Sunday, February 28, 2010

Google Street View in Second Life

Google Street View in Second Life. A very preliminary experiment with Second Life Viewer 2.0. Watch this video on where my Second Life avatar walks (well, sort of) in Street View's NYC.

Perhaps with some clever coding we can implement Street View as a fully interactive multiuser metaverse within Second Life, by converting avatar movement (walk, rotate, look around) to clicks and drags on a surrounding Street View display. Sounds doable.

Video bubbles in Second Life 2.0

After the launch of the Second Life 2.0 viewer, many users have immediately realized that it is now possible to paste a realtime webcam video texture on the head of an avatar. In Second Life 2.0 Awesomeness: Stream Live Webcam Video of Your Real Head on Your Second Life Avatar! New World Notes says: "Put your live webcam stream on a prim, and put that prim on your avatar's head. Now you have live video of your facial reactions as you interact in Second Life, broadcast into Second Life where your virtual head should be. Can you think of an even more ninja application of the shared media function than that?".

I have refined my first demo and made the video bubble avatar described a few months ago by Deep Semaphore in Some thoughts about identities, avatars, surrogates and video conferencing leading to video bubbles. I have undressed my avatar, erased him with a transparent alpha texture, and attached a video bubble with a ustream video stream to the now invisible avatar's head. The result is in the picture above. It is very comfortable avatar with underlying standard animations for walking, sitting etc.

From the original post on video bubbles: "One seemingly natural integration with video conferencing that comes to mind is to have chat bubbles replaced by a video stream about the user, a video bubble. The user can choose to point his/her camera to whatever he or she wants. In a show and tell session, the user may choose to point his camera to what s/he is doing. At other times, he may point the camera to his or her face.".

I agree. Also, my experience trying to sell SL projects to corporate and educational clients tells me that an alternative form of user representation, a bubble with a live webcam video feed, would be a useful option. What many users really want is a collaboration space where one can see others and co-work on documents.

Video bubbles permit retaining all the advantages of a shared 3D environment while offering a representation that would be perceived as more “serious” or “businesslike” (you know what I mean) by many. Also, at this moment we cannot precisely control avatars but we can and do control our faces and hands.

Note: I am not proposing, by any means, abandoning avatars for video bubbles. I am proposing introducing video bubbles as an alternative option. Geometrically simple avatars would also reduce lag, which is one of the most important technical issues in SL. Reduced lag would improve the user experience a lot. I really wish to wear an avatar without gender or age related cues. These are important for some users, but irrelevant and distracting for others.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Second Life, Viewer 2.0

Of course the first thing I tried is Youtube on a prim, and it worked (sort of). This opens up many new possibilities in Second Life.

Second test: I made this webcam avatar attachment, a real augmentationist wet dream. It is very simple, open a ustream account and assign one of the media stream feeds to a face of a prim. Here I used the pop-up window feed:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual

I have authored a chapter of a new book from Springer entitled Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual edited by William Sims Bainbridge:

Virtual worlds are persistent online computer-generated environments where people can interact, whether for work or play, in a manner comparable to the real world. The most popular current example is World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game with eleven million subscribers. However, other virtual worlds, notably Second Life, are not games at all but internet-based collaboration contexts in which people can create virtual objects, simulated architecture, and working groups.

This book brings together an international team of highly accomplished authors to examine the phenomena of virtual worlds, using a range of theories and methodologies to discover the principles that are making virtual worlds increasingly popular, and which are establishing them as a major sector of human-centred computing.

My chapter (Chapter 22, p. 279) is entitled Future Evolution of Virtual Worlds as Communication Environments. I begin the chapter by analyzing the history, technologies and some interesting current developments in VR worlds -- interesting how, when I was correcting the proofs only a few months after having written the text, I had the impression that much of the content was already obsolete, or at least should be re-written. This is a very fast moving sector. Some excerpts:


[Virtual worlds] can already be used as a telepresence and telecollaboration option much better, and much more immersive, than videoconferencing or other traditional forms of remote collaboration.If videoconferencing is one step below a critical threshold for suspension of disbelief, Second Life is already one step above. The evolution of VR will provide next generation telework platforms, which will really enable, and empower, global communities. Thus, its social and political importance will be huge. Further evolution of VR and other emerging technologies will result in science-fiction-like scenarios, from instant telepathic communication to full transcendence of biological constrains...

Wandering in a synthetic universe generated by bits changing value in computer circuitry and traveling on communication links, metaverse residents can see and talk to each other, attend dance parties and work meetings, build their own virtual dreams, and explore the dreams of other users. Stephenson’s vision is beginning to take off, and this is a good example of the often very important role of good science fiction literature in shaping our actual reality...

Before its adoption by the gaming sector, VR technology had been developed by and used for the military and industrial simulation sectors. It can be said that most modern computer gaming technologies originated as spinoffs of military applications and simulation projects for the construction, oil, or air transport industries, not to mention space. Today, the trend seems reversed: New technology breakthroughs are generated by the gaming industry first, and then find their way to military and industrial applications. It is not surprising that smart young people are attracted by the computer gaming industry: in the words of Rudy Rucker: “Academia hasn’t quite caught on to the fact that computer games represent the convergence and the flowering of the most ambitious frontier efforts of the old twentieth-century computer science: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life.” A well-known example of modern consumer level VR is the popular virtual world Second Life (SL). Rather than a computer game, Second Life can be considered as a platform where “residents” collaborate at building a virtual world with the tools provided by the system....


Then I move to the future of virtual worlds and discuss a few ongoing developments in software, such as the P2P Open Croquet technology used in the upcoming "metaverse browser" Open Cobalt and the business oriented 3D virtual videoconferencing and collaboration environment Teleplace, and interface hardware:

There is also a trend toward more and more sophisticated and immersive user interfaces. With much better graphics and VR glasses able to simulate a deep spherical field of view around the user, virtual reality will begin to feel much more real. There is also an emerging trend toward the development of neural interfaces, that is, Brain to Computer Interfaces (BCI) able to read or write information directly from and to a user’s brain. Science fiction? Transhumanist wishful thinking? No, science fact: prototype BCI devices are already available since a few years. The first applications of neural interfacing have been in the medical field, where the best-known examples are the breakthroughs of Cyberkinetics, whose technology used in medical pilot projects has permitted severely disabled patients interacting with computers by thought. Now, this technology is finding its way to the consumer market, and companies like Emotiv Systems and Neurosky are preparing the launch of the first neural interface devices for computer gaming....


It is difficult to predict short term developments in this fast moving sector, but I think the trends are clear for the long term, and the results will be truly mind boggling. We are beginning to build immersive virtual worlds with always better visuals, physics and AI, and we are beginning to build immersive interface devices able to link directly to the brain. What can the end result be? Well:

So, we will soon be able to think our way in virtual worlds. If a computer can read information from our brains, it won’t be long before it can also write information directly to our brains, and write it very fast: two-way neural interfaces that will make computer screens and headsets obsolete, a Second Life that goes directly to the brain bypassing the eyes, with today’s Instant Messaging replaced by direct telepathic communication between minds. And when our virtual environments will contain artificial intelligences, perhaps smarter than us, we will be able to communicate with them at the speed of thought. For the medium- and long-term future, probably within the first half of the century, it is to be expected that advances in neurotechnology will permit developing direct interfaces to the brain that can bypass sensorial channels to make VR environments directly accessible to the brain. This will permit creating fully immersive VR environments with full sensorial stimulation, indistinguishable from physical reality. Let’s call things by their name: These first baby steps to neural interfacing for consumers will lead to the ultimate transhumanist Holy Grail: mind uploading, the transfer of human consciousness out of the brain into much higher performance supports, where we will be able to interact and merge with each other and our AI mind children (Moravec 1988).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First mind uploading proposal, 1971

Dr. George M. Martin is not as well known as some of today's leading futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, but some of his futuristic predictions are quite similar and predate those of Kurzweil and Vinge. For example, in 1971 Dr. Martin described the importance of exponential growth in science and, based on the continuation of such a trend, he outlined a hypothetical proposal for achieving "immortality" through a process now described as mind uploading:

We shall assume that developments in neurobiology, bioengineering and related disciplines… will ultimately provide suitable techniques of 'read-out' of the stored information from cryobiologically preserved brains into nth generation computers capable of vastly outdoing the dynamic patterning of operation of our cerebral neurones. We would then join a family of humanoid 'post-somatic' bio-electrical hybrids capable of contributing to cultural evolution at rates far exceeding anything now imaginable.

Martin GM (1971). "Brief proposal on immortality: an interim solution". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 14 (2): 339. PMID 5546258

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I cani abbaiano, e la carovana passa

Commento a The Complicated Politics of Italian Transhumanism Part 2:

Spero che gli autori dell' articolo mi perdoneranno di non prenderli sul serio.

Li prenderò più sul serio quando cominceranno a dedicare più tempo alla promozione del transumanismo in Italia. Ma non se continueranno a mostrarsi unicamente interessati alla loro vecchia e stanca campagna diffamatoria contro una singola persona.

Intanto, l' AIT pubblica libri, riviste culturali, appare sui media nazionali, gestisce gruppi di discussione popolari e vibranti, e continua il suo lavoro di diffusione della nostra visione transumanista.

I cani abbaiano, e la carovana passa.

UPDATE: C' è stata una vigorosa discussione, troncata dal moderatore dopo 25 interventi. Il mio ultimo commento:

While I am not going to waste time by replying to the not very cogent posts of the anti-AIT clique, I think this exchange shows how politics is never simple.

We are used to simplified binary political categories like right-left, authoritarian-liberal, reactionary-progressive, individualist-collectivist, but the reality is much more entangled, and often difficult to disentangle. This is always true, but it may be especially evident in Italian politics.

History shows that, in Italy, the early fascist party was closely associated to socialist groups not only before, but also after its rise to power in the 20s. Conversely, the socialist and especially the communist parties after the war were run as authoritarian dictatorships. Some of the groups mentioned in this debate are especially difficult to classify. The old right-left, socialist-fascist binary labels don't apply, and we seem to need new categories.

Or, even better in my opinion, we need to stop insisting on easy, binary and worn-out categories, and start paying more attention to what persons and groups actually say and do. Are they in favor of X? Are they against Y? What is their proposed approach to solve Z?

The only thing I can say is: If you agree with me on most of the issues that I consider important, I will consider you as a political ally. If you not only agree with me, but also do something to advance our common agenda, I will consider you as a very valuable political ally. Regardless of labels.