April 01, 2014

Episode Forty Nine: Living In An Immaterial World; Snow Crashing 4; Odds

0.0 Station Ident

I'm writing this at around 25k feet on the final leg of my trip back home to Portland from Sydney. I have no idea how long I've been on the move now, and the international date line doesn't help. What I can say is this, though: take some ativan when you're travelling long-haul because that shit's awesome. 14 hour flight and I slept for 12 of it.

I'm thinking a lot, still, about VR at the moment and where it's going to go. There are those who're bullish about it and those who're bearish - Benedict Evans, now at a16z, who was bullish on Facebook/WhatsApp is bearish on Facebook/Oculus. I'm not so sure.  

1.0 Living In An Immaterial World

Peter Berkman has an essay, ultimately about the ethics of virtual reality[1], on his Tumblr that's getting a bunch of (valid) attention, not least of which because John Carmack turns up in the comments to discuss the issue.

So let's think a bit about what a world with cheap, ubiquitous access to high quality virtual reality might look like. 

The first assumption is that the giants are smart and self-interested enough to not have a locked-down monopoly or to try to implement a walled-garden all over again. In the conversations I've had over the last few days since the announcement, one familiar refrain that I've heard is people simply don't know what Facebook is going to do, and the only heuristic they have its Facebook's past behaviour on its own products. Which, admittedly, is pretty good data (what else does one have to work on?), but I don't think Facebook have been very good at telegraphing their intentions.

The easy version of this future is that Facebook continues to operate Oculus as a separate concern a la Instagram or WhatsApp and finds some sort of way to be embedded into the service/infrastructure level. There's evidence already that that's the intention of Oculus' founders - the hardware is the razor. The services to support a fully-functional virtual reality service are the razors.

What this means is that I highly doubt Oculus is going to be merged with Facebook-the-product proper (ie no Likes and blue thumbs turning up inside Oculus environments). 

The walled garden thing is interesting, though. How do you have an open, non-walled garden standard that allows for the required level of data and intent gathering (Google levels of intent or higher, right?) and yet allows for easy user extension and build-out. 

The last company to try this was Twitter, where you have a centralised network with a canonical application experience - the official Twitter apps - and an ecosystem built around the core experience but not replicating it. This came about in Michael Sippey's now-somewhat-famous blog post suggesting that developers concentrate on "the upper-left, bottom-left and bottom-right quadrant." I'd suggest that anyone looking at what might happen in a possible Oculus future take a look at that shift in Twitter's direction[2] and the way they communicated it. 

The difference here, of course, is that there's the opportunity for software/hardware integration (the Oculus service might only work with an authenticated Oculus interface unit, for example), which poses the question: how rich an ecosystem can one build with an integrated software/hardware stack? 

If we look elsewhere than Twitter, another answer is Apple, with its hardware/software iOS ecosystem. But then Apple's business model is one that *at the moment* is alien to the subsidiaries of Facebook Inc (Facebook the product, Instagram, Whatsapp and now Oculus): Apple charges for hardware *and* acts as a middleman in a pseudo-curated application ecosystem with a micro-transaction powered environment. Advertising, though, is equally alien to Apple (one need only look at their stupendous success with iAd). In Q1 2014, iTunes saw revenue of $2.4bn[3], in comparison Facebook's Q4 2013 saw revenue of $2.6bn[4].

So if you were to kickstart an ecosystem business around Oculus, one of the first considerations is where all of the content is going to come from. There's some infrastructural stuff that you can do for starters without monetising attention. Just setting up the cost of existing in the world a la Gregarious Simulation Systems does in OASIS and the ACM's Global Multimedia Protocol Group in Snow Crash - a registration/property system analogus to Second Life's land and DNS, transactions for teleporting, etc. 

And then there's the content. First, the easy stuff: license all existing audiovisual content (movies, tv shows, etc.) and just show them via Oculus as stupendous big floaty screen experiences. 

Now, the hard stuff. How do you actually enable an extensible, thriving third party ecosystem (hopefully, one at least as active as the iOS ecosystem - $15bn in developer payments to date[5]).

So here are some basic possible layers and the revenue streams:

1) hardware: Oculus sound like they're going for the razor model. So, cheap (even cost?) hardware to make this one of the fastest adopted consumer technologies ever. But, remember Oculus (as it stands) requires partner hardware for rendering. Within a couple of years (if not sooner) that partner hardware would be a mobile device, not the desktop/laptop kit it's currently plugged into. Negligible revenue here.

2) prime VR experience: difficult one, this. Software infrastructure on a lobby model (think the Xbox or PlayStation console experience) with first party titles. Xbox has historically had this as pay-to-play for network experiences, Sony only just joined them in charing in their fourth iteration. This "prime" 3d rendered environment doesn't necessarily need to have revenue streams, but it could probably have:

2.1) VR-related microtransactions: in-world first-party objects and services such as inventory management (buy a bigger bag of holding, etc.) transport (teleporting) and so on;

2.2) VR-related recurring transactions: licensing or "building" - equivalent to SecondLife land rent fees, superuser tools, developer registration, 

2.2) Third-party content-related microtransactions: the "app store" purchasing of and access to third party content and experiences (3D environments, flat content, in-experience purchases for those environments). Everything that most people are talking about fits in here: concert recordings, visits to the Space Station and so on through to building custom models inside the prime environment and having them available to others. A good example of what's been done in this space is Sony's PlayStation Home. Oculus takes a cut here, and potentially becomes a middleman of the next phase of the internet's growth. 

3) Advertising: This, I feel, only really starts to work when you've got appreciable scale. There are a gazillion ways to measure attention inside a fully-simulated universe, and to be honest I'm not sure what degree or level of eye/gaze tracking will be in the first consumer version of Oculus. If there's a Prime VR environment that models something like the Street, then it's conceivable that advertising would happen there, but I don't think that's necessarily thinking big enough. In a fully simulated environment advertising can appear, well, anywhere. But: and this is an important point - I'm not necessarily sure that advertising is something you're going to be able to pay to remove. Facebook is built on the model (and the vision) of connecting the world and that, for the end user, the most economical way of doing that *for everyone* is on an advertising-funded model. Of course, your ability to achieve 100% conversion and connect everyone relies upon one of the factors being the intrusiveness and usefulness of advertising. We clearly don't have norms yet as to how intrusive advertising on a VR communication platform can be, or how much users will tolerate in exchange for free, or nearly free, service.

I imagine I'll be thinking about this a lot more. 

[1] http://peterberkman.tumblr.com/post/80827337212/wrong-and-right-reasons-to-be-upset-about-oculus

[2] https://blog.twitter.com/2012/changes-coming-to-twitter-api

[3] http://venturebeat.com/2014/01/27/apple-sees-record-itunes-software-revenue-at-4-4b/

[4] http://investor.fb.com/results.cfm

[5] https://www.apple.com/pr/library/2014/01/07App-Store-Sales-Top-10-Billion-in-2013.html

[6] http://us.playstation.com/psn/playstation-home/

2.0 Snow Crashing 4

And we're back with more Snow Crashing so it's a VR-tastic episode today. I think, at last count, we're up to around Chapter 5, after having covered YT's RadiKS SmartWheels and her interaction with the mob upon delivering their pizza. There was a part about the identifying LASERs flickering out to touch and read her barcodes and visas at White Columns and not using wireless technology, which a reader helpfully pointed out was potentially more to do with lacking a good literary way to describe spooky wireless action at a distance. And yes, LASERs are cooler, especially when you capitalise them the way they're supposed to be.

In Chapter 5, we're back on the Street, and Neal Stephenson has just introduced people to the concept of avatars for the first time, for which: look for a corresponding input deal on the Oculus side (we've got the output technology down, now we need the sensing technology. Apple's already picked up PrimeSense, so maybe the hardware's already commoditised). There's so much more inReady Player One about avatars, all it's used for here it feels like is a little bit of worldbuilding to ready us for the universe we're going to be spending narrative time in. Indeed, "you can look just like a giant talking penis" seems to describe most of peoples' Second Life experiences at some point. There's an interesting point here where Stephenson says that Hacker types don't go in for garish avatars because they appreciate the computing power required to accurately render a realistic talking human face than a human penis, to which I would say: my how things change. You wouldn't believe the realistic talking human penises you could render these days with all those TFLOPS.  

Again, there's something intrinsic about three-dimensional embodied environments that kind of messes with everything we've been used to in general interaction with computer interfaces. Stephenson points out that you can't just materalise anywhere - that's rude (in which case: we're going to spending the next 18 months working out what is, and isn't rude), but we can take cues from our massively multiplayer 3D FPSes - and we know that those quickly solved those concepts - in combat multiplayer instances, at least - in the form of (re)spawn points, not least of which because even if it's *not* rude, it's disorientating. We get a sense of the economy here, with Stephenson describing Metaverse "tourists" as those with off-the-shelf avatars - but there are those who "bought" the Avatar Construction Set(TM) a piece of third party software, as well as those who "run down to the computer games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy", the latter of which is (even still) eminently possible and realistic these days.

I guess the big difference between the Metaverse envisaged by Stephenson and OASIS as imagined by Ernest Cline is that the latter has had about twenty five years worth of exposure to the idea of the hyperlink. In the Metaverse, indeed, in the entire toy universe, the concept of linking and hypermedia appears to only exist inside a discrete object: the hypercard. Now, Stephenson's done his homework here and clearly played with, well, Hypercard, but what's so utterly alien now is that all of this hyperlinked information exists inside--and only inside--a container object inside a fully realised 3D virtual world. It's as if the web was chopped up into bits and then you had to use a piece of semi-sentient software to use it, the Librarian, to browse it. That's just weird.

And that's where the physicality of the Stephenson's Metaverse falls down: it doesn't embrace the link. You can't teleport. The Metaverse is a single globe (so we're told), and you have to physically travel from one place to another. There are, I don't think, no places that are bigger on the inside than the outside. We get all of the adverts of course, one Hiro steps onto the Street, but we also hear about amusement parks, and they're places that you have to *go*. 

How weird.

3.0 Odds

I continue to work on Secret Project, which at this point feels like it needs a codename. I'm going to call it SULACO BLUE. 

Via Alexis Madrigal's newsletter, news of Flash Boys, Michael Lewis's (Moneyball, The Big Short) new book, shortly to go into the pile of "oh god, I should be reading this". Amazon: http://amzn.to/1mIPFWd, Powell's: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780393244663, Wordery: https://wordery.com/flash-boys-michael-lewis-9780393244663

Over in the UK at some point (yesterday? Today? I have no idea) was Future Everything (http://futureeverything.org) a conference, apparently, about the Future and also Everything, but also one at which a bunch of friends spoke at and attended. I'm looking for write-ups to see how it went, but by all accounts and purposes it seemed like a good time, not least of which because one of the results was 2048: Dan W edition (http://games.usvsth3m.com/2048/dan-w-edition/), a clone of a clone of excellent iOS game Threes and one that works with New Aesthetic concepts instead of numbers. Also it's possible to play while out of your head jetlagged.

Over on CNN (CNN!) news of OKCupid's browser-sniffing protest (http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/31/tech/web/firefox-okcupid-protest/) at the Mozilla Foundation's appointment of Brendan Eich for his $1k donation to support California's Prop 8. It feels like the first time a big-name site has used browser-sniffing to bring to light a social-justice issue (SOPA doesn't count, for me) and once the idea's out there, it'll be interesting to see how else the technique is used.


That's it for me, today. No April Fools in today's episode. That's how much I like you all. And, it looks like some of the replies I *think* I've sent to you have instead been replies that have gone into the gaping maw of Tiny Letter's email servers. So, uh, sorry about that. It means I have to go back and, er, reply again.

Again, I only get to reply if I get notes and I do love getting notes. They make a lovely whooshing sound as they Douglas Adams reference by.