Friday, June 22, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

Yesterday, I attended another "Igniting Technology" event from Calit2, this time about "Web 3.0." If you don't know what Web 3.0 is, this influential graphic by Gary Hayes may help. It describes a series of next wave developments on the horizon of social media, but the term encompasses more than virtual 3D worlds, because this next generation Internet also may be characterized by smart searches in the "semantic web" and autonomous agents capable of generating emergent content. As one person in the audience pointed out, although the event was hosted by an intellectual property law firm, one of the master narratives of the panel discussion was about the triumph of open source.

Open source is, in fact, one of the areas of expertise of the first speaker Walt Scacchi, who describes himself as an advocate for "sampling, misuse, hacking, appropriation, reverse engineering, and custom creation in the interest of open-source innovation and critical intervention." Scacchi has made a reputation for himself by partnering with both corporate sponsors and the local community to create an online game, DinoQuest, to complement the offerings of the Orange County regional Discovery Science Center. (Of course, I was disappointed to discover that the top results for cheat codes for the game were no longer online.)

In continuing this open source theme, the next speaker, mega-millionaire developer David Perry, described open source as critical to the user-generated future of the game industry, even if it was "kryptonite to lawyers." He described the rationale of his open letter to amateur and off-duty game developers, Project Top Secret, which rests on a kind of pyramid scheme to attract more prosumers to the project. He also sketched out his own Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 transitional map. For example, his examples of microtransactions went from first generation "painted cars and vanity items" for in-game worlds to exchanges with more social, psychological, and ritual depth, such as "risk-based objects" or "collections." He also talked about the evolution of in-game advertising. In stage one, he described static logos. Stage two was characterized by targeting advertising. Stage three melded user-generated content with corporate marketing. Thus, in stage one a poster for a product might appear in a game. In stage two that poster might be able to look at you back and see your IP address and even change the next time you walk by to what would be appropriate to your niche audience. In stage three, your guild might be able to put up an advertisement to mark their pride in community identity alongside the poster of a major advertiser. Perry discussed about how in-game advertising could now extend to a sports sponsorship model as well, where you received the jersey of Adidas as soon as you earned the highest score, which would be visible to other players and make you more vulnerable to challenge.

As the audience from Korea looked on via a teleconference link, Perry also talked about the lessons to be learned from Asia and their "Free to Play, Lifetime to Master" model. He predicted that the Asian market would eventually develop the ultimate killer ap, a free game with the necessary emotional drivers -- which can include feelings like "pride" that he argued were unattainable in the spectatorship model of cinema -- to knock out competition from proprietary corporations. He thought that this free game would profoundly disrupt the industry.

Next up was Facebook friend Bill Tomlinson, who opened with the issue of cross-cultural contact. Tomlinson compared his own knowledge of China growing up, which was limited to a location on a map, with that of his students who actually knew Chinese people from playing World of Warcraft. (Strangely, he seemed to gloss over how his present-day students still indulged in generalizations and cultural stereotypes about the Chinese in the context of game play.) Most of his talk, however, was about autonomous agents and emergence. Although he described AI as a "hard set of problems," he said that flocking algorithms provide a model for how complexity can emerge from a few simple rules. In creating social dynamics with all the possible combinations of the human-machine-machine-human circuit, he argued that a few social rules could also be considered fundamental to modeling complex systems. For example, a rule about being able to uniquely identify a social actor or characterize an emotional state.

Last to speak was Mats Johnsson, who spoke from a business perspective about the coming generation of protoypes, demos, and models, which would make business meetings and tradeshows look more like the scenes in Star Wars movies in which people congregate around a hologram. He also showed some examples from a well-known demo about morphological models of faces that I covered earlier this year. The Calit2 facility also showcased its display systems, as these photographs show, at the even.

Questions from the audience were a bit by-the-numbers and focused on cultural clich├ęs like violence and videogames on the one hand and interactive entertainment and cutting-edge education on the other. Perry was probably the most interesting respondent. He talked about his background growing up in an environment of cultural violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland, which made American anxieties about game violence laughable to him. He spoke about a video that he liked to show in talks as well, which I sadly failed to find on YouTube, that shows a six-year-old girl speaking knowledgeably and with definite opinions about trebuchets, knowing the complicated physics and strategic dimensions of these historical military weapons only from game play. (I did, however, find this helpful trebuchet how-to website for girl scouts, which is worth checking out.) One fun fact did emerge from the Q&A, however, about the energy demands of virtual life and the ultimate carbon footprint created. According to Tomlinson, a citizen in Second Life uses as much energy in a year as a typical real-life dweller in Brazil.

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