Thursday, May 27, 2010

Telepresence Education for a Smarter World

Telepresence Education for a Smarter World

By Giulio Prisco and J. Simone Riccardi

There can be no doubt that the explosion of Internet technology started in the 90s has had a huge impact on our culture. For the first time in history, geographically distributed large groups of people have been able to interact in near-real time. Usenet groups and mailing lists, and then the Web, message boards, blogs, social networks, IP voice and video conferencing, have enabled and empowered global communities held together by common interests and world-views instead of geographical proximity. This has permitted a very significant acceleration in nearly all fields of culture and human endeavor: our society has, in a very measurable sense, become smarter. Of course, since Information Technology professionals and skilled amateurs are themselves among the most passionate and active users of the Internet, powerful feedback loops have enormously accelerated the development of Internet technology itself, which has arguably been the fastest developing technology sector in the last two decades. In the last few years, much of the action has been on Web 2.0 and social networking: a much more interactive Web centered on live interaction between people. Everyone loves Facebook and Twitter because they permit a much more immediate and deep, "immersive", interaction with others.

New even more immersive online collaboration technologies such as VoIP, IPTV, videoconferencing, online sensor networks (IoT, Internet of Things), 3D Virtual Reality (VR) technologies developed by the gaming industry, and Augmented Reality, are converging to create powerful telepresence platforms. Wikipedia (another wildly popular Internet success story) defines telepresence as "a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location." Telepresence systems offer a very high degree of immersion and give an impression of "being there" so powerful to permit users suspending disbelief and becoming fully engaged in the online experience. The telepresence term is often used in a slightly more specific sense, but we use it in a general sense to include immersive 3D virtual environments.

The user interface, which had not changed much in the last two decades, is now beginning to undergo some important paradigm shifts. Touch-based devices such as Iphones, Ipads, Android phones and tablets, and large screens driven by touch or gestures, offer new and more immediate human-machine interfacing options. 3D visualization options, both stereoscopic vision and virtual reality, and 3D input options such as head tracking goggles and haptic devices, once confined to specialized niches such as high end video gaming, are becoming mainstream and can be found in more and more applications. And finally, there is the first generation of neural interface devices such as the EEG-driven Epoc. These new interface options will all contribute to making telepresence more and more immersive and "real".

In the 90s, the explosive growth of the Internet changed the world, and made it a better place. In the 10s, an explosive growth of telepresence technology will change the world even more, and make it an even better place. We wish we could make more explicit predictions but, as we all well know, making short term prediction is difficult. Making longer term predictions is easier, because we can average turbulent fluctuations out and follow the main trends. So, while we cannot predict which platforms will lead the emerging telepresence industry in 2012, we can confidently predict that telepresence will be an important part of our online lives in 2020.

What does this mean for education?

A few months ago at a conference on emerging technologies in a big world city, we were talking to a reporter who at some point enthusiastically said something like "this is a gathering of the smartest persons on the planet". Flattering for the audience, but untrue. Elementary statistics show that most smartest persons on the planet can probably be found in remote rural areas or in developing regions, far from the big world cities, and they do not know they are among the potentially smartest persons of the planet because they never had access to appropriate education. The human capital, which in our developing knowledge society is the most important type of capital, represented by these persons, is lost to themselves and to others.

Even in the developed world, people may be unable to receive quality education because of lack of time, or money. And in the developed world we also have the specific problem that many jobs, for example in manufacturing sectors, are irreversibly migrating offshore, leaving many workers unemployed if they cannot participate in a knowledge-based economy by receiving appropriate education. Which in this case must no longer be only institutional education, but also professional education, and lifelong education. In all cases, most people cannot afford studying full time, or moving elsewhere to receive education.

All these problems can be solved, of course, by making education flexible enough to reach all those who need it. To do this, we need to ensure that: a) students (institutional, professional and lifelong students) can receive quality education independently of their geographical location; b) students can freely choose their own study time, which in turn requires a carefully chosen balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning time; c) students can feel fully engaged in the educational experience, which requires deep personal interaction with teachers and fellow students; d) teachers and instructors can monitor and evaluate the progress of remote students.

It is evident that telepresence technologies can provide good answers and facilitate meeting these requirements, and we can conclude that in 2020 the educational system will have been radically changed by the new evolutionary wave of the Internet, based on telepresence. And then things will advance even further, leading to science-fiction like scenarios. In a chapter of the book "Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual", Springer 2010, one of the authors wrote: "[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..."

However, it is important to find out how to get there from here.

First, we must advocate open and affordable high bandwidth Internet access for all. As it has been said at Google I/O 2010, "web access is one of the human rights of our century". This does not depend on technology alone but on specific political choices.

Second, we must start developing compelling educational experiences, working methodologies, best practices and success stories by using the technologies that we have today. Of course in 10 years we will have much better technologies, but these will be a result of the work we do today with existing technologies.

What are the main features and tools of a telepresence educational platform? Screen sharing, file sharing, application sharing, real-time, simultaneous multi-access audio/video connections, 3D physical presence through avatars. All these features are found (or implementable) in the virtual worlds platforms described below. Furthermore, these system have already existing or planned versions suitable for mobile devices, which will unfold new ways of use, many of them still unknown.

World of Warcraft is the most popular massively multiuser 3D virtual world, or metaverse. WoW (a frequently used shorthand) is our kids' favorite videogame, but it has been used also for other purposes. National Science Foundation sociologist William Sims Bainbridge has recently published a book on "The Warcraft Civilization" (MIT Press, 2010) where he discusses, among other things, the first scientific conference in WoW, in which we had the pleasure and the honor to participate.

Second Life is probably the most popular non-gaming metaverse. The press has not been overly SL-friendly in the last few years, but the same press had hailed SL as the Next Big Thing in 2007, and dismissed the web as useless in 1995. Second Life is often criticized for its "porn & gambling" image. But porn and gambling are among the things that people do, and any platform will be invaded by them once it becomes popular. Also, the sex and gambling industries have always been early adopters of new technologies (what was the first commercial application of web video? Yeah, right).

The truth about Second Life is: it is a very advanced metaverse platform, it has great technology, and a large community of very passionate users. Since SL is not a videogame with fixed goals but an open ended metaverse limited only by the imagination of its users, everything can be found in SL: as we said, fake sex and real gambling, but also music shows and dance clubs, art exhibitions, book presentations, poetry readings, business meetings and real job interviews. And education. The popular mailing list "SL Educators (The SLED List)" has thousands of members and is one of the most active communities dedicated to educational technologies. Surfing the SLED list shows that hundreds of colleges, universities and schools, worldwide, are using SL to prototype new forms of online learning. Some prestigious universities use SL as a parallel campus in virtual reality.

We have a long experience in helping educational institutions to design and deploy educational initiatives in virtual reality, beginning in SL in 2006 and then adding other platforms. Our portfolio includes many professional education projects often based on accurate simulations of workplace situations and actual machinery with realistic behaviors, many universities and learning organizations, and some large global companies using SL as a virtual campus for staff meetings and training. Our best known customer is probably the Cervantes Institute, the largest educational organization of the Spanish speaking world, which has been using SL for language learning and cultural presentations.

One of the authors (JSR) is an architect who has taught architectural design in several courses through virtual worlds and discovered a great potential, related not only to the 3D platform itself, but also to the way of creating new designs in real-time in a multiuser collaborative online space. This permits sharing the knowledge not only through formal theoretical schemes but also, more directly, in a virtual building site. In addition, students can create their own projects within these platforms, sharing them with their colleagues, and revisions can be made directly in the virtual environment. If a student has commuting problems, (s)he can connect from home and get a full revision of the work as in a class.

From our experience we can conclude that virtual worlds, even with today's technologies which will seem very primitive seen from 2020, already permit designing and deploying strongly interactive and immersive learning projects. Current best practice examples make full use of all techniques and media types supported by the platform: suggestive 3D scenarios relevant to the project's objective (for example, NASA has produced full models of the surface of Mars complete with atmospheric phenomena for space education), 3D sketches often developed on-the-fly by students and instructors, Power Point presentations, white-boards, recorded and real time streaming video, and integration with Learning Management Systems such as Moodle. In Second Life, the recent introduction of a new generation of the client software (Viewer 2.0) with much more advanced media handling features enables more ambitious educational projects.

We have learned many lessons, but the most important one is that a successful online educational project in virtual worlds needs the full commitment of the host organization management, the teachers and instructors who participate in the project, and the students. The latter is usually very easy to achieve: students, especially those familiar with computer games, feel immediately at home, love the game-like experience and participate actively and creatively. The same applies to the teachers and instructors more familiar with and passionate about new computer technologies, who often choose evangelist roles in their institutions. Teachers less familiar with modern computer technologies, on the contrary, can be more difficult to persuade because they can be scared of new computer technologies and not feel able to perform their role in a unfamiliar online environment. This is one of those situations, more and more common, where teachers must also learn from students. Management can be reluctant to commit resources and give visibility to experimental projects based on innovative technologies and, in some cases, can be scared of potential image problems ("wasting taxpayers' money and students' time on videogames..."). These problems can be solved, but experience shows that a successful project must deeply involve management, senior faculty and teachers since the very beginning.

These issues apply to telepresence platforms other than SL as well, but the (perceived) negative image problems ("Porn & Gambling") are more often associated to SL than to other platforms suitable to ediucation. Another SL-specific problem is the fact that many users are very jealous and protective of the early "SL culture", strongly centered on pseudonymity and non-disclosure of real life information, and tend to vocally resist all technical innovations which could facilitate the intrusion of reality into their "magic circle". When voice communication was introduced in SL in 2007, it caused an intense debate that still continues today. After the launch of the Viewer 2.0 a few months ago, with many significant innovations in media handling, many "immersionists" (see the well known "Immersion vs. Augmentation" article by Henrik Bennetsen) have complained after realizing that the new features open the door to easy videoconferencing in SL. Today's SL can be used as a suitable telepresence platform with all the technical features needed for immersive education... but the locals may resist.

There are, of course, alternatives to SL equally or even more suitable to educational needs. For example the OpenSim project is developing an open source equivalent, partly interoperable with SL. OpenSim is one of the virtual platforms recommended by the Immersive Education Initiative, together with other two platforms: Open Wonderland and Open Cobalt. The Wonderland project, developed by Sun Microsystems and orphaned after the acquisition by Oracle, has resurfaced as the open source Open Wonderland project. Open Cobalt is another very promising open source P2P telepresence platform, perhaps the most innovative, based on extremely interesting technology previously developed by the Open Croquet project. Despite being very promising, these three open source projects are still in beta or even alpha, very interesting for hackers and IT experts but not yet suitable for large scale operational deployment for education. However, all three platforms are advancing, and in particular OpenSim is making some very rapid advances that may soon differentiate it from the model SL platform.

A few years ago, while doing a consulting project for an educational foundation, we stumbled upon one of our current favorite platforms: Teleplace is a fully operational, value added implementation of the technologies developed by the open source Croquet and Cobalt projects. It is a telepresence platform which includes 3D virtual environments, full audio and videoconferencing for multiple users, desktop screen sharing, shared text editors and white-boards, and the possibility to easily import Office documents for collaborative editing via the built-in Open Office application. Teleplace also has a built-in collaborative browser, the possibility to easily import images, 3D models and video, and last but not least a tool to video record and/or webcast sessions. These features, and the fact that Teleplace is very easy to use, make it one of the most suitable platforms for telepresence education. Teleplace has been chosen to implement the teleXLR8 project, a "telepresence community for cultural acceleration" focused on science and technology education, currently in closed beta, which will offer public seminars for "citizen-scientists" as well as specific e-learning courses.

The Teleplace Enterprise Server, and also the open source OpenSim, Open Wonderland and Open Cobalt, can be installed on any server with the required features and performance. Until a few months ago this was not the case of Second Life, which was only available as a service run by Linden Lab, with no possibility to install it on other servers, and no easy options to back up data. After the launch of Second Life Enterprise, Linden Lab is now offering a self-hosted version of the Second Life server software.

The two operational platforms which we have identified, Second Life and Teleplace, are more and more frequently used for innovative educational projects by high profile institutions. The Oxford University, the UK Open University, the Imperial College, the JISC funded PREVIEW project based on the PIVOTE virtual learning sisyem, the Play2Train project, the New Media Consortium and the National University of Singapore have very active projects in SL, and other important institutions such as Princeton and Harvard, and the Cervantes Institute of Spain, use SL for specific educational projects. Teleplace is used by many high profile universities such as the Project Based Learning (PBL) Lab at Stanford University, which recently won a 21st Century Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning Distinction recognizing its Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) Global Teamwork course, which uses Teleplace to enable global, cross-university teams to collaborate virtually. It is also extensively used for civilian and military government projects in the US (see for example the vGov site). Both platforms are used also by global firms for internal professional and lifelong training.

One of the authors (JSR) has developed many architectural design courses in the open source metaverse of OpenSim, independently built and completely free. Being OpenSim a fully configurable system, we might think to make a special version for PCs with a low computing power. We could eliminate the most spectacular photo-realistic effects, aiming at 3d graphics less complex but more effective for those who can't afford a last generation PC. In this way new opportunities can bloom also for those who still have limited computing resources, but will inevitably be reached by Internet in few years. However, OpenSim is not yet mature to sustain complex projects with sufficient operational stability. At the moment, the available operational telepresence platforms suitable for educational applications are Teleplace and Second Life. The first, more business oriented and targeted at professional applications, the second more creative and focused on user expression. We recommend to educational projects to experiment with both to develop their own approach. Organizations with technical know-how should also experiment with one or more of the open source development projects mentioned above.

Nowhere is the "cultural difference" between Teleplace and Second Life more evident than in the choice of avatars. In Second Life, users build or buy wildly creative avatars, and these are often the real attention catcher in SL events. On the contrary Teleplace has a set of standard avatars to choose from, in business-like, professional or moderately casual attire. But most Teleplace users prefer the default "Simple Shape" avatar: a very simple stylized, vaguely humanoid shape meant for wearing a picture or a webcam video feed of the user on the "face", and a corporate badge on the chest. These features are very useful in meetings. Even more useful is the fact that many user inputs, such as moving a cursor over a document, are color-coded with the color of the user (If I am wearing a blue avatar, others will see a blue cursor when I move my cursor over a document). These simple avatars make it easier to focus on a task by not stealing attention from it. Most first time Teleplace users who already know Second Life find Teleplace a simpler and more operational platform for telepresence meetings and education, but many miss the wild creativity, imagination and fun of the best SL environments and communities.


The Warcraft Civilization, by William Sims Bainbridge, MIT Press 2010
First Scientific Conference in WoW
Future Evolution of Virtual World as Communication Environments, by Giulio Prisco, in Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, Springer 2010
Immersion vs. Augmentation article by Henrik Bennetsen
Immersive Education Initiative
Open Wonderland
Open Cobalt
Open Croquet
Oxford University's Virtual Simulation in Second Life
Stanford PBL Lab
Open University's Open Life: Teaching and Learning in Second Life
Imperial College's e-learning site
PREVIEW project
Play2Train project
Instituto Cervantes in Second Life
National University of Singapore in Second Life
New Media Consortium
Virtual Government (vGov)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

iLabs Singularity Summit, March 5 2011 in Milan

From the iLabs site: May 24, 2010 - Road Map to iLabs Singularity Summit, Stage 1 - iLabs meet transhumanist associations and researchers to present the iLabs Singularity Summit, the iLabs international summit on Singolarity to be held on March, 5 2011 in Milan. The speeches and the presentations will be soon available on our websites.

I participated in the first workshop and will keenly follow this important initiative.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell

First Self-Replicating, Synthetic Bacterial Cell Constructed by J. Craig Venter Institute Researchers

Video presentation by Venter on YouTube

ROCKVILLE, MD and San Diego, CA (May 20, 2010)— Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

Some reactions:

ETC Group: Synthia is Alive … and Breeding: Panacea or Pandora's Box?
New York Times: Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell’
La Repubblica (in Italian): Creata cellula che si riproduce "PiĆ¹ vicina la vita artificiale"
And some surprisingly friendly comments by the Church: Bagnasco: "Segno di intelligenza umana"

My comment: The articles I have seen in the press contain some inaccuracies and much hype, but Venter's achievement remains very significant. Non only scientifically significant, but also memetically significant. It is now evident (or, more evident: to me it was already evident) that life can be reverse-engineered, re-engineered, and improved upon. No vitalist mysticism, but natural laws which can be fully understood and used by engineering.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Google I/O 2010

Today I have watched the YouTube webcast of Google I/O 2010.

There are many, many interesting news. One of the most interesting is the announcement of The WebM Project: an open, royalty-free, media file format designed for the web.WebM defines the file container structure, video and audio formats. WebM files consist of video streams compressed with the VP8 video codec and audio streams compressed with the Vorbis audio codec. VP8 is a highly efficient video compression technology that was developed by On2 Technologies. Google acquired On2 in February, 2010. WebM and the codecs it supports (VP8 video and Vorbis audio) require no royalty payments of any kind.

More on WebM on TechCrunch, with many other interesting news from Google I/O 2010. For example, Google Launches Business Version Of App Engine; Collaborates With VMware: At Google I/O today, the search giant has announced that Google App Engine, a platform for building and hosting web applications in the cloud, will now include a Business version, catered towards enterprises. The new premium version allows customers to build their own business apps on Google’s cloud infrastructure. Google is also announcing a collaboration with VMware for deployment and development of apps on the new cloud infrastructure... Google is also announcing a collaboration with VMware for deployment and development of apps on the new cloud infrastructure.

Google Apps now includes Google Wave. It also includes Google Video: companies running their Intranet in the cloud using the business version of Google Apps can easily create their own internal YouTube. But the most interesting development to watch, still a rumor, is Google Meetings: a multiuser videoconferencing application for the Google cloud. If Google Meetings is integrated with the other applications in the Google Apps suite, it could very rapidly become the favorite solution for desktop business videoconferencing and collaboration.

Second day: Android and Google TV, very interesting. See Eric Schmidt Presides Over The Marriage Of The 50-Year-Old TV And The Teenage Web on TechCrunch. They gave a HTC Evo 4G Android phone to all participants, but said that we remote watchers from YouTube don't get any:-( Too bad, because it seems a great phone, especially for the large screen size.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Virtual worlds on phones

Well... this is actually a picture of a YouTube video recorded in a VR environment (Teleplace), playing on my Android phone. But I believe some kind of limited access to 3D VR worlds is coming to phones soon.

Due to the small screen size, I would not really enjoy VR telepresence on the phone. But the same applications will certainly be deployed to Ipads and similar Android devices with larger screens. Also, magic glasses able to turn a phone screen into a large screen are coming soon to consumer electronics stores.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Video: David Orban on the Singularity University, Teleplace, May 11

David Orban, Chairman of Humanity+ and Advisor to the Singularity University, gave the second teleXLR8 talk in Teleplace on May 11, 2010, at 11pm continental EU (10pm UK, 2pm PST, 5pm EST). David presented an overview of the Singularity University, including program details and recent developments. The talk was followed by a lively Q/A session.

Read more on the teleXLR8 blog, and see the full video of the presentation and Q/A on

The viseo is also on Youtube. Part 1:

See the other parts on the teleXLR8 channel on Youtube or on this post on the teleXLR8 blog.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

David Orban on the Singularity University, Teleplace, May 11

David Orban, Chairman of Humanity+ and Advisor to the Singularity University, will give the second teleXLR8 talk in Teleplace on May 11, 2010, at 11pm continental EU (10pm UK, 2pm PST, 5pm EST). David will present an overview of the Singularity University, including program details and recent developments.

Date and time: Tuesday May 11 at 23pm continental EU (22pm UK, 2pm PST, 5pm EST)

Title: Presentation of the Singularity University

Abstract: The Singularity University (SU) is an interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges. With the support of a broad range of leaders in academia, business and government, SU hopes to stimulate groundbreaking, disruptive thinking and solutions aimed at solving some of the planet’s most pressing challenges. SU is based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley and offers two main types of programs: an annual 9-week Graduate Studies Program as well as 3- and 10-day Executive Programs throughout the year.

Teleplace is one of the best 3D applications for telework, online meetings, group collaboration, and e-learning in a virtual 3D environment (v-learning). It is a powerful telepresence environment where multiple participants can stream their webcam video to interactive 3D online meeting areas and workspaces. The virtual 3D space permits effectively organizing the work areas and creates the impression of "being there", which is fundamental for effective remote collaboration. One of the main features of Teleplace is its ability to immediately import Office documents from the desktop for presentations and collaborative editing.

The talk is sponsored by Teleplace and Italsat.

There are a few seats available for the online interactive event, please contact me by email if you wish to attend, or request to join the teleXLR8 Facebook group. For those who cannot attend, the talk will be posted to on May 12.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Has Transhumansim already won?

Comments to Michael Anissimov's Transhumanism Has Already Won and TransAlchemy's If Transhumanism Has Won, Who Lost?:

I agree with Michael's first statement: "It’s 2010, and transhumanism has already won. Billions of people around the world would love to upgrade their bodies, extend their youth, and amplify their powers of perception, thought, and action with the assistance of safe and tested technologies. The urge to be something more, to go beyond, is the norm rather than the exception."

Transhumanism wins by disappearing into the fabric of daily routine. As enhancement products become available, if they can really improve the quality of life consumers will buy them, regardless of the whining of "bio-ethicists". Soon we will have brain implants to boost our cognitive abilities, and later we will be able to become post-biological beings with indefinite lifespans via mind uploading. Once these options are available, many people will use them without paying attention to big philosophical words. For our generation, sending the first email was something momentous - but today's kids just use Facebook on their Iphones. And this is how it should be. Tomorrow's kids will just use their brain implants and merge with software. The Singularity will happen, but it will feel like daily routine.

Mike Treder writes: "That’s why, 20 years from now, transhumanism might be largely forgotten--because everyone will be a transhumanist. Though, of course, they won’t call themselves that. As Giulio Prisco puts it, 'That would mean transhumanism, once revolutionary and disruptive, has dissolved into the fabric of the zeitgeist, and everyone just assumes that human enhancement and transcendence of all limits is good.'"

Michael continues: "At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel... We will plant flowers and trees across the universe. All we have to do is survive our embryonic stage, stay in control of our own destiny, and expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light."

I also agree with this. The smartest strategy for traditional religious at this moment, would be to begin integrating transhumanism in their doctrine (like the Mormon Transhumanist Association). Of course they will not do this, yet, because they are power systems, they understand very well that transhumanism can be a very powerful competitor in their memetic space, and they want to preserve their power and money. Therefore, they will continue to try fighting transhumanism until is too late.

TransAlchemy is a team of two anti-transhumanist activists who publish an interesting blog and video podcast. I must admit to reading and watching them often: they are often interesting, and they often seem to understand transhumanism perhaps better than many transhumanists. They are Terrans who wish to "Save the Humans" and fight Cosmists. But the "[Angels who]... expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light" are humans: they are the next phase of the evolution of our species. They are our children, and you don't fight your children, because it would be fighting yourself.

However, TransAlchemy say: "We must accept the possibility that there is a probability, greater than 0%, that "God exists"... As transhuman-centric technologies will aim to keep you trapped within the comfortable boundaries of this universe, religions would seek to return to the creator of the universe."

I accept the possibility that perhaps God exists, in a certain sense: one or more Gods who evolved naturally (that is, not supernaturally), but created our world as a synthetic reality (we may be NPCs in their videogames) and can intervene in our reality in ways that we could only call supernatural (they cannot violate their own physics, but they can violate the simulated physics of our reality). Perhaps they will resurrect us all in a better simulation.

But transhumanists don't accept limits, not even "the comfortable boundaries of this universe". If there are ways to reach beyond, we will try to use our engineering ability to reach beyond when the time is right, and "seek to return to the creator of the universe". And of course I cannot even begin to speculate about the motivations of super-intelligent beings, but I know one thing: if we could create synthetic realities inhabited by sentient beings, I would hope that one day they find out how to talk to us as equals. The plan of God may be that we become Gods.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Four VR technologies awarded USDA Virtual World Contract

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Chief Information Officer (USDA OCIO) has awarded a contract to procure virtual world (VW) software technology: "to demonstrate that the virtual worlds solution(s) can satisfactorily resolve cross-agency issues. A major objective is to create a multi-agency advisory committee to create new and innovative government-wide solutions... to enable the Government to build, customize and host one or more interactive persistent virtual worlds where users can operate over networks for the purposes of collaboration, training, rehearsal, analysis, simulation, experimentation, and socialization."

Contract awards were as follows (kinks to press releases and platform pages):

Advanced Software Systems - VastPark
Avaya Government Solutions - web.alive
Science Application International - OLIVE
Three Wire Systems - VetAdvisor Virtual Room, based on Teleplace

The interest of the US government (and soon, I hope, European governments and administrations) for deeply interactive and immersive 3D communication and collaboration technologies is speeding up. The list above includes two of my favorite platforms: Teleplace, which is the richest and most complete, and web.alive, which runs in a browser and is very easy for the end user. My other favorite platform is Second Life, unfortunately not included in the awards, for its social features and user created content.

See also the Virtual Government (vGov) site and the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference 2010.