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1.Rather sentimental but sweet…this film demonstrates that thinking about love is a measurable impact (via scanning on an MRI)
2. High end animation on Hip Dysplasia, created by Surgical Multimedia; this educational video as a training module designed for early childhood education, features an evocative digital baby. http://surgicalmultimedia.com/DDH/player.html
Over the coming months, I’ll be using this site to share and construct some hopefully useful thoughts about why it is that ‘traditional’ virtual reality platforms with 3D graphics are not being taken up by the services sector, while augmented reality, via location-based applications (mobile AR), is being explored with a fair degree of enthusiasm.
See for example, Australia’s Commonwealth Bank, one of the countries largest and oldest banks; it jumped head-long into mobile AR joy in 2010.
Really useful tool ? Marketing gimmickry ? Early adopter hype ? I’d like to know how the service is actually going. More importantly, I’d like to know what factors are influencing the services sector in their decision to, on the one hand, explore augmented reality (AR), and on the other, leave virtual reality (VR) languishing in what technology analyst Garnter describes as ‘the trough of disillusionment‘.
I’ll be posting some interesting examples of both AR and VR to accompany the theoretical side of the investigation.
Here’s a digital construction by Paul Nicholls of a possible future built environment. The project was part of his Unit 15 course work at the Bartlett School of Architecture, LCU(UK).
In September I was pleased to attend the ACCAN Conference in Sydney, for debate and presentations about the future of Broadband in Australia - remembering of course that it is we who shape the future – and how the building of the structuring of the National Broadband Network (NBN), might play out At the dinner, Keynote speaker Genevieve Bell, located in Dublin, was beamed in via the virtual world platform Vastpark. These pictorial mementos tell the story more quickly than words.
Were there technical hiccups? Yes, the opening and closing of ports at UTS and the lack of sound flumoxed the remote (Melboure) avateers, who were relying on the audio cues. Chris Zinn from Choicequipped that the avateering made the Thunderbirds look like Olivier! Solid back up from the ACCAN team helped smooth things out.
Bruce Joy from Vastpark has written an amusing piece about it all. For me, the event will be remembered as the day Senator Conroy and the Hon Malcolm Turnbull got their avatars (no wings).
I was recently asked to consider an immersive collaboration platform that utilised what I term a ’natural’ avatar, that is, a streaming video representation of one’s real self via the use of a webcam on a digital body.
Logically, it would seem that this is a better solution than an entirely graphically produced avatar, as the subtle range of behavioural cues conveyed by a real face leads to more effective communication. However, asserting that a video image is ‘real’ (albeit electronic code and pixels) and that a graphical avatar is artificial, does not convey the complex relationship users have with different forms of embodiment. Studies undertaken at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (SVHIL) show that our brains do not necessarily know where ‘reality’ ends and ‘virtual’ begins and that when we meet an avatar in virtual reality, we treat them as real.
Furthermore, researcher Nick Yee’s studies found that a person’s graphical avatar can sometimes be a better expression of ‘self ‘than what cognitive scientist Andy Clark describes as ‘our biological skin bags’ . A Cerebral Palsy group’s participation in Second Life (CBS 2008) confirms this: via a shared graphical avatar, they were able to jump, dance, ski, skateboard and communicate with others without real world constraints; they reported feeling ‘more themselves’ as a result. It can be expected that other physically challenged groups could experience corresponding benefits.
In another SVHIL survey series, ‘The Proteus Effect’ participants were assigned avatars opposite to their physical type, (short were tall, tall were short, attractive and less attractive), then people were given a set of negotiations. When the negotiations were repeated in the physical world, the kind of dominance the tall and attractive people displayed in the virtual world was carried over.
These findings suggest that digital self-representation can have a powerful influence on behaviour, particularly in the link between online and off-line behaviour, for example of a Cerebral Palsy group in Second Life, who were observed to have greater self-confidence and a more positive outlook as a result of their graphical avatar’s freedom of movement and social interaction
In view of this, I advocate that avatar trials, and there are many underway, should not be underpinned by the dichotomous construct of ‘real vs unreal’. What is preferable is to acknowledge that boundaries between real and virtual are diminishing, made manifest through established trials but equally by observing online behaviour, from Facebook’s long social shadow which sees users developing a circle of online friends, to the thriving trade in digital objects for personalising and identifying online presence, now according toindustry analyst kzero, $4bn plus industry.
I prefer to use the as a distinguisher, the term ‘natural’ to describe a webcast avatar , and the term ‘plastic’, in the sense of moulding and extending, for ‘synthetic’ or ‘graphical’ avatars. This preserves the integrity of ‘real’ in both the online and the off line world, and that hazy part which lies between.
Remembering that post-human theorist Kathryn Hayles dismissed the material body as an accidental flesh prosthesis, Nick Yee points out that virtual worlds allow us to confront this accident directly by offering us the possibility of alternate embodiment which might suggest ‘novel metaphors for social interaction and work’. Why not, he asks, have a scribe in a meeting embodied as a white board? Imagine that a team leader was a campfire, emitting a glow and emanating ‘warmth, drawing the team near’? What new ways of thinking might ensue if working groups inhabited one avatar instead of each participant having their own, or avatars were reduced to strips of colour to convey mood. Expanding the conceptual ‘self’ may be the key to finding innovative ways to develop teams, break down hierarchical (and other social) barriers and problem solve. Accordingly, a ‘natural avatar’ is not always the best solution for the project at hand (unless, as a platform, it can harbour a range of avatar options).
I can imagine that platforms developed around, but not limited to, the natural avatar, will find greater application. In order to realise commercial potential, developers need to identify not only those situations where a natural avatar is the most effective presence but also an evaluation of those situations when a natural avatar limits, rather than assists interaction. The more we understand the use cases for ‘natural’ and ‘plastic’ presence, the more confidently we can position platforms for entry into the fast developing education and health sectors.
I have just uploaded the next instalment of Immersive Internet Australia, entitled ‘Focus on Health’, which canvasses the opportunities for delivering health services via virtual environments. By way of an introduction, I includ below, a couple of charts which indicate the depth and breadth of innovation amongst health providers. Table 1 is my own:
Table 2 was compiled by the folk at Virtual Ability, a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA, with a mission to “enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds…”
In spite of the evidence, the serious use of virtual worlds continues to be allude policy makers. Only last week, an Australian Labor Party back bencher Nick Champion referred to a demonstration by the anti-climate-change lobby as “a rally that has all the credibility of a Dungeons and Dragons convention – full of fantasists “ . A reading list including the John Seely Brown’s ‘Harvard Business Review’ articles, and a link to Jane McGonical’s ’Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World’ are winging their way to him now.
One other indicator of narrow thinking comes, unlikely, from the authoritative blogger on virtual worlds, Daniel Voyager. Daniel recently posted a list of the 15 top real life companies that are still active …gasp gasp…in Second Life. what is troubling is that he omitted the multi-billion health (and education) industry from his list. These are businesses too, only whereas the corporates may be struggling to justify the Second Life subscription fees, education and health providers have found real purpose in SL and other the virtual environments; they have a deeper understanding as to how online virtual environments can create value: broadly speaking, this is by acting, playing, learning, helping, moving, meeting and so on.
To put it into a simple equation :
virtual +verb = value
(where the verb ends in ‘ing’)
Here are some ruminations from my research project, Immersive Internet Australia , commissioned by the Smart Services Cooperative Research Centre and Swinburne University of Technology.
The list is neither exhaustive, nor final. Comments welcome.
- The immersive Internet is a generic term for technological platforms that enable a 3D or 2.5D (a flatter perspective) graphic rendering of real or composed scenarios, events, people and places. Simulated environments are hosted on servers and are sold as software, or delivered as a service. Variable elements include graphics, interaction, media input, documentation and presentation tools, scalability and bandwidth. Typically, the more elements, the higher the level of immersion. A fully immersive environment is commonly referred to as a ‘metaverse’.
- Users gravitate or enter an environment because of a common interest or purpose, such as collaboration, education and training, co-design, entertainment, industry and community events, and social interaction.
- A customisable avatar denotes a user’s presence in the virtual environment. Avatars are the digital representations of their users, they are a means to mediate the action and interact with others who share the virtual space. With high end immersion, avatars hold data, such as profiles and have digital content held in their own repository, an ‘inventory’. Users interact via multiple channels (chat, voice, gestures, and movements) and at the high end of immersion, can share synchronously the common content. The keyboard is used to navigate although new modalities such as gesture are being introduced. Commands create avatar movement, as well as zoom, tracking, and alternate viewpoints functions.
- In immersive worlds, users are free from the constraints of their real-world physical status and locality. Yet users are not depersonalised; there is a sense of personal space and entitlement: if an avatar bumps into you, you will step out of the way. People with disabilities report they can be ‘more themselves’ (CBS, 2008)
- Virtual worlds are described as ‘persistent’, that is to say content is maintained or even updated by others, regardless of whether a user is logged on or not. Content within the space is created by the platform-developers and/or by users. Items can be intrinsic to the environment (terrain, buildings) or acquired as enhancements (apparel, gifts, inworld services, animation).
- Activity in virtual worlds can be recorded as data and measured in the same way as conventional web sites (web-style analytics). Content such as live events, fictional narratives or learning experiences can be captured and edited. In effect, a film clip, these artefacts are called ‘machinima’.
- Interoperability and content transfer between worlds is currently limited to a few platforms such as OpenSim and Second Life, which share the same client. Moves towards an industry standard (X3D) are progressing, especially amongst the Open Source community. Some proprietary companies continue to see commercial value in silo-ing their customers.
- Numbers of virtual world registrations are notoriously inaccurate as there is no standard measurement. Some figures include Asia; others are skewed towards the Europe and US markets. Another inconsistency is whether a given figure refers to ‘cumulative’ (unique) registrations or whether it refers to ‘active users’ (people who regularly log in). In the wake of an independent standard, analysts use data provided to them by platform companies, which are not in themselves, always verifiable.
- The biggest uptake is in the 5-16 ages group, indicating that children find such environments enjoyable places to be and play. (KZERO 2010). This suggests that immersive technologies should be considered as a new opportunity for teaching and learning, and projects. KZERO reports that in 2009, there was a 90% growth in virtual worlds amongst children aged 5-10 years. This suggests that virtual worlds will gain acceptance as an expected mode for online activity for the coming generation of adults.
- Virtual worlds are emerging as marketplaces for digital goods, where creating and acquiring virtual (intangible) goods are becoming intrinsic to user experiences. Goods are objects or services that offer revenue streams for platform producers, content makers, and end-users. The management of inworld digital goods and the ease with which they can be traded is now a high priority for developers and publishers across all industry sectors. 2D games, accessed through social networks have firmly established the business case. The Boston-based, industry analytics company, Viximo (2010), predicts the virtual goods industry is predicted to increase by 51% in 2010-2011, accounting for 20% of all US games software revenues in 2011.
- The education and health sectors are the standout areas of virtual world innovation. Over 100 Australian institutions use virtual environments for learning. In the area of science and engineering, virtual environments show promise for modelling and controlling complex system.
- In the business and enterprise domain, virtual environments are being explored but are not yet core to companies’ strategies. One obstacle to wider uptake is that virtual world platforms are competing with traditional collaborative tools provided by well-established technology companies such as Cisco, Adobe, Microsoft and Lotus with whom there are pre-existing relationships. However, one industry sector showing strong leads is the tradeshow and conference market: clients and customers can ‘meet’ in branded spaces, and view and discuss products and issues. Efficiencies in terms of travel and associated down time, energy consumption, and overall cost reduction are now documented. Moreover, early adopters have reported pleasing outcomes in terms of human resourcing, network building and sales outcomes.
- Boundaries between social networks and virtual worlds are increasingly diffused. Immersive environments and social networks share behavioural factors such as reputation, customisation and building communities. Increasingly, social networks have attributes associated with virtual worlds, such as avatars, rooms, digital goods, currency and a managed economy. On the other hand, the success of 2D flash-based games such as Farmville, which are attached to social networks, and played between friends, are creating a stronger awareness of alternative distribution paths for immersive tools.
- Motivations to acquire virtual goods mirror those of the physical world: as status, an enabler or an identifier. Digital goods are effective as incentives for behavioural change (Mao and Shi, 2009; Reeves and Reid, 2009) and also for fundraising, demonstrated by Zynga’s ‘Haiti Relief Fund’ and the American Cancer Society’s ‘Relay for Life’.
- We are in a transition period. Prominent platforms such as There, and Metaplacefolded in 2009. The well known Second Life now comes in two versions: a business-to-customer (B2C), ‘open’ (that is, publicly accessible), social world and an enterprise ‘closed’ solution which is hosted privately, and sits behind a company firewall. Time will tell if its developers, Linden Lab, can manage both identities. In the B2B space, integration with the enterprise legacy system has not been well addressed. In the B2C space there is as yet, no standout market leader, such as is Facebook has proved to be in the social networking sphere.
- There is a notable migratory trend from Second Life to OpenSim, the open source platform. Content from Second Life, may be transferred into bespoke worlds built on OpenSim, and is gaining popularity in the education sector, (eg: Reaction Grid).
- Open social worlds present some perplexing issues around governance, as regulatory elements are largely in the hands of developers. Subscribers have limited rights over the environments in which they have invested, and are subject to end user license agreements (EULA) over which they have little or no input. Should a virtual world collapse, users have no recompense for their digital assets, and storage of their virtual assets is usually not an option due to lack of interoperability and IP concerns. Real-world authorities lag behind virtual world practices and are uncertain about how to regulate public virtual worlds, especially where illicit acts such as money laundering, tax avoidance, scams, harassment, and theft are involved.
- Stability, useability, security, integration into corporate IT, and the need to set standards are challenging the rate of take-up. However, the more virtual worlds are used, the more their limitations are highlighted, and the quicker progress is made. The next generation of virtual world architecture will likely fix many current shortcomings.
- On the positive side, the virtual environments sector is evolving rapidly and a next wave is discernable. Avatars are becoming more lifelike, and many systems accommodate users’ actual faces (Teleplace, VastPark, 3DXplore, ProjectX, Mycosm). A clear separation between business applications and social/game worlds is developing; the former are being designed around corporate activities, with flexibility at the customer end; the latter emphasise virtual goods acquisition and trade as part of their business model. Open APIs will drive participation from third party developers. In this respect, Open Source platforms such as OpenSim, VastPark and Open Wonderland are well positioned for future integration.
- Next generation products (2010 onwards) are lightweight and better suited to mobile devices. They are capable of incorporating real-world data such as traffic congestion, shopping supplies, and entertainment events, translated as high-resolution, real-world imagery. As the technology develops, the physical world, enhanced by virtual overlays – augmented real-world environments – will become widely used and compliment screen-based, computer-generated worlds.
- Public entities which involve vast amount of accessible data and services, or which attract many visitors, such as museums, parliament houses, art galleries, libraries, educational institutions, government offices, hospitals and tourist locations, are suited to adopting virtual worlds technology. Experiencing such places virtually brings with it, many benefits, both creative and practical.
- Tiers of the immersive Internet industry include platform creators, content developers, inworld facilitators, marketing and advocacy support. At the user end, there is invariably an inhouse advocate who undertakes to lobby senior management and CTOs. Without these groups, a virtual world strategy within a given organisation is unlikely to succeed.
- In relation to the building of the National Broadband Network (NBN), many Australians are asking what the business case for a super-fast broadband service might be. Virtual environments ought to be considered in such discussions for they are the sorts of technology tools that will enhance existing services and indeed, create new ones. However, they are bandwidth hungry – even lightweight platforms are impacted if user-groups are simultaneously looking at multiple embedded rich media, such as streaming video, streaming audio and presentations.
- Promising experiments in virtual health care (Arinthio 2009; Virtual Ability, 2009, Wiecha, 2010), along with the demand for innovation in the e-health sector (Dept. Health and Ageing, 2008) suggest there is value in establishing a nationally-funded program to consider the immersive Internet’s potential for services such as chronic-care programs, the establishment of virtual clinics and using virtual environments to assist the disabled and the elderly.
- Virtual environments are another platform for delivering services. If government agencies were to develop an interest in immersive technology solutions, it would be a fillip to the services economy in general, for as an exporter of goods and services, Australia is a trusted supplier. Developing existing exports, such as education, as virtual experiences, not only builds and extends established brands, but may significantly add to the value chain. Project trials are an obvious next step.
- A communications infrastructure capable of handling immersive technologies is required in order to meet the expectations of coming generations; their Web will go beyond the connect and share paradigm of today to a system that enables users to experience and interact with data around them. Input will come from everywhere, and data overlays, as we are already seeing in a range of applications on smart phones, will be immersive to a greater or lesser degree, depending on preferences, or as dictated by the jobs at hand.
Arinthio, D. 2009, ‘Daneel Ariantho’s laboratory: A blog about chemistry and healthcare in Second Life’ retrieved July 2009, <http://daneelariantho.wordpress.com/>
Australian Department of Health and Ageing 2008, ‘The National eHealth Strategy’, retrieved October 2009, <http://www.health.gov.au/Internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/National+Ehealth+Strategy>
CBS NEWS 2008, retrieved August 2009, <http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3547970n>
KZERO, 2009, ‘Virtual Worlds: 2010 and beyond Report’, retrieved October 2009, <http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog>
Mao, Y. and Shi, L. 2009, ‘From “Dragon Dollars” to Philanthropic Dollars: the Role of Virtual Currency in an Online Forum’s Fundraising and Volunteering Activities’, (unpublished paper), UCLA School of Public Health.
Reeves, B. and Reid, J.L. 2009, Total Engagement: using games and virtual worlds to change the way people work and businesses compete USA, Harvard Business Press.
Virtual Ability, 2009, retrieved December 2009, http://virtualability.org/default.aspx
Viximo 2010, ‘Viximo Quarterly Outlook: Virtual Goods in 2010 and Beyond’, retrieved April 2010, http://blog.viximo.com/corporate/2010/04/14/quarterlyoutlook/
Reading a press release from technology company Avaya, I was reminded of Basil Fawlty’s desperately funny attempt not to use the ‘W’ word , in this case standing for ‘war’, when German guests come to his stay at his guest house, Fawlty Towers.
The connection ?
In Avaya’s case, it’s the company’s clear decision not to mention the ‘W’ word, in this case, standing for ‘world’. The press release promotes the University of Texas Austin’s newly-appointed Professor of Innovation, Robert M. Metcalf’s use of Avaya’s web.alive platform to deliver his inaugural lecture.
The platform is variously described as a ‘collaboration environment’, and ‘immersive web collaboration platform’, a ’3-D spatial audio and videogaming graphics technology’ and a ‘virtual environment’. Nowhere is the term ‘virtual world’ used.
It’s curious, given that education sector advocacy groups such as Duke University, the New Media Consortium (NMC), Australia’s Virtual World Working Group (AVWWG), freely uses the term. The IEEE, a 350,000 strong professional advocacy organisation for advanced technology, also embraces virtual worlds. In fact, IEEE usefully lists 29 requirement features for such platforms in the enterpise context, and ‘virtual world’ is the only descriptive term used.
Does it matter ? I suspect Avaya is being cautious with its enterpise clients, wanting to play down associations with gaming culture, or the idea of people living online vicariously. However, whilst selling virtual world platforms as merely ‘environments’, or ‘collaborative spaces’, is certainly more anodyne, it misses out on the opportunity to impart virtual worlds’ largess; inviting the corporate community to create their own ‘worlds’ for online collaboration provokes more holistic thinking, suggesting that over and above meetings, such platforms engender structural innovation (organisational and relationship-building), product development, and customer experiences too.