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Tim O’Reilly: “Instrumenting the World”

Sun, Nov 2, 2008

Tim O’Reilly has outlined some of the world’s big problems in his talks, and urged technologists to “work on stuff that matters.” I was one of O’Reilly’s listeners at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC (see my post here).

But, I found out at the Head Conference in London, recently, that O’Reilly is doing more than just talking about solving the world’s problems. The O’Reilly VC company is investing in technologies that tackle these big problems, for example, a very interesting startup, AMEE.

AMEE is a new company with a VERY big, world changing idea – “to create  a neutral technology platform to aggregate all the energy consumption data in world ” – “to be the world’s energy meter.”

I was fortunate, when I was in London, to get an opportunity to chat with Tim O’Reilly about AMEE, Web 2.0, and the role of virtual worlds in positive global development. Also, I met the CEO of AMEE, Gavin Starks.

We are still, just, in the pre “Internet of Things” era.  But, soon, as Bruce Sterling puts it, we will be able to “Google our shoes” or find out which super market shelves are out of sandwiches at any particular point in time! But for now, it can still be very hard to find a sandwich, even in central London. So, I had plenty of time to talk to Tim O’Reilly whilst searching for a hand held bite to eat.

We journeyed past several sandwichless restaurants (Tim picked up the Financial Times under his arm in the picture above in one of them), and super markets with shelves stripped bare except for some end of the day sushi (it looked scary so we passed on that).

Finally, McDonalds came through for us with the sandwich in the top left corner of the photo above.  The full interview is later in this post.

First, more about AMEE.

Tim O’Reilly says he doesn’t like predicting the future. But the future comes to Tim O’Reilly in very powerful ways.  And AMEE asks us to play a new proactive role in our own future. AMEE’s call to action is:

“If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build?”

AMEE, to me, is a quintessential example of an effort to harness the key paradigm shifts of Web 2.0 (see O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0?“) to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems.

AMEE’s mission is to be a neutral technology platform, using open source and standards, and an architecture of participation, to address the need to standardize measurement, encourage collaborative development, and create a market place for energy data.

AMEE’s goal is to enable us to understand energy consumption from the level of the individual to the scale of whole countries.

This would address the need O’Reilly notes here his son-in-law Saul Griffith argued at Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year:  “to pick a target CO2 concentration and work backwards to get to an energy policy, rather than guessing at an energy policy with fingers crossed, hoping for a climate outcome that is tolerable.” AMEE is also involved in Saul’s Wattzon initiative.

Gavin Starks, CEO, AMEE, (pictured above standing under the Head Conference banner – a recording of his talk is here), explained:

AMEE’s vision is to aggregate all the energy data on Earth. By energy I include electricity, gas and all types of fuel, water, waste, you name it: everything we do is energy consumption, which means really building towards our sustainability footprint rather than just our carbon footprint. The initial thing we’ve focused on is Carbon and CO2, because that’s the most pressing issue we have to face: but it’s quite a thin layer on top of the whole sustainability question.

AMEE is not building the front-end applications to harness this energy data. Gavin noted:

We’re aggregating all the standards. This is a massively complex area, so we’ve got a science team whose job is to harvest all the scientific research and methodologies. That’s not something developers tend to want to go anywhere near: it unpacks itself into enormous amounts of complexity very quickly (e.g. building methodologies that have 700 data points).  Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Andrew Conway, is ex-NASA and has worked on massive scientific data analysis.

We aggregate government standards and other international standards, so that you know when you’re integrating with us, that you’re working to those standards. But much more than that we actually publish those standards on an open Wiki (the Wiki and the API actually talk to each other). As these standards emerge and evolve, we’ll be tracking them, ensuring that we are up to date, and granularity is added as needed.

We were very fortunate that one of our first clients was Defra which UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Defra is currently restructuring into DEC – the Department for Energy and Climate Change. So in the UK they’re actually fusing Energy and Climate Change into a single government department. I think this is quite remarkable: a giant step forward.

We were contracted by them because they were building a national campaign to raise the awareness of every citizen’s personal and household footprint, and they were looking for an Open Source solution – which AMEE is. Defra/DEC now use AMEE for two purposes: they make their standards available through the AMEE platform, so that everybody else can use them, and as the back-end solution to their national campaign, “Act on CO2″.

AMEE is SaaS – a web-service API – we’re not trying to compete with anyone on the front-end development and delivery. Because we aggregate two moving targets: standards and consumption, we enable those integrated with us to be current at all times.

Who Owns the Data?

But, if AMEE hopes to harness global network effects as a neutral aggregator of energy consumption data from individuals, businesses, and governments, one of the key questions that AMEE must answer (also a key question for Web 2.0 in general) is: Who owns the data?  I have delved into this question before on Ugotrade. See David Levine’s conversation with Eben Moglen on privacy here.

Gavin told me that this is a question AMEE has given a lot of thought to.

How AMEE answers this question, Who owns the data?, will probably determine the success of their mission as an ethical endeavor,  and their ability to scale and leverage the network effects of the internet as a platform while still allowing ” a very granular level of energy activity to be tracked.”

Gavin explained where AMEE is going re their approach to this issue. And, how this relates to AMEE’s business model – software as a service (SaaS).

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to approach this, from both a commercial perspective and an ethical perspective.

We’re in a position where we’re aggregating vast amounts of personal and business information, on an ongoing basis. If we were to integrate with your credit cards, your smart meter, your supermarket, and your vehicles: we actually know everything about your life. Aside from the Data Protection issues we felt, “How could we protect everybody around ‘excessive’ exploitation of that data and ensure the user has long-term control?”.

As the saying goes, “we don’t know what we don’t know”: when it comes to predicting what our privacy issues will be, and as the data around our physical lives becomes digitally available, we wanted to err on the side of caution. Danny O’Brien, the EFF and MySociety have certainly helped to shape our thinking in this respect.

So if you’re a Google user and you go into the Google and you kick off a calculation, all your answers to the questions are stored in AMEE – but we don’t know who you are. We’ve got an anonymous key, Google’s got the anonymous key. Google will have your user name and so on and so forth. In AMEE we’ve got the aggregate of the responses to the questions. It’s up to Google’s Privacy Policy to determine what they and their user’s can do.

However, this doesn’t preclude us from enabling data-portability on behalf of the user. The anonymous key is not dissimilar to an OpenID, but applied to a specific data set. We are heading towards allowing you to control your data’s portability, as an individual.

It’s a fragile space. We want to give you the opportunity to glue together your AMEE IDs with your OpenID, or whatever login you choose, so that you’re in control. We aim to enable this to be both cloud and edge-based, which while fragile, is in the interest of the user. The more value we can provide, we believe, the stronger the value of our proposition.

But, because were dealing with a range of different massive organizations … imagine credit card companies sharing data with energy companies sharing data with petrol companies, sharing data with airlines etc. That’s a massive challenge from a business and political perspective – almost impossible to navigate.

We can enable people to collaborate, by making it opt-in all the way through the chain. We don’t undermine peoples existing databases: we can actually add value to them, or we aim to add value to them. We think this has got a huge amount of potential to stimulate new business for our clients.

It’s very “web” in its execution: we are part of an ecosystem. Part of our imperative is to be commercially enabling to everybody else. If we’re not being commercially enabling to other people, we’re not going to get the kind of scale of change that we need.

This was another design feature. We felt, “how could we create something which other people could build businesses or platforms on top of”?  And, how could that scale incredibly quickly? If we’d gone beyond our boundaries as an API, we would have been competing with people we want to work with.

While many services have taken similar strategic approaches, most seem to start with a form of lock-in, or evolve quickly to the point of lock-in, which satisfies a current trend in their valuations. We believe this trend will change and adapt to a more “privacy-based” intelligence, which has substantial value.


Tim O’Reilly in The Magic Circle

The motto of The Magic Circle where the Head Conference was held, “Indocilis Privata Loqui,” can be roughly translated as “not apt to disclose secrets.”  One of the wonderful displays of memorabila there was Robert Houdin’s Mystery Clock (picture below).  Luckily, for me, I was was treated to a full explanation of the “Mystery Clock” by another attendee during the Head Conference cocktail party.

As Tim O’Reilly pointed out, in his interview with Aral Balkan, he felt it was a privilege to be talking in this theater and center of magic.  Capturing the magic, spreading the magic, and sharing the magic is at the heart of what he has spent his career doing.  He explained:

I guess this is kind of a root idea for O’Reilly…… When I look back on my career….What did we really do?  Find cool people who were doing cool shit. They didn’t really need any help from us. But then there were a bunch of people who were saying, “How did they do that”? Those are the people we help.

We find the people who are doing what appears to be magic. The Arthur C. Clarke kind of magic you know…. We document – we teach people how to do it.

It is such a great  privilege to be here in a theater devoted to magic – The Magic Circle. This is really what we try to do.  We try to capture the magic, spread the magic, share it with other people.


Interview With Tim O’Reilly

Tish Shute: I was interested in your comment on Chris Brogan’s blog post the other day.

Tim O’Reilly: Actually it wasn’t Chris Brogan’s post. Dennis Howlett was a guest blogger. I was reacting to him saying there is nothing new in Web 2.0. My reaction was: “Well gosh it’s very easy to make a straw man out of Web 2.0 and say, ‘What’s new?’”

Howlett was specifically reacting to the Web 2.0 start ups that are superficial and not really what the trend is all about.  For me, Web 2.0 is about the internet becoming a platform. Does he think that is over?

And, it is about understanding that the rules of business change when the internet is a platform. I think a lot of people do that with Web 2.0 [make it a straw man].

They don’t like the term Web 2.0 and they attach ideas to it that reflect the most superficial elements. And then, they say these aren’t interesting. And, what he was saying was that there is a lot of superficial social media stuff – consumer apps, and what really matters is what will bring ROI to business.

I just said that he is totally missing the point because learning how to use the network as a platform matters very much to business. The same rules that apply to everyone else apply to businesses.

So, for example, I have made the point in my talk in New York, just a few months ago, that in many ways you can think of Walmart as a Web 2.0 company. They are infused with IP – they are taking the data that the users give them by buying things and making themselves a more responsive organization by using that data.

That is the heart of Web 2.0 in the enterprise. Not, do they use social media or not, or the social media buzz words.

Tish Shute: I am going to do an interview with Gavin Starks, CEO of AMEE. Could you tell me about your role in this project?

Tim O’Reilly: My role is as an investor. Our venture firm, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has just finished closing on investment in AMEE. We think global warming is a really important issue to come to grips with. And, a big part of it is actually keeping track of all the carbon we’re emitting. AMEE helps with that problem.

Tish Shute: What is the potential, now we are beginning to break virtual world technologies down into basic open source building blocks, to create useful mashups with sensor technology, Web 2.0 and Virtual Worlds? Could Virtual Worlds play a key role in this work of instrumenting the world?

Tim O’Reilly: First of all, I don’t think that Virtual Worlds in the Second Life style will have this role …while I like the concept of Second Life, in that we have a Second Life in a virtual world, I am not sure that 3D avatars are [the way to go]…. at least they are certainly not my Second Life.  My Second Life is in other types of media.

But, when I look at this idea of instrumenting the world, one of the things that is very, very clear is that we are turning all the millions of consumer cameras into sensors.

For example, Microsoft’s Photosynth demonstrates how these consumer sensors can be used to build 3D models. We are starting to build a 3D representation of the real world, not a separate virtual world. And, we are all going to be part of that world. So I think that the real Second Life will be ………..well I think the first layer is going to be….to get the 3D models of the world as it is, and then we will have doorways into additional rooms and additional spaces.

That’s when its going to take off because people are going to get used to it through navigating the real physical world with maps – with 3D imagery of buildings and spaces.

And, another piece of this… I talked recently with Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk……and he was talking about how much even the Autodesk workflow is shifting to scanning things first.

He was describing how they have built this new demo center in an old building.  The first thing they did was photographs and measure it exactly. Then they go and make stuff that fits in the exact space.

Also, he was talking about how in his own hobbyist work, he found this shark’s jaw and he loved the curve of it.  So he scanned it and made it into the arms of a chair.

Tish Shute: I think the two important pieces that might come out of virtual worlds technology are the real time interactions where people can view the same application or context as and when you do, and the rapid prototyping.

Tim O’Reilly: Yes rapid prototyping, no question. But, as I said, the idea of moving an avatar around isn’t very compelling to be quite honest.

Tish Shute: But the web doesn’t do real time interaction very well does it?

Tim O’Reilly: Well Twitter is doing a pretty good job!

Tish Shute: Yes I love Twitter. But, in terms of if you want to get a 10,000 foot view and gather around and interact with data with other people…..what about that?

Tim O’Reilly: Well that’s true. I am using that example of the Squeak based virtual world that Fidelity is using. And, that is exactly what they are using it for – business interaction.

Tish Shute: What about the role Virtual Worlds might play, for example, in instrumenting the world through facilities management?

Tim O’Reilly: Yes, SAP did a very interesting project on property management – and that is interesting.

Tish Shute: Yes, on my way back to New York City tomorrow, I am going to stop off in Zurich and visit Oliver Goh who worked with Denis Browne, SAP, on that project. In fact you showed a picture of Oliver’s Goh’s avatar demoing the virtual counterpart to his instrumented Playmobile house in Second Life in your post, “SAP as a Web 2.0 Company?” (see the picture below).

Tim O’Reilly: I make no attempt at predicting the future.  So you could well be right that Virtual Worlds will be a very powerful tool.  But, I think with the pace that other technologies are progressing, we will get there with photorealism and video, etc.  I think the fundamental problem in most virtual world stuff is the idea of the avatar.

Tish Shute: Why do you say that?

Tim O’Reilly: Well just imagine if when interacting with people in the real world you had to look at yourself interacting with someone else.  First person point of view is our fundamental experience.  And, you are being forced to see yourself in the third person.

Tish Shute: I have always been more interested in avataring the world than in my avatar identity.

Tim O’Reilly: There is something very interesting in having an avatar that you don’t ever see.

[At this point there were less than ten minutes before Tim's interview for the Head Conference, so it was time to concentrate on eating!]

Virtual Worlds: Where Web Meets World

As Ian Hughes, IBM, notes in a recent post on Eightbar:

The last few days have seen a plethora of virtual world pitches, reports, articles and blog posts around certain types of virtual world platform. The first was over at @monkchips a.k.a James Governor analyst blog around a visit to Microsoft to see about the ESP platform. This appears to be a high fidelity simulation platform and toolkit. The second was widely reported. But Wagner’s New World Notes is the one most of the metarati will have read on the matter. This centres around some statments by Craig Mundie that avatar based interaction was of limited interest and really it was photosynth that was the way forward, modelling the real world from photos…….

I agree with Ian when he says:

the interesting thing here is that all the discussion is not about why would anyone want a virtual world, but instead what sort is best.

Tim O’Reilly was not questioning, in my view, that we are moving towards new understandings of virtual spaces or virtual worlds but whether avatar based virtual worlds will be the most useful model.

I began my questions to Tim O’Reilly by bringing up his comment on Dennis Howlett’s post not only because he succinctly states there what is really important about Web 2.0, i.e., “internet as platform, and the rise of applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.”

But also, this comment caught my attention because Tim used virtual worlds as one of the examples of the value of Web 2.0 to enterprise.  He wrote:

Guess what : they [SAP] understand that harnessing users is good for their business. At O’Reilly, our InPractice division is working with them to actually turn their documentation into an open source, crowdsourced project. They are doing fascinating experiments at SAP Labs with how to integrate virtual worlds into property management. They have built a great internal social network for employees that has already affected their HR practices.

It is Oliver Goh’s instrumented virtual house in Second Life that Tim mentions in his post “SAP as a Web 2.0 Company?” to make the point that:

This prototype is also very on trend with one of the big ideas we have about where Web 2.0 is going, towards Web 2.0 applications that are fed directly by sensors, so that “participation” no longer just means typing on a keyboard, but the accidental information we create “merely in living as and where we live.”

I have been blogging Oliver’s work prototyping various use cases for virtual worlds in facilities management and energy optimization, e.g., virtual operations centers, in Second Life and OpenSim, since its inception (see here and here).

Now, Oliver has developed a complete solution for sustainabililty in the real estate industry that optimizes energy consumption through the entire life cycle of properties - see here for more.

Also, look out for some interesting intersections between AMEE’s mission – ” to create the world’s energy meter,” and Oliver’s mission to “optimize the world’s energy usage” in the future!

I visited Oliver in Zurich on my way back to NYC from the Head Conference.  In the picture below, Oliver is standing by the Playmobile house that is RL counterpart to the virtual control center house pictured above!

The ability of virtual worlds to play a role in solving the world’s pressing problems is, in my view, linked both to their ability to fully integrate in Web 2.0 and “real” world  data.

I have been blogging a lot on these issues!  Rob Smart, IBM, (see my recent interviews with Rob here and here – “Web 2.0 to OpenSim Made Easy”) has been doing some very interesting work recently integrating JSON support to OpenSim. This is one of the recent important steps forward in virtual world to real world communication.  See this cool video, “OpenSim Meets MQTT jedi mind numbers.”

The powerful value add that virtual worlds, even in a basic form, have shown in the realm of social media that “the people with you can view the changing states of that application or context as and when you do” can also play an important role in the front end applications for projects like AMEE and Oliver’s work.

This is not to discount the role of social media virtual worlds in the participatory work of instrumenting our planet. There is already  a nice integration of AMEE  with Second Life. See Jim Purbrick’s Carbon Goggle’s for Second Life here.


Carbon Goggles from Jim Purbrick on Vimeo

But, if virtual world technology is going be part of the evolving power of the internet to help us solve the big problems facing humanity, there must be an evolving vision for virtual worlds and their relationship with the “real” world.

Most likely, many of the dichotomies, e.g., the notion of avatar based or non avatar based, or simulation versus augmentation, and mirror worlds versus virtual worlds, will increasingly dissolve as all these aspects of virtual reality are woven together into the fabric of everday computing to form new digital/physical realities. And, while I’m not trying to predict the future, perhaps, this will happen sooner than we think!

categories: Augmented Reality, digital public space, free software, mirror worlds, Mixed Reality, online privacy, open source, open standards for virtual worlds, OpenSim, privacy and online identity, privacy in virtual worlds, Second Life, social media, Web 2.0, Web 3D, Web3.D, World 2.0
tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 Comments For This Post

  1. Robbie Kiama Says:

    Great post, was interesting to hear Tim’s thoughts about virtual worlds and emergent photo-realistic worlds that might come soon.

    In any case while I am not trying to predict the future, still me thinks this technology (virtual worlds ) might be with us for quite some time and it’s a very interesting story to be in and watch – seeing it gradually evolve and merge with the whole ‘internet platform’

  2. Tish Shute Says:

    Hi Robbie, thanks! It was really fun to talk with Tim about Virtual Worlds and AMEE. I think we are are entering a period where there will be many interesting real/virtual/web 2.0 mashups.

    I forgot to mention in my (as usual very long) post the work of Georgia Tech http://arsecondlife.gvu.gatech.edu/ using Second Life as an Augmented Reality authoring environment.

    Getting avatars and the virtual experience out of the confines of 2D screens is going to create a lot of new possibilities.

    Avatars may well have many new roles when they are not confined to being small 2D mouse controlled figures. Bruce Damer, author of “Avatars!” has some cool ideas on the possibilities for the next generation of avatars. He explained some of these during the FastCompany tech talk in we did last week.

    Also of interest, re taking avatars to the next level, is the work of Mitch Kapor’s Hands Free 3D team. http://www.handsfree3d.com/

  3. Bruce Damer Says:

    Hi Tish! Yes from our session with Fastcompany last week, I think Virtual Worlds have a great future (gameplay worlds and social virtual worlds like SL and opensim and the new web embedded worlds like Lively and Vivaty and Electricsheep etc). I think that wall sized screens with WII type interfaces which give you realtime mo-cap into a human-height avatar world will be something we might see in the next decade. A full on club scene and party right there in your media theater. This has been a vision of many for a long time.

    Kudos to Tim for weighing in on our medium, and I am glad it has finally gone mainstream! For anyone interested a large group of VW pioneers are assembling a history of virtual worlds at the http://www.vwtimeline.org Virtual Worlds Timeline project with Stanford, Library of Congress, Web History Center and the Internet Archive (primary partners). Watch for more there in the coming months including a special evening at the Computer History Museum in the spring of ’009!

  4. Stefan Andersson Says:

    Tish,

    great post. You asked me for comments on avatar vs non-avatar, and unfortunately, I must say it’s in my mind by and large a moot issue; even with OpenSim-based worlds, we have from the start explored anonymous avatars and avatar-less scenarios; one of the first things I did with OpenSim, was to make the viewer into not displaying an avatar at all – because the application I was doing (a simple board game) didn’t need a contextual agent marker.

    Because that’s what I would say the avatar is; a contextual agent marker, aggregating application-specific properties. Some applications will use this, others not.

    It’s like the ‘cursor’ and ‘mouse pointer’ concepts of 2D, you need to know your current context, and you need to have feedback from interactions with the environment. But some 2D applications use neither.

    So, as Tim claims Web 2.0 is misunderstood I think the 3D Web is misunderstood – in exactly the same way; you bring up the specific solution, make it the generic case and dismiss it.

  5. Maisonneuve Says:

    At the Computer Science laboratory of SONY (www.csl.sony.fr) we’re working on a research project using mobile phones as mobile stations to measure an environmental component.

    Concretly Noisetube.net (www.noisetube.net) is a research project aimed at monitor the noise pollution from the daily sound exposure of citizens using their mobile phones. It’s an open platform to collect decibels data(db(A)) + semantic layer (tag) using an application for mobile phone.

    Free iphone and java enabled applications for mobile phones will be distributed for people who subscribe in the website.

    At the collective and personal level you will be able visualize the sonic pollution on a map and access to the data by an API. but also, if you accept, this information will be accessible to any scientists and city planner to better understand the noise pollution issue.

    The web site and API will be opened in few weeks. In subscribing to the experimentation you will receive a free mobile application to measure your own exposure to the noise pollution , visualize it on a map and participate to a scientific programm with data accessible to the scientific community.

    http://www.noisetube.net

    Nicolas Maisonneuve
    Associate Researcher
    SONY Computer Science Lab

  6. Jani Pirkola Says:

    Avatars are needed in some applications, but not all as Stefan pointed out. However many believe that the avatar concept is the real key application of the virtual worlds on its own right. With an avatar, the presence and social aspects are automatically part of every application – after I realized this, current web started to feel quite a lonely place.

  7. Dusan Writer Says:

    Tish: Brilliant and timely as always.

    There’s an intriguing meme that seems to be doing the rounds these days (and maybe you started it!).

    It’s the one that says that business types find avatars too ‘goofy’ for real world applications. This has hit me in back channels, was discussed at Metanomics yesterday, much of it related to my recent interview with Justin Bovington on the Rivers Run Red Immersive Workspaces application: an application that, in my opinion, is about as “business ready” as you can get:

    - It’s a clean, clutter free ‘build’. Business will get comfort I think in the construction of the virtual environment – it looks good, and it doesn’t have any of the associated ‘dwarves and swords’ imagery that people seem to fear of virtual worlds
    - It is ‘private’ in both being white labeled (built on the SL platform but without the branding), behind a firewall, and can be deployed with different levels of “firewall” (it SEEMS like it can be completely detached from the Second Life grid but Linden Lab is a bit foggy on the whole thing as you can see in the comments)
    - It has a return on investment model.

    What’s interesting is that Justin says that uptake of the application is seldom through IT. We’ve found this ourselves: we can get champions amongst clients, but their IT departments start to kick and scream. But if you have a champion at the right ‘level’, they can trump the IT guys.

    I think that the issue of avatars is a red herring. It’s not to say that 3D spaces won’t evolve without avatars, but that’s not because avatars are counter-intuitive, just that there are some things where avatars won’t be necessary.

    Justin talks about data visualization and “living spaces” – virtual environments that are organic, real-time data representations. But even data environments can be accessed by more than one person.

    But I’m sorry: the use of avatars are short-hand for presence, in some ways. There seems to be this confusion over avatars as identity, and avatars as presence. If we have a 3D data visualization and we want to collaborate on that visualization, we need a short hand, or visual marker, for the presence of others in that information space. Avatars represent one way to achieve that presence.

    When we first used Qwak, the avatars were little flat cutout figures on which you could put a picture of yourself. Later, they released mesh-based avatars, and I’m assuming they did this because they discovered that the sense of presence was jarring when your representation in the information space was a stick figure: it’s not that it was wrong, but it was jarring.

    What frustrates me is this view, by technologists in particular, that somehow the business world is over-run with people who are embarassed by the idea of having an avatar – that it’s somehow too fun, or frilly, or jarring for them. Since when did we return to the 1950s here? I thought that the technologists were aware that the world has changed, we’re all crowd sourcing and Twittering and joining office Nings or Facebook groups. Why are all of these things LESS frilly and pointless than having an avatar?

    The issues with virtual worlds aren’t related to what visual metaphor you use for presence – your avatar, but rather adoption curves: do you have the technology install to even run them? What’s the training and adoption plan? What specific ROI model are you hoping to achieve? Do you see it as a productivity or an innovation space? How deeply integrated should the application be with legacy and other systems? Should you be able to Twitter from within a virtual space? How geographically dispersed is your user base?

    Tim may love Twitter – but I can tell you, last time I used the word with a client all I got was a blank stare and a giggle. I mean “Twitter”? Does that SOUND like a serious application?

    But give the business folks credit, and give Justin some credit too – the learning curves are shrinking, there are serious applications out there, and while I’m not proclaiming that virtual worlds are a killer app and that corporations will shut down their conference rooms and convert them to storage lockers, virtual spaces are clearly a useful addition to the productivity suite, will become a useful addition for innovation development and employee morale, and as data visualization becomes richer we’ll see a mix of 3D immersive applications that both include and exclude avatars.

    Forests and trees: don’t miss out on the fact that this stuff is ready for business just because you’re one of those wired-in information junkies who toggles between Twitter and Plurk and Facebook or whatever, (and I say that with all the self-recognition I can muster). A lot of people out there don’t find the concept of avatars as jarring as you think: it’s what the interface (avatar) is there to DO that’s important.

    By the way, having said all that, I still think that Photosynth is one of the more profound views of the future, but frankly I wish I could fly through it with some others from the office.

    The Justin interview is here:

    http://dusanwriter.com/index.php/2008/11/08/are-virtual-worlds-ready-for-business-justin-bovington-immersive-workspaces/

  8. Tish Shute Says:

    Hi Doug, thank you for this very thoughtful comment. I am just processing all the chats and interviews I had at Web 2.0 Summit. Many of them were discussions about new forms of collaboration and virtual worlds adoption.

    What I heard again and again from many key business leaders and serial entrepreneurs at Web2Summit is that the key issue is not the technology in terms of business adoption but how you put it to use in a context and a usage pattern.

    I think that we are at last seeing Virtual Worlds fit for business technology wise. But the challenge now will be all about integrating VWs into a work context and usage. It may be necessary to find a good evangelist in other departments to “trump” notoriously conservative IT departments to get a foot in the door. But getting a foot in the door is only a first step, something I know you, Justin and many people who work with VWs in a business context are well aware of.

    Lets not make the same mistake, as we evangelize behind the firewall VW solutions, that was made when brands were brought into Second Life. Again I know you and Justin as veterans of SL are savvy to all the nuances of this history.

    But the general perception was that brands that hoped to engage with Second Life came in and got disappointed partly because they found themselves in an environment they didn’t understand and weren’t ready or equipped to work with. This resulted in a lot of disillusionment and bad publicity for virtual worlds. We are still suffering from the backlash.

    The IBM approach to integrating OpenSim into Lotus Sametime is an important step in the direction of fitting VWs into existing work patterns. But I would like to see a great article from someone exploring what other pathways are proving fruitful in the business environment. To be truly seen as a useful technology, virtual worlds must be fully integrated into people’s work patterns. It is not enough to just say look how good this technology has gotten now! We must focus on how people are actually using it effectively.

    On avatars! I had a wonderful interview with a key Wikipedia administrator and editor in San Francisco. We talked at length about the similarities between Second Life and Wikipedia – in particular the challenges of collaboration in communities based on user generated content. We talked a lot about the role avatars play in Wikipedia. Presence in Wikipedia is not of course developed in quite the same way as Second Life but is very important there too. Interview coming up soon!!! I have so much writing to do.

  9. Dusan Writer Says:

    Tish: I agree. And I’ve said this to Justin as well, or at the very least it has appeared in comments and other forums, that I’m eager to see ‘cross-over’ innovation and synergy.

    While I share your concerns about the ‘firewalled/invisible’ initiatives, I also see it as a source of parallel innovation and a sign that the platform has matured enough that it has moved beyond prototypes and is now entering the investment mix of business. Sure, these are early adopters, but they’re early adopters within the operational domain rather than the brand and mass user adoption segment, which, in any case, is rotating off into games, Web 2.0, and the various “mashes” of the same – call it anything but a virtual world even if that’s what many of those things are, they just LOOK a bit different. :)

    I was incredibly impressed with the IBM OpenSim/Lotus Sametime work. When I saw it at VW LA (or was it NYC? Can’t remember) my jaw dropped to the floor. It was the kind of integration with current systems that I was waiting to see – because virtual worlds will NOT survive if it can’t be demonstrated that they’re not some “separate and distinct” part of the communication, productivity and collaboration infrastructure.

    So, let’s say the following: when a technology matures, companies and service providers will come along, take the most stable pieces, and start to package that for business use with solid return on investment models, with many of the glitches and kinks worked out.

    As this happens, actual use cases in these environments will, I would hope, continue to develop. I think it’s too early, frankly, to say that VWs are ready for “fitting into existing work patterns”. This implies a day-to-day integration that I don’t think yet exists, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a compelling argument for why it SHOULD exist, except in the domains of product prototyping.

    What’s missing in order to make this part of existing work patterns is the innovation that you’ve been paying attention to: integration with Web 2.0, maybe, or the “living spaces” idea that Justin talks about.

    Now, just as IBM is testing Sametime implementation and will eventually take some of that, and the lessons learned, behind their own “firewall” in order to maintain some proprietary knowledge and insight, so Justin is doing with IW. What I fear is that all of the branches of these trees extend, that people forget to come back and feed the roots, so to speak: to share best practices, publish their findings, share metrics, etc….otherwise we might be faced with a thousand islands, each of them like the Lindens hoarding data and not contributing useful insight back to the community. (That might be unfair to the Lindens, it’s just how I feel right now).

    So I’d like to say that we’re on several paths of parallel innovation. One of them is behind a firewall, because that’s where one client segment WANTS to be: they don’t want high profile exposure or promotion because they don’t want to face the same risks that the brands experienced when they arrived in and then left SL. What might have been experiments were instead perceived as failures, and who wants that to happen again? Instead, give them a place to toy around, get them behind a firewall, but for goodness sake if the stuff works PLEASE share back with the wider VW community (and I’ll trust that Justin is sufficiently motivated to do so – would be great press after all!)

    As for the avatar discussion – I think that one deserves a post of its own, and I chatted with Raph Koster about that tangentially over on the beautiful Metaplace (hope I can say that without breaking another NDA!)

  10. Charles H Says:

    I’m a little surprised that nobody has mentioned Pachube.com in this context, since it achieves a lot of things being discussed, for example connecting up sensors in the physical world with sensors in Second Life, treating the two as the same kind of entity, so that they can react and respond to each other, treating Second Life as a _real_ environment, not just as a poor cousin of the physical world. After all, even avatars in SL have a mass (I saw a recent sensor feed on Pachube that measured avatar’s weight!). The fact that it also facilitates “facilities management” and sensor systems from Building management systems in physical buildings suggests that it does the “instrumenting the world” thing pretty well!

  11. Dusan Writer Says:

    @ Charles – I’m scanning up and am not sure it’s linked but Pachube reminds me of the work at MIT that Linden Lab funded which is reported in Forbes:

    http://www.forbes.com/sciencesandmedicine/2008/11/06/virtual-world-sensors-tech-science-cx_ag_1107virtual.html

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