“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.

Learning how to cooperate in a web-environment. What about Virtual Reality?

Howard Rheingold’s online course about Cooperation started last week, using BigBlueButton and not in some fancy Virtual Reality environment. BigBlueButton is our synchronous communication system (let’s say ‘videoconferencing’), but a lot of work happens asynchronously using a wiki, blogs, social bookmarks, and – very important – forums. These asynchronous systems are bundled in a proprietary system called the socialmediaclassroom.

I watched a recorded videoconferencing session, as usual in these courses the about 12 participants got jobs to do while Howard presented this week’s material: searchers, lexicon-builders, bloggers, summarizers, mindmappers…

The idea is to show how people can engage into online collaboration and to experience how rich the results can be.

I participated in this course for the first time  in January 2013 and at that time I wrote a rather detailed post about the content of this first lesson: Exploring the biology of cooperation.

Why no VR-meeting?

In 2007-2008 I participated in many meetings in the virtual world Second Life. We’re in 2018 now and the idea of organizing online courses in virtual worlds seems even more exotic than it was in 2007. We have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and smaller, closed online courses – but all these are based on video (streaming and archived), texts with interactive elements and forums.

How comes? Since even videoconferencing inevitably starts with technical problems – people struggling with the user interface, connectivity and audio issues, it seems even more problematic to organize this in a virtual space where the learning curve is even steeper and the equipment needed is even more high-end.

In the meantime we have environments which are enabled for real VR such as Sansar and High Fidelity. 

VR-enabled environments have some big advantages. They make it possible to show objects in 3D and to let participants manipulate these objects using touch controllers for instance. Very important is the sense of sharing the same space, something which lacks in videoconferencing.

The disadvantages: people need the right equipment, which is often not the case. The learning curve is often steep, and you can’t see the ‘real’ persons (even though avatars these days can reflect the facial expressions of the people behind them).

It would be interesting to check how easy or how difficult it would be to organize realtime annotation, link exchanging or mindmapping in a virtual environment.How much hassle would it take to make recordings? Stuff like 3D mindmapping would be fascinating but extra training would be needed.

Maybe we’ll give it a try during this six-week course. If so, you’ll read it here.

Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Philosophy: join our reading group

What does philosophy tell us about virtual reality and virtual worlds? I’d like to start with some people who do not belong to the typical college overview of classical philosphers, people who started thinking about the augmentation of human intellect and human emotions such as Vannevar Bush (As Ae May Think, 1945), J.C.R. Licklider (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960), Douglas Engelbart (Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, 1962), Theodor H. Nelson (Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1970-1974)… all authors and texts which can be found in The New Media Reader (MIT).

book cover of The New Media Reader

What they have in common is the awareness that the world becomes a complex, rapidly evolving and dangerous place. In order to keep up with the challenges we need to augment our intellectual capacities, not only our rational reasoning skills but also our ability for compassion and empathy. Computers in their many forms are a crucial part of that augmentation.

The texts in the New Media Reader are often decades old. They are chosen not only because the authors were able to predict the path of technological change, but also because they show us that those authors had ambitions and visions which have not been realized yet. In other words, they still inspire us to create new things which may be beneficial for the planet. I’m convinced that augmented and virtual reality are offer possibilities in the context of augmenting our faculties – for instance by enabling us to build 3D information structures.

There are many more authors and texts in this hugely inspiring book, among them also more “recognized” philosophers (at least in continental Europe) such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) and Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century, 1985).

I participate in a group reading those texts, and trying to develop practices and even tools in this context. The group, Metacaugs, lives primarily on Slack, if you’re interested have a look at our Orientation Guidebook

MixedRealities lives in Sansar

Finally virtual reality platform Sansar is in open beta. I think Linden Lab, owner of Second Life, did a nice job. Will social VR reach more people now or will it just take away people and attention from Second Life? Or will we have to wait for Facebook Spaces to have success in order to pull Sansar along (or would it be destroyed by Facebook)? We just don’t know. It could very well be that for the vast majority of human beings social VR is a solution for a problem that does not exist. Nevertheless, I love it. MixedRealities has a little presence at Sansar, it’s called Philosopher’s Corner. Here you see an image of the construction works:

my place in the virtual world Sansar

I’d love to do something similar at High Fidelity, yet another beautiful VR-platform, but give me some time as it seems far more challenging. But a fascinating world it is, here you see a place called “Playa”:

a scene from the vitual world High Fidelity

Science fiction gets real

It’s the book Neuromancer by William Gibson that really made the word “cyberspace” popular. He describes it as thus:

A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

That a least was the quote I got in my mind when reading on Singularity Hub about a new way to represent information infrastructure – in the form of a virtual city. The buildings have different shapes, heights and colors and an operator, immersed in this city, can immediately see whether something bad is happening in a very intuitive way. The Colorado-based startup ProtectWise built the tool.

In January 2018 William Gibson will publish a new book, Agency. If you can’t wait reading a great science fiction book, Gibson is very positive about Cory Doctorow’s newest book Walkaway.

Pattie Maes: “next phase is about intelligence augmentation”

I attended a lecture by professor Pattie Maes of MIT Media Lab. She founded and directs the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces research group. Some of her main talking points:

– The next phase in computing is about intelligence augmentation, by sensors, Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence.
– AR will “edit” our world in a smart way. For instance it will nudge us away from sugar if that is what we want. It will predict our behavior so that we can rectify it.
– One of the systems she discussed remembers who you shook hands with.
– She sees great future for health (mental and physical) applications – VR and AR. We’ll have tag along therapists.
– Pattie Maes is a big believer in glasses and lenses for later phase Augmented Reality. Apple will probably release a smartphone specially equipped for AR, but finally we’ll wear devices which will keep our hands free.
– People tend to be too optimistic about what exists now. In reality a lot of improvement is possible. Accept the future, we already carry digital augmentation with us but it can be made much better and more natural.
– Many concerns regarding smart glasses and AR can be solved with the right design choices. Which are those concerns? Privacy erosion, dependency, lack of understanding, lack of control, unequal access.

Will we be overtaken by our robotic AI Overlords? Pattie Maes says it was an error to talk about Artificial Intelligence while it’s more correct to talk about Artificial Pattern Recognition. This pattern recognition works increasingly well, but only for very specific activities. This so-called AI can not broaden its scope, generalize or be inspired by very different domains.

Connecting the dots: VR, AR, BCI and space

These past few weeks were remarkable: Facebook-people talking about Full Augmented Reality Glasses and Elon Musk about his Neuralink company, which wants to develop implantable brain–computer interfaces (BCIs). The goal is not just to treat brain diseases but to enhance the human being so that it can compete with AI-powered robots. Even the direct transmission of thoughts – rather than speak or type – would become possible. More about this can be read in the extensive article on Wait But Why.

It somehow makes sense. If you live in an augmented reality (virtual reality being just an option of the Full AR Glasses), and you want constant interaction with the Machines (your virtual assistant, all the electronic affordances you can imagine) it would be very convenient to be able to do so by just thinking. Once you can do that, why not transfer thoughts from one person to the other?

Longevity

Once we get near perfect telepresence – summoning people to “be” here right next to me (as a kind of holograms) and to be able to look around as if they were actually here (which they would be, in a sense) – we get used to the Other in a spectral form, hence why not dream about beating death itself? Longevity is yet another ambition of Silicon Valley – Alphabet and others investing heavily in the struggle against disease and decay.

Space

But wait, there are about 7.5 billion people on this planet, when we eradicate diseases, avoid using doomsday weapons, lengthen life expectancy dramatically, the population growth will increase dramatically which could become very uncomfortable – so it really makes sense to explore space and establish colonies in space or on neighboring worlds such as Mars.

Politics and ethics

We could throw in easily lots of other new technologies – everything related to smart cities, food production in extreme environments, identity management (blockchain…) and so on. So let’s not be surprised that some of the most passionate debates about politics, philosophy and ethics emerge from this constellation of disruptions. A few examples: transhumanists split in a left- and a right-wing, researchers want to expand human rights to protect us from the abuse of neurotechnology. These debates did not yet go mainstream, but eventually they will. One can only hope that an informed debate will be possible – even though the current state of political discourse makes me feel pessimistic.

Full AR Glasses will augment the homo sapiens

This is a fascinating presentation by Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus/Facebook, during the F8 conference. It’s about nothing less than augmenting the capabilities of the homo sapiens. He advocates full AR glasses and boy, they go far beyond Pokemon Go on your smartphone. Abrash refers to J.C.R. Licklider’s famous paper Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960) to underline the importance of the new developments.

The full AR glasses will give us better vision and hearing, will make us more intelligent, productive and connected. Yet they will be stylish, power efficient and socially acceptable. That will be necessary as they will be a constant part of our lives.

The glasses will know about our surroundings, history and needs. They will blend the physical and the virtual world according to our needs and desires.

Unfortunately, they do not yet exist. It will take breakthroughs in materials science, perceptual science, graphics, AI. So give it five or ten years, maybe longer – but imperfect versions will be available sooner and then develop just like happened with the personal computer.

It implies stuff like new brain-computer interfaces allowing us to think our instructions for our tiny but powerful artificial assistent. What Abrash did not say, is that there will be a divide between those owning and using the glasses efficiently and those who don’t have the glasses or don’t use them in a productive way.