Monthly Archives: September 2011

Virtual Worlds and Technology Futures

Last week I was privileged to be invited to give the closing keynote at an event called ReLIVE 11 (Research and Learning in Virtual Environments) at the Open University. This was certainly a big deal for me as I was in the company of some brilliant academic minds and some tech celebrities – plus, the OU is an important and well-known institution (despite the fact that I heard Leo Laporte say that he’d never heard of it on the MacBreak Weekly podcast I was listening to as I drove to Milton Keynes last Tuesday evening!).

I’d previously explained to the organisers that I hadn’t spent so much time exploring virtual worlds lately as I was doing three or four years ago at the height of IBM’s involvement with platforms such as Second Life and our own internal Metaverse. Having said that, I have spent more time with gaming platforms such as XBox and the Nintendo 3DS since then, and more recently also Minecraft. Naturally I did have that business perspective and story to share… and, as the closing keynote I had the interesting task of pulling together the threads we’d covered during the breakout sessions at the conference, as well as attempting to look ahead to what trends might be important in the future.

The video is online via the Open University website and the talk with Q&A lasted for about an hour. More coverage of ReLIVE 11 is aggregated on Lanyrd.


As I noted in the opening and closing sections of the talk – predictions of the future are a hit-and-miss affair. We may now have tablet computers arguably even cooler than the Star Trek padds and communicators, but I’m still waiting on my hoverboard. Nevertheless, I tried to frame the story of IBM’s exploration of virtual worlds and 3D environments with some discussion of trends. It also gave me an excuse to talk about Back to the Future, and a cool ad that Nike recently released tying back in to the movie.

I want to reiterate (as it may not have been clear from tweets that emerged during the event) that these were very much my own thoughts and not the views of my employer – in fact, I was attending the event in a personal capacity. So, per the presentation, my thoughts on trends to watch in the next five years:

  1. 3D Printing: I’ve seen RepRap and other 3D printers more often in the past couple of months than ever before, and it is clear that prototyping and fabrication are coming within financial and technical reach of more than just the early adopting minority. That’s not to say this is something I see going “mainstream” – but as access opens up, expect to see many more interesting things happening here.
  2. Social broadcast: I think “TV” is rapidly giving way to a more generalised broadcast media that is being consumed across multiple devices, remixed, shared, etc. I also think that social streams are adding to the experience of how these media are being consumed, as evidenced by hashtags broadcast on BBC programmes, and the ways in which conversations form online around events and video streams.  A nod to my friend Roo Reynolds too, a man constantly way ahead of his time…
  3. Touch and Gesture: we already know that the ways in which we interact with technology is evolving fast. Watch any child approach a large screen and attempt to press the screen, expecting their cartoon hero to become interactive. This is not going to stop – Microsoft have some amazing technology in this space with Kinect and we should get used to and embrace the changes as they happen if we want to evolve.
  4. Big Data: a nod to my own organisation’s Smarter Planet story, and an acknowledgement that every one of the major tech firms is investing in ways to store, mine, slice and analyse the increasing amounts of data flowing in from the environment and our personal signals. This is just a continuing story, but we’re at a point where it is a red hot topic. It would have been a good point to mention Watson, if I’d thought on my feet quickly enough!
  5. Identity: this is not so much something where we will see technical progress necessarily, as an area I think will be a threat, and difficult to resolve. The nymwars of Google+ are one edge of the issue. I believe that there is a real tension between the freewheeling days of the earlier Internet, the desire of individuals to make their own choices about identity (often for valid social reasons, other times for vanity), and corporations and political entities that want to close this situation down. This is going to be a tricky one.

So what of virtual worlds? Three words: Not Gone Away. They may have morphed, lost their early shine, the bubble burst – but we have a range of immersive experiences (and social, but not necessarily immersive ones) through which we interact. I mentioned Minecraft and how that is being used for teaching. I talked through IBM’s work with serious gaming. I spoke about the IBM Virtual Center briefly, and that’s online and used today – in fact Jack Mason just posted a nice deck on that which carries some statistics, if you want to learn more.

Thoughts on education

I clearly was not the most experienced individual in the room when it came to discussions about teaching and education, and I particularly enjoyed hearing different presenters at ReLIVE11 talk about how they are using OpenSim, OpenWonderland and other platforms. However – after my recent post on Raspberry Pi and my exploration of the Brighton Mini Maker Faire I’ve been thinking increasingly about Maker culture and how we could bring technology teaching back around to practical matters.  I was disappointed to read the Government’s (lack of) response to John Graham-Cumming’s recent letter on the same subject, though.

One of the things that I called out as a barrier to the adoption of immersive worlds and new technologies at work is something I’m calling The Empty Room Problem – the fact that unless you build it and then populate it, they will not necessarily come. I’ll be writing about this some more shortly, prompted by Derek Jones’ great blog post.

During the Q&A session I gave an answer to one of the questions which contained some ideas I’ve had on a possible curriculum – I’ll try to expand on those in the near future as well.


The broken iOS online commerce experience

Minor rant/niggle. The other day I remembered that I wanted to order the new book by Jeff JarvisPublic Parts. I was out and about, so I took out my iPhone, opened the Amazon app, and searched for the Kindle edition.

Of course, thanks to the changes Apple have made to the way in-app content is sold, with 30% of that sale going straight to them through iTunes, sellers like Amazon have decided to stop allowing digital content to be ordered in-app on the iOS platform. I can’t really blame them, although it’s interesting to see Microsoft rumoured to be following the now-established “30% App Store rule” for Metro apps Windows 8, with other content gatekeepers likely to follow suit, one would assume.

So I get a polite message telling me that rather than buying Jeff’s book, I can go ahead and add it to my wish list, change to the website via Safari (how many iOS users actually realise the browser is called “Safari”, incidentally?), and purchase it there.

The first thing the Amazon website wants to  do is entice me to download the Amazon App for iPhone. I’m using an iPhone, so why wouldn’t I want it? I smirk to myself and continue. It’s actually just as quick to repeat the product search on the website as it would have been to add the item to my wish list, find the wish list, and open the item.

Once it gets to the part where taking the money is involved, of course, Amazon have that just as well sorted as they ever did – one click and I am, as they say, done… well, apart from the part where the website assumed I wanted to book sent to my iPhone, since I was shopping from that device. Anyway… looking forward to reading Jeff’s new book on my Kindle later tomorrow!

No wonder Amazon want to just go out and build an all-in-one content and physical goods purchasing tablet.

Search queries (aka lies, lies… and statistics)

I’m shamelessly stealing an idea from Peter Anghelides‘ blog here, although with less of an amusing result.

I’ve been blogging here for a number of years now and it’s always fascinating to see what search terms lead people in. For the first few years it was a post on the UK car tax renewal site, because people seemed to be typing the URL into Google and Yahoo (instead of the address bar) and hitting my site rather than the actual service.

From the results over the past 12 months it seems that people usually are looking for me, or for something on MQTT. Some of the other search terms, though, are quite surprising… Visio? VMWare? iMovie 09? it has been a while since I wrote about those.

On another note, I’ve now got the new Google Authorship markup working, so hopefully search results should be linked to my Google Profile along with my happy smiling face… 🙂

Google Authorship

WebSphere MQ and Ubuntu (and other developer resources)

For some time now, I’ve been using Ubuntu as my desktop operating system. Although I’m yet to be convinced by Unity (it’s getting there, the more I learn the shortcuts and stick with it), I do know that Ubuntu is a hugely-popular platform for developers – and I know that many of my colleagues at IBM who are in development roles choose our internal Linux-based client options (which cover a range of distributions), instead of Windows or OS X.

So, what about developing with or using WebSphere MQ on Ubuntu? Well, the officially-supported platforms for WebSphere MQ V7.0.x don’t include Ubuntu – that’s primarily a combination of the relative popularity of RedHat or SuSE Enterprise platforms in production deployments, time and resource spent on testing, and the fact that it would probably only be practical to test and support it on a Long Term Support release if it ever became supported.

However, it is possible to get WMQ installed and running on Ubuntu without jumping through too many hoops. The primary stumbling block is that the software is packaged in RPM format rather than in Debian/Ubuntu-friendly DEB files. One piece of advice is to avoid any guides that suggest converting the packages using alien… it may seem unusual, but you’re likely to find it far easier to get it working by installing rpm on the system instead. My colleague Rob Convery has posted a couple of very useful blog entries on this subject which I’d recommend if you have a need to get yourself running on Ubuntu – again, bearing in mind that it is not an officially supported platform, and that should you encounter issues then it might be necessary to reproduce them under RHEL or SLES when raising a service call with IBM.


There are other ways to get to use and learn about WMQ too, of course – for example, you could grab one of the IBM Industry Application Platform cloud images to run on the IBM SmartCloud or Amazon EC2 (containing WAS V7, DB2 Express-C 9.7, and WMQ V7.0.1, running on SLES), or you can try a number of the WMQ family products in IBM’s SOA Sandbox, (including WMQ File Transfer Edition, and WMQ Advanced Message Security). You can also check out the MQonTV YouTube channel. Let me know what you think!

Teaching technology in the future – Raspberry Pi

Before you dismiss this as TL;DR – it’s a subject dear to my heart, and I believe that there’s some cool content as well as some storytelling – do give it a chance!

A sad state of affairs

I believe that we have lived through the best period to teach and learn about computers and technology, and that over the past few years we have been creating a void, a vacuum, in which progress may be diminished.

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently called out the British education system as holding back or dismissing our technology heritage. According to a ZDNet article on his speech in Edinburgh:

Schmidt said the UK’s approach to technology in education — not making IT compulsory as a subject at the GSCE-level and not providing enough support for science students at colleges — meant the country was “throwing away” its computing heritage.

See also the BBC and Guardian coverage of the story.

I can’t say I think he’s wrong, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyone who has heard me ranting about the state of things in a side conversation at any recent event in the past couple of years, will have heard me tell a similar story. When I was a lad – and I know that some of those who read this will be older, just let me reminisce without interrupting, OK? 🙂 – I grew up on an early Commodore PET with green screen, followed by BBC Micros, Acorn Electrons, etc. I’ve had a couple of occasions to look back on that era recently, with a visit to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, seeing the team from TNMoC visit the Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and through talking to folks at TransferSummit (of which more, in a moment). In my day, you plugged in the power, the machine made a satisfying BEEP! and you were presented with a black screen with the word BASIC and a > prompt. That’s just how things worked. To do anything else, you had to tell the computer to do it – and you learned a lot as you did so!

Without wanting to sound like some kind of old fogey – kids today never had it so good! They have grown up in an era where all they have ever known is a world where every computer is connected to the Internet, a giant brain which appears to be all-knowing (and I know that this is how a 3 or 4 year old thinks: my own younger family members have said “we’ll just look it up on the Internet, it knows everything”, without understanding that humans have known everything, and the computers just tell us what we’ve told them, at a basic level). They have fast, interactive machines which are dramatically more usable – and instead of bulky noisy systems which were just about user-serviceable, ideally when you had an antistatic wrist strap to hand… they have magic, thin, sheets of glass that can be controlled at the slightest touch.

That’s fantastic. It puts children today in a position where they can be more creative than ever before – I could barely edit low-quality digital scanned photos by the time I left school, let alone edit full HD video with a variety of awesome effects. So one thing we can teach them is how to use creative tools like… oh I don’t know… Office suites (capitalisation deliberate, sarcasm heavy).

The thing is – we don’t need to teach schoolchildren how to use a productivity tool like that. By the time they have sat watching us for 5 minutes aged 6, they intuitively “just get it”. Worse is the fact that we’ve nearly removed the ability to look under the covers at what makes the machines work – certainly in a hardware sense you’d need a very advanced knowledge of microelectronics to do anything with the innards of most smartphones, and software is often becoming more and more locked up to the whims of the hardware manufacturers (naming no Apples). Plus of course, everything is online. So what does this mean for the curiosity to take things apart either in hardware or software, see how they work, and build something new?

(the irony is not lost on me that as a History graduate, I’m an unusual spokesperson for this debate)

Makers and getting back to basics

KitTen, Uno, Nanode One of the reasons I’m excited by the trend towards making things – what I’ll term the Maker movement, in a nod to the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and the magazine that has inspired the events – is that it reflects both our natural human curiosity and interest in building things, and making them work. I also think that is part of the reason behind our interest in prototypable electronics like Arduino – we have gone through a period of making things smaller, more compressed and proprietary, and the pendulum is swinging back towards open hardware, simple construction, and ease of learning. This is a huge, great and important step, in my opinion.

Enter – a Raspberry Pi

So how can we take advantage of that trend towards discovery and learning, and combine it with small cheap electronics, to really make a difference? Well, you may have heard of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – it has had a fair amount of coverage in the UK anyway, with the promise of a new low-cost computing platform which could theoretically replicate the success of the BBC-sponsored, Acorn-built, BBC Microcomputers from the 1980s (and backed by one of the most successful computer games authors of that era). Those BBC Micro systems were rolled out across schools all over the UK, and pretty much anyone in the 30-40 age bracket will have learned to write some kind of BBC BASIC or LOGO code at some point in their education, and have looked at fractals and played a variety of classic 8-bit games. My first home computer was an Acorn Electron, an affordable beige “keyboard box” that could be plugged straight into a home TV in 1984, with games and programs loaded off a (then) common cassette player.

The folks at Raspberry Pi believe that having a cheap computer which can be presented as an education device could be a success. At the TransferSummit last week, I met Eben and Liz Upton from the project, and had a chance to play with the system first hand. I also made a quick film of this amazing little computer playing full HD video – and the excitement is obvious in the fact that it has received nearly 50k hits on YouTube in just 4 days, probably helped by an appearance on the Raspberry Pi blog and also in a feature on!

One of the things that Eben spoke about was the idea that it would almost be more interesting for these things to boot to a Python prompt instead of a full Linux desktop (which it is well-capable of doing), in order to ignite kids’ imaginations and force them into doing something more creative than simply doing what they would do with any other computer. I kinda like that suggestion!

Risks, and what else can we do?

I’m excited. As I said several times to Liz and others at the event this week – it’s a British organisation with vision, with an amazing idea, a product that works, and the desire to really reconnect children – particularly those in the developing world – with technology and how to drive it.

I can see a  number of risks, but the last thing I want is to be a naysayer here – I really, really want these folks to succeed. However, just looking at the excitement amongst hobbyists like me, and reading some of the comments posted on my video already, I realise that there’s a danger that the supplies of these things will quickly be snapped up by those wanting to make funky small home systems for themselves, rather than the altruistic wanting to help youngsters to learn (heck, I want one! so I understand that!). Or, kids may see these as just another form-factor of computer of the kind they are used to, plug it in, go online, and do nothing different to what they are already capable of. Another issue is that a bare board (the initial version won’t have a box, although that would be easy enough to fab) and a lack of instructions or clear fixed “syllabus”, if you like, may discourage teachers now used to teaching desktop computing and productivity tools, from embracing the potential to help students to create. It’s also entirely possible that these things will simply be cloned elsewhere. For all of these reasons, I’m determined to do what I can to promote the Raspberry Pi concept as an educational tool, and to support the team behind it. It’s important. It deserves to be a massive success.

So, what else can we do?

One thing is to go and sign the brilliant Emma Mulqueeny (aka @hubmum)’s e-petition on the UK gov website. She’s campaigning for an earlier entry for programming into the classroom, at primary level, particularly to encourage more girls to take an interest in technology. I think this is a brilliant step. Nik Butler has posted about the importance of teaching this stuff, too, and I encourage you to read his post – I particularly support the way in which he refutes the list of reasons why this sort of teaching is allegedly a “bad” idea. He’s also talked about the Raspberry Pi on the Social Media White Noise podcast #70.

Another thing is to visit and support The National Museum of Computing, preferably with some kids you know – help them to see where we have come from and where we are going.

It’s obvious to me that we need to change the way we think about teaching IT, computing, and technology. Earlier teaching of programming is important. I also think that a basic understanding of how a computer system fits together would help, as well as a high-level understanding of the way in which the Internet works. Importantly though – and this rolls into a whole other passion of mine which I won’t rant about today – increasingly as we come together online, I think it is increasingly important to teach tolerance, understanding of other cultures, and good online community behaviour. How we collectively go about doing that, I’m not entirely sure – but it feels important.

Thanks for indulging me on this particularly long post – it really is a subject I care deeply about. And all that stuff about technology – from an historian and Arts student 😛