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.

The limits of blockchain, for now

An interesting take on the use of blockchain in the mass consumer markets by Adam Frisby, CEO and lead developer of Sinespace, a Unity-based MMO and social VR platform: on VentureBeat he explains “why blockchain isn’t ready for primetime“.

“As it stands, blockchain is caught between three competing objectives: fast, low-cost, and decentralized. It is not yet possible to make one chain that achieves all three”, Frisby says. A post written by someone who has first-hand experience in dealing with payments in game environments.

Note that the Blockstack-project I posted about is not based entirely on the bitcoin blockchain, presumably for some of the reasons discussed by Frisby. I’m not sure how exactly they improve on the blockchain.

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

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.

Sansar about to launch in open beta

The Sansar website
The VR virtual worlds platform Sansar.

Sansar, the virtual reality worlds platform of Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life) will be in open beta this Spring. Keywords are “social” and “collaborative creation”. The video shows fascinating worlds – Sansar seems to be not one virtual world, but a platform where one can create interconnected worlds (even though there will be a unifying and convertible “Sansar dollar”).

I’m all for interactive social VR and user-generated content, so I totally hope the platform will be a success. I asked for access, but right now it seems the world is only for builders and scripters, so I guess I’ll have to wait some more months.

I guess Linden Lab wants to be sure that the marketplace for virtual goods is well stocked and the “real virtual economy” is functioning before letting in the general public.

Earlier press reports indicated that the economy of Sansar will be different from Second Life: Linden Lab will get its revenues mainly by a “tax” on in-world transactions rather than by taxing “property”.

Interesting to note in the video are the avatar expressions: the face muscles move naturally with the voice, so it’s more sophisticated than “just” good lip syncing (but no face tracking is used).

More details on UploadVR.

Gold farming revisited

I vividly remember how fascinated I was by Julian Dibbell‘s book “Play Money: or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot” (2006). The subject was gold farming, a practice described by Wikipedia as such:

In the 1990s and 2000s, gold farming was the practice of playing a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) to acquire in-game currency later selling it for real-world money. People in several developing nations have held full-time employment as gold farmers.

The existence of RMT or real-money trading made it possible for the economist Edward Castronova to estimate in 2001 that the Gross National Product per capita in some of these games was at the time somewhere in between that of Russia and Bulgaria, higher than that of China and India.

In the latest edition of Wired’s podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy Julian Dibbell and gaming professional and media personality Marcus Eikenberry are interviewed about the history of gold farming. The episode also gives some insights in how the industry changed (lots of tracking and data analytics), pushing people like Eikenberry into new ventures such as training for streaming esports on YouTube.

Philip Rosedale wants to improve upon the real world

The Financial Times runs an intriguing portrait of Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life and these days building a VR-compatible virtual world called High Fidelity.

The article not only focuses on the virtual world ambitions of Rosedale but also on his renovation and building projects in the real world of San Francisco, where he lives in the very exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood.

One of the remarkable quotes of the article (written by Hugo Cox) is this:

If you could work, play, meet, go to school, if you could do all these things in a virtual world then why would you not think that these spaces could become more important than this [real] one?

The idea seems simple enough but many interesting questions arise:

  • What are the reasons people would prefer a virtual world above this one? Is it because a virtual world is more convenient – for instance, one can teleport around rather than commute endlessly, one can ignore the laws of physics in colorful creative surroundings.
  • Or is it (also) because the “real life” cities and living conditions are disappointing for the majority of people who cannot afford to live in such an expensive place? Is there an implicit rejection of the injustices of the “real world” by an exodus to the virtual world? (read also the works of synthetic worlds economist Edward Castronova).
  • How “real” is real and how “unreal” is “virtual”? In the above mentioned quoted “real” is added between square brackets – I guess by the interviewer. But if one routinely works, studies and lives in a virtual world, would it not become as real to me as the current real world? Especially when augmented reality (adding digital layers to the physical surroundings) and mixed reality (adding digital 3D-objects seamlessly to the physical world) go mainstream, blurring the distinction even more?
  • Is life in a virtual environment the way out for many in a possibly jobless society, where work will be done by robots and AI agents, except for either low skilled labor which remains somehow out of reach for robots or for very skilled labor (developing the AI agents and coordinating humans, cyborgs and AI-agents)? [I have my doubts about this vision of disappearing jobs, at least for the coming ten to twenty years]
  • One should contrast a purely “virtual” vision with an “augmented” one – rather than retreating into a synthetic environment in order to get an education or go to work, one could imagine people staying in a mixed reality world, being in the physical world yet also at the same time using the affordances of virtual reality.

Even though I’m an avid reader of the Financial Times, I read first about this article on the New World Notes.

Blockchain for avatars

Even though I’m sceptical about the appeal of open-ended, user-created virtual worlds for a mainstream audience, I still follow people who are very active in that field because they tend to be highly creative out of the box thinkers. One of them is Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life, and these days busy creating a new world which takes full advantage of VR, High Fidelity.

In the post Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain he tackles the question of how we can prove our identities in a digital environment without revealing our real life identity:

As we begin to live and work in digital spaces, we must design an identity system that is safe, secure, and decentralized like the web. A combination of theblockchain and digital certificates seems like the best design.

Being a true Maker, Rosedale does not limit himself to a theoretical explanation, but will try the coming months to implement such a technology in High Fidelity. All this even fits into my ideas about Mixed Reality, as one could consider such a virtual implementation as a big rehearsal for ‘real world’ applications. Rosedale:

And of course, this sort of identity system might someday even work well for real-world things, like who can vote, or keeping track of who owns parcels of land. It seems likely that a distributed database like this, applied to identity information, could be a bigger value to people than the current applications which have been mostly for virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Hat tip to Wagner James Au for discussing Rosedale’s article on the New World Notes.

Facebook as the Mixed Reality which really matters

This blog remained silent for more than a year. I continued writing my column Legrand Inconnu for my newspaper De Tijd – about the impact of technology on society and the economy. Part of my writing is about Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds and Augmented Reality.

I’m still fascinated by VR and VW even though I’m convinced it’s a niche activity. VR tries to seduce hard-core gamers and even that is an uphill battle. Pokemon Go had its moment of mainstream glory, and maybe Apple will give it another boost if reports are true that the next iPhone would enable higher quality AR. Microsoft’s HoloLens seems fascinating but not yet ready for the consumer market.

Mixed Realities is still young and provides endless subjects for thought experiments. What if I could blend my international friends into my physical environment as realtime holograms, enabling them to observe and interact as if they were here? What if I could visualize in AR the emerging Internet of Things around me? Robert Scoble tells us on Inside AR&VR that mixed reality interfaces will be used for all those things: AI, cryptocurrencies, robots, drones, self-driving cars… But it’s still early day.

Conclusion for this blog: it makes little sense to focus on Second Life as I did when I started about ten years ago. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, is working on a VR compatible virtual world, and founding father Philip Rosedale has his own VR project, but in my view this will attract mainly a subset of current Second Life users. Technically it will be superior to the current Second Life environment, but will it add new philosophical dimensions to the virtual experience? I’m not sure, but I may be proven wrong.


What about the impact on society? I bought an Oculus Rift because Facebook is behind it. I do believe Mark Zuckerberg has this great ambition of making  VR and AR mainstream – in ten years time. For now he has more urgent worries.

Zuckerberg wrote a very interesting Manifesto, Building Global Community. He seems very worried that the dream of an ever more connected world turns into a nightmare of tribalism, political and cultural wars and hate.

He wonders how we can experience each other online as full human beings and not just as partisans of the opposing political group. Maybe VR and AR can help in the longer run, but for now it will be a matter of better designed groups, AI orienting people to groups which could be very important to them, detection of extreme behavior before it really escalates (while still promoting encryption) and stuff like that. The redesigning of our online social structure will be quite a challenge but much-needed. Zuckerberg wants to promote the ‘very meaningful groups‘  (about parenting, patients, education, religion…) which constitute for their members a major part of the online experience but are also crucial for the physical existence of people (hence mixed reality).

The real mixed reality world out there could very well be Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp with it’s more than 2 billion users. That constellation matters politically and economically, and yes, VR and AR will be part of that, somewhere in the future. As I’m most interested in that societal impact, right now I’m more interested in how Facebook will redesign it’s social infrastructure than in the latest VR rand VW releases.