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:

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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.

Imagine 3D-sensors…

… in your phone, and what you could do with it as a developer… Imagine the games, the education projects, consumer and business projects…. These are exciting times, as Google says about its Project Tango. Google has built a prototype Android smartphone that can learn and map the world around it – what would you do with it?
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Seth Rosenblatt on CNET has pretty interesting background information. Movidius’ Remi El-Ouazzane explains in an interview how his chip firm is more than just another partner in Google’s mobile 3D-mapping project — it’s at the center of a revolution in how computers process visuals. The chips can be used far beyond smartphones and tablets: think wearables, robots, autonomous cars, drones…

Google itself mentions various possible applications: interior design, helping the visually impaired, but also immersive gaming – mixed reality style.

History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education

I’m participating in the course History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, the proceedings take place on the Coursera platform and the Professor is Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University). It’s not yet another course for professional teachers only:

This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.

The course is massive, online, open and free, it contains videos, quizzes and assignments, yet it is different from many other Coursera, Udemy or edX-courses: Professor Davidson tries to transform her class into a community and the learning which so often is that of a ‘Doc on a Laptop’ into peer-to-peer learning. In this way her project is very related to the Peeragogy Handbook.

I’d love to be part of a reading and discussion group about the course, we could do that in Second Life, Google Plus or another platform… If you’re interested, let me know, I think it’s not too late to sign up for the course.

Social media are (also) learning networks

Social media can be learning networks. Self-evident? Maybe so, but these last few months I gave a few presentations for young, somewhat less young and more senior people – all of them well-educated – and they seemed to be surprised about stuff such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the fact that we can consider Wikipedia, Linux or Arduino as learning networks, the Maker Movement and related topics.
Mentioning Facebook often results in discussions about privacy and the NSA (older folks), about looking for alternatives such as Twitter (younger people), but Facebook as part of a personal learning environment is new for many people ‘out there’.

Of course, the only solution is to talk even more about it. Especially because the ‘digital world’ is merging rapidly with what we used to consider as a purely ‘physical’ world – sensors, social media, data, mobile internet, location aware devices, it all permeates that so-called ‘physical world’, turning it effectively into a mixed reality.

Once people start to realize the opportunities and dangers they start asking ‘how do I start learning about this’, on a rather practical level. I’ll limit myself to three books:

Net Smart by Howard Rheingold in order to learn to use social media intelligently, mindfully and humanely.
Peeragogy.org, a handbook for all those wanting to engage themselves into peer2peer learning (a collective work in which I participated).
The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel about mobile, social media, data, sensors and location services.

In case you wonder what I talked about during the presentation:
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The five forces transforming media revisited (updated)

Updated: at the end of the post, discussion notes

I had a great discussion today with a group of journalism students at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). I facilitated a discussion about the five forces transforming media, based on the book The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel  (about mobile, social media, data, sensors and location):

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After this discussion I talked about how we adapt our newspaper and newsroom practices.

I also presented a Prezi about how journalists (or bloggers of course) can use social media to make the people formerly called ‘the audience’ participate in the production of the story or project:

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I was very fortunate: my students had very outspoken opinions. They insisted on the need for well-designed digital news media. It seems people get bombarded with far too much information they are not interested in.

Some students suggested to present only a few news items deemed ‘need to know’ to all users. So each day journalists would select two, maybe 5 at the most, news items as ‘universally’ important. There would be much more content, but that content would be suggested through personalized filters so that people get news in function of their own preferences. Tags, key words, hidden tags and semantic techniques were suggested to accomplish this.

Another suggestion was to use Amazon.com-like tools such as ‘people who read this article also read these other articles’. I mentioned Flipboard which uses the social graph as a filter and Zite which allows users to correct the suggestions made by the algorithm (by giving a thumbs up or down).

However, not all students liked the idea of personalized digital news media – some of them wanted the newsroom to continue to decide the news selection and hierarchy. They fear that personalized news could lead to a filter bubble in which we only learn what we want to learn and block everything which is inconvenient.

We did not go very deep in analyzing how wearable computing could impact news media. Google Glass, virtual assistents will make us rethink the newspaper-metaphor for digital media in a very fundamental way, and I’m sure the issues of ‘filter bubble’ and privacy will stay high on the list of urgent discussion themes.

R.I.P. Google Reader and the Open Web

A friend of mine started a Facebook page, asking for one minute of silence for the demise of Google Reader.

For many of us, Google Reader was a crucial part of the curating toolkit. Just subscribe to RSS-feeds, organize them in folders, view it in various ways. Save the interesting stuff for later, then put those articles which stay relevant for a longer time in diigo/dilicious/pearltrees… It was easy, and then Google killed it.

The company said it wants to focus on fewer projects. They felt there were enough good alternatives. And mostly, I guess, they were convinced Google Reader was no longer the future. So what is the future according to Google? Curation via social networks, first of all Google+, but of course also Twitter and Facebook. Algorithms and clever apps such as Flipboard and Zite are the present, readers the past. The future: even more algorithms, pushing information to you based on your explicitly and implicitly revealed preferences, your social graph, your locations, the time of the day… through wearable devices such as Glass.

Let’s be honest: the mainstream web users never embraced Reader. So, was Reader right about stopping Reader? What’s all the fuss about anyway?

The fuss is about the fear that Google is turning its back to the open web. People like Dave Winer, Felix Salmon  and Anil Dash lament about link rot and ‘the web we lost’. The big corporates such as Twitter, Facebook and Google primarily want to lock the users into their very own walled gardens. You and your friends can get data into those places, but getting the data out is another matter. Not that your data are particularly safe, they are not. They are not longer YOUR data, they are owned by the big corporations. When the web was still young people worked really hard for interoperability. Now the open web is on the retreat.

The mainstream, who never made it to Reader, is addicted to Facebook, and somewhat less to Twitter and Google+. Robert Scoble says it’s too late to save the common web, because the common users left. He gets more conversations about his articles and videos on Facebook and Google+ than on his blog/RSS feeds. Bruce Sterling says talking about “the internet” makes no sense anymore, and there are five reasons for that: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft (not clear to me why he doesn’t add Twitter):

Stacks. In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.

Chances are this will be self-defeating. It reminds me of the old Compuserve and AOL, ancient examples of walled gardens brought down or being forced to reinvent themselves by the open web. Sterling does not think that the stacks are stable entities:

Still, the Stacks figure they can disrupt and disintermediate all those old-school businesses; it’s the stock-markets that scare them, because they all know that, if they’re destroyed, it will surely be through that method; moguls can destroy the Stacks just like they destroyed the world of the 90s dot-com boom.

Are the Stacks “stable?” In a word, No. They’re all dizzyingly unstable Napoleonic gimcrack empires built by eccentric geek weirdos. Besides which, they’ve all learned to hate each other, and they’ve been stocking up patents for an almighty legal war for years now.

Maybe there will be non-American stacks (Samsung? some Chinese conglomerate?) – or maybe the open source and Makers movements will come up with something which is open van vastly superior to what the stacks offer now. We simply don’t know.

A rather dystopian view

I’ve been reading a text in Wired by Bill Joy with a fascinating title: The Future Doesn’t Need Us. At the same time I was researching some stuff about terrorism, security, things Edward Snowden said. I realize that the empowerment of the individual by information technology and the availability of knowledge about stuff such as nanotech, genetics, robotics, biotech also empowers individuals and small groups to commit mass atrocities. Bill Joy uses the expression “knowledge-enabled mass destruction”. In this context I guess security services everywhere find it easier to convince governments that mass surveillance is necessary.

However, in order to organize the Big Data which they accumulate, super computers are needed, machines which can learn and decide. In order to create that, we need more nanotech, information technology and other stuff which in turn empowers the individuals even more as the availability of these technologies spreads out. It’s like an infernal cycle. I used Google Drawing to sketch my thinking about this (click on the map to go to the clickable version):

A dystopian view