Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Marginalia on Steroids

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

Making Martians with Croquet

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

The Importance of Being Obvious

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

Rubikubist Croquet

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

More Bad Predictions

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

Roadmapping the Metaverse?

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 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

Wii Remote and Croquet: Part Deux

Another video from UBC of Tim Wang's integration of a Wii remote with an iMac running Croquet.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Duke Honored

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 Croquet Mars Colony Simulator

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 SDK is Not an App!

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

Virtual World Interoperability

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

More Fun With Greenbush EduSim

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

Croquet on a Smartboard

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

Cost of Simulations

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.

Branching story:
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

Interactive spreadsheet:
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

Virtual labs:
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.