Simulations

Microsoft's Office Labs Future Vision Montage

The guys over at Microsoft Office Labs are earning their paychecks as far as thinking about the future and what we should be looking forward to.

Check out this kick ass video montage (mostly conceptual of course) that addresses the question: “How will emerging technology improve our productivity in the years ahead?” There is quite a bit of augmented reality in here, but also mobile/ubiquitous computing, advanced office applications (better interfaces and visualization) and a host of other neat things.

Notice the total lack of marker patterns and wearable displays? Should we expect contact lens interfaces by 2019? (I’m doubtful on this one).

What do you think?

Check out more info at I Started Something and Venture Beat where I heard about it.

NIVARS

One of the projects I am working on is launching a new Center of Excellence for the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center (RMSC), which will be the National Institute of Virtual and Augmented Reality and Simulations (NIVARS). Yes, I know it is a long title, but there really isn’t a nice short term that encompasses all things virtual, augmented, and simulations. Maybe we should start saying using Dynamedia or something to refer to any or all of the following: virtual reality, virtual worlds, augmented reality, mmo, mmorpg, interactive, immersive, geolocative, contextual, meta, etc. etc. Much of the underlying technology is the same, so why not?

Anyway, NIVARS will officially launch its website later this month (January). In addition to acting as a center of excellence for RMSC, it will also engage in activities that promote innovation and advancing the state-of-the-art of dynamedia (see above!). This is purposefully somewhat broad in scope, as I want to have some elbow room to engage in and support research, publishing, conferences, think-tanks, collaboration, and mindsharing.

If you want to contribute ideas or volunteer some time, feel free to email me directly. We will probably have a formal launch of NIVARS in the Spring.

Avatar Technology

I recently saw some video clips from “Modeling and Simulations Capitol Hill Expo 2008” where all of the usual suspects on the government/military side of the fence were showing their “serious games” wares for training, simulations, and so forth.

Two things struck me…first, several of the people mentioned “avatar technology” as a big selling point or key aspect of their technology, and second, the “state-of-the-art” being touted at this event (and similar ones) is woefully NOT state-of-the-art.

First, let’s deal with this goofy concept of “avatar technology”. Listening to these people, you get the sense that they really have no earthly idea of what the hell they are talking about, or perhaps they have some inkling but figure that if they talk real fast over the buzzwords, you will be impressed. Being impressed leads to sales!

Imagine a lot of people selling something they don’t quite understand to people that don’t really understand what they need, but feel like they should be buying something to keep up appearances.

But really, what is this “avatar technology” they talk about? It is basically using avatars, or more accurately, 3D characters, as a method or tool for teaching, training, and doing simulations. While this seems pretty obvious to half of the country that has experience with any kind of video game or educational animation, the other half of the country still thinks this is some kind of strange new magical technology.

The idea of using technology from the game industry for non-entertainment applications is generally referred to as “Serious Games”. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that the game industry has been in the lead (for a long time) in innovation, and has been pushing the envelop in multiple areas…3D rendering, 3D lighting, motion capture, artificial intelligence, massively multiuser networking, dynamic load balancing, world creation, behavioral modeling, simulations, physics, and generally anything interactive and immersive. Anyone leveraging any of these technologies in other industries should have a huge edge on the competition, and be able to do some amazing things.

So why is it that nearly every “serious game” application I have come across looks like crap, is clunky, feels like it came from 1996, and is marketed by people that really don’t understand the technology?

My take on this is that the people running the companies that focus on “serious games” (inclusive of anything with the words virtual, interactive, immersive, avatar, simulations, etc.) are generally from backgrounds in government or academia, that acquired some cheap tech and then leveraged their existing connections/expertise to secure grants and government funding. I have yet to see one of these companies run by game developers (current or ex).

The curious thing here, is that this results in a lot of money flowing to these companies, as the military, government, and even corporations are under the impression that they are getting “state-of-the-art” because this is all that they are seeing and being sold. Sure, there are exceptions (and I’ll tip my hat at America’s Army, which used the Unreal engine to roaring success), but not usually.

Probably the most dramatic example of this is the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate enough to have a guided red-carpet tour of the facility recently as part of a team evaluating the facilities (not directly related to my own ventures, I was acting as a subject matter expert).

The Institute at UCF has quite a lot to brag about, and they do so. Repeatedly. I won’t go into details about the 140+ companies that have some presence at the Institute, or the $18M+ in grant money every year, or the sheer breadth of R&D topics being investigated there, or even the multiple buildings (all quite nice) and the new development. That was all quite impressive, and rightly so.

I do take issue with the presentation of everything as the world capital of simulations, or that this was the end-all, be-all of innovation and state-of-the-art. I’ve never been quite this underwhelmed by anything technology related, except perhaps by the E.T. game or the movie “Battlefield Earth” after all the movie hype. I think the most “cutting edge” stuff I saw could be done by a high school student over a weekend in a garage, or might have been considered pretty awesome in 1993.

One of the big highlights of the day long tour was the simulations/training platform for Forterra Systems. They ran a demo for us that was horribly cheesy (worst voice actors ever), with a pretty solid script that definitely showed off what they could do. I was reasonably impressed with that. However, their tech is severely dated (based on the same engine as there.com) and limited to something like 30 or 40 people concurrently logged in to the same virtual environment.

That last bit stunned me a bit so I commented about using commercial off the shelf (Cots) game technology to implement a more robust “back end” (refering to the server side networking) to get a few thousand concurrent users, or even a more realistic 3D graphics (you know, maybe only a decade out of date). I was immediately slapped down by Dr. Randall Shumaker, the Director of the Institute (who never bothered to ask anyone in the group (outside of the leader, for which the tour was to benefit) who we were, what our backgrounds were, or what we were looking for from the Institute).

Anyway, he pretty much dismissed me, and the game industry as a whole by saying that game tech is too flashy, unrealistic, over hyped, incapable of doing physics (beyond simple things), and essentially useless. Yeah, I was shocked. Someone has been drinking too much of their own kool-aid.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is that the “state-of-the-art” is certainly not so, and that the government is spending a lot of money to transition towards simulations to SAVE money, but there are a lot of jokers taking advantage of the gravy train. Why should they really innovate and push the envelop? Isn’t it easier to just snag all of the grants (SBIR, STTR, etc. and whatever else) and just coast?

Just for grins, if you want to see what I was talking about, simply go to the Forterra site and check out their demos (be prepared to cringe at some of the voice acting, particularly for the “kids”).

I was initially surprised that Forterra has been doing a lot with IBM, but then again, IBM thinks that Second Life and Open Sim are great and next-gen. Right idea guys, wrong implementation. The whole “virtual world thing” is not going anywhere as long as the money keeps going to the wrong companies, tools, and technology.

Avatar Technology is a red herring. The avatars are the least important aspect of virtual worlds and what their true potential is. Avatars are nothing more than self-representations of our individual selves.  Getting excited about more dancing emotes or greater variety and realism in clothes misses the whole point. The real value is in the world itself, and the tools necessary to build them, and make them useful.

 

 

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