What Do You Want to Do Today?

What can you do in a virtual world? Quite a bit, although we’re still quite far from the answer being, “Anything you can do in the real world.” Here’s a baseline list of today’s raw capabilities, in the language of virtual worlds. (The higher level activity one does with these capabilities is another story.)

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What's a Server?

I was taught that science is all about managing complexity by creating abstractions over different domains. A common layman’s mistake is to anecdotally observe or hear that something is true at some level, somewhere, and assume that this fact or definition applies throughout every discussion. For example:
One hears that computers are “programmed in binary,” or that they “understand binary,” but in fact, programmers don’t write in binary. Programmers work at a higher level of abstraction than binary encoding.
One hears that computers use “digital circuits,” that are simply “on” or “off”, but in fact, the physics of each electronic component is continuously variable. Device physics is at a lower level of abstraction than digital electronics.

So, what’s a server and what is peer-to-peer? It depends on what ‘s being discussed?

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Computer-Generated News

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I’m old enough to vaguely remember Walter Cronkite forty years ago showing us hand painted “NASA Simulation” video of the Apollo spacecraft maneuvering in space. There simply was no way to position a news camera outside the Lunar and Command Modules to get the shot.

Now we have computer generated movies and commercials. I’ve seen computer simulations of plane crashes and of presidential candidates. But yesterday morning was the first time I’d seen computer-generated pictures of human participants in breaking news. I’m not sure I approve of the concept altogether, but given it’s existence I do like the editorial decision to render the named humans in untextured solid red.

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The Innovation Engine

We seem to be wired to be able to solve difficult problems, but only in a community where we have support. To create that support, we have throughout history sung songs of heroes around the campfire. We are inspired by movies. Militaries breed close-knit groups and create splendid uniforms and other rituals. We go to church. With a support group, we overcome depression. We set our sports records before a stadium full of humans cheering us on.

Alone on Antarctic ice, we die.

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Sex and the SimCity?

I had been working with an engineer from a large multi-national company. I had never met or conversed with this engineer except by email, but I understood from her name that she was female.

Having been married for 17 years to an MIT graduate, I like to think I have some appreciation of how women engineers behave and how they should be treated.

In the course of our work, this engineer created an avatar, and she commented on how it looked like her. Her model was based on a typical digital content industry product. Few people other than my wife look like these figures – Barbie dolls on steroids. By what turned out to be an accident of technology, this model arrived on my desktop stark naked – no clothes and no hair. But it was highly detailed, and artfully done.

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Who… are you?

I’ve been working with various representations of self inside Croquet. The other day, I had a kind off goofy cartoon-like avatar, and at the same time, I had a Web cam of myself displayed on the wall of the virtual conference room. We were looking at technical problems with both. David said, “Well, Howard looks interesting.” Do I? Which me? Or do you mean me?

I’ve also been working with 3D heads that are automatically generated to look like a person from in a 2D photograph. The software has some large number of parameters by which a canonical head is adjusted. The values for a particular person are measured off the photograph. Now, I think of a person’s ears as being unique as a fingerprint, but the software uses the same generic ear for everyone. Since there’s only one frontal picture used, there isn’t enough side-view data to make personalized ears. It made me think of Westworld or Neuromancer, in which future people recognize artificiality by flaws in the hands. A character says, “’They’ can’t do hands right.” In the near-term metaverse, it’ll be the ears.

On the other hand, one of these heads was a fellow I’d never met before, although I’ve been working closely with him days, nights and weekends for two months. I had seen him with a small 2D photograph where his face would be on his avatar. From his family name, I thought his ancestors might be Asian, but the ID photo was just too generic. Maybe Eastern Europe? However, the 3D head had a distinct Pac-Rim cast to me that just didn’t jump out at me in the photo. Interesting.

Lots of opportunities to define who the heck you are. And are you the same wherever you go? Am I different at work and in social gatherings? (Is there a difference?) Should I have distinct identities and distinct representations? I don’t want to walk into the virtual office wearing my B&D avatar! (And indeed, tonight I walked into a meeting not realizing that I was wearing Intel’s CEO that I’d been testing earlier.) Qwaq CEO Greg Nuyens puts it this way: after you meet and work with someone in Qwaq Forums, we want some of that relationship to carry over to a subsequent meeting in person. You shouldn’t feel like the non-virtual meeting is your first. (Greg’s in the video at the previous link discussing identity, but not this particular point.)

And Croquet is good for the environment, too!

Nice article about teleconferencing (including Qwaq, which is based on Croquet) versus travel.

I wonder if there’s real data on the relative merits of the energy used in office buildings vs. telecommuting. Office buildings are potentially more efficient through scaling, although the economic incentives are so lacking that there’s usually a lot of waste. While homes are energy hogs, we do already have and heat them for our non-work time.

The Real-Time Internet, circa 2007 – It's about the information, not the interaction

World-Wide Web technology is primarily static. The technology is designed around slow repeated cycles of request-a-page/get-a-page. Technologies like Flash, Curl, and Laszlo are aimed at improving this interaction while staying within the WWW framework. But the Web isn’t about interaction, it’s about information and, to a certain extent, transactions. While these drivers remain unchanged, two stories in my local paper this week have shown me that the expectations of pace have changed.

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