Virtual Berlin Relocates To Downtown San Francisco

April 6, 2009

Source: Twinity

Source: Twinity

At Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week, one of the exhibitors who caught my attention was Twinity – the virtual world from Berlin-based Metaversum.  On occasion of their appearance at Web 2.0, the company issued a press release with the entertaining title, “Metaversum Takes 16 Square Miles of the German Capital to San Francisco with Twinty.”  I stopped by the Twinity booth (which, interestingly, was part of a larger presence from the city of Berlin) and received a demo of Virtual Berlin from Twinity’s CMO, Mirko Caspar.

Twinity is not unlike other virtual worlds businesses – but their unique angle is in the creation of real-life representations of cities, with each block, each building, each sidewalk recreated down to a pixel by pixel level of detail.  In fact, the Twinity motto is “powered by real life”.  I find their approach to virtual worlds interesting:

  1. Real world cities – with generic virtual worlds, any given resident has only a certain likelihood of visiting the land or island you create.  What Twinity does is start with world famous cities (e.g. Berlin, London [coming soon]) – places that everyone on Earth has heard of and might want to visit (virtually).  Whether I’ve visited Berlin or not, I might like to visit its virtual represetation – to explore a new city (if I’ve never been there) or to recall spots from my past visit – and, see how the current city has changed from the last time I visited.
  2. Land scarcity – unlike a generic virtual world, where land development is only limited by the dollars invested in new land sales, Twinity’s approach is a methodical launch schedule of selected cities.  This creates a certain level of demand and pricing power (in the cities that do exist) compared to a virtual land grab where hundreds of islands are developed over the course of a few months.  I compare it to a baseball park that consistently sells out its 30,000 seats (at a premium) vs. a McStadium of 70,000 seats that may never sell out a game.

The Twinity business model is based on four pillars:

  1. Dynamic in-world advertising (via partnership with JOGO Media)
  2. Product placement and sponsorship – with sponsorship, one can host events, in-world, for instance
  3. V-commerce and E-commerce – generate sales in-world – or, generate an e-commerce transaction that occurs outside of Twinity
  4. Virtual real estate market

In addition, Twinity has a freemium model, where basic membership is free, with premium membershp benefits available at additional cost.

I asked Caspar about the potential for cybersquatting of land assets in Virtual Berlin – for instance, what if I purchased the virtual office of a Fortune 500 company, but they come in later to claim the rights to it?  Caspar responded that certain real estate is reserved by Twinity (e.g. a national musuem, a government facility, etc.).  For business-related land, however, it’s all fair game and “first come, first served” with regard to virtual land purchase.

Twinity, however, enforces certain rules in its user agreement – if Adidas purchased the virtual land of Niketown, then Adidas would not be permitted to use their logo on virtual land associated with Nike (as an example).

Twinity is currently in public beta with Virtual Berlin the first available city.  Virtual London is on tap – and, Twinity was awarded a grant from the Singapore government to build a Virtual Singapore.  Given Twinity’s recent visit to the Bay Area, one has to wonder whether San Francisco is up next.


Philip Rosedale On Building A Business: Practice Extreme Transparency

April 2, 2009

Source: Linden Lab

Source: Linden Lab

At the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Philip Rosedale (Founder and Chairman of Linden Lab) gave a fascinating presentation titled “Extreme Transparency: Virtual Worlds, the Love Machine, and Other Practical Things That Actually Work in a 300 Person Company“.  Rosedale spoke of his methodology for growing Linden Lab (creators of the virtual world Second Life) from a small team working out of a warehouse on Linden Alley (in San Francisco) to a 320-person, profitable company with multiple locations across the globe.

Instead of a top-down approach to building the business – which starts with a grand vision and then trickles down to all the details that allow that vision to unfold – Rosedale decided to take a bottom-up approach.  An Engineer (and physicist) by trade, Rosedale was very hands-on during the early days – code that he wrote back then still resides in the Second Life software today.

Rosedale’s concept of extreme transparency means that each individual knows what every other individual is working on, accomplishing, doing, etc.  His analogy is one of a sports team (where transparency comes in the form of player statistics).  That’s not to say that Rosedale believes employees should be represented by numerical scores – rather, information should flow freely regarding each and everyone.  When that occurs, Rosedale belives that traditional management (of people) is simplified – and you end up spending much less time managing and more time doing.

Rosedale spoke of an interesting internal application called The Love Machine – an internally developed web site that allows employees to send a message of thanks to another employee.  The web site lists “Sender”, “Recipient”, “Description”, “Time Posted” and scrolls in real-time as new Love is posted.  A posting of Love autogenerates an email, such that if Rosedale entered a posting, the recipient would receive an email with a Subject heading of “Love from Philip”.

I think the point here is that “thanks” is such an easy thing to say, but how often is it really done in a business setting?  Not enough – that is, unless you have a tool (like Love Machine) to foster and facilitate it.  Rosedale noted that transparency needs to be granular – and these love posts are as granular as it gets.  Linden Lab has a data and metrics-driven culture – so of course, Rosedale presented a slide that plotted average love received per employee – to show that the trend line goes up (as more people use the tool to give thanks).

Rosedale next spoke about a Linden profit sharing plan – a certain amount of the company’s profits are divided equally among all employees – everyone from Rosedale down to individual contributors receives the same amount.  But then, employees are asked to distribute their shares to colleagues whom they feel deserving of it.  Rosedale found that profits were shared equally across functional roles (so as an example, Development did not receive an unfair share of the profits compared to another department).  This goes against conventional wisdom, which might say that certain groups would receive more favor than others.

A neat side effect of this plan is that executives get to uncover the hidden heroes of your business – those who did not have full exposure to senior management, but are highly appreciated by the masses.  The result is that their visibility in the organization is heightened – and those heroes become better appreciated.

With regard to data – Rosedale suggests that companies define the metrics that are important to the business.  Then, visualize them and keep them constantly updated.  Linden Lab leverages flat panel displays in many of their offices to display key metrics (via real-time charts).  Total simultaneous users is an important chart – if the count suddenly drops, everyone stops what they’re doing!  Linden Lab provides each employee with a personalized dashboard tool, where metrics can be dragged and dropped in – so, each employee watches (in real-time) data that’s important to them.

On measuring engagement within Second Life, metrics of importance to Linden Lab include average session length, number of Linden dollars spent and retention (since 85% of new sign-ups are gone within the first month).  Of course, a natural platform for transparency within Linden Lab is Second Life itself – and Rosedale spoke of its use for internal meetings.  Rosedale did a demo of the famed Virtual Isabel conference room, which is an in-world representation of a physical conference room at Linden’s headquarters.  A video stream of the physical conference is piped in-world and in the physical conference room, folks can go in-world from their laptops.

One audience member asked how Rosedale handles the media hype cycle – with media coverage today not as positive regarding Second Life compared to a year or two ago.  Rosedale pointed back to his key metrics – and noted that those metrics (e.g. total hours, total Linden dollars spent, etc.) continue to maintain a steady and healthy trend upward.  And that’s what matters most to him (and not what the media thinks).  Rosedale then made a casual reference to the open source movement, in which he’s become more involved of late.

For more info on the culture of Linden, their web site has a page focused on The Tao of Linden.


Insights And Experiences From Virtual Worlds Experts

March 9, 2009

On Monday evening, I attended FountainBlue’s High Tech Entrepreneurs’ Forum at Microsoft’s Mountain View (CA) campus – the event was titled Virtual Worlds: The Hype, The Reality, The In-Between and was sponsored by Microsoft and TIPS Group.  FountainBlue, a “membership-based, for-profit, collaborative organization designed to positively impact the way people, businesses and organizations work,” has organized a new sub-group around virtual worlds, which officially launched coincident with Monday evening’s event.

FountainBlue landed a true All-Star panel of Virtual Worlds visionaries and experts.  Each panel member provided thoughts on virtual worlds and then took questions from the audience.  A summary of each panelist’s thoughts follows.

UPDATE: FountainBlue has posted a summary of this event on their blog.

Steve Nelson – EVP, Chief Strategy Officer, Clear Ink

Steve is EVP and Co-Founder of Clear Ink, an interactive agency based in Berkeley, CA, who has many “claims to fame” in Second Life development. Among their Second Life projects was a simulcast of the 2008 TED Conference (in Monterey), an appearance by Newt Gingrich in-world, the development of a virtual headquarters for Linden Labs and an in-world island in conjunction with the popular sitcom The Office.

Steve started with his definition of “virtual world” – a social platform that’s immediate and immersive – quite a relevant and apt definition, if you ask me.  Steve stressed the immersiveness of 3D virtual worlds by comparing a webinar viewed “standalone” with one viewed in-world.  Steve noted higher retention and recall rates of the in-world viewing – as viewers of traditional webinars are far from immersed – instead, they’re checking their email and multitasking with other apps on their workstation.

Steve noted that Clear Ink assists companies in virtual worlds via three e’s:

  1. Expectations
  2. Experience
  3. Experimentation

In closing, Steve noted five business models for generating revenue with virtual worlds:

  1. Own the virtual world platform
  2. Sell virtual goods
  3. Create virtual worlds tools and utilities
  4. Be an agency – design, consulting, etc.
  5. Use virtual worlds effectively as an enterprise – save money and be a more effective company

Robin Harper – Former VP of Marketing and Community Development, Linden Labs

Robin took us back to the very early days of Second Life and noted that in the initial development stage, Linden Labs thought the platform was about facilitating entertainment.  Fast forward to today and Robin believes that virtual worlds are so much more than entertainment.  In the past 18 months alone, Robin notes that growth in Second Life has been driven by education and enterprise (which each have grown by 2x in that period).  There is an increased use for simulation, prototyping, design and experiential learning.  60,000 residents are profitable (meaning they generate revenue that exceeds their land costs) and the top resident grossed over $1.7MM in US dollars (real money) by selling virtual shoes.

Robin notes that the power of virtual worlds lies in the collaborative tools that are provided with minimal constraints. She compared the development of virtual worlds to the development of third world countries – growth is facilitated by allowing residents to own their own land, own the intellectual property (of their land assets) and participate in an economy that fuels commerce.  Important areas of development today are “behind the firewall” applications, as well as interoperability across worlds.

UPDATE from Robin Harper: I’d like to clarify the statement attributed to me above. The figures I reported were originally estimates based on one quarter of data, so should not be taken as more than an annualized estimate. In addition, my reference to the sale of virtual shoes was in the context of the types of industries that are generating return in Second Life. In the top group of earners based on the estimates, most were involved in the land business, and a couple were in other businesses like events management and retail/virtual goods, including shoes. For more information, please see my blog: http://couldtherebewhales.blogspot.com/2009/03/correction.html

Michael Gialis – New Business Development, Sun Microsystems

Michael works in Sun Labs, with a focus on online gaming and virtual worlds.  Sun’s technologies in this space are Project Darkstar, Project Wonderland and Project Sun SPOT.  Michael notes that the #1 barrier to virtual worlds adoption is the non-intuitive nature of the client application.  Michael’s comments stirred some discussion among the panel regarding enhanced client capabilities, such as the use of sensors in lieu of keystrokes.  Robin noted that Mitch Kapor is experimenting with a 3D camera – when you smile, your avatar smiles. Some panelists, however, noted that some contexts may require separation between your true feelings and your avatar’s expressions – for instance, in a learning environment, you may not always want your true emotions to be on display.

Anne-Marie Roussel – Business Development Director, Microsoft

Anne-Marie manages Microsoft’s digital media portfolio, which includes Xbox, Zune and MediaRoom.  Anne-Marie noted Microsoft’s early efforts in the virtual world with its Flight Simulator game – which in turn led to the development of a product called Microsoft ESP (for 3D visualization).  Anne-Marie gave the interesting example of leveraging virtual worlds for training sales staff – if you sell Ferraris, then your clientele are much different from those buying Fords, so a virtual world can train sales staff on how to interact with prospective customers and face the sorts of questions/issues that Ferrari buyers are sure to present you with.  Anne-Marie spoke of Microsoft Virtual Earth and noted work being done to marry its 3D visual maps with crime scene data (to assist local law enforcement).

Susan Stucky – Manager, Service System Design, IBM Almaden Research Center

Susan noted that IBM’s involvement in virtual worlds is not to be a platform provider – instead, IBM is platform agnostic.  Susan’s interest in the virtual world is to achieve results that would be harder to accomplish in the real world.  One example noted was the practicing of negotiations of complex deals – reviewers (of the deal maker) could provide a virtual thumbs up or thumbs down.  Trainees could then replay the segment and view the feedback as it occurred.  Susan spoke of the need to capture data to better understand in-world behavior.  IBM Researchers developed technology to take audio chat, utilize voice-to-text to transcribe it and then perform unstructured text analysis to decipher patterns of behavior.  Susan also spoke of IBM’s Sametime 3D initiative and referenced the use of Second Life to facilitate a virtual meeting for IBM’s Academy of Technology.

If you’re interested in related events from FountainBlue, have a look at their events calendar.


For Virtual Worlds Info, Here’s Whom I Follow on Twitter (and Why)

January 16, 2009

Author's "Twitter Home"

Source: Author's "Twitter Home"

The pace of change and innovation is quite brisk in the area of virtual worlds and virtual tradeshows.  How does one keep up with the pace? One tool that I use is Twitter, the popular and very useful microblogging platform.  As it relates to virtual worlds, my uses of Twitter are:

  1. Find the news of the day – I check Twitter (and FriendFeed, too) with my morning coffee, in the same way I might have walked down the driveway to pick up the morning newspaper (when I was a kid, of course!).  My RSS feeds in Google Reader are good, but I often find more applicable and more timely virtual worlds news via the folks I follow on Twitter.
  2. Stay connected with the metaverse – I discover the influencers (and, who may soon be an influencer) and keep tabs on the chatter and commentary related to virtual worlds.
  3. Distribute information – Guy Kawasaki has blogged about how he leverages his Twitter network to generate interest in Alltop.com.  You can find one relevant post here: http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2008/12/how-to-use-twit.html.  I’ll often let my Twitter followers know about new blog posts that I’ve authored.  In fact, you may notice that I’ve done just that for this blog posting!
  4. Source new business contacts and leads – Twitter moves in two directions – you follow (and receive benefits from) others, but you ought to “give back” and share information that the community (and your followers) may find useful.  When you do that, you find that your list of followers starts growing magically (Twitter users are eager to follow others have a way of finding you), which, in turn, expands your universe of potential business partners.  In fact, you may find that business opportunities will come finding you, without any action on your part (aside from being active on Twitter) – it’s happened to me, for sure.

I follow 253 people on Twitter.  Among those, I’ll provide a short list of the folks I follow specifically for virtual worlds info (and why):

  1. @malburns: Mal Burns has made 29,696 updates on Twitter, most of which are about virtual worlds news.  I don’t quite know how he can be so prodigious, but I do know that I check his tweets to get the latest news each day.  For virtual worlds, he’s my Daily News and New York Times in one
  2. @epredator: Ian Hughes is a metaverse evangelist at IBM (based in the UK) and a blogger at eightbar – he has lots of interesting insights into the metaverse.  See related interviews that I did with Ian: Part 1 and Part 2
  3. @NickWilson and @OnderSkall – Nick Wilson and Caleb Booker (OnderSkall) are executives at Clever Zebra, a virtual worlds business.  Caleb publishes a weekly “Business in Virtual Worlds News Roundup” on his blog that’s loaded with lots of useful links and articles.  Here’s a sample: http://www.calebbooker.com/blog/2009/01/11/business-in-virtual-worlds-news-roundup-jan-5-11-2009/
  4. @skribe – skribe Forti is a Digital Media Consultant at Skribe Productions – he has his fingers on the pulse of the (virtual) world
  5. @Dusanwriter – Doug Thompson is CEO of Remedy Communications who travels in the virtual world as Dusan Writer.  He blogs about virtual worlds at http://dusanwriter.com/
  6. @reubstock – Reuben Steiger is CEO of Millions of Us (http://millionsofus.com/blog/)
  7. ADDED: @Consiliera – Gaby K. Benkwitz is “Futurist, consultant, educator” who links to articles and blog entries about the metaverse.  I also subscribe to her excellent newsfeed on Friendfeed: http://friendfeed.com/rooms/metaversenews

I’m sure I’m missing some key people – so drop a comment below to let me know whom else I should be following for virtual worlds info – and, I’ll follow them!

Of course, if you want to follow me, I’m at @dshiao.


A Real Government Goes Virtual

January 4, 2009

Washington Post

Source: Washington Post

O Brave New World That Has Such Avatars in It! That’s the title of a Sunday article in The Washington Post by Michael Laris, in which he describes the efforts of the Arlington County (Virginia) government to create a presence in Second Life.  Here’s the basic idea:

Curious executives can swing by to gather market research aimed at luring grocery chains to Arlington. County officials can conduct presentations on an interactive white board as they promote the region to corporate prospects. And later this month, anyone interested will be able to join a confab on how to launch a business in Arlington.

Apparently, the Washington area has become a hotbed activity for virtual worlds:

The Bethesda-based National Library of Medicine, for instance, has created in Second Life a potentially noxious world of everyday health hazards called Tox Town, where clicking on a tower in a dusty construction site produces a list of the chemical properties of neighborhood runoff.

At the University of the District of Columbia, criminal justice students practice investigations and patrols and deal with such imaginary perp behavior as the attempted theft of Professor Angelyn Flowers’s pink convertible.

Other designers have created in Second Life a virtual Capitol Hill, where plans are afoot for a white-tie inaugural ball Jan. 20. Instructions are forthcoming on how to find a good tux.

I admire this initiative by Arlington County and encourage other governments (local, county, State and Federal) to follow suit.  I see the following benefits:

  1. The world becomes flatter and smaller, as governments get closer to their constituents (and vice versa)
  2. Governments may be able to save costs (imagine that) by utilizing the online/virtual world to connect with residents, rather than connecting in person at physical locations
  3. Assuming a critical mass of audience within the virtual world (I know, we’re not yet there), governments can efficiently distribute information, in the form of updated rules/regulations/bylaws, government news.  Also, how about regular visits by the County Executive within the virtual world
  4. Residents/constituents will feel more connected to their government, which will spur increased involvement in the community

The man behind Arlington’s virtual presence if John Feather, who is volunteering his time to make it happen.  For me, the following quote from Feather hits home:

For Feather, helping nudge the county into Second Life has opened a creative spigot.

In November, he started working on a 3D map of Arlington’s major buildings. Touching images on the map calls up Web pages about them, and he and his colleagues want to add real-time rent data and detailed visuals from architects and developers so that “when you click on that building, you go in the door.”

Such technology will eclipse standard Web sites, including the county’s, Feather said. “You’ll start to walk around places instead of going to flat pages.”

I agree – web pages will increasingly have the same 3D and interactive elements found in virtual worlds.  Web 2.0 has been fun, but the next phase of the Internet is going to be Web 3D-dot-oh.


Bringing Virtual Worlds to The Blind

December 30, 2008

 

IBM alphaWorks Services

Source: IBM alphaWorks Services

According to Wikipedia, approximately 40 million people in the world are blind.  IBM’s alphaWorks Services division has embarked on a noble project aimed to benefit these 40 million.  Called “Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind”, an overview can be found here:

http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/virtualworlds/

And an FAQ document here:

http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/virtualworlds/virtualworldsFAQ.pdf

The service currently works with Second Life (only), but IBM may support additional virtual worlds in the future.  If they do add such support, they’ll tie new virtual worlds into the existing client, so that users only need to learn a single application.

With the IBM application, a virtual world is rendered via text (no graphics) and sighted users have the ability to annotate objects of the virtual worlds via text descriptions or recorded audio.

The implementers chose to leverage some open source and off-the-shelf technology:

The user interface is a Web application, a thin client running locally in the Firefox browser that communicates with Second Life through an agent on our server. The application is implemented partly with the JavaScript programming language, and it uses Dojo Toolkit widgets to provide a virtual world user interface that is entirely keyboard-navigable and screen reader-friendly. Nothing is permanently installed on the user’s computer. 

The system also uses Quicktime (to play event sound prompts and verbal annotations) and NVDA (an open source screen reader).  IBM recommends the use of the open source software Audacity for recording the verbal narrations).

I commend IBM for this effort and admire the flexibility and openness they’ve chosen in the implementation.


Interview with Ian Hughes, Metaverse Evangelist (part 2 of 2)

December 17, 2008

And here’s Part 2 of my interview with Ian Hughes, Metaverse Evangelist at IBM:

  1. What do you see as the biggest opportunity for users of virtual worlds? For users, well we are all users. As a user there is the opportunity to gather the right people, the right resources and do what you want to do. This applies to web 2.0 as much as to VW’s specifically in my opinion. That means as a social user, connecting with friends, as a business user connecting with customers and colleagues. As a mastery of these environments lets people choose to lead groups and people choosing to follow, to gather the right people they need to complete some task it removes the need for many structures that add cost and overhead. Virtual worlds and the web in general lets people get things done, just by doing it. With a connection you don’t need to find property to have an office, you don’t need to all be in the same physical place at the same time, local becomes global.  That leads to a new breed of entrepreneur, that already exists and that can be anyone. So there are a whole host of business problems that can be solved, and opportunities to be explored. In a sense it has made all business open source, not just the operating system, browser or software platform. That leads to innovation and opportunity. Or you can just have fun too 🙂
  1. What’s the best business use you’ve seen in a virtual world? Most of the best business uses I have seen really has been around internal communication inside the enterprise. To be able to seamlessly gather your colleagues for a meeting, to have a pre-event mingle as often happens, to then launch into the crux of the meeting with all the resources available to you, to action the decisions whilst in the meeting then to leave the virtual world and carry on. That is the best business use. That is done on all sorts of platforms, in all sorts of ways. It is not one application, not one use, but it does weave into general day to day workflow. The post event conversations, the serendipity, the memory of the meeting “oh when you sat opposite in Hursley house and you said….” are all fantastic secondary benefits to the one of not having to travel quite as much.
  2. What’s the neatest consumer application you’ve seen? One of my favourite consumer applications has to be Timeless Protoype’s multi-gadget in Second Life.  In particular the fact that it has those wonderful multi-chairs. They indicate to people the dynamic nature of the spaces in virtual worlds. You simply drop a chair and table, or fire and log, and if you sit down, it creates another chair, someone else sits and the circle widens again. Its an instant meeting point of reference, chair and table a little more formal than log and fire. Those chairs are all over the place, in many meeting places and for us in eightbar also seem culturally significant.
  3. What keeps you up at night? Trying to figure out why everyone has not got the point of all this yet, why there is still a fear, or a suspicion about how these things all work. Why the heck people don’t share more information with colleagues and friends. The important thing is not that we have the perfect implementation right now, because that can’t happen. 1) This has to keep evolving 2) even if it was perfect people would still be scared as there is a huge cultural change in communicating on the web anyway.
  4. What’s next? We should keep in mind there could be a revolution waiting to happen to. A mode of interacting that is not the common model that 99% of metaverses currently use, of avatars and islands, rooms, spaces.  The real what’s next though in my mind is 3d printing, or rapid fabrication. We have an increasingly cheaper way to make data come to life as a physical object. To make the virtual real. Virtual worlds then become a design and delivery platform for product. If you need something buy it online, don’t have it shipped, but print it out locally. Its taking the principles of long tail usually applied to data only products, like music and film and changing that to apply to mobile phone covers, cups and saucers, washers, toys almost anything. The 3d printers we have today are getting very much cheaper, the design tools for 3d have got more accessible with the rise of virtual worlds. We can have things designed, even try them out in the virtual world, buy them, use them virtually, but have them also brought into physical form. I had my avatar printed by http://www.fabjectory.com a few years ago now. The avatar is my design, my green hair, my leather jacket, my eightbar t-shirt and wearing the Reebok trainers bought and customized in-world.   Imagine being able to print anything you need anywhere in the world, a local 3d printer in a remote village would allow an engineer to deliver a solution to broken water pump in seconds, not require mass parts built all over the world, shipped all over the world and packaged in non eco-friendly boxes. Just print what you need, when and where you need it.  It’s not perfect, not there yet, but going the right way.  The rise of the fabricaneur  in virtual worlds is the next wave of manufacturing and design.

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