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Why (and How) Realistic Avatars Can Be More Effective

April 23, 2012

The following is a guest post from Craig McAllister of Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN). Craig discusses the effectiveness of realistic (vs. graphical) avatars and introduces us to Silhouette, technology that his company has developed to render realistic avatars within a 3D virtual world. Be sure to check out the video demo (below), as I think this could be a game changer.

Introduction

To many people, today’s avatars represent elaborate animations. Recently, however, much fanfare has been made about new technologies enabling animated avatars to mimic a wide range of users’ facial expressions. If you smile, your avatar smiles with you. If you frown, your avatar frowns. This development allegedly translates into greater realism. But is this realism “real” enough? If the objective is to make an avatar truly “real”, why not have it actually be real?

Animated Avatars

Certainly there exists specific segments of the Virtual world population for whom animated avatars are preferred. These groups might include children under 10; teenaged gamers; and non-gaming adults in virtual worlds like Second life. In each of these examples, customization, fantasy, and/or anonymity take precedence over true realism.

Realistic Avatars

There are, however, a number of possible virtual world environments where users are likely to be interested in seeing avatars that are as realistic as possible.  In fact, wouldn’t a live streaming video avatar of an actual person be a viable alternative to the currently available animations? This technology would allow for real time, face-to-face meetings in virtual worlds. People could actually see each other.

Realistic Avatars for Online Dating

One example of a real need for this technology is in the area of virtual world dating. As Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska and Andrew Ross said in their paper entitled “Matchmaking Through Avatars: Social Aspects of Online Dating”, “Once you have experienced the virtual delights of avatar dating in an online venue, taking that last fateful step and going for a real, physical, face-to-face meeting with your avatar date can only be a let-down.”

Talk about a blind date! How could you even be certain of the gender of the animated avatar you were dating, let alone know what that person actually looks like in the real world?

Realistic Avatars for Online Job Interviews

Another good example of the value of realistic avatars would be virtual world job interviews. Recently, at a state government job fair in Second life, an applicant “came to the job fair as a” tiny cat with a red bow tie on.” How can anyone really know for sure whom they are actually talking to? For all you know, you could be interviewing some kid’s Dad!

How about social networking? Imagine virtually attending your 10th high school reunion, and being able to see your fellow classmates face-to-face (how did that cute girl/guy who used to sit next to you turn out?) Instead of experiencing an animated depiction fixing you with a facsimile smile, you could see your classmates actually laughing. The experience using a live streaming video avatar would be totally different, and potentially a lot more satisfying.

Realistic Avatars for Distance Learning

Distance learning and virtual campuses are other areas with enormous potential. Teachers and students could see each others’ actual faces in the virtual world, thereby facilitating a much richer and personally interactive learning experience.

Imagine playing online poker with a table full of animated avatars. There is no way to read your opponents’ “tells” that you would otherwise pick up in a face-to-face situation. Given that the human face is capable of making over 50,000 different individual expressions, real time avatars clearly provide the advantage in such a nuanced environment. Otherwise, everyone will have their avatars set to “poker face”.  So much for nuance.

Lastly, imagine engaging in sensitive and/or high stakes business negotiations with “a tiny cat wearing a red bow tie…” N’uff said.

Introducing Silhouette

Ultimately, the list of situations where it would be preferable to have real time avatars is almost limitless.  So the question becomes, when can we expect to see live video avatars? The answer is… now. A company called Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN) has been developing patented live video avatar software called Silhouette.

With Silhouette, each user in a virtual world is able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar at real time frame rates, along with synchronized audio. Silhouette works with a single high-speed web camera to extract a user’s video image from the user’s actual environment, without the need for a monochromatic (e.g. blue or green screen) background. Silhouette could be used for all those virtual world situations where “real” actually needs to be real.

You can see the direction IVN is going with its live video avatar software by looking at its rough in-house “proof of concept” video which was done completely in-world:

As indicated in the beginning of this post, live video avatars will not be for everyone, but once the technology is fully developed, it could bring a needed dose of reality to virtual worlds.

About the Author

Craig McAllister is affiliated with Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN) in Los Angeles, CA.

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Why Second Life Passes The Milkshake Test (But Fails In Other Ways)

November 14, 2011

Introduction

Chip and Dan Heath have published a new book, “The Myth of the Garage” (get it for free on Kindle at Amazon.com). In an excerpt of the book published at Slate titled “Why Second Life Failed,” the authors put Second Life to the “milkshake test.”

Adapted from Clay Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Solution,” the milkshake test asks the question, “what job is a product designed to do?” According to the Heath brothers, “Most successful innovations perform a clear duty. When we craved on-the-go access to our music collections, we hired the iPod. When we needed quick and effective searches, we hired Google.”

The authors then conclude that Second Life failed the milkshake test:

“But what ‘job’ did Second Life perform? It was like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé — fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze — but no actual labor skills.”

My Take: Second Life as Multiple Milkshakes

While I agree with the authors when they write, “today, Second Life limps along,” I disagree on the milkshake test result. In this post, I’ll highlight why Second Life passes the milkshake test, but fails in other ways.

Hired for: Escapism

Dictionary.com defines escapism as “the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.” And this is precisely what many users loved about the service. They “hired” Second Life as a perfect way to escape from the real world.

If you’re a middle aged man with a 9-to-5 job in real life, you could be a muscle-bound, highly attractive (and young) ladies’ man in your second life. In a matter of a few hours (or less), your “new you” (an avatar representation, that is) is ready to go explore the “world.”

Downfall: Turns out most of us want the opposite of escaping. We want the real world.

The mainstream has voted with their mouse clicks and tablet swipes. Their preference is rooted more in the real world and the ability to share, connect and stay in touch with friends, family and others. Instead of spending time on 3D islands, they’re logging on to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Hired for: Self-Expression

It’s quite easy to “hire” Second Life for self-expression. Everything you do there can be about self-expression, from the look and appearance of your avatar, to art that you create in-world, to entire islands that you build there.

You can be a virtual DJ and spin tunes in Second Life (e.g. see Doubledown Tandino, @Ravelong on Twitter) or you can create virtual art to sell. So not only can you self-express, you can make income as well.

Downfall: With a complete free reign on self-expression, instances of prostitution, nudity, sex and lewdness drove away any chance of an ongoing presence from mainstream users.

Counter-example: IMVU is a service that allows for self-expression and is doing quite well. Interestingly, their Terms of Service do not permit you to “use explicit/obscene language or solicit/post sexually explicit images.”

Hired for: Simulation and Training

Perhaps its largest success in passing the milkshake test is in simulation and training. Several branches of the Federal Government have used Second Life for military training and combat simulations. Loyalist College in Canada used Second Life in a training program for border crossing patrol agents. And finally, Dr. Peter Yellowless at UC Davis used Second Life to teach about the experience of schizophrenia.

Downfall: Linden Lab didn’t take the necessary steps to formalize products, services and support around this particular use of Second Life.

If they “productized” a simulation and training offering (perhaps on private, self-contained islands), I think we’d be hearing about a lot more compelling case studies. And it might even place Second Life into a different product/service category.

Conclusion

While I agree with the Heath brothers’ characterization that Second Life is limping along, I continue to see potential in the service. Today, Second Life’s milkshakes are like Baskin Robbins (available in 31 flavors). They’d be better off going Neapolitan, with milkshakes available in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry only.

Related Links

  1.  Thoughts from New World Notes on the same Slate article.
  2. Summary of virtual worlds innovators from a Stanford Media X event.

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The Second Life for Virtual Worlds: Vertical Solutions

September 11, 2011

Introduction

In 2007, Gartner predicted that “by the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a ‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life.”

As we approach the end of 2011, it’s safe to say that we’re far short of the 80 percent mark, as far as 3D avatars (in virtual worlds) go. It does seem clear, however, that the 80 percent figure is quite accurate if you consider the “second life” to be social networks. In fact, I then think the prediction turns out to be perfect.

Virtual Worlds: Where We’re Headed

3D virtual worlds (Second Life being the most prominent) never caught on in a mass market, the way that Facebook and Twitter have. I think social networks will see continued growth in adoption and usage, while the use of general-purpose, “open use” 3D virtual worlds continues to diminish.

I think “worlds” are dead. The future is all about self-contained solutions. And the future is now.

FountainBlue Virtual Worlds Panel

On September 30, 2011, I’ll be moderating the following panel for this FountainBlue event:

FountainBlue’s Third Annual Virtual Worlds Annual Conference

Topic: Virtual Worlds: Where We Were, Where We’re Going, What Does It Mean to YOU?

Date & time: Friday, September 30, from 8:30 until 10:30 a.m.

Location: EMC, 2831 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara, in their San Francisco Conference Room on the Third Floor

Cost: $22 members, $32 partners, $42 general

Facilitator Dennis Shiao, Director of Product Marketing, INXPO
Panelist Andrea Leggett, Senior Product Marketing Manager, EMC
Presenting Entrepreneur Parvati Dev, President, Innovation in Learning
Presenting Entrepreneur Raj Raheja, Founder and CEO, Heartwood Studios

For more information and to register, visit http://www.svvirtualworlds.com.

My Premise: It’s All About Vertical Solutions

I’ll plan to float my premise to our panel and invite them to share their thoughts. The premise, of course, is that the “worlds” in “virtual worlds” is dead and the path to success (and profit) is to build focused solutions that directly solve business problems. Consumer-based virtual worlds told us that you can’t be all things to all people.

Consider the vertical approach that two panelists’ companies are taking:

Innovation in Learning: Solutions (Healthcare)

  1. CliniSpace™ – Virtual Hospitals and Clinics
  2. DynaPatients™ – Virtual Patients

Heartwoord Studios: Solutions (Military)

  1. Virtual Training
  2. Handheld and Mobile Apps
  3. Immersive Marketing
  4. Augmented Reality
  5. Simulation Ready Modeling

Conclusion

Do you have thoughts to share on this topic? Feel free to join us in Santa Clara, CA on September 30th. The event is meant for “Entrepreneurs, Intrapreneurs and Investors only. No service providers please.” In addition, I invite you to use the comments section below to share your thoughts on my premise.

 

 


The Future Will See You Now

February 2, 2011

The following is a guest post by Pooky Amsterdam (@PookyMedia).

Introduction

It was Joannis Kepleri in 1634 that first wrote of weightlessness in his book Somnium, or Dream. About a hundred years later, Jonathan Swift would write of two moons of Mars (which would take another 150 years to discover) and Laputa, an island where residents have geometric modeling and knowledge engines.

Jules Verne wrote of rockets, propulsion, undersea mining and a raft of creations too numerous to list. Science Fiction writers have contributed to future ideas and innovation since the genre was invented. Writers from HG Wells, whose babel machine presaged television, to Gene Rodenberry, whose Star Trek imagined so much, have infused our minds with imaginary and fantastic invention.

The Creative Process

And these ideas are taken further, and form the seeds of reality as it will come to be.  Such is the creative process, it must begin somewhere. Paper and pencil allows for anything to be “made,” after being seen in the mind’s eye. You can use words to create anything, then use paper to draw how it looks in two dimensions. What if you can go right to a 3D world, and build futuristic cities, design outfits for the year 3011, and actually design the people who would wear them?

Today you could make those visions and drawings reality in an expensive CGI kind of way, or you could use a graphic novel kind of approach to tell your story while showing vivid creations.  The mind is not now nor has it ever been limited to contemporary tools for story telling or fantastic creations.  Words have sufficed to ensnare the imagination, and immerse the audience since the first campfire. Now we are living and socializing around a virtual campfire, but it glows just as brightly when we gaze into it.

The Virtual World

As it has been said that we didn’t create the universe, so we can not fully understand it. Yet we have created the virtual world, in which we can create anything imaginable. This is done with what are free building tools, in the 3D world of Second Life. While much is recreated to reflect the outworld reality of the residents’ lives, there are opportunities for fantasy, science fiction and historic role-play which are met.  Enthusiastically talented, the creators of Second Life’s vast and stunning array of virtual goods and content contribute much.

The legacy of science fiction has inspired many people to carve out tracks of the grid for space bases, futuristic cities and to sell everything from starships to transporters. All while wearing the latest 2520 fashion. While books give much for our mind’s eye to describe, it is thought out before us. Being able to immerse in a 3D world with other people provides a level of visual storytelling which is unique to us. And that can be unique every day.

A number of traditional media programs have spawned new virtual worlds like the upcoming BattleStar Gallactica, Star Trek, and Star Wars – Clone Wars. What Second Life provides is a way to create a new vision and interpretation, not just re-create and role-play within it. There is a pool of resources within people’s minds that can and is crafted into being. That they can also be sold as an incentive and this encourages a new way of manifesting the future. There are designers and builders in Second Life creating assets and adventures which reflect the same design traditions of classic sci-fi, yet made out of prims.

A New Episode

They also provide a great backdrop and wealth for films. The Future will See You Now is the title of a new episode in our ongoing webseries, Time Travelers, for iHelpLoan and SLFC. Films can not be made without sets, costumes, props and all that makes for great visual story-telling. I feel lucky to be part of this kind of creative world which inspires.

Related Links

  1. Our web site: http://www.pookymediafilms.com/
  2. Our YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RR_xohMrvU

 


Introduction to HuzuTech: A Social Media Software Company

January 17, 2011

Note: The following posting was submitted by Graeme Harvey, Managing Director, HuzuTech

Graeme Harvey is MD of HuzuTech, a social media software company. He’s been involved with HuzuTech since 2009, and before that he started up a successful digital publishing division within Harpercollins publishers, concentrating on online, desktop and mobile application development. There, he developed a digital business that underpinned the Collins Language division – the first of its kind within Harpercollins UK (it included the first e-commerce, e-book and mobile app presence).

Introduction

HuzuTech is a British social and virtual technology company. We’ve just launched our white label virtual world platform, HuzuVirtual, which lets brands, publishers and film or TV production houses create their own branded virtual worlds and online environments – at a fraction of the cost of building one from scratch.

We also white label our own social networking platform, HuzuSocial, which lets brands offer secure social networking facilities (including within a virtual world, through full integration with HuzuVirtual) and the ability to link to Facebook.

Branded communities

We announced the launch of HuzuVirtual at AdTech New York recently, and the response was fantastic. We know that virtual worlds are a huge growth area for publishers and media companies, but what was really interesting was the appetite for brands to create their own communities.

As online communities become integral to brands’ marketing campaigns, there is a reluctance to hand over control of customer data and relationships to a third party like Facebook, and requirements for more sophisticated or bespoke technology to manage those relationships effectively.

Customisation

As a result, our technology is completely customisable, with functionality that includes things like the creation of different virtual environments, rooms or ‘levels’ to the world; avatar creation; virtual (or real) goods shop; fully moderated chat functionality; custom-branded avatars; and special events such as online meetings, concerts, and VIP areas. It’s cloud-based, because it is designed to be able to cope with rapid growth, when the community grows exponentially.

Monetisation

There’s also the thorny issue of monetisation. More and more, brands are seeking to monetise their online environments. Sales of branded goods are expected to grow by more than 100 per cent over the next three years. We’ve included virtual shopping features in HuzuVirtual, and the feedback we’ve had so far has been that brands definitely want to control an environment where customers are paying for their goods.

Demonstrating the Technology

We’ve developed a site to show how the technology works, including some really great features like routing technology (which means an avatar will always follow a path – rather than walking ‘through’ obstacles), and ‘motion’ sensors (see how the car alarms going off when the avatar walks past them) here: http://paperworld.huzutech.com/.

Note: this isn’t a virtual world in itself, but shows the kind of technology we can use. We’re constantly tinkering with it to make it better, and we’re always interested to know what other people think of it.

The first full virtual world built on our platform will be out in around June 2011, and is for Scholastic’s Horrible Histories™ – it’s a great one to be working on and shows how the publishing industry is one of the first to adopt these new technologies to market books.

If you’re interested to know more, visit our website: www.huzutech.com.


Re-Thinking 3D Virtual Worlds Development

November 6, 2010

Introduction

Scratch is a programming language developed by Mitchel Resnick’s research group at MIT Media Lab.  Scratch “makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.”  Scratch was designed for youngsters, to encourage them to build applications and games without having to learn the ins and outs of conventional programming languages.

Scratch programmers use their mouse to snap together blocks to form “stacks”.  The stacks embed actions.  For instance, some blocks allow players to control characters via keystrokes.  Programmers sequence their blocks to create animations and games.  Let’s consider how the concepts behind Scratch could be applied to 3D virtual worlds.

Virtual World Evolution

Previously, I wrote about the evolution of virtual worlds from self-expression to marketing to monetization.  With the concepts behind Scratch, however, I wonder whether a similar framework for 3D virtual worlds can re-ignite the Self-Expression stage.

Wider Adoption via Easier Development Tools

Scratch was created to empower youngsters by making it easier to build computer applications.  A similar approach may be needed to empower creators of 3D virtual worlds.  Let’s face it, creating a virtual world is not easy – it requires specialized skills.  Those who can afford it (e.g. corporations) often outsource 3D virtual world creation to agencies or development shops.

What results is a classic “chicken and egg” problem – the barrier for creation results in less supply (e.g. fewer interesting 3D worlds), which depresses demand (e.g. less people interested in visiting virtual worlds), which keeps the supply low (e.g. less interest to create them, since no one will visit).

This phenomenon may explain why IMVU is thriving, while other services (e.g. There.com, Google Lively, Vivaty) have folded.  IMVU brings the world to you – that is, the self-expression is focused around your avatar, rather than building worlds.  It’s easy to customize your avatar – and, if you’re so inclined, you can design virtual clothing and accessories, that are then made available to other users within IMVU.

Importance of Feedback Mechanisms

Scratch has two feedback mechanisms that are central to its success.  First, users can see the result of their work (in real-time) as they’re building the application.  The conventional cycle of computer programming is “code, run, debug” – with Scratch, you don’t debug, so much as you adjust your application as you go.

The second feedback mechanism comes from the Scratch community. Users can upload their application and have others post comments and suggestions.  This gives programmers the positive reinforcement behind their work (e.g. there’s an audience for my creation), which creates more incentives to create more applications and be part of an active community.

Both mechanisms could be effective in 3D virtual world creation.  The community aspect, in fact, addresses the chicken and egg problem, as the developers create an audience for each other – and can encourage their network of friends and colleagues to visit virtual worlds that they’ve found and reviewed.

Open Sourcing, Sharing and Remixing

The name “Scratch” is derived from the way disc jockeys scratch records to re-mix existing songs into new creations.  Community members can view the code for any uploaded Scratch application and are free to re-mix and modify existing applications.

This is a tried and true way to learn computer programming – take someone’s existing program, study the source code, then add some pieces to it.  Once you’ve done that a few times, you’re ready to write your own program from scratch (pun intended).

Sharing and re-mixing makes it easier to get started, will encourage wider adoption and is sure to generate interesting creations.  Imagine if a similar framework existed for 3D virtual worlds.

Conclusion

One of the prominent barriers to 3D virtual world adoption is the lack of easy creation tools.  Let’s learn from what MIT Media Lab has created with Scratch and see if we can apply their concepts to 3D virtual worlds.  How about it?

Related Links

  1. August 2008, NewScientist, “Creating your own computer game is child’s play
  2. March 2009, Wired, “Scratch Lowers Resistance to Programming
  3. May 2008, American Libraries, “Minds at Play

Virtual Mingle Rooms: Show Them What You’re Talking About

November 1, 2010

The following is a guest post by Daniel Ruscigno of Mingleverse.

Introduction

Mingleverse is a new service offering browser-based virtual rooms where 2 to 50 people can get together to talk using 3D audio while watching various types of media together (pictures, presentations, videos, webcam, screen broadcasting, etc).

Although predominantly a consumer-facing service, Mingleverse is used not only by friends and family in Facebook, but also by teachers and trainers, and small businesses.  However, the most interesting adoption has been with authors and athletes who are using their Mingle Room to mingle live with their fans.

Use Cases

For example, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell had a live virtual mingle with 25 of his fans, where they were all able to ask him questions about his books and his future writing plans.  Gladwell mingled from the comfort of his New York apartment and came into the room via webcam for all of the fans to see.  He commented afterwards that it really did feel like meeting 25 new people, and the fans were ecstatic that they got to meet their favorite author.

The Vancouver Canucks NHL team have also taken advantage of Mingleverse’s virtual Mingle Rooms by embedding one directly on their website.  After each home game the Canucks invite their fans to join the Mingle Room to talk about the night’s game, watch live post game interviews and press conferences together, and watch highlights streamed directly from YouTube.

There are now several professional sports teams who are looking to be the leaders in live fan interaction and are excited about providing fans the opportunity to mingle live with players and coaches.

Conclusion

As Mingleverse has shown, virtual world technologies allow us to become more interactive with people from all over the world and can afford us new opportunities not regularly available in our daily physical lives.  As we adopt these new technologies, perhaps our celebrity idols will ask you to meet them in their Mingle Room in their next tweet!

You can try Mingleverse for free at http://mingleverse.com or through the Mingleverse Facebook Application.

Related: Mingleverse picks up $1.4M in seed funding for video conferencing with cardboard cutouts (from VentureBeat, Dec 2010)


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