Can Avatar Kinect make virtual environments go mainstream?

Microsoft announces Avatar Kinect. Notice how it seems to be possible to give the avatars facial expressions. Of course, I don’t think this will be a user generated world, boasting its very own economy etc. Maybe it will fail miserably, like Google’s Lively did. But then again, maybe it’ll take off, combining motion based gestures, facial and voice recognition and taking the dream of avatar mediated interaction into another direction…

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Rehearsing the day that we’ll program matter

So I’ve been monitoring that State of the World 2011 conversation on The WELL (with Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowski), learning about design fiction (see also critical design) and watching an awesome video about Claytronics (programmable matter). Sterling, on his blog Beyond the Beyond: “Check out this bonkers Discovery Channel treatment of some Carnegie Mellon nano-visionary weirdness.”

The video made me think that what we currently do in Second Life and OpenSim is sometimes a kind of design fiction, making people used to programming virtual matter, preparing them for the day when we actually program ‘physical’ matter. When could it become feasible, when will it have an impact on the economy? I’ve no idea, but I asked on Quora (skipping for now the question whether we’ll be happy in such a world, and how long it will last before doomsday becomes reality).

Singularity

On an even more general level: if programmable matter would become mainstream, would that be an event which we could call ‘technological singularity‘, would it be part of that? Talking of which I recently stumbled upon a fascinating conversation between Robin Hanson (George Mason University) and the economist Robert Russell, contemplating a situation in which worldwide output would double every two weeks instead of every 15 years (the current situation). What would it mean for the return on capital, on labor? What about the environment, security and so many other crucial aspects? You’ll find the long audio discussion on the Library of Economics and Liberty.

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Talking about virtual worlds outside virtual worlds: The WELL

In our first blog about other venues where people discuss virtual worlds, we talked about Quora. While Quora is very new, The WELL is almost ancient:

The WELL is a cherished and acclaimed destination for conversation and discussion. It is widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born — where Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.” Since long before the public Internet was unleashed, it has quietly captivated some accomplished and imaginative people. Over the last two and a half decades, it’s been described as “the world’s most influential online community” in a Wired Magazine cover story, and ” the Park Place of email addresses” by John Perry Barlow. It’s won Dvorak and Webby Awards, inspired songs and novels, and almost invisibly influences modern culture.

In 2010, this social site celebrates its 25th birthday online. A wide variety of topics are being discussed in ‘conferences’. The ‘Virtual Communities’ conference has among its topics ‘Second Life: The World-Building MMOG’, but I don’t think there is a topic ‘blue mars’ or ‘opensim’ (search did not yield results).

The conversations are very instructive and friendly. Just like for the Quora discussions people are supposed to use their real names. There are moderators, ‘conference hosts’. However, there are also major differences between the two services.

Those differences boil down to this: The Well wants to be a walled garden. As they explain themselves: “Membership is not for everyone, partly because we are non-anonymous here.” One cannot vote a question or an answer up or down. There are no ‘follow’ buttons next to the names of the participants. In fact, you own your own words, meaning that you are responsible for them but also that others cannot simply copy paste them outside The WELL. Before quoting or even mentioning that another person is a member, one should ask that other person whether she agrees.

Another major aspect of the “walled garden”: membership is not free.

There are about 3.000 members now, and to be honest, I don’t think the community, owned by Salon.com, can boast tremendous growth figures.

In fact, The WELL is rather fascinating. Because of its history but also because of this non-viral approach of a members only gathering. Whether it will be able to survive, faced with competition such as Quora, is another matter. Quora uses real identities, but provides connections with Twitter and Facebook, is free, and for now manages to maintain good quality using a voting system. The WELL however is a bunch of micro-communities (around the conferences) where more intimate relationships can develop.

Sterling and Lebkowsky

conference page the well
To be fair, The WELL is not completely a walled garden. Non-members can for instance join the ‘Inkwell: Authors and Artists’ conference. Author Bruce Sterling and internet&cyberculture expert Jon Lebkowsky discuss this week State of the World 2011.

The organizers even run a wild experiment: a Facebook event page for feedback (great discussion there) and the ever cunning Lebkwoski announced on that page a Twitter hashtag (#sotw2011)!

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Eternal shame! World of Warcraft mage beats Second Life geeks!

Oh my! Is our Second Life community, and especially the geeky part of it, losing it’s innovative edge? New World Notes posted a few days ago about how the Kinect is being used to move around and play in World of Warcraft. Watch this video:

Interesting to note: in 2008 already former Linden Lab Chairman Mitch Kapor was involved in the development of 3D web cameras enabling people to control their avatars by moving their body. Wagner James Au said in his post that an earlier version of the project “evolved into the Kinect”. Reading around, I learned on ArchVirtual that the co-developer of Hands-Free, Philippe Bossut, still works for… Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life).

All of which makes it even stranger that as yet we don’t have any video footage or stories about the Kinect in a Second Life context.

Is this because Second Life is not a gaming world? In the comments on New World Notes it seems people are interested in building in-world using Kinect hacks, but then again, sophisticated builders are a minority in Second Life.

So I set out to ask people in-world about Kinect. The AW Groupies is a very active tech chatgroup, but it seemed they were far more interested in discussing issues about “making meshes portable across platforms” (if you don’t understand a word of this, do not panic, go here)

Demoralized, I went to OpenSim, where I bumped into John “Pathfinder” Lester. Yes, also Pathfinder thinks the Kinect could be a game-changer, but no, he had no information about people in OpenSim or Second Life actually trying that out. “Give it some time”, he said.

Now, in case you have any doubts of the importance of what’s happening around the Kinect, Robert Scoble shared this video on Quora (notice the interesting remark about deviceless augmented reality!):

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What will our technology mean for 7 billion people?

End this year there will be 7 billion of us. In 2045… possibly 9 billion. Do we lack space? No, we don’t. What we lack is harmony.

In this video National Geographic Magazine incites us to meditate the increase in world population, the increasing number of mega-cities (cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) and the unequal use of energy and of basic resources.

Which makes me wonder: how will the fancy technologies we discuss here facilitate living in such a world? Virtual environments, tele-presence, augmented reality, real-time interaction, social media will help us collaborate, reach out and exchange insights. It will not be a world dominated by a few media outlets broadcasting to many, but of many groups having their conversations internally and I hope, externally.

National Geographic Magazine made this video to promote their series about world population issues.

Via The Daily What

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Talking about virtual worlds outside virtual worlds: Quora

One of the impressive things about virtual worlds are the communities which create not only those worlds, but also a social media ecosystem around the actual virtual environments. This is a first post in a series about those “other places” where we meet. Instead of starting out with the usual suspects such as Plurk or Twitter, I start with a relatively new venue, Quora.

virtual worlds page on quora

Quora is an “online knowledge market“, made available to the public on June 21, 2010. At first I was not too interested, but a post by Mark Suster on Business Insider SAI made me give it a try. Suster’s post really helps to “get it”.

Before asking a question or launching a topic, it’s a good idea to search for it: chances are that someone already asked that very same question. It’s a bit tricky to find the search box: in fact, you’ve to start typing in the “add question” box and that generates a list of relevant topics.

Doing this for Virtual Worlds results in some interesting questions and answers. There is the inevitable “What is the future of virtual worlds like Second Life, IMVU?” James Corbett, co-founder of Daynuv answered:

The future of ‘Second Life’, or rather the vision of its founders, lies more with it’s opensource successor Opensimulator than the proprietary Lined Lab platform. Opensim has made huge strides forward in 2010 and with support for the new version of the Hypergrid protocol is poised to become the Apache of the federated 3D web.

It’s important to understand that a major stumbling block in the growth of 3D virtual worlds has heretofore been the limitation of 2D peripherals designed for 3D GUIs – keyboard & mouse. The Nintendo Wii-mote pointed the way ahead but now the Microsoft Kinect has primed a major leap forward which will turn 2011 into a breakout year for virtual worlds. (…)

An as yet unanswered question asked “how can we trigger avatar gestures in Opensim / Second Life using #OpenKinect hacks?”

Another question is about guilds in World of Warcraft and whether there are larger political units there. I learned from Chris Hollander, senior Microsoft consultant, that there are caps introduced in Cataclysm and that there is considerable debate about how to reorganize guilds.

In the Second Life topic on Quora you’ll find discussions about property prices, the profitability of Second Life, whether Second Life should adapt a redistributive and socialist tax policy etc.

My first impression: Quora is still young and it takes some time to actually “get it”, but the quality of the discussions is good and the design seems to be very clever. The whole idea of Q&A forums is not new of course, but it’s one of the most effective ways to incite people to engage themselves in online communities.

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Second Life seems to be focused on entertainment (Gasp!)

Shocking! Maybe Second Life is a game after all! For years now residents of Second Life explain over and over again that they are not ‘players’ but ‘residents’, that one does not ‘play Second Life’ and that it is not a game even though one can play games in that virtual world just as in the real world. Those same residents, often educators, business people and artists, would promote Second Life talking about the great educational experiments and practices, possibilities for the arts, the joy of meeting people from all over the world.

During the reign of former CEO Mark Kingdon of Linden Lab (the company behind the virtual world) it was admitted that most people however do not come to Second Life to attend lectures, but for entertainment purposes, but at the same time the arts, the educational and business applications of Second Life were being considered important. For many reasons however the business applications never really became that very important: conservative corporates, reputation issues (flying genitalia), practical hurdles (scaling, security, reliability…) etc.

The education community is doing a great job in exploring the possibilities of an open-ended and user generated virtual environment, but probably did not add much to Linden Lab’s earnings, because they enjoyed until recently steep price discounts.

So business applications did not really gain traction and the educators were not profitable enough. The user base was and is stagnating. Thirty percent of the Linden Lab employees had to go, among them Kingdon himself.

The founding father of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, stepped in as a CEO, doing some useful things such as making the development of the platform more transparent. There was some anxiety when Rosedale quit as CEO (he remains Chairman of the board though) before even a new CEO was selected, but yesterday Linden Lab announced that Rod Humble will be the new man in charge:

Rod has an impressive depth of experience in developing and leading fun, immersive entertainment experiences that have been great successes. As a 20-year veteran of game development, he’s worked on more than 200 games, and last year, the gaming magazine Edge named him #2 on their annual list of Hot 100 Game Developers. Rod is coming to Linden Lab from Electronic Arts, where he was Executive Vice President and led EA Play, including the best-selling PC game franchise of all time, The Sims. Prior to EA, he was a VP of Product Development at Sony Online Entertainment, where he led the EverQuest Studio.

Wagner James Au on the New World Notes remarks that Linden Lab previously hired “Electronic Arts/Activision vet Kim Salzer as VP of marketing, who has been re-branding Second Life in part as an animal-raising sim” and says:

W]hat really matters is making Second Life fun, developing it to serve the extremely large market of consumers who already use virtual worlds for play and games, not real world work. Only then will Second Life gain a mass market, and only then may it be feasible to turn SL into a full-fledged platform for real world work that people who are not already well-versed in SL can use.

Lowell Cremorne on The Metaverse Journal explains that “there’s plenty of aspects of user experience that game companies get very right and it’s a key weakness of Second Life at present. The challenge will be making those improvements without turning Second Life into The Sims. Unless of course it’s been identified that that’s where the market is, in which case hold onto your seats.”

Cremorne also thinks that buyout rumours will not abate with this appointment.

In the press release announcing the new CEO, Linden Lab says this about its financial situation:

Linden Lab was founded in 1999 by Philip Rosedale to create a revolutionary new form of shared online experiences known as Second Life. The privately held company has had revenues exceeding $75 million and has been profitable (excluding restructuring and non-cash stock compensation expense) each of the last three years. The company is headquartered in San Francisco and employs more than 220 people.

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Kinect and virtual reality hacks, taken to an extreme (for now)

Okay, still trying to figure out how to use this in a newsroom context, but KinectHacks says this is The Most Extreme Kinect Hack they’ve seen so far, so here it comes (waiting for Draxtor Despres to incorporate some Kinect magic in one of his news machinimas):

Adding another one from KinectHacks:

What is remarkable is the fact that clever but I guess not heavily funded geeks can make this stuff. There is a whole community out there around the Kinect developing awesome stuff and it seems Microsoft is wise enough not to try to prevent this DIY combining of virtual environments, gaming, serious applications and body tracking. It reminds me my near future sci-fi project – some of the scenes in those books could very well turn out to be spot-on predictions (remember the anthropomorphic virtual rabbit in Rainbows End).

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Kansas to Cairo: vanishing cultural differences, or rather avoiding stereotypes?

If there is one thing which seems to be perfectly suited for collaboration and research in a world such as Second Life, it seems to be architecture. If such a project also involves geographically dispersed teams, education, and different cultures, it really becomes a fascinating challenge.

Students from Cairo and Los Angeles used Second Life to design a large open space situated between the Grand Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids of Giza. They had never met in the physical world, using their avatars and lots of other social media to communicate, collaborate and successfully complete the difficult task of creating sustainable urban design solutions while overcoming cultural boundaries. More about this project can be found on ArchVirtual.

Draxtor Despres made a news machinima in three parts about the project (the third part is in the making). One of the things which seems very interesting is a commentary in the video about the fact that people leave their identities behind when they enter Second Life. It’s a bit like leaving your country and becoming a citizen of another country, in this case a virtual one. Of course, one of the questions here is whether Second Life in itself is reflecting certain values, or whether it is value-neutral – being a place for very different cultures – or is precisely that diversity such an ‘American’ value?

It should come as no surprise that public diplomacy experts are interested – to put it bluntly, it provides a way to make American and foreign students work together and to spread certain values, while avoiding discussions about real world immigration issues.

A participant said the interaction was not hampered by external differences (people are like ‘color blind’, people ‘project their inner self’ in their avatar…) and that avatars reflect the inner qualities of people – and guess what, we’re all human beings and not that very different. At the same time though, cultural differences were being discussed regarding the architectural work itself. So it’s not really that there were no longer social and cultural differences – but I guess the virtual environment made it possible to have those discussions while avoiding stereotypes.

Here is part II of The Kansas To Cairo Project:

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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.

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