Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Serious games, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

Change Comes to Washington, and I’m a Week Late: Virtual Worlds inside the Beltway

Somehow Washington and innovation seem like strange bed fellows to me, but there I was last week talking about mirror worlds at a conference hosted by In-Q-Tel for a mix of civil servants and spies or whatever, and found that they asked the kinds of questions that I’ve been asking and never quite answering: stuff like “what will it take to make the metaverse ubiquitous” or “what does it all mean to human identity”.

And what felt even stranger to me was that inside the Beltway they actually seemed to “get” virtual worlds, or this little self-selected crew did, and there was only one question about ‘security’, which was really a disguised way of asking whether there are still flying phalluses (um, phalli?) in Second Life. In fact, the more I talk about virtual worlds the more I find that it’s MY conceptions that are all wrong: most people know about them, get them at some level, are able to put the questions of virtual adultery in their proper context and get to the real question: OK, fine, but why SPECIFICALLY should I care, and when is someone going to make it easier.

Hope Half-Frozen

Robot helps clear snow.

So backing up a little, and I arrive in Washington a week after Inauguration and I half expected to see sad half-deflated Obama balloons floating down the street, but all I saw were some cheesy buttons and bobble-heads at the airport, and a city half-paralyzed with snow, or ice, or slush – whatever that little skiff of white was which we’d call a “flurry” in Canada rather than a storm. So I was warned that this paralyzing winter madness might mean my big speech was canceled, but surprisingly we played to a full room.

My mirror world speech is kind of ambling (does that surprise you? Hey, I came in only 2 minutes over my allotted time so cut some slack.)

I avoided talking about “real” mirror worlds because the folks from Twinity presented before me, and Forterra was in the afternoon, so I decided to try to say something along the lines of “Whatever you think is a mirror world isn’t all there is” and so I ended up talking a bit about devices (touch screens and 3D cameras and being able to move your avatar with brain waves, that kind of thing) and a bit about data visualization, and some stuff about GIS tagging, and then closed it off by pulling in Keystone for a presentation of Wikitecture, which was the true highlight of the talk.

But what was interesting was that I opened it up with a few, well, I’ll call them big thoughts, but it was really a random catch-all for discussion, and it was nice to have a knowledgeable audience who actually seemed to be intrigued by notions of virtual economies and identities, and afterward one of the guys who invented Intellipedia said to me that maybe this all means that as a species we’re in a stage of rapid evolution – which wasn’t at all what I expected from a civil servant.

Why Mirror Worlds
Now, there were a few take aways for me from the day. One is that the Metaverse Roadmap needs an update. And I guess Jerry Paffendorf said as much – it doesn’t have funding, and it was fine for its time, but a review might be in order.

The Roadmap via Ugotrade

Jerry helped facilitate the Roadmap and now he’s off with a bunch of other people with really long Malcolm Gladwell meme-y hair getting ready to bring Wello into closed beta (in weeks, he says) and he presented in his OWN rambling way (thankfully they book-ended the ramblers with some practical application type people).

And Jerry didn’t say this, so I will, because I’m starting to think that the ‘quadrants’ aren’t making a lot of sense anymore – or rather, they still make sense but the blurry areas where they cross-over need definitions of their own, because mirror worlds are embedding life-logging, and virtual worlds have mirror worlds built into them, and the real innovation is happening at the borders.

But for pure mirror worlds we turn I guess to Twinity, but I have a hard time calling that an actual mirror world – it’s a reflection, maybe, but it’s like a Hollywood film lot. The fronts all look fine butwhat it gives you is the feeling of being in a sound stage or maybe a Las Vegas hotel – sure, it kind of LOOKS like Paris, or New York, but walk in the doors and the football-sized casino immediately reminds you that this ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Twinity Reflections (Photo by way of KZero)

So even Twinity, which is trying to be a “real” virtual world, isn’t anything of the sort, the only thing that’s mirror-y about it is the street plan.

Now, there was another presentation, by RealTime Worlds. And they showed off All Points Bulletin and they showed off another project, but we sort of promised not to say anything, although this is the part where I’d put an emoticon of my jaw dropping to the floor.

But the RealTime guys touched on Google Earth, which of course mirrors the world, and is actually linked to real space, and allows you to tag and layer data and all that stuff, the problem is that I don’t call it a world if I can’t talk to other people – it’s a fancy map with lots of overlays, but not a world.

So maybe I’m quibbling a little, but the Metaverse to me means people, and it means people doing stuff, even if it’s just tagging buildings or leaving graffiti on the remnants of the Berlin Wall. The Metaverse Roadmap, I think, would include Google Earth in its tent of mirror worlds, and it includes life-logging, which pulls in Facebook and Flickr I guess….but then why not just call it the Internet and add a section called “other stuff” and be done with it?

Mirror Worlds as Simulation: Or How to Win Government Contracts and Influence People
Now, before I abandon the Metaverse Roadmap quadrants entirely, there’s simulation: and in this case, specifically, Forterra. And they closed the day off showing how they can create simulations that are geographically accurate and could be used to, say, plot clandestine operations in some tiny nation in the Balkans or whatever. Or that’s what they IMPLIED, because the guy from Lockheed Martin who was presenting kept saying things like “Of course, this is an unsecured space” (and then would look at the CEILING as if there might be little satellites up there circling around and beaming the info back to Putin or Osama or someone) “and so I can’t tell you what we’d REALLY use this fancy mirror world-y stuff for, but suffice to say you can always destroy the hard drives.”

And I guess his ability to brag about his security clearance, and to rattle off acronyms was what reminded me that yeah, I really was in Washington, and that secondly, Forterra has made amazing progress with government type clients precisely because they can speak in acronyms, and they know how contracting works, and they make geeky people inside the government machinery feel like they’re doing big important work playing with virtual worlds, and maybe they are, but the problem is that they’re virtual worlds that look like crap, using technology that is sold for thousands of dollars that can often be bought on XStreet for 1,000 Lindens. (OK, fine, there’s still that “systems integration and firewall” thing, but still).

Yeah, this is about as good as it gets.
I mean – I GET mirror worlds for simulation and first responder training and all that. But seriously, Linden Labs and, soon, OpenSim should be blowing Forterra out of the water. I have nothing against them, but I figure some healthy competition will do the whole field some good.

The Truth of Virtual Worlds
But the highlight of the day was a video that Jerry showed. It was meant to illustrate the point that what you intend in virtual worlds and what the results are can be very different things.

Instead, it felt like the perfect snapshot of many of my own experiences. I once found myself in Second Life wandering from sim to sim, and realizing that I had logged in for something else.

I said to a friend “I had a purpose, but as soon as I log in I forget what it was”. Which is the point really: mirror worlds can’t mirror the world, and virtual worlds won’t ever entirely mimic it. This is new terrain. These are new modalities, new models for accessing information, new ways to collaborate and explore and create.

And in the meantime, this will be what a lot of it feels like, courtesy of Jerry, as we stumble into happiness:


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