There were many great presentations at Catalyst this year, but the most fun for me was Charles White, Virtual Worlds Lead at NASA JPL. In my presentations on enterprise virtual worlds I’ve talked about the usage patterns for virtual worlds (including visualization, rehearsal, and enhanced conferencing), the characteristics of virtual presence, whether it will ever hit the mainstream, and one has to look beyond Second Life to understand their true value. All of these points were addressed and demonstrated by Charles.
Here are some notes (and links now that I’ve had time to hunt down the web sites he mentioned):
- Charles showed images of the use of mirror worlds for science data visualization
- Described NASA World Wind. It’s a Google Earth-like tool for visualizing science data
- Virtual reality is used to rehearse space missions
- They also use it to visualize an exploding star
- They use immersive synthetic environments as well – he showed an air traffic control tower with screens instead of windows
- All major airlines have purchased simulators and pilots have to certify simulator time before they can fly.
- 3 legs of value: immersive, communication, visualization
- There’s a one third scale virtual model of the Mars Victoria crater
- CoLab island is used for weekly meetings
- Hyper-Reality by 3DInternet is an example of non-Second Life virtual world usage. One example he gave was practice with installing a transformer
- Will every company use it? No, but those who need to inspire, innovate, participate will
- Interesting presence comment from an attendee at a virtual launch event: “This is the first time I’ve been to a NASA event”. Made the person feel like they were there.
I was happy and surprised to see that the University of California at Irvine announced on Tuesday a $3,000,000 grant for Walt Scacchi, Richard N. Taylor, Alfred Kobsa, Cristina V. Lopes, Gloria Mark, Bonnie Nardi and David Redmiles to study how virtual gaming worlds can help organizations collaboration and compete.
The “happy” part is because, as readers of this blog know, I am a strong proponent of how enterprises and non-gaming vendors can learn communication and collaboration lessons from online gaming. In my entry Enterprise Communication Meets the World of Warcraft I described how communication in World of Warcraft is highly advanced compared to enterprise counterparts with regard to channels, chat modes, presence, mail, and emotes. I also wrote a “short story” on How the Enterprise Colonized the Virtual Worlds: A Sort-of Science Fiction Story to illustrate how virtual worlds may conquer the enterprise.
I’m very interested to read what comes out of this study. I’m a fan in particular of Gloria Mark and the work she’s done on information worker processes and interruptions, so I’m encouraged to see her on the list.
The “surprised” part is because that’s quite a financial commitment. Compare that to the public-facing side (mostly social and gaming worlds) where, as I referenced in January, this comes on the heels of a 58% reduction in venture capital and media investments in virtual worlds.
The New University article on the grant acknowledges the size and timing of the grant with the statement “Although the argument could be made that putting aside such a large sum of money for researching a game is a waste of tax dollars …” It correctly points out that lots of academic research uses gaming for anthropological studies, but I can’t comment on what amount would be correct.
Still, I recommend that anyone writing a grant proposal involving virtual worlds get in touch with whoever the grant writer is at UC Irvine because she’s worth her weight in gold pieces. Not just for this, but they also received grants in 2005 and 2008 for enterprise virtual world research:
- $80,000 grant for Bill Tomlinson in 6/05 for the “virtual raft project”. The press release said “His novel computer-technology project allows people to use a tablet PC as a handheld raft to transport animated characters between “virtual islands” on desktop computers.”
- $100,000 grant in 9/08 for Bonnie Nardi and doctoral student Yong Ming Kow to analyze collaboration in virtual world gaming. (link)
In “Avatars Teleport Away From Second Life”, Don Clark of the WSJ’s “Business Technology” blog described how an experiment to teleport an avatar out of Second Life into another world (based on an IBM implementation of the open source OpenSimulator project) was successful. It’s worth noting that this was from one test grid to another and only involved the avatar, not any items, script, or currency.
To me, this is a nice stunt. It gets attention for its sci-fi undertones, but doesn’t address the real barriers to mobility in virtual worlds, nor does it do much to address disgruntled Second Life residents. From a technical point of view, if someone knows the data structures that define an avatar in Second Life, and knows the same structures in OpenSim (which is open source and publicly available), it should just be a relatively simple matter of programming to enact a transformation, transmission, create (on OpenSim), and delete (in Second Life). That also assumes the two structures are compatible, which they apparently aren’t entirely since clothing doesn’t transfer (The Terminator got it right 25 years in advance!).
Clearly the problem to be solved is not technological. It is a morass of issues such as:
- Legal: How can intellectual property be protected when it can be infinitely copied and transferred (like with unprotected digital music and movies)?
- Business: Does openness or proprietary lock-in provide a better business model?
- Economic: If worlds have different ease and cost of content creation and pricing, how will virtual arbitrage impact the fortunes of residents and the business models of the content creators?
- Design and development: If each world has to support a lowest common denominator for items and avatars, how will metaverses differentiate themselves and incrementally improve?
These issues can all be addressed over time. For example, maybe the business issues can be handled by charging a fee to travel from one metaverse to the other, just like flying from Chicago to Salt Lake City (two very different worlds) today cost me $600.
For residents of Second Life who are developing content they want to protect and extend, the philosophical issues don’t matter. What matters is whether Linden Lab will push this forward. According to the company, “Linden Lab sees interoperability as essential for virtual worlds to reach their full potential.” But about when this will be possible for regular residents they say “We don’t know exactly. We’re working toward that goal but we’re still very much in the experimental phase.”
Clearly the “virtual movers” scenario I depicted in my Enterprise3 conference presentation on Enterprise Virtual worlds (see slide below) is still too far off.
Note: This is a (belated) cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog
I’m working on my Enterprise Virtual Worlds presentation and was filling in some detail on communication in game-oriented virtual worlds that I would like to share here as well.
Enterprises are wise to look to gaming from time to time due to trends in:
- Outside-in technology: how consumer technologies such as blogs and wikis increasingly find their way into enterprises
- Emergent gameplay: the use of gaming technology in ways the original designer hadn’t intended
- User experience lessons: UE improvements tend to filter from the competitive gaming market to generalized applications. Gaming is an optional activity, so UE has to be at a high level when you want the users to pay you to use their systems rather than the other way around.
Communication is interesting to explore since the number of communication channels that enterprises use (and every information worker must now attend to) has increased a great deal over the past five years to include instant messaging, presence, websites, and blogs. Getting enterprises used to the idea of “channels” and how to manage and select between them has taken some time and some pain.
I was quite impressed when all the methods of communication in World of Warcraft (which was released in November of 2003) are laid out. WoW communication is strikingly similar (and maybe more efficient) than enterprise communication technology in many areas.
- Channels: Players can subscribe to communication channels such as /trade to receive ongoing chat on the channel, or unsubscribe. Another example is in EVE Online, which has a “newbie” channel that can put new players in touch with others taking their first steps, but can be turned off once the player is more confident.
- Chat modes (IM): The variety of built-in IM modes goes beyond most enterprise IM implementations which rely on groups. They are: /say (vacinity), /party (your group only), /guild (your broader community), /yell (all in larger region), /whisper (one person)
- Presence: Friends can be selected and you are made aware when they come online/offline, and location is displayed (a feature still on the cutting edge in the enterprise)
- Mail: Consists of normal mail, packages, and COD packages. The inbox is visited at WoW Postal Service facilities, which has the pleasant effect of isolating the player trying to accomplish objectives from the stream of email since they only check it periodically when they visit town. Also, since email costs money to send (a few copper pieces), there is practically no spam
- Emotes: There are over 100 emotes such as /wave, /thank, /cheer, /dance, etc. It is amazing how fluid the use of emotes gets in the real game, such that they do not feel like a conscious effort to be funny, but rather a natural way of expressing oneself in group situations.
How the Enterprise Colonized the Virtual Worlds: A Sort-of Science Fiction Short Story by Craig RothMarch 27, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Fun, Gaming, virtual worlds | 1 Comment
I don’t normally indulge in fiction writing in this blog, but maybe just once wouldn’t hurt. Besides, it’s not really fiction – it’s just a tongue-in-cheek way of describing what I see as the past generations and future generations of enterprise virtual worlds. I won’t go so far as to say these are definite predictions, but simply a description of a likely path (well, all except that last paragraph) for how large organizations will make serious use of virtual worlds.
So, how did it happen? The rise of the virtual worlds and their colonization by the Enterprise and everything that happened afterwards?
Well, no one knows exactly when the virtual worlds began. It was about 2006 when the adults began to notice that their teenagers would go into their rooms and disappear for hours at end. They would emerge only for food, squinting in the full light of the kitchen, and mumbling about “avatars”, “griefing”, “furries”, and “rezzing.” College students had disappeared too, but everyone just thought they were at class. Little did the adults know, but the virtual worlds were being built and populated from portals in their own homes.
Some of these adults worked in the Enterprise – large organizations and corporations where they attended meetings, designed products for customers, and tested out ideas. They wore woolly uniforms and had a confusing array of titles, although most of the ones with computers were called “infoworkers.” During 2006, some of them took a look at the virtual worlds through their telescopes, located at the end of hallways of fuzzy cubes at the top of their well lit, climate-controlled buildings in suburban office parks. What they saw was strange creatures – cat-men, flying faeries, naked inhabitants. There were people bumping repeatedly into walls or flying into buildings while others stood still for hours at a time typing on invisible keyboards. The infoworkers of the Enterprise thought the world they were viewing was bizarre and of no use to them, so they decided to stay away. Besides, they had work to do attending meetings, designing products, and testing ideas.
But by the end of 2006 the Enterprise had sent the first wave of intrepid colonists to the virtual worlds. It was a small number and conditions were harsh for the colonists. They didn’t know a lot about their environment and encountered griefers at every turn. They mostly came from high tech companies or those with youth-oriented brands. They came from IBM, Cisco, Sun, Intel, Reebok, American Apparel, Adidas, Toyota. The high tech companies sent evangelists back to the real world, telling about the wondrous things they had seen and done in the Enterprise virtual worlds.
Back in their fuzzy cubes and breakout session rooms, the infoworkers listened intently and the evangelists finally got them to go back to their telescopes and look at the virtual worlds again. They saw something that amazed them. They looked at the virtual worlds and saw their customers. Then they looked a little more and saw their competitors there too, sometimes talking to their customers. That was all they needed to see, so in 2007 the second wave of colonization began.
Oddly enough, as the second wave of colonists was traveling to the virtual worlds – virtual construction engineers and brand consultants in tow – they noticed some colonists from the first wave passing them on the way back. A few of them, from American Apparel and Wells Fargo, had already decided to pack up and leave. Some complained that the worlds were empty wastelands without a colonist in sight. Starwood was towing an entire hotel called Aloft with them. They seemed happy though, saying their time on the virtual world helped them design their hotel. Wells Fargo, towing Stagecoach Island behind them, was just traveling to another virtual world rather than heading back to Earth. The climate on the world they first colonized was too wild and unforgiving, but they had heard of tamer environs farther away and were off to colonize other worlds.
Some of the virtual world programmers went underground and decided to work on creating infrastructure that many worlds, each to meet different needs, could be built off of. Being able to control their environment and what the people in it could do made the Enterprises feel more confident that the risks involved were not too great, so they colonized new places where the virtual worlds, not just the islands and buildings in it, were built to their specifications.
With more controlled environments available by 2009, a third wave of colonization began. The Enterprise sent many of its best and most creative infoworkers – programmers, designers, and even marketing product managers. The term “resident” gave way to “visitor”, because the virtual people were there to visit, not stay, just like on websites.
As the customized virtual worlds could be created and owned by the Enterprise, they created worlds much like the secure websites they created for partners back home. Rather than everything being public like in the old virtual worlds, these could be controlled and only accessible by visitors the Enterprise wanted there. But putting private information in the virtual worlds caused the Enterprise security forces to become nervous. So, in 2010 a shipload of lawyers arrived. “Who invited them?” asked some of the frightened programmers. But the leaders of the infoworkers stood up and said “We did! Playing around and experimenting is fine, but if we are going to make this mission critical and confidential, we need them to make this world safe for the Enterprise.” And with that, the lawyers drew their pens and fired termination clauses, retribution clauses, service level agreements, latency warranties, confidentiality clauses, information privacy warranties, and hosted service warranties. Terms like “furries” and “rezzing” gave way to discussions of “code escrow” and “bonding.”
In 2012 standards came down from Earth and permeated the wild frontier of the virtual worlds. It became easier for colonists (now called residents after living there so long) to bring their belongings with them when moving to another world. There were more laws to regulate business transactions (but thankfully not taxes until 2015 as a last grab for revenue before an election).
By 2014 the virtual worlds had become accepted and even boring. Infoworkers who had decided long ago that they shouldn’t show up to work in a bunny costume determined it was probably inappropriate (even though possible) on their enterprise virtual worlds too, except on Halloween. In fact, they no longer felt like a wild frontier, but just another place for the Enterprise to use when needed. They didn’t replace much of what the Enterprise did in their fuzzy cubes. When the enterprise felt a virtual world was the best way of collaborating while attending meetings, designing products for customers, and testing out ideas, they visited them. When they felt other, more archaic communication and collaboration mechanisms were better, they used the old mechanisms. The portals, which were awkward at first, became better as virtual browser technology improved and standardized. In fact, virtual browsers and web browsers combined in 2016 as the separation between virtual content and web content became meaningless. Now they colonized in force.
That’s right about the time a band of real aliens happened upon the Earth. They found everyone – the teenagers and the adult workers – sitting around their portals to the virtual worlds and decided they could invade and be done before lunchtime. All the adults, now weak from a lack of physical exercise and blinded by the sun, were now no match for the aliens who took over the Earth, had a quick snack, and continued along their way.
In my research into virtual worlds I’ve run across many complimentary references to Edward Castronova, so I was very interested to get his book “Synthetic Worlds, the Business and Culture of Online Games”. Besides, he teaches at my alma mater Indiana University, so I have to pull for a fellow Hoosier.
I generally talk about virtual worlds, but Castronova uses the term “synthetic world”. He defines a synthetic world as “an expansive, world-like, large-group environment made by humans, for humans, and which is maintained, recorded, and rendered by a computer”.
As an economist, Castronova keenly understands and conveys why items in these worlds have value and why that value is often directly convertible into real currency as proof. And as an economist, his best insights are into the economics of virtual worlds. Castronova includes a great chapter on the Economics of Fun. When I was writing games for Strategic Simulations (SSI) in the 80’s I had an explicit set of characteristics I would apply that described what made a game enjoyable. Castronova hits them head on: that new objects provide new capabilities, that making choices under scarcity is enjoyable, that the work required to produce rewards is reasonable, and that everyone gets to play “rags to riches” with their characters. My games pre-dated the internet era, so Castronova adds others that didn’t apply in my experience such as crime, competition, and human-driven economics.
Castornova has also discovered the concept I call “bridging” when he talks about “moments that blurred the distinction between this world and the synthetic world”. I also feel this is why some people don’t “get” virtual worlds though. They cannot suspend belief or open themselves up to the virtual reality as having any meaning.
He shows some good insight into general aspects of philosophy, policy, and design of virtual worlds. In fact, the best quote of the book is this one: “my argument is not that you should care about the ogres and elves running around in cyberspace, but that you should care about the fact that there are ogres and elves, millions of them, running around in cyberspace.” (p. 251)
But clearly, Castronova is not as authoritative when straying far from economics. For example, when entering the realm of behavioral science, Castronova falls into the common fallacy of saying that people immerse themselves in virtual worlds when they are better than the real world. The stereotype here is the geek who gets picked on by the bigger boys at school and is ignored by his parents, but escapes to his room to play EverQuest where he is a famous, powerful warrior that commands respect and attention. But those are my words. As Castronova puts it: “the new worlds being built will grow in popularity if, and only if, they provide a better life experience than the world we were born into.” (p. 70) That may be true for some people and at some times when they look for escape, just as people do through movies. But VWs also just count as entertainment, like sports. Has anyone shown quantitatively or anecdotally that when internet access is provided in impoverished inner cities or war-torn third world countries that people try to escape into virtual worlds? On the contrary, I think VWs are more popular with people with pretty comfy lives who have their other basic needs met.
But it is in the realm of philosophy (or, more exactly, utopian visioning), that Castronova runs off the road (chapter 12). His imaginings include potential utopias where a person would be “judged not by the body but on the basis of the mind alone.” and “once everyone gets used to the fact that bodies don’t matter, they may cease to cause discrimination even on Earth.” (p.258)
Many of his experiences in these games and worlds simply don’t match with mine. For one, his description of the experience of using a synthetic world is a bit more immersive and extreme than I have experienced and I suspect may overstate its impact on people. For example, he describes how the user’s identity begins to expand to encompass the user’s avatar, such as when “the avatar’s attributes felt like they were your own personal attributes” or that people frequently leave off “character” or “avatar” when saying things like “my strength is depleted”. They actually do this when they have multiple avatars, which is pretty common.
So all in all, I think this is a great book and a must-read for people interested in what virtual worlds are about (mostly from a gaming point of view). It provides an overview of how the games work followed by a survey of philosophy, game design, politics, psychology, and sociology behind the games, but is clearly most at home with the economics of these worlds.
Who said games have to be fun? Not the serious gaming community. Serious games are like “fun” games in that actors select outcomes and observe responses based on a set of inputs and rules. This applies whether you’re playing Texas Hold ‘Em or testing military strategies. But serious games use common gaming conventions for training or scenario assessment rather than pure enjoyment. Don’t confuse serious games with educational games which are supposed to make learning fun, disguising education by embedding it in a context that usually means enjoyment. Serious games have serious purposes, such as studying the spread of infectious diseases, disaster preparedness, and planning military operations.
Or flying a plane. A recent example of this is Microsoft ESP, a version of their Flight Simulator game that’s been customized and marketed for non-gaming applications. It has been in beta for a while, but it seems the site just went live after New Year’s. Their data sheet describes it this way:
Microsoft® ESP™ is a visual simulation platform that brings immersive games-based technology to training and learning, decision support, and research and development modeling for government and commercial organizations.
Virtual worlds (which I’ve written about many times before in this blog) are providing the infrastructure for many serious games. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of organizations beyond the military and public service segments starting to take serious games seriously.
The MIT Technology Review reported today on a failed experiment at using virtual worlds for educational purposes. While there is certainly a long list of failed attempts to use games to educate, this one comes from an unlikely source: Ed Castronova. Castronova wrote the book on virtual worlds (literally: Synthetic Worlds is a very good book on the topic), and even covered the “economics of fun”. But what he found is that 1) a game has to be fun to attract players, 2) reaching critical mass in terms of the number of players is critical to launching a virtual world, and 3) creating a good virtual world still costs a lot of money.
According to the article (Virtual Labor Lost) Castranova says:
“I was talking to people like it was going to be Shakespeare: World of Warcraft, but the money you need for that is so much more,” he says. Castronova also says that he was taking on too much by attempting to combine education and research. He believes that his experience should serve as a warning for other academics.
I wouldn’t take this as meaning that serious games cannot work if they are not fun. Simulation and training exercises can use game-like elements without being “fun” and still be useful. But it seems Castronova found that it’s important to distinguish between the serious gaming situations that require a major dose of fun to be successful and those that don’t.
As part of my research into enterprise use of virtual worlds I spoke to a virtual event solution vendor called Unisfair today. I like what they offer as it seems to meet their user’s needs, but am apprehensive that the phrase “virtual” may be getting distorted.
First, what did I like? Their proprietary event management system and Flash-based interface takes some of the good features of Second Life and dispenses with some of the problems. Which good features and problems do I mean? Well, the good part is that it has some of the cool factor of Second Life, looks 3D, and allows serendipitous social interaction and discovery things the user was not explicitly looking for, and can display content in several forms (video, slides, text). Unisfair dispenses with some problems that enterprises have had with events in Second Life such as scalability/performance issues, distracting unbusinesslike elements (e.g., flying, strange-looking creatures as avatars, bizarre clothing), griefers (flying unmentionables at conferences), and a larger learning curve to get around than first-time business users want to tackle.
So far, so good. But it’s not a virtual world. Unisfair says it is a “virtual environment”, not a “virtual world”. I suppose that helps a little, but not a lot. It’s clear a connection will be drawn to virtual worlds and Second Life though. For example, The PC World article “Cisco Launches Virtual World for Resellers” about Cisco launching on Unisfair states
Cisco Systems Inc. launched a virtual online 3-D world based on a trade-show motif Thursday … the new Cisco Industry Solutions Partner Network (ISPN) is loosely based on the animated look and feel of Second Life and related sites … Relying on the concept of Second Life makes sense for serious business needs, Sage added.
An environment suggests a world, which implies to me (and I think many others) that it does 2D rendering of objects in 3D space. There’s a big psychological difference using an interface that allows free movement versus one that only allows movement up and down a set of prescribed paths. Sure, once you are in a virtual world for a while you may not stop to smell the flowers anymore, stare out over the water, tilt your head up just to see the clouds. But you like to know you still can if you want to. If a user cannot interact with their environment, what is the difference between an environment and a bitmap with hotspots? When you look at a room using one of those 360 viewers on a hotel (like this one) or real-estate website – where it’s really just one big wide bitmap but they let you scroll right and left and zoom in and back – is that a virtual environment? Or virtual representation of the room? Was the old videogame “Dragon’s Lair” (which looked like you were moving through a lushly animated 3D world but was really running a cartoon clip off a videodisk that ignored your joystick except at cut points) a virtual world? Nah.
This is deja vu from covering portals. In 2002/03 when portals were hot, too many vendors called their product a “portal” to connect to a meme that guaranteed attention. When I quizzed many of them privately about their portal features, they admitted they were not really portals “in that sense”. And sure enough, when portals cooled down a few years later they all took the name “portal” off their products. The same could be happening with virtual worlds and Second Life.
So what? Does that matter for users of Unisfair? Not really. They’re not there to walk around the booths and study the architecture of the conference center from all angles. It seems like a good solution for online events with social networking and communication capabilities and a hipper navigational interface. I don’t mean to disparage them and I’m sure my teammate that covers conferencing, social software, and chat tools would especially appreciate the integrated and purpose-built nature of the tool. But it’s a signal to me that I now have to be careful when I see the word “virtual” being thrown around. For the next few years anyways.
Gaming and attention management from an actual product? Do tell!
An enterprise productivity application inspired by successful interactive games
Attent™ with Serios™ is an enterprise productivity application inspired by multiplayer online games. It tackles the problem of information overload in corporate email using psychological and economic principles from successful games. Attent creates a synthetic economy with a currency (Serios) that enables users to attach value to an outgoing email to signal importance. It gives recipients the ability to prioritize messages and a reserve of currency that they can use to signal importance of their messages to others. Attent also provides a variety of tools that enable everyone to track and analyze communication patterns and information exchanges in the enterprise.
Being a former game developer and now attention management devotee, I think what enterprise productivity advocates can learn from gaming (by way of attention management) is that people get more done when they are enjoying themselves. More specifically for enterprises, grabbing and keeping gamer’s attention requires an easy to understand interface that obscures complexity (revealing it only as needed), a well-developed reward system, and rapid response times. Any time an interfaces begins to confuse the user, the user does not feel like they are making measurable progress, or system delays break their stride, the user’s attention will wander and you risk not getting it back (especially in gaming where stopping play does not stop your paycheck as well).
Introduction of monetary units is more like economic game playing than real game playing. I think its a fascinating experiment and would enjoy seeing it in action to learn about the behavior of information workers and the value they place on messages and their attention. But as a real tool to help enterprises over a long period of time I’m dubious.