Saturday, August 30, 2008

Setting Up in Second Life: A Guide for Federal Agencies

Federal agencies increasingly are curious about and are exploring virtual worlds. Some, like the State Department, are using them to interact with people they might not already be reaching. Others, like NOAA, CDC, and NASA, are doing public education, promotion, and even some collaborative work there.

Given the growing interest, I thought it would be a useful experiment in virtual journalism and virtual government to tell the story of one agency's experience establishing a presence in a synthetic world, in this case, Second Life. Above you'll see the first in a series of Webcasts I am creating to tell the story of how the National Defense University's Information Resources Management College bought islands, designed an environment, built buildings and now is hosting students in Second Life.

The three main characters hardly are the type of folks most of us imagine as denizens of an online world, yet they all had established in-world identities as avatars before they embarked on their official journey into Second Life. In my series, you'll hear of the challenges they faced buying virtual land through the very real federal procurement process, their personal struggles with creating appropriate appearances for their alternate Second Life personas, the communications hurdles in getting synthetic world designers to create space for a very serious institution. The stories are sometimes funny and frustrating, sometimes insightful and encouraging but always useful for anyone thinking ahead to a future when the real and the virtual aren't nearly to separate..

Second Life might not end up being the virtual world where most federal work is accomplished, but it's a sure bet that more and more of that work soon will be done virtually somewhere.

I hope you enjoy the first in the series, and if so, I hope you'll share the url with others. Either way, I invite your comments and suggestions and urge you to come back to see the next episodes of "Setting Up in Second Life."

UPDATE, Sept. 2: While I remain skeptical about the extent to which agencies and businesses will be able to use virtual worlds such as Second Life for "real" work, there's some pretty impressive evidence in new statistics from Canada. The Canada Border Services Agency is conducting training for border-crossing guards in Second Life and reports that in 2007 without using Second Life, students' average grade for interview skills was 58 percent. In 2008, after using the Second Life simulation, the average interview skills grade rose to 86 percent. More extensive coverage can be found on New World Notes. Here's a look at how the Canadians are doing it:

Hat Tip: Virtual Worlds News

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Google Earth Threat

Some of us can remember back to a time when our parents were thoroughly spooked by satellite photos showing Soviet missiles being delivered to Cuba. The scary, grainy black and whites lent even more drama in 1962 to what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The shots from high out in space had to be authentic--only the government was up there after all.

Well, not so much today. In fact, governments are all shook up about the ease with which commercial entities are picturing every corner of Earth for whomever is willing to pay. Of greatest concern: Google Earth. The second photo up top, of the U.S. Air Force's top-secret testing site, Area 51 in Nevada, offers a case in point. It came via Google. "The Google Controversy--Two Years Later," a July 30 report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center, details the depth of concern about Google and its ilk and the steps nations are taking in response. Kudos to the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog for publishing the paper and linking to many of its references!

After a Google spokesperson said in 2006 that the Earth-picturing site "presents no appreciable threat to security" because, hey, high-res satellite and aerial imagery is all over the place nowdays if you can pay, OSC stepped up its monitoring. Two years ago this month the center got hold of actual footage showing Google Earth being used by Iraqi insurgents to plan attacks on U.S. forces. In September 2006, the center reports, Al Qaeda-linked militants blew up four car bombs while attacking an oil facility in Yemen after planning the attack using Google Earth.

By 2007, The Chinese government had begun combing online mapping sites for images of its secrets and raising heck with Google, which a Chinese spokesperson praised as "very responsive." No surprise there given Google's overall obsequiousness toward China. But other spots get blurred, too. For example, Bahrain blocked access to Google Earth in 2006 for a few days because the rich didn't want their lavish holdings exposed.

According to "Blurred Out: 51 Things You Aren't Allowed to See on Google Maps," a piece in the July 15 issue of IT Security, other places that have won obscurity include Playland Amusement Park in Rye, New York, the White House, the U.S. Vice President's residence, a host of national security sites worldwide and the home of the Borings in Franklin Park, Pa., after they claimed Google Maps' Street View feature "violated their privacy, devalued their property and caused them mental suffering by posting images of a private road in front of their house."

Meanwhile OSC says, Thailand, India and China are creating their own versions of Google Earth. And countries, including India, China and Norway, are taking evasive action such as camouflaging facilities, hiding them in mountains and the like.

For a vastly more detailed and entertaining and authoritative job of delving into this subject that I can do here, see the terrific story by science writer extraordinaire Sharon Weinberger In Discover July 21: "Can You Spot the Chinese Nuclear Sub?" It's such a good story, in fact, that the OSC report opens by quoting extensively from it.

And that's a story in itself: There is such a center capitalizing on open source material and it's finding the really good stuff out there by the best journalists. Good for the DNI!

What caught my interest in all this is my growing feeling that the next version of the Internet might just be something that looks a lot like Google Earth. In a fascinating conversation August 1 with Don Brutzman, of the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., I learned of his project to essentially recreate Google Earth in order to use it as a training and simulation ground for the U.S. military. He and his confreres in the Web 3D Consortium want nothing less than to make the Web itself the next virtual world. The kicker is, they don't want anyone. including Google to own it. Meanwhile, that appears to be exactly what Google wants to do.

It's a fascinating tug of war, mostly being played out behind the scenes by folks far too deep in the worlds of XML and KML and whatnot for most of us to understand. And yet, it could very well be the struggle that determines the course of, well, the Earth, or at least the one we get to inhabit online.

I found it hard to truly wrap my mind around the notion of Web 3D and Web 3D Earth, so here's a video that at least gets at some of it for those as mentally challenged as I:

Sources: Cuba photo-John F. Kennedy Library; NARA; Area 51 photo-Discover magazine online, July 21, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Spore for Soldiers, or The "YouTubing of Games"

David Kushner over at the IEEE Spectrum blog "The Sandbox" has a smart analysis of a gaming trend he calls "the YouTubing of games." It recently set me to thinking about how the evolution of immersive online experiences is running on many parallel tracks.

One of them is user authoring. Kushner has been writing for a year off and on about the expansion of user authorability--players' ability to create content--in video games. As he noted last year, Unreal Tournament III from Sony and Electronics Arts Halo 3 both let users in, enabling them to create mods in the former and film gameplay in the latter. Now, he writes that a couple of "YouGames," as he calls them, have won Game Critics Awards, potentially opening the floodgates to games that make players into gods.

Perhaps the most potent example is Spore from Electronic Arts. I haven't played it yet, but I have watched others doing so on YouTube (of course!). What I've seen is amazing. This is a game created by Will Wright, who made the most successful PC game ever, Sims. In its second iteration, the game allowed players to see the genetic evolution of the "people" who populate the game. Players create them, house them, watch them interact and, yes, mate.

Spore goes Sims one further, allowing players to create new life forms and then evolve them. In other words, to play God, as the not so subtle trailer from EA above implies.

Here's how the company puts it:
With Spore you can nurture your creature through five stages of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space. Or if you prefer, spend as much time as you like making creatures, vehicles, buildings and spaceships with Spore’s unique Creator tools.

CREATE Your Universe from Microscopic to Macrocosmic - From tide pool amoebas to thriving civilizations to intergalactic starships, everything is in your hands.

EVOLVE Your Creature through Five Stages - It’s survival of the funnest as your choices reverberate through generations and ultimately decide the fate of your civilization.

EXPLORE your world and beyond - Will you rule, or will your beloved planet be blasted to smithereens by a superior alien race?

SHARE with the World - Everything you make is shared with other players and vice versa, providing tons of cool creatures to meet and new places to visit.

While Spore is a single player game, your creations and other players’ creations are automatically shared between your galaxy and theirs, providing a limitless number of worlds to explore and play within.

Yes, yes, you say, but what has this to do with soldiers?

What so struck me about Spore is that I've been doing a great deal of interviewing and investigating about another game development, this one growing under the benevolent sun of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Ironically, it's called Real World. I've already written about it, and I will be producing a video adding great detail. But right now, I am struck by similarities in the way DARPA's project and the gaming industry are moving.

In brief, the idea behind Real World is to cut the time it takes to create a gaming software-based mission rehearsal tool, or simulation, down to nearly nothing.

Real World will be a game creation platform designed to allow soldiers in the field to use satellite imagery, UAV images, photographs, blueprints or even a hand-scrawled picture or a map scraped in the sand with a stick to create an immersive location in which to practice an upcoming mission, plan a strategy, test tactics or envision enemy or civilian behavior. The hallmark of the platform is that it is designed to be almost completely user authorable.

Now, it's clearly unrealistic to expect deployed troops to create for an immersive environment the equipment, weaponry and other items they use from scratch on the fly. That stuff will get into the game via its creators, the folks at Total Immersion Software in Alameda, Calif. and/or other companies. And the physics of the game--how various different calibers of ammunition will behave when they hit concrete, versus wood, versus a human being, for example, also will be built in. But the details of an ambush just hours after it happened? Those the unit that suffered the casualties can put in and use to avoid the next one, or send them back to units-in-waiting as training tools.

In both Spore and Real World, "players" become godlike. In the former they create life-forms and "evolve" them to enhance their survivability. In the latter, they create scenarios and environments in which human life-forms can practice in order to survive.