Sunday, December 31, 2006

Virtual Universe : The Need for Open Standards

2006 is the year when the idea of Virtual Universes went mainstream. Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like Everquest has been around for about three years and three dimensional virtual reality, whether with physical devices or with technology like VRML, has been around even longer, but it had always been a niche market -- at best adopted in the gaming community. However with the advent of Linden Labs and the release of their SecondLife platform, the concept of a virtual universe has now become the defacto platform of the future. What the World Wide Web was in 1996 is what Second Life is in 2006 ... and this time, the rate of penetration and adoption is even faster.

Describing SecondLife is an exercise of (a) redundancy and (b) futility. It is redundant because almost every magazine and journal has now described it in great detail and Reuters has a full time bureau chief reporting regularly from SecondLife. It is also futile because Second Life is an experience .. that one has to go through to understand and appreciate the concept. Trying to explain Second Life to someone who has not been there is like to trying to describe the beauty of a sunset to a person who has been born blind. I will not even try that ... and assume that whoever is reading this has the wherewithal to go out and find out more about this technology on his own.

While SecondLife may be the most successful implementation of a virtual universe, it suffers from the inherent drawback of being a proprietory product. SecondLife is to virtual universe what America Online was to the world wide web. Conceptually similar but fundamentally different. AOL ( and to an extent the old MSN) were closed worlds -- of proprietory servers and proprietory clients, that were initially quite exciting but were quickly swept away by the flood of open source. Once the HTTP protocol became public domain, anyone could make an HTTP server or an HTTP client and this paved the way for what became the universal client ( or web browser ) that allowed total interoperability across the digital community.

The sheer "open"ness of the internet / web as a platform led to its proliferation and ultimate dominance over all other competing technologies.

Compared to this openness, the MMORPG / Virtual Universe community is still operating in the erstwhile Soviet Gulags or behind the Great Chinese Firewall. There are many very nice MMORPG platforms but each operates with its own proprietory client that connects to its own server. While this may be percieved as a good tool for client retention it certainly restricts choice. The sheer pain of downloading a heavy client for each MMORPG is a strong enough disincentive for many users to check out and join various MMORPG games. Personally, I have participated only in Planeshift and of course now I am a resident of SecondLife.

Had it been possibly for me to use either the browser or any one MMORPG client to access the other MMORPG servers, I am sure I would have tried out many more platforms and might have decided to focus somewhere else.

SecondLife is of course different because it allows the actual creation of objects and artefacts by residents (or players, if you wish) and then allows them to retain the intellectual property. This free market approach has injected a huge amount of commercial dynamism and has made it the cynosure of all eyes. But from an underlying technology perspective, both MMORGs in general and SecondLife in particular are an implementation of the same concept of Virtual Universe or the as some people prefer to say, the 3D-Internet. ... and this is where the proprietory nature of both is acting as significant handicap in the growth and proliferation of the Virtual Universe.

So what is that needs to happen ?

First we need open definition of what is a Virtual Universe. This is where organisations like The Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium can (or should ) take a lead to define a set of open standards that will allow any VU-browser to connect to a VU-server. Should the IETF or the W3C be too slow to act, an industry body like the Intenational Game Developers Association should take up the initiative to develop these standards. Like the HTTP protocol, we should develop and standardise on a VUTTP protocol.

Second, all future MMORPG builders should actively seek to port their products to a platform that is compliant with VUTTP. There is no doubt that there will be severe politics, lobbying and one-upmanship here as each organisation will seek to ensure that their own protocols and standards be accepted. Big organisations will try to ignore the emerging consensus and stick to their own standards .. but eventually everyone will fall in line. The final protocol may not be the best and most efficient, but will have the benefit of being universal.

In parallel, we will see the growth of (a) VUTTP servers and (b) VUTTP clients. Some of these clients and servers will be commercial software and some will be opensource. If we draw a parallel from the normal internet, the open source versions might eventually win out or they may not. Apache is the dominant HTTP server but Firefox has still not overtaken IE ... but that is a different story and they way that story pans out will depend on a host of factors.

What is important will be the public availability of VUTTP servers and VUTTP clients ... and using these two products, developers will have the freedom to develop diverse and interoperable virtual universes.

Interoperability is important. If we had to use a different web browser for each website that you visit -- one for Yahoo, one for Amazon, one for (my) HSBC bank, one for Indiatimes, one for the JetAirways e-Ticketing service, one for the BBC and one for my favourite Slashdot ... would I have had the energy and enthusiasm to visit anyone of these websites ? But since I can use Firefox to visit and operate EACH of these and thousand other websites, I -- and countless others -- have adopted the web as an integral part of my Real Life.

For Second Life / Virtual Universes to become as integral a part of our existence, we need a genuine open VUTTP client. Who will create this ?

Will it be Linden Labs ? or will it be a (not so) dark horse called Google ?

Google has the Google Earth product where they are creating a virtual version of the Real World and they have free 3D modelling tools that allow individuals to create their own structures. In parallel, Google Earth data has been freed from the confines of their proprietory client and is now available through a browser and the website. If you take these two initiatives together, we have the potential of 3D Models being built and being made available through an open client.

Is this the first step of what we are looking for ? The answer lies in the womb of futurity.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MMORPG / Second Life in 3D display

MMORPGs in general and SecondLife in general has now become a hot favourite with relatively large parts of the population. As a concept and technology it has few peers and there is no doubt it is at the vanguard of a new wave that leads to the 3D Internet.

What next ?

The clue lies in the word 3D ! SL is essentially a 3D world that avatars live in, but the limitations of the computer console / video display unit means that 3D has to be represented as 2D grid of pixels.

But today, we have technology that can display artefacts in a real 3D format. You can look up the following websites ..

or this website ...

there are other technologies that support such technology .. for example see this

These are monitor based 3D technology which can enhance the SecondLife experience signficantly. Moving forward, laser based technology like the one from AIST

Net-net with all these 3D technologies appearing over the horizon, the entire world of MMORPG and SecondLife should soon change beyond recognition.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Google Education - Distance Learning

Google has a habit of coming out with extremely user-friendly and innovative products and I wonder if they could do something for distance learning.

In the explosive growth of the knowledge economy, nothing -- bar nothing -- is more important than new and innovative ways of imparting knowledge. Google would do a significant service to humanity ( and perhaps to their shareholders as well ) if they could design a hosted, web-based tool to further this activity.

The broad functionalities of my proposed system is as follows ..

a] A hosted presentation server, that would allow a teacher to broadcast a set of educational slides over the internet. Streaming video is good, but we would need far higher broadband penetration before that can happen

b] A white board ( or screen sharing ) application for the teacher to communicate to the students

c] A way for students to join a particular session and a way to manage the interaction with students. A way for a student to "raise your hand" to ask a question and for the instructor to choose which student to respond to. Many distributed presenations like Centra have this feature

d] Principal interaction would be through a low bandwidth text chat screen with VoIP voice chat available for those with higher bandwidth.

e] A secure and integrated payment system ( like PayPal ) to allow teachers to make money from the system, if they choose to.

f] An overall course registration system similar to YahooGroups or GoogleGroups so that the education is available only for those who have signed up or joined the class

g] An integrated wordprocessor / drawing tool for handling assignments that students can do offline and upload ... and a way for managing assignments. Built in mathematics and chemistry symbols are needed.

h] An online ( or offline ) testing strategy with the possibility of handling (1) multiple choice questions (2) subjective questions with paragrapy long answers.

None of this rocket science, and all these solutions can be built individually. What we need is an integrated package that will run this off the web in a manner that makes economic sense to (a) Google - or any other hosting company (b) the teachers who will offer such tele-tuition and (c) the students who are the ultimate customers or consumers for this.

Advertisement on the web-pages that are targeted towards each individual students profile would help pay for this service to some extent.

Is someone at Google or some other organisation listening ?

Given the huge amount of money that students in India spend on tuitions, this could turn out to be significant value proposition for some enterprising Indians ... and perhaps the service if and when launched could be named after Ekalavya - the pioneer of distance learning in India - remember he was not accepted by Dronacharya as a student and yet by observing from a distance he acquired the skill to shoot better than the pampered Arjun.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Second Life as a Movie Making Platform

Movie making lends it rather neatly in SecondLife. Here is a platform where you can create sets any which way you like and then you can populate the sets with actors and actresses who can be tailored to look just as the situation demands. So the same set of human 'actors' or manipulators can work with avatars who can take on any shape and size , including fantastic ones.

The behaviour of the avatar-actors have to be defined in terms of animation scripts and this calls for signicant programming, but the best thing is that these animation scripts can be both reusable and incrementally improved. What this means is that while the first movie can have an avatar-actor who delivers a jerky slap that lands on someone's shoulder, the next version of the script can create a smooth slap that hits the intended victim right on the cheek ! And what can be done for a simple slap can of course be extended to any other action ... depending on the directors imagination.

The 3D sets are of course any set-designers delight ... not to talk of the treasurer since everything is done virtually using 3D modelling tools that can be uploaded and imported into Second Life.

Finally the photography ... the crude way of doing all this is to (a) shoot your desktop display or (b) project on the wall and shoot the image. But if you are a pro, then you can easily rig up some basic apparatus to pipe the display from one machine into another which is configured to recieve the same and convert it into an mpeg file.

As an example of what can be done, please see our movie "Are YOU Real ?"

[ this movie may initially take some time to load, and the first pass may be jerky, but if you are patient, then from the second replay onwards, it is quite smooth ]

and remember, there are no copyright issues in using Second Life as a platform since one of the cardinal principles of this world is that you own the IP of anything that you create here.

Cheers and happy movie making.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How would Second Life Evolve ?

Now that SecondLife has taken on a life of its own ( pun intended ..) and does not need an army of enthusiasts to explain why it is so important to the world in the 21st century .. it is time to speculate on how it will evolve in the future.

The parallel that I would like to draw at the moment is that SL is today where AOL was in 1993-94. There was a proprietory AOL client software that would connect over dialup lines ( low bandwidth SLIP/PPP protocols ) to the AOL servers and these servers would provide the 'space' for merchants and service providers to set up their commerce or 'fun' applications.

What happened next ? The AOL servers were replaced by http based webservers and anyone could set up a website, not just AOL. Secondly the browser ( the universal client ) could connect to any web server and then it became a matter individual transactions between the server owner ( the www website ) and the client software through which it was accessed. AOL dropped out of the picture completely.

Today, the situation is identical with Second Life.

Linden Labs has set up a set of proprietory servers -- referred to as regions or islands -- on which merchants and other service providers can set up their applications. Proprietory client software ( the SL client ) has to be used to access these LL servers ( regions/islands ) to access these services.

Going forward, it is very likely that open-source, or otherwise non-proprietory, servers would be developed that are functionally equivalent to the Linden Lab servers. And access to these servers would be through open-source or commercial ( but non Linden Lab provided) client software. Moreover these non LL clients would have the ability to access any LL-equivalent server set up and managed by any commercial entity.

Does this mean that LindenLabs and SecondLife will go the way that AOL did ? An important, but now irrelevent milestone, in mankinds quest for connectivity ?

I am sure that I am not the first person to think about this ... and in fact I am pretty sure that Linden Labs themselves must thinking about it ... but can they do anything about it ? After all creating such software -- either for the server or for the client -- is hardly rocket science. Linden Labs idea is of course revolutionary, but so was AOL's idea. But once an idea is out of the bag, there is no way one can keep it bottled up. There will always be someone who can build a better mousetrap ... and the world will beat a path to his door.

At best one can delay the inevitable by throwing in legal and IPR related issues ... and is that why Linden Labs has updated its terms of service particularly the section that deals with how non LL software connects to SL servers ?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

SecondLife : the

Is SecondLife a pre-cursor to a new version of the world wide web ? Let us take a close look at how SecondLife is very similar ( or dissimilar ) to the web in general.

The web is one of the many applications ( like chat, smtp-mail, ftp ) that runs on the IP infrastructure of the internet. Of course it is the most popular application. SL is also another application complete with a client and a server.

The web consists of websites ( or groups of websites ) that individuals build and hope to draw traffic to. SL consists of islands, regions and individual 'properties' that people build and hope to draw traffic to.

On a website, you can do various things .. make it 'beautiful', both visually as well as with music etc, to increase its attractiveness. You can also enable your website to hold chat sessions, or enable it with eCommerce to transact business.

Properties and regions on SL can also traverse the same path. They can initially be simply 'beautiful' places to be in .. but they can be (and are being ) enhanced to support commercial transactions.

Going forward, I forsee a vast variety of regions, some simply beautiful, some for fun, some for education and some for commerce ... that I can visit through the SL client.

Is this not similar to the America Online Service ( precursor to the web ) where you could use a proprietory browser to access a range of services ?

Which brings me to the point of dis-similarity of the with the web. The web is based on an open architecture. You can use ANY browser to access a website created by ANY individual, on ANY server ... as long as both adhere to the http protocol.

On SL you have to use ONLY the SL client ( the SL 'browser') to browse regions created ONLY on the SL server, and that too ONLY by SL subscribers.

Perhaps this is how things start ... if we use AOL as an analogy, but going forward is it possible to define an open architecture of a generic MMORPG client that can access any MMORPG server using some other yet to be defined protocal ( similar to http ).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A business meeting inside an MMORPG

Yesterday was a red letter day in my exploration of Virtual Worlds when I participated in a real company meeting inside SecondLife, an MMORPG that has been featured in BusinessWeek magazine.

When the Lotus Notes meeting invite arrived from an unknown US colleague, I had been put off by the unearthly 1:00 AM in the night ? and then I looked closely at the venue and was taken back to read location@SecondLife !!!

This was so intriguing and exciting as well that I immediately suspended my self imposed curfew on conferance calls after 9:00 PM and accepted the invitation.

Fortunately I had an avatar in SecondLife ... though it was a very rudimentary one. Basic male(!) with bare minimum clothes and through him I entered SecondLife at the appointed hour and teleported myself to the location that my company had set up.

And wow ! what a simulation ! Full 3D conferance room with attached lounge. Company posters on the walls, standard powerpoint presentations running on the screen.

It was a big room with about 30 chairs and I ( or rather my avatar ) sat down and watched as a whole crowd of similar enthusiasts started entering the room at the appointed hour. Some were as rudimentarily dressed as I was but othes were in extravagant clothes. At the appointed hour, the convenor of the meeting took a roll call and the meeting commenced and went as per the agenda circulated earlier.

We used a parallel telephone con-call system ( from our First Life !!) for the main discussion but could have used the built-in chat system as well.

All in all, a most unusual and exciting experience and one that is going to be the norm and not the exception in the future.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mitigating Alzheimers Disease

Alzhiemers disease is a condition that is becoming evident in a significantly large percentage of the ageing population. It is not a new disease but one about which the medical community and the public at large are becoming increasingly aware of. The award winning movie Black, featuring Rani Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan - where Amitabh is shown as suffering from the disease, has brought it to the forefront of the our consciousness.

Alzheimers is a strange disease. The patient has no apparent physical disability. He is mobile, dexterous, articulate and suffers from no physical discomfort. However his mind is affected to the extent that he cannot remember even the most basic of things. For example his name, his address, profession .. progressively these fall 'off' from his mind. However from an analysis or 'processing' perspective, the mind is quite active and competent. He can jolly well brush his teeth, if he can find the toothbrush or even remembers to do so. To take an extreme case, he might even drive a car if he can remember the sequence of activities that he needs to do.

Alzhiemers is most probably a condition brought upon by genetic factors though there is still no unanimity in this regard. There is even less clarity on how this condition can be reversed. Drugs, exercises and even divine help has been sought ... with mixed results.

I am no doctor and I shall not attempt a medical cure for this unfortunate situation. Instead, let me offer a solution based on digital technology that can mitigate the suffering.

If we look at the disease carefully, we would note that the principal discomfort is in the area of remembering 'things' that are related to the circumstances at hand. Now 'remembering' things and 'recalling' them on demand is one of the things that computers - particularly databases - can do very well. Search and recall is one of the hottest technologies and the iconic status in this space is held by Google, but Yahoo and MSN are close behind.

Bringing this search into a person's life is also very easy. With GSM phones sporting Web Browsers and Blackberry like devices sprouting by the dozen ... a Google like search is now literally in the palm of your hand .. if not on your wrist.

So here is my suggestion ...

Suppose a mobile phone company ties up with a search engine and provides a service that allows an Alzheimer patient to sign up. The patient, or his guardians, will populate the data on a wide variety of personal data that the patient can call up and use whenever he feels the need to do so.

Moreover, the patient himself can add more and more data regarding his personal requirements through a small pen-based screen .. and over a period of time the service will contain very person specific information.

What we need is a very intuitive interface that will allow him to navigate through this information. We can begin with standard menu-based navigation but it is not too difficult to come up with an associative algorithm that will automatically bring to the front, facts and figures that are relevent to the situation at hand. Artificial intelligence based algorithms can be developed to fine tune the search.

For example, visual and aural cues from the immediate environment can be used by the patient (remember .. he is not incapacitated from thinking ) to guide him towards things that he could need. For example, if he is in the bathroom .. words like brush-teeth, take-bath can float up .. and once these are clicked .. can lead to words like tooth-brush or soap or towel.

Similarly if he is on the road, words like market and home can be pulled up and based on the which one he chooses, he can be led through a subsequent set of words, phrases and ideas.

Technologically this is peanuts. A mobile phone connected to a search engine is all that is required. To make things easier, I would suggest a blue-tooth enabled screen that can attached to the wrist with a stylus-like input and an emergency call button.

Should everything fail, the person can press the button and a call centre operator can reach him on the phone and after looking through this recent search patterns and talking to him can guide him to whatever he was trying to do.

Having such a service would be invaluable in helping patients suffering from Alzheimers disease lead a normal life

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Modelling Population Behaviour

This is a schematic plan for modelling the behaviour of large and diverse populations. The original idea was to see how people could vote in an election but the this model can also be expanded to explore how people would respond to marketing initiatives in the retail and consumer space.