MixedRealities lives in Sansar

Finally virtual reality platform Sansar is in open beta. I think Linden Lab, owner of Second Life, did a nice job. Will social VR reach more people now or will it just take away people and attention from Second Life? Or will we have to wait for Facebook Spaces to have success in order to pull Sansar along (or would it be destroyed by Facebook)? We just don’t know. It could very well be that for the vast majority of human beings social VR is a solution for a problem that does not exist. Nevertheless, I love it. MixedRealities has a little presence at Sansar, it’s called Philosopher’s Corner. Here you see an image of the construction works:

my place in the virtual world Sansar

I’d love to do something similar at High Fidelity, yet another beautiful VR-platform, but give me some time as it seems far more challenging. But a fascinating world it is, here you see a place called “Playa”:

a scene from the vitual world High Fidelity

Blockchain for avatars

Even though I’m sceptical about the appeal of open-ended, user-created virtual worlds for a mainstream audience, I still follow people who are very active in that field because they tend to be highly creative out of the box thinkers. One of them is Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life, and these days busy creating a new world which takes full advantage of VR, High Fidelity.

In the post Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain he tackles the question of how we can prove our identities in a digital environment without revealing our real life identity:

As we begin to live and work in digital spaces, we must design an identity system that is safe, secure, and decentralized like the web. A combination of theblockchain and digital certificates seems like the best design.

Being a true Maker, Rosedale does not limit himself to a theoretical explanation, but will try the coming months to implement such a technology in High Fidelity. All this even fits into my ideas about Mixed Reality, as one could consider such a virtual implementation as a big rehearsal for ‘real world’ applications. Rosedale:

And of course, this sort of identity system might someday even work well for real-world things, like who can vote, or keeping track of who owns parcels of land. It seems likely that a distributed database like this, applied to identity information, could be a bigger value to people than the current applications which have been mostly for virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Hat tip to Wagner James Au for discussing Rosedale’s article on the New World Notes.

#SUsummit Amsterdam showcases the augmentation of everything

Virtual worlds are often weird environments. The innovators in that industry have a broad view on our future. Conferences and community conventions offer fascinating insights and discussions. I remember how futurist and technologist Ray Kurzweil gave a (virtual) presentation during the Second Life Community Convention 2009 in San Francisco. Afterwards I rushed to the Green Apple bookstore to buy his book The Singularity is Near (2005). Wikipedia explains:

Kurzweil describes his law of accelerating returns which predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology,robotics and artificial intelligence. He says this will lead to a technological singularity in the year 2045, a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it. Irreversibly transformed, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Once the Singularity has been reached, Kurzweil predicts machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Afterwards, Kurzweil says, intelligence will radiate outward from the planet until it saturates the universe.

Fast forward to December 2012, when Kurzweil was hired by Google “to bring natural language understanding to Google”. He was involved in various education and learning projects, one of the most interesting is the Singularity University (SU) which he co-founded with Peter Diamandis (2008).

The headquarters of the SU are at Moffett Federal Airfield (NASA Research Park), California, but in Europe we can attend two-day Summit conferences. Last year I attended the Singularity University conference in Budapest, Hungary and I (together with other participants) built a mind map about the state of the future at that time, topics of that mind map include ambient intelligence (sensors, ubiquitous computing, networks), robots, energy, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, synthetic biology, health and medical services, organizational change. In short, it’s about how the augmentation of the human intellect materializes itself and disrupts about everything.

This year my newspaper colleague Peter De Groote went to the Amsterdam Summit. He reported in De Tijd that the fully self-driving car will be available in ten years time, that robots are still toddlers but are growing up fast (and they can read your emotions), that artificial intelligence evolves from disappointing to disruptive, that we no longer should limit ourselves to wearables but that implantables are next in line to augment us:

Virtual Worlds

So… nothing about virtual reality and virtual worlds in this disruption overview? Yes there was. First let’s take a step back: in September Jason Dorrier posted on SingularityHub about Virtual Reality – will it become the next great media platform? He showed this inspiring video:

The idea is that technologies such as Oculus Rift and the new generation of virtual worlds (think High Fidelity) will make it possible to visit the worlds in the other person’s head. We make our dreams accessible, quite literally. Which brings us to brain-to-brain communication and yes, this is a Singularity topic. One example being discussed: University of Washington researchers can transmit the signals from one person’s brain over the Internet and use these signals to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal.

Rob Nail talked during the conference about exciting applications like allowing a surgeon to operate from 10,000 km distance, to a pilot assisting a non-pilot to land an aircraft. Or how we network and augment our brains very literally…

Second Life 2.0 will be interesting, but no breakthrough for the multiverse

Quite some excitement among virtual worlds fans: Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, confirmed that they work on a new virtual world. They won’t let themselves be restrained by concerns about backward compatibility with the eleven year old Second Life as they want a fundamentally better virtual world and not just incremental improvements. CEO Ebbe Altberg of Linden Lab said that the ‘old’ Second Life will continue and new developers are being recruited for the new project. In the meantime, the founder of the Lab, Philip Rosedale, is working on yet another new virtual world, called High Fidelity.

More can be found on New World Notes and on Living in a Modemworld.

I cannot help being excited about these new developments, yet I don’t think we’ll see a spectacular growth in virtual worlds usage. My impression is that Linden Lab tries to benefit from the excitement around Oculus Rift, telling the world that the biggest open-ended and user generated virtual world is Second Life. However, people outside the fan base of Second Life are sceptical (as reading the discussions on Reddit makes abundantly clear).

My guess is that the niche of users of Second Life and OpenSim (the open-source version of Second Life) will be dispersed over three worlds now: the old and the new Second Life and Rosedale’s new project, but that the whole open-ended user-generated virtual worlds scene will remain a niche-thing. Will it change in a few years time when motion trackers, body sensors and 3D-cameras will become more mainstream? Maybe, but it won’t be next year.

Second Life fans often say that the lack of traction of virtual worlds is because of the learning curve and the difficulties in using mouse and keyboard to navigate those worlds. I think the real difficulty is the identity-play: the fact that people represent themselves by avatars which may be very different from the physical person using those avatars. For some this opens a world of creativity and exploration, for many others it’s just a bit creepy, especially in ‘serious’ (for instance work-related) contexts.

The other issue with these worlds is that they tend to be very time-consuming. Social networks and mobile communications help people to navigate from the physical to the digital world in fast bursts of time – checking updates, having a facetime of Google Hangout videotalk etc – but without spending hours immersed in a virtual environment.

Both these behavioral phenomena – preference for short time span interventions and for seeing ‘the real other’ – make widespread usage of open ended virtual worlds a tough sell.

A future for virtual worlds after all

The virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift makes virtual worlds folks dream of a bright future. The Rift exists now as a developer version, but a consumer product could be available in 2015. Second Life is anticipating on this rather thrilling development by releasing a Rift-compatible viewer:

Read more about it on the New World Notes.

Maria Korolov on Hypergrid Business refers to an article in Wired about the inside story of Oculus Rift with the quote ‘I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change. Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.’ (Brian Cho, a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz).

Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Second Life, is working on his very own virtual reality which is compatible with Oculus Rift: High Fidelity. At the recent Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference (videos on HyperGrid Business) Rosedale said something very important about the inspiration for this project, as reported by Wagner James Au:

I remember reading Snow Crash feverishly and how it helped me to understand Second Life. I just bought Ready Player One and I can imagine how it inspires the next generation of virtual worlds: haptic feedback, the possibility to reflect the facial expressions via the avatar, chatrooms which are separate virtual spaces rather than text-based instant messaging boxes etc.

I’m not much of a coding or a hardware person – I prefer old-fashioned reading, and somehow reading Ready Player One and thinking about what’s going on in the virtual reality industry makes me believe there’s an almost unimaginable future waiting for us.

The Singularity was in Budapest, Hungary

I attended the Singularity University Summit in Budapest, Hungary. It was like two days of total immersion in discussions about the concept of exponential growth, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, bio-hacking, medical breakthroughs and organisational change. I tried to bring some elements together in a wiki mindmap, people have added links and stuff:

Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

I also talked to CEO Rob Nail of the Singularity University:

How to replicate online the hands on experience of the SU and the intense social experience? Well, maybe by using a virtual environment? It seems the SU is exploring that possibility, but it’s too soon to tell. Which reminds me that Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, is one of those who inspires the SU people (just to be clear: he was not at the Summit). He’s working on a high fidelity virtual world, in which avatars would reflect the expressions of their real life typists:

Wouldn’t it be nice to replicate the Singularity University campus experience in a high fidelity virtual environment? It would be a welcome variation on Massive Open Online Course environments of Coursera, Udacity or edX…

More videos and links can be found in my coverage for my newspaper De Tijd (in Dutch).

Are our attention spans becoming longer again?

There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.

howard rheingoldSo what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.

– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.

Crucial technologies I want to master: the components of HTML5 (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), jQuery, and for stuff such as web scraping I need a language such as Python.

Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).

– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.

Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.

Is something changing?

These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.

But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.

Philip Rosedale, Chairman of Linden LabPhilip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”

But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…

Read also: 

True Ventures about the investment in High Fidelity.