VWBPE 2014: Philip Rosedale keynote – but is technology really the key to mass adoption?

On Wednesday April 9th, the 2014 Virtual Worlds Best practices in Education conference opened with a keynote address by Philip Rosedale. In it, he covers a lot of the ground he laid-out at the SVVR meet-up at the end of March (which I’ve covered here) in terms of communications in virtual worlds, although things were at times couched in more general terms than being specifically framed by demonstrations of some of High Fidelity has been doing.

The following is the official video of the presentation, recorded by Mal Burns on behalf of VWBPE. Timestamps within the notes indicate the points at which Philip’s exactly comments can be heard.

After a brief introduction by Kevin Phelan (Phelan Corrimal in SL), Philip provides a short overview of Rosedale’s own attraction to virtual worlds – born out of a desire to “building crazy things” which extended into imagining what it would be like to build a virtual world able to mimic the richness of the real world. In this, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is mentioned, as is Second Life’s role as a pioneer and validation of what might be achieved if the right tools were in place that would enable a billion, rather than a million, people engage in virtual world spaces.

[12:30] He particularly sees the mouse and the keyboard as major barriers to entry, as they require complex manipulation (keystrokes and mouse movements) to achieve avatar movement, while limiting communications by disallowing facial expressions and / or natural gestures. In this he points to emerging hardware such as the Razer Hydra, Sixense Stem and 3D cameras as overcoming these limitations and opening the floodgates to virtual world adoption.

[23:55] Latency is also raised as a bugaboo issue as well. While I agree that reducing the level of latency is good for communications, I’m not convinced by all of the arguments put forward (for example, I doubt most people using a mobile ‘phone are even aware of the 500 millisecond delay, much less finding it a reason to loathe using their cellphone), which is not to say I think that latency isn’t an issue worthy of being addressed as far as might be possible.

[31:50] Identity disclosure, and our right to determine what is disclosed of our identity and how is very much a fundamental part of trusted use of any system, and as such, is key to the future of virtual worlds. This is something he has spoken about at SVVR and has blogged on the subject as well, indicating that the level of trust sought and identity given should, as with real life, be more fluid, depending upon what we’re doing and where we’re going. This spills over into areas of commerce and into the idea of having the freedom to move around between the kind of multiple worlds the metaverse is envisaged as being, and doing so with confidence and trust in the different environments and having control over what we are willing to reveal to those environments, rather than having them determine what they should take.

[35:07] For Virtual worlds to really grow, he believes they need to be more like the Internet, with people running their own servers and links between them operating much like the Web does today, allowing for complete continuous interconnectedness between servers and worlds, built upon open-source software (again: trust), and which can be properly scaled – such as through High Fidelity’s examination of distributed computing (again, as I point-out in covering the SVVR talk – think SETI@home).

[49:50] Q&A.

The presentation is interesting, and couched in general terms rather than being specific to High Fidelity – which is not inappropriate for the venue. Little of it comes over as hype or a sales pitch. I found the comments on identity, together with the statements made at SVVR and in the High Fidelity blog post, to be very much on-message and highly relevant. The distributed computing approach is an interesting idea as well, and possibly one with a lot of potential if the right value proposition is offered to people – such as rewarding them with crypto-currency credits they can spend on goods and services (or even cash-out over time?).

Where I do perhaps have an issue with things is in the view that the only barrier to the mass adoption of VWs is primarily that of technology. The latter can certainly enhance our experiences once we’re in a virtual world, no doubt about that. There is also no denying that with something like SL, more needs to be done to reduce that initial learning curve for someone entering the environment.

Are motion controllers and the like really the key to unlocking people’s ability to recognise virtual worlds as a value proposition for their time or is something else actually required? (image courtesy of Razer Hydra)

However, like it or not, springboarding VWs into mainstream adoption isn’t purely a technical issue, there is a social element as well. There needs to be compelling reasons to encourage people to turn to VWs instead of other possible options. Facial recognition software and motion controllers may well be wonderful for translating your expressions and gestures to an avatar when communicating with someone on the other side of the world, but frankly, so is a webcam and monitor screen. As such, for many, the technology will not be the value proposition that will encourage them to be more involved in VWs. There needs to be something more.

The need for a real value proposition is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Pamela in the 8th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour. She dismisses any involvement in a virtual world because she sees no advantage in it compared to what she can do now. hers is unlikely to be a minority attitude.

That Philip Rosedale dismisses this social element so readily in the Q&A session isn’t entirely surprising – he is a technologist, after all – but given his experience in the field, it is disappointing. Technology can and will make immersive VW environments a lot easier to use, for sure. But I suspect the company or group that really cracks the nut of presenting VWs in terms of compelling, mainstream activities people believe should see as a daily part of their lives is actually going to be more responsible for unlocking the door to mass adoption than the company or group that provides a technologically superior means of accessing a VW.

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5 thoughts on “VWBPE 2014: Philip Rosedale keynote – but is technology really the key to mass adoption?

  1. Pamela’s argument in TDFRH‘s 8th segment was extremely powerful and, quite frankly, it exposed how the infatuation with the Rift and all the “new” (because the concepts aren’t new at all) VR gadgets has led to a disconnect between “insiders”‘ perception of what can be done with VR and VWs and the desires, needs and perceptions of people outside VWs. Quite frankly, she wiped the floor with him, and she really is not alone in thinking that VWs serve no real need.

    I have a personal example from our RL. Around that time, me and my fiancé had a chat with a friend of ours; a mechanical engineer who is a huge fan of the Rift/Hydra (or Leap Motion or Myo or whatever)/Virtuix combination, but utterly dismissive of virual worlds. His exact words were: “In Second Life, you become and do what you don’t have the balls to become and do in real life. So, people should get a life.”

    Of course, his view was borderline racist towards the many people for whom virtual worlds are an expressive and even vocational outlet for reasons that have little to do with psychological and societal issues (although I’m not sure how many people can afford to go against the grain of societal limitations and peer pressure). He conveniently ignored, dismissed and downplayed the fact that virtual worlds offer an outlet to people with debilitating disabilities or other serious health issues.

    But here’s the issue: Such views – both Pamela’s well-structured and well-built arguments, and our friend’s shallow stance – are the mainstream view of virtual worlds in general, and of Second Life in particular.

    The perception of Second Life as a 3D cybersex platform (like IMVU, only with fewer users), or as a haven for griefers and maladjusted idiots is something that both Linden Lab’s historic ineptitude at both marketing and media relations/communications has done exactly nothing to change. Remember, most of SL’s marketing peddles the platform not as a shared creative space, but as a meat market (like Facebook, OKcupid, Hi5 – anyone remember it? – etc).

    And as far as media relations are concerned, after the “Golden Days” unrealistic overhyping for which the Lab was responsible and accountable (and Philip himself had a good share of that responsibility, promoting pipedreams as short-term predictions), and after Mark Kingdon left, they basically left the arena, thus allowing the very media that once fawned over SL (as it was the hot thing of the day) to deride it as a “dead in the water” platform and, much worse, even define it.

    There’s no worse failure in the business world than allowing the “business world” media to define what you are. The Lab needs to push its own definition of what it is, and what its products and platforms are. But, first and foremost, it needs to actually sit down and come up with such definitions, impose them on their marketing team, and promote them.

    As for other claims, such as the bit where Philip effectively told us that technology would bring VWs billions of users… Well, both he and the other pundits will have to excuse me while I remind myself of his (and theirs) track record and take these predictions with a 50-kg bag of kosher salt.

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  2. Philip seems to have a business plan that embraces education as a route to large numbers of users/students on MOOC platforms. Part of this involves improved non-verbal communication. While this may well be important, it doesn’t seem to scale well to the situations he was envisaging, to paraphrase “imagine being able to see the teacher respond to your question right in front of you”. On the other hand David Gibson’s keynote also came to the conclusion that MOOCs as presently configured were broken and would eventually be replaced by game-based learning predicated on a deep psychometric understanding of the learning process. As with the keynote presentation by Andrew Hughes (and his team of 10), it was difficult to divine the immediate take-home message for the average teacher working with much smaller classes in virtual worlds (most likely the majority at VWBPE). Both did, however, support game-based approaches and in my (biased) opinion these are most readily implemented by teachers using virtual world technology. Both Gibson and Hughes were also working with the Rift but I think it would be a leap to say that the evidence shows use of this device translates to improved learning. Time will tell.

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  3. I feel quite strongly that more hardware is not a viable path forward. In my experience a significant percentage of participants in SL do so on a shoestring RL budget. Their computers / graphics cards hobble along at the lowest of settings (Atmospheric shaders, longer draw distances, etc. are use selectively and cautiously if at all), their internet connections are slow, even intermittent, they have free accounts and what money they have in SL comes from some kind of job there. In short expecting these people and the many others who stretched their RL budgets for somewhat better hardware for a better SL to spend money on fancy sensors and trackers is naive at best. You can bet they will not leave their computers on 24/7 to support a seti style virtual network .
    SLGo may offer a partial way forward for SL. If LL were to offer a reasonable number of hours of SLGo+stipend as an alternative Premium membership plan, they may be able to move enough people to be able to up the minimum system requirements to assume everyone has the latest OpenGL version. Now THAT could make a difference!
    I expect Philip to be the dreamer he always has been. This dream, I expect, will never fall to earth.

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    1. I was fighting hard not to delve into the additional burden of cost writing this piece. But you’re right, cost is an issue. There will be those who will be less compelled to try a VW when they see it comes with an additional hardware price tag running into the hundreds of dollars just so they can be on a par with everyone else in that world.

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  4. What has the telephone ever done to upset Philip so much? Be it land lines or mobiles, Philip seems to see issues with them that I don’t, I’ve hardly ever heard anyone talk about the latency issue, especially with modern phones.

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