Guest Post: George Djorgovski, A New World Overture

By Sean Carroll | November 3, 2008 9:47 am

In the post about my upcoming talk in Second Life, I gave a newbie’s sketchy perspective of the outlook for the medium. But you should also hear the pitch of someone who is a real expert, both in virtual worlds and their use for scientific research. So we’re very happy to have a guest post from George Djorgovski — Professor of Astronomy at Caltech, observer of galaxies, Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Computing Research, and Director of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. He also goes by the name of Curious George, on the other side of the reality/virtuality divide. (Note: pretty pictures beneath the fold.)


As an avid reader of CV, I was pleased and honored when Sean invited me to contribute a guest post. Now, CV is a very forward-looking enterprise, and its Blogmaster has already fallen into the wormhole described below, so here is a little (way?) out of the box riff for your enjoyment…

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It is not every day that you encounter a technology which may change the world. Especially if that technology is creating new worlds, albeit not in the chaotic inflation sense… (and unlike certain a priori untestable physical theories, these worlds are very much real, even if they are virtual — but let’s not go there now).

The development I would like to tell you about is immersive virtual reality (VR), or virtual worlds (VWs). It has originated largely from the on-line computer/video games, and that is still its main domain, but not for much longer. This technology has already gone well beyond the games, and I think it will go very, very far. It is in an embryonic stage now, sort of like the Web was circa 1993 (remember those ancient days, when you first heard about it? your first glimpse of the Mosaic browser?), or the Internet circa mid-1970’s (ask your grampa). Its prophets were science fiction writers of the highest rank: Stanislaw Lem, Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker, and pretty much the entire Cyberpunk movement and its offspring — William Gibson, Bruce Stering, Neall Stephenson, Charles Stross, to name but a few favorites. Credit is also due to the visionary computer scientist (and Unabomber victim) David Gelertner, whose book “Mirror Worlds” seeded some ideas in 1991 (before the WWW!). But this is no longer fiction, folks, and a growing number of us is trying hard to make it science. This is Serious Stuff. I think that this technology will be as transformative as the Web itself, and that the two will merge, soon, and change forever how we do, well, everything — science included.

Now, gentle reader, you may be a tad skeptical at this point; that is a perfectly normal and excusable reaction! (I know that, because that was how I reacted at first … ;). But if you indulge me for a moment and follow me down the rabbit hole, I promise that things will get curiouser and curiouser.

For a few years I have been reading about a rapid growth of the massive multi-user on-line role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as The World of Warcraft (WoW). I never played any, or had a slightest interest (in fact, I’ll date myself by admitting that the last computer game I played was the Space Invaders, back in the grad school, as a pure procrastination device). There are about 6 million WoW players word-wide. But gaming is not what this is all about, even though in May of 2008, there was a first scientific conference held in WoW.

A more interesting development is the rise of VWs which are general, interactive virtual environments. They can be used for gaming or role playing, but also for more serious things. There are currently well over 300 VWs on-line, some of them very special-purpose, some purely as games, but many with broad and open goals, according to the Association of Virtual Worlds. By far the dominant VW is Second Life (SL), developed by Linden Lab (LL), a company founded in 1999 by Philip Rosedale, and backed by such Internet business luminaries as Jeff Bezos, Mitch Kapor, and Pierre Omidyar — and these folks probably know what they are doing.

Predictably, media accounts of SL tend to focus on cybersex and silly looking avatars, and so my own superficial initial reaction was “what a b.s., video games for adults”. I got intrigued after reading Wade Roush’s article “Second Earth” in the July/August 2007 issue of MIT’s Technology Review. However, my personal conversion was really prompted by an old friend, Piet Hut, a Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Piet is a numerical stellar dynamics guru, and a person with a very creative and eclectic mind. So after he posted a couple of preprints describing his initial exploration of VWs on the arXiv server (astro-ph/0610222 and 0712.1655) I got really intrigued, and started a conversation. I was skeptical at first, but then in March of 2008 I jumped in, and it has been a fun and intriguing journey ever since.

Judging by my own experience, there is no way that you can really understand all this just by reading or listening; you have to try it. It is a fundamentally visceral, as well as an intellectual experience. It is as if you have never seen a bicycle, let alone ridden one, and someone was showing you pictures of people having a good time biking around, and telling you what a fun it is. Please keep that in mind. You gotta try it, then judge for yourself.

Let me give you a few factoids about SL first. There are over 15 million registered users worldwide, and typically about 60,000 are on-line at any given time. Nearly 300 universities have some presence in SL (typically a virtual campus), including the likes of MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. Numerous outreach organizations and museums (e.g., the Exploratorium), media programs (e.g., the NPR Science Friday), many scientific publishers (e.g., Nature) have active outposts. Hundreds of major brand companies, ranging from the usual tech giants (Cisco, Dell, IBM, HP, Microsoft, Sony, Xerox, etc.) to Ben & Jerry’s, Coca-Cola, Warner Brothers, etc., also have presence there. New business models are being developed, and companies whose business is only immersive VR are popping up. Many government agencies, both from the US (e.g., NASA, NOAA, CDCP, etc.) and from other countries, are active in SL, for outreach purposes, situational training, etc. Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds held a large conference in April 2008. Reuters has a news bureau in SL. Three countries (Sweden, Estonia, and Maldives) have embassies in SL. And so on.

There is a thriving economics in SL, which has its own currency (Linden dollars, L$) with fluctuating exchange rates, about L$ 250 – 260 for US$ 1. There is about US$ 25M in capital in SL, and the quarterly user transactions are around US$ 80M. For these reasons, the Congress held a mixed-reality (natch!) hearing, both in real life (RL) and SL, in April 2008 (see, e.g., this news report). You can find links to many other relevant news stories at LL’s own website. There are many SL blogs, which the readers of CV can surely hunt down on their own.

How does it work? In a nutshell, you can sign up for SL for free (a paid membership allows you to own virtual land, and has a few other privileges). Explore the SL website links. You download an SL browser from there. The way this works is that LL runs a grid of servers, which contain a vast database of who and what is where and how are they moving, communicating, etc. It sends the local data to your browser, which does the graphical rendering; you need a fairly new machine for this to run well, probably not more than 3 years old. SL is a “flat earth” world, and endless ocean with islands and continents. The basic unit of virtual land is a “sim” or an “island” (even if it is completely land-enclosed), and it is 256 meters square; it is mapped to a single compute note in the LL grid. Every user is represented by a human-like avatar; you get a pretty rudimentary one upon signing in, but you can acquire better designed ones for free or for money. (One annoying feature of SL is that you have a restricted freedom in choosing your avatar’s name; my nom de pixel is Curious George, and I lucked out on that one.) You can communicate with other users by voice or text; either one can be public, heard within a radius of about 20 – 30 meters, or private. You can move around by walking, flying (very cool) or teleporting (even cooler). And then … it’s all up to you, your curiosity and imagination. Users generate essentially all of the content – buildings, arts, gizmos and gadgets. There is a scripting language and a graphical editor. Or you can just buy stuff from creative and enterprising people who are good at making things in SL. You can also get a lot of free stuff, some of which is of a surprisingly high quality. SL is all about people interacting and creating content, very much a Web 2.0 in that way, even though it presages the Web 3.0, or 4.0 or …

What really surprised me — knocked my virtual socks off, so to speak — is the subjective quality of the interpersonal interaction. Even with the still relatively primitive graphics, the same old flat screen and keyboard, and a limited avatar functionality, it is almost as viscerally convincing as a real life interaction and conversation. Somehow, our minds and perceptive systems interpolate over all of the imperfections, and it really clicks. I cannot explain it — it has to be experienced; it is not a rational, but a subjective phenomenon. It is much better than any video- or teleconferencing system I have tried, and like most of you, I have suffered through many of those. As a communication device, this is already a killer app. Going back to the good old email and Web feels flat and lame.

So what has all this got to do with science and scholarship?

Well, first of all, it is an amazing education and public outreach venue. There are many superb science museum creations, some of them clustered in the SciLands Virtual Continent. I have given a few public lectures to audiences of several tens of people, and my friend Rob Knop (aka Prospero Frobozz or Prospero Linden in SL) runs a regular, well attended lecture series, “Dr. Knop Talks Astronomy”, where our Blogmaster Sean (aka Seamus Tomorrow in SL) will soon speak. There are many other thriving events and sims, and a growing number of SL uses in a (virtual) classroom setting; check out the Second Life Education Wiki.

VWs will likely become another empowering, world-flattening educational technology, very much like as the Web has already done. Anyone from anywhere could attend a lecture in SL, whether they are a student or simply a science enthusiast. And as a growing number of RL museums start developing their virtual outposts, people who could not dream of visiting the Louvre or other major cultural venues in the RL will be able to do so in SL, tour guides and all. What VWs provide extending the Web is the human presence and interaction.

The author gives a cosmology public lecture during the Virtual Feynmanfest, a conference organized in SL by James Maynard (aka SciArtMedia Sands) in honor of Richard Feynman’s 90th birthday, in May of 2008.

Beyond the direct mappings of traditional lecture formats, VWs can really enable novel collaborative learning and educational interactions. Since buildings, scenery, and props are cheap and easy to create, VWs are a great environment for situational training, exploration of scenarios, and such; this is of a special interest to certain governmental agencies, but not just for them. Medical students can dissect virtual cadavers, and architects can play with innovative building designs, just moving the bits, without disturbing any atoms.

So the first major scholarly use of VWs is as a communication, interaction, and collaboration venue. This includes individual, group, or collaboration meetings, seminars, or even full-blown conferences. You can interact with your colleagues as if they were in the same room, and yet they may be half way around the world.

Here is a technology which will finally make telecommuting viable. You may recall that there was a lot of hype on this subject in the early Web days; after all, if our work largely consists of staring at some computer screen all day long, why not do it at home? It did not work, because it lacked one key element: the human interaction. This problem is now solved; we finally have a virtual water cooler, the gathering work spaces.

The author and some of his SL friends talk about dark energy during one of MICA meetings.

As I already noted, this really works well on a subjective level. Too many times have I wasted 2 days of my life to attend a half-day meeting across the country. Instead of the immersive VR, people now talk about the effective telepresence technologies (the same thing, as far as I can tell, but the labeling has a market value), and some major companies (notably IBM) are investing heavily in this arena, replacing internal company meetings in RL with VR. I expect that this will become a major trend, because it is so cost-effective.

WVs are a very green technology: save your time, your money, and your planet by not traveling if you don’t have to. For the weary veterans of all major hub airports, this is a good news. And it works well enough already, at almost no cost!

What about research per se?

Clearly, complex human communities like SL are a gold mine for sciences like sociology, anthropology, economics, or psychology. For some pointers, see the article “The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds”, by the visionary sociologist and scholar Bill Bainbridge (2008, Science, 317, 472). Tom Boellstorff has written probably the first scholarly volume on the cultural anthropology of VWs, “Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human”. As immersive VR becomes a part of our daily life, as I am sure it will, continuing the process started by the Web, I expect that we will see a creative explosion of research in this field.

Several MICA members examine a multidimensional data set on stars, galaxies, and quasars, produced as a scientific visualization experiment by Desdemona Enfield and the author.

Another arena where immersive VR is likely to offer useful tools in in scientific visualization. Most sciences are now drowning under the exponentially growing growth of data sets, which are becoming increasingly more complex. For example, in astronomy we now get most of our data from large digital sky surveys, which may detect billions of sources and measure hundreds of attributes for each; and then we perform data fusion across different wavelengths, times, etc., increasing the data complexity even further. This is an even larger problem in biological or environmental sciences, among others. How do we visualize structures (clusters, multivariate correlations, patterns, anomalies…) present in our data, if they are intrinsically hyper-dimensional? This is one of the key problems in data-driven science and discovery today. And it is not just the data, but also complex mathematical or organizational structures, which can be inherently and essentially multi-dimensional. Visualization is a bridge between measurements and our intuition and understanding. VWs provide an easy venue for pseudo-3D visualization, with various techniques and tricks to encode more parameter space dimensions, with an added benefit of being able to interact with the data and with your collaborators. While there are special facilities like “caves” for 3D data immersion, they usually require a room, at least half a million dollars worth of equipment, special goggles, and only one person at a time can benefit from the 3D view. With SL on your laptop, you can do it for free, and share the experience with as many of your collaborators as you can squeeze in the data space you are displaying.

Visualizations of the E8 Lie group polytope, an 8-dimensional mathematical object projected into the 3D space, produced by Wizard Gynoid and Desdemona Enfield. Whatever you think of Garrett Lisi’s theory, this is one cool geometrical visualization.

Finally, for numerical astrophysicists (and presumably their cousins in other fields), there is a potential of interacting with your simulations in a whole different way. We may see some novel modes of numerical experimentation, with scientists interacting with each other, with their machinery, and the input and output of their simulations through VW portals.

All this has led Piet Hut and a group of his friends and collaborators to form the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA), the first professional scientific organization based entirely in VWs. MICA is a scientific organizational/cultural experiment, exploring the scientific and scholarly uses of VWs (specifically in astrophysics and related fields, but at this stage, many of these considerations and experiences should apply in other disciplines). It may be a foothold for the more extensive adoption of VWs technologies by the scientific community. It really is a whole new world out there, and more will come.

In MICA, we have group meetings, seminars or journal clubs (where we hope to attract an increasing number of new speakers), research activities in both numerical simulations and scientific visualization, and educational activities, including a popular lecture series. We are just about to get our own sim, with spaces for interactions, discussions, talks, etc.

In this already too long blog post, I could not do justice to many fascinating cultural, technological, and other aspects of the VWs phenomenon, but I hope that I have at least tickled your curiosity a little. If so, the best thing you can do is experiment and explore, and see for yourself. Please come and join us at the MICA events, including Sean’s popular talk on Nov. 8.

Practical advice: SL documentation ranges from non-existent to terrible. The GUI seems to have been designed by a committee of engineers, none of them Mac users; enough said. Many new SL users never make it past the Intro island. The best way to make it past the first baby steps is for someone to hold your little hand for an hour, and then you can be left in the wild to fend for yourself. We can help you with that, and introduce you to some wonderful SL volunteer mentors, to save you a lot of grief, and ease your initial explorations. Send me an email, or contact any of the people listed at the MICA website, and we’ll get you going.

We already live, work, and entertain ourselves in a cyberspace: the Web with its many wonders and tools. Immersive VR technologies are continuing this process, making our synergy with cyberspace and its informational and cultural contents more personal and more effective. These are still the very early days, and even so, there is a lot of potential. The VR technologies are still very limited in their functionality, but they will get much, much better. As Fermi supposedly said, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. Nobody in the early 1990’s could have predicted what the Web will become, and how it will change our world in the space of a few years. We may be at a start of a similar transformation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Post, Technology

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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