NASA

Ideas are a dime a dozen...

There is a point to this blog post, but I really don’t get to it until towards the end. I have to set up the story first : ) And yeah, it is a long post, so sue me.

When I was young and first introduced to science fiction, it set my imagination on fire and I developed a voracious appetite for reading. Even today, there are few things I enjoy as much as curling up somewhere quiet and reading a book. I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on, but I particularly enjoy science fiction, especially classic stuff that no one reads any more. Of course the plot lines and the stories themselves were fun and engaging, but what really captivated me was the wondrous sense of what the future could hold. I used to spend hours imagining what it would be like exploring new worlds, traversing through space in a ship, transferring my intelligence into a computer, gaining cybernetics that offered superhuman abilities, teleporting from one place to another, and so much more.

Tron_poster.jpg

TV shows and movies contributed to this as well…Star Trek, Star Wars, Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers, Bladerunner, Dune, This Island Earth, Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, Brainstorm, The Forbidden Planet, Outland, and of course, TRON.

As I grew a bit older, my imaginary adventures matured and I started contemplating how the cool things in the future could be made, how they could be done. What was first wonder, excitement, and anticipation, became an impatient restlessness. I didn’t want to wait…if no one else was going to do it, maybe I needed to be the one to figure this stuff out and make it happen. Still though, I was fairly young and the practical realities of life needed to be dealt with…high school, some college, a job, etc. At some point after working a couple of years (with only one year of college) as a detective for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), I decided that I wanted to make more money and do something that I loved, so I opened up a comic book store with a very good friend of mine.

This was a pretty amazing time as I could not only indulge myself with a huge range of comics in many genres, both mainstream and the edgier independents, but we also did a fair bit with role-playing games, anime, and collectibles. I already had a good bit of a background with RPGs, but my new exposure to anime here was pretty mind opening. It made a lot of western cartoons look like crass junk, and the sophistication of some of the stories rivaled classic literature. Unfortunately though, the industry decided to kill off Superman right as we were nearing the first anniversary of the store, and our business tanked.

This is where things get interesting though. Towards the end here, I met a guy that was a specialist in virtual reality (VR) and he was trying to get a startup off the ground. We featured some of his tech in the store which was awesome, but as we were closing the business, he offered me a job. Holy cow! A job making games for a virtual reality company. I jumped on it. My adventure here, and what happened later is a tale for another day, but getting back to the point of this post, I was suddenly immersed in a real-cutting edge company that was literally trying to invent the future. I discovered Neuromancer and other works by William Gibson. Mind blown.

All of this together made me realize that I wanted to be a technologist, an entrepreneur, and dare I say it, a visionary. Everything suddenly seemed possible and doable. I could find like-minded people, I could write a business plan, I could find investors, and I could build somethingthat no one else had tried or thought of.  Ideas were easy, I had lots of them (and I still do today, tons of em), but something compelling, ambitious, and visionary was the hard part. I could do it though…I had a taste of it with this VR company. As young as I was (early 20s) and without a college education, I was still smart and savvy enough to keep up with people 10 and 15 years more experienced than I was, and still bring innovative and creative thoughts and concepts to the table.

In 1995 I relocated to Raleigh North Carolina (at the time, this was emerging as the “East Coast Silicon Valley) to strike out on my own. We were going to build the world’s first real-time 3D massively multi-user online role-playing game. I was excited, eager, and my passion for it was through the roof (even now, I’m still the same about technology and startups).

I really felt like I was becoming the visionary I so desperately wanted to be when I was a kid. Some people I met got really excited. I was called a pioneer of internet gaming, a technological wunderkind, a genius (I’m smart, but I wouldn’t go that far), and much more. On the other hand, I met tons of people that said things like “PCs can’t do real-time 3D”, “people will never play (or pay) for games on the internet”, “3D virtual worlds are useless and just a fad”, “people won’t be able to understand what an avatar is”, “you are too young to start a company” [Note: no joke. This was in the mid-90’s and I was in my mid 20s.]. The list goes on. The more “practical” types were concerned that I was too “visionary” and had my heads in the cloud about what was possible to do technically and what was conceivable in terms of industry trends and business/revenue models. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the notion that visionary was a bad word. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur and be a visionary at the same time.

I built a team, brought in some investors, and was in the middle of negotiating an international publishing deal as well as a venture deal, when things blew up. I learned a very hard lesson about people, personalities, and the absolute critical nature of picking the right team. I was shattered and devastated when it all went to hell, but that didn’t stop me from trying again. And again. And again. It is in my blood. I’m pretty sure I’ll be launching another startup when I’m 97. Screw you if you think fundable entrepreneurs can’t be older than 25. You know, after this first horrible experience as a tech startup founder, when I was working on the next company to start, two of my friends actually staged an intervention. My girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I persisted in the ridiculous notion of starting another company, and both she and one of my best friends at the time strongly suggested I get counseling from a therapist. That was a fun conversation.

I had proven then, and a couple of times since, that it is indeed possible to be a visionary, and at the same time be capable of building a team, a product, a company, and getting something to market. Sure, sometimes I am a little early to the show in terms of emerging technologies (virtual reality, mmorpgs, augmented reality, and much more), but that is part of being a visionary and a pioneer, isn’t it?

Even so, at some point somewhere, I betrayed my own ideals and self-confidence, shunning and going out of my way to avoid being labeled a visionary. Sure, when it did happen, I was secretly pleased and happy, but I knew that the label could be a scarlet letter or a brand. In “conventional” wisdom, a so-called visionary or “idea guy” needed some dour grey beard MBA or accountant to be the “adult supervision” or, preferably, the CEO. I couldn’t have it both ways and be able to bring the idea to life in the way that it should be, and at the same time do the other things necessary to fund the company and grow it.

These days (now that my beard has some grey in it) I hear other things from people like “what if someone else does it first?”, “ideas are a dime a dozen”, “that technology is just a fad, people will never use it”, or “that concept is too big, why don’t you just build an app”, and my personal favorite “why don’t you just get a normal job?”.

I’ve been thinking recently about what on one hand feels like a total lack of innovation, creativity, and real vision in the tech industry, or the same in politics (the state of our space program is a national shame in my opinion), while at the same time a sense that there are some glimmers of hope…augmented reality, virtual reality, the internet of things, computer vision, drones, self-driving cars, 3D printing, and so forth. I want to embrace the label of visionary again and go do something amazing, but there are so few people these days willing to take the risk either with their time, or with their investment capital.

This past weekend I was considering all of this and thinking about the difference between a good idea (a dime a dozen, remember) and a real vision, or rather, what makes someone a visionary? I believe that being a visionary isn’t about having a good idea, or even a great idea. Anyone can come up with those. A visionary, in my mind, is someone that not only has a good idea, but also has the ability to see the bigger picture. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together, how to define the roadmap to get there, and the process of how to make it a reality. It has to be realistic and doable.

The idea isn’t enough. A visionary sees beyond that and grasps not only the implications of what can be done but also how it should be done. This is the difference between an idea and a vision. Ideas are easy, vision is hard. The hardest though, is turning vision into reality. That takes an extraordinary amount of sheer force of will, the right team, and funding.

Don’t settle for just an idea. Don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. If you are going to throw your life, your blood, and your soul into a risky endeavor like a startup, make it a good one. Do something worthwhile and big. Why settle for flying kites when you can aim for the moon?

Even as I write that though, I feel like I should balance it with this thought…keep your head in the clouds, but keep your feet on the ground. Having a glorious destination is nice, but if you don’t plan well (and logically) on how to get there, one step at a time, you fail at being a visionary, you are just a dreamer.

Now, go do something awesome.

PS Do me a favor and leave a comment or share this if this post means anything to you or hopefully inspires you to go do something. On the other hand, you could just leave a note if you think I'm a nutcase. Either way, the feedback is appreciated.

NASA MMO Workshop

I attended the NASA MMO Workshop on Monday in Baltimore. I have a few comments on it that I’m going to post here, but first, I want to point you to my blog post over at killtenrats.com  There is a lot of misreporting about the NASA RFI/RFP and the project in general, and I thought it would be better to comment on that over there (more traffic hah).

Anyway, my overall analysis is that more than half of the attendees simply did not pay attention to either the original RFI, the website, or even the slides shown at the workshop. I guess everyone was expecting NASA to cut a fat check to fund a whole MMORPG and get a free ride. I was surprised at how few people there still seemed excited and full of ideas by early afternoon and the sheer amount of whining and complaining people who just didn’t get it. Not really shocking I guess if you have had any experience working in the industry. I complain about the stupidity a lot, and there is good reason for it. I’m not just being bitter, I speak from experience.

So, if you can look beyond the misinformation and all of the “space cadets” out there, the NASA MMO project is actually a pretty sweet opportunity for the right company, consortium, or team of people. 

I think the larger picture here is the chance to do something entirely different than the usual generic crap the game industry has been feeding us, and really make a difference. It isn’t every day that you get an opportunity to get deep access to NASA like this for one thing…and second, Space is one of those things that has a vast potential to really captivate the imagination. If done right, NASA and their partner could have a real blockbuster on their hands, as well as the chance to really make a difference and inspire kids and teenagers to aspire to greater things.

It won’t take $50M or $500M to make a solid successful MMORPG, and there are probably a dozen non-game industry companies that would be more than happy to join a consortium and provide funding…for either a percentage of the royalties, or simply the chance to contribute to a worthy educational effort (tax deductible maybe? or purely for the PR?).

The big risk here isn’t the business model, or even the graphic engine, but rather how fun and engaging it will be. There are half a dozen ways to approach this (I have my own ideas here, and yes, I have a team that is submitting a proposal…we welcome any interest in partnering from developers, publishers, or aerospace companies interested in funding)…the trick is to make it fun and engaging without *directly* teaching (no one wants homework right?). Also, scripted repetitive quests are a no-no. While there should be some guidance and direction, there has to be an equal amount of “sandbox” and freedom to experiment. And finally, the winner here will have a easy to use intuitive suite of tools that any educator or game designer wannabe can use to make their own content, missions, whatever. 

Facilitate! Learning will occur on its own in the right environment with the right content. Don’t shove it down the player’s throats, and make it fun.  I guarentee that the market is actually larger than just high school kids, particularly if it is designed *properly*.

Maybe we will get lucky and my team will get a shot at this. We have been building a killer platform (for augmented reality, mmorpgs, virtual worlds, and simulations) that would make this NASA project just SING. Seriously. I really want to talk more about the tech, but I can’t (at least not yet).

Ah well. Soon enough my friends, soon enough.

I’m going to be out of town for most of the next two weeks. I’ll blog more when I can.

NASA MMO RFI

As you may have heard, NASA has put out an RFI (Request For Information) in regards to developing a MMO (well, MMOEG…Massively Multiuser Online Educational Game). The deadline for submissions is tonight at 11:59PM eastern, but for some reason the webpage with all of the submission information and link went offline much earlier today, and the page is now password protected. I’m beginning to wonder if someone made a mistake and turned things off at 11:59AM. Fortunately for us, I had already written down all of the information and successfully sent of our reply this afternoon. Hopefully we will make it to the next stage, which is invitation only RFP (Request for Proposals).

NASA has a unique opportunity here to do something new and truly “next-generation”. Looking at their requirements, it seems that they want to build an MMORPG (MMO Role Playing Game) that has strong educational elements, but they also require significant features and functionality for simulations (emphasis on realistic physics) and collaborative tools. This can be construed as either abilities for users to collaborate on missions (content related quests) or collaborative tools in the vein of what you would expect from your typical virtual world…shared files, integrated media (video, voice, etc.). My guess is the latter…especially if they want a platform where their own scientists and engineers can use for various simulations, meetings, and so forth. Now that I think about it, the RFI specifically states: “This new synthetic world would be a collaborative work and meeting space…”. Again, what they are looking for is more than just a NASA themed MMORPG.

Most game developers (and other interested parties) will likely respond and suggest something that is heavy on role-playing game elements and miss the larger picture of what NASA wants, and what could potentially be developed here by saavy designers. For more than a few years now, I have been evangelising the convergence of virtual worlds, MMORPGs, social networks, collaborative tools, and a few other things. To some people, this may seem either nuts or visionary. Personally it all seems pretty common sense. I mean, really. MMORPGs are nothing more than Virtual Worlds with engaging and immersive content, story, and gameplay, while virtual worlds are like barren MMORPGs but with better tools for collaborative features (to some degree) or user generated content. Other things like advanced collaborative tools (which the corporate sector really wishes Second Life actually had and did correctly) or robust social networking features and intuitive drag & drop user content creation are things that should be part of the standard set of both virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

Anyway, NASA has an opportunity to bring about industry shattering convergence…but only if someone is smart enough to tell them about it. After glancing around the internet, I’ve found some interesting comments and ideas (both perplexing and depressing to me in several degrees). On one forum, a poster implied that NASA and Linden Labs (makers of Second Life) were in discussion to build a research corporation inside of Second Life for the purpose of researching the viability of a NASA MMO. One of the commenters that replied to the post expressed some befuddlement at why NASA would even consider building anything “virtual” outside of Second Life, and that SL would be the perfect platform for having a space station that had information about NASA programs in it. Did these guys even bother to read the RFI that NASA issued?

Another thing that surprised me, was that Penny Arcade mentioned that they had been contacted by someone at NASA to announce the RFI and post it on their site. This really surprised me. Penny Arcade is (among other things) a community of gamers (yeah yeah, I know about the webcomic and PAX). The RFI is explicit that “The purpose of this RFI is to solicit information from organizations with proven immersive synthetic environments expertise who are interested in potentially forming a MMO platform development partnership with NASA.” Wow, that really describes the Penny Arcade community, doesn’t it? What NASA should have done, IMHO, was go directly to the International Game Developers Association and reach out to developers there, or even through other venues like gamasutra.com. I’m willing to bet that NASA got a lot of responses to their RFI from “Joe Gamer” talking about space boobs, missions against aliens on mars with weapons and ships, and probably suggestions about making the MMO(RPG) like Halo, Eve Online, Tabula Rasa, World of Warcraft in Space (Starcraft?), Star Trek Online (RIP), or even Jumpgate.

My fear is that most (if not all) of the respondents are going to miss the point entirely, and even worse, NASA will be snookered by a publisher/developer that does a real nice song and dance on paper, but will ultimately deliver another miserable and mediocre excuse for a MMO or a Virtual World. I’ll probably puke my guts out if they seriously consider something based on the SL platform.

In my opinion, the ideal approach is a hybrid one. The NASA MMOEG should first be designed as a robust Virtual World platform loaded to the gills with powerful content creation tools and collaborative functionality (both of which better be damned easy to use and intuitive). This makes it easy for users (players, academics, scientists, whatever) to continually create new content, areas, missions, etc. and share it, as well as help both NASA and the eventual developer partner, quickly prototype and deploy new content. Second, the world should have the most kick ass physics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life built in. This should be server-side based, and not client-based. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but it is the way to go. Taking this a step further, some sort of easy to learn scripting language (think LEGO Mindstorms or Actionscript) should be developed as well. All together, this makes creating dynamic content much easier and puts a lot of power into the hands of designers, developers, and end-users. The ability for anyone (NASA Engineer or High Schooler across the street) to play around in a virtual sandbox with scriptable AI-driven bots and creatures, or setting up mini-environments (think instances combined with nested worlds) is incredibly powerful…nothing like this exists, and if it is done correctly, it would be the dream app for many educators and future scientists. Hell, I’d love to play around with something like this. Anyway, this is key for making very interactive, immersive, and engaging educational content…particularly when it is tied into the fourth part…the game content.

NASA can go in multiple directions here when it comes to the game. If I was NASA or their partner developer, I would simply do it all, and segregate it. Over here, we have historical content…let players run through simulations of historic events, launches, and missions. Lots of fun, plenty of educational value. You could also do current day stuff combined with near future…lunar base, mars base, explore planets, fly the shuttle, etc. etc. The list goes on and on, but I’m not going to give you all my ideas haha. And finally, future…what happens if we introduce faster than light travel? Biodomes on Mars? Rogue AI taking over mining droids in the asteroid belt? Ok ok, what about ALIENS? I’m sure there are many people out there that would kill for a well designed Star Trek MMORPG (perpetual screwed that up royally, and I don’t think it will see the light of day anytime soon, and if it does get released, I have zero expectation for it). Anyway, my point is that there are a lot of fun, interesting, and really badass things NASA could pull off here with a bit of imagination and some great designers.

So what is left? One of the key goals (apparently ignored by most of the posters and bloggers that have commented on this) is that the NASA MMOEG needs to provide opportunities for players to explore and investigate career options in STEM fields (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This is a challenge to be sure. Personally, I don’t think that any MMORPG developer out there has the right combination of talent and skillsets to pull this off, especially from a design standpoint. Seriously, imagine trying to learn about Engineering or Math through World of Warcraft or Eve Online styled gameplay. You must solve this equation 200 times before we will let you solve the next equation, and then you have to wait 14 days to earn a point in your Algebra IV skill. Great, gee thanks. I do think that this is where casual game design can come into play (pardon the pun). Take a look at some of the puzzle games over on kongregate.com…many of them teach things like physics without really trying to, and they are fun and replayable to boot.

Many “traditional” design methods for contemporary MMORPGs will not work well for a MMOEG, particularly one that needs to emphasize collaborative meeting spaces, educational elements (i.e. things that TEACH math, physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, etc.). Slapping on pseudo educational elements on a traditional MMORPG platform is a very bad idea. Similarly, trying to ram gameplay elements onto a typical virtual world platform (all of which are severely lacking in multiple areas in my opinion) is just begging for failure.

I’ll be interested in seeing what NASA and their eventual partner end up creating here. I think it will either be a dismal failure (giving NASA another black eye) or it will be something utterly spectacular that energizes innovation and new design in the interactive media sector. I’m hoping for the latter.

Robert Rice