0ajameswau.jpgMore etech08 talks with W. James Au's take onWhy Won't Second Life Just Go Away, Already? Understanding Web 2.0's Most Misunderstood Phenomenon

Throughout 2007, publications like Wired, Forbes, and the LA Times pronounced Second Life over-hyped, while negative press over Ponzi schemes, porn, etc. suggested imminent disaster. Meanwhile, the world's user base tripled (both in terms of monthly active and maximum concurrent users), and continues attracting about a half million new sign-ups a month. How can this possibly be happening?

W. James Au is the author of the recently published The Making of Second Life (amazon usa and uk), online games editor at GigaOM.com, and lives as an embedded journalist inside Second Life on New World Notes. In his blog he takes the position of some kind of archivist conducting ethnographic research of everyday practices and life in this emerging world..

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Second Life... "What was it again?" (James Au's PPT slides)

After the year 2006 where SL was on everyone's lips, that was the year i interviewed W. James Au. I actually never really got into SL. I found its aesthetic repulsive but i never stopped finding fascinating pieces of information about what SL was revealing about our society and how it is also contributing to its current shape in James' New World Notes. I was probably not the only person at etech who cultivates some curiosity for the synthetic world. The room was as packed as possible and the doors were left open to allow people crammed in the corridor to listen to the talk.

In Spring 2006, SL made the cover of Business Week. It's Anshe Chung - the "virtual Trump" - who got the cover. The avatar has built a development from nothing and quickly turned it into an operation of 17 people.

A mini dot.com boom followed as many other articles followed Business Week enthusiasm. That's when companies started to knock on the door of Linden Lab with requests to be allowed to get in. Linden Lab resisted for a long time but they changed their policy and allowed companies to buy land like any other user.

These companies would start opening shops to display and sell their stuff to avatar. One of the first company who joined SL was American Apparel. But their efforts were quite useless as the online shops was empty most of the time, most players were just ignoring it. James draw a comparison between this empty shop and the scarcely visited homepage of McDonald's in 1996. The pattern is similar, loads of modern is thrown to join the hype but with very little effect.

James went on by comparing shops selling cars. It appears that a kid who had opened his own shop and made it more appealing with hot babes and rap music was selling way more cars than Nissan who had just opened a shop which didn't looked much more than a giant vending machine.

Anyway, in 2007 the backlash started to hit hard:
Second Life: It's so popular, no one goes there any more.

The truth lies probably somewhere between the utopia described in the previous paragraphs and the disaster scenarios that would mushroom in 2007.

The first backlash arrived with a blog entry from Clay Shirky.

He was right and soon magazines such as Wired, LA Times, Forbes and many others were reporting failure of commercial ventures in SL.

A company called Yankee Group released figures that claim that user's activity had dropped to 12 minutes per month. However the company was unable to sustain these figures when asked to do so.

While backlash stories kept coming in, the active user base has tripled in the space of a year.

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Image by Paul Decelles

TV series like CSI and The Office featured SL in one of their episodes. CSI proposed a feature where the story would continue inside SL. However neither of these TV appearances have contributed much to the overall growth of SL. It's not the media that drives long term activities.

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Image Just Jared

SL keeps on attracting innovation and major companies continue to invest heavily in SL, not just for marketing but also for practical applications:

Interactive demo of the future Cisco Connected Health hospital campus, Palomar West due to open in San Diego, California, in 2011. Video:

IBM uses SL as a platform to design prototypes (3D data center) using OpenSimulator, OS version of SL, reverse engineering project.

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Image New World Notes

Greenies, a '50s style crazy room filled with tiny green aliens attracted the attention of L'Oreal Paris which started to advertise there by placing Copies of their products inside the funhouse. Corporations have learned their lesson and now adjust to what users want.

Corporation presence per se is not as important as one might think. Companies own a total of 2000 islands, that's 15% of the private-owned island which means that corporation presence on the total land mass amounts to less than 5%.

3 principles that make SL keep thriving (so far):

1. Mirrored flourishing - "What you do here should make you better out there"

This principle has been part of the community since its origins
Catherine Omega built a mansion on SL while she was homeless. She was squatting an apartment inhabited by drug addicts and somehow managed to get an internet connection in her place. SL was her portal into a better world. Because of her talent people started coming to her to help them build their house and that's how she started to make a real income. Today she is a SL consultant for companies.

The activities you do in SL can potentially improve your own life. Disabled people who have to stay home use SL to meet other people and get a social life.

SL is a space that creates opportunities. Users own the IP right to the content they create on SL.

2. Bebop Reality - "The virtual world as a 3D jazz combo"

In SL furries coexist with hot babes, angels and robots and that's not science-ficition. In the SL atmosphere, there are clashes and mergings of different races, species and tastes. You'll find a space station next to a church next to a strip joint. Everyone is part of the same society.

3. Impression society - Whaddya got, and how long are you gonna stick with it?

In SL making an impression is about being cool, compelling, exciting. It is not about money but about how much creativity you can bring to the community.

Impression is also about how long you stay there and provide and that's something that shows by the look of your avatar. A well-dressed avatar for example shows that its user cares for it, has been in the community long enough to polish the appearance of its character. Long-term activity is a prerequisite if you want to be cool in SL.

SL is a very frustrating experience at the beginning. There are neither rules nor guidelines, you have to make them up on your own. According to James Au the result is that SL is an international cutting edge creative space with high barriers to entry.

Kowloon: a Japanese studio 4 made a video game inside SL so that gamers can live inside the game. There's actually a huge amount of content no one knows about. Some of the most active users are from Brazil and Japan.

Steampunks are an active community in SL and a rather large one with 30 to 35 000 active users.

Midian cities, role play inside SL giving its users a "third life". Like a mini-MMO. The users don't chat as much as they write a story collaboratively and on the fly.

Innovation

My Second Life, The video diaries of Molotov Alva: documentary in SL (coming soon to HBO). There are many Machinima makers but only ten of them can be regarded as top talent as their movies go beyond the usual audience of the SL community. Usually machinima don't, they are for insiders.

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My Second Life, Screenshot

Ajax Life, a web-based client for Second Life that does not rely on browser plugins. Made and constantly improved by a 15 year old girl between her classes.

Several versions of SL on the phone.

SL hooked up with a jogging treadmill. Video:

3D architectural design and prototyping: wikitecture, 3D objects are "wikified".
Example 4 dozen people create project of a health center in Nepal for the OAN Nepal Challenge.

James also mentioned a Danish architecture studio which uses SL to play with SL and tries to figure out what architecture could be like were it not all those regulation rules, they came up with a desing of building that looks like pearls and some Chinese contractors found about it and the building might be realized in China.

No matter if and how SL grows up it has proved itself as a valuable platform for experimentation and prototyping. 300 universities using Sl as a teaching tool.

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0aacityplatoool.jpgGround-up City. Play as a Design Tool, edited by Liane Lefaivre and Döll.

010 publishers says: Ground-up City. Play as a Design Tool maps the continuing history of an urban design strategy for play in the city. Liane Lefaivre has developed a theoretical model for tackling playgrounds as an urban strategy. She steps off from a historical overview of play and the ludic in art, architecture and urban design, focusing particularly on the post-war playgrounds realized in Amsterdam as joint ventures between Aldo van Eyck, Cornelis van Eesteren and Jakoba Mulder.

(...)

Ground-up City places the playground high on the agenda as an urban design challenge. It also shows how specifying a generic, academic model for a particular situation can lead to a practically applicable design resource.

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Urban Golf (image)

The first interesting aspect of the book is that it was written by a theorist and an architecture firm both very keen on exploring the potential of playgrounds as a means to connect people together, to increase a sense of community and to improve the integration of immigrants into the city.

Liane Lefaivre is Professor and Chair of History and Theory of Architecture, University of Applied Art, Vienna, and Research Associate at the Technical University of Delft. The architecture firm Döll - Atelier voor Bouwkunst has developed a practice where creativity and innovation are deployed in order to tackle the design task in an undogmatic way.

Lefaivre has been investigating playgrounds for years, tracking the archive of urban playgrounds Aldo van Eyck had told her about before he died, setting up an exhibition about playgrounds and design for children at the Stedelijk museum in 2002, and writing numerous books on architecture, playgrounds and van Eyck.

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Bertelmanplein, 1947 (image)

The legacy of Van Eyck pervades the book. The Dutch architect is famous for having designed the playgrounds that almost everyone who grew up in Amsterdam during the '50s, '60s and '70s have played in.

In 1947, the young architect was asked to design a small public playground for Bertelmanplein, a residential area in the Dutch capital. Van Eyck designed a sandpit bordered by a wide rim. He adeed four round stones and a structure of tumbling bars. Bordering the square were trees and five benches. Van Eyck also designed the playground equipment with the objective that it could stimulate the minds of children. The first playground was a success. Many playground commissions followed and Van Eyck adapted his compositional techniques to each site.

Of the 700 playgrounds realised by van Eyck between 1947 and 1978, 90 still maintained their original layout in 2001, though sometimes equipment designed by others had been added. With the playgrounds, he had the opportunity to put the needs of the child and neighbourhood democracy at the centre of town-planning and urban renewal.

Playgrounds are hardly ever taken seriously in urban projects, at least not as much as car parking or street density for example. Besides, the emphasis is usually on safety rather than spontaneity and creativity.

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Pink Ghost by Périphériques

In their chapter about "The Nature of Play", Döll explains that There is a need for an inspiring alternative that cultivates the potential of homo ludens in an urban context. They set out to demonstrate that the city is already full of playful opportunities by listing some of the most inspiring examples of the re-appropriation of public space by city dwellers: Ingo Vetter's exploration of Urban Agriculture, free-running, urban golf, street football, rockabilly fans gathering for dance sessions in Tokyo parks on Sunday afternoons, Stadtlounge in St Gallen by Pipilotti Rist and Carlos Martinez, a blue house, Pink Ghost in Paris by Périphériques Architectes, etc.

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Stadtlounge (image)

Lefaivre then kicked in again with a long and fascinating chapter on the place of play, in particular in the art world, from XVIthe century Dutch paintings to Carsten Höller's Test Site at Tate Modern. Another focus of the chapter is the history of post-war playgrounds, in particular in Amsterdam.

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Playground for the over 60

Lefaivre and Döll had the opportunity to apply their ideal of top-down (driven by the citizens themselves) playground design in a study they realized in two urban redevelopment areas in Rotterdam. Oude Westen in the inner city and Meeuwenplaat in Hoogvliet, both defined as "multicultural neighbourhoods" experiencing social problems. They asked children to give them a tour of their neighbourhood, to take pictures of anything in their area on which they had a positive or negative opinion and to report on how and where they play. See Döll, Work / The World is My Playground.

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Image: Dölll - Atelier voor Bouwkunst

The study has received much interest in the field of public space and play but its materialization into policy and practice is still accompanied by a big question mark.

An interesting appendix is the one made of the interviews carried out by Lefaivre with 2 artists and a curator whose practice involves a particular attention to play: Dan Graham, Erwin Wurm, Jerome Sans.

I picked up that book without thinking too much while i was in my favourite Berlin bookshop, it followed me reluctantly in my suitcase and i only opened it the other day because i was stuck in a hotel room without internet. It might have been one of the very first times that i said "thank you" to the evil and capricious spirits that govern internet connections. Ground-up City is an inspiring little book.

More playground: Playful Parasites, A playground under the table, Playing with urban geography, etc.

Image on the homepage: Daniel Ilabaca does a cat balance, by Jon Lucas.

And one for the road:

0aatrigapi.jpgSteven Poole has released a free (as in cost-free and DRM-free) PDF version of the recently revised edition of his book, Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Videogames.

In the author's words: Trigger Happy is a book about the aesthetics of videogames - what they share with cinema, the history of painting, or literature; and what makes them different, in terms of form, psychology and semiotics.

So much generosity shouldn't prevent you from buying a hard copy of Trigger Happy (Amazon UK and USA) or of Poole's latest book, Unspeak (Amazon USA and UK).

Via videoludica.

Angelo Vermeulen is currently in residency at the Aesthetic Technologies Lab in Athens, Ohio to work on his latest project. Biomodd brings together ecology, game culture and installation art.

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Inspired by the case modding scene, a custom computer is built as a form of expanded sculpture. Inside the case, excess heat of over-clocked processors is recycled by an elaborate living ecosystem. The computer hardware is used as server for a new computer game. The objective of this game is to bring some of the main themes of Biomodd into an imaginative multiplayer game experience.

Both the computer structure and the game are developed with a group of biology, game and art enthusiasts. Exhibition visitors can also modify the piece: through playing they generate heat and hence influence the interior ecosystem.

Biomodd will have its own temporary character depending on each local version of it. Only parts of previous versions are integrated in each new structure.

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Biomodd preparatory study

The first Biomodd version is developed at the Aesthetic Technologies Lab in Athens, Ohio. Collaborations are currently set up with departments of game design, electronic and computer engineering, telecommunications and biology. The objective is to compile an interdisciplinary team of 15-20 students.

All of the above intrigued me so i emailed Angelo and he was kind enough to answer my questions:

Can you give us more detail about the game itself?

Game description:

- a multiplayer environment that is graphically and/or conceptually inspired by the ecological theme of the project,
- the game can be graphically very simple and strongly conceptual (e.g. The Marriage of Rod Humble) or more sophisticated in its visual style (e.g. The Endless Forest of Tale of Tales)
- the game concept will be developed through group discussions with all involved participants (including students from departments such as Biology and Engineering)
- a more profound interaction with the ecosystem than just heat exchange can be envisioned:
(a) a feedback system in which parameters of the developing organisms are fed back into the virtual world; in this way a metaorganism could be created living in both worlds simultaneously
(b) an interactive system using simple forms of robotics to manipulate the ecosystem from within the virtual world (‘The Telegarden’ is a classic example)

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How far are you in the development of Biomodd?

The Biomodd version I am building at the Aesthetic Technologies Lab is the very first one. Several other curators across Europe and the US have already shown interest to support subsequent versions. At the moment we’re finishing a first prototype. It’s a human sized transparent structure that contains several suspended computer components and different types of plant life such as green algae and vines. The computer runs Linux (Fedora) and its monitor will be suspended downwards to illuminate a bed of fast-sprouting seeds. Basically, we’re testing how close we can bring together the biological and electronic world. At the same time we’re also exploring potential game concepts.

You use recycled parts for eco-related concerns?

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Yes, partly for that. At the end of each version the art work is completely disassembled. Participants can take what is useful for them and I will keep some elements that can be integrated in a subsequent version. All the remaining components are donated to recycling centers and thrift stores.

There’s also a conceptual motivation for using parts of previous versions in a new one. Essentially, this creates a very physical link between all the versions. It connects all the works. Apart from the re-use of electronics, every version will inevitably contain the “presence? of all previous collaborators. I function as a sort of gateway for the whole undertaking and through me ideas and concepts from participants will be passed on to each new group. The re-use of material components further strengthens that aspect.

However, not only electronic components are recycled, I am also using microscopic algae that have functioned in several former art projects of mine. In 2004 I created my last algae installation piece for the exhibition ‘This Place is Dreaming’ in Brussels. I kept the algae in a dormant stage in my studio since then. I took a dried sample to the Aesthetic Technologies Lab and currently I am reviving the cells so I can use the same algae in Biomodd. Another thread that links a sequence of art works and experiences…

The @Lab put the recorded webcast lecture online.

Photo credits: Jeff Lovett & Angelo Vermeulen.

UPDATE: on Saturday the exhibition Multispeak in de Witte Zaal in Ghent (Belgium) will open, featuring Biomodd. A live video steam will be displayed together with the first part of the Biomodd documentary made by filmmaker Morgan Riles.

0arankindfer3.jpgI just realized today that although my stay in Zurich for the Digital Art Weeks last month was super short, there's still a couple of links and projects i'd like to share with you. High on the list is the paper DIY: The Militant Embrace of Technology that documentary director, independent curator and new media artist Marcin Ramocki presented during the DAW symposium.

Marcin sees his paper as an attempt to clarify some of the theoretical issues sparked by 8 BIT, a documentary about art and video games which he created together with Justin Strawhand.

His expose dealt with cultural practices involving the subversion of consumer technology, be it hardware and software. According to Marcin, if the DIY approach in the field of fine art is almost taken for granted, it is still relatively new in the world of consumer electronics and software design.

The PDF is online, Hurray! So i'll let you enjoy that fun and smart text and will just blog a few links to make the reading easier:

A Hacker Manifesto, by McKenzie Wark.

Artistic critiques of technology:

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Cell phone piano, each key on the keyboard is wired into a key on a phone so as you play, you are dialing

- when artists are actually hackers who break something they
shouldn’t be breaking, like in circuit bending. Paul Slocum’s Dot Matrix printer hacked to be a drum machine or Joe McKay’s cell phone sculptures.

- classical hack such as the early works by Cory Arcangel and Paul Davis opening and reprogramming of a Nintendo game cartridge.

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- structural game works, legal game modifications and machinima. One example of re-dressing the code is SOD, a Castle Wolfenstein modification by JODI.

- re-purposed and prepared hardware such as Study for the Portrait of Internet (Static) in which Lance Wakeling, Ramocki's own Torcito Project, Alex Galloway's Prepared Playstation and Arcangel's Two Projectors, Keystoned.

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Still from a video re-enactment of "E.T."

- remaking of a piece of software (and hardware), mostly retro-engineering and custom electronics. Plus, fake hacker websites, games rewritten from the ground up, alternative browsers and Hollywood movies. E.g minimal re-enactment of ET by Kara Hearn and Jamie Allen's custom 4 bit synthetiser housed in an old cigar box.

Some of the most popular images on my flickr stream are those game-inspired flags that Vuk Čosić introduced to the Next2006 audience a few months back.

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From left to right: Pac-Sweden, Nipong, Tetriss, US Invaderz.

The Game Flags have finally moved from pixel to textile and are on display at Art Radionica Lazareti, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

More flag images.

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