Gorree: ‘avatars are everywhere. Let’s use them even more!’

Avatars are everywhere nowadays. Not only in fully immersive virtual worlds but also on social networks in Flatland such as Twitter, Facebook etc. They come in many forms and one might even say there have been avatars for centuries, like the heads of kings on coins or of presidents and other important people on paper money.
At the MetaMeets conference in Amsterdam I interviewed Tim Gorree, IT Solution Architect at Nokia, about avatars:

Previous posts about MetaMeets:
MetaMeets:”We are at the beginning
MetaMeets Day 2: “Going beyond virtual worlds, machinima, avatars…
“Kitely asks for some help to get virtual worlds on the web

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?”

 

Entering a fluid state

Fluid. Liquid. Streaming. It are words often used to describe the new reality the more affluent part of humanity lives in. We are always on now, social, webbed, mobile, connected. As Om Malik says in Will We Define or Limit the Future:

Mobile phones of today might have innards of a PC, but they are not really computers. They are able to sense things, they react to touch and sound and location. Mobile phones are not computers, but they are an extension of us.

Stowe Boyd tells us what this means for media:

We are sliding into a liquid state from a former, more solid one. Our devices and software is where we are seeing this first, but it is already transforming the media world. Witness the headlong transition from solid media (media destination sites with their proprietary organization, with inward-focused links, concrete layout, and editorial curation) to liquid media (media content is just URL flotsam in the streaming apps we use, rendered by readering tools we choose and configure, and social curation).

Boyd sees beyond media and into the near future:

What is over the near horizon is a liquid world, in which social nets, ubiquitous connectivity, mobility, and web are all givens, forming the cornerstones of a vastly different world of user experience, participation, and utility. This is the new liquid world, just a few degrees away.

As I read about this and post stuff, services are being announced in rapid succession. On the readering side there are services such as FlipBoard, Zite and Pulse. I posted about the curation side of things a few days ago and new tools are being launched about every day, so have a look at my Scoop.It to see some of the latest developments – or join my curating team about curation on Pearltrees.

At The Next Web Robert Scoble gave a presentation about Humans + Reality + Virtual. He talked about experiments combining the physical with the virtual. Now, for me ‘virtual’ is more like environments such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, but Scoble uses it in a broader sense: ‘the digital’, ‘that what you see on you tablet or smartphone.’

He refers to apps such as Photosynth which allows you to make 3D pictures where you can look around and zoom. Mealsnap processes pictures you make of your food and tells you what you’re eating and how many calories that represents – again that mixture of human, real and virtual. Foodspotting allows you to share the places where you eat and what you eat, Cyclemeter tracks your walking, cycling, skiing, running, tells you how you’re doing, shares it on networks etc. Another application checks what you’re watching on tv and share that precious information with your friends. It makes pretty clear what Scoble means with human + real + virtual.

All of which sounds a bit frightening. What about my privacy? Isn’t all this Big Brother? Think about stuff such as Klout score, or PeerIndex, or internal measurement by Twitter telling how connected your are, what your online social capital is and how all this could be used as an asset on the job market or even in financial ratings.
Malik says in Will We Define of Limit the Future:

With this revolution, it has become easier to share our moments and other details of our life that have so far been less exposed. The sharing of location data becomes a cause of concern because it is the unknown. The situation is only going to get more complicated — we are after all entering a brave new world of sensor driven mobile experiences, as I wrote in an earlier newsletter. No, this is not science fiction stuff.

I’m getting more and more immersed in this mobile, connected, liquid state. I use an iPhone and things only got more intense now that I own a iPad. It’s a gradual process of discovering new apps, new social tools linking various aspects of your life and connecting you in many different ways with other people.

Even the ‘real virtual’ stuff is going mobile. First I discovered the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Pocket Legends and now Gameloft launched Order & Chaos Online, a kind of mobile version of World of Warcraft. It’s not hard to imagine some augmented reality enabled mixed realities environment, combining the real, the human, the virtual and what we usually call the virtual. When we get there in an increasingly convincing and integrated way, expect some profound changes in how we live, love, work and connect.

 

Digital natives are not the same everywhere

In the previous post I talked about the digital natives and how they put into question the way our old leaders think. At the LIFT conference in Geneva, Switzerland, experts contrasted the network-focus of the digital natives with the focus on hierarchy and distance of the leaders. It was also mentioned that the real tsunami of digital natives does not take place in Europe or Japan because of demographic trends. Many European countries and Japan risk becoming countries with majorities of senior citizens.

However, all this does not imply that digital natives in emerging countries are one homogeneous group. Florence Chee talked at LIFT about her research in the use of virtual worlds and games as means of communication. How do factors like culture, social structure, and infrastructure affect how people play online games in different global contexts? Chee visited 6 countries and researched the remarkable differences in the usage of virtual worlds and games. Here is the video of her presentation at LIFT (the title ‘Yuri Suzuki’ is an error):

You can find more on her blog, Constructing Amusement and for the academically inclined there is this link to Public Virtual World Gaming in Asia: Preparatory Fieldwork for Site Selection, Protocol Testing and Research Instrument Development (go here for the full pdf document).

Related on MixedRealities: the work of Cory Doctorow and his recent book For the Win about young gamers uniting internationally to defend their rights.

Blue Mars restructures, goes mobile

Virtual worlds and restructuring… it’s becoming a long story. The latest episode: Blue Mars. The company behind the virtual world platform Blue Mars, Avatar Reality, is restructuring “in order to concentrate on bringing Blue Mars to portable touch screen devices like the iPhone and iPad.”

The company says they have a functioning alpha in house and they aim to release the first builds of Blue Mars on iOS next month. CEO Jim Sink leaves the company:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to keep the current team together while building Blue Mars Mobile. Like many of my friends here, today is my last day at Avatar Reality. It has been a true pleasure working on Blue Mars with so many talented and dedicated creative professionals. Just as rewarding was seeing the growth and creative output of the Blue Mars community. Thank you all for your sharing your creativity with our community. It was fun.

See you on Mars,
Jim

“The first versions of Blue Mars Mobile will be an extension to the PC client but over time, the mobile version will absorb many of the features found in the PC version. With our focus now clearly on mobile, updates to the PC version of the software will likely be restricted to bug fixes for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, we will no longer charge our current City Developers for the monthly city hosting service. The servers will remain online, city updates and uploads will continue, and shop and residence rentals will still function but technical support for the user client will no longer be offered.”

It is unclear how many people leave the company. No mention is being made of a new CEO. My first impression: the strategy of having a heavy PC client did not succeed. I did not visit the Blue Mars environments very often, but the times I went there I had the impression it did not gain traction. The few people in-world often were developer-types or Second Life residents exploring another world. The graphics are impressive, but for those who like open ended user generated virtual worlds Blue Mars lacked the buzz of Second Life and OpenSim.

“The focus for the first version of Blue Mars Mobile is avatar style and rankings. The initial versions will allow people to share their Blue Mars avatars through a native iOS application. In the next few months, an app store for clothing, Facebook Connect integration, avatar snapshots, account registration, and character customization will be added. The items you have created or own will already work with the mobile version as will the Blue Mars item creation tools.”

Mobile and Facebook Connect, it all seems rather logical, because these are growth areas. However, for the moment the announcement sounds like an admission of defeat.

The last press release on the Avatar Reality site (March 23, 2010) announced that an additional $4.2 million was raised from venture capitalists including Henk Rogers and Kolohala Ventures. “To date, more than $13 million has been invested in Avatar Reality”, so it was said.

Avatar Reality was founded in 2006 by interactive entertainment visionaries Henk Rogers – best known for introducing Tetris to the world – and Kazuyuki Hashimoto, former CTO of Squaresoft and vice president at Electronic Arts. In March 2010 the company had more than 30 employees in Honolulu and San Francisco.

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.

Mary Meeker sees ‘unusually high level of global innovation’

Mary Meeker (Morgan Stanley) talks in her recent state of the internet about disruptive innovation: new or incumbent players disrupting whole industries by offering cheap or free products and services (Google, Amazon… ) or by creating new markets (Apple, Facebook, Zynga… ).

One of the remarkable aspects of the recent evolution is how innovative also the more incumbent internet companies are. You’ll find concrete information about specific companies in the presentation – and note how of the 15 biggest public companies 9 are US based, 3 are Chinese companies, 2 Japanese (okay, one of those two being Yahoo Japan), 1 South Korean and… zero European.

Meeker also highlights the unusually high level of global innovation, for instance Facebook and Tencent (the largest social network in China) learning from each other’s playbooks.

Facebook has the focus on real-world friends, pictures and events, Tencent on virtual identities and customizable avatars – but both are incorporating each other’s strong points.