Who, What, Why?
Enterprise uses of Immersive Environments and Virtual World technology for collaboration. As CTO of vComm Solutions and co-founder of Flying Island I'm particularly interested in the ways that collaborative 3D immersive environments might help bring dispersed teams together

Neil Canham
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View Article  Kinect Motion Control of Virtual World Avatars
It has finally happened - the Kinect motion-sensing gadget from Microsoft has been hooked up to control avatars in virtual worlds that use the Second Life viewer:

Thanks to New World Notes for spotting this!

This kind of thing tends to get people very excited, and rightly so - making interaction with 3D virtual environments more intuitive and less clunky is key to bringing the benefits that these environments hold. I'm easily swept up by the giddy shiny too, imagining being able to have all my movements and facial gestures immediately reflected in my avatar, visible to everyone, under my control (turn down transmission of grumpy, accentuate transmission of happy, apply improve-posture algorithm etc). This is maybe a step along the way, but before getting too excited it's worth understanding exactly what is happening here and what the limitations currently are. Read on for detailed analysis...   more »
View Article  The Tyranny of Virtual Choice
I've come close to being paralysed in supermarkets due to the overwhelming amount of choice on offer. Some people have full blown anxiety attacks. This is a well known phenomenon - increasing amounts of choice are not necessarily a good thing.

"Unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis and becomes a kind of self-defeating tyranny. It is self-determination within significant constraints--within rules of some sort--that leads
to well-being, to optimal functioning" - from 'Self Determination - The Tyranny of Freedom'

Clearly freedom as opposed to oppression is something to be valued, and you might find the 'optimal functioning' a little dubious, but the evidence is growing that too much choice can be bad for you. One research paper titled, 'When Choice is Demotivating' described how being given a much restricted choice (in that case, 6 types of jam rather than over 20) made people more satisfied.

So what would a life be like where you could do absolutely anything you wanted, totally free of any kind of constraint - constraints of appearance, geography, physics, relationships. What would you do today?    more »
View Article  Smile, Your Avatar is on Kinect
By now most people with an interest in Virtual Worlds, avatars, gaming or Microsoft Kinect will have seen the Avatar Kinect announcement:

The key interesting techy feature here is the ability of Kinect to track not only your body movements but also your facial expression and translate those into movements and expressions of your avatar. This kind of technology available for commodity pricing is very exciting and of course has spawned a massive Kinect 'hacking' community creating ways to use the Kinect with PCs. Simple control of Virtual Worlds viewers and 3D games can be hooked up easily by mapping body movements to keyboard combinations. However the key thing for the whole immersive environments industry is that it could help make the use of 3D realtime animated avatars a more widely accepted normal way to interact.

Which begs the question that comes so often - why use avatars and shared artificial 3D spaces at all? In an interview for the book "Virtual Body Language", Bruce Damer, one of the earlest pioneers in Virtual Worlds with over 15 years 'avatar' experience was asked about the difference between video chat such as Skype and 'avatar' chat in a virtual environment - his reply perfectly reflects my feelings:

"Avatar chat places you in an interstitial place, a world between you and those who you are interacting with. Video chat very much anchors you in the place you are in real life. So they are really two different media altogether..."

I recommend reading the whole interview.

If there are just two of you, I'd suggest avatars and 3D immersive virtual environments won't do much to add to the experience you can get from the telephone or a video conference, unless you have inhibitions about your appearance or your speaking voice. However as soon as you have several people involved, as I've written before, most people find that a telephone conference or a wall of web camera images simply doesn't make them feel 'together' with their colleagues.

Once you have a 3D space, it is psychologically essential for there to be some representation of you, some avatar, in that space visible to others. 3D spaces without avatars can be useful when you just want to explore a 3D space alone but to socialise and collaborate, some avatar is needed. The question of whether the avatar should be made to look exactly like you or even be a realtime 3D scan of you, something the Kinect is also showing some promise for, is another discussion for another day, but I think shared 3D spaces are the ultimate way to be together while apart. Is the avatar era finally upon us?
View Article  Aliens, The Fermi Paradox and Virtual Worlds
I've seen a couple of interesting documentaries recently about the Drake equation and SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Got me thinking about the Fermi Paradox - if intelligent life is likely, then given that there are billions of stars there should be a huge number of alien civilisations, so we should have encountered them or detected them by now. Why haven't we? The most common ways to answer this are that actually intelligent life isn't very common, possibly even unique, or that civilisations always tend to self-destruct quickly after evolving intelligence. (an argument that sounds a little contradictory to me, depending on how you define intelligence!) However there is one other idea, one that I favour and that has a connection to virtual worlds and immersive environments. It is a weaker version of the Transcendence theory. What if all civilisations simply stop broadcasting and exploring, turning inward and going dark as far as the rest of the universe is concerned? SETI is based on the idea that we will be able to pick up radio emmisions from alien intelligences. Our own technological development has quickly seen radio transmission replaced by fiberoptics for vast swathes of communication, so we've already started to broadcast less, and as technology improves radio transmission, when required, is likely to improve in efficiency so that it doesn't spew energy needlessly into space.

What about the urge to explore, the primitive adrenaline fuelled pioneer instinct? Space travel is hugely resource intensive and expensive. We're getting better and better at stimulating our senses through technology and entertainment - and virtual worlds in all their forms are a huge part of that. So what if it's simply more exciting to play a game or explore a simulated reality that is increasingly convincing? It seems to me inevitable that any suitably advanced lifeform would try to find ways to stimulate and fool it's own senses to create experiences just as we do with interactive immersive technologies. Commentators love to say that Virtual Worlds have reached the end of the road, but maybe virtual worlds actually are the end of the road?
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