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It has been a long time since I have blogged here. I almost forgot how, and doubt that anyone will notice. However, I ran across an early attempt at a virtual world called Habitat created by Lucasfilm back in 1986.

Check out the promotional video:

The wikipedia article has some interesting links, there is also a paper, “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat” that, if anything else, tells us how some things are much the same, even while the technology and experience have progressed so much since the 80’s.

US Goverment Virtual World Challenge Contest

Federal VW Challenge 2011 logo

Federal Virtual World Challenge 2011 logo

We’re seeing interest from the US government in virtual worlds. You can take a look at a recent Metanomics interview with Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference leader Dr. Paulette Robinson.

If you like to tinker and program in virtual worlds, perhaps you might like trying for the $25,000 (or other) prizes. The US Army Research Laboratory Simulation and Training Center would logically have an interest in virtual worlds. This year, their challenge is theme is Artificial Intelligence (AI). At their challenge website, They say “examples may include adaptive learning system, intelligent conversational bots, adaptive behavior (objects or processes)..” They also provide more “hints” that they are looking for applications that demonstrate transparency, ease of use, depth and breadth, implementation complexity, and creativity.

Virtual Choir

Screen shot of the virtual choir video

If you haven’t seen this virtual choir, you may enjoy this video.

It is not exactly a virtual world like Second Life, but it has some of the same kinds of characteristics. Of course, when I heard the sound of the choir together, I thought about any other use of home computer microphones where there is such bad acoustics and interference, and was in disbelief that it could really work. I suppose the real trick was it wasn’t in real-time, but that “untold hours” were spent editing and mixing.

Here’s one of the individual choir member’s contributions:

There’s more at the Eric Whitacre’s “how we did it” blog.

I know a choir composed of individuals on their computers in separate times and locations may seem antithetical to the nature of choral music, since I have thought that a component of choirs is joining our voices, breathing, and perhaps minds together into a resonant union of oneness. However, there is the quote from the above blog: “When I saw the finished video for the first time I actually teared up. The intimacy of all the faces, the sound of the singing, the obvious poetic symbolism about our shared humanity and our need to connect; all of it completely overwhelmed me. ”

I entered virtual worlds several years ago with a not knowing what was on the other side. I had no expectations that compare to the impact that have come through that portal. This “need to connect” and the potential to do that in virtual worlds are what make them most interesting.

Examples of Research in Second Life

Sometimes we're the ones under the microscope

Second Life can provide a rich resource for study. Since it is a ‘second’ life, it can provide a laboratory for developing or testing theories about ‘first life’. Since it also is a one of the new ways technology is changing our sociocultural landscape, we can also study that.

I came across the proceedings for a conference on weblogs and social media sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. While this kind of reading may be a bit wonky if you are not a researcher, it can still be interesting to see what kinds of things are being studied, the methods they use, and what kinds of conclusions they draw.

For instance, if we want to study the role of social structure in economic activity, it is difficult in the real world since most of the structures are hidden from the economists and the sellers. The authors of this paper were able to use anonymized data provided by Linden Lab with snapshots of social and group affiliations, chat patterns of users, and free and paid transactions. From this they can analyze the patterns of transaction activities and the relationship to social indicators of the buyers and sellers.

There is poster paper presented by Chen-Yuen Teng and Lada Adamic of the University of Michigan, who studied user retention in Second Life. We watch Linden Lab going through a number of changes and try to decipher their motivations and vision. A study like this that looks at what keeps users active would be of interest to anyone in the business of virtual worlds – what are the most important predictors of whether users stay or leave?

There are also the many businesses and other groups that have come to set up shop in SL. Remember some of the large companies that jumped on the virtual world bandwagon, bought sims, paid for someone to build there, only to get basically no traffic? My guess was that they got excited to see hundreds of thousands of active logins and all the other indicators that SL was an exciting place, but yet they had no idea what the actual juice of that excitement was. Maybe studies like this will help give people a clue.

Of course, if you’ve been a resident of Second Life for a relatively long time, you don’t really need this study to tell you why you have stayed, or how much SL has become more or less interesting to you – you’re living it. What you might interest you in the paper is how researchers get the data to crunch to do their analysis. For instance, one of their measures of social network is to look at how often users chat with others, as well as transactions (buying/selling or giving/getting items).

Another poster presented at the conference used chatbots to record public conversations in several sims to identify social network structures and then compare the difference in those structures between the different sims.  I won’t try to comment on their conclusions because I think that the usefulness of their work may not be what they think they found, but in their learning how to set up ways to measure and analyze social interaction.

Can a Metaverse Mitigate Sex and Violence?

Screen shot 2009-10-20 at 3.04.00 PM

I continue to be amazed at the irrational assumptions made about kid avatars in SL.  I have already written numerous blogs on various aspects of this issue.  Some people seem to make an automatic assumption that if one has a kid avatar they must automatically be some kind of pervert. I have met a lot of people that have kid avatars, and know that assumption is not true. I have also had to study my share of statistics, and realize that given a large enough population, we can also expect that some of the people with kid avs are going to fall into a category that can or will carry out behavior in real life that are actual crimes.

One of the questions that have come up in various conversations as we try to understand this new frontier of the metaverse is about people that have such impulses:  if someone is using a virtual world to act out the impulses and fantasies that, if they were done in real life, would be crimes, does this increase or decrease the likelihood that they will be more or less likely to do those bad things in real life?

I happened upon this article that recaps some studies that are finding that access to violent movies and internet porn is correlated with decreases in occurrences of violence and rape. It could very well be that the current reaction – to try to punish and prevent people for using pixels to act out fantasies of which we don’t approve – may actually increase the likelihood that instead of a consenting avatar being the victim, a real life person is victimized.

Maybe we should be more tolerant of people exploring their imagination in the metaverse.

Augmented Reality in a Contact Lens

Concept rendering of a contact lens

Concept rendering of a contact lens

From the Pais Kidd science desk…  What if we could have a computer display in a contact lens? Talk about augmented reality possibilities. One of the cool thinks I like to demonstrate with my new iPhone is an astronomy program called Pocket Universe that uses the compass, GPS, and tilt/motion sensors of the phone, so I can hold it up at night and it shows me the names of starts and constellations. It does more. It is cooler than a MystiTool. It is a nice example of augmented reality (AR) with the iPhone.

If you haven’t seen this demo of the “sixth sense” invention, check it out:

Think how much better this could be if instead of projecting images on stuff, we just see it in our eye.

I get a little queasy thinking about putting a bionic contact lens in my eye, but I have to admit, this would be way cool if and when they get something like this to work. Read more about the research here.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

Watching cartoons at the new clubhouse on Aspen

Watching cartoons at the new clubhouse on Aspen

My buddy Shakespeare came up with a great idea – Saturday morning cartoons! Caleb provided a place to do it, a neat clubhouse that has a big screen TV. If you want group membership for getting reminders, IM Danny Regenbogen, otherwise show up at the Clubhouse at 10:00 SLT on Saturdays.

Cartoon clubhouse

Cartoon clubhouse