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: “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?”

 

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

 

Start your own publishing house or university…

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to meet journalism students interested in social media (at a Journalism Night in Brussels, Belgium, organized by publishers, journalism departments & organizations). I presented some tools I use on a daily basis, a workflow for articles and bigger news projects. That same workflow could be considered a “personal learning environment” but also the nucleus of a publishing venture. One can look at it clockwise, working from collaborative mindmaps up to chat and immersive environments: working out a project systematically, publishing in real time “the making of” and finally presenting the article or video while asking feedback. But it’s also possible to start out in a synchronous session, brainstorming in a chatroom or in an immersive place:

I also mentioned the possibility for young journalists to start their very own publishing house. Why not start the next TechCrunch or Huffington Post? If it fails, too bad, but the skills one acquired by simply trying are useful also for the more established media companies. I posted about this on PBS MediaShift and here you see my interview with the famous Californian blogger Robert Scoble:

Often journalists look bewildered when I talk about becoming their own publishers, but not in this case. I definitely had the feeling that at least some of them are considering the possibility…

Kevin Slavin about those algorithms that govern our lives

How does our near future look like, as computing and fast internet access become ubiquitous, ever more digital data become available in easy to use formats? Well, it seems our world is being transformed by algorithms, and at the LIFT11 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Kevin Slavin presented some fascinating insights about this disruptive change.

I try to summarize his talk. I added some musings of my own, such as the stuff about social capital rankings and the Singularity.

Kevin Slavin is the co-founder of Starling, a co-viewing platform for broadcast TV, specializing in real-time engagement with live television. He also works at Area/Coding, now Zynga New York, taking advantage “of today’s environment of pervasive technologies and overlapping media to create new kinds of gameplay.” He teaches Urban Computing at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, together with Adam Greenfield (author of Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing).

Stealth

Slavin loves Lower Manhattan, the Financial District. It’s a place built on information. Big cities had to learn to listen, for instance London had to use a new technology during World War II, called radar, to detect incoming enemy bombers. Which would lead to the Stealth airplanes, the so-called invisible, untraceable planes – but anyway, also the Stealth plane can be located, and shot, as it appeared in Serbia.

Slavin is a master in explaining technologically complex things. For instance, the idea behind Stealth is to break up the big thing – the bomber – into a lot of small things which look like birds. But what if you don’t try to look for birds, but for big electrical signals? If you can “see” such a signal while nothing appears on your radar, well, chances are that you’re looking at an American bomber.

(Which reminds me: in this day and age, forget about privacy. If you want to hide, the only strategy is to send out lots of conflicting and eventually fake signals – I think futurist Michael Liebhold said that somewhere. His vision of the Geospatial Web: “Imagine as you walk through the world that you can see layers of information draped across the physical reality, or that you see the annotations that people have left at a place describing the attributes of that place!”

Just as was the case for the Stealth, it just takes math, pattern recognition etc to find out who or what hides behind all the bits of information one leaves behind).

The same reasoning applies for other stealthy movements, like those on financial markets. Suppose you want to process a huge financial deal through the market, without waking up other players. The stealth logic is obvious: split it up in many small parts and make them appear to move randomly.

But then again, it’s only math, which can be broken by other math. It’s a war of algorithms. As explains Wikipedia:

Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps null),[4] the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, will proceed through a finite [5] number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing “output”[6] and terminating at a final ending state.

Slavin says that 70 percent of all trades on Wall Street are either an algorithm trying to be invisible or an algorithm trying to find out about such algorithms. That’s what high frequency trading is about: finding those things moving through the financial skies.

Who will be the winner? It’s not only about the best algorithm or the best computer, but also about the best network – we’re talking here about milliseconds. If you’re sitting on top of a carrier hotel where all the internet pipes in a big city are surfacing, you have such an advantage. The internet is not this perfectly distributive thing floating around there, it has its physical properties which for instance determine the price of real estate in cities.

Motherboards

Slavin explains how it are the needs of the algorithms which can determine real estate prices and urban architecture in New York, London, Tokyo or Frankfurt. Real estate 20 blocks away from the Financial District suddenly becomes more expensive than offices which appear to be better connected in human terms. Referring to Neal Stephenson, our professor said that cities are becoming optimized as motherboards.

(Read Mother Earth Mother Board by Neal Stephenson on Wired and, also on Wired, Netscapes: Tracing the Journey of a Single Bit by Andrew Blum. Which also brings us back to Adam Greenfield, who gave a great talk at the Web and Beyond conference in Amsterdam, showing how web design principles and discussions are becoming largely relevant in urbanism – the city as a mother board or as a web site, to be organized as such and where the same concepts and algorithms can be used. Just think about the application of access and permissioning regimes in a world where the overwhelming majority of the citizens is perfectly traceable by their cell and smartphones. Which means that design becomes a very political matter).

Algorithms determine what we hear on the radio and what movies we see – and also what we won’t hear or see. They claim to predict what we want to read or watch, organize traffic, investment decisions, research decisions, and determine which conversations or searches on the web point to terrorist plots and who should be monitored and/or arrested by the security services.

Sixty percent of all movies rented on Netflix are rented because that company recommended those movies to the individual customers. The algorithms Netflix uses even take into account the unreliability of the human brain (we are rather bad in consistently rating things. Epagogix helps studios to determine the box office potential of a script – and influences in that way what will actually be produced.

There is an opacity at work here. Slavin showed a slide depicting the trajectory of the cleaning robot Roomba, which made it obvious that the logic applied here does not match with a typical human way of cleaning a floor.

Crashing black boxes

One may think that an algorithm is just a formalization of human expert knowledge. After all, a content producer knows what has the biggest chances to succeed in terms of box office revenue, clicks, comments and publicity. Isn’t an algorithm not just the automated application of that same knowledge? Not really. In fact, competing algorithms will be tweaked so as to produce better results, or they will tweak themselves. The algorithm often is a black box.

Genetic algorithms seem to mimic the process of natural evolution using mutations, selections, inheritances. Tell the algorithm that a certain weight has to travel from A to B, and provide some elements such as wheels, and the algorithm will reinvent the car for you – but the way in which it works is beyond are human comprehension (it does not even realize from the start that the wheels go on the bottom, it just determines that later on in its iterations): “they don’t relate back to how we humans think.”

Which is important, because think about it: algorithms determine which movies will be produced, and algorithms will provide a rating saying whether a movie is recommended for you. Where is the user in all this? Slavin: “maybe it’s not you.”

Maybe these algorithms smooth things out until it all regresses toward the mean, or maybe they cause panic when all of a sudden financial algorithms encounter something they weren’t supposed to encounter and start trading stocks all of a sudden at insane prices. This happened on May 6 2010. Wikipedia about this Flash Crash:

On May 6, US stock markets opened down and trended down most of the day on worries about the debt crisis in Greece. At 2:42 pm, with the Dow Jones down more than 300 points for the day, the equity market began to fall rapidly, dropping more than 600 points in 5 minutes for an almost 1000 point loss on the day by 2:47 pm. Twenty minutes later, by 3:07 pm, the market had regained most of the 600 point drop.

Humans make errors, but those are human errors. algorithms are far more difficult to “read”, they do their job well – most of the time – but it’s often impossible to make sense in a human, story-telling way of what they do.

There is no astronomy column in the newspaper, there is astrology. Because humans like the distort facts and figures and tell stories. That’s what they do in astrology, but also on Wall Street – because we want to make sense to ourselves, even if means we’ve to distort the facts.

Now what does a flash crash look like in the entertainment industry? In criminal investigations? In the rating of influence on social networks? Maybe it happened already.

Social Capital

Some other presentations at LIFT are also relevant in this context. Algorithms are for instance increasingly being used to determine your personal ‘value’ – for instance your value as an ‘influencer’ on social media. Klout is a company which uses its algorithm to measure the size of a person’s network, the content created, and how other people interact with that content. PeerIndex is also working with social network data to determine your ‘social capital’.

This is not just a weird vanity thing. Some hotels will give people with a high Klout ranking a VIP-treatment, hoping on favorable comments on the networks. Social influence and capital can be used as an element in the financial rating of a person or a company.

This in turn will incite companies but also individuals to manage their online networks. At the LIFT11 conference, Azeem Azhar, founder of PeerIndex, gave a great presentation about online communities and reputations management while social media expert Brian Solis talked about social currencies. Of course, people will try to game social ranking algorithms, just as they try to game search algorithms on the web.

Singularity

Rapidly increasing computer and network power, an avalanche of digital data and self-learning networks, ambient intelligence could lead to what some call the Singularity: “a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid and the growth of artificial intelligence is so great that the future after the singularity becomes qualitatively different and harder to predict” (Wikipedia).

Many scientists dispute the spectacular claims of Singularity thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil. There is also controversy about whether, if the Singularity would take place, this would be good or bad for humanity. Slavin points out the opacity of the algorithms. They can be efficient, but don’t tell stories and we cannot tell a good story about the inner workings of black boxes. Now already algorithms are capable of taking into account our weird human imperfections and inconsistencies, while humans also respond by trying to game algorithms. In that sense we’re witnessing not one spectacular moment of a transition to Singularity, but a gradual shift where algorithms become a crucial part of our endeavours and societies.

Hacks/Hackers talking about WikiLeaks and the future of journalism

Journalists sometimes call themselves “hacks,” a tongue-in-cheek term for someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code. Hacks/Hackers tries to bridge those two worlds. This movement started in the US but journalists and bloggers worldwide are joining in.

We’ve a group in Brussels, Belgium now and during our meetup this week we discussed WikiLeaks: what is the added value, how do journalists work with WikiLeaks, should they work with WikiLeaks, is WikiLeaks itself leaking, is transparency always good, why do sources prefer going to WikiLeaks rather than contacting mainstream media…

One of the difficulties in many mainstream media outlets is the separation of developers and journalists. A better integration of the two groups leads to stuff such as data driven journalism and database journalism.

It can also lead to more awareness of security issues: how can investigative reporters use the internet in a safe way.

The meetup was organized together with HackDemocracy, a “community of hackers and workers in public institutions who care about the future of our democracies.”

There was a presentation by UCLouvain cryptographer Jean-Jacques Quisquater about the way in which organizations like Wikileaks – but also traditional media – can use technology to insure leakers remain anonymous.

Next on stage was Owni.fr, who have worked closely with Wikileaks. Owni also have a very particular organizational model: the team is composed of 1/3 journalists, 1/3 developers and 1/3 graphic designers. Nicolas Voisin (CEO), Nicolas Kaiser-Brill & Olivier Tesquet (data-journalists) were on stage to talk about their work on Wikileaks and the future of journalism.

Academic researcher Sidney Leclercq (Université Libre de Bruxelles) talked about Wikileaks’ implications for international relations and diplomacy.

This video gives a good impression of various discussions and presentations during our meetup (as you’ll see, not everyone was convinced of the added value of WikiLeaks):

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)!

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.

Metanomics master class in game development

Wow. Tomorrow’s Metanomics show will be extremely interesting:

During this Masterclass on Game Development, guest host Dusan Writer will take us behind the scenes with a panel of guests and look at how games are developed. What IS a game, exactly? How do you develop the rules, stages and rewards in order to make a great game? What technologies do game developers use to display their games? What are the advantages/disadvantages of immersive environments like Second Life? How does a game developer deal with ‘emergent behavior’? How are games ‘monetized’ and what are the new models and decisions that game developers need to make? (Freemium, pay-to-play, subscription, etc.)

Game developers Oni Horan, Colin Nilsson and thought leader Tony Walsh will bring us a view behind the scenes but will also explain the broader cultural context.

As usual, more information about the event and the panel members on Metanomics.net.

Join us for this Masterclass on game development on Monday November 22nd at 12 p.m. Pacific.

You can join in through the main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on the Metanomics site.