Spent the weekend at a fascinating conference - Accelerating Change 2004. For those who haven't heard of it before, the Institute for the Study of Accelerating Change is an educational nonprofit base in LA that focuses on creating an "informed, optimistic, and empowered world community." The tautological nature of that mission might give you pause, but after meeting the volunteers, speakers, and participants, you come away with the realization that this is a group of very technologically minded folks who are want to make the world a better place.
So, the Linden Lab folks got along with them famously!
On Saturday, I gave the first of two virtual world keynotes, focusing on the inevitable shift of production and community into digital worlds, and Robin spoke on Virtual Learning and Community with the Themis Group's Nova Barlow. Forterra's Robert Gehorsam was supposed to attend as well, but did not. Second Life was the subject of many discussions throughout the day.
Many of the other presentations either directly or indirectly applied to Second Life. iRobot's Helen Greiner is an always interesting speaker and the success of Roomba is a great example of smart geeks proving the rest of the world wrong. A Roomba was busy cleaning one of the meeting rooms, so it was interesting to actually observe one up close. In many ways, it behaves almost exactly the way simple creatures in SL do and probably uses many of the same algorithms. It tended to get a little confused if it encountered lots of power cables and tried to eat my backpack -- succeeding in swallowing most of one of the straps -- but didn't seem at all evil. More on Roomba in a momement. Helen also talked about the next steps for iRobot, including small, autonomous, networked robots used to explore spaces. This was pretty cool, so during the next talk I popped into SL via WiFi and built a small room, bought some appliances for it, and then coded up some small explorer bots to move around in it. Bits are so much easier than atoms! Not an accurate simulation, but amusing, and a screen shot ended up in my slide deck.
David Brin spoke several times on Saturday, first by himself, where he had fun poking holes in bad science. Next, he was in discussion with the EFF's Brad Templeton about The Transparent Society -- the idea, not the book, although David mentioned his website enough times that his talk sometimes felt like a commercial. I'm sympathetic to Brad's position, but I worry that most of David's arguments about the direction we are headed are hard to argue with. Second Life offers an interesting place to learn about how societies form when ubiquitous surveillance is possible but social norms are used to enable privacy anyway.
That night also had what was, for me, the highlight of the conference. I refer, of course, to the ultimate convergence of technology. The perfect connection of human and robot. The consumate collision of 21st century geek products.
I am referring, of course, to the moment that a Segway ran over Roomba.
Since Segway was one of the sponsors, there were two Segways available to the conference participants Saturday night and Sunday morning. It was pretty amazing to watch, because when they worked perfectly, they were stunning. Spry old ladies leapt aboard and were soon zipping about, completely confident in their driving, only to be knocked to the floor when they dismounted while holding the turn control. There were some spectacular collisions, but none topped the moment that a fast moving Segway, slightly out of control, met Roomba, zipping across the floor like a suicidal squirrel. Amazingly, neither seemed the worse for the wear. The Segway popped up and over while Roomba emitted a few beeps from button presses but both continued on their way. Impressive engineering on several levels, actually. Roomba, for surviving the impact unharmed and Segway for not tipping over.
After watching and riding the Segway, it points out that we digital world developers have a long way to go on ease of use issues. It generally took people less than 15 seconds to be moving comfortably, in control, on the Segway. Yes, some people had problems, but for the most part this fairly unnatural motion on an inverted pendulum went smoothly. How many digital worlds (or games, for that matter) have their controls mastered in 15 seconds?
The second day started off with a wonderful presentation by Will Wright, who gave a fascinating talk about player exploration of game space. What was striking about the presentation was how hard Will is working to make single player games feel like online games. He spoke at length about the idea of games that tightly couple themselves to their players, allowing the experience to differ greatly player to player. Much like our language in discussing SL, Will talked about a fitness landscape, although his focus was on changing the landscape in order to make the process harder, more personal. Much like when I hear Andy Tepper of A Tale in the Desert talking about the need to place obstacles in the player's path, I find myself thinking about the fundamental differences between games and a world like Second Life. Creating a world is difficult enough without placing artificial constraints in the way.
Finally, moderated a panel discussion between IGE's Steve Salyer, GOM's Jamie Hale, Meridian 59's Brian "Psychochild" Green, and Puzzle Pirates' Daniel James. This was fun. For those who don't know, Brian saved Meridian 59 after 3DO canned it and they recently released an updated engine for it which looks great. Puzzle Pirates is a really innovative take on the MMORPG and worth checking out. They played the role of "commoditization is evil, defend the right to play!" while Steve and Jamie explained the statistics and purposes of currency and item trading. Steve repeated the $880 million number he used at State of Play 2 and also talked about the realities of running a business that violates publishers' EULAs. Jamie talked about why GOM works with Second Life and reasons to make most of the business player-to-player. Look for a far more complete write up of this from Ren Reynolds on Terra Nova eventually since he was taking copious notes!
Two other really sharp folks who I met at the Tech Night, but whose presentations I missed were Tim Sibley of Stream Sage and Lada Adamic of HP Labs. Both are working on interesting projects. Lada's work is on information flow in social groups, including tracking the prime movers in blogspace. As we think about the next versions of Second Life's reputation and social systems, I suspect we'll have to read up on much of her research. Tim is working on one of the Holy Grail's of computer science -- automated analysis of audio and video data to enable keyword and contextual searches. This is extremely exciting stuff, and when combined with podcasting and other RSS audio and video streams, takes personal broadcasting (and browsing) to a whole new level.
Hopefully we'll be seeing many of the AC2004 participants in Second Life in the coming days and weeks. Please make them feel welcome! Many thanks to John Smart, Mark Finnern, and Jerry Paffendorf for throwing a great speaker salon and show!