Friday, December 21, 2007
UNC's Jeff VanDrimmelen has recently begun exploring ways to integrate haptic technology with Croquet virtual worlds. Haptic technology allows simulations to convey information to users in the form of mechanical stimulation. Haptic devices typically transmit information in the form of vibrations or motions, thereby creating a sense of touching or feeling virtual objects. The main types of haptic devices are 1) tactile feedback devices (that generate resistance to user input movement) and force feedback devices (that generate movement back to the input device).
The Novint Falcon device is a new haptic device developed for use as a gaming peripheral and input device. The user interacts with a small knob with three degrees of freedom in movement at the front of what is otherwise a stationary desktop device. The knob is attached to the main body via three multi-hinged and motorized arms. The step motors within the arms feel what the user is doing as well as apply forces back to the knob.
Jeff recently posted this video about his earliest effort to integrate the Novint Falcon haptic device with Croquet technology.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Today, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Duke University a $100,000 prize for leadership and development work to advance Croquet in the open source. The prize was one of ten presented as part of the second annual Mellon Awards for Technology Collaboration (MATC) which are given each year to not‐for‐profit organizations for leadership in the collaborative development of open source software tools with application to scholarship in the arts and humanities.
The award was presented at the Fall Task Force meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information in Washington D.C. by Sir Timothy Berners‐Lee, Director of the World Wide Web Consortium and the inventor of the World Wide Web. Duke’s MATC award was one of three that received the top prize of $100,000. The other award winners received prizes of $50,000 each. Award recipients were selected by the MATC Award Committee, which included Berners‐Lee, Mitchell Baker (CEO, Mozilla Corporation), John Seely Brown (former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corp.), Vinton G. Cerf (Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google, Inc.), John Gage (Chief Researcher and Director of the Science Office, Sun Microsystems, Inc.), and Tim O’Reilly (Founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media).
Sunday, November 25, 2007
It has emerged as a type of practice here in the United States for people to begin putting up holiday decorations on the weekend after our annual Thanksgiving celebration. In keeping with this, I offer this link to a new video from the folks at EduSim. In this one, they use a projected Croquet space in combination with a very compact eBeam input device that converts any surface (in this case a regular wall) into an interactive surface. The result is an on demand and relatively low cost interactive white board solution ($800-900 US) that, in combination with a data projector ($600-2,500 US) and Croquet software (free), may represent the beginnings of an economical alternative to traditional in-classroom visual communication boards (the typical front-of-the-classroom whiteboard/bulletin board installation is comparable in price). Could this be the earliest manifestation of a new form of broadly available classroom media for K-12?
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Croquet is written in Squeak, a modern open-source development environment for the classic Smalltalk-80 programming language (the first purely object-oriented language and environment). Squeak was used because Croquet required a number of capabilities that could only be provided by a true late bound, message sending language. Croquet's relationship to Squeak gives Croquet the property of a purely object-oriented system. This has allowed for some significant flexibility in the design and the nature of the protocols and architectures that have been developed for Croquet.
An essential property of Squeak is its ability to keep the system running while testing and making changes. Squeak allows even major changes to be performed incrementally and within a mere fraction of a second. Another key feature is Squeak's generalized storage allocator and garbage collector that is efficient in real-time so that animations and dynamic media of many kinds can be played while the garbage collector is collecting. It also allows reshaping of objects to be done safely. This is important to the creation and delivery of media rich collaborative virtual environments.
Early on in the project, a Java-based Croquet was considered. However, that approach was abandoned because Java lacks needed meta facilities. In many ways Squeak/Smalltalk is still far ahead of its successors in promoting a vision of an environment where everything is an object, and anything can change at run-time. This is an important property for virtual environments that are deeply flexible and modifiable as an immediate result of the actions people take within those environments. Still, the lack of significant corporate backing and marketing muscle behind Squeak/Smalltalk has meant that less capable technologies are the ones with which most of today's developers are most familiar.
To help more people get familiar with Squeak's very powerful programming environment, the new book Squeak by Example is now being made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. It's intended for both students and developers and guides readers through the Squeak language and development environment by means of a series of examples and exercises. This is very useful to those who wish to become more familiar with the Croquet programming environment. You can either download the PDF for free, or you can buy a softcover copy from lulu.com.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
This video illustrates what real life might be like if we were limited to the avatar capabilities/interactions presently available in virtual worlds such as Second Life. It very much underscores the limitations in the ways we are able to represent ourselves within today's 3D gaming and chat environments. If we are going to leverage virtual environments to support interactions between people, then we need far better ways of representing ourselves within them. Our representations should ideally be able to project as fully as possible the broadest range of human cues and capabilities. Clearly, 3D virtual worlds have a long way to go in this regard. As a first step, we need to get past the dress-up doll house metaphor that appears to have emerged for interaction within these environments.
The static avatars presently made available as placeholders in the Croquet SDK are far less capable than those of Second Life. Still, the Croquet SDK offers developers an opportunity to change whatever they need about the way people are represented with virtual environments. Opportunities for avatar experimentation are huge. Just imagine avatars that contain action triggers, link buttons, or even multiple on-board virtual environments. The possibilities through Croquet are as limitless as the imaginations brought to bear on the problem (and of course the resources expended in implementing them). The flexibility and efficiency of the Croquet programming environment gives researchers and other creatives far more capability in exploring how best to represent presence in virtual environments than is available with today's commercial 3D world technologies.
I should point out that all of the .mdl avatars that the Croquet SDK now uses actually came from an early version of the Alice project and from Squeak's Wonderland. However, the Croquet team at the University of Minnesota is working on some nicer avatars that will likely be made available in the next version of the Croquet SDK. A preview of the Minnesota avatars can be seen briefly on the Croquet video in a previous post. Also, Matt Schmidt and his team in Missouri are also beginning to experiment with avatar improvements and it will be interesting to see what they come up with.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Sunday, November 04, 2007
At sometime during the night of Monday, February 26, 2007 a group of republican Second Life users, some sporting "Bush '08" tags, vandalized the John Edwards Second Life HQ. Though amusing to some, this type of activity underscores the need for secure virtual spaces - not just spaces where anyone, dressed up as anything they wish, can go anywhere and do anything they want. Restrictions based on identity or group affiliation are particularly important for serious simulation-based educational and research environments. Click here for a more detailed view of the damage.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
In recent months, more and more people have been asking me how Croquet is different from Second Life - thanks to all the media buzz around Second Life. Let me break it down this way: Croquet, as a software development environment, is more extensible than the development environments used to create collaborative worlds such as those in Second Life, and before that the unified metaverse of ViOS. These early server-based commercial approaches to establishing large-scale metaverses do not create computational environments that users/programmers can actually control - instead they must rely on constrained server-based computational environments to capture eyeballs for a variety of schemes to derive revenue for those who run the servers.
By contrast, Croquet makes it possible to develop any number of interlinked metaverses that can be deployed independently of a commercial authority or the constraints imposed by server-imposed resource limitations. The less cyberlibertarian of you may find value in the fact that Croquet can also be used by institutions to implement far more capable and flexible and controllable commercial systems than those of Second Life and before that ViOS.
Here are some additional points that distinguish Croquet from its predecessors/cohorts:
- Croquet's users/developers may freely share, modify and view the source code of the entire system.
- Croquet is platform and device independent.
- Croquet's users/developers may freely share, modify and view the source code of the entire system.
- Croquet provides a complete professional programming language, integrated development environment, and class library in every distributed, running participant’s copy.
- Croquet-based worlds can be updated while the system is live and running.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Here is a video created by the Squeak-based Sophie-server project being done by a software architecture group at the University of Potsdam in Germany. It shows how a Sophie server-based technology can be used to enrich the way of reading books.
Sophie Server is a server application providing functionality to be used through Sophie Author, Sophie Reader, or even a Web browser. Sophie Server provides a home for all Sophie Books that exist in a shared networked environment, allowing users to search for, access, and contribute to them. The Sophie project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. See my earlier post for more information on the project.
As you can see in the video, Sophie is not just a tool to render traditional paper books for reading on a screen. Instead, the project goes way beyond the notion of eBooks by leveraging the deep interactive capabilities of your networked computer. Sophie is basically an easy-to-use digital media assembly tool which allows both you and others to combine images, text, video, and audio into a single multimedia document containing multiple layers of information. This approach promises to open up the world of multimedia authoring to a wide range of creative people.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
A nice video of kids making Martians with a Croquet-based interactive whiteboard application prototype. What I find exciting about this video is that through the power of this technology, these children are engaged in deeply creative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative activity that involves art, science, and technology. These types of environments could be quite valuable as tools for engaging students in science and technology. Just imagine what a bunch of adults might do with this stuff...
Saturday, October 27, 2007
When giving demos, I'm often struck by how important it is for a good many people to see a full implementation of a graphically-rich Croquet environment. Apparently, it takes a built-out virtual space for many of them begin appreciating the potential of the underlying system. That's a shame, since the Croquet technology is not really about the content that you put into it. With the limited resources at our disposal, we've been focused on functionality rather than the eye candy.
Still, graphical elements such as richly textured models and other content within virtual worlds are important because they are the first things that people see - and connect with. Some popular 3D worlds such as Second Life are perhaps not as much about the capabilities of their enabling technology as they are about enabling access to content and social presence.
Like it or not, it is for the most part that graphical eye candy and elements of content that frame people's perception of the underlying technology. I consider such elements of any richly-rendered 3D world scene in Croquet to be merely content within a system having deep capabilities. Yet, the models and textures set the tone for the experience of discovering what Croquet is all about since they have the potential to provoke a deep emotional connection between the user and the simulation. When you think about it, the very best of the 2D web browser applications available today are of no value unless they are used as viewers of web content. In fact, regardless of how wonderful their inner workings, the best and worst of them would be of equally minor value to users.
To date, many of the models and textures made available in the Croquet SDK were borrowed from the Alice project, other content was thrown into the distribution with little consideration of quality - after all, our efforts have been centered around improving the underlying technology and not the content. However, now that we are building the first open applications with Croquet, you will be seeing a lot more and different content as examples in the distribution. I believe that once users can access spaces that other users have built, then the quality of content accessible via Croquet worlds will increase greatly through the dynamics of social software systems.
I'm hoping that readers of this blog would be interested in helping with this by making textured 3D content available to the Croquet project. Please email me if you are able and willing to create quality content and scenes that we could include as part of the next release of the Croquet SDK and future applications. Your participation in this exciting project would be most welcome.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Interesting video of a Croquet-based implementation of Erno Rubik's Magic Cube puzzle. It's amazing what can be done with the Croquet development environment and a little creativity. For solutions to the dastardly 3x3x3 cube, see Dan Brown's nicely narrated two part tutorial: Part 1, Part 2.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Yesterday's blog posting prompted me to once again make available (this time as an embedded video) this wonderful short film that was done for Red Hat by the folks at Capstrat, a strategic communications firm here in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Over the past ten years I have personally witnessed numerous declarations that "there is no real value to 3D user interfaces" and that virtual environments will "never be used beyond entertainment." I have also been admonished that "3D is frivolous" and that "everything you need to do with a computer can be done with 2D windowing interfaces just fine." At this time I won't identify the people who have said these things. Suffice it to say that they are all attributable to people who are well known in the information technology and venture capital world. You know who you are... ;)
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metaverse Roadmapping Project. Sponsored by the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF) and its supporting partners, a group of distinguished industry leaders, technologists, analysts, and creatives were brought together at a summit in Palo Alto, California to provide insights and explore the virtual and 3D future of the World Wide Web in a first-of-its-kind cross-industry public foresight project. An overview of what resulted from this exercise can now be downloaded as the Metaverse Roadmap (MVR).
The roadmap documents basically seek to define an anticipation horizon of ten years (to 2017), a “longer-term” speculation horizon of twenty years (to 2025), and a charter to discover early indicators of significant developments ahead. Its really a filtered amalgam of the many diverse points of view expressed by those who were invited to the summit in combination with the collected results of several public and expert surveys, a few workshops and roundtables at major U.S. conferences, social meetups, and information collected via a public wiki.
The MVR comprises two documents, both are available at the MVR website. The first is a set of MVR Inputs which summarize key insights in 19 foresight categories. The second is a MVR Overview which synthesizes some (not all) of the MVR Inputs into a series of narratives to explain what the authors feel are important features of the change and opportunity ahead. The authors include John Smart (Acceleration Studies Foundation), Jamais Cascio (Open the Future), and Jerry Paffendorf (Electric Sheep Company).
I tend to be a bit skeptical that attempts to predict or roadmap the future of science and technology have any value beyond other than that of providing a form of entertainment for people who look back from the future. It's an especially bad idea to declare that something can't or won't be done. In the back of my mind are the many, and in some cases embarrassing, predictions that have missed the mark:
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." -- Western Union internal memo, 1876.
"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" -- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" -- H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
"But what...is it good for?" -- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'" -- Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.
Perhaps Alan Kay is on the mark when he declares that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Duke University recently made CIO Magazine's 2007 CIO 100 list for "IT departments that understand what makes their companies tick and IT leaders who can translate vision into reality." The award was specifically focused on the work done across our university to improve academic technology services. There are many very hard working people who are responsible for our inclusion in this list. It's most rewarding to work here at Duke with people that truly value innovation - and that have the courage, fortitude, and perseverance to make that innovation happen. You can read about the award here.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
A video of six kids collaboratively co-constructing a simulated colony on Mars using a Croquet-based EduSim 3D Smartboard application prototype running on both a networked smartboard and several personal computers. This work is being done by Rich White of the Greenbush Southeast Kansas Educational Service Center. I am told that the kids really engage with this.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The Croquet SDK (software developer's kit) can be used to develop metaverse applications - though it is not an application in itself. It's intended as a resource for serious developers who wish to build collaborative metaverse applications for education, research, industry and entertainment. It delivers a foundational infrastructure for creating persistent, interconnected and collaborative 3D virtual worlds. The SDK is not an application in itself - any more than Java is an application (see my previous post on this).
The examples included within the SDK should be thought of as working code and not as how-to's or applications in themselves. Still, I often get feedback from people that the user interface is too difficult or that the "application" doesn't make sense to non-developer end-users.
One of the challenges we face with this project is that the graphically-interesting 3D user interface and textured 'environments' included as examples within the Croquet SDK provide many people with the incorrect impression that these are traditional and end-user-useable applications intended as alternatives to commercial production-quality metaverse environments (many of the same people would never think of providing a Java software developers kit to an end-user as a way of evaluating a potential Java-based application's usability).
The Croquet SDK was released to make it possible for programmers to join forces to create compelling end-user applications. In my earlier posts, I talk about some of what is beginning to be created. There is much more in the pipeline and the members of the Croquet Consortium are now focused on building an open source 3D Croquet-space browser application based on the SDK. We are planning to have a version available in 2008.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
There's been a lot of talk recently about the need for virtual world interoperability. By that I mean the ability for a character in one virtual world system to be able to enter another virtual world system and carry with it certain attributes and capabilities. For example, my Second Life persona, Imortega Lungu, might wish to leave the realms of SL and enter Everquest II to trade in 3D models that were previously bought with Linden Dollars in SL. The prospect of such trans-world commerce is apparently capturing the imagination of representatives from several large corporations because of the sense that money can be made if player identity can move from one virtual world service to another. Exactly how that would work and how value could be captured by the creators of those worlds remains unclear - but it's an interesting notion nonetheless.
This discussion is happening because today's virtual world technologies are for the most part a series of technologically-distinct walled gardens - a bit like Prodigy, Compuserve and AOL were before the advent of the web in the 80's and early 90's. The desire to have a single metaverse that binds together all of the emerging virtual world technologies is a dream shared by many. Such a unifying metaverse would be to 3D as the web was to 2D. It would also have the potential effect of rendering today's virtual world technologies obsolete in the way that early walled gardens were rendered obsolete by the emergence of NCSA's Mosaic web browser. The problem is that the equivalent of what Mosaic was to the web has yet to emerge for 3D virtual worlds. Until it does, there will be much talk around seeking interoperability, standardization, and integration of disparate virtual worlds. Unless there are good business cases for company's to let their virtual world users transcend the walls of their virtual walled gardens, there may be little progress toward the broad interoperability now being envisioned.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Here is another video demo by the folks at the Greenbush EduSim Project. In it you will see a full-featured in-world browser in action along with several other functionalities of the system including copy/paste functionality and a fractal terrain generator that was developed at The University of Minnesota. Nice music.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
The EduSim 3D Smartboard Application is a very cool Croquet-based white board being developed by Rich White of the Greenbush Southeast Kansas Educational Service Center. It's designed to provide educators and students with a way of linking 3D activities across multiple white boards by leveraging many of Croquet's existing capabilities. Greenbush is working to ensure that The Edusim is being developed with resource packs for the K-12 classroom. This is exactly the type of application that Croquet technology was designed to make possible. Kudos to Rich for helping to bring Croquet to the next level. The video says it all.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
The production of simulation-based learning environments can be an incredibly expensive proposition. Some of my friends in the video game development business tell me that a typical lower quality video game that is designed for around forty hours of game-play will, at minimum, cost between $2-20M dollars to produce (the cost can be much greater for higher quality games). Now consider the potential costs of creating a high quality simulation-based learning environment that provides forty hours of instruction in the context of a richly rendered 3D virtual environment.
It would seem that the production costs of high quality simulation-based learning environments might stand in the way of a future where students could learn and interact within detailed and highly functional online worlds. After all, there aren't many institutions that can afford to pay $2-20M for production of an entire online course that would need to support support forty hours of engaging contact with simulation-based content. Clark Aldrich's very informative blog on serious games and simulations recently listed the costs of producing simulation-based learning environments. What Clark's list really underscores is that any widespread use of simulation-based learning environments over multiple courses will be a costly proposition unless we can leverage a different set of dynamics for their construction.
Simulation in which students make a series of decisions via a multiple choice interface to progress through and impact an event.
Custom short (Less than 10 minutes) (perpetual site license): $30K
Custom medium (Between 10 minutes and 30 minutes) (perpetual site license): $100K
Custom long (Between 30 minutes and 2 hours) (perpetual site license): $500K
Off-the-shelf short (per user): $30
Off-the-shelf medium (per user): $100
Off-the-shelf long (per user): $500
Simulation in which students typically try to impact critical metrics by allocating resources along competing categories and getting feedback of their decisions through graphs and charts.
Custom short (Less than 1 hour) (perpetual site license): $30K+
Custom medium (Between 1 hour and 4 hours) (perpetual site license): $100K+
Custom long (Between 4 and 8 hours) (perpetual site license): $500K+
Off-the-shelf short (per user): $30*
Off-the-shelf medium (per user): $100*
Off-the-shelf long (per user): $500*
Small, easy-to-access game built to be simple and addictive, which often focuses on mastering an action and can provide awareness of more complicated issues.
Custom short (5 minutes) (perpetual site license): 10K
Custom medium (10 minutes) (perpetual site license): 15K
Custom long (30 minutes) (perpetual site license): $40K
Off-the-shelf short (per user): n/a
Off-the-shelf medium (per user): n/a
Off-the-shelf long (per user): n/a
A series of challenges/puzzles to be solved using on-screen representations of real-world objects and software
Custom short (30 minutes) (perpetual site license): $30K
Custom medium (1 hour)(perpetual site license): $75K
Custom long (4 hours)(perpetual site license): $150K
Off-the-shelf short (per user): $10
Off-the-shelf medium (per user): $30
Off-the-shelf long (per user): $100
Real-time, often 3D sims that encourages participants to repeat actions in high fidelity situations until the skills become natural in the real-world counterpart
Custom short (1 hour)(perpetual site license): $100K+
Custom medium (5 hours) (perpetual site license): $500K+
Custom long (20 hours) (perpetual site license): $1M+
Off-the-shelf short (per user): $100*
Off-the-shelf medium (per user): $400*
Off-the-shelf long (per user): $1000*
+ plus cost of facilitation
* including cost of facilitation
Can the dynamics of open source social software solve the problem of high cost simulation production for education? I think that it can. All we need is the right tools and the collective will to use them. After all, the MediaWiki-based Wikipedia doesn't cost anyone much money at all (in 2006, Wikipedia's Internet hosting costs came to $189,631). The cost of Wikipedia's real value - that of its content - has been distributed across its many contributors. What we need to solve the cost problem for simulation-based learning is a good 3D wiki-like technology that could be used to "evolve" multi-authored and highly functional simulation-based learning environments at low institutional cost.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Space and place are really two very different concepts that are unfortunately often conflated by the designers of many of today's collaborative metaverses. Virtual spaces are representations of spaces in the real world, replete with mountains, trees, avatars, and other representations of real world artifacts. By contrast, virtual places are 3D user interfaces invested with meaning and function that need not be directly representational of anything in the real world. Open source software tools needed to create, deploy, and modify sophisticated and highly functional places are in increasing demand in education and industry. At the same time, design paradigms for such virtual places are still in their infancy.
Problem is that we don't presently have very many good models for the utility of highly-flexible 3D environments in support of productivity. Until then, many designers rely on using today's online gaming and entertainment applications as the models upon which to build their ideas. Most of the current batch of early 3D educational and productivity support environments run the risk of becoming too representational and game-like than is warranted. An effective argument can be made that representational environments are appropriate in support of game-based learning. However, not all learning or productivity support need be game-based.
With all the current publicity around online gaming and online 3D walled-gardens, the value of place is therefore too often overlooked - even by those who are entrusted with exploring the diversity of issues and solutions associated with the advent of emerging new media in support of education and industry. Bright shiny objects have a way of catching the eye and distracting ones attention...
This relevant link is from the YNNO Research blog in which YNNO researchers outline some very relevant differences between place and space that should be taken into account when designing collaborative 3D environments for work and education. YNNO, is a Dutch consultancy firm for innovative working which studies how innovation in workplace design, business process management and ICT tools can increase the productivity of today's knowledge workers.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
I am quite pleased to announce that Mark McCahill is leaving the University of Minnesota for a position here at Duke University as our architect of e-learning and collaborative systems!
Mark has been developing and popularizing a number of Internet technologies since the late 1980s. He will bring to Duke the benefits of his deep background and rich experiences in collaborative systems development, large scale information system development and deployment, and 3D visualization.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Mark took a job doing analytical chemistry and analyzing the results on the campus mainframe. In 1989, Mark led a team at the University of Minnesota that developed one of the the first popular Internet e-mail clients (POPmail) for the Macintosh (and later the PC).
In 1991, Mark led the original Internet Gopher development team and helped invent a simple way to navigate distributed information resources on the Internet. Internet Gopher's menu-based hypermedia paved the way for the popularization of the Web and was the de-facto standard for Internet information systems in the early-to-mid 1990s. In 1994-95 Mark's team developed GopherVR, a 3D user interface to Internet Gopherspace.
Working with other pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen, Alan Emtage and Peter J. Deutsch (creators of Archie) and Jon Postel, Mark was also involved in creating and codifing the standard for Uniform Resource Locators (URLs). Most recently Mark has served as one of the six principal architects of the Croquet project and was instrumental in founding the Croquet Consortium.
I look forward to working closely with Mark as we apply the lessons learned from first generation Internet information systems to next generation collaborative systems including enterprise-integrated applications based on Croquet.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
In a recent Point of View article in The Chronicle Review, Cathy N. Davidson expresses her opinion on the Middlebury College History Department's recent snubbing of Wikipedia and why academic institutions can no longer ignore the changes that are being brought about by social software technologies and the types of creative dynamics they enable. The issues discussed in Cathy's piece have relevance to social collaborative tools such as wikis and the types of co-constructed knowledge spaces that Croquet-based educational environments make possible.
Today's co-constructed 3D environments provide us with the potential to disseminate ideas as visual and dynamic objects in the way that text-based facts and ideas are constructed and disseminated via today's Wikipedia. This capability will have a profound effect on the academic world in that it has the potential to fundamentally change to how we communicate and learn. The changing legitimacy of Wikipedia is only the tip of the iceberg. The advent of social software and self-regulating large-scale group dynamics stands to challenge traditional models of instruction, authorship, copyright, and the value of static auteur-generated scholarly works.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Back in the mid-1990s, while we were designing ViOS as a large-scale commercial server-dependent and massively-multiuser metaverse application, I was deeply concerned that its success as a widely-used platform would be its undoing. Thats because, unlike the web, multi-user immersive environments require relatively constant interactions between clients and servers - and those interactions don't scale well for large numbers of users.
Virtual environments such as multi-user flight simulators and first-person shooters rely on many independent server sessions that are limited to a relatively few users at any one time. Massively multi-user metaverses, on the other hand, require the client to be updated as fast as things happen within the environment. This means that large-scale metaverses need a lot of horsepower in the server layer since every move and every action of every avatar must be conveyed to every client. This puts a tremendous load on a few servers for even the most trivial of interactions. The approach simply doesn't scale to support the widespread global information systems that the Croquet architecture is being designed to make possible.
Our strategy back at ViOS, Inc. was to simply re-tune the system and put up more servers as the loads increased - hoping for the best. That approach would work well for Intranet applications that serviced relatively small numbers of clients. It even worked well for ViOS' initial user base of around 15,000 unique users. Problem was that once we had several thousand simultaneous Viosians tooling about in the landscape, they began to overload our interactivity servers, resulting in performance problems and service interruptions. Since there wasn't a lot of cash flow or investment capital during the 2001 post dot-com financial downdraft, we were unable to add servers at a rate that could meet the demand. If we had, it might have led to another few years of success for the ViOS metaverse platform - but sooner or later we would have been brought down by fundamental flaws in our approach as a bottlenecked client-server based architecture.
The Croquet technology has been developed with these lessons in mind. It is designed to scale in support of interconnected multiverses of millions of users without the need for any dedicated server infrastructure. Croquet's architecture makes it possible to develop metaverse applications in which, anyone can freely put up content in islands of any size, interlink those islands with any number of other islands, and control access to those islands.
By contrast Second Life makes money by controlling who can create islands and how those islands are linked to each other. It also has a very similar technical architecture to that of ViOS - a vintage twentieth century client-server architecture with with single points of failure, inertia, and control. It's been interesting to watch Linden Lab's struggle with the inevitable technical problems faced by Second Life as a result of its recent popularity, constrained architecture, and non-scaling technical approach. For details on some of those struggles click here, here, and here.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
For some time now, Laurence Rozier has been developing a message format that, among other things, can allow for interoperability between metaverse environments. Called Remote Actions Packets (RAP), it basically makes it possible for someone to do something in, say, Second Life and have that same action replicated in Croquet - and vice versa. RAP messages consist of an actor identifier, an action name, and an encoded list of stage directions.
In this simple video, you will see a Croquet window (on the right) side by side with a Second Life window (on the left). Each shows a live running world containing a simple cube. When the cube in Second Life is clicked, a script runs that causes the cube to move. Almost immediately, you will see this action replicated in the Croquet world. Next, a Croquet menu select initiates a move of the cube in the Croquet window. After a short delay, the simple cube movement is mirrored in Second Life.
The implications of Laurence's work are that Croquet worlds can now be made to mirror aspects of Second Life worlds - and vice versa. This also means that there's now a way by which actions taken within metaverses such as Croquet can be logged to text files. That particular capability would be of great importance to educators, researchers, and marketers who are interested in understanding what kinds of things have taken place in Croquet environments.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Sophie is new open source Squeak Smalltalk-based software application for creating digital multimedia books that are easy to build. A product of the Institute for the Future of the Book, It is in essence a multimedia authoring system. Sophie-generated books can resemble regular books containing text and pictures, or they may also contain video, audio clips, images in a slide show, other books, links out to the web, and allow for reader interaction.
Sound a lot like what the web was supposed to be? You bet. The difference is that Sophie has been developed as a tool to enable non-technical people to assemble digital documents without needing to learn complex computer languages or to rely on programmers. Still, Sophie uses a human-readable distributed XML format to ensure that a user's content remain accessible for decades to come. Should a particular title need features beyond those provided by Sophie (such as performance or databasing) there is little in the way of preventing those systems from being plugged in on a per book or per distribution basis.
The intent of Sophie is to facilitate the shift from page to screen as a means of scholarly communication. Many academics find it difficult to move to the digital medium because of the technical barriers to doing so in a sophisticated manner. That has a lot to do with why the Research in Information Technology Program of the the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts chose to fund this project.
Sophie is device and OS independent - and best of all, because of its implementation in Squeak, it is fundamentally compatible as a powerful tool within Croquet-based immersive environments. In fact, we are currently exploring what it might take to combine these powerful technologies into a single application and in so doing, bring to bear the power of distributed multimedia authoring directly into late-binding and device-independent collaborative immersive environments - kind of like a powerful open source groupware solution with 3D capabilities. To bring these technologies together would be of great value to education and beyond - and would represent an excellent choice for our developing communities. :)
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Alan Kay was recently interviewed for CIO Insight magazine's Expert Voices feature. In this piece entitled Alan Kay: The PC Must Be Revamped—Now, Alan discusses the mindsets that stand in the way of real innovation - and what his not-for-profit VPRI is doing to address the issue. In the article, Alan defines Croquet as one of those efforts and as "a new way of doing an operating system, or as a layer over TCP/IP that automatically coordinates dynamic objects over the entire Internet in real time. This coordination is done efficiently enough so that people with just their computers, and no other central server, can work in the same virtual shared space in real time."
Monday, February 05, 2007
Given the relative public silence around the Croquet project in recent months, I've been getting lots of emails asking about what's been happening since last Spring's Beta release. Well, there's been a lot going on. Several of us have been hard at work developing the foundations for a larger and more inclusive public effort around the project. With the transitioning to Croquet 1.0, we are in the process of setting up a not-for-profit corporation to house the open source project. The corporation will provide the governance structure required to ensure that continued development of the open source technology and that local Croquet development efforts receive the support they need from a self-sustaining and growing community of peers.
On the technology side, there are many dedicated people who have also been hard at work debugging and hardening the system for its move out of Beta. For this, special thanks need to go to Howard Stearns, Mark P. McCahill and his team at Minnesota, David A. Smith, Andreas Raab, Joshua Gargus, Ed Boyce, and Dan Fakken, for doing what needed doing. We are now testing and working on documentation and our efforts are coming to a point where the silence will soon be broken.