Virtual Worlds (@stroker at #DigitalSurrey)

This content is 13 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last night saw another Digital Surrey event which, I’ve come to find, means another great speaker on a topic of interest to the digerati in and around Farnham/Guildford (although I also noticed that I’m not the only “foreigner” at Digital Surrey with two of the attendees travelling from Brighton and Cirencester).

This time the speaker was Lewis Richards, Technical Portfolio Director in the Office of Innovation at CSC, and the venue was CSC’s European Innovation Centre.  Lewis spoke with passion and humour about the development of virtual worlds, from as far back as the 18th century. As a non-gamer (I do have an Xbox, but I’m not heavily into games), I have to admit quite a lot of it was all new to me, but fascinating nevertheless, and I’ve drawn out some of the key points in this post (my edits in []) – or you can navigate the Prezi yourself – which Lewis has very kindly made public!

  • The concept of immersion (in a virtual world) has existed for more than 200 years:
  • In 1909, E.M Forster wrote The Machine Stops, a short story in which everybody is connected, with a universal book for reference purposes, and communications concepts not unlike today’s video conferencing – this was over a hundred years ago!
  • In [1957], Morton Heilig invented the Sensorama machine which allowed viewers to enter a world of virtual reality with a combination of film and mechanics for a 3D, stereo experience with seat vibration, wind in the hair and smell to complete the illusion.
  • The first heads up displays and virtual reality headsets were patented in the 1960s (and are not really much more usable today).
  • In 1969, ARPANET was created – the foundation of today’s Internet and the world wide web [in 1990].
  • In [1974], the roleplay game Dungeons and Dragons was created (in book form), teaching people to empathise with virtual characters (roleplay is central to the concept of virtual worlds); the holodeck (Rec Room) was first referenced in a Star Trek cartoon in 1974; and, back in 1973, Myron Krueger had coined the term artificial reality [Krueger created a number of virtual worlds in his work (glowflow, metaplay, physic space, videoplace)].
  • Lewis also showed a video of a “B-Spline Control” which is not unlike the multitouch [and Kinect tracking] functionality we take for granted today – indeed, pretty much all of the developments from the last 40-50 years have been iterative improvements – we’ve seen no real paradigm shifts.
  • 1980s developments included:
    • William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his short stories (featured in Omni magazine).
    • Disney’s Tron; a film which still presents a level of immersion to which we aspire today.
    • The Quantum Link network  service, featuring the first multiplayer network game (i.e. not just one player against a computer).
  • In the 1990s, we saw:
    • Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s World Wide Web [possibly the biggest step forward in online information sharing, bringing to life E.M. Forster’s universal book].
    • The first use of the term avatar for a digital manifestation of oneself (in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash).
    • Virtual reality suits
    • Sandboxed virtual worlds (AlphaWorld)
    • Strange Days, with the SQUID (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device) receptor – still looking for immersion – getting inside the device – and The Matrix was still about “jacking in” to the network.
    • Virtual cocoons (miniaturised, electronic, versions of the Sensorama – but still too intrusive for mass market adoption)
  • The new millennium brought Second Life (where, for a while, almost every large corporation had an island) and World of Warcraft (WoW) – a behemoth in terms of revenue generation – but virtual worlds have not really moved forward. Social networking blinded us and took the mass market along a different path for collaboration; meanwhile kids do still play games and virtual reality is occuring – it’s just not in the mainstream.
  • Lewis highlighted how CSC uses virtual worlds for collaboration; how they can also be used as training aids; and how WoW encouraged team working and leadership, and how content may be created inside virtual worlds with physical value (leading to virtual crime).
  • Whilst virtual reality is not really any closer as a consumer concept than in 1956 there are some real-world uses (such as virtual reality immersion being used to take away feelings of pain whilst burns victims receive treatment).
  • Arguably, virtual reality has become, just, “reality” – everywhere we go we can communicate and have access to our “stuff” – we don’t have to go to a virtual world but Lewise asks if we will ever give up the dream of immersion – of “jacking in” [to the matrix].
  • What is happening is augmented reality – using our phone/tablets, etc. to interact between physical and virtual worlds. Lewis also showed some amazing concepts from Microsoft Research, like OmniTouch, using a short-range depth camera and a pico projector to turn everyday objects into a surface to interact with; and Holodesk for direct 3D interactions.
  • Lewis explained that virtual worlds are really a tool – the innovation is in the technology and the practical uses are around virtual prototyping, remote collaboration, etc. [like all innovations, it’s up to us to find a problem, to which we can apply a solution and derive value – perhaps virtual worlds have tended to be a technology looking for a problem?]
  • Lewis showed us CSC’s Teleplace, a virtual world where colleagues can collaborate (e.g. for virtual bid rooms and presentations), saving a small fortune in travel and conference call costs but, just to finish up with a powerful demo, he asked one of the audience for a postcode, took the Google Streetview URL and pasted it into a tool called Blue Mars Lite – at which point his avatar could be seen running around inside Streetview. Wow indeed! That’s one virtual world in which I have to play!

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