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."


jere said...

Hey Julian,
Up early eh!!! Dreamed all night about Croquet and a "place" where new shows were invented every hour filled with the kinds of phenomena and events in the space. Alan and I would really like to work with you and Marilyn to put some of our work into Croquet as a means to illustrate its educational possibilities. Cheers. Jere

Jecel said...

Julian, I agree 100% with what you wrote but would like to comment on some of the quotes you used.

Warner: They were about to release "The Jazz Singer", so what he was actually saying is that musicals were the killer application for sound in movies. He was right for quite a few years, at least.

Watson: It would be ten years before the market would catch up with his prediction, so he was actually too optimistic!

Olsen: By "computers in people's homes" it was meant that computers would turn on the lights and open the garage and stuff like that. That market still hasn't taken off, though computers as video games and computers in home offices (word processing, spreadsheets and internet) are extremely popular.

Jobs: He wanted a big salary for himself and Woz while the latter did all the work. Nolan Bushnell had seen this in the "Breakout" project and didn't want to repeat it. If you compared the sales of Apple IIs and Atari 400/800s over the next few years you will see that he made a good choice.