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.

Summary

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.

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One response to “Virtual Worlds and Technology Futures

  1. Your observations about virtual worlds were nicely balanced (those of many commentators from outside the academic are … not). Thanks.

    Like

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