Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Land on the Moon Virtually

Remember that NASA conference I blogged about on Jan. 25? The one where folks were going to discuss how, using synthetic worlds and gaming software, one day we might all get to "go along" on NASA space missions? Well, we certainly aren't there yet, but a new animation, enabled by what NASA calls "the highest resolution terrain mapping to date of the moon's rugged south polar region," gives you a glimpse of the virtual future.

Check out the briefing about the extraordinary new Moon views and likely landing spot for the next lunar mission here. "We now know the south pole has peaks as high as Mt.McKinley and crater floors four times deeper than the Grand Canyon," says Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Who knows, by the time the mission launches, we all really might get to go along . . . virtually, of course!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Terrorists in Virtual Worlds Part II: A Fox in the MMORPG

The blogs frequented by massively multiplayer online role playing gamers and virtual world denizens are abuzz today with revelations about the "Reynard" project. It's a study of emerging social dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games being conducted by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity within the Office of Science and Technology at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Typical headlines: "US Government to Track Terrorists Via World of Warcraft," "U.S. Spies Want to Find Terrorists in World of Warcraft." The latter comes from a Feb. 22 post on Wired magazine's "Threat Level" blog, which appears to have set off alarms throughout the online gaming world.

Reynard came to light in a Feb. 15 unclassified report from ODNI to Congress required by the 2007 Data Mining Reporting Act. First news of the report came from "Secrecy News," the blog of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. The virtual worlds study is described as a "seedling effort" to "identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments" and then "apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibilty of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world."

Based on my own frustrating and less than illuminating experiences in Second Life, I am tempted to offer IARPA a chuckle, a nod and a "Good luck with that" about this project, but the report that unveils it deserves more serious attention.

High up in the report, DNI archly informs lawmakers that they won't be getting much real information about intelligence community data mining because they asked for the wrong thing. The law defines data mining as "a program involving pattern-based queries, searches or other analyses of 1 or more electronic databases" to "discover or locate a predictive pattern or anomoly indicative of terrorist activities." But that's not the kind of data mining DNI uses most, the report says.

"Analysis performed within the ODNI and its constituent elements for counterterrorism and similar purposes is often performed using various types of link analysis tools [which] start with a known or suspected terrorist or other subject of foreign intelligence interest and use various methods to uncover links between that known subject and potential associates or other persons with whom that subject is or has been in contact," the report says. But "the Data Mining Reporting Act does not include such analyses within its definition of 'data mining' because such analyses are not 'pattern-based." Note to Congress: Catch up. Fix your definitions.

What's more, the report explains, the few IARPA programs that do fall under the law's definition are so experimental and or cutting-edge that they generally can't meet the reporting requirement to judge their efficacy nor do they yet have a basis for determining that a pattern or an anomoly inidcates terrorist activity.

All that said, DNI does report on several projects within IARPA's incisive analysis area--the outfit designed to harness advanced analytics to help intelligence analysts sift mountains of data fast to find relevant information. The knowledge discovery and dissemination program, for example, uses data collected from across intelligence agencies. One effort "attempts to match known patterns of deception as provided by subject matter experts in foreign intelligence data."

The Tanagram project is testing the viability of a semi-autonomous surveillance and warning system to report the "threat likelihood" of known and unexpected "threat entities" by continually assessing information about known threats, among other things. Data mining will be or is being used to overcome incomplete and incorrect data, test threat hypotheses, warn of unexpected threats.

Video Analysis and Content Extraction attempts to automate the tedious and overwhelming process of reviewing the video feeds from surveillance cameras, such as those in subways and other public transit systems. It also is testing search capabilities to apply to video databases to retrieve terrorist events such as bombings and beheadings. Already the program has produced a video event manager that helps find events of security significance, such as a person entering and leaving a bag in a restricted area.
The ProActive Intelligence project (PAINT) studies "the dynamics of complex intelligence targets (inclusive of terrorist organizations) by examining patterns of causal relationships that are indicative of nefarious activity."
And finally, there is Reynard, which will "conduct unclassified research in a public virtual world environment."

The 15-page report devotes almost a quarter of its space to research in privacy protecting technologies intended to limit the use of data and to identify and protect information about innocents. The privacy initiative was born of a series of workshops in thefall of 2006 including government and private sector experts and privacy advocates.
And what of the funny name for the virtual worlds project? Well the logical allusion is to Reynard the Fox, hero of Medieval satires about social manners and classes. Here's how the Encyclopedia Britannica Online describes him: "Though Reynard is sly, amoral, cowardly, and self-seeking, he is still a sympathetic hero, whose cunning is a necessity for survival. He symbolizes the triumph of craft over brute strength." Hmm, or should that be "spy craft" over brute strength?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Virtual Business

Most of us remain skeptical about practical uses for virtual worlds. What we've seen of Second Life, for example--scantily clad avatars, simulated sex acts, bizarre creatures flying about--leaves us doubtful that it's a place where serious business or governance could be conducted. That's why we scratch our heads over the presence in world of many companies--Sears, Wired magazine, Reuters, Adidas, Sun Microsystems, Toyota, IBM-- let alone federal agencies such as NASA, NOAA, CDC and others.

But yesterday, IBM announced that it has developed a way to recreate companies' data centers in 3D in secure virtual worlds. Is there anything more deadly serious and businesslike than a data center? Hard to think of what it might be, so this might just begin to allay some skepticism.

Apparently, we all, even data center managers, think better in 3D than 2D, hence the desire for a synthetic, but wholly accurate, representation of servers, racks, networking, power and cooling equipment that data center managers can virtually walk through and monitor.

Here's how IBM's press release puts it:

"Viewing information about your data center in 2D text -- even in real time -- only tells a data center manager part of the story, because our brains are wired for sight and sound," said IBM researcher Michael Osias, who architected the 3D data center service. "By actually seeing the operations of your data center in 3D, even down to flames showing hotspots and visualizations of the utilization of servers allows for a clearer understanding of the enterprise resources, better informed decision-making and a higher level of interaction and collaboration."
A key advantage of visualization is that it lets managers "see" which machines aren't being used to full capacity so as to consolidate. Another advantage is being able to view how heat and energy flow within the center. Indeed, IBM made its first foray into virtual data centers in Second Life last year as part of an effort to conserve the huge amount of energy its own servers suck up.

The nation's data centers consumed in aggregate some 61 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity--1.5 percent of total U.S. consumption, at a cost of about $4.5 billion. My Goverment Executive magazine colleague Katherine McIntire Peters chronicled federal conservation efforts here.

The new virtual data center was built using IBM's virtual world integration middleware, Holographic Enterprise Interface in the OpenSim Application Platform for 3D Virtual Worlds for a Swiss construction company, Implenia. It uses the multiuser center to better manage heating, cooling, ventilation and security at dispersed data centers.

Companies with data centers in many locations already are beginning to manage them as a single computing pool. IBM argues that it can further improve on that model by allowing managers to collaborate across centers to make better and faster decisions. It touts the in-world instant messaging and shared 3-D experience of virtual centers that allow multiple users not only to manage and monitor current conditions, but also to play out "what ifs" for disaster recovery and to better deploy assets.

IBM says virtual data centers illustrate "the future of work and how business will be conducted in the 21st century workplace. " Could be.

Hat Tip: Virtual Worlds News

Friday, February 8, 2008

Second Life as Terrorist Training Ground

The Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow deserves kudos for revealing the U.S. intelligence commmunity's rising hysteria about Second Life. Goodness knows, agita has been building for some time now about possible underground activities and money laundering by evil doers in synthetic worlds.

O'Harrow's story grew out of a new report from IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the spy version of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Of Second Life, the report says: "Unfortunately, what started out as a benign environment where people would congregate to share information or explore fantasy worlds is now offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit, rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare or worse with impunity."

That may be, though later in the piece, O'Harrow cites an intelligence official, who said he had "no evidence of activity by terrorist cells or widespread organized crime in virtual worlds."

Ironically, the most widely known incidences of "violence" in Second Life have not been the work of jihadis or other terrorists, but of far right vigilante groups and anarchists. Best known is the Front National, a right-wing French group led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the first European political party to open shop in Second Life. On Jan. 20, 2007, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the opening of the Front's headquarters occasioned protests, explosions, gunfire and the hurling of exploding pigs. Le Pen and other Front members have been convicted of inciting racial violence in France.

Of course, where rightists roam, can anarchists be slow to follow? Yes, it's true, Second Life also has a Second Life Liberation Army.

Free speech and virtual worlds commentators jumped all over IARPA's interest in synthetic worlds and massively multiplayer online games, suggesting it would lead to illegal surveillance and abrogation of civil rights.

O'Harrow warns that scrutiny of virtual worlds will intensify because other countries are creating them. He's especially concerned about a Chinese entrant that wants to enable avatars to move among worlds:

National security officials have begun working informally to take stock of virtual worlds. That research likely will take on more urgency this year, as companies in other countries prepare to unveil their own virtual worlds.

One such world, called HiPiHi, is being created in China. HiPiHi founders said they want to create ways for avatars to be able to travel freely between its virtual world, Second Life and other systems -- a development that intelligence officials say make it doubly hard to track down the identity of avatars.

In promotional material, HiPiHi officials said that they believe that virtual worlds "are the next phase of the Internet."
Interestingly, HiPiHi counts among its partners a number of U.S. firms, including IBM and Intel. What's more, IBM shares the goal of linking online worlds and views them as the future of the Internet, too. IBM holds a good deal of space within Second Life and is building showrooms there for the likes of Sears, Circuit City, and other companies.

IBM also makes space available on its virtual islands to work on experimentations that push the limit of what might be possible in virtual worlds, with aims to begin the foundations for building out the next generation, 3-D Internet and to drive open standards. Its goal is to experiment with ways to replicate business processes in these worlds and apply variables to them to see what might happen in the real word, or to build new ways to educate people or treat certain types of maladies through innovative uses of technologies for e-learning and telemedicine.

O'Harrow quotes Jeff Jonas of IBM's Entity Analytics Solutions organization, which focuses on making data more easily and intelligently searchable by resolving identities and stripping inappropriate identifiers so it can be shared across organizations. It's a different arm of IBM from the virtual worlds folks and it's much involved with law enforcement and anti-terror data mining. In 2002, I wrote about Jonas and his early work helping casinos identify employee collusion with fraudsters in a story about the CIA's venture capital investments (Jonas got one).

Those who closely watch serious terrorists' activities don't believe they are likely to find Second Life congenial what with its exploding pigs and anarchists, and now, no doubt, roaming U.S. spy avatars. Instead, they advance other predictions for jihadis online, including that they will create or commission just-in-time virtual worlds spun up for specific training sessions and then just as quickly disassembed. How could worlds appear and disappear so fast? By using botnets--thousands of unrelated computers rendered zombies controlled by hackers with nefarious purposes--as temporary servers.

As the Music Man says: "Make your head spin? Well I should say!"

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Told You So

So, Jeff Han's multi-touch wall-mounted computer has hit the big time.

CNN unveiled a version on Jan. 2 on "Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room," and continues to use it, especially for campaign coverage. According to The Washington Post piece linked above, the blizzard of information sailing in and around the screen sometimes can be too much and the wall sometimes takes a pretty tough touch to cough up data, but overall the reviews are positive.

This new, intuitive computer interface is one of the things that made me a believer in the advent of virtual government (see my Jan. 2008 post). Why we have put up with the kludgy, clumsy, uncomfortable TV-screen/typewriter interface for so long I don't know. Directly touching the screen. using hand and finger movements to manipulate, move and call up information is just so much more natural. It's also far less imposing to people not accustomed to the QWERTY world or unable to type on a screen for one reason or another.

But the most exciting aspect of wall-mounted multitouch computing is its ability to display so many disparate types and pieces of information in easy-to-understand visual representations. Suddenly, we can see all at once the trend data and geography and building size and the bird's eye view and statistics and a host of other stuff relating to a decision or a query or an event or a place or group or business or whatever.

Once the human mind can take in this disparate information visually, it can act as the most powerful computer yet and make connections and conjure hypotheses heretofore unimagined. And if you've ever watched kids play with Wii video games, you'll understand immediately that they will not just prefer, but expect, a physical interaction with information when they take over the leadership of government, the military and business.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Real-Time Battle Rehearsal Via Games

The military services have been early and avid government adopters of gaming technology and especially software platforms. The Army has had tremendous success with its recruiting game, America's Army, and follow-on training modules built on the same game engine. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Sandia Laboratories have created wildly successful trainers for languages--chiefly Iraqi Arabic--culture and nonkinetic (civil-military) operations.

I've written about DARPA's projects and their Godfather, Ralph Chatham, for Government Executive magazine. I caught up recently with Chatham, who just left DARPA at year's end. Among the many strands in our rich and fascinating discussion, we talked about a very exciting DARPA project that could revolutionize the way the military--and the rest of government--uses games, as well as wreaking wide-ranging effects on the way games are created in the commercial world.

In March, Chatham expects to see a first version of DARPA Real World become available for use in the field. What's the big deal? Well, the huge speed bump to military use of games for training is that service members haven't been able to easily alter them to accurately represent the terrain, buildings--outside and inside--and vehicles they confront in the field. Real World is designed to be truly user authored by not-so-technically-adept soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines on the ground. That means Real World can become a real mission rehearsal tool.

Daniel Kaufman, the RealWorld program manager, says his goal is to be able to build simulations without programmers. This "dictates a new approach to getting software requirements," he told the audience at DARPA Tech 2007, the systems and technology symposium held in August in Anaheim, Calif. "The 20 meetings to write the 100-page RFP to generate the 1,000-page specification to find a product that will not be delivered for four years has consistently failed," he continued. So he set out to build tools and capabilities so warfighters can create applications when they need them. Take a19-year-old soldier in the field, Kaufman said:

"He’s out on patrol in a rocky canyon in Afghanistan and some OPFOR pops up and shoots at him because that’s what an opposing force does.
Our warfighter engages, the OPFOR vanishes, and our Soldier returns to base to be debriefed by his commanding officer. Our soldier gets out his laptop – and, voila! On the screen appears a scene that is an exact 3-D recreation of precisely where he was in that canyon. Not generic terrain – this is exactly his patrol and exactly his location.

Within seconds, our soldier is dragging-and-dropping:

“This is where I was; this is where my buddy was; this is where George was; this is where the HMMWV was, this is where the sniper was, and this is where we got shot, sir.”

Notice that I said he does it. There’s no software guy; there’s no writing down specs. He does it, and within seconds it’s right on his laptop screen and it’s exactly correct.

If you think about it, in that one small instance, four very important things have taken place: RealWorld has become an after-action review tool, a mission planning and briefing tool, a mission rehearsal tool and a training tool.

Imagine recording this whole sequence, and then sending it back by e-mail to Ft. Polk and Ft. Lewis, and Twentynine Palms, or anywhere else. And instead of trying to tell a kid back at a U.S. training base, 'Look here’s a 100 pages of doctrine that explains how you are supposed to handle an IED, and here’s a Powerpoint slide, and here’s a satellite map, and here’s a contour map,' we put him right there!

Now training takes on a whole new meaning. Our stateside Soldier is not working with, "Here’s a square: imagine that’s you, and imagine the bad guy is this circle over here." We’re saying, “In 90 days, you’re going to be there. Work with this simulation and figure out what you would do. Because if we have not gotten that sniper – who really does exist- in three months, odds are he will still be out there and it will be your job to go get him.”

OK, so that's a revolution in military simulation, but what about overturning commercial game creation? Kaufman's prime contractor, Total Immersion, is making a bet by developing RealWorld for very little money. The company is getting its R&D paid for and gets to hang onto the real-time mission-rehearsal building tools it is creating. Since it now costs $20 million to $40 million to build a computer game, companies only invest in those that appear to have "blockbuster" written all over them. But what if a company developed a set of tools it could both use and license relatively inexpensively to others to use to create games quickly? Kind of blows open the whole game economy, eh?

More on all this to come, but for now, it's worth noting that Before DARPA, Kaufman worked for DreamWorks Interactive, a joint venture between Microsoft and DreamWorks SKG, where he was involved in creating games including Goosebumps, The Neverhood, Jurassic Park and the precursor of what was to become Medal of Honor. Before that, he was an attorney with attorney with Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison (Palo Alto, Calif.), where he had the largest game company representation in the United States, handling the EA/ABC joint venture, Spectrum Holobyte's management buy-out and merger with Microprose, which led to an IPO, the formation of Crystal Dynamics, and the formation and subsequent sale of Humongous Entertainment for $76 million. Oh, and the CIA's venture catalyst, In-Q-Tel, once commissioned him to look into how gaming could help the CIA train, too.

Smart development, smart acquisition, smart partnering with the private sector and smart risk taking. Watch out big, entrenched military simulation companies!

Air Force 2.0: Airmen as Avatars

What is it with these fly guys? First NASA announces it wants to create a virtual world, now the Air Force Education and Training Command issues its vision of the future: a new learning system built around "a virtual, exploratory and interactive environment." Yep, from MySpace to MyBase, a synthetic Air Force base that will be part recruiting tool (read: America's Army takes to the air), part training center and part operation planning facility for the service's more than 700,000 military and civilian members.

At the end of January, the command released a white paper "On learning: The Future of Air Force Education and Training," detailing the overhaul needed to counter enemies who are "digital warriors who are highly educated and capable of leveraging our open information architecture" and who "will make every attempt to capture or destroy our information networks and thereby our knowledge."

The Air Force is focusing here on new recruits from Generation Y, known as "the millennials," born between 1980 and 2001. They are a must-attract group of tech-savvy digital natives, especially in light of the fact that just 27 percent of American youth now even qualify for the Air Force. Vying to get the best of this generation into blue uniforms, the Air Force is betting on virtual worlds.

Part of the plan is "precision learning"--delivering the exact information needed exactly when it is needed and in the best format to generate the specific results needed. It's the backbone of the oft-heard, rarely defined "continuous learning" idea: just-in-time training. And you can't do it if you rely only on classroom education, bulky flight simulators and costly and incrasingly scarce flying hours. Enter MyBase.

It's envisioned as the portal to all things Air Force, from lectures by long-dead flying aces via avatars who are accurate down to their appearance and attitude to in-world collaboration and cooperation not only within the Air Force, but across the military services and with academic and other institutions. The paper includes three groovy vignettes--imaginary scenarios displaying the hoped-for capabilities of MyBase. In one of them, a Capt. Wilson spends lunch hours and evenings attending, via avatar, a lecture at the University of Texas and participating as an Abrams tank driver in a joint exercise teaching air-to-ground combat coordination.

In another, a promising high school student is hooked when he stays up all night flying a virtual plane in MyBase, playing its interactive game, "Air Force Warrior," and being wooed by a recruiter who called up his school transcripts via Facebook and offered him three career fields with associated bonuses on the spot (or Web).

The third vignette goes all Ender's Game, with Lt. Maria Stringer's quest to find a mentor to get the insight she needs to thwart a Soviet-trained hacker's attack on critical U.S. infrastructure.

One small point, if the Air Force hopes to launch itself into the virtual future, it needs to learn to spell "avatar," which is rendered "avator" in the glossary, though the definition is fine.

Hat Tip: Virtual Worlds News