Hurry up and help me speed up please BT

When we moved house recently, and hence the base for Feeding Edge I was on BT Infinity 70mb broadband. It was great, a great service and fast and reliable. On moving to Basingstoke I checked that the exchange for the house was Infinity enabled, it was. I couldn’t check the property as it didn’t have a BT line at the time.
As soon as we moved in and got a real phone number I ran the checker again. It said May 2013 was the likely time. As May passed it then said June 2013 and now it says “between June 2013 and July 2013”.
I realize it is all down to phone cabinets being enabled for FTTC (Fibre to the cabinet). I can’t even find our cabinet to check maybe that is the problem. It all seems to tantalisingly close to get back to 70mb again, yet registering interest on the BT site may not really be doing anything to make it happen. Maybe a bit less money on the adverts and a bit more on the rollout please 🙂
I am not sure how much there is to do, what the economics of it all are but it must be relatively doable or the checker wouldn’t keep making up a month?
As a business, and a techie one being able to shift data around is really quite important to me. I will be back on the top tariff as and when they sort it out. If anyone knows anyone who can point me at another way to make this go a bit quicker that would be great.

****Update 14/6/13
As I had tweeted about this it was great that @BTcare spotted it and contacted me. As a customer it is great to know that someone is bothering to listen. The answer may eventually not be the one I want to hear, but there is certainly some activity to try and find out a little bit more on the status of any line upgrade. That is really good. Thankyou BT 🙂

**** Update 25/7/13
I got a reply about the cabinet from NGA equiries
Dear Sir,

Thank you for your enquiry about fibre broadband. The current cabinet is full to capacity and in order to increase the capacity we need to install more interconnection cables to the existing telephony cabinet. However, to do this we would normally install a larger casing onto the telephony cabinet to accommodate the cables. Unfortunately, we cannot do this as the local council will not give us permission, as they state the cabinet is in an unsafe permission. Therefore, we have proposed to move the cabinets, but again, the local council are refusing permission for this also. We are continuing to work with the council and I have highlighted your problem in the hope it will add momentum.
As there are people who move in and out of the area, they may also terminate their broadband service, effectively creating spare ports. I would advise that as the engineering work will take some time, that you regularly contact your service provider to see if an order will progress utilising spare port capacity if available at that time.
NGA Enquiries

I am now asking Basingstoke council if that is true or what I can do to sort it.

****update Dec 30 2013.

Having talked to the council it seemed that no planning application had been made ever to upgrade the cabinet. Somewhat frustrated I wrote an email to the (outgoing) CEO of BT. Somewhere along the line it got handed to a very helpful person in openreach. He was able to give me more information on the status and try and get to the cabinet upgraded. Just before xmas 2012 I tried the order system again and this time I seemed to be allowed 70mb Broadband. So I placed the order for completion on 30th Dec 2013. I was a little nervous the website had changed and it was not able to actually tell that the cabinet was full. However, the engineer turned up, installed and it is all working now.
I thanked my contact in openreach, though it may bt the work has yet to be completed it was just lucky someone was moving from BT. So I am happy with this much faster broadband, but hope that any actions will help anyone else.

IGBL – Learning from Games Based Learning

Last week I popped over to Dublin for the Irish Symposium on Games Based Learning at the Dublin Institute of technology. It is a few years since I was there last at Metameets listening and talking virtual worlds.
There is a very influential core of virtual world people there and many of them were at the conference so that is alway good to have a real world/SL meetup.
Dr Pauline Rooney from DIT opened up the conference and it felt like I was in the right place.
The opening keynote was by Dr Nicola Whitton from Manchester Metropoliton University. “Game Based Learning in an Age of Austerity”. I then knew I was in the right place because everything Dr Whitton said resonated with some many projects. The key theme was that you don’t have to spend millions of pounds making games for learning, they also don’t all have to be technical deliveries of games. Making a game out of making a game can be as beneficial as putting people through the end product.
She showed an example of the sort of thing that happens in medical sims and games. Lots of huge expensive graphics and realism with a text multiple choice question on the top. Having had to build some things like that, to meet requirements, but having also subverted that with simpler ideas and gaming concepts I was sat there nodding in agreement.
#igbl2013 keynote take home points
The other point as you can see in the take home points above was that it is ok to play. Humans learn through play and it still gets regarded as not serious enough. Tales of people expecting to put away childish things and then how restrictive their thinking gets when faced with exploring and creating in a playful way.
After a quick coffee I chose to stay in the same room for the next track.
Neil Peirce from Learnovate Centre Trinity College Dublin presented his academic paper “Game Based Learning for Early Childhood“. I did not get so much form this, though I am sure the research was very as really I needed to read the paper. However, this was an academic conference and I am not technically an academic so it was not aimed at me 🙂
I was more interested in “An investigation into utilising a Theraputic Exergame to improve the Rehabilitation Process” where the Waterford Institute of Technology had worked with physiotherapist and used a Kinect, Unity and Zigfu to explore repetition of exercise in the home. This appeared successful, and fitted well with my experience of kinect and how we can broadcast and work together physically using these devices.
Next up was a great Prezi presentation by S. Cogan from the National College of Ireland. He was explaining “engagement through ramification”. Whilst the word gamification is now tired and over used he presented it from a point of view of not knowing what it was, how he was going to use it and shared waht worked and didn’t work in getting the student he lectured to be bothered about class. The positive results were that he had got much better attendance and pass marks, but also that he himself felt a greater sense of achievement making some of the activities more game like. It was very inspirational to hear a younger lecturer looking to change things around a bit, but not completely overturn the system. It all just made sense, and sharing what failed (wrong rewards, too much game in some things etc.) was very refreshing.
After lunch it was 2 hour workshop time so I popped along to “Developing games for Learning using Kinect”. Now I was not sure what to expect, I thought I might be able to help out as well as have a bit of fun myself. I had not fully realized that it was Stephen Howell who is the creator of the very cool Kinect for Scratch. It was great to hear @saorog explain scratch to the audience of mostly non techy people and get them programming in the same way its done with kids, then hit everyone with the simplicity of using the kinect in scratch. It was very well done and very well delivered, he is a clever bloke 🙂 . He also showed us his Leap motion controller in action 🙂
After a bit of Irish culture on the evening.
Followed by almost no sleep as my hotel room had no double glazing so the ongoing partying in Camden Street and the subsequent bottle deliveries pretty much filled all the early morning….
Elfeay and I did out little pitch. “I am a Gamer. Not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many”. We each did a 8 minute chat on how we have found our various tribes, how games and games technology and culture have led us to places that then feed into more games and games culture. My example being the journey in Choi Kwang Do via games and tech, plus a few other things thrown in 🙂 It provoked some good workshop style discussion too. It was also great fun to do in that format and huge thanks to Elfeay for getting it all on the roster 🙂
It also dovetailed nicely into some Pecha Kucha sessions where slides are timed and there are a given number in a given time slot. It is almost the presentation equivalent of a vine or a tweet. Concise, well planned to fit and delivers a lot in a small package.
Dudley Turner from University of Akron in the states did a great piece of “developing a quest-based game for university student services”. Making the discovery of what is available to new students on campus through a mix of alternate reality pieces of information like emails and mini websites linking a narrative to real world tresure hunting using Aurasma AR location specific tags to get them to places. It is all part of a course that they have to take anyway, but this gets them out and about and engaged with the places they need to be at, not just reading and looking at maps.
The next was P.Locker presenting “The snakes and ladders of playing at design:Reflections of a museum interactive designer, game inventor and exhibition design educator”. This was refreshing as it was not really about the tech end of things, but the core of play and interaction. Physical installations and how being a board game designer helped create museum pieces and teach others how to make them. There are elements of practicality and robustness in the physical aspects to consider as well as the learning aspects.
Finally, last but by no means least, S. Comley the University of Falmouth talked about “Games based learning in the Creative Arts”. It was surprising to hear that arts were not heavily involved in the use of games in the learning process. It seems human nature to stick with what you know hits everywhere. It will be interesting to see where her research takes her, as this was a precursor to a much bigger piece of work, stating the problem and the potential benefits. In particular to get cross discipline interaction in academic arts.
That was it for the main tracks. I missed a lot as lots was on at the same time but it was all brilliant.
It ended with a keynote from Fiachra O Comhrai from Gordon Games. “Using game science to engage employees and customers in the learning, knowledge sharing and innovation process”. What was interesting here was that Gordon Games was formed by non gamers. Mr Comhrai said he formed the company then decide to look at some games. I felt slightly uneasy at that, but good on them for doing it anyway. As a long time gamer where I both play and analyze what is going on it felt that my 40 years of gaming experiences was being summed up as something that you pick up in weekend on xbox. I am not sure that is what he meant. Also much of their work is in call centres, though we did not get to see many examples of Gordon Games, we did get to see some fun videos from other people.
After that some of us Second Lifers headed off for lunch before I dived into a taxi and headed home.
Here we all are looking very shifty 🙂

@elfeay @acuppatae @inishy @d_dreamscape @iClaudiad
So thankyou Dublin and thankyou everyone at the conference it was a blast and very inspiring to be with so many clever and passionate people.

Martial Arts Human Technology

This weekend was a very interesting one for those of us who study the Martial Art Choi Kwang Do as it was the 25th Anniversary festival and seminar. (I have written, and talked a lot about how I arrived at CKD via technology, as in the Flush The Fashion Article but as with all journeys there are always new discoveries). People from all over the globe arrived and took part in a variety of activities. Most notable was the presence of the founder of CKD Grand Master Choi.
He presented several times to various groups of us. At the age of 71 he is still incredibly flexible, physically fit and sharp of mind. Not to mention blindingly fast with his techniques.
Whilst I have been considering (as have others in CKD) the use of technology to aid training and perfecting of the techniques we use it struck me just how important our human biology is in the whole art. The way we learn, how we train, our motivations for training all need to be looked at.
That is obvious at one level, you can’t have a martial art of blocking, punching and kicking without humans. It can seem from the outside, as with many martial arts that the formality and structure is making everyone the same. Uniformity being an apparent goal. This is not the case though as I heard many times that everything has to be relative to the individual.
During the seminar we got to meet Jordan Leiva who has been practicing CKD for a long time, but who clearly also likes to use tech to improve and analyse and share his movements. To see the precision of years of practice in slow motion even if you are not part of a martial art is very poetic.

CKD is often described as being based on scientific principles but as I heard explained a few times in various ways the science has almost followed what was a gut feeling that Grand Master Choi had with a maverick view of doing things a better way. This is probably the other reason I gravitated towards this tribe of people. If the founder is a bit of a maverick, challenging the way things are done it it a natural fit.
Clearly the science of biomechanics feature a lot in being able to move and defend oneself from any attack, but it seems that the mere fact of learning the sequences, slowly and without pressure or tension offer range of other benefits to the brain and systems around it, with the ability to also ramp up the same patterns and moves to achieve different physiological effects. So how will technology help us adjust and train things going on inside our minds and bodies? I am still looking at kinect for the motion of the body, but I think I need to roll in the Neuorsky and alike to deal with mental state too.
I had always looked at exercise as something that was pretty binary. You put a lot of effort in, or you were not doing it right. I was aware that different heart rates altered the effect of exercise but still that seemed a very mechanical. Seeing the ease with which experts and Masters in CKD performed their patterns, and hearing Grand Master Choi point out that over training was not a good thing started to put my attitude to us as human pieces of technology in a different light.
A quick google to start to look at a bit of the brain science and the chemical changes we cause ourselves, which ties in with some of the anecdotal pieces of information I got to hear this weekend. This paper (though many academic papers are locked behind a paywall). It would appear there are some great chemical balancing acts that excercise causes. All related to BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Physical activity at the right level for the age and abilities of the person increases brain function and grows new neurons. However too much and it damages the ability to learn. So you can reach a tired state, just at the right level for you as and individual and then be more receptive to new information.
I have been interested for a long time in people’s motivations and why they engage with certain tasks, games etc. How something feels is as important as what something is.
I think as we blend ourselves more with technology we are all going to have to start understanding the deeper impact it may have on our physiology which means there is a lot more room for a Cyber Martial Art that CKD could become aiming at improving all our experiences of life. It is another exciting avenue to investigate, whilst also not trying to over analyse and just enjoy the journey.

Xbox One – not all bad

I missed watching the Xbox One live reveal video last night. Generally these overly rehearsed American corporate tele prompter fed things are pretty long, drawn out and less than optimal experiences. So I went to Choi instead obviously!
xbox one
I came back to see what the generally vibe was and it seemed quite negative. Partly because of a focus on TV and web integration not on games, and where it was about games it was Call of Duty and a new dog character. However having watched the replay there were some gems of information in there that I found interesting.
The first was “The Kinect understands the rotation of your wrists and shoulders and can even read your heartbeat.” It seems the new Kinect 2.0 is a much more advanced device. A wide angle field of view and a HD image of the world. Whilst the focus seemed to be “look how good skype video calls will be” there were some images of the new kinect skeleton and tracking. It looks fast, assuming it was live. It also showed some fast combat moves as well, combined with some subtle yoga moves. All looking great if we can get at the tech for things like Choi.
**Update added the wired preview of all the kinect abilities 🙂

The multiple references to cloud were generally about storage, as is often the case. However there was a reference to the processing in the cloud that can occur. i.e. servers. “bigger matches with more players, living and persistent worlds”. So we have the chance for some real persistent virtual worlds and games to exist on the console in a well managed way. These exist generally in PC land with Second Life, Eve-online and World of Warcraft. There have been the odd foray into proper MMO territory on consoles, such as the new Defiance tie in, and playstation Home. Now though it looks like this, assuming the games companies can adjust to it, will bring a new generation of game to the consoles.
Of course we can expect more of the same for a while after launch but I think the xbox one just pips the ps4 at this stage in the race. Though I do agree Microsoft could have been a bit less corporate and just blasted out there in an informal way and told us all things in a different way. I think if you put the PS4 and Xbox One reveal next door to one another and swapped the logos you would have not been able to tell any difference between the too. Its a box it goes fast and it does stuff connected to other things.

Almost a re-launch here we go

After what has seemed an age we have finally moved family home (and of course the base for Feeding Edge). It has meant a lot of down time work wise. Packing shifting, unpacking all takes real time out of the day. The biggest problem had been a lack of internet. This is somewhat essential for an online business! At the previous place we had superfast broadband with BT Infinity FTTC (Fibre to the cabinet) about 70 Mbps. When we moved house I checked the local exchange and it seemed to be Infinity enabled. In putting in a house move request though it was not possible for BT to determine if they could re-do infinity until the phone line was enabled, but could give 2-8Mbps broadband. It was also going to take 2 weeks to enable the line, i.e. after we moved.So I took the off the net time to sort out all things house related.
BT Broadband
On wednesday the ASDL router lit up and data was once again able to flow, albeit at 5Mps to all the various machines. I was a bit surprised that the phone didn’t light up too. As it was now enabled I thought I would phone BT and check what was going on. The helpdesk was adamant that I did not have internet enabled as the phone line was not connected yet. They insisted that I must be picking up a neighbours wifi not an ADSL line. I was not overly worried about that but I was attached to ADSL I was looking at the router admin pages, the light was on and we were on my wifi network and I had looked up the number to call and the status page using that internet.
All I can assume that happened was a very kind engineer had been trying to sort out the phone and broadband, there was clearly a tech fault with some element of the phone number but they patched in broadband (which is actually more use that a phone line these days). The BT checker says we can’t get Infinity yet, though does say it will be available May 2013. As it is May 2013 I really hope we get hooked up soon. It is very hard to go backwards in capacity and it is certainly going to slow me down a little.
Either way the phone got fixed and by Thursday this death star was fully operational (well on reduced power really).
Friday I got to try the new quicker route to London and went to talk about some more medical related training development building from MMIS.
So Monday, today is the first proper day of the new, but the same Feeding Edge. I am still here taking a bite out of technology so you don’t have to. The digital doors are open and let’s see what this part of the adventure brings us.
Already though next month (June) is looking pretty busy.
I am speaking (along with the wonderful Lisa Feay ) and attending the Irish Symposium on Game Based Learning

Games based learning

Games based learning

I am also heading to Amsterdam to talk Blended Reality Learning at the GOTO festival

GOTO Amsterdam

GOTO Amsterdam

So it’s all go, all the same, yet brand new 🙂

Training in a virtual hospital + zombies

It is not very often I get to write in much detail about some of the work that I do as often it is within other projects and not always for public consumption. My recent MMIS (Multidisciplinary Major Incident Simulator) work for Imperial College London and in particular for Dave Taylor is something I am able to talk about. I have know Dave for a long while through our early interactions in Second Life when i was at my previous company being a Metaverse Evangelist and he was at NPL. Since then we have worked together on a number of projects, along with the very talented artist and 3d Modeller Robin Winter. If you do a little digging you will find Robin has been a major builder of some of the most influential places in Second life.
Our brief was for this project was to create a training simulation to deal with a massive influx patients to an already nearly full hospital. The aim being several people running different areas of the hospital have to work together to make space and move patients around to deal with the influx of new patients. It is about the human cooperation and following protocol to reach as good an answer as possible. We also had a design principle/joke of “No Zombies”

Much of this sort of simulation happens around a desk at the moment, in a more role play D&D type of fashion. That sort of approach offers a lot of flexibility to change the scenario, to throw in new things. In moving to a n online virtual environment version of the same simulation activity we did not want to loose that flexibility.
Initially we prototyped the whole thing in Second Life. Robin built a two floor hospital and created the atmosphere and visual triggers that participants would expect in a real environment.
Second LifeScreenSnapz002

Note this already moves on from sitting around a table focussing on the task and starts to place it in context. However also something to note is that the environment and creation of it can become a distraction from the learning and training objective. It is a constant balance between real modelling, game style information and finding the right triggers to immerse people.

For me the challenge was how to manage an underlying data model of patients in beds in places, of inbound patients and a simple enough interface to allow bed management to be run by people in world. An added complication was that of specific timers and delays needing to be in place. Each patient may take more of less time to be moved depending on their current treatment. So you need to be able to request a patient is moved but you then may have to wait a while until the bed is free. Incoming patients to a bed also have a certain time to be examined and dealt with before they can then be possibly moved again.

A more traditional object orientated approach might be for each patient to hold their own data and timings but I decided to centralise the data model for simplicity. The master controller in world decided who needed to change where and sends a message to any interested party to do what they need to do. That meant the master controller held the data for the various timers on each patient and acted as the state machine for the patients.
In order to have complete flexibility of hospital layout too I made sure that each hospital bay was not a fixed point. This meant dynamically creating patients and beds and equipment at the correct point in space in world. I used the concept of a spawn point. Uniquely identified bay names placed as spawn points around the hospital meant we could add and removes bays and change the hospital layout without changing any code. Making this as data driven as possible. Multiple scenarios could then be defined with different bay layouts and hospital structure, with different types of patients and time pressures, again without changing code. The ultimate aim was to be able to generate a modular hospital based on the needs of the scenario. We stuck to the basics though, of a fixed environment (as it was easy to move walls and rooms manually in Second Life, with dynamic bays that rezzed things in place.
This meant I could actually build the entire thing in an abstract way on my own plot of land, also as a backup.
I love to use shapes to indicate the function of something in context. The controller is the box in this picture. The wedge shape is the data. They are close to one another physically. The torus are the various bays and beds. The flat planes represent the white board. They are grouped in order and in place. You can be in the code. Can think about object responsibility through shape and space. It may not work for everyone but it does for me. The controller has a lot of code in it that also has a more traditional structure. One day it would be nice to be able to see and organise that in a similar way.

This created a challenge in Second Life as there is only actually 64k of memory available to each script. Here I had a script dealing with a variable number of patients, around 50 or so. Each patient needed data for several timer states and some identification and description text. Timers in Second Life are a 1 per script sort of structure so instead I had to use a timer loop to update all the individual timers and check for timeouts on each patient. Making the code nice a readable with lots of helper functions proved to not be the ideal way forward. The overhead of tidyness was more bytes in the stack getting eaten up. So gradually the code was hacked back to being inline operations of common functions. I also had to initiate a lookup in a separate script object for the longer pieces of text, and ultimately yet another to match patients to models.

The prototype enabled the customers (doctors and surgeons) to role play the entire thing through and helped highlight some changes that we needed to make.
The most notable was that of indicating to people what was going on. The atmosphere of pressure of the situation is obviously key. Initially the arriving patients to the hospital were sent directly to the ward or zone that was indicated on the scenario configuration. This meant I had to write a way to find the next available / free bed in a zone. This also has to be generic enough to deal with however many beds have been defined in the dynamic hospital. Patients arrived, neatly assigned to various beds. Of course as a user of the system this was confusing. Who had arrived where. Teleporting patients into bays is not what normally happens. To try and help I added non real work indicators, lights over beds etc that meant a across a ward could show new patients that needed to be dealt with.
If a patient arrived automatically but there was no bed they were places on one of two beds in the corridor. A sort of visual priority queue. That was a good mechanism to indicate overload and pressure for the exercise. However we were left with the problem of what happened when that queue was full. The patients had become active and arrived in the simulation but had nowhere to go. This of course in game terms is a massive failure, so I treated it as such and held the patients in an invisible error ward but put out a big chat message saying this patient needed dealing with.
I felt this was too clunky to have to walk around the ward keeping an eye out so as I had a generic messaging system that told patients and beds where to be I was able to make more than one object respond to a state change. This led to a quick build of a notice board in the ward. At a glance red, green and yellow status on beds could be seen. Still I was not convinced this was the right place for that sort of game style pressure. It needed a different admissions process once that was controlled by the ward owners. They would need to be able to still say “yes bring them in to the next available bed (so my space finding code would still be work)” or direct a patient to a bed.
The overal bed management process once a patient was “in” the hospital
SL Hospital
The prototype led to the build of the real thing. It was a natural path of migration to Unity3d as I knew we could efficiently build the same thing in a way we could then simply use web browsers to access the hospital. I also knew that using Exit Games Photon Server I could get client applications talking to one another in in synch. From a software engineering point of view I knew that in C# I could create the right data structures and underlying model to be able to replicate the Second Life version but in a much better code structure. It also meant I could initiate a lot more user interface elements more simply as this was a dedicated client for this application. HUD’s work in Second Life for many things but ultimately you are trying to not make things happen, you don’t want people building or moving things etc. In a fixed and dedicated unity client you can focus on the task. Of course Second Life already had a chat system and voice so there was clearly a lot of extra things to build in Unity, but there is more than one way to skin a virtual cat.

The basic hospital and patient bed spawning points connected via Photon in Unity was actually quite quick to put together, but as ever the devil is in the detail. Second Life is server based application that clients connect too. In Unity you tend to have one of the clients as a server, or you have each client responsible for something and let the others take a ghosted synchronisation. Or a mixture as I ended up with. Shared network code is complicated. Understanding who has control and responsibility for something, when it is distributed across multiple clients takes a bit of thought and attention.

The easiest one is the player character. All the Unity and Photon examples work pretty much the same way. Using the Photon Toolkit you can instantiate a Unity object on a client and have that client as the owner. You then have the a parameters or data that you want to synchronise defined in a fairly simple interface class. The code for objects has two modes that you cater for. The first is being owned and moved around, the other is being a ghosted object owned by someone else just receiving serialised messages about what to do. There are also RPC calls that can be made asking objects on other clients to do something. This is the basis for everything shared across clients.
For the hospital though I needed a large control structure that defined the state of all the patients and things that happened to them. It made sense to have the master controller built into the master client. In Unity and photon the player that initiates a game and allows connection of others is the master. Helpfully there are data properties you can query to find this sort of thing out. So you end up with lots of code that is “if master do x else do y”.
Whoever initiates the scenario then becomes the admin for these simulations. This became a helpful differentiation. I was able to provide some overseeing functions, some start, stop pause functions only to the admin. This was something that was a bit trickier in SL but just became a natural direction in Unity/Photon.
One of my favourite admin functions was to just turn off all the walls just for the admin. Every other client is able to still see the walls but the admin has super powers and can see what is going on everywhere.

No walls

This is a harder concept for people to take in when they are used to Second Life or have a real world model in their minds. Each client can see or act on the data however it chooses. What you see in one place does not have to be an identical view to others. Sometimes that fact is used to cheat in games, removing collision detection or being able to see through walls. However here is it a useful feature.

This formed the start of an idea for some more non real world admin functions to help monitor what is going on such as cameras textures that let you see things elsewhere. As an example wards can be looked at as top down 2d or more like a cctv camera seeing in 3d. Ideally the admin is really detached from the process. They need to see the mechanics of how people interact, not always be restricted to the physical space. Participants however need to be restricted in what they can see and do in order to add the elements of stress and confusion that the simulation is aiming for.


Unity gave me a chance to redesign the patient arrival process. Patients did not just arrive in the bays but instead I put up a simple window of arrivals. Patient numbers and where there we supposed be be heading. This seemed to help, though a very simple technique, in a general awareness for all participants that things were happening. Suddenly 10-15 entries arriving in quick seemingly at the door to the hospital triggers more awareness than lights turned on in and around beds. The lights and indicators were still there as we still needed to show new patients and ones that were moving. When a patient was admitted to a bed the I put in the option to specify a bed or to just say next available one. In order to know where the patient had gone the observation phase is now additionally indicated by a group of staff around the patient. I had some grand plans using the full version of Unity Pro to use the path finding code to have non player character (NPC) staff dash towards the beds and to have people walking to and fro around the hospital for atmosphere. This turned out to be a bit to much of a performance hit for lower spec machines, though it is back on the wish list. It was fascinating seeing how the pathfinding operated. You are able to define buffer zones around walls and indicated what can be climbed or what needs to be avoided. You can then tell an object an end point and off it goes dynamically recalculating paths avoiding things and dealing with collision, giving doors enough room and if you do it right (or wrong) leaping over desks beds and patients to get to where they need to go 🙂 )

One of the biggest challenges was that of voice. Clearly people needed to communicate, that was the purpose of the exercise. I used a voice package that attempted to package messages across the network using photon. This was not spatial voice in the same way people were used to with Second Life. However I made some modifications as I already had roles for people in the simulation. If you were in charge of A&E I had to know that. So role selection became an extra feature not used in SL where it was implied. This meant I could alter the voice code to deal with channels. A&E could hear A&E. Also the admin was able to act as a tannoy and be heard by everyone. This also then started to double up as a phone system. A&E could call the Operating Theatre channel and request they take a patient. Initially this was a push to talk system. I made the mistake of changing it to an open mic. That meant every noise or sound made was constantly sent to every client, and the channel implementation meant the code chose to ignore things not meant for it. This turned out to be (obviously) massively swamp the Photon server when we had all out users online. So that needs a bit of work!

Another horrible gotcha was that I needed to log data. Who did what when was important for the research. As this was in Unity I was able to create those logging structures and their context. However because we were in a web browser I was not able to write to the file system. So a next best solution was to have a logging window for the admin that they could at least cut and paste all the log from. (This was to avoid having to set up another web server and send the logs to it over http as that was added overhead to the project to manage). I create the log data and a simple text window that all the data was pumped to. It scrolled and you could get an overview and also simply cut and paste. I worked out the size was not going to break any data limits or so I thought. However in practice this text window stopped showing anything after about a few thousand entries. Something I had not tested far enough. It turns out that text is treated the same as any other vertex based object and there are limits to the number of vertices and object can have. So it stopped being able to draw the text, even though lots of it was scrolled off screen. It meant the definition of the object had become too big. i.e. this isn’t like a web text window. It makes sense but it did catch me out as I was thinking it was “just text”.

An interesting twist was the generic noticeboard that gave an overview of the dynamic patients in the dynamic wards. This became a bigger requirement than the quick extra helper in Second Life. As a real hospital would have a whiteboard, with patient summary and various notes attached to it, then it made sense to build one. This meant that you would be able to take some notes about a patient, or indicate they needed looking at or had been seen. It sounds straight forward but the note taking turned out to be a little more complicated. Bear in mind this is a networked application multiple people can have the same noticeboard open, yet it is controlled by the master client. Typing in notes needed to be updated in the model and changes sent to others. Yes it turned out I was rewriting google docs ! I did not go quite that far but did have to indicate if someone had edited the things you were editing too.
We had some interesting things relating to the visuals too. Robin had made a set of patients or various sizes, shapes and gender. However with 50 patients or so, (as there can be any number defined) and each one described in text “a 75 year old lady” etc it meant it was very tricky to have all the variants that were going to be needed. I had taken the view that it would have been better to have generic morph style characters in the beds to avoid content bloat. The problem with “real” characters is they have to match the text (that’s editorial control), and also you need more than one of each type. If you have a ward full of 75 year old ladies and there are only 4 models it is a massive uncanny valley hit. The problem then balloons when you start building injuries like amputations into the equation. Very quickly something that is about bed management can become about details of a virtual patient. IN a fully integrated simulation of medical practice and hospital management that can happen, but the core of this project was the pressure of beds. i.e. in air traffic control terms we needed to land the planes, the type of plane was less important (though had a relevance still)

It is always easy to lose sight of the core learning or game objective with the details of what can be achieved in virtual environments. There is a time and cost to more content, to more code. However I think we managed to get a good balance with the release we have, and now can work on the tweaks to tidy it up and make it even better.

The application has also been of interest to schools. We had it on the Imperial College stand at the Bang education festival. I had to make an offline version of this. I was hoping to simply use Unity’s publish offline web version. This is supposed to remove the need to have any network connection or plugin validation. It never worked properly for me though. It always needed network. I am not sure if anyone else is having that problem, but don’t rely on it. That meant I then had to build standalone versions for mac and windows. Not a huge step but an extra set of targets to keep in line. I also had to hack the code a bit. Photon is good at doing “offline” and ignoring some of the elements but I was relying on a few things like how I generated the room name to help identify the scenario. In offline mode the room name is ignored and a generic name is put in place. Again quite understandable but cause me a a bit of offline rework that I probably could have avoided.

In order to make it a bit more accessible Dave wrote a new scenario with some funnier ailments. This is where were broke our base design principle and yes we put zombies in. I had the excellent Mixamo models and a free Gangnam style dance animation. Well it would have been silly not to put them in. So in the demos is the kids started to drift off the “special” button could get pushed and there they were.
I have shared a bit of what it takes to build one of these environments. It has got easier, but that means the difficult things have hidden themselves elsewhere.

If you need to know more about this and similar projects application the official page for it is here

Obviously if you need something like this built, or talked about to people let me know 🙂

Rez Day again – Reflection on 7 years of joy and pain

All the joys of trying to move physical home and my focus on training in Choi Kwang Do, plus the Predlets being on holiday meant my Rez Day in Second Life nearly passed me by! It has been just over 7 years now since diving into SL and that has been a catalyst for a great number of changes and opportunities (and quote a few threats) in my life and the lives of many of my friends and colleagues.
I am still amazed at the power of what happened back in 2006 the power of people to gather and share in a virtual space. The creativity and buzz is something that many of us will never fully experience again.
This may seem crazy but this formed part of a customer briefing on security!
We really didn’t know the potential(which is still there), we just knew that exploring code and shapes, interactions with people etc was going to take us somewhere. I mean what do you do when your scripted space hopper rolls away into someone else space?
Postcard from Second Life
There are not many pieces of software that you can look back on and say that of. Of course the software, the networks etc was just an enabler for people to communicate and explore.
I have a collection photos of real events that happened in world. These are as memorable to me as any other photo or holiday snap. Real people doing real things, just mediated through bits and bytes.
I am still amazed though at the fear and negative vibes that many of us endured, and in some cases still do from the actions we took online with one another. It is hard to see why, when something is actually so positive it needs people to act against it. Not act against Second Life but against the freeform organisation of others. I doubt anyone who as experienced this will ever be able to fully share the full details of their particular lows. Many are deeply personal. Those acting to destroy such a positive wave of energy know full well what they were doing, who knows they may think they have won some fairground prize. In reality they have lost something and probably strengthened something and in a way done us all a favour.

What do we take as a positive from that though? Well anything that generates that much passion, both for and against it is not just another fad, another niche. It is obviously tqping into some deep needs in humans to either communicate and share, to gather together, or on the other side of the virtual coin to control and break things that they do not understand.
Unfortunately as it was the people not the software that was the problem, it was the people’s potential that got attacked not the bits and bytes.
2006-2009 was a technology bubble for virtual worlds, it was also a cultural bubble. We had to go through that and experience the joy and pain of it all in order to be here for the next wave. Culture takes a while to change but we are seeing much more sharing, much more open source. A realisation the power is in people not organisational structures. You can have a balance. You can have rank, a meritocracy. You can have rules but yet creative freedom within them.
What happened for a small portion of us in Virtual Worlds back then called eightbar was that we all worked to improve our own understanding of what the potential was, but in doing that we wanted to help others who were on the same journey. It was not about money or power. It was not about glory or control. That is hard for many people to understand who were not feeling the buzz.
I am now able to reflect on what we did instinctively for the good of the art so to speak but seeing how the martial art I study works. This does not feel a tenuous link as the conversations we have resonate with 7 years ago for me.
A martial art is a meritocracy. Through your personal goals and willingness to better yourself at your own level your earn belts. In Choi Kwang Do this is not through beating people or competing. It is not through negative comments of how badly you are doing, how much you missed a target. Instead it is active encouragement to enjoy mistakes to evolve and reach a goal. Lining up in belt rank order is never to say those with the higher belt are better. They are more experienced but they still learn, they still add to their skills. This is where it may lose some people though. We have control. A person, usually with lots of experience, will run a session. They will give commands, set tasks. We do them. It may seem regimented, yet each person is aiming to improve their technique, to learn and evolve. The person in charge at the time is also improving their own knowledge through observation, helping others with positive pointers. People step up to lead and are allowed to lead because they have earned the respect of everyone. However they never, ever apply any ego to that.
If I was to head back to 2006 and the wave of awesome virtual world discoveries, the teamwork and the sense of adventure we all had I am pretty sure I would do it all again. For me now, having seen another very positive gathering of humans trying to explore something exciting, yet applying some structure, I may have been able to help us be something a little stronger to deal with those less enlightened individuals. Maybe even to help them achieve more. The martial art is focussed on defence against a threatening force though. With out the potential for threats, without a counter to all this positivity it would not need to exist. So maybe we just enjoyed such a productive and interesting time because were were up against some people who were not so interesting or productive 🙂
This year I still did some work in Second Life too. I was part of a build of a hospital experience that was about dealing with a mass influx of patients. The doctors and hospital staff (real ones) had to decide which patient to move where to make space for the sudden influx. There was a lot of code I had to design and put in place to be able to make patients deteriorate, take time to move from one place to another. Deal with multiple decisions, provide visual feedback etc. We did all this in order to help lock down the requirements. Then went on to build a web based version networked with voice too in Unity3d. We have then used it to inspire some kids too, we even added a few friendly dancing zombies. Kids love zombies. It is a fine line between playing and being serious. Virtual worlds and games bounce across that line, twist it, warp it and sometimes rub it out all together. Still they can be used for so many reasons and why wouldn’t you?

Heading into space. Tweet me from there?

This months issue of Flush magazine is out online and there is a slight departure subject wise. It is a travel special, lots of great articles to read. I was thinking what can I do for a travel issue and then it dawned on me that space tourism was a great future tech platform. I had in my mind things around the Virgin Galactic craft but then many more things flowed from that including a rather surprising project involving social media and Mars.
Thankyou once again to @tweetthefashion for putting together another great magazine.
You will find my article “Ground control to ” on page 92 (just a few down from an interview with Raymond LeBlanc 🙂

It grows my little portfolio of “proper” articles which makes me happy anyway 🙂
It just goes to show there is a lot of tech out there and a lot of ways it impacts us emotionally too. When you hear about some of these projects and think what would that really be like to be part of it, all powered by human endeavour, it fills you with hope rather than focussing on the negative vibes that permeate our lives. We are not here to just grind away, counting the cost. We are hear to further knowledge and experience.

Battling robots – an interesting future?

I am not sure how many people remember Rock em Sock em and all their variants. Here is a version of the original advert for them.

There were small figures connected to mechanical rods with thumb press buttons. You could move them back and forth and side to side with the aim to punch and hit the chin of the other bot, causing their head to pop up into the air.
I did not have this version, but I did have a human shaped boxing set. They were more free moving not stuck in a ring and had a counter of how many hits they had taken.
All in all they were great fun.
Which is why I know I would love to have a go on the Robot Combat League. I just happened to bump into this channel hoping. I initially thought it was Robot Wars. Which had arena combat between very differing radio controlled wheeled vehicles carrying big hammers and circular saws.
It turned out to be something different. A giant game of Rockem Sockem.
In Robot Combat league a team of 2 people control each robot device. One moves back forward and side to side. The other wears a rig that takes their arm movements to make the bot punch.
The movement around is a bit odd as the robot is not really free standing. The legs are fairly cosmetic as the bot is held of a large frame. The punching then is based on timing and targeting. Each bot is designed to look different and have a different style to it, but they are all rigged with sensors for pyrotechnics so lots of sparks fly when a good hit is made. That was all good but could obviously get a bit samey. It then seemed that the robots were actually able to damage one another as one bot swung in the arm of another, broke a hydraulic line and the robot was disabled and left dripping robot blood onto the arena floor for the cheering and jeering audience.
All very exciting blended reality fighting.
This is of course what happens in the film Real Steel. Which is one potential future of combat to consider.
The fact these are just engineered puppets, just like the toy of the 60’s, put a human element into the fight. It is people wanting to win against other people. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we were able to have a fully free standing robot able to accept all the subtleties of human movement and how we would be able to use those in Choi Kwang Do as a training aid 🙂 Of course there is one problem to consider though in mirroring human movement. If a person makes contact with something or someone during a technique that technique and where they land and what comes next flows from the situation. The return impact is important. Punching into the air means that after contact you and the robot are no longer in synch. Your fist follows through, theirs stops on the armour of the other one. Now giving you haptic feedback to get you to feel what has happened would be a good start, but of course then you will be shoved around pushed etc so why have the robot at all 😉
The real excitement will be to have suitable fighting intelligence. One that can free form fight against another bot. Then of course we find ourselves approaching Asimov’s territory and robot rights. Is it ok to watch robots destroy one another as opposed to remote control machines.
There is no doubt though this phase of robot combat is an interesting one to watch. I am just of to get the welding kit out 🙂
Or we could just build it in minecraft – look at this 🙂

Gadget Show Live 2013

Yesterday I made what has become an annual pilgrimage to the NEC in Birmingham for the press and preview day of The Gadget Show Live. Initially we started to go to this for The Cool Stuff Collective as a reccy for the show. Now though it is just out of interest for all things tech.
The show has a lot of Televisions and Wireless speakers and a massive Windows stand too. There are also the regulars of Game, lots of manufacturers of cases for iPhones etc.
However there are always some more interesting corners to explore. This year there were more 3d printers than usual, some great real holography and some very cool very fast RC cars. I quick video, shot and edited up solely on the Iphone 5 has some the hightlights.

This 3d printed guitar body was cool.
3d printed guitar #gsl2013
A water powered battery
Sphero a ball that you drive around with your ipad
Some great collectibles
A brand new Star Trek game (which looked fantastic)
The Igloo with a sensor based gun to give 360 degree gaming (I would like one of these please!)
Some gadgets to help you fly out of the water and the crazy bouncy spring shoes too.
So a whole bunch of stuff. It only took a couple of hours to see everything, but I got there early and the halls were not as packed as they will be on public days.
Still a lot of interesting stuff even when you live on this sort of information 24/7 🙂