Coherency in Contradiction is the main research project I’ve been working on as a Research Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge as part of the 2013 Shift Index. It’s just been published at Deloitte University Press. The paper looks at a selection of seeming contradictions faced by people and organizations, and then re-frames them as mutual opportunities rather than mutually exclusive choices. The deeper agenda I have with this work is to push leaders to look past the binary, black & white world we are programmed to create and move to a more holistic, relativistic perspective. The second agenda is to educate people about complex adaptive systems in a way that’s meaningful to the average executive. These two agendas come together in one of the closing statements: “In a messy, complex world, it’s not just possible to walk within paradoxes—it’s necessary.”
This effort is not about yielding to the chaos and trusting that everything will work out. But in order to better anticipate and shape their direction, we should become more adept at understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that increasingly drive markets. More systematic use of complexity modeling tools and scenario planning will help reveal patterns and identify where new opportunities are likely to emerge. Instead of trying to suppress randomness, we should cultivate environments that increase the potential for serendipity so that we can build new ecosystems and discover new ideas and practices. In certain cases, we may even be able to shape how broad arenas evolve, materially altering the probability of certain outcomes, rather than simply waiting to react to events as they occur. Shaping, however, is very different from controlling and requires a deep understanding of the forces that drive the evolution of complex systems.
Ultimately, a leading response to growing complexity might be to abandon certain management techniques of the past. Through embracing the flow within complexity, it is possible to develop simple rules for greater performance, innovation, and—importantly—adaption and alignment with the defining structures of nature.
From China, this article tickles my sic-fi bone in just the right way. It’s one of those news bits that seems enfolded out of the future just to remind us how odd and accelerated we are in the present. From Kotaku:
Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Mr. Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng… Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job.
The article itself is a bit bland but the concept is ultracool and ripe for embellishment. Son hires mercenary clan to defend himself against father’s hit men. Or, son hires hackers to destroy dad’s credit so dad turns to Lawnmower Men to wipe son’s digital identity. How about a new niche of virtual assassin’s paid to neutralize annoying troll’s, spammers, or distant relatives with bothersome religious/political agenda’s? Social media assassins that target Twitter & Facebook accounts for permanent deletion… How safe is the virtual self when we don’t have the hard-wired instinct to protect it in the way we do our own bodies?
Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director at PC gaming powerhouse Valve Software, recently spoke with Kotaku about the shifting landscape of games distribution and his company’s move into the living room.
Ten years ago Valve established Steam as a primary distribution channel for its titles and add-on content. Just this month they’ve released Big Picture, establishing a foothold in the living room by essentially porting the Valve experience to the TV. With a new controller and interface, user’s can play games, stream content, and access Steam through Big Picture’s front-end.
Speaking to Kotaku, Newell suggested that Valve and other competitors will release custom branded hardware solutions for the living room within the next year. User’s would be able to buy an official Valve gaming console (likely to be a lightweight PC or Linux device) and plug it into their TV. While this may seem surprising to many who have suggested that console gaming is in decline, Newell let slip the compelling hook for game’s developers.
“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment… If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”
As content has dematerialized and gotten loose and slippery, content houses have been trying to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle and retain control over their IP. Hardware offers such a controlled environment and, thanks in large part to Apple, hardware manufacturing is easier than it’s ever been. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, a few years down the road, Valve decides to lock down distribution completely by shunting all its users onto a low-priced piece of branded hardware. Plug it into your TV, launch Steam, and pull content direct from the Valve server farm.
Now imagine if they release Half Life 3 and you can only buy it through their hardware…
A 15min presentation on the emerging ubicomp interface of the urban landscape
Also, here’s the full slide deck.
Scott Smith has a nice article about Our Complicated Love-Hate Relationship With Robots, exploring how robotics have been seeping into the public dialog of late. A couple of the links he cites were good reminders of previous work looking at the aesthetics of machine perception, notably Sensor-Vernacular from the fine folks at BERG and The New Aesthetic Tumblr by James Bridle.
If humanity is a reflection on the experience of perceiving and interacting with the world, what role does machine perception play in this experience? And if nature acts through our hands, to what ends are flocking drones and herds of autonomous machines? A taxonomy of machine perception seems necessary to understand the many ways in which the world can be experienced.
I’ve just returned from a very interesting workshop in Washington, D.C. about fast-moving change, asymmetric threats to security, and finding signals within the wall of noise thrown up by big data. These are tremendous challenges to governance, policy makers, and the intelligence community. I’ll have more to say on these topics in later posts but for now, here’s a round-up of the most popular posts on URBEINGRECORDED in order of popularity:
Occupy Wall Street – New Maps for Shifting Terrain – On OWS, gaps in governance, empowered actors, and opportunities in the shifting sands…
Getting to Know Your Ghost in the Machine – On the convergence of ubiquitous computation (ubicomp), augmented reality, and network identity…
The Transhuman Gap – On the challenges facing the transhuman movement…
The Realities of Coal in the Second Industrial Revolution – On the energy demand and resource availability for the developing world…
Meshnets, Freedom Phones, and the People’s Revolution – On the Arab Spring, hyperconnectivity, and ad hoc wireless networks…
And a few that I really like:
Back-casting from 2043 – On possible futures, design fictions, and discontinuity…
On Human Networks & Living Biosystems – On the natural patterns driving technology & human systems…
Outliers & Complexity – On non-linearity, outliers, and the challenges of using the past to anticipate the future…
Thanks to all my readers for taking the time to think about my various rantings & pre-occupations. As always, your time, your participation, and your sharing is greatly appreciated!
I saw Amon Tobin’s ISAM project a week ago at The Warfield theater in San Francisco. Literally jaw-dropping.
Leviathan worked with frequent collaborator and renowned VJ Vello Virkhaus on groundbreaking performance visuals for electronic musician Amon Tobin, creating ethereal CG narratives and engineering the geometry maps for an entire stage of stacked cube-like structures. Taking the performance further, the Leviathan team also developed a proprietary projection alignment tool to ensure quick and accurate setup for the show, along with custom Kinect control & visualization utilities for Amon to command.
I recently participated in the Future of Facebook project that Venessa Miemis & Alvis Brigis have launched as part of their efforts towards an Open Foresight platform. The full collection of out-takes from all forecasters is available on the Future of Facebook You Tube channel.
Below are some of the out-takes from my interview. These are general thoughts I have about what Facebook is, how it seems to be impacting our lives & institutions, and where it might be headed. I should note that these are broad observations and many caveats apply. Also: default YT framegrabs seem to seek out the worst possible pics of me. Enjoy.
Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.
Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.
Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known – the human brain – does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.
Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we’re not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia – the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.
In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship – a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.
Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.
As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.
The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit – the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.
The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself – the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.
The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.
Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations – the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems – is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition… Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.
[Justin Pickard notes: Biology PhD friend had issues w/ @chris23's latest (http://bit.ly/e0tJSS), citing hierarchies in social insect colonies, meercats & wolves... Furthermore, some biologists now consider social insect colonies to be superorganisms in their own right; akin to @cascio's ecology of mind?
Me: Yes! I considered diving into ants - lot's of research there. Interesting social structures emerge in higher critters/hives... I'd love to read a rebuttal/extension.]
I’m excited to announce that the second annual Bay Area Augmented Reality Developer’s Camp will be held on Saturday, December 4th, 2010, at the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts in San Francisco! This will be a free, open format, all-day unconference looking at the many aspects of Augmented Reality. We welcome hackers, developers, designers, product folks, biz devs, intellectuals, philosophers, tinkerers & futurists – anyone interested in this fascinating and revolutionary new technology.
If you’re interested please take a moment to sign up at the AR Dev Camp wiki.
CC image from mondi.
“He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him…”
The word “cybernetic” derives from a Greek word, kybernetes, meaning “rudder” or “governor”. A cybernetic process is a control system that uses feedback about it’s actions in an environment to better adapt it’s behavior. The cybernetic organism, or “cyborg”, is a class of cybernetic systems that have converged with biological organisms. In this increasingly mythologized form, the cyborg embodies the ongoing dialectic between humanity & technology, and is an aspirational figure onto which we project our superhuman fantasies. While it offers security, enhancement, and corporeal salvation the cyborg also presents an existential threat to the self and to the cherished notions of being uniquely human.
It’s a gamble but we don’t seem able to leave the table. As we offload more of our tasks into technology we enhance our adaptability while undermining our own innate resilience as animals. We wrap ourselves in extended suits of shelter, mobility, health, and communications. We distribute our senses through a global network of hypermedia, augmenting our brains with satellites & server farms & smart phones. Increasingly, our minds & bodies are becoming the convergence point for both the real & the virtual, mediated through miniaturization, dematerialization, and nano-scale hybridization. Our ability to craft the world around us is quickly advancing to give us the ability to craft our bodies & our selves.
“And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind… Or somewhere in the back of his mind… That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideals…”
Computation is miniaturizing, distributing, and becoming more powerful & efficient. It’s moving closer & closer to our bodies while ubiquitizing & dematerializing all around us. The cybernetic process has refined this most adaptive capacity in little more than 50 years to be right at hand, with us constantly, connected to a global web of people, places, things, information, and knowledge. We are co-evolving with our tools, or what Kevin Kelly refers to as the Technium – the seemingly-intentional kingdom of technology. As Terence McKenna suggested, we are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects. By directly illustrating how our own fitness & bio-survival becomes bound to the survival of our technology, the cyborg is a fitting icon for this relationship.
CC image from PhotoDu.de.
Technology has historically been regarded as something we cast into the world separate from ourselves but it’s worth considering the symbiosis at play and how this relationship is changing the very nature of humanity. As we venture deeper & deeper into the Technium, we lend ourselves to it’s design. By embracing technology as part of our lives, as something we rely upon and depend on, we humanize it and wrap it in affection. We routinely fetishize & sexualize cool, flashy tech. In doing so we impart emotional value to the soul-less tools of our construction. We give them both life & meaning. By tying our lives to theirs, we agree to guarantee their survival. This arrangement is a sort of alchemical wedding between human & machine, seeking to yield gold from this mixture of blood & metal, uncertain of the outcome but almost religiously compelled to consummate.
“The change would be very subtle. It might take ten years or so. Gradually his face would change it’s shape. A more hooked nose. Wider, thinner lips. Beady eyes. A larger forehead…”
In the modern world, our identities include the social networks & affinity groups in which we participate, the digital media we capture & create & upload, the avatars we wear, and the myriad other fragments of ourselves we leave around the web. Who we are as individuals reflects the unique array of technologies through which we engage the world, at times instantiated through multiple masks of diverse utility, at other times fractured & dis-integrated – too many selves with too many virtual fingers picking at them. Our experience of life is increasingly composed of data & virtual events, cloudy & intangible yet remote-wired into our brains through re-targeted reward systems. A Twitter re-tweet makes us happy, a hostile blog comment makes us angry, the real-time web feeds our addiction to novelty. Memories are offloaded to digital storage mediums. Pictures, travel videos, art, calendars, phone numbers, thoughts & treatises… So much of who we are and who we have been is already virtualized & invested in cybernetic systems. All those tweets & blog posts cast into the cloud as digital moments captured & recorded. Every time I share a part of me with the digital world I become copied, distributed, more than myself yet… in pieces.
CC image from Alejandro Hernandez.
It can be said that while we augment & extend our abilities through machines, machines learn more about the world through us. The web 2.0 social media revolution and the semantic web of structured data that is presently intercalating into it has brought machine algorithms into direct relationship with human behavior, watching our habits and tracking our paths through the digital landscape. These sophisticated marketing and research tools are learning more and more about what it means to be human, and the extended sensorium of the instrumented world is giving them deep insight into the run-time processes of civilization & nature. The spark of self-awareness has not yet animated these systems but there is an uneasy agreement that we will continue to assist in their cybernetic development, modifying their instructions to become more and more capable & efficient, perhaps to the point of being indistinguishable from, or surpassing, their human creators.
“He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people. They had also molded their faces according to some ideal. Maybe they imagined that their new face would better suit their personality. Or maybe they imagined that their personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance…”
In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the young Tyrell Corporation assistant, Rachel, reflects on her childhood memories while leafing through photographs of her youth. These images are evidence of her past she uses to construct her sense of self. Memories provide us with continuity and frame the present & future by reminding us of our history – critical for a species so capable of stepping out of time. Rachel’s realization that she is a replicant, that her memories are false implants deliberately created to make her believe she’s human, precipitates an existential crises that even threatens Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, surrounded as he is by photos of his own supposed past. This subtle narrative trick suggests that replicants will be more human-like if they don’t know they’re replicants. But it also invokes another query: If memories are (re-)writable, can we still trust our own past?
Yet both characters do appear quite human. They laugh and cry and love and seem driven by the same hopes and fears we all have. Ridley Scott’s brilliance – and by extension, Philip K. Dick’s – is to obscure the nature of the self and of humanity by challenging our notions of both. Is Rachel simply another mannequin animated by advanced cybernetics or is she more than that? Is she human enough? When the Tyrell bio-engineer J.F. Sebastian sees the Nexus 6 replicants, Pris and Roy Batty, he observes “you’re perfect”, underlining again the aspirational notion that through technology we can be made even better, becoming perhaps “more human than human”. This notion of intelligent artificial beings raises deep challenges to our cherished notions of humanity, as many have noted. But the casual fetishization of technology, as it gets nearer & friendlier & more magical, is perhaps just as threatening to our deified specialness in it’s subtle insinuation into our hands & hearts & minds.
CC image from Photo Monkey.
In Mamoru Oshii’s anime classic, Ghost in the Shell, the female protagonist – a fully-engineered and functional robotic human named Kusanagi – at once decries those who resist augmentation, suggesting that “your effort to remain as you are is what limits you”, while simultaneously becoming engaged in a quest to determine if there might be more to her than just what has been programmed. She celebrates her artifice as a supreme achievement in overcoming the constraints of biological evolution while also seeking to find evidence that she is possessed of that most mysterious spark: the god-like ingression of being that enters and animates the human shell. Oshii’s narrative suggests that robots that achieve a sufficient level of complexity and self-awareness will, just like their human creators, seek to see themselves as somehow divinely animated. Perhaps it’s a method to defend the belief in human uniqueness but those writing the modern myths of cybernetics seem to imply that while humans aspire to the abilities of machines, machines aspire to the soulfulness of humans.
CC image from Alaskan Dude.
“This is why first impressions are often correct…”
Chalk it up to curiosity, the power of design fictions, and an innate need to realize our visions, but if we can see it with enough resolution in our mind’s eye, we’ll try to bring it to life. The Ghost in the Shell & the Ghost in the Machine both intuit the ongoing merger between humanity & technology, and the hopes & fears that attend this arranged and seemingly-unavoidable alchemical wedding. As animals we are driven to adapt. As humans, we are compelled to create.
“Although some people might have made mistakes. They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them. They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim or momentary impulse. Some may have gotten half-way there, and then changed their minds…”
Humans are brilliant & visionary but also impetuous, easily distracted, fascinated by shiny things, and typically ill-equipped to divine the downstream consequences of our actions. We extrude technologies at a pace that far outruns our ability to understand their impacts on the world, much less how they change who we are. As we reach towards AI, the cyborg, the singularity, and beyond, our cybernetic fantasies may necessarily pass through the dark night of the soul on the way to denouement. What is birthed from the alchemical marriage often necessitates the destruction of the wedding party.
CC image from WebWizzard.
“He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.” – David Byrne, Seen & Not Seen
Are we working up some Faustian bargain promising the heights of technological superiority only for the meager sacrifice of our Souls? Or is this fear a reflection of our Cartesian inability to see ourselves as an evolving process, holding onto whatever continuity we can but always inevitably changing with the world in which we are embedded? As we offload more and more of our selves to our digital tools, we change what it means to be human. As we evolve & integrate more machine functionality we modify our relationship to the cybernetic process and re-frame our self-identity to accommodate our new capacities.
Like the replicants in Blade Runner and the animated cyborgs of Ghost in the Shell we will very likely continue to aspire to be more human than human, no matter how hard it may be to defend our ideals of what this may mean to the very spark of humanity. What form of cyborg we shall become, what degree of humanity we retain in the transaction, what unforeseen repercussions may be set in motion… The answers are as slippery as the continuum of the self and the ever-changing world in which we live. Confrontation with the existential Other – the global mind mediated through ubiquitous bio-machinery – and the resulting annihilation of the Self that will necessarily attend such knowledge, may very well yield a vastly different type of humanity than what we expect.
This past Saturday I worked with Mike Liebhold, Gene Becker, Anselm Hook, and Damon Hernandez to present the West Coast Augmented Reality Development Camp at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, Ca. By all accounts it was a stunning success with a huge turn-out of companies, engineers, designers, makers, artists, geo-hackers, scientists, techies and thinkers. The planning was mostly done virtually via email and phone meetings with only a couple visits to the venue. On Saturday, the virtual planing phase collapsed into reality and bloomed on site into AR Dev Camp.
As an un-conference, the event itself was a study in grassroots, crowd-sourced, participatory organization with everyone proposing sessions which were then voted on and placed into the schedule. To me, it was a wonderfully organic and emergent process that almost magically gave life and spirit to the skeleton we had constructed. So before I launch into my thoughts I want to give a hearty “Thank You!” to everyone that joined us and helped make AR DevCamp such a great experience. I also want to give a big shout-out to Tish Shute, Ori Inbar, and Sophia for coordinating the AR DevCamp in New York City, as well as Dave Mee & Julian Tate who ran the Manchester, UK event. And, of course, we couldn’t have done it without the help of our sponsors, Layar, Metaio, Qualcomm, Google, IFTF, Lightning Laboratories, Web3D Consortium, IDEAbuilder, MakerLab, and Waze (and URBEINGRECORDED with Cage Free Consulting contributed the flood of afternoon cookies).
So first, just what is Augmented Reality? There’s a tremendous amount of buzz around the term, weighing it down with connotations and expectations. Often, those investing in it’s future invoke the haunting specter of Virtual Reality, doomed by it’s inability to live up to the hype: ahead of it’s time, lost mostly to the realm of military budgets and skunkworks. Yet, the AR buzz has driven a marketing rush throwing gobs of money at haphazard and questionable advertising implementations that quickly reach millions and cement in their minds a narrow association with flashy magazine covers and car ads. Not to diminish these efforts, but there’s a lot more – and a lot less – going on here.
In it’s most distilled form, augmented reality is an interface layer between the cloud and the material world. The term describes a set of methods to superimpose and blend rendered digital interface elements with a camera stream, most commonly in the form of annotations such as text, links, and other 2 & 3-dimensional objects that appear to float over the camera view of the live world. Very importantly, AR includes at it’s core the concept of location mediated through GPS coordinates, orientation, physical markers, point-clouds, and, increasingly, image recognition. This combination of location and superimposition of annotations over a live camera feed is the foundation of AR. As we’re seeing with smart phones, the device knows where you are, what direction you’re facing, what your looking at, who & what is near you, and what data annotations & links are available in the view. In this definition, the cloud is the platform, the AR browser is the interface, and annotation layers are content that blend with the world.
So the augmented reality experience is mediated through a camera view that identifies a location-based anchor or marker and reveals any annotations present in the annotation layer (think of a layer as a channel). Currently, each of these components is uniquely bound to the AR browser in which they were authored so you must use, for example, the Layar browser to experience Layar-authored annotation layers. While many AR browsers are grabbing common public data streams from sources like Flickr & Wikipedia, their display and function will vary from browser to browser as each renders this data uniquely. And just because you can see a Flicker annotation in one browser doesn’t mean you will see it in another. For now, content is mostly bound to the browser and authoring is mostly done by third-parties building canned info layers. There doesn’t seem to be much consideration for the durability and longevity of these core components, and there is a real risk that content experiences may become fractured and ephemeral.
Indeed, content wants to be an inclusive, social experience. One of the core propositions underlying our motivation for AR DevCamp is the idea that the platforms being built around augmented reality should be architected as openly as possible to encourage the greatest degree of interoperability and extensibility. In the nascent but massively-hyped AR domain, there’s a growing rush to plant flags and grab territory, as happens in all emergent opportunity spaces. The concern is that we might recapitulate the Browser Wars – not intentionally but by lack of concerted efforts to coordinate implementations. While I maintain that coordination & open standardization is of necessity, I question my own assumption that without it we’ll end up with a bunch of walled gardens. This may be under-estimating the impact of the web.
Yet, this cooperation and normalization is by no means a given. Just about every chunk of legacy code that the Information Age is built upon retains vestiges of the git-er-done, rush to market start-up midset. Short-sighted but well-meaing implementations based upon limited resources, embryonic design, and first-pass architectures bog down the most advance and expensive software suites. As these code bases swell to address the needs of a growing user base, the gap between core architecture and usability widens. Experience designers struggle against architectures that were not able to make such design considerations. Historically, code architecture has proceeded ahead of user experience design, though this is shifting to some degree in the era of Agile and hosted services. Nevertheless, the emerging platforms of AR have the opportunity – and, I’d argue, the requirement – to include user research, design, & usability as core components of implementation. The open, standardized web has fostered a continuous and known experience across it’s vast reaches. Artsy Flash sites aside, you always know how to navigate and interact with the content. The fundamentals of AR need to be identified and agreed upon before the mosaic of emerging code bases become too mature to adjust to the needs of a growing user base.
Given the highly social aspect of the web, place-based annotations and objects will suffer greatly if there’s not early coordination around a shared standard for anchors. This is where the Browser Wars may inadvertently re-emerge. The anchor is basically the address/location of an annotation layer. When you look through an augmented view It’s the bit of data that says “I’m here, check out my annotations”. Currently there is no shared standard for this object, nor for annotations & layers. You need the Layar browser in order to see annotation layers made in it’s platform. If you only have a Junaio browser, you won’t see it. If you annotate a forest, tagging each tree with a marker linked to it’s own data registry, and then the browser app you used to author goes out of business, all those pointers are gone. The historical analog would be coding your website for IE but anyone with Mosaic can’t see it. This is where early design and usability considerations are critical to ensure a reasonable commonality and longevity of content. Anchors, annotations, & layers are new territory that ought to be regarded as strongly as URL’s and markup. Continuing to regard these as independent platform IP will balkanize the user experience of continuity across content layers. There must be standards in authoring and viewing. Content and services are where the business models should innovate.
So if we’re moving towards an augmented world of anchors and annotations and layers, what considerations should be given to the data structure underlying these objects? An anchor will have an addressable location but should it contain information about who authored it and when? Should an annotation contain similar data, time-stamped and signed with an RDF structure underlying the annotation content? How will layers describe their contents, set permissions, and ensure security? And what of the physical location of the data? An anchor should be a distributed and redundant object, not bound to the durability and security of any single server. A secure and resilient backbone of real-world anchor points is critical as the scaffolding of this new domain.
Earthmine is a company I’ve been watching for a number of months since they presented at the IFTF. They joined us at AR DevCamp to present their platform. While many AR developers are using GPS & compass or markers to draw annotations over the real world, Earthmine is busy building a massive dataset that maps Lat/Long/Alt coordinates to hi-rez images of cities. They have a small fleet of vehicles equipped with stereoscopic camera arrays that drive around cities, capturing images of every inch they see. But they’re also grabbing precise geolocation coordinates that, when combined with the image sets, yields a dense point cloud of addressable pixels. When you look at one of these point clouds on a screen it looks like a finely-rendered pointillistic painting of a downtown. They massage this data set, mash the images and location, and stream it through their API as a navigable street view. You can then place objects in the view with very high accuracy – like a proposed bus stop you’d like to prototype, or a virtual billboard. Earthmine even indicated that making annotations in their 2d map layer could add a link to the augmented real-world view. So you can see a convergence and emerging correlation between location & annotation in the real world, in an augmented overlay, on a flat digital map, and on a Google Earth or Virtual World interface. This is an unprecedented coherency of virtual and real space.
The Earthmine demo is cool and the Flash API offers interesting ways to customize the street view with 2d & 3d annotations but the really killer thing is their dataset. As alluded to, they’re building an address space for the real world. So if you’re in San Francisco and you have an AR browser that uses the Earthmine API (rumors that Metaio are working on something here…) you can add an annotation to every STOP sign in The Mission so that a flashing text of “WAR” appears underneath. With the current GPS location strategy this would be impossible due to it’s relatively poor resolution (~3-5 meters at best). You could use markers but you’d need to stick one on every STOP sign. With Earthmine you can know almost exactly where in the real world you’re anchoring the annotation… and they can know whenever you click on one. Sound familiar?
Augmented reality suggests the most significant shift in computation since the internet. As we craft our computers into smaller and smaller mobile devices, exponentially more powerful and connected, we’re now on the verge of beginning the visual and locational integration of the digital world with the analog world. We’ve digitized much of human culture, pasted it onto screens and given ourselves mirror identities to navigate, communicate, and share in this virtual space. Now we’re breaking open the box and drawing the cloud across the phenomenal world, teaching our machines to see what we see and inviting the world to be listed in the digital Yellow Pages.
So, yeah, now your AR experience of the world is covered in billboards, sloganeering, propaganda, and dancing dinosaurs all competing for your click-through AdSense rating. A big consideration, and a topic that came up again & again at AR DevCamp, is the overwhelming amount of data and the need to filter it to some meaningful subset, particularly with respect to spam and advertising. A glance across the current crop of iPhone AR apps reveals many design interface challenges, with piles of annotations all occluding themselves and your view of the world. Now imagine a world covered in layers each with any number of annotations. UI becomes very important. Andrea Mangini & Julie Meridian led a session on design & usability considerations in AR that could easily be a conference of it’s own. How do you manage occlusion & sorting? Level of detail? What does simple & effective authoring of annotations on a mobile device look like? How do you design a small but visible environmental cue that an annotation exists? If the URL convention is an underlined text, what is the AR convention for gently indicating that the fire hydrant you’re looking at has available layers & annotations? Discoverability of the digital links within the augmented world will be at a tension with overwhelming the view of the world itself.
When we consider the seemingly-inevitable development of eyewear with digital heads-up display, occlusion can quickly move from helpful to annoying to dangerous. No matter how compelling the augmented world is you still need to see when that truck is coming down the street. Again, proper design for human usability is perhaps even more critical in the augmented interface than in a typical screen interface. Marketing and business plans aside, we have to assume that the emergence of truly compelling and valuable technologies are ultimately in line with the deep evolutionary needs of the human animal. We’re certainly augmenting for fun and art and engagement and communication but my sense is that, underneath all these we’re building this new augmented reality because the power & adaptive advantage mediated through the digital domain is so great that we need it to integrate seamlessly with our mobile, multi-tasking lives. It’s been noted by others – Kevin Kelly comes to mind – that we’re teaching machines to do many of things we do, but better. And in the process we’re making them smaller and more natural and bringing them closer and closer to our bodies. Ponderings of transhumanity and cyborgian futures aside, our lives are being increasingly augmented and mediated by many such smart machines.
DARPA wasn’t at AR Dev Camp. Or at least if they were, they didn’t say so. There was a guy from NASA showing a really cool air traffic control system that watched aircraft in the sky, tagged them with data annotations, and tracked their movements. We were shown the challenges to effectively register the virtual layer – the annotation – with the real object – a helicopter – when it’s moving rapidly. In other words, the virtual layer, mediated through a camera & a software layer, tended to lag behind the 80+ mph heli. But in lieu of DARPA’s actual attendance, it’s worth considering their Urban Leader Tactical Response, Awareness & Visualization (ULTRA-Vis) program to develop a multimodal mobile computational system for coordinating tactical movements of patrol units. This program sees the near-future soldier as outfitted with a specialized AR comm system with a CPU worn on a belt, a HUD lens over one eye, a voice recognition mic, and a system to capture gestures. Military patrols rely heavily on intel coming from command and on coordinating movements through back-channel talk and line-of-sight gestures. AR HUDs offer simple wayfinding and identification of team mates. Voice commands can execute distributed programs and open or close comm channels. Gestures will be captured to communicate to units both in an out of line-of-sight and to initiate or capture datastreams. Cameras and GPS will track patrol movements and offer remote viewing through other soldier’s cameras. But most importantly, this degree of interface will be simple, fluid, and effortless. It won’t get in your way. For better or for worse, maximizing pack hunting behaviors with technology will set the stage for the future of human-computer interaction.
After lunch provided by Qualcomm, Anselm Hook led an afternoon session at AR DevCamp titled simply “Hiking”. We convened in a dark and hot room, somewhat ironically called the “Sun Room” for it’s eastern exposure, to discuss nature and what, if any, role AR should play in our interface with the Great Outdoors. We quickly decided to move the meeting out into the parking lot where we shared our interests in both built and natural outdoor environments. A common theme that emerged in words and sentiment was the tension between experience & distraction. We all felt that the natural world is so rich and special in large part due to it’s increasing contrast to an urbanized and mechanized life. It’s remote and wild and utterly disconnected, inherently at peace in it’s unscripted and chaotic way. How is this value and uniqueness challenged by ubicomp and GPS and cellular networks? GPS & cellphone coverage can save lives but do we really need to Twitter from a mountain top? I make no judgement calls here and am plenty guilty myself but it’s worth acknowledging that augmented reality may challenge the direct experience of nature in unexpected ways and bring the capacity to overwrite even the remote corners of the world with human digital graffiti.
But remember that grove of trees I mentioned before, tagged with data annotations? Imagine the researchers viewing those trees through AR lenses able to see a glance-able color index for each one showing CO2, O2, heavy metals, turgidity, growth, and age. Sensors, mesh nets, and AR can give voice to ecosystems, cities, communities, vehicles, and objects. Imagine that grove is one of thousands in the Brazilian rainforest reporting on it’s status regularly, contributing data to policy debates and regulatory bodies. What types of augmented experiences can reinforce our connection to nature and our role as caretakers?
On the other hand, what happens when you and the people around you are each having very different experiences of “reality”? What happens to the commons when there are 500 different augmented versions? What happens to community and society when the common reference point for everything – the very environment in which we exist – is malleable and fluid and gated by permissions and access layers or overwrought with annotations competing for our attention? What social gaps could arise? What psychological ailments? Or perhaps more realistically, what happens when a small class of wealthy westerners begin to redraw the world around them? Don’t want to see other people? No problem! Just turn on the obfuscation layer. Ugly tenements ruining your morning commute? Turn on some happy music and set your iGlasses to the favela paintshop filter! Augmentation and enhancement with technology will inevitably proceed along economic lines. What is the proper balance between enjoying our technological luxuries and responsibly curating the world for those less fortunate? Technology often makes the symptoms look different but doesn’t usually eradicate the cause. In the rush to colonize the augmented reality, in the shadow of a wavering global economic system and deep revision of value and product, now is the best time and the most important time to put solutions ahead of products; to collaborate and cooperate on designing open, robust, and extensible systems; and, in the words of Tim O’Reilly, to “work on stuff that matters”.
At the end of the day, pizza’s arrived (Thanks MakerLab!), beers were opened (Thanks Layar & Lighting Labs), and the buzzing brains of AR DevCamp mingled and shared their thoughts. Hearts alit, I’ll be forgiven some sentimentality to suggest that the Hacker Dojo had a soft, warm glow emanating from all the fine folks in attendance. Maybe it was like this around the Acid Tests in the 60′s (with more paisley). Or the heady days of PARC Xerox in the 80′s (with more ties). That growing inertia and sense of destiny at being at the right place at the right time just at the start of something exceptional…
Special thanks to Andrea Mangini for deep and ranging discussions about all this stuff, among many other things.
Via Tish Shute at UgoTrade:
“Imagine an environment where most physical objects know where they are, what they are, and can, (in principle) network with any other object. With this infrastructure, reality becomes its own database. Multiple consensual virtual environments are possible, each oriented to the needs of its constituency. If we also have open standards, then bottom-up social networks and even bottom up advertising become possible. Now imagine that in addition to sensors, many of these itsy-bitsy processors are equipped with effectors. Then the physical world becomes much more like a software construct. The possibilities are both scary and wondrous.” (Vernor Vinge – intro to ISMAR 2009)
[This is a narrative exploration of an idea @jingleyfish & I had walking around the Westside of Santa Cruz late at night...]
Imagine walking around a town wearing your stylish Ray Ban augmented reality glasses (because hand-held mobile devices will become a significant limiting factor to experiencing the annotated world). You see small transparent white dots glowing on people and objects indicating that they contain accessible cloud content. Maybe you “select” (by whatever mechanism constitutes selection through a pair of eyeglasses) a bench on the sidewalk then view a flyout markup indicating that the bench was commissioned by the Bruce family in memorium of Aldis Bruce, manufactured by the Taiwanese Seating Concern. You click through the family link to see a brief bio of Aldis with a set of links to his life story, works, etc…
In the upper corner of your view a light begins to blink indicating a new feed is available in your subscription list. You select and expand, showing a menu item for Bob’s Neighborhood Chat. Initializing this feed draws a new green dot over the bench, indicating that Bob has published information tagged to it. You click and Bob’s markup flies out with text stating, “Tuesday, March 11, 2010: Don & Charise Ludemeyer celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary by returning to the place where they first kissed in 1985.” A link below this offers the couple’s personal website, a photo gallery & playlist of their wedding, and then a link to more public markups about the bench.
Clicking through the “more” link offers a list of other public comments. You choose the Sur 13 layer just to see what the local hoods are up to. Flyout: “Hernandez Bros. shot down by Westside Brownshirts, Sept. 23, 2009. RIP, locos.” Then, drawn over, a bit-crushed graffiti logo “WSB” animates across the view, hacked into the Sur 13 layer by Brownshirts. A click through would open the full Brownshirt regional layer but you already feel like a trespasser on suddenly dangerous turf.
Unsettled, you call up the local Police layer. A trailing list of crimes in a 5mi radius begins scrolling. You narrow the search to your current location with a 2 week time horizon. 3 yellow car break-ins glow indicators along the road, followed by a red assault marker 10 feet down the walk, and then 2 more blinking red markers at the bench. You hover over the bench markers and learn of two shootings here within the last 4 days.
You open up the iCabNow utility, send up your beacon, and wait nervously for Yellow Cab to find you. You thumb back to the Ludemeyer markup and click through to find the playlist from their wedding. As you hop into the cab a few moments later, the theme from Miami Vice swells up in your earbuds, sending you off from this time-twisted place. You call up the WordTweet micromarker app and make a traveler’s note: “This is a dangerous bench with an old heart.” Click “Publish” and a new feed indicator appears, offering your own layer update to subscribers.
The post title is in quotes because, although the effect is quite clean & nice, the tech is projection and not really digital wallpaper. What the demo suggests is a programmable surface material, perhaps made of some sort of liquid OLED or biolumin. Wallpaper or paint that could cover a room and represent the full RGB spectrum, dynamically. Nevertheless, the video below suggests the end result of such a future tech, much like the 555Kubik video facade projection.
As an aside, I’ll be posting more videos given the highly visual nature of a lot of the cool emerging tech these days.
With all the hype flying around Augmented Reality lately, it’s easy to assume the nascent tech is just another flash-in-the-pan destined to burn out in a fury of marketing gimmickry & sensational posturing. Yet, it’s informative to consider the drivers pushing this trend and to tease out the truly adaptive value percolating beneath the hype. As we survey the last 40 years of computation we see vast rooms of tube & tape mainframes consolidating into single stacks & dense supercomputers. These, in turn, rode manufacturing advances into smaller components and faster processors bringing computing to the desktop. In the last 10 years we’ve seen computation un-encumber from the location-bound desktop to powerful, free-roaming mobile platforms. These devices have allowed us to carry the advantages of instant communication, collaboration, and computation with us wherever we go. The trends in computation continue towards power, portability, and access.
Specific implementations aside, augmented reality in it’s purest, most dilute form, is about drawing the experience of computation across the real world. It’s about point-and-click access to the data shadows of everything in our environment. It’s about realizing social networks, content markups, and digital remix culture as truly tangible layers of human behavior. Augmented reality represents another fundamentally adaptive technology to empower individuals & collectives with instant access to knowledge about the world in which we’re embedded. It breaks open both the digital & mental box and dumps the contents out on the floor.
There is a fascinating convergence at play here that, at a glance, seems almost paradoxical. While the contents of our minds are moving beyond the digital containers we’ve used to such creative & collaborative advantage, out into the phenomenal world of things & critters, the physical hardware through which this expression is constructed & mediated is miniaturizing and moving closer & closer towards our physical bodies. DARPA is funding research to push AR beyond current device limitations, envisioning transparent HUDs, eye-trackers, speech recognition, and gestural interfaces that release soldiers from the physical dependencies of our current devices. Today’s mobiles (and the limited AR tech built on them) compete directly with the other most adaptive human feature: our hands. Truly functional mobile comm/collab/comp must be hands-free… and this is the promise taking form in the emerging field of neurotechnology.
Nanomaterials, optogenetics, SPASERs, advanced robotics, neurocomputation, and artificial intelligence are merely a handful of the modalities shaping up to enable tighter integration between humans, machines, and the digital sphere. Advances in understanding the communication protocols and deep brain structures that mediate the human interface between our sensorium and the perceived world are presenting opportunities to capture & program our minds, to more accurately modulate the complexities of human emotion, creativity, trust, & cognition, and to build more expressive interfaces between mind and machine. Augmented reality is co-evolving with augmented physiology.
In it’s current and most-visualized form, augmented reality is clunky and awkward, merely suggesting a future of seamless integration between computation & cognition. Yet the visions being painted by the pioneers are deeply compelling and illustrate a near-future of a more malleable world richly overlaid with information & interface. As AR begins to render more ubiquitously across the landscape, as more & more phones & objects become smart and connected, the requirements for advancing human-computer interface will create exceptional challenges & astonishing results. Indeed, imagine the interface elements of a fully-augmented and interactive merging between analog & digital, between mind & machine… How do you use your mind to “click” on an object? How will the object communicate & interact with you? How do you filter data & interactions out from simple social transactions? How do you obfuscate the layers of data rising off your activities & thoughts? And what are the challenges of having many different opt-in or opt-out realities running in parallel?
Humans have just crossed the threshold into the Information Age. The sheer speed of the uptake is mind-bending as our world is morphing everyday into the science fictional future we spent the last century dreaming of. We may not really need the latest advances in creative advertising (similarly driven to get closer and closer to us) but it’s inarguable that both humans & the planetary ecology would benefit from a glance at a stream that instantly reveals a profile of the pollutants contained within, tagged by call-outs showing the top ten contributing upstream sources and the profiles of their CEOs – with email, Facebook, Twitter, and newsburst links at the ready. Examples and opportunities abound, perhaps best left to the authors and innovators of the future to sort out in a flurry of sensemods, augs, and biosims.
There are, of course, many challenges and unforeseen contingencies. The rapid re-wiring of the fundamental interface that such “capably murderous” creatures as us have with the natural world, and the attendant blurring of the lines between real & fabricated, should give pause to the most fevered anticipatory optimists. In a very near future, perhaps 10 or 15 years ahead, amidst an age of inconceivable change, we’ll have broken open the box, painted the walls with our minds, and wired the species and the planet to instantaneous collaboration and expression, with massively constructive and destructive tools at our fingertips. What dreams and nightmares may be realized when the apes attain such godhood? When technology evolves at a lightning pace, yet the human psyche remains at best adolescent, will we pull it off without going nuclear? Will the adaptive expressions of our age save us in time? I think they will, if we design them right and fairly acknowledge the deeply biological drivers working through the technologies we extrude.
[Acknowledgements: Tish Shute & Ugo Trade; Zack Lynch and his book The Neuro Revolution; conversations with fellow researchers at IFTF; and many others listed in the Signtific Lab tag for ProgrammableEverything.]
In my present tenure as a Visiting Researcher at the Institute for the Future I’ve been posting a lot of Signals pertinent to Brain-Computer Interface over at the Signtific open source research site. My Signals are listed under the tag “ProgrammableEverything”.
Check ‘em out if you’re interested in the fascinating & accelerating field of BCI. Also feel free to add your own Signals you see in the world or are engaging in your professional research.
[Extensive photo album here.]
Japan crossed with Mexico. Hack, mash, and lash everything together. Very hot and thick, humid and prone to short heavy rains. Bangkok is larger than expected, with a higher skyline. Slum-like in many ways but comfortable. Dirty, aged, grafitti’d, tagged, polluted, smelly, hungry, buggy, feral. Friendly, smiley, reverent, strong, spiritualized, watery, creative, delicious, surviving with tenacity. Temples & tenements, luxury hotels and megamalls. Insane traffic and transport. Little regard for lanes or right of way. Swarms of motorbikes, vespas. Cheap and dangerous tuk tuk 3-wheelers. Families piled onto scooters, kids asleep, baggage strapped on. Traffic flow like a logjam, shifting metal slabs moving within inches of each other, victory goes to the bold in a cloud of exhaust. The mighty Chao Phraya cutting its way through Bangkok and out to the coast, it’s headlands in the foothills below Burma. These are river people, with traffic on the waterways as busy and chaotic as the streets. The river is deep, a 1/4 mile wide, running green & tan, dirty and littered with commercial & vegetal detritus. After the rains clumps of fallen jungle float on its surface, carried down from farms and foothill tributaries. Black & yellow birds land on leafy branches half submerged to dine on nuts and berries. Water taxis from hotel to Sky Train. Fantastic monorail, the SRT, its cement track a modern work of civil engineering adding to the Tokyo vibe of downtown Bangkok.
Tangled mess of black utility cable slashing horizontal lines across most everything, tied in to huge transformers, burnt metal grills pumping amperage for the teeming metropolis of 6 million. The twisted infrastructure grows organically like a banyan, stretching out axonal to connect and communicate. Most buildings are old haggard tenements, their facades stained with a dark grey wash like grease and ash drawn out of the thick air. Structures that seem abandoned, uninhabitable, are strung with drying laundry drawn perpendicular to the necessarily ubiquitous swamp coolers lining the sides of each floor. Broken concrete fields under freeway overpasses offer football grounds lined by graffiti mural walls under chainlink divisions.
Downtown, luxury malls with Louis Vuitton and Burberry fronted by large altars of golden Buddha’s and Ganesha’s, black marble elephants flecked with gold, yellow floral garlands and incense offered by shoppers to their immaterial gods. A sign at Wat Phrao Keo in broken Thaiglish sagely, if not inadvertently, warns visitors to “Beware of your valuable possessions”. Technology, commerce, wealth, and western aesthetics have moved in with the economic development afforded here as in every other large city by the realities of globalized communication and trade.
Down crowded alleyways lined with merchant stalls and open air ad hoc kitchens, thick with pedestrians, cars, tuk tuks, and manic motorcyclists weaving through the narrow channels, over rooftop patios caged against some unseen menace, rise countless golden and white and glittery temple spires. Buddhist Wats take residence everywhere, themselves seemingly hacked into the dense fabric of the city, rising like aspirational fruiting bodies of ancient mycelial webs. Wat Arum, Wat Pho, Wat Phra Keo & the Grand Palace, and innumerable others. Religion & myth is woven throughout the populace. Every building has it’s own adjacent spirit house offering residence to the disincarnate lest they move into your own home. City walls are tacked with incense holders between stores. Banyans breaking through the sidewalks are wrapped with rainbow sashes honoring their freakish holy treeness. Every taxi has a statue on the dash or mala hanging from the rearview or Buddhist stencil on the headboard or any combination of the aforementioned. A 3-day Buddhist holiday shut down all government and banking.
The current Thai king is the longest reigning monarch of the modern age, holding office since 1950. Thailand was the only East-Asian country to resist British colonialism, sparing its autonomy by ceding a few bits of territory along the Burmese & Malay borders. Indeed there are long running conflicts with the Burmese, and Buddhist Thailand is in the midst of an insurgency along the Malaysian border from an advancing Islamic populace. The cabinet of the prime minister and the military have provided ongoing political theater as each vie back and forth for the seat of power. Most transfers of power, even in the case of multiple coups, have been bloodless. The Thai people themselves seem to have little interest in these power games, preferring a life of pragmatic spirituality while maintaining a deep abiding love and respect for the king. The two possibly mortal social offenses in Thai society are speaking ill of the Buddha and speaking ill of the king.
Farming is honored. Rubber trees and palms cover most southern land, providing two of the country’s largest exports. The Thai peninsula includes all the most breathtaking exotic tropical beach locations you could imagine, including the stunning Railay Bay – famed for the movie The Beach. Beautiful light blue waters, ridiculously warm and salty, stretched for ages across the gulf. Koh Samui running on Full Moon inertia, tourist trinkets, and scattered luxury resorts sheltered from the hustle. Low inland jungles bring minimal shade to island shanties in seemingly impossible poverty. Yet they survive & persist and move through generations like the rest of us. Koh Phangan also still milking their internationally notorious Full Moon Rave scene, adding a Half Moon party to underwrite the Euro draw. Even away from the main strips the beach scenes has a fun accidental Burning Man vibe, a shoreline esplanade of shanty bars and sound systems. Expats all over the place. Seems easy to get lost for months, years, decades in some seaside shack eating fruit and fish in a poor man’s paradise. Impossible walls of insects whip up into sudden frenzy, a cacophonous wail of screamapillars, giant cicadas that still don’t seem anywhere near big enough to make such a pitch. Monkey troops swing across canopies carpeting tall rock slabs jutting from the water. A rock climber’s joy, sheer faces hung with dripping stalactites and pocked with rope tie-ins. These tall rocks are scattered by the hundreds – thousands? – across the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. A boater’s paradise. You could spend months exploring thin beaches stretched around the edges of countless small jungle rock islands.
In the South, each night was attended by thunderstorm, often over sea or above the island peaks. Big black charcoal canvas lumbering across, flicker flashed with lightning bursts every few moments, often too distant to hear the thunderclap, then a sudden ear-shattering rend of ozone right above. When the heavy rains hit they come quickly and with ferocity. Never seen rain like it. So thick that it occluded line of sight to 20 meters or so, hiding everything beyond in watery showers. From the steep island peaks water rushes down in sudden rivers cutting through beach sands, pushing tan clouds out into the bay, a shimmering clear layer of fresh water forcing the saline back out over the ocean’s surface. Giant raindrops agitate the bugs forcing them to take flight in peppery swarms. Small opportunistic swift-like birds take to the skies darting and arching, turning and diving to pluck the insects mid-air in some ancient deeply programmed ballet of the food chain. Life goes on. It must. When rains come often and fiercely you can’t just drop your business. This was especially so in Bangkok whose streets are lined with tirelessly deployed open markets bare to the sky save for a small canvas over each. In 20 or 30 minutes the rain will likely pass so there’s no point in worrying much about the interlude.
While the deep south is struggling with a mounting Islamic insurgency, and the peninsula is attending the construction of more new mosques, the buddhist majority continues to permeate life with the spirit of their patron, accompanied by a host of Garuda and Nagas and a menagerie of mythic beasties syncretized from India and China. If Thai Buddhist Bangkok is feral and lashed and relentlessly modded in ghetto slapdash, the Bangkok Chinatown is 10x more so compressed into tighter alleyways, with more people and motorcylces (Vespas apparently seek Chinatown to live out their golden years), hung with impossibly more spaghetti cables, and festooned with walls of neon Mandarin signage casting a little too much light onto freakish displays of animal carcass and presumably inedible seafood and giant transparent sacks of fried pork product and stall after stall of fashionable Versace & Loius Vuitton knock-offs. Imagine threading your way down a dark, narrow alley lined with flea market stalls and no-health-code/no-insurance open air cart kitchens, filled with people pressing in all directions through dense heat and smell and rot, then send a motorcycle down the alley every few moments to do battle with cross-traffic carts and tuk tuks. Now imagine the alley is a whole network labyrinth covering multiple blocks between several-story tenaments streaked with black soot and stain and hung with drying clothes and black cables. This is why we western pansies stay in the nice hotel with A/C and a pool.
The final capper to the trip was in Bangkok the night before our departure. After the evening rains subsided, my partner and I went down to the pool for a night swim, around 9pm. Refreshing and fun we frolicked and generally soaked up the remaining moments of our stay. Then, in the poolside darkness moving low between the lounge chairs, I saw a large reptilian form lumbering along. “Dude, there’s a fricken alligator coming towards the pool!” I exclaimed excitedly. As it marched into the light we realized it was actually a monitor lizard – Varanus salvator, to be precise – about 5-6ft long with a fattened belly like it just ate a dog or possibly a small European child. “If that thing gets in the water, we get out immediately” I said with some urgency. I knew it could swim and see underwater much better than we could. No reason to tangle with a 6ft thunderlizard in a foreign country with questionable health care. Sure enough the beast slipped into the pool and sidled along the swim-up bar. We hopped out, laughing nervously, and I approached the lizard from a careful distance. Grabbing the pool attendant I motioned towards the monster. “That’s bad”, he said in a way that suggested that, bad as it may be, it wasn’t unusual. And so he casually splashed the creature with water nudging it along until it climbed out of the pool slowly, begrudgingly, made it’s way back into the riverside brush. It was easily the biggest lizard I’d ever seen in the wild.
The final day we were denied pool access during a particularly solid rain. When it’s always 90+ degrees & 90+% humidity, swimming in the rain is quite nice. But no, we were not allowed. “Why?” I protested. “Lightning” retorted the attendant. Fair enough, I thought. Then, in a casual but cautionary aside, the attendant reflected, “We had an accident last year”. This is the Bangkok Riverside Marriott, a fancy if not dated family hotel. Apparently buried somewhere deep in the boilerplate legalese fine print of our hotel contract is the clause, “Marriott Properties takes no liability in the event of any hotel guest or visitor getting suddenly struck by lightning and then slowly eaten by ferocious monitor lizards”.
I attended the Friday session of Metaverse University 2009 at Stanford last week. Here are some of my observations:
Themes: interoperability, open source, simulations, visualizations, breaking down the walls, and being stuck with Second Life. Little emphasis on chat and social networking, per se. Much more emphasis on architectures & component solutions.
Trends from Virtual Worlds Roadmap: simulation & training, health care, augmented tourism, mixed-reality museums, live sporting events in VW’s, virtual meetings.
While the hype over virtual worlds has faded, many serious researchers continue to do fascinating work in the territory. Monetization of a good VW strategy is still needed but this goal seems to have receded into the future for many of the speakers, as well as many of the enterprise-scale companies investigating these spaces who seem less interested in making money (either through direct development and monetization or by riding the public hypetrain) and more interested in gaining efficiencies and trimming overhead (teleconferencing, remote collaboration).
Google (O3D), Intel (Cable Beach), Sun Microsystems (Project Wonderland), Samsung (Virtual Worlds Roadmap), and Nokia (supporting REalXtend) were all present, as well as many Stanford researchers, including the folks building Sirikata. Many are working to extend the OpenSim fork of the Second Life platform. None of them seem to be working towards direct productization (though Google wants O3D to be the in-browser standard for 3D content) but each were working to advance the platform and explore future possibilities.
With monetization off the table and money drying up, researchers are moving to embrace open source solutions (OpenSim, ScienceSim, Ogre3D) and pushing for open standards (OpenId, OAuth, XMPP) and flexible API’s. Almost everyone mentioned a desire to move away from the proprietary walled-garden approach towards an integrative one that looks to the success of social network strategies. While celebrating open source development of Second Life forks, almost everyone bemoaned being stuck on the platform, often underscoring the feeling with a groan that “there’s nothing else”.
Authoring was rarely addressed with content instead being re-purposed from upstream solutions, eg using 3DSMax & Maya content to build world content. Collada was uniformly mentioned as the exchange format. Most developers still want to shoehorn other modalities (eg PowerPoint, web browsing, document collab, etc) into the VW space. Some examples inadvertantly showed the clunkiness of current solutions. I asked why a technology like PowerPoint is any better in 3D than in 2D, eliciting a long pause from the presenter. There’s still a lot of ambition on the part of developers but not always a ton of common sense.
However, IBM’s manager of service design and service systems research, Susan Stucky, gave me the most reasonable answer I’ve heard yet about why it’s important to move 2D modalities into 3D. She said that for collaborative telepresence it was very helpful to have access to everything you would normally have access to in a meeting. Speaking with her at the break, she told me how IBM has found that the greatest use of their Second Life investment has come from the ability to bring employees and clients from around the world together into a collaborative space. They’ve held conferences, run meetings, and explored simulations of project management strategies. For her, the ROI was gained by telepresence & simulations.
And for me, I had a breakthrough speaking with Susan. One of the most compelling yet least-obvious values of collaboration in virtual worlds is the sense of embodiment conveyed by the presence of the avatar. Identity, social cohesion, team building, and friendship arise more naturally when those engaged are perceived as physically present. Self-awareness and the projection of self onto others is still quite bound to our physical bodies. Perhaps combining the embodiment of avatars with in-world access to knowledge & productivity tools represents a more effective modality for non-local collaboration. I’m not sure how this compares to video teleconferencing but I feel there’s a lot of depth to be explored in how virtual embodiment reinforces social cohesion & collaboration (attn: PhD candidates).
Other notables: Henry Lowood (Stanford Curator of History of Science, Media, & Genetics) speaking on The Ultimate Archive: building virtual museums of virtual world platforms inside virtual worlds (eg a virtual museum with a room that lets you play the first Doom level as it was originally). He noted both “perfect capture” (all the data can be archived) and “perfect loss” (experiences, emotions, and deleted content cannot be captured) in VW archiving. Sheldon Brown (Center for Research in Computing in the Arts, UCSD) showed his mind-bending work Scalable City and called for procedurally deriving world assets and behaviorally deriving world experiences.
Virtual Worlds have lost funding and are presently in the Valley of Hype. Effective monetization strategies have yet to reveal themselves. However, there is value to the enterprise in leveraging virtual worlds for telepresence and collaboration, simulation & training. The VW community is moving the R&D towards openness: open source components, open standards, interoperability, and engaging with the platforms and principles of social networks to enhance connectivity and move away from the Walled Garden. The most interesting work with virtual worlds continues to be in the deeper realms of behavior, psychology, telepresence, and simulations. Graphically, everyone is apparently stuck in Second Life. A smart, well-funded private investor would build a platform with the competitive graphics capabilities (surface mesh, brep, kinematics, HLSL, etc), a powerful and scalable object model that can push to XML/RDF/RSS, a powerful simulation engine with an expressive visualization/analytics front-end, a REST/JSON API capable of talking to agents, tools, and other VW’s (as well as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, SMS, Playstation Network, XBox Network, etc), integrate ActiveX embedding of 2D tools (Office apps, browsers, etc), enable a content marketplace built around highly expressive and personalizable avatars and fetish objects, and cultivate a 3rd part service ecosystem supporting all of the above.
Is this so hard? ;)