One of my favorite films is the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Loosely inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film had a considerable influence on science fiction movies and TV programs over the next few decades, including Star Trek and Star Wars. But what I really like about Forbidden Planet is its very clever story line.
In the 23rd century, a spaceship is dispatched to a faraway planet to find out what happened to the crew of a previous expedition to the planet twenty years earlier that has not been heard from since. They discover only two survivors - a grumpy scientist; his young, beautiful daughter; and a friendly, super-intelligent robot named Robby.
Eventually, we discover the secret of this mysterious planet. Many years before, the planet was inhabited by a very advanced civilization - the Krell. Their final project was to build a huge machine designed to let them physically materialize anything they wanted with a mere thought. They finally finished the machine, turned it on, and were promptly wiped out.
The Krell forgot one crucial thing - the Monsters of the Id. Even though they were highly civilized, their subconscious minds, with all their fears and hatreds, were unleashed by their powerful machine, and the monsters thus created from their darkest urges killed them all in one single night.
Somehow, Forbidden Planet really touched a nerve in me. I am not sure if it was the concepts of being able to build a machine that materializes whatever is in our minds, or the really clever plot twist of the Monsters of the Id that the Krell did not take into account in the architecture of their machine. That was quite a design bug.
Maybe the reason I am so excited about the whole subject of Virtual Worlds is that in our own way we are beginning to have tools that let us make real the fruits of our imagination. We are not quite able to physically materialize them as the Krell did - a good thing until we learn how to keep in check those pesky monsters of the Id buried deep down in our subconscious - but we are certainly now able to render more concrete the contents of our mind through powerful simulation and visualization tools.
The ability to express what is in our minds is, of course, not new. Artists have been doing it since the earliest cave paintings 40,000 years or so ago. Good writers have the ability to paint pictures with their words and good composers with their music. Good filmmakers bring their stories to life in very real ways.
Over the last 25 years, ever more powerful computers have enabled us to simulate our designs, theories and stories, be it through the use of supercomputing visualization in science, computer-aided design (CAD) in engineering and architecture, or “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) interfaces in PC applications like word processing. More recently digital animation, video games and massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) have taken virtual world simulation and visualization to a whole new level.
This is a very big deal and opens up lots of new opportunities, because the virtual worlds in our minds are much richer than the physical world around us. That is why - I believe - there is now so much attention on the subject.
On June 15, IBM and MIT's Media Lab co-hosted a conference on Virtual Worlds: Where Business, Society, Technology and Policy Converge, to explore how virtual worlds can help make business more effective and assist us in addressing a variety of societal problems.
I very much enjoyed the opening remarks by Media Lab Director Frank Moss. Frank talked about the work at the Media Lab to leverage technology to transform the human experience by developing new models of body, brain and behavior; by the real-time simulation of everything; and by the pervasive use of sensors. At first, information technologies were applied to the development of powerful computers, and more recently to the development of powerful networks. But he said, the most exciting opportunities are shifting to now use those computers and networks to empower people. "The human being is being upgraded," said Frank, something that will have a far more profound impact than anything we have done before. This will happen through the combination of virtual worlds, pervasive computing and advances in understanding human behavior.
Frank finished his talk by discussing the very exciting work being done at the Media Lab to help blur the distinction between those that are able-bodied and disabled. He showed very moving video clips from a recent Media Lab conference, h2.0: new minds, new bodies, new identities. These Media Lab initiatives aim to develop smart prostheses that can mimic or exceed the capabilities of biological limbs, help cognitively impaired children - such as those suffering from autism - to learn and communicate better, and assist in the treatment of conditions like depression and Alzheimer's disease.
Colin Parris, who leads IBM's initiative in Virtual Worlds and Digital Convergence, talked next. He discussed the evolution of the Web, starting with the initial stage which focused on finding and accessing information, then proceeding to the Web 2.0 stage in which sharing and collaboration predominate. What we are now seeing with the emergence of virtual worlds is the stage of participation and co-creation, which emphasizes the central role of people, coming together as communities to collaborate and participate in these virtual worlds, much as they do in first life - that is, the physical world.
Colin described the experimentation underway at IBM - both within the company and working with clients - in areas like meetings and events, learning and training, commerce or v-business, and the simulation of business processes. Both Colin and Frank emphasized that we are in the very early stages of virtual worlds and there is much, much work to be done. As Frank Moss put it "We're in the very early days, minutes or even seconds of the 3D Internet.”
Mitch Kapor spoke later. Mitch has had a very successful career in the IT industry. He founded Lotus in 1982 and co-created Lotus 1-2-3, one of the killer apps that drove the success of the PC industry. He is currently Chair of Linden Lab, the company responsible for Second Life.
Mitch observed that the industry around virtual worlds is on of its way to more mainstream adoption, and noted the parallels with the early days of the PC industry. As with the PC adoption in the early 1980s, there is a lot of skepticism about new, disruptive technologies like virtual worlds – skepticism that can persist for a very long time. "We're not even at the DOS era, we're still in the terminal emulation era," he said.
He talked about the passionate community behind virtual worlds. "What's driving this and why it's so darned disruptive is this shared sense of a few thousand crazy people thinking that it is really important and a really, really big deal, even though they can't fully articulate it and don't know where it's going," Mitch said. Later on he compared virtual worlds to a drug experience, because "these virtual worlds become what we imagine they could be and the limits and constraints are enormously less than those of the physical world."
In addition to the talks, there were a number panels, including one on Digital Convergence and Identity, which I moderated, and one on Virtual Worlds Technology and System Design, moderated by my colleague and fellow blogger Bob Sutor.
Some may find it ironic that an all day conference on virtual worlds is taking place with flesh and blood people at the Media Lab auditorium in Cambridge. But in the end, it is all about balance and harmony. We all live in two worlds - the physical world and the world in our minds. Perhaps what we are now seeing is the emergence of a hybrid world that attempts to close the gap and make it easier for us humans to deal with these two very different worlds, helping us better integrate them into our lives and into our work. Needless to say, each has its pros and cons. Creating such appealing, powerful and simple hybrid worlds may very well be one of the most important aspects of the Knowledge Age on which we are embarking.