Sunday, March 9, 2008

Second Life Blogs-- 6x The Number Of WoW Blogs?

From New World Notes; "While hacking through the thicket of SL blogs new to my RSS reader, I tried counting the total number... and got so overwhelmed, I instead counted the number of blogs in my feed that weren't related to Second Life, and subtracted. On a hunch, I did a comparison, and came up with this:

Estimated number of SL blogs, based on my RSS feed: 190
Estimated number of WoW blogs, based on WoW Wiki: 32

Maybe this isn't a fair comparison. Does someone have a larger list of World of Warcraft blogs handy? But even if there were three times that number of blogs devoted to World of Warcraft, the contrast would still be striking. 190 bloggers out of 550,000 active users, versus 32 bloggers of 10,000,000 subscribers. There's a fair amount of user-created content associated with WoW, far as machinima, guilds, and so on-- why so few bloggers?"

More From The Emory Event (Linden CFO & Kaneva CEO)

At the Emory event John Zdanowski opened by discussing the Second Life virtual economy which has thrived on the trade of user-generated content:

One of the key differentiators for Second Life [is] that there’s a sizable virtual economy that’s really built up around all the individual creations and the intellectual property of all the users. And just to put some numbers around that, last month there were about 55,000--I’ll call them “profitable,” (in quotes)--in world businesses or unique accounts that had positive monthly Linden flow, and I think that those 50,000 accounts are creating a significant amount of the content in Second Life, certainly not the majority of it. And those 50,000 profitable accounts then turn around and make up a significant portion of the sales of Linden dollars on the LindeX, the virtual currency exchange. And last month, about 8.2 million Linden dollars were bought and sold by residents.

John also notes the importance of entertainment in the initial success of a new medium.

One of the stories that [Linden Labs CEO] Philip [Rosedale] likes to tell is, in the earliest days of television, in the earliest days of any new media, it’s basically entertainment that drives its success. In the earliest days of television, it turns out that professional wrestling was basically one of the most popular things on television. I think in the same way there’s some sublime things going on in Virtual Worlds and Second Life and then probably also some ridiculous things as well as people experiment to find what works.

Chris Klaus described the virtual world Kaneva, which focusin primarily on entertainment and social connection.

Entertainment’s the great hook to say, “Hey, come in and check this out. Have fun.” And then, as people are exploring these worlds, I think we’re going to see it morph into a lot of other goals. I think this conference has been great, in terms of having the discussion way beyond just entertainment. ... So one of the key things is we integrated social networking into the World. So if you’re familiar with MySpace or Facebook or even linked in, it’s about connecting with people you know. And so we’ve tried to integrate that capability into the World so that not only is it you in the World, but it’s your friends, and you can quickly communicate when did they come on, where are they, what are they doing? And then, as you’re finding new people, you can quickly look at their profiles and find out who are they, what are their interests, and see how relevant you might have stuff in common, what interests you have in common.

Ultimately, as people are spending more time in Virtual worlds, I think it’s a chance to bridge between what people have been doing with TV sets and watching programming and start merging it together with a Virtual World... we sat down and started brainstorming, “What could we do?” And one of the interesting ideas was not just broadcast the TV shows into the Virtual World, but we’ve really sat down--and Turner created the sets of these shows so that you can actually go on the set of Family Guy--and we’ll do the sets of all the other shows that they’re licensing or broadcasting, and what’s exciting is ultimately our community can engage, not just with the sets and watching the TV show--and it is a social connection where your friends from all over the place, or if you’re a fan of a show, you can find other fans and discuss it. But ultimately I think it’s about engagement.

While user-generated content can support a more engaging environment, the recent SL banking crisis highlights the additional risks that come with imposing less control on the residents of a virtual world. Zdanowski comments:

I think banking got some interesting views simply because of the broader things going on the Real World around the banking sector. But primarily banking in Second Life really wasn’t banking. What it was, was basically scams providing a horrible user experience, involving high interest rates that were unsustainable, for the most part. Certainly there were probably some legitimate organizations that may have been swept up in that, but those organizations are certainly welcome to seek a banking license in the Real World and then come back in to Second Life and offer that service, if it’s in demand. And I think shutting down banking as we did in January basically saw almost no impact on the overall economy. I think it was kind of probably much over hyped and over pressed for the actual impact that it had on the Second Life economy.

Open standards, open source, and interoperability are seen by many as central to the future of virtual worlds. Klaus and Zdanowski each comment in turn:

Chris Klaus:

I think ultimately the more successful platforms will be open. I think they have to support open standards and be interoperable with all the major components with what is the infrastructure of the Internet. I think we’re at the early stages and, like any technology, you kind of start off building it and seeing what happens and what the value is.

And then, as you start to adopt and get customers, the natural evolution is, “Hey, can you make this work with something else?” Initially it’s, “Hey, does this thing work?” And then you’ll see companies demanding that it has to work with all the other infrastructure that they’ve acquired. And either you make your platform open or you probably will get subjugated, or some other platform that is more open will come along.

I know for our platform we are looking at open standards and being part of, Rob, your organization, with interoperability. I think IBM is also taking a lead there to say, “Let’s discuss what are the things that are important for interoperability.” Everything from the data formats of the world to how do you connect one avatar or one identity to another world.

The good thing is you’re starting to see with Web 2.0 almost all these platforms are opening up API sets and allowing others to connect in to their platforms. Not so long ago you could say the web world was never interoperable between identities, and now you’re starting to see a lot of the major portals, and Internet players like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft adopting OpenID, I think, is another standard that’s emerging. So I would imagine all these worlds, over time, will end up supporting them.

I think we've got to decide what are those standards that we got to support. Some of them don’t exist today, in terms of we’ve got proprietary stuff. I’m sure Second Life has proprietary components as well. But, long term, I think everybody who’s looking at this business has to open up and has to connect beyond just their small little platform.

John Zdanowski:

Yeah. I’m not sure there’s a ton to add to what Chris said, except I think he’s right on. I think the there’s a general feeling, certainly at Linden Lab, we’ve open sourced our viewer, and I think we’ve got tremendous success with that effort. I think there’s also open-serve, open-sent types of environments that are coming online and are definitely pushing the envelope of technology there as well. And I think, of those, we couldn’t agree more here. The more open worlds are going to be the ones that are more successful in the long run.

And then it’ll be interesting to see if you think the regulatory issues around managing inside just Second Life itself are challenging, I think the concept that you could be taking inventory between worlds and land on different levels of permission systems and things like that, on different levels of trust, I think those are issues that are going to make it more challenging sort of than certainly just agreeing on technology standards. Not insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination.

I think there’s a lot of really smart people in lots of companies, from Intel and IBM down to Linden Lab, trying to help figure this stuff out, what’s going to make it all work. And I think, at the end of the day, the more open and the more accessible those technologies, certainly at the lowest levels, then the more applications are going to be developed, the more successful certain areas will be.

Finally, Chris Klaus comments on the future of virtual worlds:

Gartner Group basically has come out and said by 2011, which is not too far away--less than five years--250 million people will have an avatar and be in Virtual Worlds. So that’s their prediction and that they think 80 percent of all active Internet users will be in these Virtual Worlds by 2011.

Within that, I also think, as these worlds are being created, almost every large you just look in the entertainment space. Disney World for example, has already announced they’re committing over $100 million to create ten new worlds specifically to different themes or properties that they own, from Pirates of the Caribbean to Club Penguin. They spent close a billion dollars on Club Penguin, so they’re pretty serious about this world phenomenon.

And I think ultimately, if you ask me where is the worlds going, I think we’re going to see a similar parallel to asking somebody in 1994 or 1995, “Where is the web going? What’s going to be happening? Now that there’s this web browser and there’s a web server? And five years from now, can you predict what will happen with Web sites?”

And I think nobody would have predicted an Amazon, a Google, an eBay, but ultimately those did manifest themselves using this new technology platform. I think we have the same potential to see new businesses and new thoughts scale and become exciting with the Virtual World platform.

So the answer to crystal ball is, it’s going to be bigger, and specifics, I think, are going to be left up for everybody with any imagination coming up with ideas, as John was talking about, and they’ll pursue whatever makes sense in the Virtual World.

Emory Business School Looks at Virtual Worlds

With graying hair, a grizzled face and a penchant for bow ties, Benn Konsynski, professor of business administration at Goizueta Business School, doesn’t fit the typical stereotype of an online gamer. But you should never judge a book by its cover: Konsynski takes his games very seriously — and he isn’t the only one. In fact, on Monday, Goizueta was filled with a variety of people from across the nation — academics, businessmen, tech enthusiasts and IT professionals — who all share the belief that gaming is much more than child’s play. Video game enthusiasts flocked to the B-School for the public portion of a two-day conference entitled “Virtual Worlds and New Realities in Commerce, Politics, and Society” and organized by Konsynski, David Bray, Emory Ph.D. candidate in the field of information systems, and Holli Semetko, Emory’s vice provost for international affairs. The conference, sponsored by The Halle Institute, the B-School, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, featured a series of panels, each four hours and 15 minutes, where conference-goers were given the chance to hear from and ask questions of academics and entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of the growing virtual-world phenomena. Experts at the event included John Zdanoski of Linden Labs, the company backing the virtual world Second Life, and Chris Klaus, founder of the Atlanta-based virtual world Kaneva. While some may find four hours of video-game discussion excessive, a growing interest in the industry shows that virtual worlds ought to be taken seriously. According to Edward Castronova, associate professor of telecommunication at Indiana University and expert in the field of online gaming, only about 0.3 percent of the world’s population spends time in some kind of virtual environment, but the economic activity in these worlds rivals that of small countries like Jamaica — and is actually growing at a much faster rate.

It may seem odd to talk about the economic activity in virtual worlds, but experts insist that just because the goods and services that users create in these worlds are nothing more than ones and zeros doesn’t mean they aren’t real. A high-level character on World of Warcraft can sell for upwards of $1,000. “We’re dealing with the top of Maslow’s hierarchy,” said Castronova, referring to a psychological theory that states people first fulfill basic survival needs before working to achieve more abstract social and personal goals, “but a huge fraction of the economy in the developed world is the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.” And considering a prediction made by the Gardner Group, a leading information technology research and advisory company, that by 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users will have some kind of virtual-world presence, this virtual economy will become even more important. But even beyond the numbers, these life-like environments are already proving themselves to be useful on a highly practical level by breaking down some of the barriers that exist in the real world. In an interview with the Wheel, Michael Rowe, manager of IBM’s 3D Internet and Intraverse, explained how virtual meetings in Second Life allow for people to collaborate over great distances in a far more meaningful way than, say, your typical conference call. “People show up early [to virtual meetings], people chat, they socialize and they don’t leave at the end of the meeting,” he said. “They build those personal relationships.” And he speaks from first hand experience: Rowe became good friends with a business colleague, Ian Hughes, by working with him in a virtual space for a year and a half, before they finally met in real life six months ago. These virtual worlds can also act as “petri dishes” in which groups can do experiments and simulations that would be impossible in real life. During an interview with the Wheel, panelist and a Standford Professor of Communications Byron Reeves described such an experiment during which he had his students create Second Life avatars with various skin colors and then sent them out to interact with other online characters. “You can test the effects of race in a way you could never do experimentally,” he said. The low cost and highly flexible environment that virtual worlds like Second Life offer also makes them great places to do training that would be difficult otherwise. Karen Ngowe, the senior instructional technologist at Northrop Grumman, a contractor for the CDC, has been investigating the possibility of using the online game to train public health professionals to respond to large-scale disasters. Working with an independent organization called Play2Train, a group that develops locations and equipment for training in Second Life, Northrop Grumman has run a miniature-sized mass vaccination simulation meant to explore the capabilities of the system.

But in spite of their great potential, virtual worlds in some ways still fall short. Ngowe cites issues with the scalability and stability of the Second Life platform that prevents it from doing massive training scenarios. “The platform right now, especially with Second Life, is not very scalable,” she said in an interview with the Wheel. “By the time you get more than 20 avatars, everything slows to a halt.”
Other conference attendees and panelists agreed and voiced concerns about the interoperability between virtual world platforms, as well as problems about complicated user-interfaces. “Today there’s not an open platform that embraces all the things that you need to be successful,” Klaus, founder of Kaneva, told the Wheel. He added that someone needs to do for virtual worlds what Apple did for the MP3 player: “They applied a very simple interface, and made it cool and slick.” But ultimately, experts believe these problems will be solved. Throughout the conference, academics and business-types alike made references to the early Web. “This feels very much like 1994 with the Internet,” Konsynski said in an interview with the Wheel. “[And] the possibilities are as extraordinary, if not more in many ways.” Those who scoff at the virtual worlds, he went on to explain, are like the critics of the early Internet: “They’re just not seeing the possibilities.” In fact, this widespread skepticism of virtual worlds may be its biggest drawback. Although changing perceptions about virtual worlds is a difficult task, Castronova believes time may make it unnecessary. “I think there’s a demographic problem that’s slowly being solved. It’s hard for people to understand these things if they’re not young, so folks under age 25 don’t have too much difficulty grasping the whole thing,” he explained in an interview with the Wheel. “[But] if you haven’t played video games its really hard to grasp what’s going on.”

Ray Kurzweil ""In twenty years, games will have taken over the world and everything will be virtual reality."

Covered in a sepcial feature from the Globe&Mail; "... the 60-year-old futurist, best known for his hypothesis of technological singularity, told a crowd of 2,000 video game developers last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco that he thinks games are on the cutting edge. "Games are a harbinger of everything," said Mr. Kurzweil in his keynote address. "In twenty years, games will have taken over the world and everything will be virtual reality." Crazy? Well, maybe coming from someone else. Mr. Kurzweil is what you'd call a big thinker. Although his academic foundation is modest — he has a bachelor of science from MIT — he has 15 honorary doctorates and scores of awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Technology and MIT inventor of the year. Through his numerous companies he's invented flatbed scanners, developed optical character and speech recognition software, created reading devices for the blind and invented music synthesizers that could replicate grand pianos and orchestras . He's the author of five books in which he makes dramatic predictions about the future. In 1990's The Age of Intelligent Machines, he said a computer would beat the world's chess champion by 1998. It happened in 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov. Mr. Kurzweil's predictions are predicated on one fairly simple idea: while most trends are considered to be linear, information technology follows an exponential pattern. Exponential growth refers to regular doubling over time, while linear growth refers to a regular increase by a constant amount over time. Early on, explained Kurzweil, an exponential growth rate resembles a linear curve, which is why so many have been fooled. But at a certain point, exponential growth becomes explosive.

A Persian folk tale tells of a king presented with a beautiful chessboard, and when the king offered anything in return, the craftsman asked for a grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, 16 on the fourth and so on. The king agreed, but by the time he had reached the 19th square, more than half a million grains of rice were required. The king forfeited his realm instead. The problem, said Kurzweil, is that humans seem to be hardwired to intuit things as following a linear trend. On a linear graph, for example, the growth of the World Wide Web seems like it came out of nowhere. But when plotted as an exponential curve you see "exquisitely smooth exponential progression," said Kurzweil. Which is why, he explained, he was able to accurately predict the growth of the Internet twenty years ago. In terms of both processor size and power, Kurzweil said that since the '70s there has been a billionfold increase in computational performance, and he expects to see a similar increase by 2020. This refers to Moore's Law, proposed by Caltech professor and Intel cofounder Gordon Moore in 1965, which stipulates that the number of transistors that can be place on a circuit doubles every two years.
But what does all this have to do with video games?

Well, since games are an information technology, created with and played on powerful computers, plenty. In terms of computational power, Kurzweil thinks we'll have the potential to do anything. The question, he said, is whether we'll have the software to do the same. Kurzweil used the "Uncanny Valley" phenomenon — which refers to the negative emotional response that humans have toward simulated humans (such as robots) that are "almost human" — as an example. The reason computer-created characters can "seem like demented humans," he suggested, was not because of modelling or mapping, but language. "The key to human intelligence was language," he explained. The moment, then, at which software is able to generate human speech and dialogue, will be when the valley is traversed. "We'll be there by the late 2020s," said Kurzweil. But we're already seeing changes in the gaming industry, and Kurzweil suggested that the rate of change is such that anyone working on a project that will take more than six months needs to be aware of this fact. "Pong was crude," he said. "That was 1972." By 2010, Kurzweil said, computers will begin to disappear. "They will disappear into our clothing and bodies," he explained. Big screens will be replaced with personal monitors built into eyeglasses and even contact lenses. He expects "full-immersion" games early in the next decade which will take place in true virtual reality. The problem, said Kurzweil, is that we need to figure out how to make sure people in virtual worlds don't forget that they are also interacting with the real world, something that is already a problem with some Wii games. We'll have to "enforce reality," maybe "by having a window to the real world in the virtual reality world." A more eloquent solution to that problem will come about by 2029, said Kurzweil, when nanotechnology will be able to shut down the signals our brain receives from the real environment to enable us to respond only to signals from the virtual reality of our choice. This will be possible because of what Kurzweil called "an intimate merger." Computers will have human-level intelligence and the reverse engineering of the human brain will be complete. Game characters, said Kurzweil, will benefit from our having "complete models of all regions of the human brain and the means to simulate human intelligence."

"A kid can become a virtual Ben Franklin," said Kurzweil. "Everyone will be able to expand their intelligence by virtue of using such devices." In a backstage interview after his presentation, Kurzweil said he thinks the descriptor "video games" is limiting "because it makes it sound like as if its an unimportant part of life ... But it's been growing and taking over more and more aspects of human interaction and learning and creativity." "Play is how we principally learn and create," said Kurzweil. The continuing growth of computers is already leading to a democratization of gaming, he said. The price of gaming systems means that more people have them and they are more powerful than the supercomputers of the sixties. "The tools of production are also being democratized," he said. Creating a new game that can be played by multiple players around the world can be done with a $1,000 laptop. Massively multiplayer experiences, in games or in virtual worlds, harness the ability to interact. The "dynamic, self-organizing, decentralizing communication" harnessed by the gaming industry will "create new, emerging forms of intelligence."

MindArk Doing Cool Thins With Project Entropia

Paul Philleo at MPOGD recently took a look at the fascinating online cosmos known as Entropia Universe just after the Consumer Electronics Show in January and is back for a chat with John Bates, the Business Development and Strategic Marketing at MindArk’s Entropia Universe, to check on the latest updates from this rapidly evolving and growing virtual world. "Creative Kingdom (CKI), an international architectural firm behind several spectacular themed resorts and hotels, is pairing up with the Thai government in creating a massive $7 billion multimedia and IT complex called “Cyber City”. Before that monumental complex ever sees the light of day, a vision of CKI’s finished project will set sail online within Entropia as a dedicated planet, complete with a virtual world economy that’s been the signature feature of Entropia since its launch. “CKI is the first confirmed group we have working with us who are from a completely creative background,” Bates added. “We’re as interested as anyone else to see how they use their architectural and creative skills in building a planet from the ground up.”

Bates also excitedly shared a glimpse inside other strategies MindArk is taking, when it comes to tying together the “blank slate” potential of their planets with real-world branded properties. In late January, they attended the Future TV Conference, populated by executives, entrepreneurs and deal-makers in the television, cable and broadband industries. MindArk walked away with several major discussions opened with potential partners in the field. Wandering into the realm of speculation, can you imagine an ESPN virtual world, or maybe a National Geographic Channel virtualized online? Within the core of the Entropia Universe, a number of changes are still unfolding on the main planet of Calypso. One specific feature that was covered was the make-up system which opens the door to extensive character customization. It is proceeding well, even surprising creators at how much uniqueness users are milking from the system. Face painting, tattoos, and even subtle scars are being created to distinguish one otherwise identical avatar from another. It seems at every major event Entropia Universe has the occasion to announce a new planet, bringing new brick-and-mortar brands into the digital space, and continuing to grow beyond the relatively humble beginnings of Calypso. While this is the second time MindArk has made a significant news announcement this year, it’s somehow unlikely to be the last. MPOGD will keep you posted on other news and updates from the interesting virtual world."

Crackpot tech: Virtual worlds

InfoWorld's Peter Bruzzese has an interesting take on Virtual Worlds and the eneterprise in Crackpot Tech and notes there is real ROI potential in training and collaboration useage; "The likelihood of Second Life having a long-term impact on the enterprise may appear virtually nonexistent, but consider this: Education, collaboration, and networking -- three productivity mandates for today's enterprise -- are fast catching on in the virtual world. Before laughing and glancing sideways at your well-worn copy of Snow Crash, know that even old-guard institutions such as Harvard University have a Second Life presence, with virtual campuses where learning, discussion, and content creation occur.

Training, for one, has real ROI potential in Second Life, as virtual worlds expose participants to RL (real life) learning scenarios that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to explore. Take dealing with a pandemic flu, for example. Medical students are already tapping virtual worlds to learn how best to respond. No need to pay for a trip to a foreign country to learn language basics. Virtual immersive language study allows you to travel to worlds where only that language is spoken, with all signs and advertisements written in the language being learned. Collaboration and networking are two other sweetspots for companies to make use of virtual worlds. Tech heavy hitters such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Dell, and Microsoft are already tapping Second Life as a platform for development, conferences, and forums. IBM, which has established a Business Center in Second Life, boasts nearly 4,000 employees with Second Life avatars to date, with about 1,000 routinely conducting company business inside Second Life.

But what of the many technologies already serving companies' collaboration, networking, and training needs? How can virtual worlds find a long-term place in the mix? "The 3D aspects and the ability to put a whole group of people in the same 'space' at a distance, where everyone can hear everyone else as you would in a real hall or space, gives SL an advantage over other social networking systems, chat systems, or conference calls," says Todd Cochrane, of the Wellington Institute of Technology in New Zealand. "People seem to be more engaged." And that is the immeasurable edge virtual worlds may have over traditional modes of training and collaboration: user engagement. Perhaps more so, as Generation Y grows up with virtual technologies such as Second Life. Of course, anonymity, which people tend to prefer in the virtual world, hinders collaboration carryover into the real world. Moreover, plugging in to Second Life for business-grade collaboration has other detractors, such as quality of experience (SL is consistently slowing down and crashing for a variety of reasons), privacy (oftentimes, depending on the type of conversation, others can “hear” you), and security. But as the technology matures, these issues will no doubt be addressed. Either way, crackpot or not, tapping virtual worlds such as Second Life in a corporate setting has already drawn significant interest. “Once more we have the very strong feeling that [Second Life] will have a huge impact on business, society and our personal lives, although none of us can quite predict what that impact will be," Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology and visiting professor of engineering systems at MIT, wrote in a blog over a year ago. "It will be fascinating to see where this ride takes us in the future."