The history of the future

I’m reading The History of the Future, a book written by Blake J. Harris, author of Console Wars. It contains a foreword by Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, the book which used to be or still is required reading for all those working at Oculus VR.

The book brings the fascinating story of Palmer Luckey, who developed an astounding expertise in VR while living as a home-schooled teen in a trailer outside his parent’s house. The book describes how he got into contact with other VR and gaming-experts and was able to start his own company, Oculus VR, which was subsequently sold to Facebook for about 2.3 billion dollar in cash and stock.

In 2017, after issues related to 2016 political contributions to Republicans and public support for then-presidential nominee Donald Trump, Luckey departed Oculus. There is discussion about whether his political views were the immediate cause of his departure.

I’m not even halfway the book now, but it sure is a fascinating story, introducing the reader to many important and colorful characters in the gaming and VR-industry. It’s interesting to note how Luckey believed at the start of the Oculus project that the VR headset would be of a niche interest. VR at the time had a bad reputation after various cycles of hype and doom. It’s only when other folks joined the project and turned it into a real company that the ambitions became much bigger. That would only accelerate after Facebook bought Oculus VR – Mark Zuckerberg dreaming about one billion of users, not only for gaming, but also for other telepresence applications.

Today one may wonder whether the initial niche-orientation of Luckey wasn’t closer to the truth than the wild ambitions of Facebook. Even after the launch of the low priced and easy to use standalone headset Oculus Go the technology is far from being embraced by a mainstream audience.

Will this be different after a more sophisticated version, the Oculus Quest, gets on the market? As described in the book, people invariably have a “oh wow”-experience when they try the headsets for the first time. But those who are not into a niche of hard-core gaming and science-fiction, still are reluctant to actually buy a headset. It seems the wow-experience wears off quickly as there are no must-have applications.

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress, VR and especially AR-headsets were being applauded as these technologies seem to offer good reasons on the consumer-side to roll out 5G. However, a big player such as Microsoft made it clear that their cutting-edge AR-headset HoloLens is exclusively for enterprise-use. Also HTC seems to promote its Valve Focus Plus for “serious use” such as healthcare and security training.

At Microsoft experts say they still need years of development before they can enter the mainstream consumer market.

And where did Luckey go after he had to leave Oculus? He started another company, Anduril, which specializes in military applications such as border protection using AI, sensors, drones, towers and visualization. Virtual Reality, AI and mesh networking meet here for surveillance purposes and battlefield awareness. Another niche.

Learning, Connectivism, AI, Virtual Environments

I’m still thinking about the video-conversation of Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Maybe we could change the title of the course from the rather bland ‘E-Learning 3.0, Distributed Learning Technology’ to ‘Human Learning in the Age of Machine Learning’.

After all, Connectivism, the learning theory developed by Stephen en George, is about “the idea that knowledge is essentially the set of connections in a network, and that learning is the process of creating and shaping those networks.”
Wikipedia explains that “learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”.Connectivism sees knowledge as a network and learning as a process of pattern recognition.

Which means, as is explained in the video, that in times of rapidly developing Machine Learning Connectivism is a very suitable learning theory. It blends philosophy, educational practices and technological skills. It emphasizes the ability to make decisions and to choose what to learn, connecting with others and thus empathizing with those others. The theory is also related with the Extended Mind ideas of the philosopher Andy Clark.

Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments enhance human connections, they turn telepresence into much more than videoconferencing: they enable people who are dispersed all over the planet to share the same space. Downes mentions Virtual Reality in his slide show “Personal Learning versus Personalized Learning“, but I’d love to elaborate on the possibilities and the many aspects involved in VR and learning. Not only humans benefit from virtual environments, simple virtual worlds are also used to train artificial intelligences to acquire a basic knowledge about the world (like elementary physics) which make those intelligences grow in their world-knowledge. There are many other aspects: for those interested in distributed networks, the virtual world High Fidelity (optimized for VR) uses a distributed architecture, a cryptocurrency and it registers digital assets using a blockchain.

In 2008 we discussed Connectivism with a small group of learners in Second Life. It’s not too late to organize similar experiences for this course.

New media theatre

So many interesting things are happening in and around the virtual world High Fidelity that I can’t keep up. The company raised $35 million in June and combines virtual worlds, virtual reality and the blockchain. Philip Rosedale, creator of both Second Life and High Fidelity, also manages to invite interesting people for in-world talks, and in the aftermath of the capital increase he had a fascinating talk with Charlie Fink, an expert in VR, AR, new media and a columnist at Forbes. He also is the author of an AR-enabled book, Metaverse.

In this video Rosedale explains a bit more about the future of High Fidelity and he and Fink brainstorm about new theatre and movie formats which would convert the spectators into actors – a bit like roleplaying in virtual worlds. All this, like concepts such as volumetric video, is rather new to me. During the discussion I heard about other experiments in virtual environments where spectators were converted into bubbles who could follow the actor around. It is obvious there will be formidable challenges like managing the huge data flows involved and finding an equilibrium between the freedom of roleplaying and the need for narrative structure.

Virtual Reality and “Reality”

I was at Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France. They also have a VR Arles Festival with a competition for VR productions. Winner is this year Treehugger: Wawona by the London design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast. One becomes a water particle and travels into a giant sequoia tree from the roots to the top. The production also won the Storyscapes Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017. The installation involves haptic elements (a backpack, gloves, and a fake tree).

The same studio also made In the Eyes of the Animal where you explore the woods through the eyes of different animals. Which made me think of what the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says about VR, that it makes you see reality in a new way. Philosophers talk about a ‘multiplicity of worlds’ and VR allows us to experience that. Reality is plural.

Virtual worlds and the Infosphere

This week I learned about information philosophy, most notably the work of Luciano Floridi. In this day and age of data and digitalization, he develops an ontology and ethics based on reality-as-information. Virtual worlds geeks will appreciate how the professor also refers to Second Life (and other virtual environments), for instance in his book The Fourth Revolution. He writes about “the infosphere”, “inforgs or information organisms”, being “onlife”.

When I think about Second Life or similar worlds, I consider them as a kind of cyberspace, but the interesting thing about the notion of Infosphere is that the cyberspace is just a part of it. Even so virtual worlds are revealing as these are environments where people acutally live. These days the digital and virtual are blending more and more with the physical reality, inspiring information philosophers to develop an object oriented approach on the basis of “information”: humans, organizations, animals, plants, objects can be studied as information objects with specific functions or methods.

I’m reading now The Fourth Revolution and The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information.

Floridi is also a must-follow thinker on Twitter.

Argument maps, continued

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m looking for 3D or VR argument maps. In the meantime I found out about Noda, which is a fledgling application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It’s available on Steam.

On Twitter, Roy Grubb suggested his own software, Topicscape, which is a 3D visualization tool. For 2D online argument mapping, I found Rationale.

I’ll experiment with all these tools.

Looking for 3D or VR argument maps

Fascinating: IBM trained an algorithm in debating humans. There’s still some way to go, but the results were pretty impressive. I don’t know about IBM’s Project Debater, but there is an interesting history of philosophical research into argumentation. This inspired practices such as argument mapping. Like mind maps and concept maps, argument maps can become pretty complicated. I could imagine 3D argument maps could be interesting, but as yet I did not find software enabling 3D or VR argument maps. Maybe I should give it a try using some virtual environments such as Second Life or High Fidelity, but it would even be nicer to build browser-based tools or apps. Just imagine the possibilities of live group sessions using immersive argument mapping.

“VR-worlds need to enable writing emails in order to take off”

I attended a Fireside Chat in the virtual world High Fidelity with Philip Rosedale and Peter Diamandis. Dr. Diamandis is founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight.

High Fidelity is not as easy to access as an app for the Oculus Go mobile headset. I had to use my Oculus Rift and download the High Fidelity interface client, which went not totally smoothly. But the result was totally worth it.

Rosedale and Diamandis used full sensor tracking, their avatars moved around very naturally. They also had 3D-bodyscans, so those avatars looked realistic as well. In the room attended more than hundred people, moving around, sitting or standing freely. Asking questions, getting the person spoken to looking at you, it all made virtual and real blend into one real experience. At one point Rosedale (or his avatar) effortlessly drew a graph depicting an exponential curve out of thin virtual air.

I previously attended some Oculus Venues events which are very nicely engineered into well-run social experiences, but they lack the interaction between performers on stage and the public I experienced here.

About the content: Diamandis eloquently presented his Abundance-thesis. Energy and water scarcity will become something of the past, oil and coal as energy resources are on the way out – give it ten to twenty years. Politicians trying to stop technology will be overthrown or their nations will go bankrupt, the combination of smooth automatic language translation, blockchain and crypto-currencies, virtual reality, e-residency such as pioneered by Estonia give access to the opportunities of a globalized and exponentially evolving world in contrast to staying stuck in a local and linear mindset.

Rosedale seems as bullish as ever about the virtual space, but also realistic: we need a high enough resolution to be able to read and write emails easily in those spaces in order to make them really ready for broader audiences.  Remember the smartphone: you could do about everything with them right from the first iPhone and so that was when generalized adoption started to happen. Also, a VR-room will have to be able to handle a thousand people in order to organize stuff such as TEDx-conferences – High Fidelity is working hard on that.

Here’s the recording of the event:

Events agenda

There are so many virtual venues these days! Here are some interesting events across multiple virtual spaces – for the exact time, click on the links. This is a very personal selection, there’s a lot more that might be interesting.

High Fidelity continues the tradition of virtual intellectual “salons”

What I love about virtual worlds are the incredible smart and visionary people one can meet there. This totally applies for High Fidelity, a young and cutting edge virtual world (think decentralized architecture, tokens, blockchain, VR-enabled, avatars who are responsive to their real life users). Founding father Philip Rosedale had this very inspiring chat with Kent Bye, the host of Voices of VR Podcast.

They and their audience of fellow geeks had an in-depth discussion about virtual worlds, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain in virtual worlds and psychology of virtual worlds. What I particularly like is that the chat was not limited to esoteric virtual world tech stuff, but tackled fundamental evolutions such as the emergence of an “Experiential Era”.

In this way High Fidelity continues the great tradition of virtual intellectual “salons“.

I found out about this video via New World Notes.