A week ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with the above-named project at Roskilde University Denmark. While some things are rotten in Denmark, this workshop was not. The themes of the conference (which was attended by an admirably wide-ranging group in terms of skills and interests) involved user-generated and emergent authorship in the virtual world space. Keynotes by good folks such as Jeremy Hunsinger, Mia Consalvo, Jay David Bolter, and John Lester (all available here) sandwiched a number of innovative sessions.
Different parts of the event will be of interest to different people. My own purely subjective takeaways follow below the fold.
As we are in the post-hype phase of virtual worlds, it was striking to me that this large number of talented people, most of them early or mid-career, were forging ahead in their study of this area. After the SL boom, there were those who expressed fatigue about the whole area, and some recent conferences have seemed somewhat out of gas. Yet how could a technology like this - practical virtual reality - ever truly recede from human society? What developments could possibly make such a thing become unimportant? I can't imagine any.
On the contrary, at the workshop I learned about a number of efforts underway that really make you stop and think - it's that "wow" feeling one is now used to having when working in this area. For example (and I am just taking a few here - there were many, many eye-openers) -
Yesha Sivan reported on the effort to create standards for 3D multiuser spaces. Think HTML but for avatars. The interoperability movement continues.
Antti Ainamo gave a fascinating poster describing the possibility of having a company go back in time, virtually, to a point where some decision was made. Imagine current employees of US airlines going back to the early days of deregulation, or even farther, to the times when people clapped whenever a plane crossed the ocean? Using VR to enliven a company's history - think what this might mean for all kinds of organizations.
Robin Teigland and colleagues are exploring the use of 3D web to allow small companies to expand overseas - one of the few immediate, brick-and-mortar, money-making applications of VR that I've seen.
Beyond this, the keynotes seemed to converge on a similar theme, which is that the area of "virtual worlds" as such is still poorly covered by us academics. There is such heavy focus on SL and WoW. This may have been appropriate in 2005, but already, only five years later, there has been such an explosion of VW and VW-like environments that the academic community can no longer comfortably say that we "understand" the impacts the VWs are having. Hunsinger, Consalvo, and Lester all warned about the comfort zone we seem to inhabit. Bolter drove the point home with a number of eye-popping augmented reality applications under development at Georgia Tech (shooting mini zombies on a RL tabletop from a virtual helicopter that is your handheld - yum). The concept of a virtual world as a clearly-delineated computer program is evaporating, and something much more broad, a practical and omnipresent virtual reality, is taking its place.
I get from this that we continue to be in a time of rapid technological change. This means that the simple reporting function is among the most important things we can do right now. So, just go out there and play around with new things and report back. We need regular conferences that do nothing but share experiences out on the wild frontier. Because it is moving so quickly, we cannot understand VR; but we can stay in touch with it.
Finally, as far as the notion of innovation and user-generated content is concerned, my main takeaway is that very few of us truly grasp the importance of iteration. We still think in linear terms. An innovation happens, we say, and then it affects the world. In fact, the world is innovating on itself every second. To speak in narrative terms, telling the story of how a certain thing "was not" and then "came to be," just imposes a linear frame on something that is actually spiral. Nothing is ever new. Everything is a modification of something that was there before. When someone makes a "new" piece of social media or a "new" game, the initial idea is almost always stolen from some existing project; and then the object itself is refined and tested, refined and tested, refined and tested. Gradually it gets into the hands of users, who then mold and shape it to their own ends. The final product - something as grand as YouTube or as humble as WarGear - can truly be distinguished from other things, but its "design process" cannot be. It has no design process. Rather, it just bubbles up out of the ground.
A spiral view of innovation (or iterative, or viral, or emergent; choose your term) imposes very different requirements in terms of one's own decisions. You can't separate a medium from its users, for example; an SL island with no one on it does not, whatever the appearances, partake of the quality of existence. It is not. VR only becomes such when it hosts eyeballs, because only eyeballs can make things real. This affects our efforts to design, certainly, but also must affect what we study. Let's follow the eyeballs, because they and only they make manifest the subject we study.