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Opening sessions at the Metaverse Roadmap conference

When outlining a ten-year plan for a new medium, it’s good to have a mix of people in the room. In particular, it’s a good idea to have true believers, realists and skeptics at the table. I’m something of a skeptic around the 3D web… and there are clearly some true believers here as well.

(As I mentioned to a friend earlier this morning, I’m not skeptical that 3D is important and coming, but I am skeptical that any of the tools we’re working with today are sufficiently usable and approachable to make the 3D web accessible to most people currently producing web content.)

Jerry Paffendorf, the research director of ASF, frames the 3D web in a very wide way, including videogames, virtual worlds, simulations and animation, the geospatial web – “all things 3D”. He offers a useful distinction – “metaverse” versus “mirrorworlds”. In the metaverse, you’re free to be whoever you want and do whatever you want. In a mirror world, you’ve got a simulation that closely resembles the real world, which exists so we can test how the world actually works.

Recent developments in commercial 3D are an indicator that 3D creation is coming. Google has released a tool allowing people to build 3D models with about the same complexity as using Photoshop. And there’s now a site that allows you to publish and share these models. Press a button and you can open these models in Google Earth – Jerry wonders how long before one can import these models into Second Life or these other emerging metaverses?

Microsoft has just purchased Massive, a company that provides in-game advertising. We know that advertisers and software developers take these spaces seriously – the goal of the roadmap is to make sure we understand how these spaces are evolving, because they’re becoming increasingly relevant.

Guy Garnett – director of the Cultural Computing Program at U Illinois Urbana-Champaign – is interested in issues much larger than the commercial potential of the medium. He asks, “When we make the leap to the trans-human, where do we want to live?” He means this in the sense of Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity”, the moment at which we become man and machine, achieving immortality by uploading ourselves to computers…

(I would note that, as at most conferences I attend, I’m transcribing talks, not reacting to them… I’ll do that later… :-)

He believes that these spaces need to be ones in which imagination rules and where creativity is the only capital you need. These spaces should be bounded by imagination, not by physics – Second Life might be a subset of this space, because it largely follows predictable physical rules.

He’s excited by the notion that the metaverse can be “anyone to anyone”, while telecom is largely one to one and the web space is largely one to many. This involves thinking about the question of what it means to have six billion people interact in a space in a meaningful way – how do you aggregate responses and create interactions?

One issue Guy and next speaker Ted Castronova are both interested in is the ownership of property in this space. As Guy notes, “If you’re going to invest your entire life’s work in the metaverse, you want to know it’s going to be there and no one can steal it.” Ted is clearly aware of these issues, and has written a book called “Synthetic Worlds“, which explores the economic dynamics of these new spaces. He’s taking on an amazing economic challenge, trying to create an immersive world for research purposes.

The world, called Arden, is based on the world of William Shakespere. Ted points out that physicists raise multiple millions of dollars from government agencies to pursue research, while humanities scholars usually raise a few thousand at a time. How does an academic raise the $20-50 million required to build a compelling, workeable digital world where you can explore the economic, policy and social implications of these spaces?

Sibley Verbeck, one of the founders of the Electric Sheep Company – one of the first companies that builds in Metaverses, not building the platforms for Metaverses – says that he can’t think of anything to be involved with that has more potential for concrete, positive impact on the world. He believes that these new spaces can make globalization a small business phenomenon, creating economic opportunity for small companies. But this, he points out, creates a huge digital divide – those who don’t (or can’t) participate in these spaces are potentially cut off from a huge global economy.

After these short, introductory speeches, each of the 60+ attendees takes a minute to introduce himself (and yes, for the most part, they’re himselves.) Esther Dyson, sitting in front of me, notes that she “hasn’t drunk the Kool Aid” yet, but wants to understand why people are so excited about these spaces. (Reading this, Esther points out that she’s more enthusiastic and optimistic than I’ve made her sound – she thinks “there’s a cherry in the Kool Aid”…)

Ten of the next twenty people introduce themselves using the Kool-Aid metaphor – one guy describes himself as “a Gemini, torn between not drinking the Kool-Aid… and really, really drinking the Kool-Aid”. Another describes himself as “the big fat Kool-Aid guy who bursts through the wall”. And Randy Farmer, one of the pioneers in the space, notes that he’s drunk so much Kool Aid that he’s now in a twelve step program and has gotten much of the Kool Aid out of his system.

Wikipedia notes that “Drinking the KoolAid” is a reference to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, where Jim Jones convinced his followers to drink grape-flavored “Flavor Aid” laced with potassium cyanide. Draw from this whatever conclusions you’d like.

4 thoughts on “Opening sessions at the Metaverse Roadmap conference”

  1. Pingback: Raph’s Website » Metaverse Roadmap roundup

  2. I’d be interested to hear your summary of the discussion of SL’s Camp Darfur at this conference. Do you think this raised any consciousness or accomplished anything? Was the griefing of Camp Darfur in SL perhaps illustrative of the larger problem of trying to get virtual worlds — or for that matter email and the Internet — harnessed to effective citizens’ campaigns? I think they are of limited value and can only be one form of civic organizing, but they’re of *some* value and a lot more could be done with them. To be sure, they’re resource-intensive for now and it’s hard perhaps to justify putting limited non-profit resources into them. Still, virtual worlds save on organizing costs just as much as they create new kinds of costs. Remains to be explored.

  3. I’m not sure I’m a neutral commentator on the Darfur issue, as I’m the guy who picked a fight with James Au on the topic. I’ve been trying to write about my feelings on the topic, but haven’t been able to do so yet – hope to get a post up later in the week.

  4. I’d be interested in a full and frank account of this exchange, even if not “neutral,” because it’s part of the larger debate about assessing whether civic work *does* work in SL (and whether even email protest campaigns work). Hamlet was unaccountably cynical in covering the mass marches to draw attention to Darfur — more cynical than he appears to be in covering the synthetic Darfur and its protectors in SL:

    “I briefly attended the San Francisco rally for Darfur, yesterday, held in Presidio Park beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and a sky that was a vast and perfect blue. It was a great day for a rally against genocide, so many people brought their dogs. A helpful lady was in the crowd passing out information sheets which explained how to send a letter to the Sudanese embassy, so you could ask them to call off the janjaweed. The sheet also had the e-mail address to the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, so if walking to the post office was inconvenient, you could always ping him about the massacre from your workstation. It’s not a slight to these efforts to note how futile they often seem, set against the oceans of horror roiling a hemisphere away. All else being equal, what can one person do that’s more substantial than firing off an e-mail– or for that matter, putting on a superhero avatar, and guarding the grounds of a virtual world information site about it?”

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