stages of evolutions, then showing us Habitat, the online role-playing game developed by Lucasfilm Games and made available as a beta test in 1986 by Quantum Link, an online service for the Commodore 64 computer and the corporate progenitor to America Online.

Felstein was among the first ten employees at Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts Entertainment), The 3DO Company, and Dreamworks Interactive. In his latest venture he has become a co-founder of a start-up company, where he is helping create software to enable speedy massively-multiplayer game capabilities across both mobile and web based platforms. He is a strong believer in presence and synchronous interaction.

As those topics demonstrate, MetaMeets is by no means a Second Life-centered conference. Justin Clarke Casey demonstrated OpenSim and Ilan Tochner showed us Kitely, a venture which enables people to launch real fast virtual worlds “on demand”, based on OpenSim (more about his ideas about ‘virtual worlds as apps’ and easy access for the end-user tomorrow).

As usual at these conferences about virtual environments, education is one of the most convincing useful applications, as demonstrated today again by various specialists. Lars Dijkema and Mathijs Hamers from Elde College presented a project for an ecologically sustainable school, which they visualized in 3D and in a virtual environment (FrancoGrid). A major reason for building in a virtual environment? The social interaction and feedback (their institution, Elde college, also encouraged them to use social media in order to get help and feedback from outside).

Social interaction in virtual environments is not always self-evident and can be very different from what teachers and students are used to in traditional settings. Jolanda Verleg from Insperion thinks up didactic concepts for schools or companies and helps them use visualizing them in virtual environments. She admits that some people are “dysvirtual” and will “never get it”, but points out that virtual training exists alongside the more traditional approaches.

Ineke Verheul from GameOn/Surfnet/Virtuality illustrated the educational importance of roleplay in virtual settings by the Chatterdale project, a virtual language learning village, where students had to investigate a bomb threat.

One of the impressive aspects of all these presentations is how virtual environments seem to incite people to become entrepreneurs. This was very obviously the case for yet another presenter, Melanie Thielker, who is the founder of Avination and an OpenSim Core Developer with a special interest in roleplay combat systems.

There are exceptions however. Lee Quick is the developer of the Kirstens Viewer, one of the longest established third party viewers (user interfaces) for Second Life. His business model? Just a passion for photography and images. Third party viewers are not really competition for the official viewer, so he explained. They just offer different tools for different jobs and so the Kirstens Viewer boasts 3D viewing, night vision, color filters and extra camera viewpoints – which makes it interesting for machinima-makers.

But maybe, just maybe, the virtual environments – Second Life or OpenSim – are not the endpoint of the technological evolution? What about augmented reality – putting layers of digital information on top of the physical reality? Meet Fred van Rijswijk, owner of C2K, a provider of “high end layar solutions” (Layar is a mobile browser for augmented reality).

The audience went wild, blending the virtual and the physical in an augmented reality. Just imagine (they’re really good in imagining things, those virtual worlds types) that avatars could “sit” in the conference room, visible through smartphones or other devices… Or maybe the devices should retreat in the background, offering us an immediate access to an augmented reality…

Tim Gorree said Microsoft is developing hyper realistic avatars and of course developed the Kinect. Why not use avatars as identity carriers, dealing with the typical problem of lost passwords?

“Count up all the virtual worlds user hours, gaming user hours, chances are all this is more important than the web”, so Tim continued. “Avatars have been used to validate transactions for hundreds of years – think stamps, coins for example. These days there are billions of (virtual) avatars out there, why not use them to change society?”

 

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HTML5 becomes a crucial tool for publishers

html5 logo In the previous post I mentioned HTML5 – it could be an important element of a solution running Second Life and OpenSim viewers on the web. It would be combined with WebGL (Web-based Graphics Library) which extends the capability of the JavaScript programming language to allow it to generate interactive 3D graphics within any compatible web browser (see Wikipedia).

There’s yet another context in which HTML5 is rather crucial: that of the creation of apps for mobile devices.

I posted about this on PBS MediaShift – our newspaper wants to follow the example of the Financial Times, launching a web-based application for smartphones and tablet computers written in HTML5 — allowing it to bypass Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market, as well as other distributors. If you’re interested, you can find my post and a video interview on MediaShift.

Read also MG Siegler at TechCrunch about Project Spartan: Facebook’s Hush-Hush Plan To Take On Apple On Their Own Turf: iOS.

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MetaMeets: exploring virtual worlds and augmented reality in Amsterdam

metameets logoTomorrow I’ll be in Amsterdam for the MetaMeets 3D Internet & Virtual Worlds conference. What do I hope to learn?

In my media practice I have daily chat sessions for my newspaper & site & blog, using CoverItLive. I embed that tool in our site, it’s easy to use and rather sophisticated – allowing for moderation, integration of all kinds of media types. It’s text chat based, so no fancy 3D avatar stuff in virtual settings.

I can imagine that some chat sessions could benefit from a virtual setting. It would facilitate deeper discussions, longer attention spans, serendipitous encounters. But at the same time it’s crucial that people can enter such environment as frictionless as possible. That means no downloads, getting an avatar must be fun and real easy, no steep learning curve. In other words, browser based virtual environments.

In Amsterdam I’ll attend a presentation by Ilan Tochner, the CEO of Kitely, about Virtual Worlds on Demand. They make it very easy to launch your own OpenSim-based virtual world. However, I think those visiting your world will have to download a Second Life compatible viewer – which means it’s not really what I’m looking for. Tochner realizes the importance of this issue. He told Hypergrid Business that the Second Life and OpenSim viewer can be ported to HTML 5 and Web GL in a matter of months — and he’s looking for people to help accomplish that.

Even if we have browser-based virtual settings, I’m not convinced the mainstream audience will embrace these possibilities. For quite some time I hear that the younger generations are so used to interact in virtual gaming environments, using avatars, that doing so in a professional context will be a logical step for them. I really think that’s way too optimistic.

So what could be the future? Maybe augmented reality? That’s not a virtual world such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, but a way to put digital information on top of the physical reality (and one of the possibilities might be blending the virtual and the physical).  In Amsterdam there’ll be a presentation about the mobile augmented reality browser Layar, I have Layar on my iPhone, and there are some layers which I really like such as streetARt and of course the Wikipedia layer. Looking at how my colleagues and friends use their smartphones, I must admit there seems to be not much traction for augmented reality as it exists now – essentially staring in a funny way through your smartphone camera and ending up using the  2D map. But, being a geek and loving sci-fi, I hope the Layar-enthusiasts at the conference will convince me.

I use Second Life as a place to meet very creative innovators, and I try out some very simple experiments such as 3D mindmaps. In Amsterdam one of the discussions will deal with immersive 3D worlds as innovative platform for co-creation.

Other aspects which interest me are community management and making videos (machinima) and documentaries in virtual environments or broadcasting from within those environments. This being said, MetaMeets will be combined with the MaMachinima International Festival (MMIF).

More about all this in the next few days and if you have questions about all this, don’t hesitate asking them here so I can try and get some answers!

Follow me on Twitter @rolandlegrand and for more extensive coverage of the conference on @mixed_realities

 

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Researching the philosophers of Silicon Valley, using mindmaps in 2D and 3D

What are the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of Silicon Valley? I’m trying to find out, reading and watching thinkers, historians, sci-fi literature, visiting virtual environments.

I’m trying to put some structure in my work using a mindmap, partially based on the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (by Fred Turner):

In Second Life I’m putting up some media panels with websites or videos illustrating this – it helps me generating new ideas shifting those things around and walking around there, or looking at the panels with other avatars and commenting them.

My mindmap-installation in Second Life

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The “making of” of “the making of”

I posted on PBS MediaShift about my experiences writing “Finding reality while looking through code” – about my asking around on various networks and my posting a ‘making of’ while I was preparing the post. So the piece on MediaShift is Uber Meta: it’s” the making of” of ” the making of”.

Posting on MediaShift helps me to ask myself tough questions about my practice as a journalist and blogger, and the folks at MediaShift help me a lot to tell my stories. So if you’re interested, have a look at “How to Use Social Tools to Curate, Research and Expand Sources for a Story” and let me know what you think!

Roland Legrand

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