Applications and Tools, Art and Exploration, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

The Stars Alive: Rezzing Dreams at the Virtual Campfire

Hotel rooms and airports dehydrate me. Throw in a few times zones and eventually everything starts becoming a little blurry looking, and if you throw California into the mix it’s a lethal combination – a grande frappe machiatto or whatever it’s called starts to look like a little thimble and I start craving ever larger cups of coffee. Starbucks will start selling a bucket-sized thing one day and in California, at least, no one will notice, they’ll all think they’re drinking MODEST amounts of caffeine, no one will have the heart to tell them that Colossi isn’t an appropriate size except for circuses and James Cameron.

The past few weeks have been this sort of floating caffeine-kick. I went back to my room one night, opened the door, but that lock/clasp thing was on and I couldn’t get in.

Turns out I was trying to get into the room number from the LAST hotel – although lesson learned, those coded hotel key things aren’t a one-to-one relationship to your room and will actually work on more than one door.

Getting Down to Business
So I’m out meeting with people and talking about virtual worlds, or how geography is being extended in space and time, or what a set of protocols looks like for peer-to-peer support in a virtual world – and the strangest thing happens, which is that, well, no one kicks me out. No one gently prods me off stage. And no one seems to have their arms crossed (well, except for that one guy with the toothpicks and the pocket protector but we’ll forget about him).

As I said some time ago, virtual worlds crossed a tipping point and they forgot to tell me. They’re either mainstream because you’re going to count Facebook, or they haven’t reached mainstream ADOPTION but the acceptance is there, the question isn’t whether, anymore, the question is how, and if you have anything that sounds like a reasonable answer to that question then pull your chair up, your one hour meeting is going to turn into four. It’s time to get down to brass tacks, rubber hits the road, sounds cool how do we get going and, oh, can you give me a PRACTICAL solution.

But I have a bone to pick with practicality, which is also why I surround myself with fairly practical people who I treat just well enough that they’re able to put up with my, um, less than stellar way of communicating.

A typical meeting at my office consists of practical project planning kind of things and then I make the mistake of opening my mouth and going off on a long ramble, there’s usually a 3 minute equivalent to a group blank stare, and then someone says “Um, OK, but what does that MEAN exactly.” So it’s not that I don’t appreciate practical people, nothing would ever get done without them, and all I’d be left with is, well, blogging, where no one seems to require me to make a point.

(Either that or you’re all giving me the equivalent of that three minute group stare, but then again, on the Web no one knows you’re a dog).

Setting the Agenda for Virtual Worlds
But the bone I have to pick with practicality has to do with setting an agenda. Because while everyone wants to finish a meeting about virtual worlds with a contract in their hands or a new plan for their in-world business or some thought on how to hold a concert in Second Life or whatever, if you start with that you can forget that you’re working in the service of a larger vision.

We’re not here because we want to stream music to more people, because if that was the case we’d be running a Web radio station or something. We’re not here because we think this is a practical alternative to a WebEx meeting. And we all know that Scion chickens or not, we’re not really in the business of creating 5-minute blurts of entertainment like all those Facebook widgets where we tend a digital farm.

There are lots of practical people. You’ll need them to make sense of all of this to your boss. Go grab a ThinkBalm report, check out the latest K-Zero graphs, but whatever you do, I beg of you, stay away from Forrester or Gartner…you take a sip of THAT data and you’ll realize it was packaged to be useless without the NEXT set, the Hype Cycle only works if you keep on buying the reports to see where your dot is on the curve.

Because let’s face it, we’re not here because we always dreamed of a 3D slide projector. Just as we didn’t dream of a talk show hosted from a virtual world.

Metanomics is a wolf in sheep’s clothing really – you’re MEANT to say “oh, this is familiar, it’s just like Charlie Rose or something” but the real purpose is to suck you into the vortex of back chat (er, Bloomfield prefers ‘creative cacophony’ but, um, if you’re new to back chat it sure doesn’t FEEL all that creative, it just feels like chaos).

Because in the back chat is where the real magic lies: for all the excitement over Google Wave (is that thing still around?) I’m not sure it’s because it’s really that NEW, if you’ve been to a Metanomics taping you’ve already been INSIDE a Wave, and what a strange and wondrous beast it can be.

See, we’re here because we can tell stories, we can be inside art, we can give context to conversation and learning and collaborating in ways that are, simply, impossible in nearly every other medium, including reality.

The World’s Largest Creative Venture
I call Second Life the largest collaborative creative venture on the planet today.

And I really don’t get why people don’t see that. I don’t get why the news articles aren’t about the creation of a city with the population of San Francisco and the land mass of Rhode Island, and that the city is one giant collection of user-generated art, whether it’s crappy art like that gazebo I made when I didn’t realize there were camera controls (yeah, tell me about it), or mind-blowing art like….well, like simply sitting around in a little cabin you built, or the skybox you decorated, or the club you put together where a couple dozen people come to dance and hang out and give the equivalent of little Tweets about their experiences.

(The Second Life dance club predicted Twitter. Go, you’ll see what I mean. You’ll barely ever find someone type more than 140 characters and it has this loose, seemingly disjointed flow).

You can drool all you want over Wikipedia (which I find increasingly useless as a source of information, or is that just me?) but put together a few terrabytes of creativity, 80,000+ concurrent users rezzing dreams, and millions of dollars in user-to-user transactions and you get a stifled yawn.

The problem is, I guess, that these are practical times.

Get Real
Now, virtual worlds, having moved from the ‘what the heck are you talking about’ phase into ‘OK, how do I get started’ have necessarily shifted to more practical matters. Protosphere is built entirely around the use case. Web-based “3-D” Flashy conferences (which won’t exist in a year) are based on a narrow (and mostly value-devoid) use case. OpenSim is still working on the very practical matter of getting to version 1.0. Even Linden Lab has moved into it’s “let’s get practical phase”.

Now, as an aside, if I see one more comment on the Lab blogs about “but why aren’t you guys actually working on stuff that matters” I’m going to take my bucket of Starbucks and pour it over their heads. The amount that the Lab is investing in all these practicalities just doesn’t seem to be sinking in – the entire networking framework is undergoing/has undergone an overhaul with all that dark fiber or whatever it is, stability is up, and they’ve started tackling the biggest legacy beast of all: lag (which means gutting the way assets are delivered and moving them closer to the user/simulator with all kinds of fancy caching and Web-based texture pulls or whatever they’re doing).

You can’t just fix the asset server with a couple of weekends and Espresso shots without first working on the wires, hosting, server roll-out protocols, setting up a proper QA team, and all the rest of it. The way assets were handled was a mistake when the whole thing was built, and Philip said so himself in the early days, so we’re still seeing the very practical plodding work of overhauling a legacy before getting to SL 3.0 and scrapping it entirely.

Anyways, I have no idea why I defend the Lab on this – I haven’t crashed in 18 months, so maybe I got lucky. And I will say that voice sucks. Beyond sucks. It’s painful to bring a journalist in and have them re-log 4 times hoping that voice will ‘catch’ somehow. Voice, one of the crown jewels (at least to the Lab) is a broken awful horrible mess. Fix it.

(Or better yet, why don’t you just embed Skype and get it over with).

So all of these practical matters are now about to bear fruit. There will be lots of people who don’t care what M says, and don’t read blogs or technical reports from Frank Ambrose. So they won’t know that a new viewer is coming, or that the Second Life widgets are already appearing on a Web site near you (I’ve noticed “themed” widgets like Steampunk, for example, and have started wondering if those are linked to specific community gateways).

Some people will be delighted with the new viewer (and no, Prok, I haven’t seen it) and some will immediately hate it and migrate to Emerald or whatever. But embedded in the new viewer and a new orientation experience and a new Work sign-up will be the entirely practical matter of how to get people to both stay, and to come in the first place.

The purchase of Avatars United is another piece of the puzzle, this deeper connection to social networks, and giving you a choice of whether to use your real name or not.

But what strikes me about all of this isn’t just that I really do believe these changes will have a significant impact on attracting new users and keeping them – but that they lay the ground work for creating a wider and shared language for telling stories. If the Lab has done this right, they may be building the capacity to tackle the biggest challenge of all: making stories portable, searchable, and modular, and giving us the tools so that we can craft a new standard for interoperability that goes beyond inventory and avatars and shifts us into a level of content tagging that could rival Google as this 3D Web thing plays out.

Open Systems
Now, there are all the arguments about walled gardens and mumbo jumbo from the 90s, as if history ALWAYS repeats itself, as if there’s some magic to open sourcing tools and code and slaying the beast of the platform owner. I’m all for learning from the past, but it puts such a narrow band on history.

Go talk to Mitch Kapor. For someone who comes from that camp of open source-y stuff he’s the first to admit that open systems only work when there’s a sufficient business ecosystem to support them. His argument is that the timing by which walled gardens are opened is even more critical than the principle of getting there in the first place – without, yeah, commerce and people getting paid and businesses adapting stuff you’ll never get the critical mass to make open source anything more than a hobby, and a poorly paid one at that.

What I’ve been thinking is that I’ve been thinking about open systems the wrong way.

OpenSim may have done more harm than good in helping us to understand where true value will be derived from open systems: it got us focused on simulator code and being the ‘Apache of virtual worlds’. Tish Shute (who has since abandoned the entire operation) and all the code kiddies who trailed along behind her made a monumental mistake, in my opinion, in focusing so much on teleporting from grid-to-grid and in believing that what MATTERED was having an island you can land on. Whether she’s making the same mistakes over with the augmented reality crowd I guess time will tell.

But by setting up the framework that what mattered was being Apache and reverse engineering the avatar/land paradigm sapped the intellectual energy from the concept of open systems as they relate to virtual worlds. This isn’t to say that with all its, um, modularity (a concept that might be nice for the coders to understand but that I’ve yet to see articulated as a business or value proposition) that OpenSim can’t become a hotbed for data visualization or integration with enterprise systems or whatever. I’m just not seeing it yet, and no one sends me news about it anymore.

Portable Stories
The value of virtual worlds isn’t for its power to represent 3D landscapes or for your avatar to look the same when you move from OpenLife to Reaction Grid: the value is in the portability of our stories and the ability to narrate our experiences and to carry those narrations in different forms.

YouTube is video and a bunch of comments and the embed feature lets you port that content and surround it with text or whatever. But you can’t co-create the content itself – you can mash it up and remix it (with tremendous effort) but you can’t co-create it. YouTube is one platform with a million stories.

In virtual worlds, the stories ARE the platform. Which is what I meant by their power to form new heuristics from WITHIN the algorithm, or what Tom Boellstorff calls ‘techne within techne’.

(Joel Foner had an insightful comment and said that “I don’t happen to agree that Second Life is by nature a breeder of more complex heuristics. It has different complexity points, however the other systems you discussed have more complexity in some areas that Second Life lacks.”

Now, there’s a lot that I agree with on Joel’s comment. But on the other hand, while it’s true that we can form new models from other forms of technology, virtual worlds are one of the only ‘tools’ I can think of where the creation is embedded in the tool itself.

It’s not just a question of “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us” it’s a question of “we shape our tools within a larger tool, the tools shape us, we shape the larger tool, and the loop goes on and on”).

The Lab’s purchase of Avatars United is NOT primarily about creating a social media outlet for avatars. It’s about having an open system, a new API that allow us to port stories, in different formats, from one rich/immersive space, and to code/aggregate and tag those forms and create new ecosystems of value and meaning. Add in Shared Media (the MediaAPI) and imagine what that means.

The Lab, it’s starting to look like, is no longer in the business of operating a virtual world. They’re in the business of helping people to create and transport stories, to link those stories and forms of expression to commerce, and, if they succeed, to create a new form of search, to solve the conundrum of how to not just connect people, but to connect people in ways that are meaningfully referenced to the stories we tell, based on grounding those stories in a robust and expressive tool set.

Second Life the world and Second Life the brand are becoming two things that do not directly overlap, and the latter may even take on new names and forms, commerce itself moving past objects into modular concept architectures.

By the Campfire
When I wrote about this a few years ago I said the following:

But when I look at Second Life I don’t see a game, and I don’t see a role-playing environment, and I don’t see an e-commerce engine (although to some degree it is all of these) – I see the possibilities for stories. And in these possibilities I am attracted to how Second Life may be a new camp fire around which we weary hunters gather, scratching pictures in the sand with our primitive tools and telling each other of the days we’ve had, and the adventures ahead.

And maybe it’s too much coffee and airports, but I’ve been picturing that campfire. And lately I’ve come to believe that just as we used to look at the stars above and mapped the constellations and told stories of the ancient gods – the stars are alive now, and move, and shift as we embed within them our dreams.

It’s not just that we tell our stories by the campfire (or dance club or beach house or in Caledon) anymore. It’s that in telling our stories the stars, alive, help us to build an artefact which might, with luck, guide the person who comes along next, who sees the sky above and becomes open to the possibility that the night’s quiet magic can work for them too.

The constellations were always us, after all, and amenable to our dreams.


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