Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sun's open source 3D World, and 3D web as a training tool for WMD management

A couple interesting links, first is Sun's project Wonderland, open source client and server for their 3D world. This looks like it's in early stages of development, but you can run the client and the server on your own, always a plus!.

The vision for this multi-user virtual environment is to provide an environment that is robust enough in terms of security, scalability, reliability, and functionality that organizations can rely on it as a place to conduct real business. Organizations should be able to use Wonderland to create a virtual presence to better communicate with customers, partners, and employees.

Second, Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program, using 3D web (in this case Second Life) for incident management training...

This virtual environment spreads over two islands Asterix and Obelix (65536 x 2 sq. meters), with one island dedicated to a virtual town and the other a virtual hospital. The design of this virtual environment is influenced by dioramas frequently used by emergency services to support their tabletop exercises.

IBM Employees and Second Life Guidelines

IBM tells employees to behave in Second Life, from Network World.

Monday, July 30, 2007

NCSU, and using 3D environments for learning

UNC has a lot of interesting projects applying the 3D web to education, visit the UNC island sometime! Here's some info about similar initiatives at NCSU!

I went to an interesting Croquet demo last week, I've got some notes and am working on a write-up of what I heard.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wired, SL, 3D web, the hype curve in action

This is sort of fun, the back and forth about advertising and the 3D web based on a Wired mag article, sort of like that previous LA Times article. In the bubble days, businesses thought they could sell sock monkeys and pet food, and just because it was on the web, they'd be millionaires. The corporations that think they are going to sell mac & cheese because they put up a virtual store are as deluded, and the press will be all over that, I imagine. The most useful thing in the back and forth is the fact that sites in virtual space often appeal to the long tail, versus a mass-market appeal. The long tail is ignored in the original Wired write-up, and I think that's the critical omission.

There's that old saw about asking a farmer what would help his farm work better, and him responding a better plow or a stronger mule, rather than responding that automated farm equipment would help. In other words, the farmer only can apply the world he knows to the question. I'd say we're in the middle of a prime example of the phenomena.There's also the old adage that we overestimate change in the short term, and underestimate it in the long term, and this has a lot to do with the shape of the hype curve.

History repeats itself, and at an accelerating rate, it seems.

Using the Wii with 3D Web as a training/sim device

From Wired...

For Stone, the Wiimote is the key to building realistic training simulators within the virtual world of Second Life. He is helping companies and universities do that through his WorldWired consultancy. Clients include a company interested in training workers for its power plants, a manufacturer of medical devices and pest-control firm Orkin.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The future of virtual worlds, LA Times says it's bleak

It's odd sometimes, the way backlashes go. I've been blogging a bit, and being somewhat evangelistic about the 3D web. I didn't invent the term, and wasn't among the first to catch on, but I have a gut feeling (me and Chertoff) that the term means something. Lately, especially after the LA Times article about the death of commerce on the 3D web, I've been approached by multiple people who want to explain to me that this is all a tempest in a teapot.

A proper, direct response to the LA Times article about Second Life can be found here, and here, so I won't try to recapitulate the common myths that make up such negative press. I was considering reasons why I am intrigued by the whole topic of virtual worlds, though, and I wanted to jot some of these down. These observations are shaped by my own interests, by past projects I worked, and so forth. You may discover other reasons to pay attention to the 3D web.

Real and Virtual are Merging

This is a drum I was beating well before I delved into Second Life. In this older post, and this one soon after, I talked about Mobile2.0 and Web2.0, trying to relate these terms to this larger idea of real and virtual merging. The main idea was that mobility and the new web were, in part, about the 'web of things'. Sensors and actuators talking on the web, and smarter applications to discover and manipulate this explosion of new information and services. Whole new types of applications stretching the definition of the web. Virtual worlds are important because they are a metaphor for this merging. In a way, our avatars allow us to cross the barrier, and physically inhabit the web of things. That's a bit sketchy, but I see the 3D web riding the coat-tails of the emerging web of things.

There are potential, practical benefits to visiting the virtual world to understand and manipulate the physical too. I've been interested lately in the development of EOLUS One, as described in this UgoTrade blog entry. This is a fairly wide-ranging project, but it does serve as an interesting illustration real world/virtual world merging.

People Make a Comeback

The ubiquitous social networking web site provides many benefits. I'll pick on a few, and tie them to a virtual world experience:

  • a venue to expand social/professional networks
  • a tool to maintain connections to existing friends
  • a platform to shape and present our own identity
  • a tool to filter and flag important information (use of social networks to compensate for a deficit of attention)
  • a collective tool to add value, from which we individually extract benefit
All of these points can be extracted from classic definitions of Web2.0, and many of the points are mirrored in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Expanding Social Networks

The first point, virtual worlds as a venue for expanding social networks, is primarily a function of the ability of a virtual world to create an event, or common experience. Think about where friendships start, it is often based on some shared experience, like a college course, or a conference, or some notable event. Virtual worlds can provide an immersive, compelling experience from which these connections can take root.

Social networking also relies on sharing connections, in a friend-of-a-friend style. Given the existence of shared experience in virtual worlds, the familiar mechanism of meeting new people through current friends has a virtual analogue.

Maintaining Current Connections

It's probably a question for sociologists, but what quality of social experiences can be achieved in a virtual environment? I'm quite sure it's not the same as real life, but I also suspect it's a richer interaction than what one would suspect.

We're using tools like Twitter, Flickr, and FaceBook as a way to keep up with our friends and colleagues when we're separated by time or distance. The function of these tools do not map onto the real-time nature of virtual worlds, but I suspect that virtual worlds can add some unique new tools to serve these ends. One example that comes to mind is the ability to establish 'hang outs' particular to a group of friends and colleagues.

Shaping Identity

People use social applications as a way to shape and present themselves. Virtual worlds such as Second Life have an economy partially based on the customization of personal avatars. People take great care to build an image of themselves. Does this aspect of virtual worlds play into this basic function of social networking applications? I guess this is another one for the sociologists...

Tapping into Collective Power

Successful Web2.0 sites often become so because they provide tools to build something interesting, let the tools loose on the world, and leverage the resulting content. I'd toss out Wikipedia and Flickr as two prime examples. There's a fundamental principle at work there, and a lesson that virtual world developers need to take to heart.

Professional 3D developers really don't like Second Life. I picked that up! I can see why, I think the building tools are crummy. This is something I had observed in a previous blog entry, but it bears repeating...the quality of the tools matters, but more important than professional level, sophisticated building tools are accessible tools, available in-world, suitable for the average Joe to get something done. There are indeed master builders within environments like Second Life that could take advantage of special tools, but I will guess that the vast majority rely on simple constructs, and use the ecosystem to purchase the rest.

I think about how bad HTML is, and how crude the tools still are, and would not be suprised to find out that, back in the day, that the web was dismissed as consisting of poor technology in the hands of unqualified developers. I know there are two sides to the coin, as I still encounter poorly designed sites with flaming clip-art, but I look at how far the web has come based on simple HTML, and simple scripting, and don't think it wise to assume it won't happen again.

It's not there yet!

Don't take this as a Second Life fan site. There are lots of things lacking in Second Life, and lots of other virtual worlds out there. I'm going to a Croquet presentation this afternoon, and have begun looking at that tool, getting used to Blender, and intent on learning Squeak. The dust has not settled on the particulars, but I really do think the 3D web means something.

There are 'virtual natives' coming up fast. Under my watchful eye, my little kids spend a little time wandering around Nicktropolis, and similar sites that approximate virtual worlds. These kids don't even blink, they just jump right in, and they are right at home. It's a mistake to put our own preconceptions and limits on a new technology, based on our own experiences and habits. I liken this to the way that younger people don't have a problem editing and keeping documents out on the web, or in alternative, open-source office suites, versus the old MS Office stand-by. I look at my own kids, and it makes me think that the metaverse is as natural to them as Tom and Jerry was to me.

It's especially clear that issues like identity, security, scalability, and application development support all are lacking in many of the current contenders. The power of open source and standards needs to be applied to this space, but the 3D web is here, and it's going to keep growing, I feel confident in saying, even if everyone wants to observe that this is just a game with no future...heck, I'm still waiting for the death of Java!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Try NetBeans 6.0 Milestone as your Rails IDE

I don't have a comprehensive analysis, just a general feeling. I really like coding Rails apps using the NetBeans 6.0 Milestone. I love Eclipse, and switch between the IDE's depending on the specific task, so this is not coming from a particular camp.

I like RadRails a lot, but it seems to have stalled a bit. I kept having problems where the IDE would loose my Rake tasks. I found a fix to manually add an Eclipse builder to the project, point it at rake, etc. Even so, I still periodically see the app forget about Rake. A small complaint, really, but it frustrated me enough to switch. What I found in NetBeans is a rather tight-feeling, smooth IDE for Ruby on Rails. No big analysis, just a nice experience. I'm back to coding, and my IDE seems to not forget about rake. Now if only I can remember my anniversary coming up!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mobile AJAX, then some really cool SL stuff

I read this blog posting about mobile AJAX with some interest. The main premise was that, due to the difficulty in porting to so many mobiles, even with the efforts of the J2ME specification, large-scale deployments remain prohibitive. The blog concludes:

AJAX offers a potentially better solution in comparison to the incumbents (J2ME and XHTML) due to a combination of fewer potential choke points because of its distribution mechanism. The economic models do not favour J2ME and AJAX offers a superior user experience to XHTML. It has the support of the developer community.

I think the idea is cool, but the one fly in the ointment is the fact that mobile connectivity is still so sketchy, and applications need to really support a 'sometimes connected', or event 'mostly connected' environment, as well as the ability to receive pushed-in data. I suppose there are all sorts of creative ways around this, but for the foreseeable future, web browsing on mobiles still sucks.

To other things, we're working on a really cool idea for physical/virtual mash-ups. Imagine a physical space embedded within a virtual space, where real people can see and interact with avatars, and vice versa. In this environment, the virtual avatars can 'reach in' and alter the physical environment, and real life individuals that inhabit this space can use physical 'things' to alter the virtual environment. Sort of a twilight-zone between two parallel universes!

The pic below shows me standing in the virtual room that surrounds the physical room. Imagine that the virtual walls are projected on the physical walls that surround the room occupants. On the walls are windows that avatars may approach. The avatars themselves see real-time streams of audio and video, so from their perspective they are looking into the real room. This sort of thing has been done before, but I think the context is unique. It'll be a cool place to explore the merging of the physical world and the virtual world. This is being tested right now by pushing a custom Second Life client through four monitors arranged as the walls of the room, and will eventually be projected on the actual walls of the real room. (I didn't write the client!)

It's just the start, a fascinating range of possibilities opens up from here. One SL friend, Uskala, mentioned the idea that the walls of the room could change from a meeting space to an auditorium, so that's something that I just implemented, where the walls reconfigure to reveal an auditorium space, and seating rises from the floor. Imagine giving a SL presentation by standing at a podium, looking out onto an audience of avatars. If time permits, I'd like to program these room alterations into the room control system, so a physical knob or button could select different room configurations. This is really cool stuff! More later as it develops, but the first tries today look promising.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


An obvious point, but do your Rails model validation code before developing your unit and functional tests very far, otherwise, you have to re-do a bunch of test cases....


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Way cool video explaining the new web

This came to me from my friend Joel, at UNCG. In a couple of minutes, this cool YouTube video highlights many of the changes happening on the web, recommended!