‘Virtual worlds are not dead, they only smell funny’

Allow Flufee McFluff to introduce this post about the first day of the MetaMeets conference:

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You can find the mindmap on which my own presentation (slideshow) was based in the previous post. I update the mindmap in function of what I learn during this two day-conference.
Some highlights of the conference:

The artist Sander Veenhof showed us the beauty and the subversive power of augmented reality. For instance by organizing an exhibition at the MoMa without any official approval:

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Veenhof often uses Layar, which is a mobile browser for augmented reality. However, these days Layar seems to focus more on activating print media with interactive experiences – which may be more interesting business-wise, but seems less revolutionary. So it’s not surprising Veenhof these days is rather fond of junaio, which boasts being ‘the most advances augmented reality browser.’

– CJ Davies and John McCaffery presented the Project Open Virtual Worlds at the University of St Andrews. CJ is currently developing a modified Second Life viewer for a tablet computer that allows avatar movement & camera control to reflect the tablet’s real world position & orientation using a combination of accelerometer, magnetometer & GPS data. I think it’s pretty exciting to combine avatars and real world in this way.

– Talking about combining the virtual and ‘the real’, Bart Veldhuizen talked about shapeways.com which is specialized in 3D-printing in various materials – so not only plastics but also metal, nylon or silver. Shapeways boasts a community of about 150,000 members. So would it be interesting for those community members to collaborate in 3D environments? That’s not self-evident as the ideal designs for 3D-printing often diverge from what is ideal in a virtual world such as Second Life. Also, the community members may also be competitors and not so keen on collaborating. There is discussion about all this, as other designers often do want to collaborate and work in ‘virtual guilds’ and virtual worlds could be interesting places for discussions, brainstorming and early prototyping.

– So, to refer to Flufee, are virtual worlds dead, now that the talk is so much about 3D-printing and augmented reality? In the discussions about virtual worlds Maria Korolov (Hypergrid Business) gave expert advice about OpenSim, which seems a good solution for education, especially for younger kids. This was also demonstrated by Nick Zwart, an award-winning pioneer in the educational use of virtual worlds (language education) who uses OpenSim.

MetaMeets! Virtuality Meets Reality

Tomorrow I’ll participate in the MetaMeets gathering in ‘s-Hertogenbosch,The Netherlands. What we’l do and talk about:

MetaMeets is a seminar/meeting about virtual worlds, augmented reality and 3D internet, this year’s topic will be The Art of Creation : Virtuality meets Reality.

Virtual worlds and 3D internet have been developing continuously. Mobile and browser based worlds have been created. Mesh format uploads have provided huge progress in content creation through open source programs like Blender and Google Sketchup.
Machinima creation has grown and improved with special interfaces and innovations in visual possibilities, making films shot in virtual worlds a professional tool for presentation to a mainstream audience.

MetaMeets has chosen this year to shine a light on this versatile digital canvas by taking its participants interactively into the Art of Creation. The programme will begin with a few lectures on the current state of virtual worlds and their new developments. Subsequently, we will have workshops exploring methods of accomplishing each of the key steps in 3D creation. The workshops will range from creating a virtual world on your own server, creating 3D content, creating (motion) pictures of it, and even printing 3D objects as real world 3D models.

We also will have an interactive roundtable discussion based on the movie The Singularity is Near that is released this summer for download and availible on dvd.

This is a mindmap I prepared. My subject is about the virtual which escapes into the real. Or how maybe Second Life is catering for a niche group of people, but the ethos of virtual worlds is spreading fast in what we once called the ‘real world’.

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Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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Open online community of digital storytellers DS106 finances itself through Kickstarter

Last week I attended a Rheingold Youniversity Alumni meeting with Bryan Alexander, who talked about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), and he mentioned DS106, an open online community of digital storytellers. Here is how DS106 describes itself:

DS106 is a digital storytelling course that began as a face-to-face course at the University of Mary Washington. In Spring of 2011, Jim Groom opened the course up to allow open online participants to join and become involved. That semester gave birth to a radio station, a TV station, an assignment bank with over 280 contributions, and an explosion of creativity and fostered community like never before. There are now 7 universities participating in DS106 formally with over 1200 open online participants that have generated over 18,000 posts. What’s more, the community is growing every day.

The world is small, and today I read a post by Stephen Downes, who made me discover the delicious madness of MOOCs way back in 2008:

I’ve been interested to follow the story of Jim Groom and company’s use of Kickstarter to raise money to continue the DS106 experiment. In 24 hours they made their goal of $4200 and will be buying “a grown-up server (in the cloud no less!) which comes with its own grown-up costs to the tune of over $2,800 this year.”

So it seems we have a very interesting situation here. We’ve a project which already has a good reputation and seems to be the kind of MOOC I like (creative, non-hierarchical, meritocratic, fun etc) and which uses a very interesting way to finance itself: Kickstarter, a new way to fund creative projects.

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

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

 

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)!

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).

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:

Discovering a virtual mine in the Appalachian mountains

Talking about virtual environments and machinima (see previous post), here is a very nice example: today in Second Life the Virtual Mine is being launched:

The Virtual Mine is a complete 3D virtual mountaintop removal mine created by Deep Down in the popular world Second Life.  The virtual mine, developed at BAVC’s Producers Institute for New Media Technologies with funding from ITVS and MacArthur Foundation, is an educational 3D environment, game, and educational curriculum for teachers, students, and anyone who’d like to learn more about mountain top removal, coal fired power production, alternative energies, and the amazing music and culture in the Appalachian mountains.  Read more about our inspiration and development at the Producers Institute, and our meeting with Second Life Education at the Institute.