Minecraft, that strange 3D game in our browsers

I saw this fascinating video about Minecraft (via Kotaku). Wikipedia explains:

Minecraft is a sandbox game which allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. It is currently in development by Markus “Notch” Persson on the Java platform. The gameplay is inspired by Dwarf Fortress, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Dungeon Keeper, and especially Infiniminer. Minecraft was developed for about a week before its public release on May 16, 2009 on the TIGSource forums, where it gained a considerable level of popularity. It has been continually updated since then.

There is now a multiplayer version. I just ran the game in a browser on an office computer – no download was necessary. The game is pretty addictive, the fact that it’s clunky and in some early development phase seems to add to its charm.

It’s another example of how much more is possible in browsers, apart from the usual text/2D animations/video – and also how an individual can create something beautiful and inspiring, going viral.

Burn2 in SL: also the emptiness matters

Where does our inspiration come from? It seems that for Philip Rosedale the inspiration for a virtual world came from Burning Man, an annual event in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, in the United States. The idea is to build a city for about a week, collaborating and exchanging gifts. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy and after the event all traces of the city have to disappear. In Second Life there is a virtual version of this event. It was organized by the folks at Linden Lab, but this year it was up to the residents to take care of Burn2. It’s very inspiring to walk around and visit the various installations. In fact, one should not just visit, but participate – there are no tourists or “just visitors” at Burning Man. I guess the experience of the actual desert must be very impressive, but the emptiness of the virtual desert between the installations and event places really is a special experience as well.
Burn2 in Second Life
The virtual desert where burn2 takes place

The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Talking about OpenSim, John “Pathfinder” Lester, an expert and strategist in educational online communities and virtual worlds, launches an open club for anyone interested in group explorations of virtual worlds on the Hypergrid and sharing their experiences with others. Pathfinder officially starts the Hypergrid Adventurers Club:
We’ll be meeting regularly each week, and the first meeting will be Sunday October 24 from 10pm-11pm GMT. For more details and a link to our calendar of scheduled meetings, please see my new Hypergrid Adventurers Club main page (there’s now a permanent link to that page in the header bar of my blog). I strongly feel that the future of the Metaverse will involve Connectivity.  So let’s put theory into practice and explore that Connectivity together.

Could Second Life be a portal for the Metaverse?

I attended a wonderful Metanomics community meeting in Second Life, where Jennette Forager (Metanomics) interviewed Maria Korolov from Hypergrid Business, a website focusing on enterprise users of virtual worlds. Korolov talked about the development of OpenSim, the open source server platform for hosting virtual worlds. OpenSim is compatible with the Second Life client. Maria compared the current metaverse situation with that of the web and AOL in the nineties. AOL had a big community and was very convenient while outside of that walled garden smaller sites developed, often very primitive and lacking big communities. This could not prevent people from trying out the wide open web. OpenSim is very much like the open web, in this sense that you can start your own site world, eventually host it yourself, decide whether to link it up to the wider OpenSim grids or keep it private. The platform is growing rapidly, and trade in virtual goods is taking off. However, Second Life remains by far the bigger place, with large communities, sophisticated and convenient tools. I don’t think the folks of OpenSim hope that Second Life will somehow disappear. OpenSim is catching up technologically, but typically waits for certain developments to succeed in Second Life (voice, or mesh import) before really introducing those possibilities on a large scale on OpenSim grids. Korolov has a vision: that of Second Life as the place where one can meet lots of virtual worlds people, and which is a kind of portal for the wilder, Far West zones of the Metaverse – the OpenSim grids. For that to fully succeed, it would be useful to be able to teleport back and forth avatars and virtual goods from Second Life to the OpenSim universe. Problems regarding property rights could be solved by enabling content creators to restrict their goods to one particular world – Second Life, or some OpenSim grid for example. Read also: The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Rosedale steps down as interim CEO of Linden Lab, search for new CEO launched

Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, steps down (for the second time) as CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world. Rosedale announced this in a short blog post. Residents of Second Life are surprised by the sudden announcement, even though Rosedale had made it clear that he replaced the former CEO, Mark Kingdon, as an interim CEO. Only a few days ago a new avatar for Philip Linden (as his avatar name is) was shown to the public, and that timing seems odd now, according to some Linden Lab watchers. More about the announcement and reactions on my experimental page The Metaverse in Turmoil.

World of Teachcraft

This seems great:
Title: World of Teachcraft: The Learning Quest Date: November 2 – December 16, 2010 Location: Rockcliffe University http://slurl.com/secondlife/Rockcliffe%20Library/215/73/23 Campus portion 5 pm SLT Tuesday and Thursday (On Rockcliffe in Second Life) Reporting over 12 million paying subscribers, World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular massively multi-player online role-playing game on the Internet. Rockcliffe is looking for 6 adventurous educators to participate in World of Teachcraft course! Your Quest: After participating in a 6 week pilot project, you should have experienced, researched and analyzed how this MMORPG could be used in your classroom, online course, after school program or professional development activity. Your Battleground: Each week, participants will attend a synchronous meeting in Second Life. World of Warcraft will be used for the laboratory portion and online discussions will take place in at Rockcliffe University’s Moodle course.
I loved playing World of Warcraft but I was so addictive I decided to stop. Recently I could not longer resist and I returned with a new character, Wilbear. Note however that the course also uses Second Life, which is an open-ended while World of Warcraft – to my knowledge – is focused on a specific game experience. I guess World of Warcraft is more popular among younger people, just because it provides well-defined goals even though it allows for a variety of behaviors (for instance catering for players who primarily want to roleplay). The open-ended nature of Second Life is more flexible but makes people wonder “what the hell am I doing here”, so it seems a nice idea to combine both environments in this learning experience. More information can be found in this page on the site of Rockcliffe University Consortium. Because I can’t resist, here is the trailer for World of Warcraft ‘Cataclysm’:

That dangerous Singularity

Talking about the future: I’ve been reading insightful posts by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing and Annalee Newitz on i09 about the Technological Singularity, described by Wikipedia as
(…)a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so extremely rapid, due in most accounts to the technological creation of superhuman intelligences, that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. It has been proposed that a technological singularity will occur in the 21st century via one or more possible technological advances.
Doctorow discusses Newitz’ post and agrees with her identifying
a common flaw in futuristic prediction: assuming that technology will go far enough to benefit us, and then stop before it disrupts us. For a prime example from recent history, see the record industry’s correct belief that technology would advance to the point where we could have optical disc readers in every room, encouraging us to buy all our music again on CD; but their failure to understand that technology would continue to advance to the point where we could rip all those CDs and share the music on them using the Internet.
I think in the media industry most of us learned to see the disruptive effects of technological change. But as mentioned in my previous post, one of the common themes in near-future science fiction is security, which goes far beyond the upheaval in particular industries and has to do with our survival. If the bold predictions by the singularity-thinkers are even remotely true, the growth of our technological capabilities risks to enable even small groups or individuals to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. These weapons could very well be designer bioviruses (read Doctorow’s interview with Ray Kurzweil). In order to avoid such a catastrophic event to happen, authorities could try to establish a Big Brother regime. They could try to heavily regulate the dissemination of technology and knowledge. Kurzweil does not believe that would be the right response:
In Huxley’s Brave New World, the rationale for the totalitarian system was that technology was too dangerous and needed to be controlled. But that just pushes technology underground where it becomes less stable. Regulation gives the edge of power to the irresponsible who won’t listen to the regulators anyway. The way to put more stones on the defense side of the scale is to put more resources into defensive technologies, not create a totalitarian regime of Draconian control.
This of course acknowledges the danger in a rather optimistic way – science and technology will deliver the tools necessary to stop the ultimate evil use of that same science and technology. We could expand this discussion to media in general. Our networks, our beloved internet and the way it allows us to spread and discuss ideas, also helps those who are sufficiently alienated to dream of mass destruction. Even discussing how difficult it is to design a biovirus capable of erupting and spreading silently with long incubation periods, could incite some disgruntled young man (for a number of reasons, it seems primarily young males have such destructive desires) to actually try it out. But then again, talking about it openly could make more people aware of the dangers ahead and stimulate ideas and policies to deal with them. What is fascinating as well as frightening is that the blending of augmented reality, virtual reality and the physical reality is a very fundamental process. Often we think of augmented reality and virtual worlds as ‘constructed’ environments while the physical reality is more stable, more solid. In fact, what we call ‘physical reality’ changes all the time – the ancient insight of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We humans are working hard trying to control matter on an atomic and molecular scale, adding insights from biology and using our ever-expanding computing power – which one day could no longer be ‘our’ power. Somehow the question in this ‘mixed realities’ world is whether we’re realizing the old dreams of ensuring the conditions for prosperity and happiness for all or whether the endgame of humanity is near.

Learning about globalization, terror, and media by reading near-future sci-fi

How will the future look like, for media and for society in general? It’s impossible to predict, but what we can do is work with plausible scenarios. One of my sources of inspiration is literature, more specifically near-future science fiction which seems to extrapolate trends we already see happening today. These are books I’ve read recently or which I’m reading now: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. There is lots of augmented reality in the book, and the world has to deal with major security issues. Among the many fascinating characters: an anthropomorphic virtual rabbit. What about media? There are still paparazzi (maybe more than ever) and Vinge dedicates the novel to the internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives such as Wikipedia and Google. There are still physical books, but in danger of extinction. Laptops are still being used – by those who are resistant to change. I think it’s possible to use this book as a starting point for a meditation on the radicalization of instant messaging, online networks and gaming and online cognitive tools, discussing the challenges and opportunities of these developments. Halting State by Charles Stross is a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Once again it’s about security issues but also about finance as the software house is a public company. If you don’t have first-hand experience with Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or Alternate Reality Games (ARG), chances are that this book will make you want to try it out. Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart, Gary. What I like particularly in this book is the fact that the state of the economy plays an important role here. Things look bleak with China (and even Europe) in a very strong position while the US suffers a terrible crisis with massive social implications. Streaming media are a big hit – but do not necessarily contribute to the quality of public debate. Wearable devices double as tools for the security services. Physical books are still around, but they are considered weird. For the Win by Cory Doctorow also deals extensively massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It’s about globalization, economics, virtual goods and labor. Independent news media production (in China!) is another important element here. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in 2027 Istanbul. Once again trade, security, economics, globalization and (nano)technology are prominent elements in the story. There are not only paparazzi in the future, but also investigative journalists using stealthy, secretive surveillers – as does the state. Online social networks, effortless and pervasive instant messaging, the menace of mass destruction or of Big Brother, the transformation of reality in a mixture of the physical world (manipulated on nano level), virtual reality, gaming and augmented reality, the globalization and its geo-political and social consequences are themes in which you can immerse yourself by reading those books. My project: organizing some meetings about these books, discussing what they tell us about different possible futures. My personal interest would be the future of the media, but others would be more than welcome to look at these and other books from other angles. We would meet (of course) in a virtual world, most probably in the virtual town of Chilbo in Second Life. If you have suggestions for other books (or games, or videos… ) about the near-future, please let me know.

Virtual Goods: Opportunities, Challenges and Acquisitions

My favorite virtual show Metanomics will discuss tomorrow, on Monday October 18, the hot topic of ‘virtual goods’:
Now, the virtual goods industry has moved well beyond Silicon Valley and has the interest of Wall Street. From Facebook to Zynga to Second Life, the virtual goods industry has seen rapid growth over the past few years. They have redefined games where subscription-based models have been replaced by free-to-play games that sell virtual goods to a thin sliver of their player base: what are often called the ‘whales’. Michael (Mick) Bobroff is no stranger to emerging markets. In the early 1990s, Mick was deeply involved in another new frontier which opened up in unpredictable ways: Russia. Now, a Partner at Ernst & Young, Bobroff is examining the challenges and opportunities of the virtual goods market. The embrace of social gaming platforms and virtual goods will, he believes, lead to continued opportunities for venture capitalists and we’ll soon see large firms making acquisitions in the virtual goods arena. Metanomics host Robert Bloomfield hosts Michael Bobroff at our new day (Monday) October 18th at 12 p.m. PT. You can join in through our main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on this page.
More about the show and the speaker on Metanomics.net.

Tools which help us to live in the information streams

We’re living in streams or flows of information: think status updates, tweets, texting, rss-feeds… It’s an era of niche markets, of networks rather than destinations and what we need are tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content. That is what Danah Boyd eloquently explains on Educause Review. Danah is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I liked her Educause article Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media because of the ‘streams’ and ‘flow’ metaphors which in my opinion are very appropriate to describe today’s social media experience. She deals with the issues of democratization, stimulation, homophily and power in a lucid way, not only talking about how awesome social media are but explaining the awkward and even threatening issues as well. I’m especially interested in how we can create tools to provide context and meaning. Danah says:
We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.
This is rather abstract, which is good, because one needs a bit of higher level reasoning to see the structural issues at stake. However, I wonder what kind of tools Danah would suggest here. Google’s Living Stories are somehow a way to provide flexible context to breaking news, but I guess we should innovate more in order to help contextualizing things wherever people are or whatever they are doing. The other major topic is that of the business models new media will use. Danah offers some high-level ideas, but leaves it to us  to propose concrete solutions:
Figuring out how to monetize sociality is a problem, and it’s not one that’s new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. The most common model involves second-order consumption of calories. Venues provide a space for social interaction to occur, and we are expected to consume to pay rent. Restaurants, bars, cafes—they all survive on this model. But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol.
I think virtual environments and augmented reality are interesting cases in this context. Virtual worlds are somehow islands in the information streams, inciting people to pay attention for a longer time, to immerse themselves. But at the same time those worlds are internally characterized by streams: for instance by the flows of group text chats and individual chats. Augmented reality can put layers of context on the physical reality – layers which can consist out of more or less static information such as Wikipedia entries or out of streams like nearby tweets. Of course, augmented reality, virtual worlds and the physical reality can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways. Or can they? As Danah remarks, the social media tools often are clunky. It takes learning curves to master them, and a geeky attitude. It’s not that very enjoyable to stare though your smartphone camera in order to see often clumsy little texts or virtual objects. Often the tools are the creations of computer scientists and engineers who’ve forgotten how ignorant, clumsy and resistant to change most people are, and it seems they’re not interested in providing tools which are fast, fun and easy to use. The Living Stories are a nice example: it’s a fascinating Google project, which was stopped and is now as an open source project available for others to develop – but it’s not beautiful, it does not seduce the common social media consumer (same story applies for Google Wave – made by software engineers for software engineers). Compare this to Apple (and let the engineers and true geeks howl): it’s slick, it’s beautiful, and all of a sudden the ubiquitous internet goes mainstream. I’m convinced augmented reality and virtual environments will be important in helping us live in the streams – but we’ll need tools and objects which make us feel happy and which seduce us: fast, fun, easy and beautiful tools.