Those unstable populations of virtual environments and cities…

It is said that in a few decades time 80 percent of world population will live in cities. Those cities will depend on a superstructure of networked technology in order to provide food, water, energy and communication. The Impakt Festival 2010 Matrix City in Utrecht, the Netherlands, will discuss

(…) both the growing dependency of urban societies on their technological superstructures as well as the phenomena of massive online virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre. This connects to the physicality of real-urbanism that loses its own purpose and function without networked technology, and to virtual environments that are losing their purpose without the physicality of human presence.

Interesting thought, “virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre.” The organizers continue:

Virtual flight depicts the slow movement from the autonomous exclusive realm of virtual worlds, toward something that is more connected to real world physicality. During the last 5 years, we witness a stagnation in the development of virtual worlds. World of Warcraft with its “hack and slash” concept still dominates online worlds, while Second Life remains lost in defining the purpose for its own existence. This stagnation shows how technological, virtual platforms are dependent on a meaningful raison d’etre for individual participation, and that the massive euphoria around virtual online worlds from the mid 2000s ended in ontological dead-end, mostly because it didn’t take into account the complexities of social laws. More and more examples point currently to fusions between virtual environments and “real” social events, where the virtual framework is mirroring offline realities.

The conference about Superstructural Dependencies takes place on Friday October 15.

I won’t be able to attend but the ideas expressed in the announcement are fascinating. Augmented reality, location-based networks and games, alternate reality games (very interesting Wikipedia entry!) are ways to mix virtual and physical realities. All those genres can be ‘for entertainment only’, and/or have commercial, educational and transformative purposes.

(hat tip to Bruce Sterling who mentions this event on Beyond the Beyond and comments on it).

Gaming in the cloud is great news for immersive journalism

I love playing Pocket Legends from Spacetime Studios on my iPad (my avatar is the courageous but clumsy Wilbear). The game has all the characteristics of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft: quests, group action, contests between players and player groups etc. It’s pretty good graphically speaking, but don’t expect the actual World of Warcraft graphical wizardry.

But then again, this game may get some competition very soon, maybe from World of Warcraft itself and from even more high-end games. Dusan Writer mentions the Gaikai cloud service which may do just that: enabling players to immerse themselves in pc- and console games right in their browsers. Which also means enabling the game companies to reach potential customers without awkward downloads or distributing physical stuff: one click on almost any device as long as there’s a decent broadband connection.  Yay for cloud computing!

Now, this is a real revolution for the gaming industry. Giving players and potential players direct and effortless access to the games also helps the game developers and designers to instantly analyze how people react to the games. Of course, it’s bad news for those living from the physical distribution of games – even though it may take some time before that distribution will be extinct (we’ve the same conversations about print news media of course).

Talking about news media: this development would eliminate yet another hurdle for using immersive journalism techniques. Now we had examples of immersive journalism in Second Life such as this project about the Guantanamo detention center:

Another immersive project by Nonny de la Peña, Cap&Trade:

Other possibilities for journalism include talk shows with a virtual audience, inviting people who would be difficult to get (or rather expensive) in the physical world (Metanomics is a nice example, they’ll have Noam Chomsky on October 12). Or you could simply convene a meeting with community members for an open-ended discussion, more immersive than when using a traditional text chat (have a look at the We Are the Network meetings in Second Life, but there are many other examples).

The problem: not many members of my newspaper community for instance are ready to download the Second Life client, and those willing to do so could run into problems because their computers are relatively low-end or because they are behind some corporate firewall. All those problems could be solved if projects such as Gaikai really succeed in bringing Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars (working with another company, Otoy) on any device, anytime and anywhere (always assuming there is decent broadband!). There is also OnLive – which is already up and running in the contiguous US – but which seems to need a limited download (which can be too much asked for office environments).

Once virtual environments are accessible in one click the mainstream audience could unlock easily the possibilities for immersive journalism and immersive storytelling. It will give journalists and storytellers new possibilities to interact with their communities and will make methodologies used in software development even more relevant so as to keep up with news stories and the requirements of the community. This in turn could inspire citizen-journalists or non-professional storytellers to go deeper and create content themselves, knowing that there is a big and relevant community out there to explore their work.

Message to journalism institutes: this makes ‘serious gaming’ and virtual environments even more relevant for your student-journalists. Help them to explore content, network and business opportunities of this development!

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.

Metanomics innovates once again, adds meet-ups, gets celebrity-guests

The Second Life show Metanomics is about to start a new season, and is innovating once again. In fact, Metanomics would be a great research topic for communication and media students, as it demonstrates key principles of new media.

Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy Communications which also owns the blog Dusan Writer’s Metaverse.

Dusan Writer, in “real life” Doug Thompson and owner of Remedy, explains on his blog: “Metanomics provides insight into the changes in governance, economics, policy, enterprise, education and the nature of work facilitated by newer technologies. Guests have included authors, researchers, technologists, professionals, theorists and government policy makers and recently celebrated 100 episodes.”

In fact, Metanomics does many things. It is a gathering in Second Life, where people backchat while the host, professor Robert Bloomfield,  interviews the guests and takes up questions from the backchat. video streams the show on the Metanomics website, where the episodes are also archived. People who cannot join ‘in-world’ can participate in the backchat from the site.

This season another element will be added: a series of local meet-ups timed to show days. The first live meet-up will be held at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The audience will watch and participate in a Metanomics broadcast followed by discussion and networking.

Metanomics is a great example of how to immerse a global audience in an intellectual show, using web chat, virtual chat, video, blog texts providing context, transcripts, virtual community meetings and now also interaction in the physical world.

Join us at 12pm PST on October 4th at 12:00 p.m. PST/SLT in-world, when the usual host, professor Bloomfield, will this time be the guest and talk about Real World Lessons from Virtual Worlds, a subject which interests me, being a financial journalist, a lot: “Can virtual worlds provide insight into economic behavior? Does playing a game equate with how we interact in the physical world? What would a system look like that would let us test assumptions about how governments, companies and individuals act?”

I also have a background in philosophy, so I’m equally exited about the show on October 12th, featuring professor Noam Chomsky. Professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.

MMORPGs show us the future of media

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to facilitate a seminar for journalism students. Preparing the seminar I was surprised how strongly virtual worlds and gaming influence me. No, I don’t believe people will routinely watch and read the news in a World of Warcraft setting, dressed up as Orcs or Trolls. But yes, there is a more subtle but very fundamental influence with implications for the whole media ecosystem.

First I’ll talk about social media. I think it’s still useful to explain the social media ecosystem, mentioning immersive environments/virtual worlds as a way to organize small groups of very interested people, in order to get inspiration and feedback. Blogs, forums and chats are no marginal activities in a newsroom – they’re rapidly becoming core business.

This understanding of social media is just a first step towards gaining insights regarding the major changes taking place in the media. The second part of my presentation will be about the future of media, which sounds rather cliché, but then again, the participants in the seminar are that future.

In a MindMeister map I focus on two compelling aspects which hopefully point out the major change vectors: the social dimension and the real-time interaction. Both aspects lead to engagement of the people formerly known as the audience and thus to the relevance of the media operation.

It really does help to have even a minimal gaming experience. I used to play World of Warcraft for a while and these days I’m getting addicted to a very nice MMO on the iPad: Pocket Legends. The social interaction on forums, blogs and Facebook pages is fun, but what is really exhilirating is participating in a raid, fighting monsters in small groups.

What one experiences is the mental state of flow. Applications of this principle, even for serious news media, are obvious: just compare the action during a chat session with asynchronous commenting, or observe what happens when a comment has to be approved by moderators before it can appear (however, I am strongly in favor of real-time curation and moderation).

In the concept map I try to point out many other similarities between massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS) and developments in the news media. This has important consequences for the business model and the management style of news media companies. Agile and Scrum suddenly become relevant for newsrooms. Openness of the development and of news production and curating process become crucial. Fast iteration of tools and design elements will become the norm. Theories about ‘the end of management (as we know it)’ become applicable (media more becoming like movie production, with teams which may get together and disband in function of projects and personal interests).

An example of this: the Liquid News project.
Other examples: have a look at crowdSPRING for design services or eLancer which also includes news-writing (thank you Dusan Writer for mentioning those services in an email-conversation). I don’t think my message for the students will be a pessimistic one. Maybe it will get harder to find a job at big mainstream media companies, but the media ecosystem is expanding. What is needed is an understanding of the many different components of that landscape and entrepreneurial talent.

The MindMeister map is a wiki-map, so feel free to add stuff.