Category Archives: Opinion

Philip Rosedale and virtual worlds: “we still don’t get it yet”

As noted by Ciaran Laval, Philip Rosedale appeared at the Gigaom Roadmap event held in San Francisco on November 18th and 19th. He was taking part in a (roughly) 30-minute discussion with Gigaom’s staff writer, Signe Brewster, entitled Designing Virtual Worlds, in which he explores the potential of virtual worlds  when coupled with virtual reality, both in terms of High Fidelity and in general. In doing so, he touches on a number of topics and areas – including Second Life – providing some interesting insights into the technologies we see emerging today, aspects of on-line life that have been mentioned previously in reference to High Fidelity, such as the matter of identity, and what might influence or shape where VR is going.

This is very much a crystal ball type conversation such as the Engadget Expand NY panel discussion Linden Lab’s CEO Ebbe Altberg participated in at the start of November, inasmuch as it is something of an exploration of potential. However, given this is a more focused one-to-one conversation than the Engadget discussion, there is much more meat to be found in the roughly 31-minute long video.

Philip Rosedale in conversation with Gigaom's Signe Brewster

Philip Rosedale in conversation with Gigaom’s Signe Brewster

Unsurprisingly, the initial part of the conversation focuses very much on the Oculus Rift, with Rosedale (also unsurprisingly, as they’re all potentially right) agreeing with the likes of the Engadget panel, Tony Parisi, Brendan Iribe, Mark Zurkerberg et al, that the Oculus Rift / games relationship is just the tip of the iceberg, and there there is so much more to be had that lies well beyond games. Indeed, he goes so far to define the Oculus / games experience as “ephemeral” compared to what might be coming in the future. Given the very nature of games, this is not an unreasonable summation, although his prediction that there will only be “one or two” big game titles for the Rift might upset a few people.

A more interesting part of the discussion revolves around the issue of identity, when encompasses more than one might expect, dealing with both the matter of how we use our own identity as a means of social interaction – through introducing ourselves, defining ourselves, and so on, and also how others actually relate to us, particularly in non-verbal ways (thus overlapping the conversation with non-verbal communications.

Identity is something Rosedale has given opinion on ion the past, notably through his essay on Identity in the Metaverse from March 2014 -  recommended reading to anyone with an interest in the subject. The points raised are much more tightly encapsulated here in terms of how we use our name as a means of greeting, although the idea of of trust as an emerging currency in virtual environments is touched upon: just as in the physical world, we need to have the means to apply checks and balances to how much we reveal about ourselves to others on meeting them.

Can the facial expressions we use, exaggerated or otherwise, when talking with others be as much a part of out identity as our looks?

Can the facial expressions we use, exaggerated or otherwise, when talking with others be as much a part of out identity as our looks?

The overlap between identity and communication is graphically demonstrated in Rosedale’s relating of an experiment carried out at High Fidelity. This saw several members of the HiFi team talking on a subject, a 3D camera being used to capture their facial expressions and gestures, recording them against the same “default” HiFi avatar.  When a recording of the avatar was selected at random and played by to HiFi staff sans any audio, they were still very quickly able to identify who the avatar represented, purely by a subconscious recognition of the way facial expression and any visible gestures were used.

This is actually a very important aspect when it comes to the idea of trust as virtual “currency”, as well as demonstrating how much more we may rely on non-verbal communication cues than we might otherwise realise. If we are able to identify people we know – as friends, as work colleagues, business associates, etc. – through such non-verbal behavioural prompts and cues, then establishing trust with others within a virtual medium which allows such non-verbal prompts to be accurately transmitted, can only more rapidly establish that exchange of trust, allowing for much more rapid progression into other areas of interaction  and exchange.

Interaction and exchange also feature more broadly in the conversation. There is, for example the difference in the forms of interaction which take place within a video game and those we’re likely to encounter in a virtual space. Those used in games tend to be limited to what is required in the game itself – such as shooting a gun or running.

If 3D spaces can be made to operate as naturally as we function in the real world - such as when handing some something, as Mr. Rosedale is miming, might they become a more natural extension of our lives?

If 3D spaces can be made to operate as naturally as we function in the real world – such as when handing some something, as Mr. Rosedale is miming, might they become a more natural extension of our lives?

Obviously, interactions and exchanges in the physical world go well beyond this, and finding a means by which natural actions, such as the simple act of shaking hands or passing a document or file to another person can be either replaced by a recognisable virtual response, or replicated through a more natural approach than opening windows, selecting files, etc., is, Rosedale believes, potentially going to be key to a wider acceptance of VR and simulated environments in everyday life.

There’s a certain amount of truth in this, hence the high degree of R&D going on with input devices from gesture-based tools such as Leap Motion or haptic gloves or some other device. But at the same time, the mouse / trackpad / mouse aren’t going to go away overnight. There are still and essential part of our interactions with the laptops in front of us for carrying out a ranges of tasks that also aren’t going to vanish with the arrival and growth of VR. So any new tool may well have to be as easy and convenient to use as opening up a laptop and then starting to type.

Drawing an interesting, on a number of levels, comparison between the rise of the CD ROM and the impact of the Internet’s arrival, Rosedale suggests that really, we have no idea where virtual worlds might lead us simply because, as he points out, even now “we don’t get it yet”. The reality is that the potential for virtual spaces is so vast, it is easy to focus on X and Y and predict what’s going to happen, only to have Z arrive around the same time and completely alter perceptions and opportunities.

There are some things within the conversation that go unchallenged. For example, talking about wandering into a coffee shop, opening your laptop and then conducting business in a virtual space is expressed as a natural given. But really, even with the projected convenience of use, is this something people will readily accept? Will they want to be sitting at a table, waving hands around, staring intently into camera and sharing their business with the rest of the coffee shop in a manner that potentially goes beyond wibbling loudly and obnoxiously  over a mobile phone? Will people want to do business against the clatter and noise and distractions of an entire coffee shop coming over their speakers / headphones from “the other end”? Will we want to be seated next to someone on the train who is given to waving arms and hands, presenting  corner-eye distraction that goes beyond that encountered were they to simply open a laptop and type quietly? Or will we all simply shrug and do our best to ignore it, as we do with the mobile ‘phone wibblers of today.

That said, there is much that is covered with the discussion from what;’s bean learnt from the development of Second Life through to the influence of science-fiction on the entire VR/VW medium, with further focus on identity through the way people invest themselves in their avatar in between, until we arrive at the uncanny valley, and a potential means of crossing it: facial hair! As such, the video is a more than worthwhile listen, and I challenge anyone not to give Mr. Rosedale a sly smile of admiration as he slips-in a final mention of HiFi is such a way as to get the inquisitive twitching their whiskers and pulling-up the HiFi site in their browser to find out more.

A rebuttal to one-dimensional writing

Sarawak by Loverdag on Flickr, one of the images used in my rebuttal to Marlon McDonald's article on SLSarawak by Loverdag on Flickr, one of the images used in my rebuttal to Marlon McDonald’s article on SL

On Friday, November 14th, erstwhile contributor to Moviepilot,com Marlon McDonald wrote an article about Second Life which, is to say the least, predictably one-dimensional.

The item in question, entitled These Strange Stories Prove Second Life Isn’t The Dreamworld You Believed… takes as its rather predictable focus, the subject of pornography in Second Life. It’s lead to a fair level of upset among SL users – and rightly so; Mr. McDonald goes to considerable lengths to make his case by apparently passing on the opportunity to try the platform for himself, and instead dig through Google searches for articles that are anything up to seven years old (and none more recently written than three years ago).

Marlon McDonald: one-dimensional article

Marlon McDonald: one-dimensional article

There is much that is wrong with the piece; not only does it present a one-side view of SL, it’s clearly intended as clickbait – if not for Moviepilot.com directly (although it doesn’t hurt them!), then certainly for Mr. McDonald himself, a regular contributor there, Most of what is wrong is easy to spot and cane be said through a comment on the piece. However, I opted to present a more direct rebuttal to the article through Moviepilot’s own pages, in the hopes of also reaching Mr. McDonald’s intended audience and perhaps persuading them to look on SL differently.

You can read the article over on Moviepilot.com.

I don’t usually ask for page views – but in this case, I am. Not for myself, but to help the article get right up there alongside Mr. McDonald’s piece and truly give Moviepilot users an alternative point of view on SL. So please, if you wouldn’t mind, follow the link and have a read, Or if you’re tired of my writing – just follow the link and go make yourself a cup of tea / coffee!

 

 

Beyond gaming: looking at VR with Ebbe Altberg and others

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg was in New York recently, attending the Engadget Expand NY 2014 event, which took place on November 7th and 8th. While there, he participated in a panel discussion hosted by Engadget’s Ben Gilbert, exploring the subject of Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming. Also appearing on the panel were:

  • Marte Roel, co-founder, BeAnotherLab and the open-source project called The Machine To Be Another, which is designed to explore the relationship of identity and empathy through VR immersion. The approach is particularly seen as a means of helping in conflict resolution (by allowing a person to experience a situation from another’s perspective). The group is perhaps most widely known for the Gender Swap Experiment, in which participants experience the illusion of being in one another’s body
  • Matt Bell, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Matterport, a company providing a means to imaging interior spaces and reproducing them as 3D models which have the potential to be utilised in a number of ways.

At just over 34 minutes in length, the panel isn’t long, and the opportunity for discussion of questions and views is further reduced by the first ten minutes being devoted to each of the panelists giving an overview of their particular platform / interest. However, once past this, there are some interesting observations made on the status of virtual reality outside of the games environment, some of which tend to echo commentary from elsewhere.

For example, discussion is held around the idea that immersive VR is more than simply seeing and hearing; we rely on other senses as well – smell and touch in particular. The latter is perhaps particularly relevant as the ability to generate a natural sense of feedback through touch, say through a haptic glove – is in many ways essential to move one beyond being something of an observer of a digital 3D environment to being a participant within it.

The Engadget Expand NY panel for Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming. For left to right: Ebbe altberg, Matt Bell, Marte Roel and host Ben Gilbert

The Engadget Expand NY panel for Back to Reality: VR Beyond Gaming. For left to right: Ebbe Altberg, Matt Bell, Marte Roel and host Ben Gilbert

Marte Roel particularly notes this being the case with The Machine To Be Another, where users can use haptic capabilities to interact with the characters they meet by shaking hands and so on. Ebbe Altberg also observes a little later than haptics can help one enter more deeply into the illusion created by VR, noting that while it is possible to see the texture of a surface in a digital environment, the brain knows it is simply seeing an image, but if you can also feel the texture of that surface, the brain is further tricked into a deeper level of immersiveness and engagement – and move it beyond what James Cameron recently referred to as the “I can stand and look around” situation we currently have.

The flip side to this, as Ebbe Altberg also points out, is that the fidelity of the “real” experience  – sight, sound, smell, touch, isn’t necessary in every potential use case for VR. There will be situations (indeed, there all ready are) where the full sense of immersiveness isn’t required; as such, over-emphasising things one way or another in terms of requirements or prerequisites would be a mistake, as there is liable to be a broad middle ground.

Even so, it cannot be denied that the technology is – for the time being, at least – one of the more obvious problems facing VR when it comes to mass adoption. There’s no denying ht Oculus Rift and its imitators and competition are still cumbersome, awkward and unappealing, lacking both convenience of use and portability. This is going to have to change – as the panel acknowledges. Indeed, we are already seeing attempts to improve the overall form factor – take the Zeiss cinemizer for example, or the Vuzix Wrap headsets. The problem here is that of price; even at $599, the Vuzix Wrap 1200DX VR is liable to be around $300 more than the Oculus, a pice point liable to keep people thinking VR more a “geeky” adjunct to activities than central part of them.

Th Vuzix Wrap 1200 "VR in a pair of sunglasses" - offering the kind of lightweight, non-nerdy approach that will help further acceptance of VR, but currently at a price.

The Vuzix Wrap 1200DX VR “VR in a pair of sunglasses” – offering the kind of lightweight, non-nerdy approach that will help further acceptance of VR, but currently at a price.

Ebbe Altberg appears confident this could occur within a couple of years. He’s potentially a lot more optimistic than Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe, who, when talking to Techcrunch in May 2014, suggested it could be another five years before people will be pulling compact (and presumably low-cost) VR glasses from their pocket and using them with the same ease they do with a part of sunglasses today.

Nor is it necessarily just the headsets; it’s the other accoutrements as well – haptic gloves, controllers, sensors systems, recognition systems. As the panel again acknowledge, these all need to mature and become more widely accepted. They also, frankly, need to become a lot cheaper. High Fidelity may well sign the praises of the STEM system, but it still dumps a minimum $300 extra on the cost of entry into some VR environments. Perhaps the answer lies in the improved integration and capabilities with existing hardware, as has been the case with mobile technologies: the more integrated things have become within the mobile ‘phone, the more central it has become to our everyday lives, something Matt Bell indirectly touches upon.

Matt Bell (holding the Galaxy Note 4), Marte Roel and Ben Gilbert (far right) during the Engadget Expand NY panel. Ebbe Altberg is slightly off-camera to the left (image via Bryan Bedder/Getty Images on Zimbio)

For a discussion on the future of VR outside of gaming, the conversation is surprisingly light; familiar verticals are pointed to as being very well suited to VR – education, health, virtual tourism, etc – but there’s no real probing of potentials. This is in some ways a shame; however, as Ebbe Altberg points out, predicting the overall future for VR isn’t that straightforward, given it could well cut through everything in its applicability:

It’s like an infinite number of potential use-cases for it… When people ask what’s the killer app, there’s going to be lots of killer apps, just like it is on the Internet in general or in the world in general. So I think of VR as a horizontal thing, something that you can able to apply to almost anything you’re trying to do.

Even so, it would have been interesting to hear thoughts on just how VR will be leveraged to a position of being not just an ancillary aspect of how we do certain things, but a piece of technology people see as vital to their every day lives as their mobile ‘phone. Will the catalyst simply because the hardware is available? Might it be come about as a result of multiple independent uses of VR which infiltrate our lives until it becomes an accepted part of everyday life – a quiet revolution, if you will, rather than the kind of sudden “whiz-bang, here it is!” that seems to be anticipated?

When limited to a 24 minute time frame, there’s obviously only so much that can be discussed in such a forum; as such, I couldn’t help be feel the topic might have been done more justice had it been given more time and a broader panel of participants. Nevertheless, what is there is worth listening to, and it has to be said the Ebbe Altberg does a respectable job to hoisting SL’s and the Lab’s flag and profile.

Ebbe Altberg on DW: words and thoughts on the next gen platform

Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab's next generation VW platform (among other things) with Designing Worlds

Ebbe Altberg discusses the Lab’s next generation VW platform (among other things) with Designing Worlds

On Monday October 6th, Designing Worlds, hosted by Saffia Widdershins and Elrik Merlin, broadcast a special celebratory edition, marking the show’s 250th edition, and the show featured a very special guest: Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg.

The interview covered a number of topics, and ou can watch the show via the links at the end of this article, or read the transcript. One of the items discussed was, inevitably, the Lab’s next generation virtual world platform.

The following is intended to provide a more direct look at some of what was said about the new platform, and to offer some speculation  / thoughts on my part. Audio clips are provided, but please note they do not necessarily include everything said about the new platform; my aim in including them is to present what I feel is the core comments made about it, and offer some thoughts of my own. Should you wish to hear the comments in the context of the interview, time stamps are included with each audio extract for the point at which they occur in the original video.

What’s in a Name?

One of the points of interest / speculation in the new platform has been on the subject of its name. The Lab have simply referred to it as their “next generation platform”, and users have variously referred to it as “SL 2.0″, “The New Thing” (or TNT) or “SL: The Next Generation”, and so on. Ebbe explained why there isn’t a more formal name for the new platform at present.

[1:10:10]

The second point bears thinking about. Consider the term “SL 2.0″; while innocuous-sounding, its use could encourage us to consider the new platform purely in terms of how we see SL. For example, using the “SL 2.0″ label might cause us to think of land in the new platform as being the same as in SL – defined region types providing specific capabilities – when there is no indication that this will in fact be the case. Thus preconceptions are established which can have unwanted repercussions down the road. So while it might be handy to have a label, keeping things to a very generic “next generation platform” or “new platform” offers the easiest way of avoiding this from the Lab’s perspective.

On the Question of Open-source

Much has been made of the initial decision to make the new platform closed-source, with some commenting on the decision going so far as to describe it as a “mistake”. However, Ebbe points-out during the programmed that “closed-source” doesn’t necessarily mean that there can be no involvement on the part of TPV developers, nor is the closed-source nature of the new platform set in stone.

[0:54:08 and 0:56:50]

Will making the new platform's client extensible, rather than open-source, prove the best route? The Lab is open either way

Will making the new platform’s client extensible, rather than open-source, prove the best route? The Lab is open either way

Given that the new platform is intended to operate across different hardware environments and operating systems, there would appear to be a certain logic to the approach the Lab is taking in trying to make the client end extensible, rather than open-source right off the bat which might offer a way of achieving greater uniformity in how additional features are presented across these multiple devices.

Of course, a lot of the success of such an approach depends on the gateway the Lab put in place by which additional plug-ins (or whatever) are vetted and “allowed” where the client is concerned, their improved track-record with TPV and open-source developer contributions for SL notwithstanding.

Whether it might also mean that users get that Holy Grail long desired in SL – a client which is fully customisable by the user in terms of which features they “download” and use, or plug-in to their experience, remains to be seen. However, to lay eyes, it would appear that this approach might make it easier to achieve.

Compatibility and Portability

[0:57:39-0:59:03, 1:00:05-1:00:41, and 1:01:01-1:01:30]

When it comes to people’s inventory there are a couple of potential, but valid points that need to be made, both of which I hinted at in response to comments about the new platform on this blog back in June 2014.

The first is that while we may well have tens of thousands of items sitting in inventory representing a lot of expenditure, there’s a good chance that a fair percentage of those items are “dead weight”, having been long since superseded, replaced, gone out of fashion, etc. As such, any value in these items has already been written-off given we’ll likely never use them again. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on “losing” the investment they seem to represent as might be the case.

The second point is the not-so-small questions on whether we actually have the right to transfer items in our inventory elsewhere, be it another grid or the Lab’s new platform. The IP for the items in our inventories resides with the creators of those items – and if they do not wish their creations to be ported to the new platform, we should be prepared to respect that wish. Hopefully, this is also something the Lab will be considering as well.

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