The Drax Files Radio Hour: Tony Parisi and the web as the home of VR

radio-hourEpisode #26 of  The Drax Files Radio Hour was posted on Friday July 4th. Marking the 5th interview segment while the “regular” podcasts are on hiatus for the summer. It features none other than the remarkable Tony Parisi.

As usual, and as well as being available on the show’s website and on Stitcher, episode #26 is also on YouTube, and that version is also embedded at the end of this article.

For those not familiar with the name, Tony Parisi is the co-creator of the VRML and X3D ISO standards for networked 3D graphics, and a 3D technology innovator. He’s a career CTO / software architect and entrepreneur, has and is serving on a number working groups, and may also be familiar to some as one of the SVVR Creating the VR Metaverse panel in April 2014.

Tony Parisi (via SVVR)

Tony Parisi (via SVVR.com)

In June he published a blog post entitled Virtually Anywhere, which serves as the launching point for the interview. In that post, he makes the case for the metaverse being the 3D web, pointing to the work of Vladimir Vukićević and Josh Carpenter (who was also on the SVVR Creating the VR Metaverse panel) of Mozilla in bringing native support for the Oculus Rift and other VR devices to Firefox; work which is also being  being paralleled by Brandon Jones at Google for Chrome and also within Internet Explorer. This is something he sees as undoubtedly beneficial, commenting:

We’re now seeing attempts to develop Virtual reality for the Oculus Rift using web technology. There are a couple of browser extensions you can get for Firefox and Chrome that will talk to the Oculus headset, you can write some JavaScript code for WebGL to render in stereo. And so people are starting to experiment with that, which is a really good thing, because I believe that open technology is the way we’re going to build the virtual reality metaverse.

He admits that the post is something of a manifesto to get VR onto the web, rather than seeing it recycled through walled gardens utilising proprietary applications which must be downloaded and installed in order to be used. It’s a manifesto worth reading, and certainly one to give pause for thought. A 3D web has long been talked about – often in terms of the technology which will supplant the web as we know it (e.g. as SL was once glowingly described) – actually seeing the web itself evolve to leverage virtual and augmented reality makes far more sense, being a more logical evolutionary step.

Vladimir Vukićević and Josh Carpenter - working on

Vladimir Vukićević and Josh Carpenter – working on browser support for Oculus Rift and other VR devices – see their joint presentation (images: Wikipedia and Mozilla, respectively)

Through his development of VRML and X3D, Tony is no stranger to the potential of VR or, for that matter, virtual worlds. In discussing VRML, he points to Blaxxun Interactive (originally “Black Sun Interactive”, a name taken from virtual night club featured in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash), credited with the development of one of the first 3D community platforms designed for the Internet back in 1995.

While VRML didn’t catch on in the manner hoped, being an idea somewhat ahead of its time given the state of play with hardware, data transmissions speeds on the Internet, etc., it did give rise to X3D. This, together with improvements in home computing capabilities and better Internet connectivity, saw Tony and his colleagues poking at virtual world environments.

The famous Business Week magazine cover

The famous Business Week magazine cover

“We were sitting in a garage doing it together,” he recounts, “And then Second Life got on the cover of Business Week in 2007. Everyone probably remembers the famous Anshe Chung avatar on the cover; and that’s when the boom starter and hype started around Second Life, around ’07.

“And by that summer, literally two months, three months later, I had a lot of investment money from large venture capitalists to do the same thing in a web browser, lighter weight, a little more mainstream targeted. Second Life was thought to be for the geeks, the shut-ins, all these pejoratives you can imagine, disregarding the creative impulse and all the wonderful stuff that was built. And so a lot of folks, including management in my start-up, for example, felt that there could be a middle-of-the-bell-curve mainstream virtual world experience targeted at about everybody that would work just great.”

The product was originally called Flux, and while it didn’t quite go as planned, as Tony wryly notes, it did morph into Vivaty, which carried on through until 2010, and Vivaty Studio is still around today.

Vivaty – once seen as the Web 3.0 and the future of social networking (image: zdnet.com)

It was his experiences with Vivaty which perhaps most persuaded Tony that the web offers the best means for 3D and VR to reach a mainstream market, as it has the potential to offer full, embedded support without the need for plug-ins or downloads – things which can easily be off-putting to many users.

His reason for thinking this way are bound-up with Vivaty’s reliance on people downloading and installing a 3MB plug-in, something which gave rise to a situation which will sound eerily familiar to anyone looking at the SL’s own sign-up rates: converting those signs-up into actual engaged users.

We did a lot of great engineering, even if I say so myself, to get a great plug-in based experience … you download that, you could see any 3D you want, you could have all your web data in it, you could play videos off of YouTube, it was kind-of cool …

We were finding we’d get a lot of people signed-up … We’d get a lot of people coming and they’d register, and they’d drop-off when it was time to install that plug-in. Seventy, seventy-five percent of them would not install it. Whereas, when we finally, ultimately again in 2010, converted that experience to flash, we flipped those numbers around. We were getting 70-75% of people coming into the experience and spending time in there.

Sadly, by that point in time, as Tony goes on to note, the writing was on the wall for Vivaty. However, his comments should also perhaps also stand as notice to those who would discount SL’s high sign-up rate as being purely the result of spambots. While bots are undoubtedly a lot more common today than in 2010, the experience at Vivaty does suggest that people can be put-off by the thought of having to download and install the SL viewer. Indeed, in an age where many people are far more accustomed to simply signing-up to a service and having it delivered to them through a browser, there is an argument that resistance to downloading and installing additional software might actually be higher today than back in Vivaty’s time. Hence why, perhaps, the Lab did experiment with reducing the SL viewer’s download time with Project Zipper.

The comments on downloads rolls into the aspect of games and game updates, modelling tools, etc., where value propositions in using them make dealing with the need for updates, etc., more acceptable to people. This in turn rolls into some comments on SL’s age-old problem of the “first hour” experience for new users. Here Tony again offers food for thought, this time for those critical of the Lab’s decision to work on a next generation platform:

Now I think everyone is probably wondering, right, is it time, with virtual reality making a big splash, and WebGL there, is it time for somebody to come along and do a bigger Second Life that is a little more, you know, get the first hour problem nailed, maybe a little less quirky in some ways, a little higher fidelity …

The broader discussion on the future of the metaverse and the use of the web as the potential medium in which it sits, really kicks-off around the mid-point of the interview, and again has special relevance both for the Lab and Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity in terms of the potential competition the web may yet offer to their particular visions of the metaverse – and the potential opportunities.

Hardware and issues of HCI – human-computer interface entering to the discussion at this point as well, and there are some interesting points made about the humble game controller, including one which potentially places it head-and-shoulders above the whizzy control systems under development at the moment, and that is,  millions of people already know how to use one. There’s no need to learn gestures, new techniques for operating it, etc.

This is also worth bearing in mind when it is proclaimed that things like the keyboard and mouse are “the” barrier to mainstream adoption of virtual worlds and VR. The truth might very well be that the barrier to entry isn’t actually the tools people have at their disposal right now, but rather the tools they are expected to have to acquire and learn to use simply to be able to access said worlds.

With thoughts on freedom of creativity on the web when reliant upon coding, mark-up and languages – something Tony Parsi is attempting to address through his latest project, GLAM -, the use of the web to present synchronous and asynchronous social interactions and the big issue of governance, this is perhaps one of the most fascinating pieces yet presented in the Drax Files Radio Hour interviews “mini-series”.

Immersive creativity on the wb might seem off-putting to some by the need to learn JavaScript and / or WebGl, etc. However, there are a number of alternatives and overlays, and Tony Parisi is himself working on GLAM, which combines GL and MArkup to create a declarative language for 3D web content

Immersive creativity on the web might seem off-putting to some by the need to learn JavaScript and / or WebGL, etc. However, there are a number of alternatives and overlays, and Tony Parisi is himself working on GLAM, which combines GL and MArkup to create a declarative language for 3D web content

Such has been the breadth and depth of these interviews – including the two that time has not permitted me the opportunity to review – that I confess to feeling they have actually eclipsed the “regular” podcasts.

While the latter have themselves been an excellent series, they have oftentimes seem overburdened by a need to constantly reference a particular headset for at least a part of the podcast; something which is not present within these interview recordings, allowing their subject matter to be more thoroughly explored in a format in which Drax frankly excels. As such, I admit to being somewhat disappointed at the thought that this particular approach to topics will evaporate come August; I’d personally like to see them continue – even if only on alternative weeks (or even once a month) alongside the “regular” podcasts.

Certainly, with the news that Jacquelyn Ford Morie of All These Worlds will be heard from in the new interview, I’m already looking forward to it.

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