Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Virtual Worlds don't work....yet (part 1)

Two years ago I jumped enthusiastically into the Metaverse, with Second Life booming and media were eager to cover every company entering this particular Virtual World. The past year we've discovered -too the disappointment of many - that we were living the Gartner Hypecycle curve. At the close of 2007 I've pondered what was going on and what the challenges for 2008 would be. Due to family circumstances I've stepped back from the Metaverse for almost 6 months now and found some time to reflect on the industry. The title of this blogpost has been in my head for months, but only recently I was triggered to actually start writing it.

Virtual World Innovation

The trigger was the announcement of the Virtual World Newsforum and VW Conference Organisation announcing the introduction of the Virtual World Innovation Award. Although my good friend Christian Renaud (CEO TechIntelGroup) is on the jury, I have to be sceptical if I look deep down into my heart.

The thing is... There hasn't been any real innovation in this business for years.

Innovation in my book is a big thing. New breakthrough technology, new insights, exciting new products. When I look at the Virtual World Industry I see a whole lot going on. I see hundreds of new startups over the past year but truth is, I don't see real innovation there, despite the billions of dollars invested into the industry. If I were to nominate candidates for the Virtual World Innovation Award, there would be only three true Metarati: Neil Stephenson, Tad Williams and Ron Britvich , the guy from WebWorlds.

Stephenson, Gibson & Williams

Neil Stephenson is an obvious candidate. In the early 90's he wrote the novel 'Snowcrash' in which he pretty much invented the metaverse. I doubt there is anyone questioning the nomination of Neil Stephenson. A second name, often mentioned in the same breath, is William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk classic 'Neuromancer'. 'Neuromancer' was innovation, it was the start of cyberpunk, but it doesn't deal with the Metaverse, so despite popular believe, I wouldn't count Gibson in with the Metarati but rather fill that spot with the nomination of Tad Williams, author of the 'Otherland' series.

Both the novel 'Snowcrash' and the 'Otherland' series have created the image of the Metaverse and still hold some very interesting ideas, key elements that in my opinion could well open up a new window on Virtual Worlds. From these works we can learn what might work and what won't. Although both are quite dystopian in their full setting (a thing that happens a lot with novels dealing in the future), they do hold a promise, and in their dystopic setting a warning at the same time.

Dawn of the Virtual Worlds

Aside from the ideas presented by Stephenson and Williams, the first breakthrough in the field was in 1994 when Ron Brevitch created WebWorlds, predecessor of Active Worlds.

In the summer 1994, Ron Britvich created WebWorld, the first 2.5D world where tens of thousands could chat, build and travel. WebWorld operated on the Peregrine Systems Inc. servers as an 'after hours' project until Britvich left the company to join Knowledge Adventure Worlds (KAW) in the fall of that year.

In February 1995, KAW spun off their 3D Web division to form the company Worlds Inc. Britvich was eventually joined by several other developers, and the renamed "AlphaWorld" continued to develop as a skunk works project at Worlds Inc, internally competing with a similar project known internally as Gamma and publicly as Worlds Chat. While AlphaWorld was developing a strong cult following due in large part to Britvich's open philosophy of favoring user-built content, Worlds, Inc. favored Gamma for the company produced contract projects for Disney and others.

On June 28, 1995, AlphaWorld was renamed Active Worlds (from Active Worlds Explorer) and officially launched as version 1.0. Around this time, Circle of Fire (CoF) was formed to create content for the Active Worlds universe. This company played a pivotal role in the future of the product. [Wikipedia]

The creation of WebWorlds was innovation. Everything we've seen between 1995 and 2008 is merely spin off.

In this series of articles I'll try to explain why I haven't seen any real innovation and why I call everything since WebWorlds a mere spin-off, What the challenges of NVE's will be for the (near) future and why Virtual Worlds don't work yet.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bantam Dell: a little lack of creativity

It's been a while since I look in the area surrounding the Electric Sheep Island, but early this morning I scrolled by and noticed the Bantam Dell island.

Probably depending on which writer to promote and which audience to target the mothercompany Random House uses one of their many subsidiary imprints as a stand alone publisher or a combination. This time it's the Bantam-Dell combination, which are both respected publishing houses.

Probably best known of all the Random House imprints is Bantam which has published major science finction writers such as Isaac Asimov, Jean Michel Auel and the early metarati such as William Gibson and Neil Stephenson.

Bantam has published the entire original run of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of children's books, as well as the first original novels (aimed at adults) based upon the Star Trek franchise, publishing about a dozen such books
between 1970 and 1982 when the licence was taken over by Pocket Books. Bantam also published a dozen volumes of short story adaptations of scripts from Star Trek: The Original Series. Bantam is the American paperback publisher of The
Guinness Book of Records.

The other part of this imprint is Dell Publishing, most notable for publishing works by H.G. Wells and Alfred Hitchcock.

Dell Publishing was an American publisher of books, magazines, and comic books. It was founded in 1921 by George T. Delacorte Jr.. During the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Dell was one of the largest publishers of magazines, including pulp
magazines. From 1929 to 1974, they published comics under the Dell Comics line, the bulk of which (1938-62) was done in partnership with Western Publishing. In 1943, Dell entered into paperback book publishing with "Dell Paperbacks". They also used the book imprint of "Dial Press", "Delacorte Books", "Yearling Books" and "Laurel Leaf Library".

The Bantam Dell island is an excellent build, as far as building goes. The island is set up for 6 builds, but only half of it is build: The Bantam Dell Bookshop & Cafe, the central plaza and the auditorium.

The main venue is the Bantam Dell Bookshop & Cafe which is an excellent build and breathes the atmosphere of a classic bookshop and lounge. The books on display aren't the ones I'd buy at Bantam though.

As for interactivity there isn't much beyond clicking the books and opening the corresponding webpage (old fashioned style with an external browser) and a HUD promoting the Bantam Dell podcasts.

There are event lawns which are currently empty and asking for ideas. This is pretty much a disappointment for me as the Bantam Dell combination has a wide range of authors that would fit in with this new media of virtual worlds. I'd suggest they combine elements and scenes from the aforementioned writers to create an immersive experience, a tour of the future rather than settle for an old fashioned bookshop.


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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Designing the Future 1a

Last night I finally had time to slip into one of the Philips Design meetups. Due to scheduling issues I hadn't been able to attend before so I was glad I finally had the chance to meet up with the Philips Design Crew.

It was quite a session, over 2.5 hours of full-scale brainstorm on 3 topics, giving me over 14 pages of textlog to read back and condence. This will be a post in bits and pieces I think.

Don't predict the future, design it!

The sessions are titled "Designing the Future" and today's introduction was given by Centrasian Wise, one of Philips Design's inworld evangelists.

"We plan to have a series of interesting discussions with you and these discussions will be about …. the future! As we say in the panels at the top there, we don’t want to predict the future, we want to design it, or rather co-design it with people, with you.

In the next few months we will be holding a series of meetings here in SL to share our ideas and our work but also to learn what you think about them. The meeting today is an introduction to this new series."

Design Probes

Philips themselves have been thinking about the future themselves for some time now;

"Already for some years now Philips Design is carrying a design research program called Design Probes. It is an in-house future research program that explores what new lifestyles and people behaviors might emerge in the future and under 'future' we mean 2020 for these discussions. This program was set up to identify long term social changes and to anticipate changes in future lifestyles. It's far enough to already expect changes, but still foreseable.
So, we study new and emerging technology, socio-cultural trends and possible effects of political, economic and environmental changes.
Based on this knowledge, we then design a number of ‘probes’, or visionary concepts we call 'Probes'.
They reflect our understanding of potential futures, but also provoke and challenge existing assumptions. For example, our Design Probe Program wants to challenges the notion that our lives are automatically better because they are more digital.So, In the coming weeks we will present some of the results of this program."

Since Philips is a technology and digital gadgetting firm, that last remark shouts profit driven motivation. Or is there a more social spark driving the Probes?

"You'll have to see in the coming weeks whether it is technology-drive or people-driven :)."

Just like any good traditional sermon, this brainstorm session came in three topics:

  1. The future of self-expression
  2. The future of packaging
  3. The future of clothing

Where does it all lead to? Is Philips going into virtual clothing business in Second Life, or are we up to new and exciting adventures with self-thinking or self-guiding boots?

The Future of Self-Expression

After the the introduction the group split into three smaller groups for some severe brainstorming, almost good enough to call it a MindBlizzard. My little group saw Centrasian himself als moderator and also consisted of Ugotrade blogger Tara5 Oh and Implenia / EOLUS founder and thoughtleader Eolus McMillan and several other residents with backgrounds in Design and Technology as well. This made up for the producing end of the chain, it would have been good to see some from the receiving end (i.e. consumers) in there, so I went a little into skeptical mode.

The question at hand is how technology can augment our senses and the senses of those we communicate and interact with.

The discussion spiraled down to sensor technologies, or as Tara put it:

"I am particularly interested about how sensor/actuator networkscan enhance self expression in hyper connected eletronic environment s in new ways. By that I mean how can the kind of emotional bandwidth these kind of sensor technologies bring to communication be integrated into an immersive social networking environment like SL..... phew that is a bit long winded! But reall what are the interesting ways biometric sensors can be introduced into networked virtual environments?"

Now we don't have to get all creepy about Matrix-like plugins or neuropods from Tad William's Otherland series, or Neil Stephenson's Snowcrash visors. Here's some of the discussion:

[12:11] Tara5 Oh: but id i can't say it here where can I!
[12:11] Centrasian Wise: But would happen if we would add ‘sensing technology’ to our bodies?
[12:12] Centrasian Wise: Enhance it? Amplify?
[12:12] Una Gackt: I hope it would not be our body, but thinking things.
[12:12] Tara5 Oh: well I like the idea of the mutual enhancement of virtual and real environment through biometric sensors could be quite simple
[12:13] Tara5 Oh: like communicating the way you are feeling to a group on online friends
[12:13] Tara5 Oh: could be quite complex and move into the extreme life logging area
[12:13] Centrasian Wise: Like, to show your emotional state?
[12:13] Eolus McMillan: hehe to apply the expression in RL to your avatar in sL
[12:13] Tara5 Oh: yes!
[12:14] Tara5 Oh: and then combine that with some of the special communicative qualities of this eletronice environment

Well that's all folks for today. I'll have to find some time to put up the other two topics, which partly intertwine with the above discussion.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pinguin Gibson Stephenson and Metarati

Somehow I've written and deleted the first line of this article about 10 times in the last hour.

What I had in mind was a short blog on William Gibson, acknowledged metarati and author of (a.o.) Neuromancer.

No Maps for these terrirory

Alas, sometimes even visionairs are ruled by their publishers, and so it seemed on this feat. A few weeks ago there was a screener of a documentary called No Maps for These Territori, which is a 90 minute film about Gibson, and is praised as the Documentary of the Year by the LA Times. This was a good and glitchless performance so a 'reading' wouldn't be too hard.

So August 2nd would have been the day to meet one of the cyberpunk and metaverse metarati on a heavily piblicized official Pinguin public reading, but I missed out due to the spectacular (official) opening of the Greenies.

However, through several friends I heard I hadn't missed out on much, as the event was far from smooth. Metaverse Territories reports (and also kindly provides the image above on the No Map Screener):

"...but marketing ploys like Penguin’s organized, very publicized reading by William Gibson is another case altogether. Events like this must go smoothly in order for the world to become a credible place for business AND art, fun AND work. First of all, for SL users who came, it is as much an investment of their time and energy, which for me, was a wasted one (started late, the feed didn’t work until 10 minutes into his reading, didn’t know where to go, never actually saw the avatar etc. etc…). "

According to Gibson's blog he himself was left with a peculiar feeling as well. This should be amended!

Pinguin Presence

Being present in the metaverse these days requires a presence with a mission, or a message. It is going from pages to places in a quest for immersive and shared experience. Pinguin's line of thought isn't a bad one, when it comes to public readings. It just needs work and a fullscale programme (and maybe a few other things).

However, their speck of virtual land doesn't hold much that will draw crowds:

Second Life is an excellent platform to experiment. Even for publishers. A few months ago I wrote some thoughts on that in a post on the Amsterdam Public Library;

"In this new metaversality it would be a challenge for libraries (and publishers for that matter) to explore new formats that would draw back readers to good books.

Neil Stephenson, one of the metarati, is most famous for his novel "Snowcrash" in which the concept of the Metaverse is explored, but another excellent work is called "The Diamond Age" in which the future of reading and publishing is explored."

Here's another thought. Perhaps it would work for Pinguin to setup a giant ancient bookprinting press, have their books (f)lying about like old press letters and create an experience about books.

... just a thought, not a guaranteed success.

The Cyberpunk Metarati

Earlier this week I blogged on the Infocalypse project, a decorum for cyberpunk stories, of which Nexus Prime is one. I didn't check my numbers and linked it to the sim Nexus. Wrong! It should have been Gibson of course. Reading the firts part of the blog entry, it sounds pretty obvious why a cyberpunk-sim is named Gibson. When I first got there (sometime 2006) there ironically was placed a Neil Stephensons' Snowcrash promotion by Pinguin books. Now it's gone though, and replaced with a neat Gibson Spook City promo.

However, since the reading left Gibson with a peculiar feeling, there should be another change for the metarati to explore and experience the metaverse in all its richness and creativeness. I'm not sure who will take up the glove, but here's a proposal.

Geek Meet Challenge

What I'd like to see is Gibson and Stephenson to get a guided tour of the Cyberpunk cities, thrown in with some new Kowloon and steampunk Caledon to see the world they've envisaged and then settle down for a good panel discussion on the metaverse at the weekly Metaversed (and Dr. Dobbs and Information week) Geek Meets.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Amsterdam Public Library (OBA)

Early 2007 we have had a lot of commotion on the Dutch town of Zoetermeer entering Second Life, being criticised of wasting public money on niche market expression. However, they received a lot of attention which must have had some positive effect since many other Dutch towns are coming to Second Life as well.

One of the new arrivals, funded by public money, is the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (Amsterdam Public Library). The question is: will it be a waste of public money or not?

A little background on the sim might be in place here to look for specific triggers for the OBA to enter Second Life. Their old central library building was getting too small and a few years ago they've started building a new one in the Oosterdok, one of the main development areas in Amsterdam. This build will be finished this summer, so they've probably thought a virtual representation would add a little pizaz to dusty bookreading Holland.

As well as it's RL counterpart, the build itself is incomplete. Many elements are not texturised yet. From a distance it seems like a good, solid build, but as you get closer there is a lot of "jitter" (shifting textures) and not everything is properly aligned.

Aside from the main building there are a few things to do. There's a skydive point at the roof (okay, this is the popular conception of "things that work in SL nowadays", but hasn't got anything to do with the library) and the place is littered with bicycles. That is as real-life as you can get it, since the canals in Amsterdam are literally (not virtually) filled with rusty bikes.

The most complete element in the sim is the "Herman Brood" room, a famous Dutch rock 'n roll junky, musician and painter. On the lower levels there's a series of good looking computers with images of the library's website, but no interactiveness here yet. Then there are several stands with advanced microfilm readers. This connects with the OBA's cooperation with Karmac to digitize several important documents, under the projecttitle "the Memory of the Netherlands".

Unfortunately, these aren't working either...or worse, they're not even proper textures but badly cut images (see pic below)

So what can we expect from a virtual library? There's plenty of reference material to be found in Second Life in the Cybrary city sims, but sofar the OBA has not been able to go beyond a mere virtual representation of their new Central Library building.

In this new metaversality it would be a challenge for libraries (and publishers for that matter) to explore new formats that would draw back readers to good books.

Neil Stephenson, one of the metarati, is most famous for his novel "Snowcrash" in which the concept of the Metaverse is explored, but another excellent work is called "The Diamond Age" in which the future of reading and publishing is explored. This book can probably be found at the library, so I guess that's a must read for the peeps there exploring the future of libraring.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Snow Crash is a science fiction novel written by Neal Stephenson and published in 1992. It is his third novel. It follows in the footsteps of cyberpunk novels by authors like William Gibson and Rudy Rucker, but breaks away from this tradition by having a heavy dose of satire and black humor.

Like many postmodern novels, Snow Crash has a unique style and a chaotic structure which many readers find difficult to follow. It contains many arcane references to history, linguistics, anthropology, religion, computer science, politics, geography and philosophy, which may inspire readers to explore these topics further, or at least consult relevant reference works. Set in a world with a political-economic system that has been radically transformed, the novel examines religion along with its social importance, perception of reality versus virtual reality, and the violent and physical nature of humanity.

The title of the novel is explained in Stephenson's essay In the Beginning...was the Command Line, as the term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. About the Macintosh, Stephenson wrote that "when the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set — a 'snow crash.'"


The story takes place in the former United States during the early 21st century. In this hypothetical future reality, the United States Federal Government has ceded most of its power to private organizations. Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts, and private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', and all mail deliveries are done by hired couriers. The remnants of the government maintain authority only in isolated compounds, where it transacts business that is by and large irrelevant to the booming, dynamic society around it.

Much of the territory ceded by the government has been carved up into a huge number of sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong" or the various residential burbclaves (suburb enclaves)). This arrangement bears a similarity to anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. Hyperinflation has devalued the dollar to the extent that trillion dollar bills, Ed Meeses, are little regarded and the quadrillion dollar note, a Gipper, is the standard 'small' bill. For physical transactions, people resort to alternative, non-hyperinflated currencies like yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong).

The Metaverse, a phrase coined by Stephenson as a successor to the Internet, constitutes Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the poor visual representation of themselves via low-quality avatars. In the Metaverse, status is a function of two things: access to restricted environments such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club, and technical acumen which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar.

Plot summary and major themes

The hero and protagonist whose story the book follows is Hiro Protagonist: "Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world". When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise young girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard "Kourier", and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business. The setting is a near-future version of Los Angeles, where franchising, individual sovereignty and automobiles reign supreme (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug, called "Snow Crash" — both a computer virus, capable of infecting the brains of unwary hackers in the Metaverse, and a drug in Reality, being distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in), they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife and his enormous Raft of refugee boat people who speak in tongues, and an Aleut harpooner named Raven, whose motorcycle packs a nuke triggered by a literal dead man's switch. The Snow Crash meta-virus may be characterized as an extremely aggressive meme.

Stephenson takes the reader on a tour of the mythology of ancient Sumeria, while his characters theorize upon the origin of languages and their relationship to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Asherah is portrayed as a deadly biological and verbal virus which was stopped in Ancient Sumer by the God Enki. In order to do that, Enki deployed a countermeasure which was later described as the Tower of Babel. The book also reflects ideas from Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).

The characters speculate that early Sumerian culture used a primordial language which could be interpreted by human beings through the deep structures of the brain, rendering the learning of what he refers to as "acquired languages" needless. This theoretical language is related to glossolalia — also known as the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" — stating that the babbling of glossolalia is in truth a truncated form of the primordial language. A comparison is made to computers and their binary machine code, which exists on a much more basic level than, for example, the human-readable, high-level programming languages, and as such gives those with the ability to speak the language great power.

In the Snow Crash interpretation of Sumer mythology, the masses were controlled by means of verbal rules called me. The characters of Hiro and Lagos compare me to small pieces of software which could be interpreted by humans, and which contained information for specific tasks such as baking bread. Me were stored in a temple and its distribution was handled by a high priest, referred to as the en. Within this context, Enki was an en who had the ability of writing new me, and is described as the primordial hacker. Also, the deuteronomists are supposed to have had an en of their own, and that kabbalistic sorcerers known as the Baalei Shem (masters of the name) could control the primordial tongue.

Me were erased from people's minds by a meta-virus (see the definition of meta-), a fact theoretically explaining the Tower of Babel myth. Enki then wrote a me called "The nam-shub of Enki", which had the effect of blocking the meta-virus from acting by preventing direct access to the primordial language, making the use of "acquired languages" necessary. The meta-virus did not disappear entirely, though, as the "Cult of Asherah" continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes and infected women breast-feeding infants. This form of infection is compared to that of the herpes simplex virus or to the way religion is acquired.

Snow Crash
U.S. version cover shot, illustrated by Bruce Jensen.
Author Neal Stephenson
Cover artist Bruce Jensen
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Bantam Books (USA)
Released June 1992
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-553-08853-X (first edition, hardback)

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