Don’t forget games! – The Good, The Bad and The Pixely

Charlie Brooker wrote a great piece in the guardian yesterday about why he loves video games. It is still something that many people seem to close their minds too. In a way the virtual world experiences they are having will be a gateway to understanding the many forms of expression that games bring.
I just completed the story line of Modern Warfare 2 (no spoilers BTW), it got to a point at the end that I was shouting at the screen. This was because the game flows in an out of being in control and having to just watch. In all movies you sit and watch, its that simple. The story may or may not engage you. However some of the set pieces have you on the edge of you seat. It may be the Terminator dragging himself towards an incapacitated Sarah Conner, it may be a massive army charging towards an outnumbered set of heroes or Bond catching up with the bad guy in a car chase. They all require you to become engaged for it to work. When you have switched into a mode in a highly visual game where you have been solving problems and that is taken away from you (in context) the sense of drama and engagement is heightened. Cut scenes used to just be a way to show some pre-rendered visuals to set the scene, but the blurring of the cut scene narrative with the restricted interaction I thought was brilliant. (I have been playing games since the 70’s).
So as Charlie Brooker said “If you don’t play games, you’re not just missing out, you’re wilfully ignoring the most rapidly evolving creative medium in human history.”
Of course games are not just one thing, one genre, one experience. They meet many different tastes and needs. The abstract cartoon style social games of Cafe World and Farmville focussed on the daily grind (just as many MMO’s such as World of Warcraft rely on) to the now much more open ended experiences. The latter being demonstrated here with Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games. It’s not just the graphics, physics and code its the potential for narrative and engagement for one or more people.
See what you think.

We have all the pieces – Unity3d, Opensim, Evolver, Smartfox

I have now had this conversation several times with people about the potential future that a mix of open source and open minded development may bring to the virtual world industry. Much of what is happening seems to be driven by some of the direction Second Life has taken or is taking, though not so much to follow it into corporate lockdown but to breakout and provide the flexibility and creativity that is needed for the next generation of virtual worlds.
In the early days of 2006 many of us said it would be great to be able to run a Second Life server, our own one under out control. That has taken a while to start to emerge, but it has emerged as an expensive product aimed at corporate IT departments. Luckily the opensource community had rallied and created the excellent Opensim. This ticks all the boxes of being able to be run locally, be run in the cloud, be provided as a service. So we have an extensible virtual world server ready to be built upon.
The other component missing was a more controllable and rich interface. Yes there is the Second Life Snowglobe open source client but the need to certify and lockdown variants to align with the product needs for Second Life means that lots of the flexibility is lost. Likewise the initial open source Linden based client was under a GPL licence which caused all sorts of development to not happen at the time it really could have done with it.
This is where Unity3d steps in I believe. It was Rob Smart who first started to show me this way back. Unity3d is a great front end, very flexible in how you build games and content for it.
This was a movie form back in September 2008, using a message from Second Life to several unity clients to create a cube. This is loose integration, telling one place something has happened and letting the other place get on with it.

Unity3d has a plugin architecture too. It runs in a browser or deploys to application platforms like mac and windows. The visuals can be made very good very quickly too. Unity3d needs a server of some sort to operate as a multiuser platform (though it does do some peer 2 peer) hence applications like Smartfox are ideal for producing Unity multiplayer and MMO style games.
However Opensim has all the other layers of things needed to maintain a virtual world. It has assets databases, chat, positional awareness, server side scripting (as does Second Life that is was originally based on of course).
So we have an extensible and easy to get hold of Unity3D client engine, and extensible and easy to get hold of Server/Persistence VW engine in Opensim. There may well be challenges in making the two understand one another but with the flexibility both sides of the equation that makes them very solvable. This is a high level view, Rob has some more detail here on the challenges. Add in some interoperation definition with Vastpark to help bind the two and make some mappings.
Throw into the mix an open minded avatar wizard such as Evolver. There we can build avatars that we know definitely can be dropped into Unity3d.
So…..I create an Evolver avatar, dropped as a resource bundle into a web deployed Unity3d client that tells the opensim server where I am in the coordinate system, and which bundle I am using. Other people with a Unity3d client see the rich detailed avatar and the shiny Unity3d environment. However we do not have to stick to that one client. Other people using a Second Life style client see the Second Life style rendering of the world?
This is already happening in some respects, the Iphone application Touch Life lets you logon to the public Second Life. In a sort of bugblatter beast of traal moment everyone can see you, but you cant see them. You navigate your avatar around the map, have full chat, inventory and economy access, but a very different view of the world to everyone else. (Of course Unity3d runs well on an Iphone too, so imagine that as an extension to Touch Life?)
Once there is an acceptance that there can be more that one view of the data, one where people without the full equipment can still see what is going on and participate things get a lot easier to consider. Whilst a gaming assumption tends to be we all need the same view at the same speed in order to be able to have balanced gameplay (lag gets you killed) in collaborative spaces, education, meetings and art galleries this is less of an issue.
As the parts of the jigsaw come together over the next year the ability to have the same experience will re-emerge.

Metarati hangout – Serious Games Institute – Coventry

On friday I took a trip up to Coventry in the midlands to the Serious Games Institute. It is hard to believe that I have not been up there before as it really is the hub of nearly all the virtual world activity in the UK. I have been to lots of the events remotely, but it aways seemed that when we did events with SGI is timed in ways that meant Roo got to go and represent eightbar. I do however, know lots of the people who both set it up and use it from all the various other speaking engagements and conferences that there have been on virtual world use the past few years. Other virtual events also mean our patch cross, intertwine and build upon one another. SGI is home to projects like Oliver and David’s Shaspa for greener smarter buildings managed in clever and interesting ways with automation and virtual world technology. So going into the tech park at Coventry university and entering the reception felt like home to me.
In the main reception there were a good few demo’s and multiple displays of various proofs of concept and projects. However there was a great piece of news scrolling on the screen that David Wortley (the director of the SGI) had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. I did not get to talk to David about that as he was out of the country, but it is great news. David and I were on the same bill at the Derry Awakening Creative Entrepreneurship event back in March, my first physical event with Feeding Edge.
Whilst at SGI I got to say hi to Sara de Freitas and also to meet up with everyone Vin, Mark and Ollie from
Across the way in a large room an project was being demoed and used by a large number of people with Ron Edwards from who, amongst other things, use Forterra Olive for large projects. I will do a more full post on what they were up to once they have released that to the public. It was a very interesting one to see working with a great dynamic.
It was interesting having a chat and catching up on what had occurred around the industry and how the UK was still leading the way in many of the uses of virtual worlds, even if the large US based companies were seemingly claiming the turf. However us brits just get on with things 🙂
So for me this was great to be with so many people who I know get the potential we are all exploring and pushing and it felt I was very much amongst friends, with the great dynamic of support and competition in place at the same time. That horrible made up corporate buzzword bingo description being co-opetition.
Anyway, thanks to everyone for talking and sharing and I look forward to coming up again very soon and working on some more projects.

Digital Britain – Let free happen?

I have been listening and nodding away in agreement at Chris Anderson’s Free and reading Don Tapscott’s position on Digital Britain. In particular it was interesting to hear the history of the music industry and how is has shifted since the 1930’s. Each step challenged by the incumbent powerhouse, though the industry flourishing and growing despite that.
I paraphrase part of chapter 3 of
Free: The Future of a Radical Price: The Economics of Abundance and Why Zero Pricing Is Changing the Face of Business

In the 1930’s radio emerged.
Artists were paid for a single live performance, though this seemed unfair when compared to a concert hall of ticket paying audience when in fact it was broadcast to millions.
ASCAP insisted on royalties based on gross advertising revenue of the station at a high rate.
They wanted to raise the rate in 1940 when contract expired, which caused the radio stations a problem.
Whilst negotiations were on more stations started to use recordings as the technology had evolved and now had a use.
The record industry responded by stamping “not licenced for radio broadcast” on records.
Th US Supreme Court ruled if the station bought a record it could play it.
ASCAP persuaded major artists to stop producing records, hence cutting the content flow to the radio stations.
Stations were faced with either crippling royalties, or no content.
So they self organized their own agency BMI
This became a focal point for those niche artists and styles previously ignored by ASCAP.
Country & Western and R&B etc.
These “niche” musicians just wanted exposure so let the music be played for free
Radio then became a prime marketing channel for music not a direct revenue engine
Artists made money from records sales and concert sales and it moved back to live performance again.
With a combination of a smaller royalty formula and the rise of the Disc Jockey the top 40 era emerged. The music industry grew because of this.
Now the industry is about merchandise and live performance in concerts and still thriving.

Now of course we have the ability to both buy digital music at relatively cheap prices, and also for people to share them with one another for free. The powerhouses will say that this will kill music. It will if no one ever pays of course. However then no one will have any music and the human need for that will drive the creation of music. Live performance however still needs to be live, the tech will improve to allow the experience to get closer to the real thing as we see with virtual worlds. It then becomes about being at the event, being part of the event not just being broadcast too. The artists get to perform and get the adrenalin payoff for delivering to a crowd. Money will change hands, people will make a living.
The sands will shift, new patterns will emerge?

Of course piracy is a constant conversation and battle, but if something is good some people will show their appreciation , either by paying, donating, or spreading the word and acting as a salesperson to reach the people who will pay.

I am writing this as a someone who seeks to get paid for what I do, those things are very often about live performance of some sort. Generating ideas, inspiring people, explaining. Equally though lots of people expect that turning up to talk and generate ideas should be free, but they may pay for a “deliverable” some code, documents etc. Likewise much of what I share here is obviously giving away some ideas. Something that traditionally has been regarded (before the ability to share so widely) as something you keep close to your chest. Now blogs and twitter are my radio station playing my records that I create myself in order to help people know what I do, what I think and how I can come and perform for them and build their ideas in emerging tech and virtual worlds.
The various conversations about Digital Britain and clamping down on people worry me greatly. They have elements of the ASCAP example above, though I suppose this sort of restricted practice is needed in order for the industry to flow around it and grow. Having an threat or an enemy brings great resourcefulness. The danger is that the powers that be manage to crack down so much that we set the business innovation back too much.

Where are Apple in virtual worlds then?

Yesterday I was asked what Apple are doing with virtual worlds and related technology. The answer had to be, I don’t know, it would appear nothing specific. It was something I brought up at the 3DTLC conference in washington earlier in the year.
Having tweeted about it and ended up on a Facebook discussion it seemed worth putting some more firm thoughts down here.
I agree that Apple mac consumer hardware, the iphone, ipod, Mac. They also make the operating systems to power those specific pieces of hardware. In doing that they heavily focus on the user experience and giving a smooth experience to users and to developers.
Clearly when we are talking about virtual worlds they can be considered just an application. Opensim servers run just fine on my MBP. The various clients for Second Life work just fine too. So it is great for them to just keep cranking the handle on their base products.
Santa is mad at festival hall
(Photo made using 3dvia app on iphone and 3d model Santa is Mad by Toymaker )
However, the iphone and its recent updates to allow Augmented Reality applications, combined with development tools like unity3d and the number of 3d games such as Star Wars Trench Run is showing that as a mobile platform it is viable to interact with a virtual world app.

So is it likely for Apple to start to help with the same sort of UI polish and standards that it has created for touch applications, or the look and feel of the Mac OS?
Is Apple in a position to create and manage the equivalent of ITunes or the App store for virtual goods and content?
Already the iphone SDK has been updated to allow the delivery of new packaged content within an app, to allow free apps to be unlocked through commerce applications.
So in many ways Apple already has the pieces for us and are starting to use them themselves by creating an App team. The question is, what will Apple do? A few years ago we would not have expected the iPod and iTunes to come from people that made the homebrew original Apple hardware would we?
It will be interesting to see this develop.

Just in Time and Just in Place manufacture

I was just typing an explanation of 3d Printing in one of the networks I frequent to help some people get a handle on 3d Printing.
It struck that the “just in” prefix worked quite well. We are all used to the notion of Just In Time when talking about stock levels in a shop or factory, having the resources you need when they are needed and not holding too much redundant and expensive stock.
With 3d printing we add the layer of it being just in time by its very nature, but it is also where we need it so it is Just in Place.
Just in Time, Just in Place with Just Enough Quantity seems to work for 3d printing?

Stop press! Kermit comments on Video Conferencing

Many of us grew up accepting the tv based avatars (sorry puppets) that are the muppets. Many of us over here in the UK also use the term “You Muppet!” as a sort of slang joking derogatory line for someone foolish but harmless. The wide world interweb and associated social media has been awash with this muppets video. It is brilliant, but it also has an up to date message at the end.
So next time someone says, ah but can’t we video conference instead, just point them at the end of this video 🙂

That BBC article – The demise of Second Life?

A few days ago this BBC article lit up on and bounced around the network, and because it said “What happened to Second Life?” and then went on to try and explain the current status of the virtual world industry I got sent the link a few times and asked what I thought.
I had commented on the piece on the site, but I guess they got a too many comments as there are only a few on there. The Linden Lab response was blogged here.
“Not long ago Second Life was everywhere, with businesses opening branches and bands playing gigs in this virtual world. Today you’d be forgiven for asking if it’s still going.”
Hursley Island is born
That was the line that opened the piece which sort of set the tone.
Clearly we had a lot of media hype, we also had a lot of us form corporate space sharing our journey and finding new uses for virtual worlds. The media hype happened because it was a vibrant and interesting time with lots of angles and ways to explore this way of humans interacting online. It also offered a leap from the label of Web2.0, and gave more fuel for ideas and stories. In addition, being visual, it provided/provides much better additional content than a simple picture of Facebook.
I am quite happy that we had this massive interest in Second Life and virtual worlds in general. I am also now quite happy that we can just get on with pushing things forward and building industries and movements on the top of all the platforms.
It is not all Second Life, that is the part that may have confused the article. Not everyone, and every interaction online happens in Second Life. In fact there have been some moves lately that have started to push some people away from the platform, though this is really aimed at making it more mainstream and controlled.
I think part of the problem for people is the frame of reference that they need to impose on any new interaction online. Dynamically created places like Second Life are a way of getting to interact, but obviously if you are with the wrong people in the wrong place you will have the wrong experience. Not all pages on wikipedia will meet the needs of every user. Not every tv programme meets every taste and mood. Not every person, place, event in Second Life will meet everyones requirements. Not every virtual world will meet every requirement of business, social, entertainment and education need.
So, yes, some user interfaces needs a bit of learning, some creative platforms need you to put some degree of effort in to build things, some groups of people need you to interact with them in order to become part of that group.
Will Second Life solve this for you? Will Opensim? Will IRC chat? Will a community news letter? Will a blog/twitter/facebook/myspace/linkedin profile? No of course not.
I wonder if the next article will be “What happened to the world wide web?” or “What happened to the printing press?”
We are also at a point where 3d content and immersion is still on the rise. We see lots about Augmented Reality, which again will be hyped with interesting marketing schemes. It is all part of the same evolution. Content, Immersion and People all connected online.
I view the future as bright, I also know that some will want to wait and let us all sort out all the answers before coming on board. Its part of the cycle of all change adoption. Again I do not mind this, as I am here, as I say , to take a bite out of technology so you don’t have to.
If you are too wary, or too risk averse to engage, bemused, curious or scared then let us evangelists dotted around all over the place help you. You know how to find me!
Flame on.

Xbox Live concurrency, how many? Are these numbers big enough yet?

It is interesting that in the world of long tail we are still very focussed on how many people are in one place online, or paying attention to one piece of content. Places like Second Life have a good few users, and lots of stats and arguments to be had about how popular it is. It is a container service though that has lots of sub places within it. Those also want to be popular to as many people as possible. All this ends up as the justification to either ignore something and tut, saying yes but its niche isn’t it, or pile into the place in a feeding frenzy of business and advertizing or finally ignore it because its just too popular.

The reality of the networked world is that it is very easy to move around from place to place, jump websites and applications, moving things you need with you. You connect with people that are interested in what you are interested in. We are of course limited on the time and attention we can place on things and those wishing to extract money from us would rather we were in one place to be harvested. I have to yet to work out the boundaries of when something should be worthwhile to look into and consider and be regarded by others as worthwhile.

This was brought into focus by the recent news that something we can consider very mainstream now, the games industry has hit another milestone on one particular platform. That is the number of concurrent users logged into Xbox Live. For those not familiar with it the Xbox 360 console has access to a centralized system so that when turned on or in a game you have access to friends and content. Its a walled garden extranet really, though it starting to reach the out to the wider web. Its concurrency can mean people playing games, or just having the machine switched on. The magic number quoted was 2 million concurrent users that’s a great number, but also a very small one in some respects.

Do we consider that 2 million people at once is not enough? bearing in mind that is not 2 million people all talking to 2 million people at once, not even sharing the same game. Some people might suggest it is not mainstream enough even though over half the population in lots of western countries play games of one sort of another . It is of course nonsense to suggest the games industry is not big, popular and mainstream.

So back to virtual worlds. How many is going to be enough. When we have 2 million concurrent people on one platform or another (and there are platforms that has already happened 🙂 ) do we then get to indicate that this branch of the web is mainstream and then just get on with it?