Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Treatise on Digital Reality


Our digital future is already happening. A recent study concluded that 127 new objects a minute are being connected to the "internet of things." Thats a lot of stuff. I don't know why my mattress needs a wifi hotspot, but ok, maybe more people will connect on it.

TechCrunch predicted recently that AR/VR could hit $8.5 billion by as soon as 2018, $150 billion revenue by 2020, with AR taking the lion’s share around $120 billion and VR at $30 billion, as well as playing a similar role to mobile across sectors, eventually replacing it. A Forbes market analysis suggested that VR/AR will be the dominant global market from 2020-2050, a larger and longer market position than both mobile/smartphone markets and the internet itself had. With few exceptions, technology companies are putting money behind the future of virtual reality. Make no mistake, within the next decade we will witness and be a part of the largest technology revolution since the microprocessor itself, a revolution that will shape many aspects of our future. That being said, let us continue without further hardware specs, demographics or statistics. I would like to focus our attention on several less defined, more esoteric aspects of our future digital reality.

When you read about VR now, almost all of it is focused on hardware. If you do a search for VR, you will find pages full of shiny space goggles, each trying very hard to convince you that they are the future, that they are what VR is about. Yet for almost a decade when I describe my career in SL to someone, the only effective way I have done so is to label it as some form of virtual reality, "I am a virtual reality designer" or "I make and sell virtual furniture inside a virtual environment." In my mind the VR boom has already happened to me, and to all of the SL community. We are already here and have been here.

There is a long way for us to go. It is a lot easier to sell VR to consumers with a picture of shiny space goggles than by showing them screenshots of a UI or describing bits of code. The HMD (head mounted display) is the trend now, not the software that needs to be created in order to put a headset in every home. Yet in order for VR to thrive and grow it must become the focus. Hype be damned, in the end word of mouth is what will likely drive consumers to purchase an HMD, which is a bit of a problem.

I spent most of 2014 outside of SL in my real life near Seattle, much of that time studying and researching, learning everything I could about virtual and augmented reality. After all that time I still have not tried a single piece of VR hardware even though I live about 20 minutes from where most of it is being made, which highlights an early problem of adoption: You can't fully understand what it really does until you sit down and put it on your head. On the other hand, I have spent almost 20K hours logged inside a virtual environment since 2006, immersed there without ever having put on a headset to do so. My point is, the SL community already has a deeper understanding of virtual reality than pretty much everyone else on the planet. The coming flood of virtual headsets will simply allow us to access it in a new way and hopefully open the door for a bunch of the rest of the world to do so too.

Let's face it, many of us won't wear a headset all the time or possibly ever, even when they become affordable and fully developed, which is years away. Rather, they will become one option of many to access content, along side the phone, tablet, laptop, PC and TV. At first the hardcore gamer is most likely to adopt the HMD as it will offer the best experience for playing games, but that will not diminish people who play games on a phone, do spreadsheets on a laptop or make 3D content on a desktop. HMD's are simply peripherals, NOT virtual reality but a way to access it.

• The process of VR is an attempt to mimic the experiences you would/could have in the physical world using video, audio and 3D content viewed through a HMD from the perspective of being there. It's about immersion in a new environment after separating yourself from another, most often by enclosing your view and providing new imagery through a combination of lenses and phone, LED or OLED screen.

• The AR process adds virtual elements over the geometry structure of a pre-existing real or virtual environment through a HMD that may or may not block your view of what's around you. Within a full VR environment, AR elements can be overlay-ed on top of the virtual environment, like floating menus in a game. Other AR applications require that you continue to be aware of the real world by looking through some type of transparent lens or screen on which the imagery is projected so that it appears to follow the perspective of that space as you move through it. It is inclusive of the environment around you, combining new elements with what is already there, and as a result is designed to blend in rather than separate. It can be subtle or immersive in ways that enclosed systems aren't.

Each has strengths and weaknesses based on use and delivery, yet both will never extend beyond niche market status without the right applications to drive them.

In a June 26 post from Maximum PC, Palmer Lucky said “You just don’t have the horsepower to make it happen on a device, much less a cheap enough and comfortable enough device that a normal consumer is going to want to have,” he said. “There’s going to be more diverse content. Right now, it’s almost entirely games, because only the games industry has the tools and the talent to make immersive 3-D worlds.” I guess that makes us part of the games industry.

Recently I spoke with Yuval Boger, CEO of OSVR @ Razor, asking that aside from the initial hype cycle and coming first round of consumer ready hardware, if the largest obstacle to overcome at this point was software? He agreed, saying that "content will be the deciding factor in who ends up on top. It is the old chicken and the egg scenario. The hardware will not take off if it offers a limited, passive range of experiences or becomes a wagon train of developers pushing one particular market, like gaming. Yet without maintaining a high consumer confidence by offering more and better experiences the hardware will not progress beyond a few initial releases." (consider the Nintendo virtual boy). The bubble would burst as it has several times since computers became a thing, and we will wait again on the promise of virtual reality.

Can VR be for everyone, the way the internet and smart phones have become? If indeed we end up with a rich variety of initial experiences, coming from the garage workshops and corporate research labs concurrently (which is the existing scenario), what will lead to the point where VR/AR becomes what most of us use for some portion of the time we spend online? Is there a "killer application?"

I believe that it is the one which is the most open ended, which can contain the most people and which provides the tools and opportunity for every user to make or aggregate, organize and access any content. That foundation is, considering the variety of what people will want VR for, the most logical conclusion, for a number of reasons.

After the initial consumer cycle and as the uses for all that hardware multiply there will be a need for open standards. They will be developed to facilitate inter-operability between not only various hardware types but eventually between the numerous software environments we support, gradually leaning more and more towards a unified metaverse. The various media, entertainment, education, experience and social applications will consolidate and centralize, not by origin (because everyone will be making everything), but by delivery as chosen by the user through hardware, platform, etc. A convergence of technologies will be handled by open standards, not controlled by any one company. Once they are established digital reality will begin to advance at a much faster pace, streamlining the process of hardware design, content development and distribution among multiple channels simultaneously. OSVR has taken the early lead with an open source hardware and software platform for this very purpose. Valve has also introduced the OpenVR platform for Steam.

Introducing a wide variety of digital reality hardware to the current gaming, video and social media markets will ultimately push people closer to something very much like what SL already does out of necessity, putting project Sansar into a very nice position to capture and possibly lead that market and putting resident business owners in a position to monetize on that trend in ways which are well ahead of the curve. Consider the 3D content market outside of SL; While there may be lots of buildings or household props on turbosquid, the majority of them are not designed for occupation or use by a family of avatars, many are just outer shells. Consider the existing marketplace and economy model in SL, the way we personalize our avatars or the variety of things we make; Any emerging virtual world must first understand those things from both corporate and user perspectives, then build those things from scratch. We have had a decade to refine them.

Whether on a tablet, a desktop, a console, a phone or a HMD, Second Life is only a portion of all the things we do online yet we will begin doing them in something similar to what project Sansar may become; Open virtual worlds are in the best position to fill the need for a place to do all those things as well as do all the new things which digital reality is going to offer. It is not about one game, it is not one platform, one place or one world but a framework for all those things to exist.

Ideally, the concept of a metaverse is the total of combined applications across various virtual worlds through the perspective of an identity which remains constant across all of them. The coming storm of digital reality will eventually produce a true metaverse, a new blank canvas which will be covered by the paint of humanity and its many colors. When they arrive, it is my hope that the community of Second Life will be there, waiting, to help them understand what to do with it all. Going forward it is imperative that we be there in order to share our experience and what we have learned, to preserve the foundation of community which we have so carefully crafted so that it can be incorporated into the future and kept from being lost. Therein lies a legacy and a destiny. As we begin the next chapter of our digital lives with Project Sansar starting this week, let us attempt to show the rest of the world our example. Let us lead them, not just be ahead of them. Let us light the path.

Those of us who have spent time in SL know what a tremendous, unprecedented thing it truly is. When you log in, It generally no longer matters if you are male or female, black or white, thin or thick, Amercan or Japanese, gay or straight, republican or democrat, furry or robotic. When those things are removed the world becomes a very different place. More often than not, my experience in SL is one where those things do not register. I know you only as you present yourself and by your actions, without preconception, judgement or social stigma. When the rest of the world has a chance to understand just what is possible within that kind of framework, as it eventually will, we will begin to see adoption on a much larger scale. When the rest of the world experiences society without cultural or national boundaries and the social stigmas associated with them, when they find out that those social stigmas do not automatically apply, the potential for cultural and societal change increases dramatically. We find, as humans, that we are all a lot more similar, that our differences are what make us special, that nation states and borders exist to create war and that as individual parts of the whole we can have an impact. Imagine if all the users of facebook could experience that kind of societal and cultural freedom from convention, the kind of connection that we get to experience every time we log in? In the entire history of the human species this social condition has not existed or even been possible, until now, until we logged in and made it that way. Such a social condition is a prerequisite for individual dignity and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "presents the dawn of civility and grace in the coarse and rustic."

Our community has several huge advantages over those who have not experienced SL; We are years ahead of them all in understanding what it is like to work, play, live and love - to exist - inside a virtual environment. We know a great deal about what is required to craft our identities, about what people are willing to spend on things and what trends, about what connects us and disconnects us from the various experiences we have there, what works and what doesn't. We have been given the framework and conditions we need from the benevolent dictators of our governing corporation in order for the community to thrive and us in it to prosper.

Most important of all, however, is that we have US - a global community of intelligent, creative, inventive and resourceful users that exists no where else. As a talent pool and a workforce there is no single entity which can compete. We are the only community of our kind, with the mindset that is required to shape our world into what we want. Remarkably we did this in almost direct opposition to the initial intent of the Lindens. It has lasted longer, grown larger and become something completely different than what they intended when they made it. We have created a completely new economy and radically different ways of marketing our goods and services that defy pre-existing methods. We defined what this is.

The only other places that are experiencing something even remotely similar are the game development platforms like Unity, Crysis and Unreal which, while growing in popularity, still lack several key elements that we already have, such as a unified space for distribution and actual play/experience. The relatively new marketplace for these environments, while similar to SL, is considerably smaller in size, revenue generation and has no currency system. Better still, they have almost no awareness that this vast resource of talent and experience even exists. We have the element of surprise.

As we did with SL in the past, those people immersed as a virtual community now will have a great deal to do with what ends up becoming the metaverse. Within that foundation of community, the user base has thrived through individuality and the focus on identity. The ability to craft that identity is a primary psychological motivator, as we have experienced in SL. The lack of that ability is a primary detractor, as we have seen with BlueMars and Cloud Party. We really like to make us us. It is that very sense of being at the center, of crafting that base identity and the world around it which will eventually require that we extend that base to include not only all the new forms of technology but to also redefine how we use the existing forms. The revolution will be personalized. We become the center, and more and more the things we do online will be centralized to that identity (or identities), whether actual, fabricated or both. Facebook, movies, live music, work, web surfing, gaming, hanging out with friends will all become things which can be done within our personal virtual environments, or overlay-ed onto our real ones.

While we go forward the temptation will be to tread the familiar paths, reproducing what has worked for us in SL. While this is a necessary step, more interesting and significant are the things which are only going to be possible through the confluence of the new technology being developed, the right broadband speeds and the right number of people. Things will happen in such a way, at the right time and place, that open up opportunities for us to use the technology in ways that were, up to that point, not possible. This is exactly what happened in SL over time. We took the pieces and the tools and made it into something new and we did so over and over again.

Imagine something like SL combined with Unity and Steam, where the users actually make quality (playable) games, publish and provide access so that you play with your avatar and friends - all within the same environment. Log in, watch a movie, shop for a bit, go listen to some live music, and then all of you go play game X within the same environment. That is the nature of open virtual environments and in time it will become the nature of a true, working metaverse. Iteration is a critical aspect of that nature, and will emerge as newer and better hardware models and new and better ways to use them.

The most interesting aspect of this gaming scenario is not so much that users could make good games. Unity and Unreal prove that already happens, contrary to what Mr. Lucky may believe. The aspect which has not been explored is the difference between your SL avatar and the characters you play in current games: In most games, you have little to no emotional connection and do not identify with that character at all, aside from wanting it not to die. No one cares about being pacman, you want to eat dots and get through the maze. Your personal level of involvement is limited, even in the latest games where there is backstory and character development.

In SL, however, we spend inordinate amounts of time, money and effort to create our virtual selves. We identify with them, and with the avatars of our friends and loved ones. That dynamic alone presents amazing opportunities and it is one of the main aspects that people who have not been in SL miss completely. From the big studios down to Unity and Unreal game developers have little concept of this and do not incorporate it into their games, nor could they. But imagine playing Left4Dead with SL avatars. Saving you or your SL friend or partner from being killed takes on a very different dimension and level of emotional involvement, there is a much greater incentive to survive. You do not want your friend to be eaten by the zombie, they are no longer just player 2. Combine this with deeper levels of immersion from new hardware and you are in very new territory from a player perspective. If gaming is to be the initial driving factor for mass adoption as is the general consensus, then I propose that it is identity, our mastery of crafting them and that link between game and avatar which will be the driving factor in the best of those future games and experiences.

While current MMO experiences often involve groups or guilds of players, beyond the mission scope there is usually limited interaction, certainly not on the scale or depth that occur between SL residents. The personal impetus and psychological motivation factors incorporated into gaming will emerge in parallel with and contribute to better immersion than ever before, going beyond the normal range of sensory hardware into new territory - our emotions. No hardware can re-create that, but software will compel us to bring it with us. As many of us know, the moments which make our virtual world so special to us are the ones where the virtual and the real cross paths, that moment when the lines blur and our humanity shows through the veneer of pixels. In the world we have made, we live and work and love there. We exist there beyond the scope of our logins and logouts.

In closing, I would like to say something to those who make (or those that want to learn to make): Regardless of what the "killer app" ends up being for the future of our digital realities, whether that future lies on one world or within a true metaverse, it is apparent that the need for content is going to be greater than ever before, so much so that no single source or company will be able to provide it. Rather, it must be generated by a large portion of the user base, more than likely by everyone. This is an excellent time to be a content developer and the perfect time to learn how. The demand for 3D content is about to surpass the supply, and it will do so exponentially. Developers, coders, artists and craftsmen, we now find ourselves facing unprecedented levels of opportunity.


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