Applications, Tools and 3D Pipelines, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration Tools and Models, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

Virtual Earth Arising: Google, Microsoft and, um, Sweden

The announcement that Google Earth would be moving to a browser seemed to elicit collective silence from the virtual world industry - while last September, everyone was foaming with anticipation about Google secretly planning a Virtual Google that would put places like Second Life to rest.

Meanwhile, over at Microsoft, moves to ‘virtualize’ through a serious, um, serious gaming initiative, and their partnerships with 3DVIA, their purchase of Caligari, and the previews of Photosynth put them in the middle of the battle for 3D visualization and by extension virtual worlds.

Caligari Platform Owned by Google:

The move by Google to open up its API follows their model in which you put the code in as many hands of as you can, let them create information on its back, and this create more content to search and place advertising beside. While Google might still have an avatar or two up its sleeve, it’s just as likely that this is their move to let their user base come up with cool stuff and then, maybe, just buy out the best of it.

As one blogger noted, Google’s move allows:

“…more sophisticated games; custom flight simulators (or even combat flight games); guided tours with audio annotations; scientific visualizations with multiple layers of information; many kinds of 3D model animations will now be possible; geographic quizes/games; educational lessons; etc., etc. For a long time many of us have wished for scripting capabilities for Google Earth. But, the API is more than that. In fact, someone could program a scripting language now and publish it through an application using the API.”

So the mirror world is in the hands of the user. User-generated content is where it’s at, right? Throw down a Sketch-Up model or two, add an avatar maybe, embed some game code, and put it in a browser - what better way to get people into a virtual world than to build on the massive Google community, recognizing as well that the layers of information already built into Google Earth will continue to grow and be a rich source of content.

Google Virtual is arising - it’s just that no one noticed.

Re-imagining the Metaverse
Over at Terra Nova, there’s a debate going on over whether virtual worlds are about to face a cold hard business winter. And I’ll post more on the topic, but I’ve always felt that the “MMORPG” crowd is stuck in some sort of mental model that was blown to pieces without them even noticing. It strikes me that whenever discussions come up about virtual worlds, the question always ends up being about “What’s going to be interesting enough for my avatar to do” to the exclusion of imagining that there may be new modalities for information display that have far more profound implications for the virtual world spaces in which we interact.

This speaks to my fascination with reflective architecture and while I now look back and feel I was misguided on some things, the idea is still valid that virtual architecture is a window into how 3D immersive space will change how we interact with concepts:

Reflexive architecture and the wonderful work on Architecture Island and at The Arch bring with them new archetypes - although the space is virtual, it’s a space that we treat as ‘real’. Over time, the membrane between the real and the virtual becomes more permeable. Our concepts of objects (both real and virtual) come to include new visual ways of understanding that objects are adaptive and reflect our interactions with them.

The MMO crowd spends a lot of time thinking about entertainment, I guess. But I still think it’s entertainment in the “Hero gets sword, hero kills dragon, hero wins reward” school….just throw in some handy Web 2.0 social memes so we sound hip…but it’s still the same old same old.

But the landscape, literally, is changing. One or two sacred cows are being killed - and one of them I think is the idea of the “build”. Because just as Spore will have procedurally generated creatures, so will virtual worlds have procedurally generated environments.

What the Worlds Look Like
The potential of 3D worlds, virtual worlds, won’t just lie in whether they are platforms for sociality aided by archetypes which we’re used to in the “real” - houses, beach front property, a little office, a store, a mall, a club…nor the hero quests…let’s face it, Conan may have great graphics and some pretty cool slash-and-burn combat, but at some point don’t you wake up and go “yeah, but…”….it’s more of the same….it’s more grinding, it’s more of the usual builds and quests and throw some sociality and a bit of user-generated capability in and yet…it’s the same old model.

Increasingly, we’ll start to see that the options for 3D space are far wider than we typically imagine when we talk about the growth or stall of virtual worlds. Second Life has proven this, and whether we call them spinning prims or an over-reliance on glow, there’s some fascinating stuff going on a grid that has the most advanced tools, the richest visualization (so far) and the deepest capacity for avatar expression.

Content Generated in New Ways
But have a look at the edges. Have a look at how content is being generated procedurally. Take this little project out of Sweden. According to Slashdot:

Unlike Google’s laser-measured rendering, this technique took less than 8 days (including the photography) to automatically generate the 3D-model of Stockholm — which includes every building and details as high as individual trees! The program was developed by C3, a subsidiary of the Swedish defense industry company SAAB, together with a PC gaming company called Agency 9.

Considering that the visualization runs within the browser using Java, it’s not a bad fly-through of a real-world geography (excuse my clumsy attempt at video capture):

This works off of similar work at Stanford which was able to extrapolate 3D models from a single photograph.

And Photosynth had them jumping from their seats at the TED conference, and you can see why. Photosynth extrapolates objects from databases of photos. On the one hand, you can look at it as window-dressing for your photo album, but I think it’s something different: crowdsourced content (whether they knew it or not), spacial representation of 2D imagery, and 3D spatial interaction.

The Worlds are Narrative but the Tools are Changing
The Terra Nova folks have it right when it comes to the power of stories. Powerful tales are needed to attract people, social tools are needed to build communities, and the nature of technology means that there will be an ever-widening range of places that this content can be “stored” - whether little 3D spaces on Facebook or mySpace, walled gardens, or casual games.

But projecting the future of virtual worlds also requires that we think about how the models for creating and viewing content are advancing. Linen Labs is planning HTML on a prim - and there will be necessary limits, but imagine a sim with nothing but floating Web sites, interlinked through scripts and tag clouds, where avatars can get together to surf databases, interact with content exterior to the virtual world, able to add their own content or comments - and not a beach house in site.

It also requires that we think about the interface devices themselves. There’s a lot of talk about virtual worlds on mobile phones, but with Microsoft betting the bank on touch screens, with new interface devices (Emotiv, Mitch’s 3D camera), and with portable devices like the Kindle it’s a mistake to look at virtual worlds as being designed solely for the desktop. There’s a tremendous source of growth in the devices surrounding virtual worlds.

The hints of the future of “MMOs” and virtual worlds are all around, we just need to look and touch.

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