Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Futility of Censoring Online Chat

Online Virtual Worlds are semi-mainstream now, with World of Warcraft, Club Penguin, IMVU, Sony's Home, and Second Life all relatively well-known by a large chunk of the population.  But they all have their roots in MUDs (Multi-User Domain), MOOs (MUD, Object-Oriented) and BBS (Bulletin Board System) chat rooms that originated more than 20 years ago.  These text-based virtual worlds were run on university networks, accessible almost entirely by college students who happened to have computer access, a rarity at that time.  The basic features of today's Instant Message clients (ICQ, AIM, MSN, Jabber, and Yahoo!), and every chat feature inside online games and website assistant windows are descendants of these proto-Chat systems.

Somewhere back in the mid-1990s, Chat met the World-Wide Web.  Companies like iChat (not the Apple webcam software) were selling chatting plugins for the fledgling web site industry.   Yahoo's own chat system used iChat's plugin originally before it developed Yahoo! Instant Messenger.  I recall going to iChat's booth at a Linux Conference where a representative from some large corporate site was asking a product specialist a question along these lines:

Corporate Representative: "How do we make certain that users don't curse and only talk about our products?"
Product Specialist: "Ummm... You can't."

Non-technical people in boardrooms have always come up with the same seemingly obvious solution: "Can't we just make a big list of bad words and filter them out?" The answer, it turns out, and always will be NO*.

In the mid-1980's, a pair of programmers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer developed a 2-D graphical virtual world called Habitat, that ran on the Commodore 64 home computer. Since then they've been behind many online worlds.   Whenever there's a corporate backer for one of their projects (such as Disney, for their ToonTown virtual world for kids), they encounter (just like the one I encountered) the fundamental assumption that censorship is possible.

On their website, Habitat Chronicles, Randy Farmer blogged about how even their best laid censorship filter plans can be bested by a clever (and naughty) teenager:
"We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world."
"We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes hed created the following sentence:
I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.
Alas, for better or for worse, communication finds a way.  It's built from finite materials combined in infinite ways.  So long as there are clever people, someone will find some way to say something you (or other players) don't like through your corporate playground.

You hear that, China?  (AT & T?)

* That is, without having an impossibly expensive (and potentially corruptible) army of workers monitoring every conversation.

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posted by Brian at 3:53 PM 0 comments links to this post

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

TED: Portable "Minority Report" interface!

For those of you haven't seen Minority Report, the movie showcases some seemingly futuristic gestural interfaces that Tom Cruise uses to control a complex computer system. Yet only a few years after it came out, we're already seeing just how possible this is. In this TED video, Pattie Maes from MIT demonstrates a low-cost ($350) system that lets the user use any available surface (a wall, a free hand (!)) as a multi-touch interface. Granted, it's a bit slower to use than Jeff Han's table or Microsoft's Surface, but hey, it's cheap and you can bring it with you.

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posted by Brian at 10:10 AM 0 comments links to this post

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Videogame + Toy Theatre?

There's a whole burgeoning world of augmented reality technology and new ways to interface with computers these days. As you've read about here so far, there's Johnny Lee's Wii white board, the Reactable collaborative musical instrument, and the amazing 3-D rotating textured stage in the Cirque du Soleil show, KA in Vegas. What do all of these have in common? Tracking.

This morning I found this video of levelhead, an installation game where the player's only interface is one or more plastic cubes on a pedestal. The game itself and the player are shown on a projected screen, and the sides of the cubes are replaced by tiny virtual rooms with a little avatar.

Yesterday I went to a Dorkbot event where we learned about RoboRealm, a free Windows toolkit for adding Computer Vision to your projects. It takes care of a lot of the complicated linear algebra and programming for you, essentially turning your webcam into an eye for your robot, a tracker for your interactive art piece, or whatever you can come up with. There are modules to send data out to your own electronics or robotics kit or your own software.

Besides this kit, there is the software library used in levelhead called OSGArt. Lots of other tools out there too.

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posted by Brian at 1:25 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, October 15, 2007

Zordinath Log

Zordinath is my Orc Hunter on World of Warcraft and he has been embarking on a lot of adventures since his birth a few weeks ago. Some highlights:
  • Raided a castle, seizing the desired quest item from a chest on the top of a tower, then leaping off and running away to escape the guards
  • Learned through a series of trials how to tame a pet, starting with a wildboar, a crab, and a giant scorpion. Now he's got a pet Velociraptor named "Rappy".
  • Went hunting in the Golden Valley at night amidst the wolves and tigers and gigantic Kodo lizard herds.
  • Discovered a hidden jungle oasis inhabited by centaurs and rather unfriendly snapping turtles
  • Acquired the ability to use guns
  • Took a blimp ride to the other island which is more Halloween Goth and less Tolkien. Rappy looks a bit out of context.
  • Joined a guild run by my friend Michelle (aka Stirfry) who gave Zordy a bunch of handmade storage bags and money.
  • Discovered an area where all creatures are a good 10 levels ahead and quickly fled the other way
  • Met another lower level Orc Hunter with a pet crocodile. I took them hunting, which is much easier with a group, particularly when other beasts show up.
  • Completed a timed quest where I had 45 minutes to deliver some fungal spores to a priest in a hidden cave up on a faraway city on a cliff. Made it with 22 seconds to spare.
  • Developed skills in skinning (expert level) and leatherworking (journeyman) and can now make embossed pants, vests, boots, and bracers.

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posted by Brian at 3:01 PM 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Curse Thee, World of Warcraft, for Thou Art Crack

One of the occupational hazards of being a fan of and deciding to do informal research on Virtual Worlds (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) is that once in a while, you land in one that is difficult to get out of. Sure, there are/were ones out there so unpleasant (Second Life) or dull* that the only thing keeping you in is the hope that maybe there's something interesting to be found. There are ones I think could have been great, but like an unhip nightclub or bar, nobody goes there (such as, ironicly,

I really don't consider myself a gamer. What hooks me usually is the social aspect, and in most worlds, I find myself having to break from the tools provided in order to enhance reality.** But then again, that's what reality is, no? Our collective perceptions of and responses to outside stimuli... Ok, I won't get all technical. But my point is -- if your virtual world is so dull that I have to use my creativity to make people have fun it, then maybe you didn't do your job. (Or you should have hired me, before it was too late!)

Really, I should have known better about World of Warcraft. The stories of people disappearing for months at a time. A friend of mine I met on, originally a refugee from The Sims Online, found WoW after we both got tired of and for a while I couldn't reach her at all (since I didn't really think I'd enjoy a "typical" fantasy role-playing game where you have to do errands for people). Two girlfriends of acquaintances of mine played so much WoW that they nearly lost their men. The Chinese young man who died because he played for days straight without drinking or eating. But pretty much everybody I work with (sans the ladies) plays it. A lady I met at a cartoon screening plays it (she's a Level 70 Guild Master!)

O Peer pressure, Curiosity, what have thou wrought?

Lucky for you, I will soon be descibing some of the adventures I've had as two different characters, Zordinath the Leatherworking Orc Hunter, and Latnenitnoc ("Continental" spelled backwards) the Herbalist Undead Warlock.

Stay tuned.

* ActiveWorlds circa 1996 anyone? Zzzzzzz. Though there are others, too many to mention here.

** For example, in Worlds Away (no longer available), you could only move around a pseudo-3D cardboard cut-out avatar through some nice planar spaces. The rest was just a standard chat screen. So I came up with a spontaneous convention with those I met for playing Tag that wasn't specified in the game itself.

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posted by Brian at 2:08 PM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Virtual Worlds On Your MySpace Page? Not Far Off...

The Web today is all about projecting your identity, connecting with your friends and strangers with similar interests, and sharing media with them. Tools have advanced to the point where it's trivial to upload and share photos, videos, text, animation and music to everyone and anyone. This is how we communicate today. Like songwriters have said for ages, we can say "I love you"* with a song (or electronic greeting card, or hilarious YouTube video). We don't even have to be its creator.

Now imagine what you could say by sharing a virtual world** with someone?

In recent months, toolkits have emerged that enable us ordinary people to build or customize 2-D and 3-D spaces and invite others to join in simultaneously. There's Multiverse, and now Metaplace, being developed by a San Diego company, Area, Inc.

The former is a downloadable (Windows-only) client that lets you load any virtual world out there made with it, and a free set of tools for setting up worlds to share. The latter (which to me is more interesting) is designed to be flexible enough to use web techniques (like RSS feeds, links, and good old cut 'n paste) to fit into web page-based applications like Myspace and Facebook. Here's a quote from their website:
Right now, there aren't enough good games, for example, and they all seem to be about elves in tights or soldiers in battle armor. Metaplace allows more diversity. Right now, there are lots of people who want to use virtual worlds for research, or education, or business, but it's just too darn hard to get one going. Now you can create a world in just a few minutes and start tailoring it to your needs. Basically, we wanted to democratize the process of making online spaces of all sorts.
We knew it was all coming together when one of our team made a game in a day and a half. And then stuck that game on a private MySpace profile. You can inherit someone else's world (if they let you) and use it as a starting point.
So get out there and start building worlds and sharing them with others.

* ... or typically "This is so funny!"
** ... or online game

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posted by Brian at 6:26 AM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Physics Engine PC Cards? What about Magic?

First, there were graphics cards for computers that let those of us without Silicon Graphics computers to have 3-D graphics. Now, there are physics cards, which are supposed to bring more realistic physics effects to games.

What I want: magic cards. No, not Magic™ cards. I mean cards that enable impossible things to happen in the computer. Why keep trying to replicate reality in your PC, when you could simulate magic instead?

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posted by Brian at 1:38 PM 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Holodecks, anyone?

Remember the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation? It was a big gridded room that became whatever the participants wanted, somehow letting everyone walk or run willy-nilly into a virtual space without running into the confines of the room itself. Many have tried to solve this issue with our 20-21st century technology. There's the awkward gyroscope of the early-1990s solution:

Or more practically, some military VR simulators out there use treadmills, but those are confined to one direction.

Not anymore! A Michigan-based company has been developing an omni-directional platform. At last!

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posted by Brian at 12:47 PM 0 comments links to this post