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 . . .

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