Friday, January 25, 2008

'Become the Data'

So here's the real news about NASA and virtual worlds: this weekend's "Virtual Worlds and Immersive Environments" conference at the space agency's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Two days with some big names in virtual worlds should place NASA even more squarely on the virtual government map than it has been. Already, NASA has issued a call for help creating its own synthetic world and multiplayer immersive game (see previous post).

Here are the organizing principles for the confab:
1. We all get to go: The ability to engage anyone in being a part of or contributing to an experience (such as a space mission), no matter their training or location. A new paradigm for education, outreach, and the conduct of science in society that is truly participatory.

2. Remote Exploration: The ability to create high fidelity environments rendered from external data or models such that exploration, design and analysis that is truly inter-operable with the physical world can take place within them.

3. Become the data: A vision of a potential future where boundaries between the physical and the virtual have ceased to be meaningful. What would this future look like? Is this plausible? Is it desirable? Why and Why not.

This third vision, "become the data," hearkens to my own vision of the future interactions between us and digital information. When the "computer" becomes transparent, nothing will intervene between us and data, so we will be able to display, manipulate, mash and learn from it so much more easily. It's not exactly what NASA alludes to here, the space folks are far ahead of me, but it's easy enough to imagine a moment when we immerse ourselves fully in synthetic worlds where divisions between us and information disappear.

That's where it all gets fuzzy for me. So much of what we do on computers today merely apes the physical world--this blog for example appears to you as do words typed on paper--that it is hard to envision a future not based on images of the past.

Last night, reading the page proofs of "The Making of Second Life," a new book by Wagner James Au, I was fascinated to discover that the makers of the best-known virtual world had planned to create a sort of online Eden that users could interact in, but not change. Instead, SL became something quite other because, like no other synthetic world before it, SL permits its users to create the environment, tinker with it, collaborate in building and see their results immediately. So the creators gave over the controls to the players and SL became something they could not have imagined. Similarly with the evolution of the Web and our interface with computers and my dear career, journalism. We simply have no coherent idea--we're all just placing bets on the outcome and dancing as fast as we can.

Wish I could be at Ames this weekend . . .

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virtual Agencies

OK, well not exactly agencies, but representations of what they do, at least. Lacking their own synthetic world, a number of agencies have created space in Second Life, the best known of dozens of public virtual worlds. It's not an ideal place for agencies to do actual work because it's not secure and it suffers from anarchic behavior and a lack of laws and rules. Nonetheless, it's an increasingly important place to have a presence and to learn how to work in. I'll write more about synthetic worlds in the future--I believe they will be the next Web--but for now, here's a newsy introduction that was published today here.

NASA wants to do more than just seek new worlds, it wants to create one. The day after Valentine’s Day, the space agency hopes to receive a pile of five-page proposals detailing how it should go about creating a synthetic online world and a multiplayer game within it. The goal is to lure more youngsters into the science technology, engineering and math professions NASA needs in order to achieve its lofty plan to return to the Moon to build a spacecraft to carry humans to Mars.

In its Jan. 16 request for information, NASA seeks the input of organizations that already operate immersive synthetic environments that would be interested in partnering to develop a new online world and educational role-playing game.

“A high quality synthetic gaming environment is a vital element of NASA’s educational cyberstructure,” according to the RFI. “This new synthetic world would be a collaborative work and meeting space as well as a game space of a kind familiar to increasing numbers of American students. Games and challenges in the [massively multiplayer online educational game] would engage students in a way that is both familiar and comfortable for them.”

It won’t be NASA’s first foray into the synthetic universe. The agency already has a presence in the best known of dozens of virtual worlds, Second Life. NASA’s “island” in Second Life houses a virtual CoLab, a digital version of a program begun at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Sac Francisco to allow collaboration between NASA and individuals in support of space missions.

Other federal agencies also have outposts in Second Life. Perhaps the best known is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Meterora, where visitors can ride a submarine, view tsunami demonstrations, ride a weather balloon and a hurricane hunter plane and interact with a real-time 3-D weather map of the United States.

The Crawford Auditorium on NOAA’s island hosted the virtual version of the first gathering of the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds, “Exploring Virtual Worlds,” in November, held live at the national Defense University in Washington (175 people attended in the real world, 182 in NOAA’s auditorium). The Centers for Disease Control, which has had a Second Life presence since 2006, also was on hand.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Virtual You

This just in, or rather news to me, IBM this fall launched a prototype 3-D anatomy avatar which, linked to your electronic medical record (still in the future, of course) will let your doctor tool around your body examining what has ailed you. The Anatomic and Symbolic Mapper Engine unveiled in Zurich, lets a doctor click on the avatar and engage a search of medical records for relevant information. Its akin to Google Earth or Virtual Earth for the body, according to IBM.

Perhaps, but until they throw it up on the Web for everyone to play with, not exactly. And it's likely to be as much or more of a boon for patients says Spotsylvania, Va., risk analyst Robert Charette in the January issue of Spectrum, the magazine of IEEE, the technology professionals association. He quotes Andre Elisseeff, who leads the ASNE research team at IBM’s Zurich Research Lab, as saying: “We would not be surprised if it helps more the patients actually than doctors.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Virtual Earth

Imagine the many uses for 3-D mapping on the Web. Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth are hotly contesting the dominant position for this new capability. Consumers have glommed onto the platforms to share reviews of stores, restaurants and sights to be seen; locate themselves in the moment; track their travels; and "mash up" their own photographs and other content with maps.

You'll find examples below.

Potential uses by industry and government seem limited only by imagination. Already, we're accustomed to watching flyovers and explanations using these products on television news.

Improved emergency response is a no-brainer, but imagine how 3-D mapping could help in piecing together crimes, locating vantage points that must be protected during large events, improving response to health emergencies, etc.

Google Earth, in partnership with the U.S. Holocaust Museum, has created a heart-breaking window on the crisis in Darfur. The video demonstration of this project shows the power in visualizing data, putting it into context and combining it with human images and stories.

The looming bars showing where the 2.5 million Darfurian refugees have fled, the thousands of blackened circles that once were homes, the 11,000 destroyed houses and structures along a 40-mile stretch of just one river--it is an all-encompassing, riveting portrait of tragedy impossible until now. What if we had had this capability when Rwanda dissolved into genocide. Might the world have stepped in sooner? Will it now in Darfur?

Whatever happens, there will be no denying that we knew, in real time, what was going on.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Virtual Government

Not long from now, we will make laws, set policies, write regulations and create programs by first "playing" the likely consequences in synthetic worlds.

We will interact with all kinds of data--program results, claims processed, rates of environmental change, response times, performance, cost, schedule, etc.--physically via wall-sized multi-touch screens and computer tables, not keyboards and monitors. Displaying and manipulating on one large screen both live and historical information about the past and current conditions and the effects of agency actions will allow us to see trends and possibilities and make predictions in ways we simply cannot today, when information resides in silos and behind the walls of very different organizations and is static and lifeless. Most of what we do digitally will involve touching and moving images or actually stepping into situations via our digital doubles--avatars--in uncannily accurate models of the real world.

These changes will happen because new generations are entering government and the work world and politics. These people will not, cannot, manage information on paper, nor in spreadsheets or online dashboards. The will not endure the kludgy, slow, ineffecient process of learning new software and keeping that knowledge up to date merely to be able to manipulate data. Their interactions with computers will be visual and physical. They won't make decisions using inference, deduction, lengthy consultation, research, data-gathering and study. They will demand to see and touch and manipulate what is known about problems and to "play" possible solutions so they can view the likely outcomes before choosing how to proceed.

If you doubt it, watch this:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Opening Shot

In hopes of avoiding the navel gazing and pontificating so common to this form of publishing, I hereby vow to use this blog judiciously and only as a means to convey information I have found useful, provocative, insightful and enlightening.

I am a wordsmith and editor, a lover of the written word and, until recently, a member of that tribe of alchemists of words and images known as magazine editors. I relish the company of writers. I belong to the church of explanatory journalism and narrative nonfiction. But I'll be doggoned if I can figure out what will become of them as print journalism continues its surprisingly rapid demise.

My expertise is in federal government, whether it be management, buying and selling in the federal market, applications of technology, entrerpeneurship within agencies, leadership, running programs and projects, or myriad other aspects of the work of democracy.

Now I've begun a quest for new ways of conveying information, explaining, investigating and commenting on federal operations and governanace. My goal: to explore, examine, exhort and excite interest in virtual government. I hope to share my fascination with the potential for new, more effective, more accessible ways of doing America's business using a host of digital tools.

From gaming platforms and synthetic worlds . . .

To computers we can use more intuitively to visualize more information so we can compare, contrast, combine and manipulate it more easily . . .

And more.

It promises to be a fabulous, fascinating journey, so let it begin!