Monday, June 18, 2007

Virtual Worlds: Where Business, Society, Technology & Policy Converge

IBM and MIT teamed up together to present the Virtual Worlds consortium last Friday, June 15 in Cambridge. Here are some of my notes:

Frank Moss, Director of the MIT Media Laboratory, opened up the session by asking, "Is the 3D internet over-hyped?" From my experience on various virtual worlds (There, Second Life, Active Worlds, etc.), I think it is over-hyped at the current stage of development, but the potential is easy to see. Dr. Moss says, "No, but...." In order to get us from here to there, we need transformations: identities, interactions, and institutions.

We need more simplicity, scalability, "stuff" (events, objects, etc.), search, standards, etc. Dr. Moss' group is working on many of these issues. They're looking to upgrading humanity (new minds, new bodies), virtuality (2D to 3D and consumer to creator), and reality to 4D (knowing where all things are all the time). Research is converging to a real-time simulation of everything, which will drive everything from 3D worlds to biological research. His whole notion of "You-nity" focuses on putting the human being in the middle. He had a chart that put the power shift from power of processors in the pre 90's, then the power of networks in the 90s, then the power of people today. Virtual worlds are more than just creating a virtual conference room; we need to transform the way that people make decisions. Transform the autistic to an author. Transform how people interact.

Colin Parris, IBM's vice president of digital convergence, spoke about virtual worlds and their emerging business value. His agenda included evolving web capabilities, emerging business scenarios, interoperable integrated virtual worlds, and our critical tasks.

Collin observed that the web has evolved from finding information, then sharing information, and now to participation and co-creation. Participation and co-creation accelerates individual and group development and training -- collaboration at its best. This powerful collaboration-enabled acceleration of learning and training is a substantial and positive effect - transformational in Dr. Moss' sense.

IBM is working on several business scenarios, including apps that enhance current presales activities (immersive environments that allow consumers to explore product), more data collection that enables better upsale and other product recommendations, education and training, and collaboration and events.

Collin spoke about the importance of integrating virtual worlds. Users can reuse assets, reducing costs and risks. Content creators can design/write/create once, use everywhere. This all assumes that virtual worlds will be able to meet the requirements (scalability, security, privacy, protection). He didn't really go into the specifics of how this would be done, or some of the technical, social, and political issues involved in this, but he stressed that this capability will sustain the long-term survival of different virtual worlds.

The critical tasks include creating better interfaces (a common theme throughout the day), improved graphics, faster responses, better tools, and more robust systems. We also need to manage trust and identities as contextually appropriate, provide suitable legal and social guidelines, and create more business and social applications.

After Collin spoke, a panel on digital convergence and identity met and discussed issues around identities in virtual worlds. Some of the more interesting comments:

-"When running a business, `Are you who you are?' has always been an important question. [...] Identity is much richer and supplemented by actions and speech. Rich Identity Information is important as stakes get higher" -Harriet Pearson, Vice President, Regulatory Policy and Chief Privacy Officer, IBM

-"You can be whatever you want to when you’re hanging out with your buddies, but if you’re having a professional meeting, there are rules of etiquette that say you should be something different." -Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology and Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems MIT (moderator)

-"If I’m a chipmunk in Second Life in one place and I'm in a business suit in another; the strengthening of the pluralism of identities that are not only divorced form their first world IDs, but also their roles as vice president of a company, for example, is key." -Beth Simone Noveck, Professor of Law, Director of the Institute for Information Law & Policy, New York Law School

-“The developer says, ‘You are a space pirate going out to kill people in this space opera.’ And The Goons say, ‘You might be playing that way, but we’re playing goon.’ And they go out and grief the system.” -Dan Hunter, Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania

Kerry Lynn, Christian Renaud, Ankit Goel, and I had lunch with Rita King. We talked a bit more about identity in virtual worlds. Christian gave a story about being completely thrown off a presentation on the grid by a colleague who was, well, less than professional. I observed that some people are completely detached from their avatar whereas others see the avatar as a natural extension of themselves, which makes interacting somewhat complex . Rita said that some people recognize her in real life from seeing her virtual avatar in second life. The whole notion of identity varies between each person. I noted that part of the problem with virtual worlds like Second Life is that it is whatever people want it to be. Christian countered by saying that it's not so much of a problem as it is an opportunity and that we have the ability to help shape that.

Rita King is a freelance reporter and heads up "Dancing Ink". Her website is www.ritajking.com/ .

After lunch, Mitch Kaopr, the chair of Linden Labs (and creator of Lotus 1-2-3), gave the keynote speech. His main point was that Virtual Worlds are the New PC -- the disruptive technology with largely unforeseen and unknowable impact. He claimed that virtual worlds are at the tipping point; there's significant media attention, hundreds of thousands of people spending time in virtual worlds, there's an economic critical mass .. enterprises are intrigued and experimenting (even Cisco).

He told of his first realization of the tipping point - he saw an in-world video of a live Suzanne Vega performance. Suzanne was in a real studio playing a real guitar, but she was being portrayed in world as an avatar strumming a virtual guitar with her music being streamed through Second Life; several people all throughout the world were at the virtual stage listening and watching the virtual (but real) performance. He also noted that the virtual worlds become whatever we imagine them to be.

Mitch noted that we're in Macromyopia. Macromyopia is the notion that short-term effects of new platforms are less than predicted, but long-term impact is far greater than expected. He said that there are still a lot of problems in 2007 that we hear all the time:

-These things are just too weird. (Which is true when you have flying penises all over.) -They're too hard, which is true and we talk about it. -No reason for most people to use. -There's not enough control for business.

Why are we at a tipping point now? Fast PCs, big memory, good graphics, broadband and the global internet, and, most importantly, and ethic of participation (open source / free culture).

Why Second Life? In-world tools for object creation and scripting, all user-generated content, free service, residents own and control content, and an open economy with economic incentives for entrepreneurs.

After the keynote speech, Mitch then changed hats to be the moderator for the panel on virtual worlds and business value. Here are a few quotes:

-"It’s not what can happen inside these virtual worlds, but what these worlds can teach us about the real world." -Thomas Malone, Patrick J. McGovern? Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

-"Cheap communication is going to lead to much more decentralized control. When more people have information to make decisions by themselves, there are advantages for giving them the power to do so. It should be no surprise that we’ll see a lot more of these decentralized structures in the real world." -- Malone

-"The pragmatic question [is] of why people are going to show up and do things. Right now dating is a big motivator for getting people online. The big road block then is when is my mom going to do this."--Scott Johnson, Managing Partner, New Atlantic Ventures

-"Mostly young people look at the Internet as a social tool while older people look at it as a big encyclopedia. It will take a generational flip when the people who grew up in gaming will be making important decisions." -Rob Burns, President of Proton Media

The last event was a panel on technology and system design. Here are a few quotes:

-"We have to talk about the idea of whether there are multiple technologies underneath or multiple visions for the same technology" --Mark McCahill?, E-Learning & Collaborative Systems Architect, Duke University

-"Robotics isn’t just a tool to use at the distance, but a mode of communication." --Cynthia Breazeal, Director of MIT Media Laboratory’s Robotic Life Group, MIT Media Laboratory

-“If you develop an avatar that is similar to you and moves like you, you don’t want to have to relearn it every time [you visit a new virtual world].” – McCahill?

-"If your purpose in Second Life is to collaborate, it makes sense to change it. We've seen richer interactions, richer role-play, richer engagement between strangers all over the world." --Joe Miller, Vice President, Linden Labs.

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