February 09, 2006

Multi-Touch Interaction Video

Imagine a drafting-table-sized computer monitor that is touch-sensitive and allows more than one finger to be used at a time (kind of like having more than one mouse, but easy to use because they're your fingers). Imagine all of the cool, intuitive user-interaction styles you could support.

Now stop imagining it and see the future now. This video, copied from the Multi-Touch Interaction Research website at NYU (which is currently being hammered with traffic, making it hard to get the video from there directly) shows a wide variety of very slick demos using such an interaction surface. I think my favorite is the virtual Lava Lamp that lets you play around with the floating lava blobs...

(Thanks to the AppleGeeks blog for pointing this out.)

September 25, 2005

I can barely handle my first life, but...

I've been finding it hard to get any blogging in lately. Certainly one distraction has been our ongoing kitchen and master bathroom remodel, but a lot of my otherwise free time has been taken up with exploring the online world of Second Life.

Many people in technology know of me from my work creating and "managing" a virtual community named LambdaMOO. One of those people is Cory Ondrejka, whom I met recently at Foo Camp. Cory is a swell guy and the Vice President of Product Development at Linden Lab, the company that created and runs Second Life (or SL, as most users abbreviate it). Cory introduced me to SL at Foo Camp and encouraged me to take a closer look afterwards. I'm glad I did.

Like LambdaMOO before it, SL is a multi-user virtual world that allows every person who visits to add to the richness of that world. Also like LambdaMOO, SL has been very successful in inspiring people to spend time there and to pour serious creativity into the place. Both systems allow creation by programmers and non-programmers alike, and have made it possible for even non-technical people to start picking up programming skills as they express themselves in the virtual world.

LambdaMOO is a purely textual virtual world, where (by and large), all experience and interaction in the world is carried by prose descriptions and typed commands. This can, of course, lead to very rich encounters, as a kind of fully interactive literature.

Lambda Moose

My good buddy from SL, Lambda Moose

Second Life is, in a sense, a LambdaMOO for the twenty-first century. While LambdaMOO is centered around the written word, SL is an immersive 3D graphical world. You are represented there by a graphical avatar that you can easily and heavily customize to your tastes. You can walk, run, or even fly around the landscape, visiting the 3D houses, stores, playgrounds, and adventures created by the other users.

Technologically, SL shares a lot with the many massively multiplayer online role-playing games available these days, such as Everquest, The Sims Online, or the extremely popular Worlds of Warcraft. Unlike EQ or WoW, though, Second Life has no built-in goal, no scoring, no winning or losing. Like LambdaMOO, it's less of a game than simply a very interesting place to visit and contribute to. TSO is somewhat in that mold as well, but several things set Second Life apart.

First, from my point of view, there's the programming angle. SL has a fairly straightforward scripting language built into it, and anyone who has any programming experience can easily start adding objects with new behaviors into the world. Those without such background can often read, clone, and customize the scripts written by others, thereby getting a gentle introduction to the skills required. To my knowledge, Second Life is the only commercial 3D virtual world that opens up the programming option to all of its users.

Second, there's the license that you agree to before using the system. One of the most prominent bullet points makes it very clear that everything you create or perform in Second Life will remain your intellectual property, with all of your rights reserved. All of the other online world companies have bent way over the other way to ensure that they are the ones with all of the rights, and they can do whatever they want with anything you do on their servers.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, there's the in-world economy. Like most other online worlds, there's an in-world currency, the Linden Dollar, that can be used to buy virtual artifacts and services, and there's a real-world market for both in-world currency and artifacts. Again, however, in stark contrast to the other game companies, Linden Lab has fully embraced this economy. Users are strongly encouraged to set up business in Second Life and to take their in-world profits to the real-world currency exchange for translations into cold hard cash. As a result, there's a staggeringly rich set of small and large businesses in Second Life, selling everything from avatar clothing to virtual homes, from furnishings to land for building, and even services, from big social events to training in Second Life skills.

As of Foo Camp, Cory was estimating that there were about 40,000 users on Second Life and that, in the previous 12 months, over $2 million of commerce had taken place there. (That's two million US dollars, or something like 500 million Linden dollars at the prevailing exchange rate.) Many, many people there are more than making back their monthly usage fees, and some are beginning to generate substantial incomes.

Speaking of fees, SL also has an unusual rate structure. First, it's absolutely free to download the client software and join the world. Once there, you can interact with everyone else there, build as much as you like, go anywhere you like, and customize your avatar to your heart's content, all without paying a dime. The catch is, you can't own any land, so there's no place to put anything you create except in your avatar's pockets, and when you're not connected, nothing you've created will be available to anyone else. (Technically, you can get around this limitation by finding a group that will let you join them and use their land for your creations, but many [most?] such groups prefer to see land contributions from members before allowing such rights.)

To own land in Second Life, you must move up from the free Basic Membership to a paid Premium Membership. The nominal fee is US$10 per month, but there are substantial discounts if you pay in advance by the quarter or year. That gets you the right to buy land, and Linden Lab has set up a great program called "First Land" that offers you your first 512-square-meter plot at well below market rates. As you buy more land, you also have to pay Linden Lab a monthly land-use fee; see the Second Life site for the full details.

Obviously, I'm enthusiastic about Second Life, and I could go on and on describing it to you, but instead I encourage you to check it out for yourself. After all, the first avatar is free...

August 21, 2005

What I Did at (Foo) Camp Last Weekend

Three or four years ago, the folks at the O'Reilly publishing company finally moved into their brand new buildings in Sebastopol, California, after six years of planning and waiting. Very shortly thereafter, they were forced to lay off many of their employees in response to the Great Tech Bust.


This left O'Reilly with a lot of unexpectedly empty space in their buildings, so they decided to bring together a bunch of their collective friends for an unusual kind of self-organizing conference, to be called Foo Camp (FOO = Friends Of O'Reilly). The 150 or so folks there had such a good time that Tim O'Reilly and his team decided to make it an annual tradition, each year inviting some folks who'd been there before and a bunch of others who were new. This year I was privileged to be invited to Foo Camp, and it was held this last weekend.

I flew down to Oakland on Friday afternoon and then drove a rental car up to Sebastopol, arriving just in time for dinner and really having very little idea what to expect. After picking up my badge, getting my picture taken, filling out a little biographical form ("What do you build? What is your favorite tool?"), and receiving my camp swag (a t-shirt and a soft flying disk), I shlepped my little suitcase upstairs to stake out a camping spot.

Yes, the "camp" in "Foo Camp" is literal. Almost all of the attendees camp out, like in sleeping bags, either in tents out on the back lawn or in one or another unoccupied areas of one of the two O'Reilly buildings. I opted for one corner of a big room inside. I didn't bring camping supplies with me on the flight from Seattle, but various O'Reilly folks had sleeping bags, foam pads, and pillows available for loan there in the building.

After dinner that night, Tim gathered everybody in a big room and did the intro thing. After retelling the Foo Camp origin myth (related as best I can remember above), he orchestrated the only kind of everybody-introduce-yourself ritual that could possibly scale to a group of this size: each person got to stand up and say (a) their name, (b) their employer, if any, and (c) no more than three words of bio, introduction, interests, and whatever. Those who exceeded the three-word limit were gonged. (Tim has a really nice, loud, gong for this purpose.) Some people tried to sum up their professional interests in three words, others made it a joke, and some went in quite unique directions (e.g., "baby due tomorrow", which yielded many cries of "go home!"). I ended up going for serious, and kind of slimed my way under the limit with a hyphen: "model-based data collaboration".

After that, we collectively built the schedule of conference sessions. Sara Winge and her team, from O'Reilly, brought out three large foam-core boards covered with a blank session calendar, broken out into a total of about 140 one-hour slots covering Friday night, all day and night Saturday, and Sunday morning. That left plenty of room for nearly everyone to offer a session on something, sometime. Sara tossed a half-dozen marker pens into the audience and quickly stepped out of the way as the crazy, chaotic zoo you'd expect then erupted.

That pretty much marked the end of centrally organized activities for the weekend. Everything else was generated, in advance or otherwise, by the participants. And there was a lot of "everything else".

I attended a session on "Fab @ Home", a visionary Cornell research project to extend existing solid freeform fabrication technology to make a kitchen-friendly machine that can make pretty much anything.

I got to ride a Segway for the first time, using one of several different models (and several homebrew knock-offs) brought to the camp.

One fellow brought a compressed-air-powered, rapid-fire marshmallow gun (seen as the white pipes at left in this shot). Five minutes to load, five seconds to discharge, lots of marshmallows all over the grass.

As you might expect, there were many well-known industry luminaries attending, such as Jeff Bezos, Esther Dyson, Mitch Kapor, Ward Cunningham, Brewster Kahle, Guido van Rossum, and Howard Rheingold.

But there were also many talented and accomplished people who should be far better known than they are, such as playful performance artist Jane McGonigal, Second Life technologist Cory Ondrejka, and Flickr co-founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. I expect to be writing more about all of these folks in future entries.

I've attended many informal conferences that are essentially just gatherings of a wide range of talented and creative hacker-types, including the Asilomar Microcomputer Conference and several years of the Hackers Conference, but none of them offered the stimulation and excitement I felt at Foo Camp. It truly lives up to the almost mystical hype that surrounds it. I hope Tim invites me back again next year.

July 22, 2005

Travelling the Wiki Way

Shortly before we left for Helsinki, I rediscovered wikis. In particular, although I'd heard about Wikipedia pretty early on, I hadn't really paid much attention to it until something induced me to go see if anything had been written up there about the London bombings. I was amazed and impressed at the depth of the article there, even just a few days after the event itself.

A link from that article, I think, led me to discover WikiNews, a wiki-based news-coverage site. This is, in some ways, an even more ambitious effort than the Wikipedia, aiming to provide wide-ranging news coverage in as timely a fashion as any of the big commercial outfits. I found it particularly fascinating to page through the early revisions of the first London bombings article, and see preserved there the process of slow realization going on around the world at the time.

While bouncing around between those two wikis, I ended up typing the word "wiki" into the address bar of my browser a bunch, and as usual, IE kept offering me completions for that text based on the URLs of recently visited pages. At some point, I noticed that the top completion offered was for "", which I must have visited at some point via a Google search for Ashland wireless hotspots.

I didn't remember noticing when I did the search that I'd turned up a wiki-based online travel guide, but there it was, large as life. Now, in my newly wiki-wakened state, I found the idea intriguing. Wikitravel aims to produce high-quality online travel content, suitable for (and available for) republication in paper-based guides (in addition, of course, to use as-is online).

In preparation for our Helsinki trip, and almost constantly while we've been here, I've been making use of, and contributing updates to, the Wikitravel Helsinki article. Its restaurant recommendations, getting-around information, etc., has been invaluable, especially because we forgot to bring along the paper guide we originally bought for this purpose.

Like many of the articles in Wikitravel, most of the content already there was written by locals, not by actual travellers. This is evident from the some of the choices of content, and from the point of view of the authors. This is not a hit against Wikitravel, just an observation. Certainly, there's much to be gained by a traveller from a resident's local knowledge. Of course, the wonderful thing about a wiki is that it makes it so easy to augment what the locals have written with the traveller's on-the-ground experience, and that's what I've been doing.

I've enjoyed contributing to the Wikitravel Helsinki page, adding information about airport shuttles, more detailed restaurant descriptions, updated taxi fares, etc. I can tell from my own experience that this is work that'll be useful to future travellers, and there's a great feeling of balance, giving back to the very resource that has helped us out in visiting here.

Like blogs and MUDs, wikis provide what Amy Bruckman called an "authentic context for writing", so widely lacking in the pre-Internet age. Certainly I'm enjoying it, anyway.

April 27, 2005

Cell Phones Designed for Kids

The New York Times did a story on the Firefly, a cell phone designed just for kids roughly 8 to 12 years old. It's voice only and can only call numbers programmed into it by the parents. There are only five buttons on it, including hot keys for phoning mommy and daddy.

Skip over the disturbing, 1950's party dress picture on mommy's hot key. What I'm wondering is for how long will parents be able to get away with giving an 8-year-old a crippled cell phone? Can they get away with it even today?