Serious Virtual Worlds, Coventry

Having a quick coffee before Serious Virtual Worlds – can’t wait for the uncanny valley (sorry ;-)) to begin!

I’m actually really looking forward to a day of hearing about what’s new and hot from some of the leading lights in Virtual World technology. Here’s my notes from the speakers, there was tons to take in, so I’ll add more as I digest it all…

The conference has a theme of interoperability between virtual worlds.

Presently there are no standards for virtual worlds for interaction, for example you can’t take your Second Life avatar to visit a mate in Twinity or in an MMOG, although it must be said that you probably don’t want to take your Second Life avatar into World of Warcraft as they’d be anhialated pretty quickly 😉 There’s also a mix of open source and proprietary software which causes the usual problems and discussion about free apps vs. subscription apps/worlds, funding, etc.

*warning* – I got a bit carried away with my notes, consequently this is a very long post, so click on the ‘keep reading’ link if you’re not rushing off anywhere!

We started with a show of the rather cool looking NASA virtual worlds simulator – servicing mission – will look for a link later…

After the introductions, first up is Robert Edmonds – SRI Business Consulting, they currently have a remit to investigate virtual worlds – company is based in California with about 70 employees.

He introduced his talk with a quote from William Gibson about virtual worlds – ‘like a cross between being in some surburban shopping mall on the outskirts of Edmonton in the middle of winter and the worst day you ever spent in high school’ – this ties in with what most people think virtual worlds are like!

Beyond the Secret Club…

Question is whether we can make the bridge between virtual worlds generally perceived as a ‘secret club’ and the rest of the world’s population. There needs to be more integration between the web and different generations. There is a lot of activity around virtual worlds these days that suggests that virtual worlds are gaining in popularity. But, there needs to be improvements in the way virtual worlds are accessed – presently they’re difficult to use and not very user friendly – people are put off because they’re too technical. Virtual worlds uptake as an emerging technology is like the web in the early 90s: difficult to use, small pockets of people doing stuff but not really interacting with each other right now. Though the direction that Virtual Worlds are developing in means that they may be different to what we use now and develop in many different ways.

Exchanging data between virtual worlds – this may be the way that business enterprise develops – data exchange via the web is one way of interoperability.

Business opportunities and key trends:
* Second life is the market leader and defacto standard at the moment
* Most are using second life
* Lots are using open source – OpenSim – Project Wonderland
* There are many platforms – but not direct equivalents
* There are patterns emerging – showing where each platform may go
* Open source platforms – open source software seems to be better at infrastructure and not such good interfaces.
* Open source is low cost and therefore more attractive, especially for the tech-savvy
* Most of the focus on web based work is concentrating on consumerism
* Progress towards standards is slow and demand for standardization is uncertain
* Connectivity with the web and other applications may matter more than connectivity between worlds

Adoption phases:
* Most companies are in the learning lab /experimentation phase – looking at what’s out there
* Pilot – project decisions: key apps, scope & focus, virtual worlds platforms, etc
* Employment & implementation

Key issues for Virtual Worlds:
* Reaching mainstream audiences and consumers and enterprises
* Interoperability
* Usability is a big barrier
* Too many platforms
* Proprietary vs. open source platforms
* Most people who use VWs at the moment are tech savvy – need to make virtual worlds accessible to your average computer user

Questions – from the audience:
What are the current business use considerations?
* Decisions on platforms – working with firewalls – trying to get a level of senior management support

Do you see large downloadable clients as an issue?
* Yes, it’s a bit issue for enterprise – most people can’t use Second Life in a corporation – proprietary plugins are also an issue. Either makers of virtual worlds use open web standards or a piece of software will get popular enough for everyone to adopt it and make it popular.

What enterprises are using second life?
* Training and education – for example health and safety training
* Virtual teams – communicating via various online tools to put projects together –
Unilever is an example of a company who have done this


Ren Reynolds –

Crossing the policy boundary

Ren Reynolds is founder of the Virtual Policy Network – a think tank was created as a reaction to a lot of issues coming up in virtual worlds. He said when mainstream media started taking notice, the politicians started taking notice, and so people started to worry about possible outcomes. The ‘policy makers’ have done some studies into Virtual Worlds, but it’s very difficult to engage the users of virtual worlds in the context of policy issues. There are government workshops coming up on virtual worlds policy all over the place, so it’s time to start to take things seriously.

Real vs. Virtual – we are already virtual in our everyday pursuits online, via email, Facebook, IM, Twitter and other online ways of portraying ourselves, our personalities and creating online social realities. We use bank accounts and make transactions – recreating what’s in the physical world. We have a concept of democracy.

Real issues in virtual worlds: what occurs in a virtual world is real and what matter is not its ontology but its impact:

Virtual Worlds mean many things to people:
o Fun
o Emotion
o Communication
o Learning * Steinkuehler C. (2004) MMOG as and Educational Technology

Virtual economies are big business in virtual worlds and gaming – World of Warcraft, EVE-Online and Second Life are examples. In term of gambling, Linden Lab took steps to ban it. With virtual economies comes the question of tax: WOW Gold, L$, PED – Swedish bank have said that VW economy is taxable!

What’s happening in terms of virtual policy outside the West? In China in the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s court they overturned The9’s decision to ban a ‘gold farmer’as the exploit was part of the code. In Vietnam, Thailand, there are time limits on MMO play and Australia does not rule out taxation of virtual worlds transactions

There are also indirect policy impacts in terms of IP, copyright and other controls, also voting and polls in new virtual public spaces.

Gender, identity and identification is a big consideration. Personal representation: ‘breasts and scars’ – you don’t get flat chested women characters in virtual worlds and games, while men look all brawny and battle scared – at the ‘Women in Games’ conference last week, women said they wanted the opportunity to make themselves look more tough and fit, rather than big breasted and beautiful. There are huge policy impacts, especially where children are concerned and are seen to be at risk from identification – this is hard to control.

Sony SingStar karaoke game: you can upload your own videos – there are very little instances of videos been taken down? Self-law on behaviour – how is this changing the way we do stuff online? Kids are socially isolated due to the paranoia of kids not being safe on the streets – the wider context of this is that Virtual Worlds are becoming public space more frequently. There are loads of issues around identity and location.

Unintended consequences and summary questions:
· Policy makers like simple models
· What is a virtual world?
· Do laws for WOW work for Habbbo and OLIVE?
· What do we want?
· What do we fear?


Peeling backs the interoperability onion – John Burwell, Vice President, Business Development Forterra Systems

John, caused a bit of a stir by implying that some open source advocates might be a bit fanatical and compared them to communists (he later said he was just being provocative) – this caused some consternation in the audience, but some hilarity continued as a thread through the conference as speakers introduced themselves as communists for the rest of the day.

Talking about interoperability, what is needed and why should we really care?
• Building virtual worlds is a big job – providing the necessary functionality is an endless task and requires an eco-system
• Growth of the medium and the power of technophobia – you’re never going to get certain people to adopt technology – so you need to be able to fit in and stand out
• Lock-out – the dangers of single source solutions – when you’re implementing tech, you need t o integrate it with existing applications, platforms and hardware – what if you go out of business – can cost you more to get out than get in – you never know what’s going to happen!
• Investment protection and reuse
• Long term support – relates to lock-out – if you invest in a small company that goes under you are in trouble – interoperability addresses some of the issues

What’s been done to date?
• Growing awareness
• The Big Gathering and subsequent posturing – a lot of people thought they knew how things should work – an avatar with client side ability so you can take it round various virtual worlds. This might be unlikely as it needs to be written by commercial companies and virtual worlds are not developed enough for this to happen yet. Big Gathering is now defunct due to differences of opinion.
• Necessity is the mother of invention – mash-ups and native integration – delays in implementations
• Delay in pilots and implementations
Example decision to use OpenGL in Silicon Graphics – you have to create an architectural review board to take it from internal to external standard.

Beyond an Interoperable client
• Simple content
• Terrain
• Non-player characters
• Learning Management Systems and SCORM
• Avatars, logins & physiology modelling

Content interoperability
• Use of industry standard modelling systems – 3DStudio Max, Maya, Sketchup
• Support for interchange formats eg Collada
• Scripting and animations
• Legal issues and intellectual property

Summary and conclusions
• Interoperability is critical for the growth of virtual worlds – it’s a hard problem to solve
• There are more to interoperability than a wire standards for clients

Questions to John from the audience:

‘What could the Serious Games Institute do? ‘John: They are neutral and not necessarily with a commercial bone to fight, to try to get all this stuff to work takes a lot of work there is a lot of different data to get to talk to each other and work. Market research needs to be done. There’s code that companies don’t want to give up – proprietary software.

‘I’m interested in demand – what when you talk to clients do they ask for?’
John: Interoperable stuff such as simple content, terrain, non-player characters, learning management avatars and logins – also saving money.

‘Why so much comparison between open source and communism?’ John: I was being provocative: everything in the world doesn’t need to be open source to be interoperable. It’s not for the feint of heart to get into this business, they cost about 60m and that’s a lot of engineering time. This equates to a complex system – when you try to make changes – such as special audio – that changes the physics engine, etc. You need a huge amount of developers – it’s hard to make it work. There are a lot of zealots out there who won’t buy anything and it becomes an ideology instead of a workable solution.

‘What about cross platform?’ John: It’s really hard to do -it’s neat to be able to have your avatar jump out and be interoperable, but it’s almost untenable as the software is so complex.


Jim Purbrick of Linden Lab – The Interoperable Second Life
‘A little interoperability goes a long way’ there’s been a lot of interest in web browser and web client access to virtual worlds. There’s been a lot of interoperability in Second Life for quite a while.
• You can do a lot with images – overlaying images and avatars to create virtual mash-ups – lighting information into images to get around using Second Life.
• Audio – uploading audio formats
• Animations – motion capture formats – can record performances such as ballet
• Streaming video – mixed reality conferencing, can link worlds in a meaningful way, allowing people to have serendipitous experiences.
• Streaming audio – described Suzanne Vega as the mother of streaming audio – being able to stream audio you get a lot of benefit, interoperability with standard formats
• Web – you can see the web working in SL and read screens such as Java coding screen. What you want in a VR is a web browser in a virtual world you can zoom in and see web content – easier to see web browser in virtual world than the other way round

At Mashed08, Jim created Carbon Goggles – a mash-up with Second Life and Amee, using Django Python and web services to track carbon emissions. He built objects in Second Life then associated them with online data to visualise carbon emissions – for example when you turn a kettle on you can see carbon coming out – it’s a serious augmented virtual reality application.

Economics: Second Life has its own economy – there’s a lot of stuff you can use to build your world – if you were having a conference you wouldn’t build a chair yourself – you’d go in and find someone who makes chairs and buy them with Linden dollars – ie you were creating an environment you don’t need to have your own designers to build things from scratch.

The Future? They’ve been working with IBM to talk about interoperability, such as the possibility of universities allowing them to teleport and exchange things such as avatars. OpenSim built by non-communists (poke at Forterra guy) these interoperated. It’s not for the feint hearted – you would only start developing this sort of interoperability if you knew what you were getting into. OpenSim and open source view means you don’t get stuck – because you always have the opportunity to download the source code to change the source code, not like the locked in model of cough Forterra. If you need to do some stuff like stereoscopic stuff that is now being developed in American universities – you can get the source code. There is no walled garden in SL – its always been interoperable – you’ve always been able to interact with other software. Interaoperability is about loads of stuff, economy, IP, kids, more than a view in a browser. It’s not a propreitry technology that won’t talk to other technologies.

Questions from the audience:
‘On the web you see people marking their data with CC licence such as on Flickr…’

Jim: Interesting that you mention scripts available as web services and hinted that this was more important than openSim – what are the priorities? HTTP project most likely to happen in the next year – what’s the application and what do you need to achieve? Virtual worlds talking to each other is important is a long way off though. There are two streams happening in parallel, but in the meantime you’ll see lots of small steps for interoperability.

‘What about AI for global immersion?’

Jim: Some people have built scripts to call out to the web to translate different languages – this is a good example of how Virtual Worlds work with the web. Ongoing discussions with Linden Labs mean there are many applications that now talk to the web – you’ll soon be able to have other applications in Second Life. It’s incredibly hard to embed web browsers into Second Life, at the moment.


Twinity: when virtual Worlds become real – Norbert Meinike

Twinity is a virtual world which prides itself on real looking avatars and cities that mirror real life. They analysed two trends on the internet: the wish to interact with friends and for 3D entertainment. It’s a Virtual World that focuses on real life. It mashes up 3D worlds and social networking and they feel this gives Twinity the best of both worlds.

Key features of Twinity
• Real cities –it has virtual cities which mirror real life ones with precise mapping of buildings, etc. So far they have Berlin, but London is next and Singapore will follow.
• Real people – realistic looking avatars that you can create with photos, you can use your real name and there are various ways of communication. You can make your online flat look like your own home.
• Vibrant culture – you can party and hang out, go shopping, etc. They have built a realistic replica of the Cinestar Cubix in Berlin and also the Lumas Gallery
• Real economy – shops, property and currency – you Yan buy and sell virtual items, create a commercial shop etc. Drykorn is a real shop, that exists in berlin, you can try on dresses from real life collections too and get feedback from the sales staff!

Unfortunately for me, so far Twinity only runs on Windows XP and Vista – so I can’t join in the fun on my Linux or Mac machines. It would be good to hear if they’re going to rectify this any time soon as I’d really like to have a look around for myself!
Case Study: How health insurer CIGNA uses a virtual world health community – Claus Nehmzow

Many employees have acute or latent healthcare issues – the ‘old way’ focussed on people already being ill – behavior is the largest single determinant of health status. A virtual world might help – a real time environment and a shared experience with anonymous vs. anonymous elements & simple vs. complex media

Cigna /vielife

Health training seminars – video here:
People arrive at an island in Second Life and are guided to where to go by greeters, people can sit and listen to the presenter and also chat on IM. The speaker uses 3D props and presentations. Giant props such as hamburgers illustrate a talk about fat consumption which includes real time voting. There follows nutritional information, illustrations show for example how much fibre you need to eat – people retain more information by showing props in this way. Animated slides show things like blood sugar level information. After the lecture they are offered interactive methods of exploring more information, eg games. These are used to reinforce the message.

An interactive fridge contains various foods where you can click on food labels to find out nutritional information. Also a diner with an interactive menu and the user can ask questions. At the end the user gets a tab about how they use food and results from their choices – a reality check. There are also games such as Whack-a-food where you hit the food that is healthier. The experience reflects a serious business problem to educate and improve peoples eating behavior. It is a pilot at the moment, you can sign up directly or find via Second Life. Privacy isn’t a big deal right now, as they don’t collect personal data, but the age verification issue is interesting.

Ronan Freeman –
OpenSimulator is a BSD licenced, open source project. It’s is a virtual worlds server used for building 3D virtual environments written in C# and is cross platform. They have 24 employees, it’s platform independent, they love Second Life and have 8 full time developers working on large-scale events in virtual worlds.

–    Open source – anyone interested can contribute
–    Public domain – openSim licence is very short – basically says don’t sue us if it screws up your machine and credit us if you use it!
–    Global team – teams all over the world
–    Flexible design  – primary objective is to create an architecture that is modular
–    Established standards
–    Total control – you can integrate it with any applications that you want
–    Free!

•    Grid or stand alone
•    Second Life compatible
•    Management tools
•    Application integration
•    Mesh import – integrating full mesh objects Skeleton structure – not constrained
•    Skeleton import
•    Low cost -free!

•    Open viewer
•    Multi-grid rights management
•    Avatar management
•    Grid management

What’s the point of interoperability? Integration between virtual worlds would be good in an adhoc case by case base. What’s good about OpenSim is that you host it and you can make choices – ie you can give people a set of clothes to chose from so they’re not running around naked!

You can run it online or locally on your laptop – content creators find this useful because they create stuff offline. You can download it and either run it on a cheap connection or you can set it up on high spec server – eg Amazon Electric Cloud.

Management tools will allow you to manage multiple grids and web services and can give robots complex tasks to do – such as integrations with Facebook, etc.

Well it was a really intense day of talks, shame I couldn’t make it to day one, but on some levels I think one day was enough for me as I was really tired – It was certainly very informative and I did find it all very interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next, as time and again speakers mentioned how virtual worlds are on the cusp of major development and in a similar emerging state as the web was in the early 90s.