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ETech2008: Why Sun wants to host your games

Eric Rodenbeck from Stamen Design shows some of the gorgeous work he and Mike Migurski do in visualizing large sets of data. We take a brief look at pollution maps, commuting time maps in London and then look closely at the Crime Map of Oakland. You can understand very quickly why visualizations like these can be highly political – the city of Oakland briefly shut them down. He argues that the job of visualization is to stand at the intersection, “between analysis and spectacle”.

Chris Melissinos has a great job title – he’s chief gaming officer for Sun Microsystems. He knows you don’t think of Sun as a gaming company, but he demonstrates his gamer cred, with an amazing array of classic video game platforms in his office. He’s a member of “generation pong”, the “bit babies” who grew up on computer gaming and are now teaching their children to game. This means that the drivers of new technology adoption are five to fourteen year olds, the children of these older gamers.

Gaming, he reminds us, is mainstream – it’s a $11 billion market globally, bigger than the recorded music industry. Casual online multiplayer gaming is growing fast, and women over 35 are the fastest growing market segment.

But gaming tech is in the dark ages. “It’s like when Hollywood built mansions for each movie, then burned them down afterwards. Eventually people learned to just paint them.” Gaming tech is driven by game design. It’s not stable, not scaleable, and gets rebuilt all the time. He tells us that 10 thousand users is not massive, that your users don’t care about “shards” – they’re simply pissed off that they’ve paid to use your game and that it isn’t letting them in.

Rather than have game designers become better network engineers, Melissionos would like you to use his tools instead. His group is working on Project Darkstar, a platform designed to support multiplayer gaming independent of game design or platform. It’s java, open source and available under GPL2. It promises massive scale and persistence, and should be easy for designers to plug into, focusing on the creative aspect of their work, rather than on designing networking software.

Sun wants to be your datacenter, maintaining your server room . “Peter Jackson didn’t have his crews design and build their own cameras,” to make the Lord of the Rings films. They see this as a system that empowers small game developers to compete, without needing to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. And they see impications in the business collaboration market with Project Wonderland, a Second-Life like virtual world, based on standards and open code in Java.

Liz Churchill of Yahoo! Research would like some of your attention. But only a little bit of it. She’s interested in information embodied in place, and ways that people can encounter data casually and through serendipity. One of her main projects is the YeTi interface, a system designed to enable communication between offices in Japan and California. It’s an information sharing system based around community screens. Users are more likely to casually encounter information and this information makes it more likely that they’ll have meaningful interactions face to face or online.

You might ask why not use a mailing list or a virtual world – Churchill’s tried them all: The Palace, MOOs, MUDs. They all require a much heavier level of involvement that she’s looking for. She wants to encourage “lecher les vitrines” – windowshopping – and “peripheral participation”. One of the odder features of the system – it watches you interact, and the author of a piece of content can call up short videos of the people who looked at your content. Obviously, this has scaling and privacy concerns. But I can understand why it might work well in an office setting.