Telling the Living Story of The Metaverse in Turmoil

I’m trying to use Google Living Stories for a project about the Metaverse in Turmoil. The project is important to me because Living Stories could help bloggers and journalists to combine breaking news and context in a very user-friendly way – that is at least what Google promises.

Google made the project open source and in April a plugin for WordPress was introduced. Google as a company stopped developing the tool, so it seems. Here is more about the project (which of course was also a nice PR gesture to the newspaper industry):

Now, what are my intentions? I’m pretty sure we’ll see all kinds of interesting developments in the Metaverse during the next year. Augmented reality, mobile computing, ubiquitous internet access and virtual worlds will combine themselves in new and often surprising ways. We’ll watch closely what that will mean for Second Life, Linden Lab, new and old media.

Living Stories can help to bring all this together on one page, providing categories, a time-line, summaries etc. I just started developing the page The Metaverse in Turmoil, so you can expect that the page will gradually grow. If you’re interested in participating in the development of this Living Story, let me know!

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!

Rosedale about applying the principles of LoveMachine Inc in media companies

Philip Rosedale at the SLCC 2010, picture by Elisabeth Leysen

A few weeks ago I started exploring  liquidnews, an open project for collaborative media.  It reminded me of projects in Second Life, where developers at Linden Lab use the Scrum methodology for their viewer project (Snowstorm), publishing the documentation and getting comments from the community for the project.

The Second Life community also has a tradition of community conventions (SLCC), which are organized by residents of the virtual world, independently from Linden Lab (even though Linden Lab is a major sponsor and has key people deliver keynotes). Those gatherings are very inspiring and also give the residents the opportunity to question Linden Lab policies.

I asked the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale, for an interview. This was before Linden Lab made an announcement which shocked the education and non-profit community in Second Life: basically the end of the discount pricing for those organizations. So I’ll have to disappoint those involved: the interview was strictly about the application of Agile, Scrum and more radical versions of these philosophies in media projects. I discovered that ‘radical version’ of an open company while studying LoveMachine Inc, another company Philip started.

Even though MixedRealities is not a “Second Life blog”, I do have my virtual office there and up to this day Second Life is a major source of inspiration for my social media practice at my newspaper. So I attended today a gathering of non-profit and education people at Rockcliffe University, an online non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of education and science in 3d virtual environments. About 70 avatars discussed the new pricing policies. There will be a meeting with a representative of Linden Lab, organizations start looking for closer collaboration and/or study possibilities to move away from Second Life and establish themselves on for instance OpenSim grids.

There are lots of complaints about the communication by Linden Lab. Educators and non-profits are among the most interesting content creators in Second Life, but they don’t know what the strategy of Linden Lab is. Yes, the new thinking of “fast, easy and fun” has been discussed at the community convention, but educators were taken by surprise when it was announced there that the Teen Grid (Second Life for teens) would be stopped. They were also shocked when Linden Lab announced lay-offs and a reorganization, but then again, Linden Lab is a private company.

The whole situation is once again very interesting for all those who have a broader interest in social media. The content of Second Life is produced by the users/residents, using the platform and tools provided by Linden Lab. Does this mean that the residents should be treated as citizens rather than as customers of a private company? Is Linden Lab just a company, or also a kind of government? Should the residents have a right to be represented in the board of directors?

These are fascinating questions, and many others could be added (like about the relationship of Second Life with the open source universe of OpenSim). But, as I said, the interview was not about Linden Lab or Second Life as such, but about the organization of media start-ups.

Philip Rosedale told me that at Linden Lab he is not applying the same principles as at the LoveMachine. I also should mention that the LoveMachine is not a virtual world, it is a company building a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). It is a start-up and as such can experiment more than a more established company. Even though the interview is not about the transformation at Linden Lab, it was interesting to learn about Rosedale’s vision on a new model for start-ups, allowing them to survive and outsmart established companies.

Read the interview and the context on my blog at PBS MediaShift: Linden Lab’s Rosedale Considers ‘Scrum’ Method in Newsrooms.

How virtual environments could destroy the economy: by being so cheap

While the educators and non-profit people in Second Life are up in arms against the loss of their discount pricing, I’ve been reading an intriguing text about a world characterized by a consumption trap.

Economists are familiar with the notion of a liquidity trap, a situation in which monetary policy is unable to stimulate an economy, either through lowering interest rates or increasing the money supply. So what could be a consumption trap?

Rick Bookstaber explains it all: technology reduces the differences in consumption behavior between the rich and the poor. In 2025, what we’ll all be doing? We’ll have sophisticated, deeply immersive gaming environments, which offer compelling experiences for free or for a low fee. On a personal note, I’d say imagine some virtual world, Second Life maybe, but much more sophisticated and super immersive. You can have the house of your dreams or your office building or whatever for a tiny fraction of the cost of the real thing.

Or imagine social networks such as Facebook, which become such a ubiquitous part of our mobile, ‘always on’ lives. Whether one is extremely rich or rather miserable, who could resist the possibility to be “anyone we want in whatever world we want, accompanied by whomever we want, all with full sensory feedback.”

Not only is this consumption cheap, the production of those services is not very expensive nor very labor intensive. Maybe those games will be primarily just platforms, and the content will be user-generated, by people who create the content for fun.

For some, this vision of the year 2025 would be unsettling, for others highly desirable. Bookstaber however points out that this evolution would be very challenging for the economy. The reason? Economies need consumption, they need us to earn money and also to spend it. But we only have that many hours we can consume, and what if most of that time would go to free or cheap activities?

Bookstaber, a senior policy adviser at the SEC, also mentions Robert Reich’s book Aftershock. You’ll find the main arguments of that book in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Reich says that telecom, containers, computers and finally the internet made it easier for American employers to rely on outsourcing or automating the production process. The middle class has a hard time to find jobs and to earn a decent income. In 1970 the 1 percent richest families earned about 9 percent of total income in the US, in 2007 that’s 23,5 percent.

Those very rich consume a much smaller part of their enormous incomes compared to the ordinary citizens, which leads to insufficient consumption to keep the economy going. So technology made this increasingly unequal distribution of income possible, which causes macro economic problems such as insufficient consumption, too much debts by the struggling middle class and asset bubbles.

What Bookstaber says, is that in the future the distribution of wealth and income will matter less, because technology enables people to consume in roughly the same way, whether they are very rich or rather poor.

All of which is not something which makes me feel very happy, but these ideas sure are fascinating.

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.