Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Future of Tele-Coverage

I noticed with interest the difference between:

Michael Anissimov's review of how Second Life and IRC affected Transvision 06
George Dvorsky's comments on Twitter's impact on Convergence 08.

There appears to be a number of advantages and disadvantages to each medium. While Second Life allows those not in attendance to interact with the conference, it requires a lot of commitment. Resources need to be invested in an account, downloaded client software, a powerful computer with a lot of hard drive space, and a good net connection. Even if those things are not an issue, Second Life requires your full attention, you have to control your avatar, its camera, and inventory. Even for a seasoned veteran, the interface is extremely clunky (albeit powerful).

Twitter on the other hand provides a very casual way to stay in touch both in and at the conference. It can be accessed in many different ways, including RSS reader, phone, browser or desktop client, as well as the webpage. It's simple and it gives the user a choice, with little commitment. By all accounts it also provided a great feel to the event.

So, is this the future? Are we no longer interested in fully immersed virtual worlds, instead content with streams of text? What has the world come to?

It certainly seems to be the case. Look at the rise of RSS over the past year. We want our information without the frills. And we want it personalised.

The generic virtual world has failed to evolve with the rest of the internet.
It's lagging behind and dooming itself to extinction.

There's talk on the net of the next generation of virtual worlds being server generated. There will be no need to download clunky software, a simple browser is all it will take to have photo-realistic graphics. Ease of use and low commitment are desperately needed to keep virtual reality alive. However, the most desperate requirement is a larger step away from reality.

That's not to say that the worlds themselves should become less realistic, but the interfaces and the features need to be brought more in line with current trends. The closest Second Life comes to what I'm talking about is the mini browser within it. There should be far, far, far more integrated services. RSS feeds, interaction with blogs and forums, and data inputs should be a given. A necessity is improved interaction. The reason Second Life is losing so much ground at the moment is because it's so hard to use, and more casual virtual worlds are emerging. Creating simple objects or performing simple gestures should be easy.

You should have access to your virtual world account and everything about it without having to invoke the virtual senses. In other words, you could be present in the virtual world without an avatar, and without being able to see the world where your presence is residing, but you will still be able to interact with the conversations in that area, make transactions, and perform actions relating to your virtual account.

So what, in that case, would be the point of the virtual world? Well, the interface still offers a level of interaction not found in text based communication. It transmits body language, atmosphere, and imagination. It allows the user to be anything, and to do anything, and to go anywhere. Technically, it has the potential to provide a rich environment to interact with remote events, but it's currently falling desperately short.

Perhaps VR still has a part to play in tele-coverage and communication, but at the moment it's just taking a break, waiting for both the technology and the people behind the software to come up with new and innovative virtual concepts.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Technology - Will it set us Free?

When computers were first invented, users had complete freedom and power, there was no other option but to allow it. However, if they didn't follow the computer's strict set of rules, the computer would break or just not work. Even in the days of Windows 3.11, computers remained obscure and frightening to the masses.

Once computers infiltrated more and more of our lives, it became necessary to remove the need to for "user rules", computers had to become "user friendly". Computers were forced to shed their unforgivable interfaces in order to increase their popularity.

So now, computers, when used by the general public, no longer have that level of freedom. To avoid them being used wrongly, computers simply limit the options general users are allowed to access. Then, instead of telling users how to act, they simply guide users through their processes, anticipating rule-breaking, and absolving responsibility. Users lost their fear of computers, complying with the rules not because they are asked to, but because any possibility of breaking them is simply removed. General users no longer have raw power over computers, they just follow the guidelines provided for them to achieve what they need from the machine. As such, even the desire to break the rules is diminished.

A direct parallel can be applied to politics. Now, people are told not to speed on the roads because it's dangerous. Not everyone follows these rules so we need police and legal systems to deal with the rule breakers. In the future, technology will simply stop your car from being able to speed, absolving you of responsibility. In the future, and it's happening already, technology will remove the need for rules, because it will completely remove the possibility of wrong doing. It will absolve our responsibility.

Your car will be computer controlled and therefore it will be impossible to speed it, drive it off a road, or crash it. Your TV simply won't show adult content if it detects a child in the room. It will be physically impossible to steal, as all items will be installed with an RFID chip, tracking their location and ownership at all times. Alcohol dispensing machines won't work if, upon checking your RFID chip with the government database, it realises that you're underage.

In the even more distant future, nanobots will prevent us from damaging our bodies with unhealthy habits. They may even control our brains to remove criminal elements or immoral desires. Virtual reality could provide us with an environment where it is impossible to do anything wrong, because the computer interface doesn't allow it. Alternatively, virtual reality could provide the means for wrong doing to be carried out with no consequences.

It is often said that technology will set us free. Certainly the need for law enforcement and ruling government will diminish at the hands of technology. But is this destined to put us in a dictator's ultimate fantasy, or an incredibly free yet safe society?

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?