Thursday, 6 November 2008

The End of the World Wide Web?

I now have a very organised and efficient way of working online, thanks to a few great companies coming together and integrating their services.

First of all, I use the magnificent Firefox to access the world at large. I had a go with Google Chrome, but found it hard to live without the vast array of Plug-ins Firefox provides. And the less said about Internet Explorer the better.

Firefox allows me to display my favourite bookmarks along a bar beneath my toolbar, for quick and easy access to my main websites. One such button is the "Share on Facebook" link, allowing me to share any page I find of interest instantly and easily. The whole toolbar is invaluable, although it's not a benefit exclusive to Firefox.

I am a slave to the Google Corporation. Google allows me to store and work on all my documents ONLINE, meaning I rarely have to use Open Office again. (Anyone who is still paying for Micro$oft Office needs their head seeing to...)

Google also provides Google Reader. This allows me to see all the latest news feeds from all of my favourite sites, in one place. They can be categorised, shared, stared for later, and notes added. Needless to say Google reader also displays rich content such as pictures and videos.

Next I installed the Add-on. (Which I recently learnt is owned by Yahoo, sorry Google!) This is a great add-on that takes over my bookmarks menu, giving me a lot more power over my bookmarked sites. Now all my sites are stored online, shared with friends, and I get to see what they share. Also, using the buttons on Firefox make it much faster than using a Bookmark Toolbar button. And one more sexy option, right clicking on any link allows me to instantly bookmark it. So easy...

A Twitter tool called TwitterFox pretty much turns Twitter into an Instant Messenger (albeit not a very private one), showing me the latest Twitted items and letting me post Twits without having to go to the Twitter page. And the Delicious add-on also lets me know when new items are shared in my network.

Finally, all of these awesome features are integrated into my iGoogle page.

What conclusion can be drawn from this integration of systems? Well they've got me thinking - why have web pages at all? We're now finding that what we want from the web is content, not fancy designed websites. The tools needed for dealing with this content can theoretically, all be integrated into our browsers, allowing us to never even visit a normal website the whole time we're online. Or websites containing applications such as iGoogle could retrieve and distribute all the data we need for our online activities.

Every interaction I now have with websites involves me either reading or inputting, for one reason or another. Text, images, or video being the main forms of data.

Google Chrome tried to strip away the tools of the browser, giving us direct access to websites. This will only be successful if all websites take the approach of having a generic layer of tools integrated into them. This may well be happening with the growth of AJAX powered web applications. But if it doesn't, then we're going to need those tools integrated into our browsers. Either way, these tools are going to shift the focus away from website presentation, and towards content delivery.

Could this mean the end of the WWW as we know it, or the Browser?

Monday, 3 November 2008

Virtual Going Out is the New Going Out

A 'Virtual' Escape From Economic Pain:

It seems that in these times of economic decline, people don't want to forgo the luxuries that they've grown accustomed to over the years, so are choosing to indulge themselves in a virtual manner instead. There's certainly a lot to be said for staying home surrounded by cheap entertainment compared with going out and being ripped off and mugged. Could this be the future? As Virtual Reality improves, we'll be finding it replacing more and more of the "Real Life" things we currently take for granted.

Why travel on dangerous, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly airlines when you can immerse yourself in a Virtual holiday? Google Earth and Google Street, not to mention other "virtual sightseeing" options have recently taken a lot of big steps towards this. Although virtual reality interfaces have a long way to go before we can experience all the delights of a trip to somewhere beautiful, in the next few years it will be possible to walk down a foreign street on your computer screen, with the realism of a TV documentary. You'll be able to go into a real shop, select a real item from a real shelf, and make real purchases from the shops on this street, to be delivered to your door. In Second Life, you can already wander around the accurately recreated streets of Dublin and other major cities. Primitive as it is now, we'll soon be taking it for granted.

In the very distant future, personal nano-fabrication devices could allow us to recreate the exact tastes and textures of foods available anywhere on Earth. And if not, computer interfaces to our brains will merely simulate the feelings and tastes of eating these exotic cuisines. Whether as part of a virtual reality interface or not, the ability to remotely indulge our senses will surely come from somewhere.

If you don't think that this will happen, that people will always travel, that we can never get a real sense of what a place is like without actually going there, ask yourself if you would go to the Antarctic. Or the Sahara. Or down to the bottom of the ocean. More likely, you'll be satisfied with your experiences of these places thanks to today's Virtual Reality device, the TV. Needless to say, some people will still seek out the real deal, but the majority of people will radically reduce the amount they travel.

It's not just long distance travel that will reduce, either. Why risk getting beaten up by drunken teenagers when you can sit in a virtual pub, chatting to people with similar interests from all over the world? Why go to the cinema to put up with some idiot crunching popcorn in your ear when you can stay at home and download the latest movie to watch on your 100 inch TV? Why go to the theatre when the performance can be streamed to said 100 inch TV? Why not sit in a virtual stadium to watch your favourite band, where, in the safety of your own home, you can take all the drugs you like without fear of being arrested? Why waste money on fuel to watch your favourite sports team play, when you could stay at home, viewing the action from any camera you wish?

The key is that stay-at-home entertainment will become better than going out, not to mention cheaper, safer, and better for the environment. A culture change on a massive scale is beginning, leading to many unknown implications. What business opportunities might this present?

Not only will replacements of the things we do in real life be options, but we'll enjoy altogether new forms of entertainment. Instead of a virtual pub, you could be having a drink with some like minded friends on the other side of the world...whilst building a city on a nearby planet. Or racing in the Grand Prix. Or slaying dragons. Massively Multiplayer Online Games already make these scenarios reality for millions of people, and they have the potential to become far more than just games. For many people these alternative realities are already more appealing than real reality - and this is while they are still merely primitive computer games. What about when they become fully immersive virtual reality environments, supplemented with complex life imitating software?

Why unplug?

Friday, 31 October 2008


Well, I've finally finished the Otherland Quadrilogy. It was the best 4000 pages I've ever read.

It's shocking how it was written back in the late 90s. So many concepts addressed were way, way ahead of their time. In my article "Virtual Unreality", I touched on a few of these before I had heard of the Otherland books, but these books go into more depth that I could have imagined.

Second Life, which was only released in 2003, a couple of years after the last Otherland book, appears to be our closest manifestation of the books. Concepts that have originated in Second Life were predicted in Otherland, whether the users of Second Life were aware of Otherland or not. The books are a fascinating forward look at metaverses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

At the start of every chapter there is a newsfeed, giving a snippet of what is going on in the late 21st century world. Everything from politics to entertainment is reported on, giving the book even more depth and atmosphere.

Special note must be made for the ending. Even after 4000 pages, it doesn't disappoint, in fact it blew me away. Several times during the book I actually thought I had just read the best chapter I'd ever read in my life. The ending took those experiences to a new level.

What really makes these books stand out, to me, is the quality of the writing. Every word of every paragraph seems to be picked to perfection. The writing is some of the best I've ever read. The quality is consistent for the entire 4000 pages, and the styles are varied. The story is exciting, full of deep, complex twists, emotional rides, and profound imagery. I've been inspired by the storytelling, the character development, and the stunning scene description. I don't think I've ever felt so immersed in a story. You might say I was "Totally Immersed."

I can't recommend these books highly enough. They go into profound topics such as immortality, the morality of artificial intelligence, mind uploading and the importance of self, and much, much more.If you haven't read them yet, please buy them now! In the words of the books: "Prepare to change your world."

Monday, 20 October 2008

User Generated Content - Empowering Everyone

User Generated Content is increasing exponentially, as is the ease of creating and hosting home made material.

To get an idea of what this might mean for us in the future, we've only got to look at the best example of UGC around today: YouTube.

Blogging was great, but there appears to be far more power in a video than a long winded piece of text. Home made internet radio is pretty popular, but sadly not to the extent it could be. For this I blame the lack of microphones as standard on modern PCs. YouTube has allowed people to present themselves and their opinions in a way far more effective than has ever been seen before.

Who knows how this could evolve. Anyone can create relatively high production values given the right software. As it becomes easier to edit, present, manipulate, and even research content, more and more possibilities open themselves up to amateur creators. Professionally created material that amateurs could use in their own content, such as blue screen backgrounds, soundtracks, or special effects, could become a respectable market in a few years.

Perhaps User Created interactive experiences could have even more impact. Tools could be written allowing radical and user friendly customisation of game engines. Spore has already started to embark on this fascinating path.

What about professionals? The internet allows collaboration of talents, and is slowly becoming more and more profitable to content creators. Could it be possible that in the future creative entertainment is no longer created by broadcast companies, but collaborating grass roots teams, working to create and profit from their labours of love? Or will professional teams always have an edge?

Although quality content is often lacking from User Generated Content, it occasionally allows unlikely stars to emerge. Talent will always be well received, and as the profitability of UGC increases, as will the desire to improve the quality.

The key to the success of UGC systems is, without doubt, user-friendliness. The success of Facebook and the Nintendo Wii are testament to this. Creating Flash animations, or machinima in Second life, are not things everyone can do, but make an easy to use program for creating animations and people will be all over it – providing it's any good. There is definitely a need for more of this so I can see it improving immensely over the next few years, providing many opportunities.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Extreme Multi-tasking of the Future

As consumer choice increases, and software teaches us to multi-task, attention spans are getting shorter.

TV appears to be the first casualty of this change of attitude. Simply the advent of more channels started diluting TV audiences in the late 90s. Sheer volume of choice has made people realize that they no longer need to watch what they're told to watch, that the TV doesn't have the same power over their lives any more. Even quality programming hasn't saved it, as the “On Demand” paradigm has put timing in the hands of consumers.

As well as choice and control over TV content, the rise of DVD, the internet, and video games has further dispersed consumer attention. The new generations are growing up with an abundance of choice over their entertainment. This alone is causing them to demand choice and control in everything they do, something that is soon to have a major impact on our lives.

With all that choice, it's hard to stay focused on one thing at a time. The TV screen from Back to the Future 2, displaying many channels, may have seemed bizarre, but it is fast becoming a reality. If you don't believe me, look at how many tabs your browser currently has open. With so much choice, we need to cut down the amount of time spent of each thing we do, so we look at lots of things at once. Long gone are the days waiting for a web page to open, we've already opened 3 others and read another one while it was loading.

This concept alone is sure to spread into other areas of our lives. Our impatience and lack of attention span will likely lead to us becoming more and more efficient, not just absorbing more than one thing at a time, but performing more than one action at a time. Yes, even men.

Imagine you're preparing for your next holiday. You click a button on your touch screen keyboard (think laptop sized Nintendo DS) and your main screen is filled with information. In the top right hand corner, a small panel displays the local time, weather, and currency value of your destination.

A Google Earth window takes up a quarter of the screen, you fly around the streets of your destination using a virtual joystick on your touch panel. A ticker tape of the local news rolls along the bottom of the screen. A language coach on the webcam takes up another quarter of your screen, going through regular verbs. Downloads of holiday review TV programmes play in a small window. Virtual hotel walkthroughs play out, allowing you to book one there and then. A small box displays local restaurant photos and reviews.

Don't forget that while all this is on your screen, you're also listening to music, instant messaging a friend, and eating a microwave pizza.

Choice and control are going to be taken to the extremes, forcing us to integrate multitasking more and more into our everyday lives.