Recently in Virtual Worlds Category

Finally completed my Empress Marava (not Minerva!) Far Trader build in OpenSim. The Far Trader is one of the work-horses of the Traveller role-playing game.

marava

The really neat thing is not so much the spacecraft (which I could go on detailing for ages) but what can happen outside it.

So you start on a barren planet:

marava


You close the loading ramp on the empty landscape and head for the bridge.

marava

You then head off into space. A touch of a button on the pilots console de-rezzes the world and rezzes the starscape in a 256m diameter sphere (ought to work on a suitable brown-out transition for take-off and landing). So the view out the window changes but more importantly if you don your EVA suit and walk out the airlock you now find:

marava

(need to do a nice jump transition too!)

Then you head down to the starport. Again a touch of a button derezzes the stars and rezzes a whole spaceport ready for you.

marava

marava

marava


I'll work up a few other environments but you get the drift. Quite apart from the role-playing side of this it also begins to make a nice vehicle for STEM based education.

Full image set at http://www.flickr.com/photos/burdenshaw/sets/72157626207815093/


mars_lem.jpg

Just been playing with the export/import feature of Hippo and managed to get the Apollo LEM I did for our Tranquility Base build out of SL and into my Virtual Mars build on OpenSim. Very nice. Next step must be to make a 9 sim version of the Tranquility Base build, complete with the overlays and then maybe make it available as an OAR file.


Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch has an interesting blog post comparing Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, based primarily on a Google Trends plot of both search terms in Google.

His conclusions:

  • Augmented Reality has now over taken Virtual Reality, and
  • "You can take your virtual reality and get lost on Second Life. I'll take augmented reality any day. It's just more real."

As Mark Kingdon's New Year post says though virtual worlds such as Second Life are likely to become even more real (Second Life HD - SLHD Mark calls it), and anyway:

  • The current killer apps for virtual worlds and augmented reality are different - the VW strength is in training and learning, collaboration and whole building and data visualisation, AR is currently in navigation and interpretation
  • Increasingly the two will blur - we will have more AR with VW, and be able to our VW on as a AR overlay on real-life (see Halting State by Charles Stross)

So in most respects while the "tension" between AR and VW is interesting to me it is ultimately pointless as the future involves both.

But then I looked at Erick's graph again. He plotted virtual reality against AR - which apart from being a poetic balance is actually the wrong thing. All my (and most other people's talk) is about virtual worlds. VR is very much the 70s/80s term - no wonder its declining on his graph - and the VW "bubble" was in 2006 well after his graph shows VR declining.

So I did my own Google Trends - plotting AR against not only VR but also "virtual worlds" - having checked of course that my AR/VR graph was the same as his. The result:

googletrends_ar_vr_vw.png

That looks a truer picture. VW steading growing with something of a step change around 2006 and then growing steady til it was overhualed bythe AR hype of mid 2009, but then actually taking AR back over (just) at the end of 2009!.

As ever lies, damn lies and statistics!

As I said earlier this isn't to say that VW is better than AR or more important - they are both going to be important and vital to the future - all we need to know is which to use for which application, and how to get them to work together.



Seeing as I am debating about SL and Virtual Worlds with @AJCann on a panel at FOTE09 today I thought I ought to a point by point response of his infamous blog post - as he does do a pretty good job of summarising typical objections to Second Life.

Badly designed user interface.

Fair point, I'm always accidentally closing windows I had open, and users often miss controls because they've slid off the bottom of the screen. But:

  • SL has a new user interface coming and its very different and based on the demo I saw from Tom Hale ( LL CPO) a few months ago it will make a BIG difference to usability. We should see it in the next few months.
  • Increasingly we're developing HUDs when we develop projects in SL, so the HUD actually becomes the primary user interface (after "in-world"), not all the SL menu choices. That means you can tailor the HUD and UI to exactly what the user needs for that exercise (whilst keeping to common conventions), significantly increasing usability.
  • If you really don't like the LL interface then since the client is open source you can write your own. Many people use browsers like Emerarld and Impromptu and Katherine's excellent work. And there's Snowglobe if you want a more "official" open source browser. In fact one of the things that we've been talking about is creating a "training" client which actually rips out almost every existing SL menu option since most students don't need them, and leaves you to use HUDs to "skin" the client to what you want. Forterra's Olive takes this very slimmed down client approach and it works well for ordinary, non-power users.

Ports and Security

Got us there. Helping commercial and educational clients to get SL actually through there firewall is always a major headache, and LL know it but I can't see a solution any time soon.However you can always move to OpenSim and put that behind your firewall, or LL's own Project Nebraska. But yes, it's not an issue that some other virtual worlds have (although most commercial ones are designed for behind firewall operation anyway), and it is one that LL ultimately needs to crack. There again I remember the first days of the web when my employer (a FTSE100 plc) would only let us have the web on standalone PCs with their own dial-up connection to the Internet and no LAN connectivity for "security reasons".

New Client Versions

The days of monthly mandatory updates are long gone. I think there have only been two major releases (1.22 and 1.23) in the past year, and I don't think either was mandatory (unless you wanted to access Adult content!). Mind you I'm never again goign to complain about downloading the SL client and its PC requirements after downloading the 1.2GB Blue Mars virtual world client and discovering it failed to run on my laptop (which happily runs two SL Windlight sessions)

Lack of Imagination

Yep, we appear to spend half our lives at Daden persuading clients NOT to build a duplicate copy of their RL campus. Yes put something in their to "anchor" the experience (for Southampton University it was actually the stream through the campus), but otherwise just build the spaces you need for the sort of training and teaching you want to do. And you can even use Holodeck approaches to repurpose a space instantly (as at Coventry University), or use the same simulation space for mutliple subjects (a street scene we did for UFI worked for both customer training and basic communications skills.) We are though still only seeing quite "normal" uses of SL. We talk about a spectrum that runs something like the following:

  • Level 1 - Using the virtual world purely as a remote communications/meeting tool, just using the VOIP and IM chat features, and powerpoint slides and maybe a white board
  • Level 2- Using the virtual world to create simulations which would be just too costly to stage in RL - whether its a paramedic street scene, a moon landing, the inside of a jet engine or strands of DNA hundreds of meters high.
  • Level 3 - "Not Possible In Real Life", doing stuff that you can ONLY do in a virtual world, usually because in the real world we have things like gravity, or the inability to create 3D holographic projections or perfect robots.

I'd guess that about 50% of educational projects are at Level 1, 45% at level 2 and only 5% at level 3. But this isn't an issue with SL, it about people lack of familiarity with the possibilities of the system - but that familiarity will come, and with it more creative applications.

Cost

There can only be two real commercial reasons for using virtual worlds:

  • They let you do the same level of education for less whole cost
  • They let you do better education for the same whole cost

The commercial sector appears to be better at tracking ROI for virtual world education than the academic sector. The recent Serious Virtual Worlds conference at the Serious Games Institute in Coventry had a whole host of commercial ROI studies - things like the Highways Agency saving around £65,000 for each day of training they did in the virtual world instead of in RL. Even in Academia there are some good quantitative studies emerging - one from Imperial College (presented at ReLive I think) showed that for their "operating theatre induction" students who undertook the induction in Second Life not only did better than those who had the traditional lecture based induction, but also did better than those who had their induction in a real operating theatre.

As a "firm of developer building stuff" (and probably having worked in SL with more UK educational institutions than any other company) you could expect us to take exception to the idea that universities are "sub-contracting pedagogy" and "can't use the tools". We always work closely with the front-line educators, and the closer we are to the educators then usually the better the project. We understand some of the pedagogic principles, but there is no way that we manage that side - these are joint projects. Also almost every project we have done has involved skills transfer - so at the end of the project the university staff (and even some students) can manage, maintain and develop the system. Indeed one of the students from the original Coventry project now runs her of SL development business.

And of course through the support of JISC we have been able to create tools like PIVOTE that make creating and maintaining virtual world exercises even easier, and release them as licence-free open-source back to the community. PIVOTE has now had over 120 downloads of its server code, and we host over 20 institutions on our PIVOTE hosting service, and we've had emails from institutional users as far away as Canada and Argentina!

Online Identity

It is a fascinating debate about whether students should have a different identity in SL, or their RL indentity. But SL hasn't forced you down the different identity route for a couple of years. Through the Registration API you (or we!) can create a set of SL registration pages on your own Intranet. You then ask students just to enter their real world first/last name, and then you then automatically concatenate them to create the SL account name with a common bespoke surname. So for instance as David Burden I could have an "office" account of DavidBurden Daden (eat your heart out Lindens!). You could and even bypass the sign-up process completley and just fire your whole student database at the RegAPI and auto-create all the accounts - and bypass any issues about creating multiple accounts from the same IP address! And with OpenSim the possibilities are even greater.

.

And if you really want your own face on your avatar there are several third party applications which wil let you do it. BUT the results are generally awful. I still think that well crafted SL avatar still looks far better than any of the virtual worlds that try and do "real image" faces. Image is important though - the QWAQ business meeting virtual world started out with the "head in a jar" model (actually more like "head on a Lego Minifig") and vehemently defended their decision to avoid "real" avatars. But they have now introduced real avatars and in their recent publicity shots to accompany their re-branding as Telepace (an equally awful name but for different reasons) only about 1 avatar in 10 is a minifig.

Data Portability

Does he mean Data or 3D Objects?

For 3D objects yes its been that case that what's built in SL stays in SL, but thats mainly becuase the prim based model was needed to make the build process an in-world experience that could be learnt in minutes - and that is why SL has been such a creative place and I for one would rather have creativity than portability - at least at first. But SL is growing up. In OpenSim we're already seeing import and exprt tools emerging, and some can be used with SL itself. And in 2010 we've been promised mesh import into SL itself- I've seen the demo and it looks awesome. SO we might have the best of both worlds - high definition builds being done in 3D Studio Max and imported into SL, but nice simple build tools still in SL itself. And remember that none of the other virtual worlds let you export buildings - you create them outside the platform in Collada or 3DS or whatever and then bring them into the world, and re-import if you want to change anything.

I'm actually more concerned with data, and here the trick is to actually keep as much code and ALL data on the web, and treat SL purely as a user interface. LSL is a SCRIPTING language, you aren't meant to be building big applications with it. Use robust tools on web servers (like Java or C# or even Perl) to create your applications and store your data, and then use the excellent llHTTPRequest call and the new HTTP-In event to move commands and data as required between SL and the web. We've used that approach for years and found it pretty much 100% reliable. That is how we built PIVOTE and our chatbots, and Datascape and our Navigator web browser. And of course the by-product of this is that your "application" is now a web service, so you can potentially create interfaces for ANY virtual world, or for the web, or for FLASH or even an iPhone.

Sleaze

I hate to have to say it yet again but have you seen some of the sites on the web? We don't not use the web because of the porn sites - we just avoid them. The same in SL - and even easier now that adult content has its own continent. In fact we are increasingly seeing our clients build not only on private islands, but also with their own registration pages (see above) and their own orientation - so their users just aren't exposed to sleaze. You can take things even further, there's a switch we can throw in the RegAPI which means the student accounts can't even leave the University island - making things safe still. And for the ultimate level of safety you can even customise the client as described above so there aren't any search or map functions that might show students content that you want to hide from them, even if they can't get to it.

There are however two remaining issues, both of which we've flagged with Linden Lab and hope to progress with them:

  • Even if you create an account through the RegAPI you have to maintain it (like changing password) through the main SL web site. This might not have any sleaze but its focus is undoubtably on dancing and partying not studying. So we've asked LL if ultimately the RegAPI can be extended to cover account management functions (so we can do client branded account management pages), and if in the mean time they can put up a "neutral" skin for the account management pages on the SL@Work/SLGrid microsite that we can deep link to - and maybe even "hide" in a client branded frame.
  • The separation of Teen and Main Grid causes educators (and others) real problems, and with the move of Adult content off of the main grid is almost an anachronism. Other similar virtual worlds don't have this distinction (Active Worlds is probably closest to SL in many ways, and has run far longer that SL with purely a voluntary flagging of sims as PG/15/18). Whilst we hope that ultimately LL merges the two grids there is in the meantime a lot of scope to let private islands owners use the RegAPI to lock accounts to their sim and to manage their own users - regardles of age.

Other Points

AJCanns does recognise that virtual worlds do have their merits - in particular for carbion reduction. He doesn't though think that they make good conferencing tools, he prefers Skype and Eluminate. But they are different types of tools for different uses. Yes I use Skype a lot, mainly for 1:1 calls, in group calls it suffers the same problems as any audio conference (all disembodied voices), and you need additional apps if you want to start sharing presentations, documents and the like. With virtual worlds you get a far better sense of the participants, of it being a shared event, you can share information and 3D models (the next SL iteration will have a fully usable web browser including Google Docs sharing), and anecdotal evidence is suggesting that just by having a virtual location for the meeting you remember the content far better.

Google Lively - well that died. The idea of a simpler 2.5D virtual world is fine, and can work alongside a richer environment like SL. We've been playing with Metaplace and really enjoy it. More importantly we can take our applications like PIVOTE and chatbots and drop them straight into Metaplace - so Metaplace and SL users are accessing the same applications and the same data. Others have already done SL-to-Metaplace chat bridges, and with the new Media API it is conceivable that you could have Metaplace running on a screen inside of SL!

World of Warcraft - as I game I find it boring (even my kids do), but lots of people like it, and yes I can see that for some requirements its an interesting space to teach and learn it. But its NOT a true virtual world. You can't create content or applications, you can only bend the game so far.

Conclusions

OK I've been writing this since Birmingham and we're almost at Euston so time to finish off!

The feeling I get reading AJCanns post is that he is just not aware of what SL can really do nowadays. It sounds like he hasn't been really USING it much recently, and that he's only been exposed to some relatively basic "Level 1" educational builds. Yes we have a long way to go with how we use virtual worlds, but to my mind, and to many people I speak to, SL may have its faults but it's a far better implementation of the sort of virtual world we want to end up with than ANYTHING else out there. Interestingly none of the new virtual worlds that have luanched in the last 5 years have tried to do what SL did - create a completely user malleable virtual world. That's a tough thing to do (which is why SL used to have the stability issues it did) - but it's the RIGHT thing to do. And with with growing OpenSim community to push Second Life even further forward then the future can only be bright.

I'm often asked "is Second Life going to be 'the one', or will it be replaced by something else?". I don't know if SL will be the one, but I am sure that when we reach the "final" virtual world solution, the 3D equivalent of the web, we will see more of Second Life in its spirit and design than any other virtual world.



http://thinkbalm.com/2009/07/15/my-brain-recalls-information-in-3d-not-hierarchical-lists/

Nice piece by Erica Driver. Now what we need is some nice hard quantitative research to back it up and make the business case.

road map chart

In response to one of the comments on my Semantic Web post I dug up the roadmap diagram I did 2 years ago. I still think the areas and steps are pretty valid, but we've not made as much progress in the last 2 years as I'd thought we would. Really little has changed since then, although signs are that by 2010 we might actually start tikcing some of the things off. I'll try and find time to update the whole docuemnt this came from.


One of the things that has struck me over the last few weeks in discussions about where virtual worlds are going is that we are in danger of making the same mistake made by application development and the web, by concentrating on the wrong thing. With virtual worlds, and the moves towards interoperability and standards, there is a real opportunity to get things right first time.

The "mistake" is that we tend to concentrate on the visual. It's only natural, it's probably our most powerful sense and the one that most of us would least wish be without - and hardly a surprising one for virtual worlds!

Since the first computer read-out and green-screen VDU we have developed computer applications and their user interface as a single entity. Even with the move to client-server this did not change - one application, one user interface. However with the arrival of the web, and of mobile phones, things began to change a bit. Users wanted access to the same application (be it a CRM system or Facebook) regardless of the device they were using. In fact almost 10 years ago I had a slide in my Aseriti slide pack (selling utility billing systems) that called for "Different Users, Different Needs", showing a user interface less application engine surrounded by optimised user interfaces for mobile, consumer, web and call-centre users.

The development of the mash-up culture has pushed this even further. Once we replace applications by user interface-less application engines, and then create user interfaces (and even other application engines) which talk to the application through an agreed API (typically a web service) we can unleash a whole new set of creativity in how we create applications.

The web unfortunately made a similar mistake, hardly surprising since its was based around HTML, but disappointing given Sir Tim Berners-Lee's own original vision, and that of Alan Kay and the Dynabook. HTML is mostly about marking up the display, not the content. David Burden means nothing more but the characters D-a-v-i-d-%20-B-u-r-d-e-n displayed in bold type. If you search for "David Burden" on Google you'll find lots of the same characters in the same order, but you'll have to guess that they actually refer to different people.

The "solution" of course is the Semantic Web - championed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But trying to retrofit it to the Petabytes of text strings that make up most of the web is an enormous challenge. Formats like RSS, and even Twitter hashtags, begin to give us some sort access to a semantic web, but the true semantic web languages of RDF and OWL (which at Daden we are using to give our chatbots semantic understanding) are woefully under-used. Even less used are things like Info URIs - agreed semantic codes, like an ISBN number, that say that info:people/davidburden/515121 is me, and not the CIO of the Post Office. If every mention of me on the web was marked up semantically then finding all references to me on the web becomes trivial. It's good to see that Google is beginning to introduce aspects of semantics into its search results, but without the original content being semantically marked up its only a small step - the mistake has already been made.

So what's all this got to do with virtual worlds? Almost any initial assessment of a virtual world starts with how well it looks - how good are the textures, the avatars, the sky, water and shadows. After that it's about functionality - how naturally does the avatar move, how can you interact with objects, can you view the web or MS Office - and about deployment issues (does it run on a low spec PC, can it run behind the firewall, can we protect children). There is active debate at the moment about standards in virtual worlds - Collada, X3D etc - and whether virtual worlds should be downloads or browser based (and this itself offers a spectrum of solutions as pointed out by Babbage Linden at the recent Apply Serious Games conference).

But to me all this is missing the point. Virtual worlds are NOT about what they look like, but about what's in them.

Let's not repeat the mistake of application development and the web. Let's start thinking about virtual worlds in terms of how we semantically mark up their content, and then treat the display issue as a second order problem. The virtual world is not HOW you see it, it's WHAT you see (or more precisely what you sense and interact with).

Some examples. These are all based around Second Life, since with libsecondlife/libomv we can actually get access to the underlying object models (which is as close to a semantic virtual world model as you can get).


  • With Open Sim you not only have a different application sharing the same object model as SL, but also different clients using different graphics engines to render "SL" in subtly different ways.

  • We have been working with the University of Birmingham to use their expertise in robotics to help create autonomous avatars in SL. The University uses a standard robot simulation application to visualise and model physical world spaces and test robot software, before downloading the code to the physical-world robots. To work in SL they've taken the SL object/scene description and dynamically fed it to the bot modelling tool - so SL "appears" as a wireframe model in the simulation application just as their physical world spaces do.

  • On my iPhone I have Sparkle, a great little app which lets me log my avatar into SL. No graphics yet, just text (and not even a list of nearby avatars) but adding a radar scan of nearby people - and objects - would be almost trivial, and adding a 2D birds-eye view of the locale only a little harder. Even a 2.5D "Habbo" rendering of SL would not be impossible.

  • We've already played around with using LSL sensor data and libomv to generate live radar maps in web browsers - why not push this a bit further and use Unity, X3D or similar to "re-create" Second Life in the browser - it won't look "identical", but in reality it's all just bits anyway.


Four situations, four different ways of rendering the Second Life "semantics".

Our own work on PIVOTE shows another approach to this problem. By creating the structure and content of a training exercise away from the visualisation tool we are free to then deploy the exercise onto the web, or iPhone or virtual world of our choice without having to change the semantic information or the learning pedagogy. If that semantic model could be extended to include the virtual world itself, then we would have a true write once - play anywhere training system.

One final issue that our bots particularly suffer from, is that having access to objects is no real guarantee of having access to true semantics. I might create a plywood cube in Second Life and call it a chair, a snake, or anything. The bot cannot guarantee that reading an object's name will tell it what the object is. To be truly semantic any future editing system should ideally force us to put accurate semantics on the objects we create - and in particular their place in the ontology of the world. Then even if we can't recreate a "chair" as the specified collection of prims or polygons we can substitute our own.

So this is my challenge to the virtual world community. Stop thinking of virtual worlds (and especially the future of virtual worlds) in terms of how they are rendered, but concentrate on their object models and the underlying semantics. I have every confidence that the progressive increase in PC power and bandwidth - and the existing capabilities of computer games - will mean that the look and feel of virtual worlds will come on just fine. And those of us deploying virtual worlds into enterprises will find that with wider adoption and real business need/demand will come the solution to all our problems of firewalls and user account controls (just as it did when the web first arrived in enterprises). These are (almost) trivial problems. If we want to create truly usable and powerful virtual spaces (and I even hesitate even to use the world virtual) then we should be focussing on the semantics of the spaces and the objects within them. That way we will avoid the problems of applications and the web. We will know what the objects in our world are - we only have to decide how to render them.

livebusstops.jpg

Yesterday I spend the afternoon doing a demo of displaying live bus times in SL ready for a council Transport Summit. In doing so I discovered all sorts of council resources I wasn't aware of. Others might be, but in case you too aren't then here they are, and also info about how we did the mash-up, and a proxy you can use for your own mashup (until we get asked to close it down!).

The first site is DigiTV. This was designed for people to access council services from a set top box, but it also works really well from an iPhone (or any large web phone) as its all simple menus and chunky links. From here you can get to council info on what's on, travel information, GP services, job centres, report problems etc. If you drill down on the Transport links you can get to every bus stop in the city and the next bus times - either timetable or real-time derived. And if you break out of the frame (http://www.digitv.gov.uk/digitv/cds/Birmingham/Netgem/home.html) you can bookmark individual bus stops on your phone - I finally get what the Finns had a decade ago - the ability to not walk out my door til I know I can hit a bus!

The other site is http://netwm.mobi/. This gets you into the same live bus data but through a very simple HTML layout - great for older phones, and also does simple Google Maps of the bus stops in a given area.

To get a single bus stop simply the URL is http://netwm.mobi/departureboard?atcoCode=43002200505 - where the atcoCode is the ID of the stop - just look at the URL to see it.

In order to do the mashup we just wanted the bus times in simple text - not HTML or layout. So we wrote a simple Perl proxy that is given an atcoCode and calls the URL above, then strips out all the HTML and gives you the data in cod XML, or plain text (and we're working on RSS). To use it just call:

http://www.daden-cs1.co.uk/cgi-bin/sl/twmbustimes.pl?op=text&atco=43002200505

Guess where I catch the bus! Just change the atco code to the bus stop you want, and change op=text to op=html to see in very simple html, or op=sl to see in cod xml.

Happy to let anyone play with the proxy for further mash-ups - and be great to knwo if you use it.

And before any one asks why would anyone go all the way into SL just to check there bus time that is NOT the intention of the demo. Its just part of a broader demo of how virtual worlds can be used to mash up a wide variety of data in new ways to give city (and business) managers and planners new ways of looking at and sharing information - help help build the national and global Birmingham profile for digital innovation whilst we're at it!


World Builder from Bruce Branit on Vimeo.


Stunning video - SL meets Star Trek Holodeck meets RL love story

Now if only SL building worked like this - but another classic case of its easier to virtualise us (as avatars) rather than try and virtualise things around us.

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