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…

* * *

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
  • George Musser

    I was an early adopter/early de-adopter of VR. Maybe the Holodeck and Matrix raised my expectations too high. I found the interface of SL, in particular, hard to navigate, and the quality of the experience was very sensitive to the speed of the broadband connection, which can vary hugely, even over a single session. Maybe I needed a hand-holding mentor, as George suggests toward the end of the post.

    I suspect, also, that whether you find the interactions “almost as viscerally convincing as a real life interaction” varies from person to person. It doesn’t help that people adopt a different persona online — that’s precisely the attraction of SL for many people, and it diminishes the quality of the relationships.


  • George Djorgovski

    Hi, George. Your comments on the technical problems are spot on; I think of this as the usual teething pains of a nascent technology. Also, maybe you were on the bleeding, not leading edge of the early adopters. I already commented on the intro experience, and indeed a helping hand for the recent arrivals goes a long way.

    You are also correct about not connecting well with people who are in it just for the gaming, hiding behind some fake avatar persona. What I really had in mind is real conversations with people with whom you actually have some interesting things to share and discuss, e.g., your colleagues. Come to think of it, it is probably easier at first if you know that person in RL, but you quickly “get into the groove” and connect just as easily with people you never met before, and probably never will in RL. That is one of the good things in SL, somehow the communication barriers are easier to overcome, and the technology works unreasonably well as a social lubricant. Of course, all the usual complexities of interpersonal communications and relationships still apply.

  • Serge

    Actually now AR (augmented reality) is talked about much more than VR.
    Instead of creating completely synthetic environment virtual images and sounds could be overlayed over the real world. Ideally it should be done with contact lenses, but right now available technology is mobile phones/PDA and web cameras. So instead moving into virtual world you can bring avatras to you room for teleconferencing. Suppose you want to show how the LHC magnets cracked. Instead recreating their 3d models you can take live videofeed from tunnel, make image registration (attach coordinate system to videoframe) and overlay some 3d shapes and animation over video – like add X-ray view, pointer to specific details, annotations etc.
    Well I’m kind of biased, so forgive me for plug for my favorite area)))

  • George Djorgovski

    Hi, Serge,

    augmented and immersive VR are not mutually exclusive, and my guess is that both will prosper and blend in our world(s). This is one of the many subjects I did get to address in my post, in trying to keep it focused and not much too long.

  • Rebecca Phillips

    Secondlife – A students perspective.

    “Distance learning” can be a very isolating experience. Although my home university does have a “bricks and mortar” campus, none of its undergraduate students are in residence there. Instead, we interact electronically with our tutors and mentors. We provide assignments in electronic form and we only occasionally have face to face tutorials with our assigned tutors. We overcome the difficulty in working at a distance but collaboratively with other students using a virtual campus in Secondlife. This is no ordinary campus. Most of the learning takes place “outside”. We can build virtual machines and perform experiments without the fear that we will blow up the chemistry lab! We can hone our presentation and collaboration skills using the technologies developed inworld by other students. We can go on a field trip at the drop of hat (no lengthy health and safety assessments). Perhaps to the International Spaceflight Museum to gather information about the history of spaceflight to the present day. Perhaps, attend one of MICA-VWs excellent lectures. None of this is done using flat and boring web pages. It is all highly interactive and has a 3-dimensional “feel” in Secondlife.

    You may be thinking this University is some small, isolated, local affair. You would be wrong. The Open University in the UK has in excess of 200,000 undergraduate students across the world and it does world class research in many areas, including space science and especially exploration (remember the Mars lander, Beagle 2 and John Zarneckis work on the Huygens Probe)? Secondlife is becoming a force to be reckoned with and the folks at MICA, who I’m proud to call my friends, are leading the way.

    Well done Piet and George.

  • Lab Lemming

    Those screen caps make SL look like an intrusive extra step between simply projecting your talk onto a recipient’s screen with live audio.

  • David McMahon

    This virtual reality stuff wants me to reach for my luddite membership card. That’s not to say that virtual reality or whatever you want to call it doesn’t have some benefits, but I prefer interacting with real people and engaging in real activities. I leave the computer world to the geeks who can’t tie their shoes. As for medical students, I want someone who has practiced on a real cadaver because playing with a computer model isn’t the same as a real body, and when you do surgery for real its going to be on real bodies. A dead body is better practice than any model a computer science geek can come up with. Now, as far as being able to do chemistry “experiments” without blowing up the lab, that’s sad. Doing a real chemistry experiment is far preferable than working on some boring computer simulation of one. Health and safety assessments? Those are creations of bureaucrats that get int he way.

  • Serge

    @ David McMahon
    You know, medical applications (and military :( ) is biggest application areas of augmented reality. You may don’t want medical student who practiced on computer models, but how about real time X-ray/ultrasound view, colored vessels schemes and annotations during the operation ? At least you wouldn’t forget tools in the patient body. Of cause that would require “augmented” display glasses (contact lenses in some future), which are cumbersome right now, but tech is not staying in place.
    Just google for “medical augmented reality”
    Consider AR as middle ground between VR and real world.

  • Rebecca Phillips

    @ David McMahon

    Not one person I have ever spoken to who is a user of VW’s for simulation of realworld scenarios considers it a replacement for a coherant realworld strategy. I, too, would not want to be operated on by a Surgeon that had only practiced their art in a virtual environment. I think this is where many people who have never experienced VW technology fall down in their arguments against it. Like all technology, it is a tool. Virtual worlds augment what you can do in the real world and do not replace it. Also, think about those people that cannot, for one reason or another, interact in the realworld. Maybe they are disabled, have a long term illness or simply do not have the opportunity for other reasons. VW users DO interact in the real world. We DO perform real experiments. VW’s allow us to extend our reach and share our ideas across a wider audience. What can be wrong with that? Oh, and, this has all been enabled by those geeks that can’t tie their shoe laces. Not a bad legacy don’t you think?

  • Pingback: Guest Post: George Djorgovski, A New World Overture « Manderson’s Bubble()

  • DemyanDamian

    And again about this. If the search engines learn to understand the meaning, the bloggers have poizgolyatsya to be readable and do not like the others.

  • Plato

    But if you indulge me for a moment and follow me down the rabbit hole, I promise that things will get curiouser and curiouser

    I know we are moving forward, its just that it reminded me of the ole days of Mount Olympus? This is not meant to be unkind, but to draw attention to the reality that this format can move too, while other minds are moved to think in relation to education.

    I think it then adds “dimensional reality” to the blogs format.

    Wonderful addition to the issues of “Web Science” and it’s considerations.


  • Rob Knop

    @David McMahon

    I just want to echo what Bekka said. Existing in the VW isn’t a perfect substitute for real-world interaction, any more than posting a comment on a science blog is a substitute for talking to people in a cafe about science… and yet, you manage not to leave that to the geeks :)

    I used to be a professional astronomer myself — that is, I used to be a fully employed professional astronomer, as an assistant professor. Whether or not I still am a professional astronomer is a semantic argument I don’t want to get into. Now I work for Linden Lab. And, I want to echo what George said in the original blog post. The “sense of presence” you have in a virtual world is very real, and very hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced. Yes, I started futzing around with Second Life because I *am* an extreme computer geek. I am the sort who would play with 3d software for fun, who dabbled very briefly with MUDs (the text predecessors to things like WoW), and who would procrastinate grading intro astronomy exams by doing system administration tasks on my linux machines. However– while that’s what attracted me there in the first place, that isn’t the reason I fully agree with George that this is going to be a transformative technology. There are probably a plethora of cognitive psychology theses in here, but the sense of presence you get when interacting with people in virtual worlds really does blow away other forms of synchronous distance communication. I haven’t enjoyed talking on the phone since I was a teenager, I haven’t been to a web conference that I didn’t find a gruelling experience, and let’s not even talk about phone conference calls. Yet, I find meetings in-world to be more than tolerable. You really *are* there. And, it has an advantage over a real-world meeting : if you’re multitasking and doing something else at the same time, nobody sees you doing it :)

    Now, working for Linden Lab, I go to meetings *all the time* in world for my job, in addition to meetings for MICA. It’s the standard at our company. Yet, even though I’m a remote employee (the only Linden in Nashville, TN), I do fly out to San Francisco or another Linden office a few times a year to interact in person. Avatars do not have the emotional range of human expressions by a long shot, and there still are things that in-person interaction gives you that in-world interaction does not. But, given that I can’t have in-person interaction all the time, and that travel is expensive, doing it in-world is an amazing substitute.

    I might also point out that were it not for VW technology, there would be no semantic argument about whether or not I was still a professional astronomer; I would be completely out of it. The existence of SL and MICA has given me the opportunity to remain associated with a group of professional astronomers, even though I don’t have a “home” institution. So, yeah, stick with the real world communication… but just as you very clearly don’t view the Web as an either/or with real-world communication, you need not view VWs that way either.

    @ George #1:

    At Linden Lab, we’re aware that the interface is, shall we say, suboptimal, and that the “first hour” user experience is something that needs a lot of work. We’re very aware that we lose a lot of people very early after they first try Second Life, and we’re working on that. (I’m not — it’s not what I do there — but others are.)

    I also want to comment on your statement that personal interactions are weakened by the fact that people choose different personas when online. There’s a whole lot to say about this, and I’ll try to avoid being *too* verbose. But, the truth is, we all assume different personas or “masks” as we go to different places in our lives. When you’re at home interacting with your family, you don’t bear yourself in the same way you do when you’re in a meeting of colleagues. When talking to your own students and closest co-workers, you don’t bear yourself the same way as you do when you’re at a AAS meeting interacting with random colleagues. Context is very important to the persona you present to the world. My persona when I’m blathering at length in text as I am right now is quite different from my persona when you meet me in person– probably more so than I’m aware.

    So, given all that: one can still make an argument that the persona you choose to display in a virtual world is in some ways a *more* real representation of you than what you present in the physical world. Yes, if you’re consciously roleplaying, this isn’t the case; but, that’s a different affair, and we’re not talking about gaming or theater. (Aside: I perform Shakespeare in Second Life too, another opportunity to keep involved with something that had fell by the wayside in my life.) In a virtual world, you have a lot of choice and control over how you appear, much more so than you do in the real world. Some people put more time into this and others. And, yes, there are some people who won’t tell you their real name, but that doesn’t necessarily make your interactions with them any less “real”. As long as I’ve been active on the Internet, I’ve had friends that I’ve never met in person. Does it matter that I don’t know, in the real world, the name and person behind the avatar Joff Fassnacht or Maedin Tureaud? No, but that doesn’t make the interactions I’ve had with those two people (both of whom I’ve acted with in in-world theater) any less real, and it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a friendship at some level with people that are known to me by those names.

    I better stop this comment before it gets longer than the original blog post.

  • George Djorgovski


    Rob, no disagreements here. Perhaps I was not clear enough in what I meant in the sentences you take to task, but that lack of verbose clarity was in part to avoid an even longer post.

    What I was trying to convey is that VR is a technology which will continue the historical evolution of the ways we interact with each other and with the world of information and culture we create (and which changes us in return). It enhances our abilities. It does not replace anything, be it a direct personal interaction, phone, print, web, etc. – it will add to them, and change the way they are used. And some communication technologies do become obsolete and go away, e.g., the telegraph, since they are replaced by something much better.

    Also, I am sure that LL people are working to improve the user experience, as they should. They better, or someone else will eat their lunch. Just wait until Steve Jobs discovers VR, then Apple will truly rule the world! :)

  • Rob Knop

    Actually, George, I wasn’t disagreeing with you anywhere :) I was disagreeing with David McMahon, and fully agreeing with you and the other George that the SL interface is indeed something that needs a lot of work.

    Re: Apple ruling the world, eh, I’m not worried. After all, Google came out with Google Lively, and if you believed some of the hype about that when it came out (hype that referred to Second Life *already* in the past tense), nobody should be using Second Life any more…. So much for that!

    LL may well, in retrospect, turn out to be a Netscape or another early pioneer that didn’t go the distance. We’ll find out. But at the moment, SL is still “it”.

  • Plato

    One would have to understand extending this capability under “faster speeds” replacing the ole technology in a better understood format. “Free INTERNET” replacing current technologies? I won’t discuss WIFI here and licensing for all those bloggers.

    Wireless spectrum: FAQs by By Peter Nowak CBC News May 26, 2008 3:13 PM ET

    What is Spectrum?Spectrum is a catch-all term for the radio airwaves that many wireless gizmos use to communicate information. Radios use spectrum, as do the rabbit-ear antennas on older television sets. The CBC, for example, is broadcast free to many parts of Canada using a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Cellphones, of course, also use it.

    Spectrum is divided into different frequencies and measured in units called hertz.

    So we are identifying an area here where current technologies while used currently by piggy backing libraries or universities might be extended to the public?

    Unlicensed Spectrum

    Unlicensed spectrum is not sold to the highest bidder and used for the services chosen by the license-holder but is instead accessible to anyone using wireless equipment certified by the FCC for those frequencies. Among the advantages of unlicensed spectrum is the opportunity to test new technology directly with consumers instead of going through spectrum license-holders. One of the disadvantages of unlicensed spectrum is the possibility of interference among the transmissions of the various users, both within the assigned bandwidth and with other bandwidths. Currently, there are no commercial applications for WiMAX using unlicensed spectrum. The cost of developing WiMAX applications for unlicensed use could impact its adaptation by municipalities seeking to provide wireless broadband services.

    So while discussing a software application it brings potential markets to realization when it is perceived that only 20% of the world population is connected. Why there is a White Space Coalition. Maybe some incentive for second life?:)


  • Liz Dorland (Chimera Cosmos)

    I was going to post here when I first got the link to George’s thoughtful article. Got distracted and just found this buried in my Firefox tabs. I first met George in SL back in March when he was a noobie (never met in RL) and I wondered back then if he would “get” the experience. He obviously did–his views and experiences exactly echo mine.

    I also completely agree with Rob’s comments:

    “…the sense of presence you get when interacting with people in virtual worlds really does blow away other forms of synchronous distance communication. I haven’t enjoyed talking on the phone since I was a teenager, I haven’t been to a web conference that I didn’t find a gruelling experience, and let’s not even talk about phone conference calls. Yet, I find meetings in-world to be more than tolerable. You really *are* there.”

    Those of you who are doubters have NOT done the experiment. That’s pretty lame for scientists who believe in direct evidence! Until you have spent time in SL with experienced users like George as guides, your assessments lack any scientific validity.

    Chimera Cosmos
    (Liz Dorland in RL — college chemistry faculty for 35 years, currently at Wash U and working with faculty development, web 2.0, and virtual worlds)

  • George Djorgovski

    Thanks, Liz! Let’s hear it for the good old experimental method!

    I still have a trouble with my shoelaces, though…

  • Anthony Judge

    I got to your excellent piece, and the discussion, through searches on the Lie symmetry group E8 — but with the extra term psychology in my search. And you do have a nifty visual of it from SL.

    I briefly tried SL and abandoned. I am a strong advocate of the idea but I find the experience itself to be clunky. Thinks will improve of course. But I am a text freak enthused by visualization and animation.

    My point relevant to the discussion is my deep disappointment at the rate of adaptation of networking technology to group formation or rather to getting beyond the binary possibilities of making contexts and links. So for me the E8 group is potentially about what fantastic groups of ideas and people we might create were the software to be suitably enabling.

    I have written extensively about this but my embarrasing point is that a seemingly simplistic proposal I made in the early computer days is still seemingly richer than that offered by computer dating, and other offerings. How do current environments enable BETTER groups to form — whatever the criteria for better. I offer you, maybe for a laugh, my early piece (weep at the date on it):

    Group Questing or Twelving
    Proposal for a large-scale small-group development process

  • metin2 yang

    briefly tried SL and abandoned


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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