On March 16, I gave a talk on the future of technology and the 3-D net. The talk was given in Second Life, the distributed virtual world, The talk was organized by the New Media Consortium (NMC) and hosted by CDB Barkley (aka Alan Levine), the Director of Member and Technology Resources for the NMC). My sincere thanks go out to Alan and to Kathy Kyzer from Carolina’s Information Technology Services (ITS) for making the process both simple and fun.
I hesitate to use the word “multiplayer,” as it conjures images of role playing games such as World of Warcraft. Second Life is so much more. There are no predetermined outcomes, nor are their metrics of success or progress. Instead, you interact with other Second Life residents, much in the same ways you might in real life.
In the spirit of the The New Yorker cartoon, where on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog, in Second Life, one’s avatar can assume whatever form imagination and fancy allow. Indeed, CDB Barkley’s avatar is a dog.
What about my avatar, RENCI Richez? If you are reading this, chances are you’ve seen my picture. I am, shall we say, follicly challenged and in clear need of thermonuclear protection. Ok, I’m bald and need a hat to prevent sunburn, no point in obfuscating. But, in Second Life, I can have hair (again)! So, I do, but with a receding hairline – there are limits to vanity. I’ve also got some pecs, from pumping virtual iron in the gym.
My NMC presentation was simulcast in Second Life on both NMC’s campus (the Gonick Amphitheater) and at Carolina’s Forest Theater. The latter is part of a virtual Carolina campus built by my ITS colleagues and others at Carolina. In addition, the presentation was projected in “meat space” on the physical Carolina campus and in stereo at RENCI, using the University of Michigan Second Life client. (I’ll come back to the power of stereo in a bit.) You can catch the podcast, my slides and some Flickr images on Levine’s NMC blog. With that backdrop, let me summarize a bit of what I discussed.
First, the boundaries between our first (social) and second (work) lives are becoming ever more blurry, with ubiquitous wireless communication and expectations of continuous accessibility. The cynic might say that we lack work/life balance, but I take a more positive view. Location-specific services, roadcasting, electronic news and entertainment, distributed social networks, text messaging and other services bind us ever tighter together across time and space, albeit with some social isolation.
Second, it’s not just information that crosses the virtual-physical boundary, but influence and control. We’ve entered the world of implicit computing, where inexpensive sensors and actuators shape our daily lives. Think about the number of computer-controlled or computer-enhanced devices each of us own, from electronic thermostats through automobiles to hearing aids and pacemakers.
Third, rich interaction mechanisms are an opportunity to lessen social barriers, allowing disparate groups to share experiences and collaborate. I believe this is especially important as we face complex problems whose solution will require the combined expertise of technically and socially diverse teams. Consider how we plan for environmental sustainability and safety in disaster prone areas. Solutions require urban planners, transportation modelers, environmental and wildlife experts, communications and logistics planners and government experts, among others.
My friend, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, recently discussed some of these same issues as the inaugural speaker in RENCI’s Distinguished Lecture Series and in his own blog. (By the way, you should explore some of IBM’s Second Life prototypes by following some Second Life URLs (SLurls)). Irving rightly noted that our standard electronic work tools (email, instant messages and telecoms) create a sense of social isolation, especially for home office workers who may have only a temporary work cubicle, if they have a nearby office at all.
Irving’s observation was that collaboration venues like Second Life give distributed workers a greater sense of community. That has been my experience as well, especially when high resolution stereo displays create a sense of really being there. IBM is also launching a business presence in Second Life, as are other companies.
Does Second Life have limitations? Absolutely. Are there better scripting languages, richer graphics systems and better client-server toolkits? Yes, yes and yes. However, one could have said the same thing about the HTTP protocol and HTML. Like the web, Second Life is a rising social phenomenon. Watch this space; something important is happening.
What we see today is just the tip of the iceberg. The 3-D net will bring us immersive, stereo interaction via ultra-broadband wired and wireless networks, with trans-petascale data stores and ubiquitous sensors and actuators. As William Gibson wrote, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”