Monday, August 27, 2012

More thoughts on the present and future Metaverse

Fleep Tuque kicked off an excellent conversation on the future of the Metaverse. Her initial post and the subsequent comments are must reads for anyone interested in virtual worlds. This is my second follow-up post.
The decisions that platform providers make about things like technology, governance, standards, and interoperability obviously shape the infrastructure of virtual worlds. But since I agree with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, in the long run vendors don't dictate how virtual worlds impact society or the human experience. We can't accurately predict how any particular advance is going to end up shaping the future. That's why, as I wrote last year,  all value judgements about new technology suck.

What we can do is pay attention to how we use current technology and perhaps come up with new ways to take advantage of its latent potential. Because what really matters about the Metaverse isn't how we'll end up moving between worlds in the far off future. What's most important is figuring out how we can better use the current virtual domain to improve our lives and the lives of others. And then acting on those ideas to test their validity. Of course, the more fully we can see the present environment, the better chance we'll have of making good use of it.

A comment yesterday from Keven Russell inspired me to think a bit more about how we use virtual worlds. He wrote,
The txtg use case made me remember. Texting communications fit the continuous attention work of Linda Stone thesis. When VW can easily fit that mode at the human ergonomic / factors level within the mobile context look for greater use. Since 2003, googles HUD and new smart glove patent grant are instructive.
I have a dozen or so avatar-identified friends I communicate with on an almost daily basis via social networks, instant messaging and e-mail. It would be very possible for us to hang out every day in Second Life, Inworldz or even Cloud Party. But we never do. We've never discussed it. I've never even considered the possibility. There are at least a few reasons for this:
  • There's not a lot of point in being in a virtual world if you're afk all of the time. As a matter of fact, it's kind of rude. It even makes less sense if multiple people are doing the same thing.
  • For short conversations, the time it takes to launch a virtual world client, log-in and teleport to a mutual destination isn't worth it when you can instantly chat via instant messaging or even a Twitter DM.
  • We're often mobile. Although there are a couple of mobile clients, there's still pretty kludgy and they don't add much value beyond instant messaging, email or private social network posts.
I realize that some people do use virtual worlds for the kind of ad hoc interaction I described. My point is that I don't think near-term advances in technology or greater integration are going to push many more people into using it in that way. There's some thought that if virtual worlds were fully integrated everyone would spend much of their time online as avatars in the 3D Internet. I think that's probably true for the people who do that now in Second Life, OpenSim or one of the Gaming worlds. But I'm skeptical that many in the general public are going to choose to browse the internet through the abstraction of an avatar and virtual world. Or walk around in virtual malls rather than browse pages.

Despite my skepticism about the near term growth of virtual worlds, I still believe the medium will have a huge impact farther down the road. When we peek ahead to the emerging technology and its potential, the powerful extension of human senses and capability will be too significant not to ripple across our lives and culture. Here are a few dimensions worth considering:

The Metaverse of Science Fiction. In this scenario we are so fully immersed in a virtual world that we aren't aware of the physical world around us during our participation. This is an extension of the psychological state many virtual world and gaming enthusiasts experience today. Initial extension of this scenario might be through enhanced external gear such as contact lenses, holographic projectors, motion capture devices, smart gloves, etc, as well as enhanced software such as sophisticated intelligent agents and seamless integration of currently 2D sites such as social networks, shopping sites, etc. This scenario depends upon open standards and APIs and a client that can seamlessly move between otherwise incompatible proprietary formats. The ultimate actualization of this scenario would be through biological interfaces that bypass our sense organs and work directly with the brain.

Augmented Reality. In this scenario the virtual world overlays the physical. The augmented aspects of our reality will be so integrated into our life that it becomes psychologically indistinguishable. As in the immersion scenario, this will be initially supported by external hardware with devices such as Google Goggles, natural motion capture hardware and wearable computers, and then realize its full potential through implanted interfaces. In this scenario I would be able to collaborate with two people who appear to be sitting in a room with me, one physically present, and the other virtual. I could project myself into a completely virtual world or invite my virtual friends into my physical space.

Continuous Attention. This is a continuous attention scenario. The best current example is Cloud Party, a browser-based virtual world that allows you to hit a link and be almost instantly transported into the world, or embed it in a web  page that transports visitors into the world. Like this:

In this scenario the 3D virtual world becomes just another type of networked media that we an jump into and out of as we do Facebook, Twitter and Words With Friends.

Identity-Based Metaverse: In this scenario, virtual identity is the unifying factor that unites otherwise unintegrated platforms into a pseudo-Metaverse. For instance, I'm registered on dozens of sites as Botgirl Questi including social networks, media sharing sites and virtual worlds. Although the individual platforms don't share authentication and identity management, I am sill known as Botgirl Questi in each domain and my profile on each site includes my unique identifying image and personal links.

In future posts, I hope to think more about how each way of viewing the virtual world can be leveraged to enhance our lives.


R. said...

What's the label for "Information achieves intelligence so it presents itself to the user in a format that is convenient, understandable, and not intrusive" because THAT is what I want... forget buzzwords.. forget packaging... I don't care if it comes in the form of avatars, websites, handheld phone beeps, or a monkey on my shoulder biting my face in Morse Code.

When the content gets smart, it will KNOW how we want to receive it in the simplest and smartest possible way.


Pam Broviak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam Broviak said...

As Crap alluded to, our lives have changed to make us want and need convenience. This change has also seemed to leave us with little time anymore to just hang out and talk. So because of all this, online tools like Twitter fit our new lifestyle perfectly. We communicate and stay in touch when we get the time and when it's convenient to do so.

Whether this new lifestyle is good or bad is a whole other topic. But if we decide it is the lifestyle we want, then only by meeting those needs will platforms help enhance our lifestyle. However, it we want to adjust that lifestyle, we design the tools to make that happen. I guess in the end, what I am trying to say is we first need to decide what we really want in life - then design the platform/tool to achieve that. And decide do we shape the tool to meet our needs or do we create the tool to shape us?

Darrius Gothly said...

My perception is that in order for any information provider to "Know" what we want and how we want it presented, it will need to tap into a inner personal "contextual location" .. and that means tapping into the myriad signals rushing around in our brains. Sure you could approximate it by watching our face, but who wants to wander around with a CCTV camera propped 3 feet out in front of us?

But tapping into our brains opens a can of worms from those fearful of any technology that it will soon be controlling and not just listening, and even the act of listening has fears of such things as data leakage into the hands of those that shouldn't know what we're really thinking.

But even with all the attendant issues surrounding a more tightly integrated interface, I still see Virtual Worlds as a landscape that those of us with challenges in the physical world can inhabit and navigate, once and for all freed of the daily "you can't do that" obstacles that anchor us in one place.

I dunno .. I won't live to see that day come, but I don't need to in order to believe that future technology will continue to progress toward liberating and connecting the isolated among us. It's done wonders so far, and IMO is has a lot of the features that will help knock down those last annoying barriers.

Darrius Gothly said...

(subscribing to follow up comments .. sorry, missed it first time around)

Botgirl Questi said...

Crap: Yeah, it would be great to have some sort of intelligent agent that could learn about what we like, troll the digital world 24/7 and then present what we need based on context. There's a recent app I read about that can provide geographically-based alerts, so it will remind you that you need milk when you get within a mile of the grocery store. Tie this together with the emerging sensor integration work that's going on, and your refrigerator will be able to conspire with Siri.

Botgirl Questi said...

Darius: I think it's possible for software to make educated guesses based upon historic data, sensor information and self-reporting. Today I track my steps, sleep and weight through sensors, and it integrates with self-reported diet and activity information. That's all just with a fitbit and an iPhone app. There's no reason this couldn't be extended to track all other kinds of factors and then algorithmically figure out the relationships. I don't think that's very far down the road.

I agree with you about the positive role technology has played for those who are physically isolated for one reason or another, and that it's bound to keep improving.