Apr 042014

Oculus VR like Valve employees so much that they are getting into the habit of making them ex Valve employees. They’ve recently added Aaron Nicholls to the team, who will apparently be working out of Bellevue R&D with Atman Binstock, who used to work for Valve and became Oculus VR chief architecht in March. A year earlier and Tom Forsyth had started the trend of being ex Valve, now Oculus.

Then of course there is Michael Abrash, who is the new Oculus VR chief scientist and used to work for Valve. In the blog post welcoming Michael Abrash to Oculus VR Michael gets more than a little excited about the possibilities of the future of virtual reality. A little too excited to be honest, but you’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you going to have a dream come true. The problem of course about dreams about virtual reality is that in traditional fiction and film, they are more like nightmares than dreams.

In the blog post Michael says :

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime.

The good thing about the blog post is that it attempts to move the discussion away from the murky acquisition and back to the concept of virtual reality. This is a noble and important move because the technology trumps the controversy. Michael says:

You get the idea. We’re on the cusp of what I think is not The Next Big Platform, but rather simply The Final Platform – the platform to end all platforms – and the path here has been so improbable that I can only shake my head.

I have to say he sounds a little too excited there, the platform will evolve and so will the technology, the holodeck is not just around the corner and there are going to be many swings and roundabouts before people are able to truly immerse themselves in virtual worlds. However, the excitement in Michael’s post is most definitely to be welcomed, this is after all a technology people have been hoping and waiting for.

There are problems ahead, Hamlet Au over at New World Notes recently highlighted a potential problem : Does Virtual Reality Literally Make Most Women Sick? That post links to a post from Danah Boyd : Is the Oculus Rift sexist? The issue is nausea and this isn’t an off the cuff post from Danah Boyd, there’s real research there. Danah concludes that more research is needed, which is hopefully where funds for VR projects will come into play.

However with Oculus VR, there’s the Facebook angle. In most VR type stories and films, Facebook would be “The Corporation”. They wouldn’t be the good guys, they’d be the guys with power, the ones who know everyone’s secrets and use them for power and influence, so when Michael Abrash says :

That’s why I’ve written before that VR wouldn’t become truly great until some company stepped up and invested the considerable capital to build the right hardware – and that it wouldn’t be clear that it made sense to spend that capital until VR was truly great. I was afraid that that Catch-22 would cause VR to fail to achieve liftoff.

That worry is now gone. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus means that VR is going to happen in all its glory. The resources and long-term commitment that Facebook brings gives Oculus the runway it needs to solve the hard problems of VR – and some of them are hard indeed. I now fully expect to spend the rest of my career pushing VR as far ahead as I can.

This is where the alarm bells start ringing.

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Mar 312014

Gamespot ran a story the other day regarding the negative reaction to Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR. In that article they link to an article on Game Informer in which Oculus VR Vice President Nate Mitchell is quoted as saying :

We assumed that the reaction would be negative, especially from our core community, beyond our core community, we expected it would be positive. I don’t think we expected it to be so negative. As people begin to digest it a bit and think about it, you can see that Twitter and Reddit is swinging back the opposite direction. The onus is on us to educate people, and we want to share everything we’re doing.

However the original Gamespot article has been edited and had the headline changed to : Oculus VR employees got death threats after Facebook sale. In the updated article they quote Palmer Luckey :

We expected a negative reaction from people in the short term, we did not expect to be getting so many death threats and harassing phone calls that extended to our families.We know we will prove ourselves with actions and not words, but that kind of sh** is unwarranted, especially since it is impacting people who have nothing to do with Oculus.

I have absolutely no idea why anyone would find that sort of behaviour even remotely acceptable, this is not a life or death issue, it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. I lean towards the unhappy camp over the purchase because I am not a fan of Facebook and I feel Oculus should have reached out to the Kickstarter backers but the deal is done and people will have to wait and see what happens next.

Nobody deserves to be on the receiving end of death threats over this issue and it is completely out of order to harass family members who have nothing whatsoever to do with this. I suspect some of that may be point scoring over the amount of data Facebook encourages people to share, but that is no excuse.

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Mar 292014

Bopete Yossarian has started a thread over at SLUniverse to discuss an article that appeared this week on Gamasutra : Why Facebook should buy Linden Lab. The article is posted by a community member called Nick Harris, rather than a regular member of the Gamasutra staff, the opinions in the article are therefore not the opinions of Gamasutra or its parent company.

The article doesn’t really delve into the reasons why Nick Harris thinks this is a good idea, which sort of undermines the article. However the idea is an interesting one, so is the idea that Microsoft or Yahoo! should buy Linden Lab. The ideas are interesting in terms of discussion but generally lack any real meat on the bones.

The article also falls into the trap of saying :

Facebook have tried to retain its dominance through simple critical mass, if that is where everyone is, if you have to join Facebook to not miss out on invites to your friend’s impromptu parties then their hope is that you will and you won’t mind the data mining they do on you for market research and the targeted advertising. You aren’t in a position to complain, really, as it is a service they are providing to you for free.

This is a pet peeve of mine. Facebook is not free, it’s an exchange of resources. They provide the service, users provide the content, Facebook then realise value from said content. Although there’s no money exchanging hands in terms of basic usage of Facebook, there is a trade of content for service. However that aside, the author really doesn’t make much of a case for Facebook to buy Second Life :

Not only is this primarily a social nexus like Facebook (a place where you can project whatever version of yourself you choose others to see, either using a younger image of yourself, or making an effort to dress up for the photo when you are actually a slob in real life, or use someone else’s image entirely out of low esteem, or some catfish scam), but you are encouraged to create an escapist alter ego through which to indulge your fantasies, to travel without time, cost, or hassle to “see the sights”, to meet new people who share your interests unrestricted by enormous geographical separation.

Whereas I can see to a degree what he’s trying to get at, he seems to be missing a gaping point about the differences between Second Life and Facebook.

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Mar 282014

There have been a lot of column inches dedicated to the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR. The initial reaction has largely been negative because Facebook are involved, as I’ve said before, Facebook only have themselves to blame for this, their actions have spoken much louder than their words and they fully deserve the reputation they’ve got. However this doesn’t mean everything they do is inherently evil or anything they touch should be written off.

Steven Poole in The Guardian believes the backlash tells us that Facebook Just Isn’t Cool. I believe it’s because Facebook just don’t have a good reputation.

Amongst the comments and debate on the acquisition I’ve seen quite a lot of comments regarding the Kickstarter backers. A lot of people have called them naive, others say they seem to be self entitled. I really am not a fan of this term, largely because it gets thrown around whenever anyone has a different view. I’ve seen this term thrown around a lot in debates about the forthcoming Elder Scrolls Online subscription only model, when people suggest a free to play model may be better, others accuse them of being self entitled, when in all reality, they are just pointing out where the MMO market is heading in terms of business models and I say this as someone who pays a subscription to World Of Warcraft. However WoW is a different kettle of fish, but I’ll leave this for another post.

What a lot of people seem to be missing is that in business terms, the Kickstarter backers are active stakeholders in the project, albeit external stakeholders, but they are stakeholders none the less.

Stakeholders are an important ingredient of any business, so treating them with respect and dignity is important. There are different levels of stakeholder and some are obviously more important than others, however in an ideal world, you want to keep as many of your stakeholders happy as possible.

Where Oculus have gone very wrong in this regard is in not recognising that a lot of those Kickstarter backers would be miffed at the Facebook takeover and therefore, they made no contingency plans for it. Oculus really should have considered refunding them in the light of the Facebook deal.

The argument against this goes that the Kickstarter backers got what they paid for, the rest is tough titty. In The Guardian article I linked to earlier, Steven Poole wrote :

Meanwhile, there seems to be an obvious question of economic justice here. The original Kickstarter backers of Oculus Rift might not have been explicitly granted shares in the company, but the company wouldn’t exist without their initial contribution. About 10,000 people gave Oculus $2.5m between them. I for one am struggling to think of a good reason why each of them shouldn’t get a proportional share of that $2bn sale.

In the comments we see :

Perhaps the fact that paying for a T-shirt, thank you note or dev-kit on kickstarter doesn’t make you an investor in a company?

You dont invest with kickstarter, you pledge a donation.

Because that wasn’t a condition of their pledge. They weren’t making an investment, and the terms of what they were paying were clearly laid out. By buying a band’s t-shirts you are contributing money to their cause, but you don’t expect to get a share in their album sales.

I agree with the comments and disagree with Steven Poole, but only because the comments are technically correct, however a happy medium should have been found.

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Mar 272014

Markus “Notch” Persson is the owner of Mojang, the company behind Minecraft and he has also announced he has decided to part ways with Oculus after they were purchased by Facebook. Notch explains his reasons in a blog post entitled : Virtual Reality is going to change the world.

A few things are clear from the blog post, Notch is very excited about virtual reality and he was very excited about Oculus Rift too. How excited you may ask, well on the Kickstarter page for Oculus Rift, those who pledged over $5,000 got all the goodies backers at other levels got plus:

VISIT OCULUS FOR THE DAY : We’ll fly you out to the Oculus lab where you’ll spend a day hanging out with the team and checking out all of our latest work (and maybe playing a few games too). You’ll also receive a developer kit, a copy of Doom 3 BFG, Developer Center access, the t-shirt, and the poster, all signed by the entire Oculus team, in person. 

Notch qualified for that offer, although he’s not a US resident as far as I know, so I’m not sure how he sneaked in, but hey, he pledged funds for this kickstarter, but, as he explains in his blog post, the Facebook purchase changed the game :

Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.

Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend’s avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you’re actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?

But I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.

In some ways it may have been better had Notch waited to see what transpired, but as someone who put his money where his mouth is on this product, I certainly respect his view and as I’ve said on these pages before, I’m not Facebook’s greatest fan.

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Mar 262014

At times it is best to take a deep breath and not blog, which is what I did last night when I read the news that Oculus Joins Facebook. The news that Facebook, the company who kick the virtual out of reality when it comes to their main platform were buying a piece of hardware based on putting the virtual into reality was beyond irksome for me. Judging by the comments around I’m not alone in that view, although I’ve calmed down somewhat now.

Over on Reddit Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey has been trying to reassure people, and hasn’t been succeeding that well, although this isn’t helped by Palmer himself seeming to be very naive about Facebook :

Q. What does this mean in terms of data collection on FB’s end? Will us early Oculus users have to mitigate the NSA everytime we decide to jack in?

A. Nothing changes. Keep in mind that Mark Zuckerberg has publicly spoken against NSA surveillance.

I’m not a big fan of Facebook, I don’t like a lot of their policies, I don’t like the way they treat people’s privacy and I don’t like their attitude to pseudonyms. However a lot of people do get pleasure out of Facebook, it’s a product with plenty of reach and plenty of users, even if it is apparently on the wane. They are at their heart a data mining company, it’s a trade off between users creating free content and being rewarded for that free content by being able to stay in touch with family and friends, it’s a model that works but it most definitely has a dark side. The comments on the Oculus blog should also firmly put to bed claims that Facebook comments mean people behave better, some of those comments are horrendous.

There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of disappointment and there’s a lot of debate. Some of the anger is misplaced, some of the disappointment is misplaced too. However the people with whom I have the most sympathy are the Kickstarter backers, some of whom are also expressing unhappiness over this move. Now if there’s one group of people whom Facebook and Oculus should be scrambling to appease it’s the Kickstarter backers because without them, this whole debate wouldn’t be raging as there would be no Oculus Rift for Facebook to buy.

The other issue is that this is a major kick in the teeth for crowd funding and Kickstarter itself.

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Mar 222014

Episode 11 of The Drax Files Radio hour opens with Bill May introducing the show and visiting Drax in real life. The show as usual covers a variety of topics, with the main attraction of this week’s show being an interview about virtual reality with Ben Lang of the road to VR Blog.

Ben talks about virtual reality hardware and its uses, where the technology is heading and why it isn’t as difficult to use some of this hardware as some may feel. This is a subject that Mona Eberhardt has been covering and Mona recently blogged : VR headset designs: Maybe we’re missing something? The interview with Ben makes for very interesting listening, this is something that Drax pulls off so very well.

They were due to interview Emily Short of Versu fame, but Emily has politely declined. Has Emily been knobbled? Has someone made her an offer she can’t refuse? Is this a case of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Gray wherein Emily is put in an impossible position by unknown forces? Well no, the reality is likely that Emily has said her piece on the subject and now wants to move on. I remain deeply disappointed by Linden Lab’s decision to turn their back on Versu, but the decision has been made and although it’s a massive loss, it remains Linden Lab’s right to make that call.

Then there’s the issue that has been irritating many people, especially Drax’s co-host Jo Yardley who recently blogged : Second Life advertising hits new low. The issue :

Second Life advert example

Second Life Advert

Bikini Babes without machine guns. Yes this is a tacky advert in many ways and yet it will appeal to some and that’s the aim of any advertising campaign. Are there better ways of advertising Second Life? Absolutely and Botgirl Questi touches this subject matter in a post entitled : Second Life Advertising: Beyond Bikinis and Vampires

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Mar 222014

Linden Lab recently ran a blog post : Production Company Seeking UK Residents for TV Documentary, the gist of this is that a company called Back2back Productions are seeking couples who have met online and now have a solid relationship/marriage outside the virtual world. However they are also seeking couples who have not yet made the jump from virtual reality to actual reality, for the purposes of this production one half of the couple should be UK based, more details, including whom to contact, are in the blog post.

There is an issue with these sort of relationships in so much as is it the avatar or the person behind the avatar that falls in love? What is the initial attraction, whereas the idea that someone falls for an avatar may sound far fetched, this sort of subject matter was sort of covered in a recent article in The Guardian, which goes a stage further than wondering if people are attracted to avatars of other humans and asks : Will we ever have love affairs with video game characters? That article is a fabulous read and starts with a premise based on the film Her, where the main character falls in love with his operating system.

Whereas there’s a key difference between someone falling for a NPC instead of a character powered by a human being, there is definitely potential for some crossover. The article is really coming from an artificial intelligence point of view, with the idea that as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, the potential for people to be attracted to that artificial intelligence will become more likely. The idea that an artificial character can learn more about the person as they go along is the basis of a relationship, that’s how relationships grow. Games are becoming smarter with their artificial intelligence processes and the article gives some examples :

Elsewhere, Maxis, the creator of the Sims series of life simulations is expanding the AI and emotional responses of the characters for Sims 4, finely tuning them to what the player does. And Second Life developer Linden Lab recently ran a gaming experiment named Versu, a sort of choose-you-own-adventure ebook in which reader actions combined with AI characters to modify the story.

Sigh, Versu, seriously, this should not be gathering dust! However, back to the point, as the intelligence of computer characters grows, will the lines between reality and virtual reality get more and more blurred? Well part of the equation will be whether the NPC falls for the person they’re interacting with, but that sort of interaction could well be possible, Gartner researcher, Jackie Fenn is quoted as saying :

Humour and creativity will be among the more challenging areas for artificial intelligence, but even here researchers are experimenting with clever algorithms and deep learning. If a computer can learn what makes people laugh – and more importantly what makes you laugh – based on watching and analysing over time, there is no theoretical reason that a computer couldn’t eventually display and respond to humour. Similarly with music or art – by experimenting, analysing and learning, it could figure out which compositions create the best emotional resonance in the human brain.

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Mar 142014

Botgirl Questi recently tweeted the above and whereas I wholeheartedly agree that Second Life’s public image could be revolutionised via such a campaign, I would hope it would be one done without Draxtor Despres and I say this for totally selfish reasons.

The Drax Files and The Drax Files Radio Hour are absolutely superb mediums of promoting Second Life. However one of the reasons Drax can reach the parts other mediums cannot reach is because he’s editorially independent. I doubt this would be the case were Draxtor working on behalf of Linden Lab, rather than working on behalf of his love of Second Life.

An example here is that Drax will soon be talking to Emily Short who was a lead developer of Versu. Linden Lab have of course, very disappointingly ditched Versu, but I would certainly fear that a Linden Lab sponsored Draxtor Despres would be unable to engage in an interview like that or with any other former Linden due to a conflict of interests.

This works in other ways too, for example on The Drax Files, Drax has interviewed content creators, would he be able to do this were he sponsored by Linden Lab? I ask this question because I feel a lot of content creators would cry foul about Linden Lab playing favourites by promoting certain content creators if Drax was endorsed by Linden Lab. However as Draxtor is independent, he can interview who he likes, when he likes and not be questioned over his choices. This allows for some superbly positive interviews and Draxtor delving into all sorts of areas.

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