December 31, 2006

Virtual Universe : The Need for Open Standards

2006 is the year when the idea of Virtual Universes went mainstream. Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like Everquest has been around for about three years and three dimensional virtual reality, whether with physical devices or with technology like VRML, has been around even longer, but it had always been a niche market -- at best adopted in the gaming community. However with the advent of Linden Labs and the release of their SecondLife platform, the concept of a virtual universe has now become the defacto platform of the future. What the World Wide Web was in 1996 is what Second Life is in 2006 ... and this time, the rate of penetration and adoption is even faster.

Describing SecondLife is an exercise of (a) redundancy and (b) futility. It is redundant because almost every magazine and journal has now described it in great detail and Reuters has a full time bureau chief reporting regularly from SecondLife. It is also futile because Second Life is an experience .. that one has to go through to understand and appreciate the concept. Trying to explain Second Life to someone who has not been there is like to trying to describe the beauty of a sunset to a person who has been born blind. I will not even try that ... and assume that whoever is reading this has the wherewithal to go out and find out more about this technology on his own.

While SecondLife may be the most successful implementation of a virtual universe, it suffers from the inherent drawback of being a proprietory product. SecondLife is to virtual universe what America Online was to the world wide web. Conceptually similar but fundamentally different. AOL ( and to an extent the old MSN) were closed worlds -- of proprietory servers and proprietory clients, that were initially quite exciting but were quickly swept away by the flood of open source. Once the HTTP protocol became public domain, anyone could make an HTTP server or an HTTP client and this paved the way for what became the universal client ( or web browser ) that allowed total interoperability across the digital community.

The sheer "open"ness of the internet / web as a platform led to its proliferation and ultimate dominance over all other competing technologies.

Compared to this openness, the MMORPG / Virtual Universe community is still operating in the erstwhile Soviet Gulags or behind the Great Chinese Firewall. There are many very nice MMORPG platforms but each operates with its own proprietory client that connects to its own server. While this may be percieved as a good tool for client retention it certainly restricts choice. The sheer pain of downloading a heavy client for each MMORPG is a strong enough disincentive for many users to check out and join various MMORPG games. Personally, I have participated only in Planeshift and of course now I am a resident of SecondLife.

Had it been possibly for me to use either the browser or any one MMORPG client to access the other MMORPG servers, I am sure I would have tried out many more platforms and might have decided to focus somewhere else.

SecondLife is of course different because it allows the actual creation of objects and artefacts by residents (or players, if you wish) and then allows them to retain the intellectual property. This free market approach has injected a huge amount of commercial dynamism and has made it the cynosure of all eyes. But from an underlying technology perspective, both MMORGs in general and SecondLife in particular are an implementation of the same concept of Virtual Universe or the as some people prefer to say, the 3D-Internet. ... and this is where the proprietory nature of both is acting as significant handicap in the growth and proliferation of the Virtual Universe.

So what is that needs to happen ?

First we need open definition of what is a Virtual Universe. This is where organisations like The Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium can (or should ) take a lead to define a set of open standards that will allow any VU-browser to connect to a VU-server. Should the IETF or the W3C be too slow to act, an industry body like the Intenational Game Developers Association should take up the initiative to develop these standards. Like the HTTP protocol, we should develop and standardise on a VUTTP protocol.

Second, all future MMORPG builders should actively seek to port their products to a platform that is compliant with VUTTP. There is no doubt that there will be severe politics, lobbying and one-upmanship here as each organisation will seek to ensure that their own protocols and standards be accepted. Big organisations will try to ignore the emerging consensus and stick to their own standards .. but eventually everyone will fall in line. The final protocol may not be the best and most efficient, but will have the benefit of being universal.

In parallel, we will see the growth of (a) VUTTP servers and (b) VUTTP clients. Some of these clients and servers will be commercial software and some will be opensource. If we draw a parallel from the normal internet, the open source versions might eventually win out or they may not. Apache is the dominant HTTP server but Firefox has still not overtaken IE ... but that is a different story and they way that story pans out will depend on a host of factors.

What is important will be the public availability of VUTTP servers and VUTTP clients ... and using these two products, developers will have the freedom to develop diverse and interoperable virtual universes.

Interoperability is important. If we had to use a different web browser for each website that you visit -- one for Yahoo, one for Amazon, one for (my) HSBC bank, one for Indiatimes, one for the JetAirways e-Ticketing service, one for the BBC and one for my favourite Slashdot ... would I have had the energy and enthusiasm to visit anyone of these websites ? But since I can use Firefox to visit and operate EACH of these and thousand other websites, I -- and countless others -- have adopted the web as an integral part of my Real Life.

For Second Life / Virtual Universes to become as integral a part of our existence, we need a genuine open VUTTP client. Who will create this ?

Will it be Linden Labs ? or will it be a (not so) dark horse called Google ?

Google has the Google Earth product where they are creating a virtual version of the Real World and they have free 3D modelling tools that allow individuals to create their own structures. In parallel, Google Earth data has been freed from the confines of their proprietory client and is now available through a browser and the website. If you take these two initiatives together, we have the potential of 3D Models being built and being made available through an open client.

Is this the first step of what we are looking for ? The answer lies in the womb of futurity.

December 26, 2006

2006 : A watershed year for Virtual Worlds

As the year 2006 draws to a close, it is interesting to take stock of things that happened and speculate on how these will impact the year ahead .. and in this exercise the one single thing that stands out is SecondLife - The Emergence of Virtual Worlds.

Milestones and signposts are seldom recognised when we whiz past them on the highway .. it is only when you have traversed some significant distance, do you realise how important that fork in the road was ... both for those who have taken the right fork and for those who were left behind on the wrong one.

To appreciate, the enormous significance of this tectonic movement, one must go back to the year 1995-96 when Netscape went public and the Internet, for all practical purposes was born.

The world had not been wired up as comprehensively as yet and we in India got wind of this techTsunami in 1996 when the first few intrepid cybernauts in India set sail on a voyage of discovery.

It was voyage of discovery as well as a voyage of faith. VSNL connections were flaky and brittle and 64 kbps leased line cost more than Rs 10 lakhs per annum. [ Today, a 115kpbs datacard from a CDMA service provider costs Rs 500/month ]. Pages used to load slowly and most computers did not have enough horsepower to run the bloated java applets.

Many of us surfed through the few foreign websites and tried to create our own amateur stuff on the free servers provided by Tripod, Lycos, Geocities and finally the grand daddy of them all Yahoo. The world of brick and mortar laughed and finally when our bubble of enthusiasm burst in 2000 ... everyone wisely nodded their heads and said we told you so ...

Only they were wrong, and so utterly and comprehensively wrong that it is not even worth talking about when web based eCommerce and eBusiness has taken off so well .. whether for retail or air tickets or eBanking ... you name a business and it is there on the web, even if the original business model has been turned on its head.

History repeats itself (though fortunately, not always as a tragedy or a farce ) and where we are today, with Virtual Worlds ( or 3D internet, as some say), is exactly the original classic Internet/Web was ten years ago.

Powered by the enthusiasm for Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) Virtual Worlds have taken the Real World by storm ... or at least the first few intrepid 3DCybernauts. What Netscape was to the Internet, SecondLife is for Virtual Worlds ... the catalyst, the fuse ... that has set off the rocket that will lead us to the stars.

There are no dearth of naysayers -- who believe that all this is a game, a child's play with no potential for anything substantial. Fortunately, their tribe is shrinking as more and more people move towards a seamless integration of their Real Life and Second Life, their real world and virtual world, the immense potential is visible to all those who have the eyes to see beyond the next email.

How has Second Life catalysed all this ? Through a simple techno-legal trick - by defining and enforcing the concept of Property Rights in Virtual Worlds. Property right, whether on virtual real estate and, more importantly, on Intellectual Property created in the virtual world is the real oxygen that is fuelling the growth -- and that is the real significance of Second Life.

Going forward, SecondLife and their creator Linden Labs, may be overcome by economic forces ( though I sincerely wish them all the best), just as Netscape was, but the benevolent genie that they have uncorked will never go back into the bottle.

Actually, America Online is perhaps a better model for Linden Labs because AOL with its proprietory client software and AOL stores was the pre-cursor to the world wide web. Second Life currently runs on a proprietory client that connects to a proprietory server .. and it is a matter of time before we have equivalent functionality being delivered through a open source virtual world client (Mozilla like) that can connect to any open source server ( somewhat like Apache) .. and then the world will not be the same anymore.

Many of us were not around the connected world in 1993 when AOL started but some of us might just remember the Netscape IPO in 1995. Today the world is different .. information flows faster than light !!! and it would be nice to remember that 2006 is the year when thanks to Linden Labs and Second Life, the Virtual World has finally met the Real world and the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred.

p.s. how many of you can survive today without an email ID ? None ... especially if you are reading this on the web. going forward, it is my humble prediction that NONE of you will be able to survive without an avatar in SecondLife or equivalent virtual world.

December 20, 2006

MMORPG / Second Life in 3D display

MMORPGs in general and SecondLife in general has now become a hot favourite with relatively large parts of the population. As a concept and technology it has few peers and there is no doubt it is at the vanguard of a new wave that leads to the 3D Internet.

What next ?

The clue lies in the word 3D ! SL is essentially a 3D world that avatars live in, but the limitations of the computer console / video display unit means that 3D has to be represented as 2D grid of pixels.

But today, we have technology that can display artefacts in a real 3D format. You can look up the following websites ..

or this website ...

there are other technologies that support such technology .. for example see this

These are monitor based 3D technology which can enhance the SecondLife experience signficantly. Moving forward, laser based technology like the one from AIST

Net-net with all these 3D technologies appearing over the horizon, the entire world of MMORPG and SecondLife should soon change beyond recognition.

December 18, 2006

Brand IIT or Brand IITJEE

PANIIT2006 - the mega IIT Alumni meet that is scheduled for next week in Mumbai has raised a lot of decibels in the media. There are a lots of articles and discussions on the IIT - the hype, the mystique and myth associated with India's best known educational instititutions.

As an IIT-ian ( genuine B.Tech product - Mechanical, Azad Hall, Kharagpur) it is my misfortune that I would not be able to attend this megaMeet ... so let me share some of my thoughts on these unique institutions.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, let me state upfront, that even though anybody who has enrolled in IIT is a dejure IITian, many of us believe that the defacto IITian is one who has qualified through the JEE Examination and has gone through the undergraduate ragging program -- does not matter if you were Mech or Chem or Agri or Electronics or Physics. The motley crew of M.Techs and Research Scholars do not qualify as genuine IITians .. despite their pretensions to the contrary. This may sound rather arrogant and I apologise in advance to those who may feel agrieved .. but unfortunately I have to call a spade a spade.

Which brings me to the next topic. IIT-ians are famous and known across the world for their B.Tech students ..

The coursework that is taught in IIT -- whether at the B.Tech or M.Tech level -- is the same that is taught at any other engineering college in India. It is the same Shames and Timoshenko and Popov and Thereja ... whereever you go. No different.

The teachers at IIT, no offence meant to anyone, are no better than anywhere else ( except is the newfangled private donation schools .. which are awful). Professors at RECs or at B E College, or Jadavpur university or as good or as bad as their counterparts in IIT. 5% are good whereever you go. The rest do not matter. My only regret is that only if IIT professors where selected through a process one-tenth as rigorous as the IIT-JEE ... it would have been a world of difference.

And the mediocre professors reflect in the pathetic nature of research that happens in these IITs. Despite all the hype about Sponsored Research, look closely and you will see that things of monumental insignifance dominate the research agenda -- I believe that IIT KGP hs come out with (a) new male contraceptive and (b) new ways of growing tea in semi-arid areas. If that is the cutting edge of technology, then I would rather stay at the blunt edges.

So the course is identical, the teachers are average and the research is pathetic ... then how does IITs dare to compare themselves with MIT and the Ivy League colleges ? They can because they have something that no one else has ... the IIT JEE entrance test.

When I sat for this in 1979 there were 40,000 of us competing and just about 2000 got in. Today I believe that this number is 4000 out of 400,000 or something equally obscene .. and believe me when you have a selection process as rigorous as this and it does not matter what you course you teach, who teaches and how they teach. The folks that can overcome this barrier can overcome any barrier anywhere in the world .. and that is exactly what they have done.

No surprises then to know that Brand IIT is so well known and respected all over the world. But is it Brand IIT that deserves this adulation or Brand IITJEE ... that is the real brand ?

I think the answer is very clear ... Brand IITJEE is the real one.

But strangely enough, like true descendents of Kalidas, who got busy in cutting off the branch that he was sitting on ... we want to kill this IITJEE brand ..

And how ? Through our Quota system.

Honourable Parliament has just passed the law that makes nearly 50% reservation mandatory in IIT .. what this means is that the sanctity of the IITJEE is undermined. It does not matter if we increase the number of seats from 4000 to 8000. What matters is that when the 8000 people pass out .. they will carry the IIT Brand on their shoulder but will they carry the IITJEE Brand as well ?

And if they carry that IITJEE Brand, is that brand still half as valuable as the IITJEE brand that I ( and countless others ) carry proudly on our chest.

Sorry, there is no point in asking you for an answer ... because the answer is NO.

Google Education - Distance Learning

Google has a habit of coming out with extremely user-friendly and innovative products and I wonder if they could do something for distance learning.

In the explosive growth of the knowledge economy, nothing -- bar nothing -- is more important than new and innovative ways of imparting knowledge. Google would do a significant service to humanity ( and perhaps to their shareholders as well ) if they could design a hosted, web-based tool to further this activity.

The broad functionalities of my proposed system is as follows ..

a] A hosted presentation server, that would allow a teacher to broadcast a set of educational slides over the internet. Streaming video is good, but we would need far higher broadband penetration before that can happen

b] A white board ( or screen sharing ) application for the teacher to communicate to the students

c] A way for students to join a particular session and a way to manage the interaction with students. A way for a student to "raise your hand" to ask a question and for the instructor to choose which student to respond to. Many distributed presenations like Centra have this feature

d] Principal interaction would be through a low bandwidth text chat screen with VoIP voice chat available for those with higher bandwidth.

e] A secure and integrated payment system ( like PayPal ) to allow teachers to make money from the system, if they choose to.

f] An overall course registration system similar to YahooGroups or GoogleGroups so that the education is available only for those who have signed up or joined the class

g] An integrated wordprocessor / drawing tool for handling assignments that students can do offline and upload ... and a way for managing assignments. Built in mathematics and chemistry symbols are needed.

h] An online ( or offline ) testing strategy with the possibility of handling (1) multiple choice questions (2) subjective questions with paragrapy long answers.

None of this rocket science, and all these solutions can be built individually. What we need is an integrated package that will run this off the web in a manner that makes economic sense to (a) Google - or any other hosting company (b) the teachers who will offer such tele-tuition and (c) the students who are the ultimate customers or consumers for this.

Advertisement on the web-pages that are targeted towards each individual students profile would help pay for this service to some extent.

Is someone at Google or some other organisation listening ?

Given the huge amount of money that students in India spend on tuitions, this could turn out to be significant value proposition for some enterprising Indians ... and perhaps the service if and when launched could be named after Ekalavya - the pioneer of distance learning in India - remember he was not accepted by Dronacharya as a student and yet by observing from a distance he acquired the skill to shoot better than the pampered Arjun.

December 03, 2006

Second Life as a Movie Making Platform

Movie making lends it rather neatly in SecondLife. Here is a platform where you can create sets any which way you like and then you can populate the sets with actors and actresses who can be tailored to look just as the situation demands. So the same set of human 'actors' or manipulators can work with avatars who can take on any shape and size , including fantastic ones.

The behaviour of the avatar-actors have to be defined in terms of animation scripts and this calls for signicant programming, but the best thing is that these animation scripts can be both reusable and incrementally improved. What this means is that while the first movie can have an avatar-actor who delivers a jerky slap that lands on someone's shoulder, the next version of the script can create a smooth slap that hits the intended victim right on the cheek ! And what can be done for a simple slap can of course be extended to any other action ... depending on the directors imagination.

The 3D sets are of course any set-designers delight ... not to talk of the treasurer since everything is done virtually using 3D modelling tools that can be uploaded and imported into Second Life.

Finally the photography ... the crude way of doing all this is to (a) shoot your desktop display or (b) project on the wall and shoot the image. But if you are a pro, then you can easily rig up some basic apparatus to pipe the display from one machine into another which is configured to recieve the same and convert it into an mpeg file.

As an example of what can be done, please see our movie "Are YOU Real ?"

[ this movie may initially take some time to load, and the first pass may be jerky, but if you are patient, then from the second replay onwards, it is quite smooth ]

and remember, there are no copyright issues in using Second Life as a platform since one of the cardinal principles of this world is that you own the IP of anything that you create here.

Cheers and happy movie making.

Are Your Real ?

A short movie set across three 'worlds', namely Planeshift, Real life in Calcutta, and Second Life that explores the boundaries of real and the illusory. Based on the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, as articulated by Sankar, the 8th century Hindu philosopher, this movie seeks to explore the boundaries between the worlds that are thought to be real and those that are believed to be illusory.

[ this movie may initially take some time to load, and the first pass may be jerky, but if you are patient, then from the second replay onwards, it is quite smooth ]