Because You Can

Ever since Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, the distinguishing characteristic of science fiction (as opposed to fantasy and other literature) has been the postulation that beings can change the circumstances of the world in which they live. We can alter the human condition, for better or worse. An idea of the last few decades has been that we can create an alternative reality for ourselves that is better than the one we inhabit in the flesh. For example, the movie “Avatar” has the characters access an improved natural world through a virtualized experience.

This terrific short blog applies this idea wonderfully to learning and collaboration. “The real power of a virtual immersive environment is the ability to transport the learner or collaborators into an environment that is ideally suited for the learning or collaborating that needs to take place and this usually requires an altering of the spaces.”

In principle, we can abstractly virtualize such an experience with 2D photographs, or even 1D text, but that doesn’t tend to cross the threshold of immersion that is necessary for deep learning and deep collaboration. As this commenter on the above puts it, “In most 2-D meeting tools, the data is the center of focus, not the human. Think about a Web meeting. The leader is simply showing participants slides. But the participants are not interacting with the information, nor one another.” Simply reading about nature or viewing it from a helicopter was not enough for the characters in Avatar, they had to “be” there and interact with it.

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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Voting and the Emergent Value of Presence

There’s a lot of interest in voting technology for the expected record numbers of voters in the US presidential election, and voting widgets have become an expected accessory in social Web sites. But the simplest voting technology is no explicit technology. Is there a place for that in virtual worlds?

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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.)

“Well, no one told me about her… She's not there…” (The Zombies)

Getting nothing but a red screen at Here’s why.

Croquet keeps track of everything ever created, so that anyone can tell each object to do stuff. Most of the demo applications in the current SDK keep track as long as they are running. That creates a problem for our KidsFirst Application Toolkit demo,
and its public space at the Collaborative for Croquet. The public space is meant to be a long-lived environment, in which you can come and create (or destroy) stuff and rearrange it, and come back later to see things as you left them (perhaps evolved by someone else).

So we resort to a very old programming technique. And if you’re a developer, we need your help!

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I was just thinking of you…

I just had one of those damn computer things, where I send an email to someone who I couldn’t reach by voice, but just after sending it, I get an email from that person that changes the conditions of what I was writing to the person about. Arghh.

I’ve written before about how Croquet fosters both synchronous and asynchronous communication, like combining chat and email. Here’s how it plays out in this particular scenario. I go to the special space that Alice and I have created (with a few clicks or voice commands) for the stuff common to us. (Or maybe common to a group of three or more. It doesn’t matter.) I create a message in that space – voice, text, or video. The idea is that Alice will see that message (and possibly be notified) and will review at her leisure. Alice starts to do the same thing, but since each of us has a presence (an avatar) visible to anyone else in the space, we see each other. Then we just start talking, directly. While we do so, I can even point at the paragraph that I was just composing. Alice can edit it, too, so that she or I can then bring over the collaboratively revised version to Bob. No mail client. No telephone. No chat client. No whiteboard. No filenames or email addresses. No server.

OK, this isn’t that different in principle from the little colored balls in Macintosh Mail that tell you which addresses belong to people who are in your buddy list and available for iChat at this moment. But maybe it’s enough different to actually be useable.