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A standard for avatars

Yesterday, I attended a talk by <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Ludlow”>Peter Ludlow</a> at Twente University. After his talk we had a brief discussion on the need of a standard to represent avatars. In my opinion, such a standard is needed because of the following two reasons:

  • More and more virtual worlds are being created. We already had Second Life, There, Entropia Universe, Active Worlds, Habbo, Croquet, Ogoglio, and a million more… and now even Coca Cola is creating its own virtual world.
  • It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to customize your avatar, build its social network of real life and virtual friends, and build a reputation.

I would most certainly hope to see a standard arise that lets me transfer my avatar and its social network between different virtual environments. Of course there will be aspects of an avatar and her posessions that are platform-specific, so my avatar may look different in different environments and may have different possessions, but I am curious how much we can cover in such a standard and still keep it acceptable for the developers of virtual worlds. 

One man, one avatar

Recently, I had two experiences with avatars and the identity of the person controlling them that made me wonder. Here is what happened:

When visiting the ABN AMRO island in Second Life, I had a talk with their virtual hostess, Amber Jung. We talked about some part of their presence in Second Life that I was interested in, after which I flew away (as these things go in SL) and explored the place. Coming back to her, 15 minutes later, I just told her my impressions of what I’ve seen. After a few sentences, I noticed that her replies were a bit odd. She told me that she just took over the shift to control the avatar, so she did not know about our previous conversation. The difficulty for me was that I had no way of knowing this, since her name and appearance did not change in the meantime.

The second situation happened when Hans, a colleague of mine quit his job. Since he used to be in charge of our test area in Second Life, he owned our virtual land and the objects there. As it is not always possible to transfer ownership of objects to another avatar in Second Life (this is a property the creator of an object can set), we decided that the easiest option would be to transfer his avatar to me. The funny thing was that for the outside world this transition was totally invisible. He kept the same name and the same appearance (only in a cheaper outfit, as Hans kept his virtual classy business suit). So people who knew the avatar before, would engage in a conversation with me and I would have to tell them that I was actually somebody else, although I looked the same and had the same name. These things do not happen that often in the real world.

I wonder if we can design virtual worlds in such a way that users controlling the avatar have the option NOT to be anonymous. Of course you can indicate in SL the “first life” information deep in your profile. However, that information is so hidden that no normal person will regularly look at it, especially if you already know the person. One more consideration when thinking about the business uses of virtual environments.

Reboot 9.0 and new work environments

Please visit Ewan McIntosh’s blog (http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2007/06/reboot9_your_id.html) for a discussion on my session “Your ideal working environment” on Reboot 9.0.

As I mentioned in his comments as well, I loved the stories people told about their ideal working environment and the fact that this seems to be not only very personal, but also depends on what type of activity you are engaged in (creative or having to finish a paper).

Also very interesting to hear what some people considered ideal social software: software that understands when it is okay to disturb you with awareness information and when not: a Twitter that knows when to bug you. I certainly see some design challenges and possibillities for further research there…

The good news is that I will be able to test some of the suggestions I heard in the near future: the kick-off of the Telematica Instituut project on new work environments is next week! In this project we will start living labs at various medium-sized and large organizations to test the impact of new, flexible collaboration processes. We know that social software opens up new possibilities for communication and even enables new working processes. However, we also expect that the motivations of people to collaborate do not change significantly. So, with this consortium we are going to investigate new working environments, in the physical and organizational sense and in terms of (social) software support.

Your ideal working environment

What does it take to create a working environment that stimulates productivity, collaboration and knowledge sharing? On this question I am initiating a conversation at Reboot 9.0.

Looking from a human, organizational and technological perspective, what does it take to create a working environment where we feel happy, where we are productive, where we collaborate and share knowledge? What practices and tools do you consider essential for your ideal working environment? And… how do we balance the freedom, trust, responsibility, and social cohesion in such an environment?

Not only at Reboot, but also here I would like to hear what you consider essential to achieve this. At BlogWalkEleven we already started a discussion on key ingredients that are needed to keep creative, heavily networked, independent thinkers (“Digital Bohemians”) happy within the boundaries of an organization:

  • Providing them with opportunities to share their passions
  • A healthy mix of freedom, trust, responsability and social cohesion. The latter actually requires that their passions are shared by other people in the organization.
  • Access to the resources they need in order to keep up-to-date (digital libraries, blogs, RSS feeds)
  • Access to the resources they need to keep connected: their own blog, Skype, conferences, gatherings of like-minded people. I am missing things here, please add…
  • Recognition of success: their added value to the company is in bringing creative new ideas from unforeseen perspectives, linking previously unlinked developments, understanding and explaining how new technology developments could impact the organization.
  • I’m more then happy to hear your thoughts on this. And hopefully we have a chance to discuss this in-person in Denmark.

Typing to an empty room

Last week I finally gave my first presentation for a Second Life audience – and it was a bit weird. I have attended quite a few business meetings in Second Life, but now was the first time I was on stage, presenting slides and “talking” to the audience about business models for a presence in virtual worlds. 

The preparation took a bit more time than usual: instead of just preparing my slides, I also had to export them as separate images and place them in a virtual screen. Fortunately, I carry around a presentation screen from the EduNation shop in Second Life. So, I arrived with my own virtual presentation screen and laptop in the virtual conference room a few hours before, to test things. Fortunately, it was easy to contact the owners of the virtual room to get rights to place my virtual objects there: I was simply added to the group of owners.

More annoying was the fact that voice communication is still not supported in Second Life. There are some ways of using external software to create an audio stream and then make that stream audible in Second Life. However, we did not have time to set all this up, so I ended up preparing the key sentences to type with each slide in a separate document, to make sure I could give the presentation at a speed that kept the audience happy.

The presentation itself went okay, but it was strange: it was a bit like talking to an empty room – except for the fact that I was typing. Normally, you use the non-verbal cues from your audience to see if they understand you, to decide on the pace of your presentation or when it is time to add something funny to wake them up. These non-verbal cues are missing in Second Life and my audience (of about 10 local organizations active in Second Life) was a bit hesitant to interrupt me with questions. Usually, feeling the energy from the audience and providing them energy is important, and all that was missing here. So, it was good to have this experience, but I certainly prefer to give face-to-face presentations, even if the content is about virtual worlds.

By the way, the material about business strategies in virtual worlds, on which my presentation was based, is online: Does Your Company Need a Second Life?

From Russia with love…

Today we have the last day of the final meeting of the RUSMECO project. I’m having mixed feelings about it: it is always nice to finish a project, but I’m also sad this one will soon be over. The project is/was about improving the competitiveness of innovative Russian SMEs by helping them start a Community of Practice to share knowledge and experiences. Apart from the management and design challenges, the project provided me with many opportunities to get to know many interesting Russian people and helped me gain more insight in the Russian culture.

The project has resulted in three connected communities: one in Moscow (Zelenograd), one in St. Petersburg and one in Ekaterinburg. These communities of iSME members meet regularly face-to-face and have an online platform for sharing content, having discussions, performing self-assessment tests and even following trainings. According to the other project members, the project has also resulted in our marriage and little Alexander – but we have to see if those deliverables also end up in the list towards the European Commission 😉

Anyway, the project was a great source of experiences, a lot of fun and I hope to work with these people again soon! But for now, back to the last items on our to-do list.

Lucky timing and surfing the hypecycle…

Funny to see that my story about the virtual Nabaztag was picked up in the press. I guess the Easter bunny and the interest of the press in Second Life helped me. My employer, the Telematica Instituut, made a short press release about how this virtual Easter bunny acts as a watchdog for your Second Life store. Also my main point, using the plastic rabbit as an ambient display for information you like to be aware about in the background, was fortunately picked up. I had a nice interview with the local newspaper, the Tubantia, and the story was published in Hotspot, Computable, Winmag, and ComputerIdee.

As some people asked about it –
Hereby a bit more technical info about how to configure the SecondNabaz (currently version 1.4). The configuration is done via the notecard that is included. Once you rez the SecondNabaz in Second Life and you press “Edit”, the contents should include a notecard you can modify. This notecard has an entry for a serial number (sn=0000000000). Replace the zeros with the MAC address of your bunny (without spaces), as indicated on the sticker on the bottom of your Nabaztag.

The second number in the natecard (token=000000000000000) represents the token you receive when you go to www.nabaztag.com -> my nabaztag -> tools -> api. This number is needed to avoid bunny spam.

The third number on the notecard is the radius (in metres) at which the virtual bunny should detect visitors (min 0 – max 96 meter). Set this number for instance to 25 to make sure your bunny actually detects people, without them having to bump into it.

Just in case you did not know: Violet, the French company that created Nabaztag, is in no way affiliated with this SecondNabaz.

My Nabaztag's Second Life

SecondNabazLast weekend I decided to create a Second Life version of the Nabaztag, the WiFi bunny developed by Violet. My wife gave me a Nabaztag for my birthday last year, and even though I had some cool plans for programming it, all it did so far was it’s Tai Chi and telling us the weather forecast twice a day. That, and amaze our visitors of course 🙂

Anyway, the Second Life version I made detects if avatars are around. If so, it makes my real Nabaztag wiggle its ears and tell me their names. Also, if people talk to the virtual bunny, the real one pronounces the chat to me. The Second Life version of the Nabaztag includes a script using the Linden Script Language to send commands to the Nabaztag using the API published by Violet.

The resulting mash-up is an example of how virtual worlds and the real world can be interconnected. Anyway, I like the idea of using the Nabaztag as an ambient display for information that you do not need on your screen, but still like to be aware of. Just having the bunny wiggle its ears when you have visitors in your Second Life store, for instance, can keep you aware without requiring you to be logged in to Second Life all the time. Of course, if you have any other ideas about cool or even practical uses, please feel free to use the comments.

If you own a Nabaztag, and would like to give it a Second Life as well, pick up your free copy of my SecondNabaz at SL Exchange and let me know what you think.

The joy of doing "embedded research"

Recently I have been doing “embedded research” in Second Life. It started with me exploring this 3D social environment in the evenings, trying out how to construct things there and how to earn virtual money without getting tired. Pretty soon, I was also interested in the real value of such virtual social environments for organizations. This could well be a hype, but I believe that the underlying idea of a 3D environment where people can interact, explore and perform activities together is likely to stay – even if a Second Life turns out to be finite too. As such, I was very excited when the Telematica Instituut started a project into the business options of Second Life and I happily volunteered to be the leader of the pack.

For the project we chose an “embedded research” aproach: we created avatars for all project members, explored the environment, did interviews with organizations in Second Life and attended virtual meetings there. Basically, the stuff I was doing anyway in the evenings, but now a bit more structured, and using my serious avatar: RJ DeSantis.

I strongly believe that great things can happen when personal passions and professional activities are aligned, and this was certainly the case in this project. It was a lot of fun – the only sad thing now is that it is coming to an end. For those of you interested in the results: they will soon be made public, in real life as well as in Second Life.

Getting back…

Finally, I have decided to re-activate my blog! I never was a serious blogger, but when my old blog became cluttered with spam and the underlying engine turned out to be a pain, I just gave up.

Recently, I have been involved in some cool projects around Second Life and new collaboration environments and I would like to use this blog to share some of the insights and discussions with you.

Finally, the thing that actually pushed me today to start this blog was that my hosting provider, hostmysite.com, added a one-click install of WordPress to my existing account! So, no more trouble of setting up databases, ftp-ing and figuring out settings. Great!