October 2007 Archives

My World?

There's been a lot of speculation recently about the possibility of a Google virtual world.

Google Earth CTO Michael Jones insisted (first comment after the post) in January that Google Earth would always remain true to the real world and not dive into the type of fantasy world that Second Life has become. Therefore, Google's implementation would be more like "First Life," but in virtual form...

Instead, it makes sense for Google to mesh a bunch of its tools into one, thus creating a whole new advertising opportunity aimed at people, er, avatars, who are "walking" down virtual (real) streets to check out virtual (real) stores and businesses. And if Google wants, it could incorporate some of its more social ventures, such as social networking site Orkut and Google Talk, in order to motivate users to spend more time there.

But why even have avatars in the first place? I don't see Google trying to nudge in on the MMORPG market, not even into Second Life's quasi-game status. The potential of a serious expansion of Google Earth should be apparent--the ability to experience real places, without being there.

The difficulty is that in those real places are real people--a whole lot of them, in places where people are most likely to want to virtually 'be' (Times Square, Shibuya Crossing...). No photographic representation of those places can remove the people from them--nor would you probably want to. Real-time representation of those places would be the holy grail of virtuality, and would be possible with an array of cameras and clever interpolation technology. Personally, I'd rather inhabit (or rather, visit) those places disembodied, in a real-time crowd of the people who are actually there. A disembodied, first-person view more closely simulates the human experience than the third-person camera view common in most games.

Social networking on top of this construct could have huge potential--but is a separate consideration. The experience of presence, along with the ability to shop in the actual local retail stores, would be a novel enough lure for me and millions of others. Google won't be focusing on a 'virtual' world, but rather on the real one.

Federal Interaction Design

Is it by design, or happy coincidence that federal income taxes (in the US) are due in mid-April...and that federal elections take place in early November? What would be the effect on national politics if taxes were due on November 1st?

Robot Relationships

David Levy's dissertation/book, "Love and Sex with Robots," has gathered some media attention recently. The assertion that people will be loving, and (ahem) loving, robots before too long is apparently something of a social shocker, though it should come as no surprise. People are already having sex with life-like dolls, and people already have very strong emotional attachments to man-made objects: their cars, iPods, phones, and so on (and I would argue that, psychologically, this "love" is not so different from the human kind).

The more interesting (though less sensational) questions are social. The unity that comes from the bonding of two humans is a certain thing, though there are certainly many variations on the details. But the thing that is the relationship between human and robot will almost certainly be a qualitatively different thing. While it may (or may not) be a satisfying emotional equivalent, it will allow, provide, and mandate a new set of inputs and outputs, metaphorically and literally. Creative and business partnerships, in addition to personal relationships, will have a new frontier for development in combining the relative strengths of man and machine--as, of course, technology as done for centuries. But this technology revolution is likely to be more intensely social than anything we've seen thus far.

It is easy to dismissively conceive of robots as ambulatory PDAs, but that's a problem with our vision rather that the potential of the thing. Sex is easy to predict, almost banal. It may even be a motivating force behind the development of humanoid robots. But--as always--what will make the world different won't be what people are doing in their bedrooms, but rather what they can do outside of it.