Metanomics Transcript June 17, 2009: Richer Worlds, a Look at Blue Mars

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Where are virtual worlds headed? Is there a place in the market for a ‘richly rendered’ 3D environment? How are new virtual worlds combining game mechanics and development pipelines with the social …

Where are virtual worlds headed? Is there a place in the market for a ‘richly rendered’ 3D environment? How are new virtual worlds combining game mechanics and development pipelines with the social benefits of an online space?

Jim Sink joined us on Metanomics for a discussion of their forthcoming Blue Mars virtual world, now available in closed developer Beta.

To view the episode visit the Metanomics Web site:

http://www.metanomics.net/show/richer_worlds_a_look_at_blue_mars/

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  • 1. METANOMICS: RICHER WORLDS: A LOOK AT BLUE MARS JUNE 17, 2009 ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Hi. I’m Robert Bloomfield, professor at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of management. Each week I have the honor of hosting a discussion with the most insightful and the most influential people who are taking Virtual Worlds seriously. We talk with the developers who are creating these fascinating new platforms, the executives, entrepreneurs, educators, artists, government officials who are putting these platforms to use. We talk with the researchers who are watching the whole process unfold. And we talk with the government officials and policymakers who are taking a very close look on how what happens in the Virtual World can affect our Real World society. And naturally, we hold our discussions about Virtual Worlds in Virtual Worlds. How else could we find a very real place where our global community can convene, collaborate and connect with one another. So our discussion is about to start. You can join us in any of our live Virtual World studio audiences. You can join us live on the web. Welcome, because this is Metanomics. ANNOUNCER: Metanomics is filmed today in front of a live audience at our studios in Second Life. DOUG THOMPSON: Hi, and welcome to Metanomics. I’m Doug Thompson, CEO of Remedy Communications, Dusan Writer in Second Life, and I’m sitting in today for Rob Bloomfield. Welcome, everyone, and thanks in advance for your patience as I try to fill in for Rob. Today our focus is Blue Mars, a forthcoming Virtual World with a richly rendered environment and an intriguing business model. We’re joined by Jim Sink, vice president of business development, with Avatar Reality, the creators of Blue Mars. We’ll talk about Blue Mars, get a sense for its potential market, and, this being Metanomics, we’ll ask about the economic and business model of the platform. Thanks to all of you who are attending today, including those who are viewing live on the web. Please do join in with you comments and questions. ANNOUNCER: We are pleased to broadcast weekly to our event partners and to welcome discussion. We use ChatBridge technology to allow viewers to comment during the show. Metanomics is sponsored by the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University and Immersive Workspaces. Welcome. This is Metanomics. DOUG THOMPSON: Before we have a look at Blue Mars today and talk to Jim Sink, it’s approaching party time here in Second Life. In the coming weeks, Linden Lab will be hosting the sixth birthday of Second Life. Call it a grid-wise rez date. So before we look at Blue Mars, let’s take a moment and put the Second Life birthday celebrations in the spotlight. Catherine Smith is the director of marketing and communications at Linden Lab, and she’s heavily involved in the Second Life birthday celebrations which we affectionately call SL6B.
  • 2. Welcome, Catherine, to Metanomics. CATHERINE SMITH: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here. DOUG THOMPSON: Catherine, you’ve been around‐‐I think I checked your rez date with Linden Lab, and I think you’ve been with the Lab since 2003. It must sometimes feel like hard to believe‐‐ CATHERINE SMITH: Forever? DOUG THOMPSON: Yeah, well, hard to believe that Second Life made it to six years? CATHERINE SMITH: Hmm, yeah. I don’t know. I have been with the company for six years, and it’s been the wildest ride I have probably ever had. So I’m delighted that we’re still around, but I think, after the first year, probably after the first six months, I realized there was so much happening inside of Second Life that--it wasn’t going anywhere. DOUG THOMPSON: And is life easier for you? Is it slowing down? CATHERINE SMITH: Not hardly. Actually, it feels like it’s probably crazier than ever. It’s great. I sort of manage the PR for the company, and there are so many different stories that are coming out of Second Life, and that’s pretty much what we focus on, by and large, are the things that are happening in‐world, and those stories just sort of escalate year after year after year as more people start to find out about it, as more people come in--creative, innovative. It’s been really exciting. DOUG THOMPSON: So the birthday celebrations are kind of an annual get‐together for the community. At each year you sort of have a bit of a theme. What’s the theme this year? CATHERINE SMITH: The theme this year is The Future of Virtual Worlds. And It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about over the last six to twelve months, and we’re going to be carrying it over to SLCC this year. So I think you’ll be seeing a little bit more of that theme then as well. DOUG THOMPSON: I wasn’t there for some of the first birthday celebrations, but, if you were to go back in time and tell me the things that you couldn’t have predicted about where Second Life is today, what would some of those things be? CATHERINE SMITH: Like I was saying earlier, I think that it was sort of understanding all the different ways that Second Life was going to be used, with the innovation, the art, the
  • 3. commerce. The commerce especially. It just kind of blows my mind. The creativity. The science. Everything that we’re seeing now that’s being done inside of Second Life. I was just happy to fly back in the early days, and now people are doing all kinds of amazing things. DOUG THOMPSON: Good stuff. So how do the birthday celebrations work? Is it a series of events and builds, as I understand, and keynotes? Give us a bit of a sketch of what we can expect. CATHERINE SMITH: Well, there are resident exhibits. And I believe today there are probably over 400 different resident exhibits that people have signed up. I think, by and large, most everybody’s sort of following the theme of the Future of Virtual Worlds. Philip will be giving an opening and closing speech, will also be introducing the Linden prizewinners: Virtual Ability and Studio Wiki Texture. And then we also have a few different panels. We have one that will be with the Linden prizewinners. We’re going to be doing a Future of Media panel. We’re going to be doing a panel on Art in Virtual Worlds. And I believe you guys are doing something too on the 29th, is that right? DOUG THOMPSON: I think we’re going to be trying to do some stuff next week. That’s right. CATHERINE SMITH: Yeah. Cool. So we have a couple different things. Then, of course, there’s like 24/7 entertainment. There’ll be DJs. There’ll be performances. There’s going to be all kinds of different things planned. I believe there’s a calendar that’s coming up, and we’ll be posting that shortly on the blogs. DOUG THOMPSON: Remember last year’s keynote, I think the closing keynote was Mitch Kapor, and I’d say that he famously proclaimed that the frontier era was over. Any big surprises from the keynotes this year? What do you think Philip’s going to talk about? CATHERINE SMITH: Who knows! DOUG THOMPSON: Is he going to go off on one giant tangent? CATHERINE SMITH: Well, I’m sure that there will be tangents, definitely. And Philip loves to talk about the future. He loves to talk about the promise of Virtual Worlds. He’s our visionary, so I love to have him talking about that kind of stuff. And then he’s also kind of an unknown quantity, so I try to say, “Oh, you should talk about this,” and then he really talks about whatever he wants to talk about. But I believe everybody will be entertained and pleased by Philip. DOUG THOMPSON: Talk about the joys of electricity as I said before.
  • 4. CATHERINE SMITH: He’s always entertaining, is he not? DOUG THOMPSON: Yes, he is. So the future of Virtual Worlds, I sort of thought we were living in the future. What more is there for Second Life if this isn’t the future? CATHERINE SMITH: You know, to me, it feels like it’s all unchartered territory. Every day I look at the issues that we’re faced with. I think no one has ever had to think about this before, legally, culturally, internationally. There’s so many different things that are happening, and I think that Virtual Worlds are here to stay. For us it feels like this is old hat, but, for a lot of people, Virtual Worlds are kind of scary, and even the concept of Second Life is kind of freaky and scary and don’t like the idea of it. And I think that Virtual Worlds are going to be a part of our lives. That we’ll be jumping in and out of Virtual Worlds to go to events, to see our families, to do a lot of things that we already do today, but I think that’s where we’re going to‐‐ DOUG THOMPSON: So do you hope that, an event, this is also outreach to people who maybe are not in Second Life? CATHERINE SMITH: I don’t think so. I mean the birthday is really for people who are in‐world already, and I think my goal is just to get people to think about: What are you doing? What are you participating in? Where do you see this going? Just to sort of stimulate some thought on the community’s part about: Where do you think this is all going? And what do you hope for in the future with your Second Life or your Blue Mars or whatever? DOUG THOMPSON: Mm‐hmm. So I guess a forward‐looking question for yourself, from your perspective, where do you see Virtual Worlds, let’s say, a year or two from now or Second Life in particular? CATHERINE SMITH: Oh, my god. I, you know-- DOUG THOMPSON: I thought there was a plan. CATHERINE SMITH: Thanks a lot. I don’t know. I will be even more immersed in Second Life than I am today. I’d love to see my mom inside of Second Life. I think the future of Virtual Worlds for me is to have my entire family inside of Second Life, or in Virtual Worlds, communicating with each other because I can’t go home to the east coast as often as I’d like to. Again, I believe that Virtual Worlds are going to be a part of our lives, like every day. I think that what Second Life is, is world‐changing. I think everybody at Linden Lab believes that Virtual Worlds is a world‐changing technology and that they’re here to stay and that: just get used to it.
  • 5. DOUG THOMPSON: I love it. I love it. Wonderful. Thanks for that. And I wonder maybe for those who want to find out more about the birthday celebrations, what’s the best source of information? CATHERINE SMITH: I would check the blogs right now. We’re about to release a lot of information. We’ll have a schedule for everybody. We’re going to be doing blog posts about everything, so I think there will be a ton of information out there. DOUG THOMPSON: Wonderful. Well, listen, thanks for coming to Metanomics today. And, happy birthday! CATHERINE SMITH: Hey, thanks. Happy birthday to everybody! DOUG THOMPSON: Thank you. CATHERINE SMITH: Thanks for having me. DOUG THOMPSON: Big thanks to Catherine from Linden Lab. And I guess we’re going to move now from the sixth birthday of one World and on to the birth of a new World, with Blue Mars. So it’s now time for our main event. Our main guest today is Jim Sink, vice president of business development at Avatar Reality. Jim has a background in the gaming industry, which is a pretty good fit with the founders of Avatar Reality. Jim, welcome to Metanomics. JIM SINK: Well, thank you for having me. DOUG THOMPSON: I think the first question on everybody’s mind is: How did you manage to work for a company with offices in Hawaii? JIM SINK: Well, our founders have a history here in Hawaii, and Hawaii has been very good to us and put in place some very strong incentives for tech companies to locate here in Hawaii. Although it is a wonderful place to live, it is frustrating sometimes when you can see the ocean and know that you’ve got to keep your head down and keep working on Blue Mars. DOUG THOMPSON: And not necessarily go surfing in the physical world, although you might be doing it in the virtual one.
  • 6. JIM SINK: Exactly! DOUG THOMPSON: Tell me a little bit about the management team and what their backgrounds are. They shared experiences with other companies, is that right? JIM SINK: That’s true. We have an amazing team. One of our founders, Kaz Hashimoto‐san, is a real visionary. He and Hank Rogers are the founders of the company. A lot of our team, Kaz included, were part of SquareSoft and worked on the final fantasy series. They had an office here in Honolulu that did the technology for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. That team scattered to the winds, and Kaz brought many of them back together to work on Blue Mars. DOUG THOMPSON: Good stuff. I mean it may be semantics, but I’m often finding that different platforms are kind of blurring and so I’m going to kind of ask the question whether what you’re building is a World, a bunch of Worlds or a game environment. JIM SINK: That’s a good question, and it requires a complicate answer, and I think it depends on how you look at it. From one perspective, it is very much one World, but it’s not a contiguous landmass. Every city or region in Blue Mars has their own theme, their own setting, their own rules. So it’s not so much that you can walk from one place to another, but each individual city is self‐contained. DOUG THOMPSON: We’ll get into how the cities are developed in a second, but one of your development partners put out a promotional video in the last couple of weeks, which we’ve posted on the Metanomics website. And, I thought what we would do is have a look at a little bit of that video footage, just have a look at Blue Mars now. JIM SINK: Great! VIDEO located at: http://www.metanomics.net/show/richer_worlds_a_look_at_blue_mars/ DOUG THOMPSON: There’s some pretty amazing visuals in this video, Jim, of different types of environments. You talk about them as different regions, but kind of walk me through what a user’s experience will be like, from the moment they choose to explore Blue Mars. What do they see? How do they log in, or how do they register? Or how do they move around? JIM SINK: Well, I can answer all those things. When you launch, the Blue Mars client, you’ll be presented with a “places browser” where users can select from different places in the Blue Mars environment. Some of the shots from one of our really, really wonderful and
  • 7. talented partners, Virtual Space Entertainment, shows a city that they’ve built called New Venice. So New Venice would be one of the cities presented in the places browser. You could click on that city, which will launch you into that environment. Each environment has a central launch point where avatars [spawn?] when they first go to that environment. If you’ve rented a residence or if you have your own place in that environment, you can begin there as well. Locomotion in the environment is pretty simple. We wanted to try to create the most accessible default control scheme as possible, while still allowing people to customize their controls to the way that they’re most comfortable. So the default mechanism is really just point and click, point and click to where you want to go. And we will be enabling keyboard control for users who may have experience with first‐person shooters or third‐person action games, WASD or any variation on it, should be customizable. DOUG THOMPSON: So the old arrow keys will still work for those of us stuck in Warcraft or something like that. JIM SINK: Absolutely. DOUG THOMPSON: So there’s some stuff that makes Blue Mars pretty appealing and unique. I mean one of them is the look of it. Maybe talk a little bit about that, and give us some insight as well. We’ve talked about concurrency as an issue in Virtual Worlds, and that’s something that you guys have been tackling as well. So talk about how the technology underpins the experience and how it looks and how many avatars can be in a space together. JIM SINK: You hit on a couple of points that we think make Blue Mars pretty unique. The most obvious are the visuals, the fidelity. We have created a variation and enhanced version of the CryENGINE, which we believe to be the most advanced real‐time graphics engine in the world. We’ve rewritten everything to do with character animation, skin shaders, cloth shaders, hair shaders. Rolling it all together what it means is that your content will look its very, very best in Blue Mars. We wanted to unchain developers so that their limitations were their imaginations, not necessarily the rendering environment. And we wanted to create headroom to let people grow and expand for many years to come. So I think that the very impressive visuals that you have seen in the trailer for Virtual Space Entertainment’s content is really just the beginning of what we hope is a really, really vibrant environment, with some very, very impressive content. You mentioned concurrency. One of the things that we wanted to accomplish when setting out to build Blue Mars was to allow people to create social spaces that would contain a lot of users. So if you wanted to have a big crowd, you wanted to have a big event that had many, many thousands of people, you could have them all in one space, and we have accomplished that. DOUG THOMPSON: So there’s some downsides, I’d imagine, and I know this debate
  • 8. happens elsewhere, such as how big a client do you need to download and how much bandwidth. Have you specifically targeted Blue Mars to users with higher‐powered machines? Do you need a higher‐powered machine to access Blue Mars? Do you need to have high bandwidth? And I also understand that it will not be compatible with the Mac operating system at launch. JIM SINK: It’s partly not compatible with OS X, the CryENGINE is not currently ported for OS X. If Crytek does end up porting it to OS X, we would certainly love to have a Mac edition of Blue Mars, and we would work hard to make that happen. We have been really pleasantly surprised by how fast the graphics industry has introduced low‐cost cards that run Blue Mars exceptionally well. ATI, in particular, has released a couple cards that come in around a hundred dollars that are really great for Blue Mars. We expect, within a year and a half, that virtually every machine sold in the world will have plenty of rendering power to run Blue Mars. You look at even the iPhone, the programmable graphics hardware that they’re putting in there is a big step towards running stuff like Blue Mars. There are already more machines on the market today that will run Blue Mars well than there are Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s combined. So there are a lot of machines out there that run Blue Mars well. It was definitely a tradeoff: do we want to have maximum compatibility or maximum capability. We think we’ve struck a good balance by offering something that will run well on a machine. We’ve built machines here for $450, that run Blue Mars quite well. So at the same time we’ve created a platform with a lot of headroom to grow over the next five years. DOUG THOMPSON: And there’s a question from the audience about whether you can run it in Boot Camp, on a Mac, and I understand that you can. Is that correct? JIM SINK: Yes, it works very well. DOUG THOMPSON: So one of the things I’m interested in is the business model, and it sounds to me--you talk about developers. Are you developing any of the content for Blue Mars, or are you relying on a developer community to do that? JIM SINK: We are about empowering developers. Avatar Reality is not a content company. We focus on creating technology that allows creative people, developers, to express themselves, share their content with the world, and we’ve provided a secure transaction platform so, if people want to sell their content, that there’s a safe and reliable way for them to do that. Our business model is built around capacity so, if a developer wants to lease a region, they tend to start at about a square kilometer. They can use that all for themselves, to create their own content to share, or they can lease a large region and zone it and then sublease it out smaller developers or people who just want to run a shop or have their own private
  • 9. residence. We tend to only get involved at a very large level for significant‐size dedicated regions. DOUG THOMPSON: One of the questions: If you’re a content developer in a Virtual World, like Second Life let’s say, is that you’re using a tool set that’s customized for that environment. Game developers use other tool sets, and they use sort of standard ways of building content. Talk a little bit about the development pipeline. If you wanted to develop for Blue Mars, what tools would you be using? How would you put a region together? JIM SINK: We, when we were constructing Blue Mars, looked at where we wanted to focus our efforts and what our core competencies are. And creating content‐creation tools is not exactly where we wanted to be focused. Instead, we wanted to enable developers to use the tools that they’re already proficient at, be it Flash or Max or Maya or any other variety of the very, very mature content‐creation tools already out there. We wanted to allow developers to use those tools to take the content that maybe they’d already built using it and then bring it into our Virtual World. So we have engineers constantly tasked on improving our compatibility with common 3D packages out there. We support the COLLADA standard 3D format. There are different implementations of it so we’re always working to improve our compatibility. But, if you’ve got content in 3ds Max, it’s very simple just to bring it into Blue Mars. DOUG THOMPSON: So those are more expensive, 3ds Max or ZBrush or Maya; those are more expensive tools. Is there still room for let’s call it the amateur content develop? JIM SINK: Absolutely. Some of the most amazing content I’ve seen has come from people who would call themselves amateurs. We have developers who have been using Blender, which I believe is a free tool. Anything that exports in COLLADA you can bring into Blue Mars, not just expensive paid packages like 3ds Max, but Freeware or different versions of Open Source 3D tools can work as well. DOUG THOMPSON: One of the things I guess you see more and more of as new Virtual Worlds or other, let’s call them entertainment platforms launch or--is integration with let’s call it social media tools, YouTube’s or CoinUp or Facebook or that kind of thing. What will Avatar Reality be doing to kind of provide community‐building tools or social tools, in addition to the platform that the developers will be using? In other words, what are some of the tools that will make it a World? JIM SINK: Oh, that’s a great question, and it’s something that we could probably fill the rest of the interview with. I’ll try to touch on the high points. I think the days of the sort of walled social garden are coming to the end. Some patterns that we’ve seen that we’re very happy about, just recently Microsoft talked about they’re bringing Facebook and Twitter into Xbox
  • 10. Live. If Microsoft can open up their closed garden to other social networks, then certainly Avatar Reality can as well. So my dream is that your friends, your network is pervasive, regardless of the application you’re using to access it or express it. We have a universal avatar system so, regardless of where you first come into Blue Mars, whatever experience or city that may be, you have a universal avatar identity, the standard things that people expect: friends’ lists, recommendations will all be present. I hope very soon you’ll be able to update whatever your social network status is directly from Blue Mars and vice versa. And later this year, I hope it’s this year, we’re also integrating a participation‐based rewards program that will give people rewards for exploring different areas of Blue Mars, accomplishing particular achievements and, hopefully, will drive users to explore new experiences in the World. DOUG THOMPSON: So one of the things that strikes me, for people who are content developers, is the ability to import content easily. Maybe it’s just me and I don’t understand technology, but that also makes it sounds like it’s easy to maybe export it or that the stuff becomes difficult to protect. Can you talk a little bit about how content and intellectual property rights are protected in Blue Mars? JIM SINK: I would love to. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about because it’s what developers ask about so often. Really, anybody can become a developer in Blue Mars, and we want to encourage everyone to try it out, evaluate it and see what they can do. When you create content in Blue Mars, be it an individual item or an entire region, when that content is served, it is all encrypted, but anyone will tell you security is always a cat‐and‐mouse game, and there will inevitably be people who will find exploits, and we’ll close them and move on. But more importantly, if you create, say, an item and you gain a reputation as an amazing fashion designer, and you’re creating these really, really impressive, say, ball gowns, when you put that item into the Blue Mars network, that item is given a unique registration code and a time stamp so, if someone did somehow break the encryption and upload that item again, it’s quite simple for us to compare them, to disable the infringing content from the World. It’s a centralized managed database of the individual items that are in the Blue Mars World. DOUG THOMPSON: Wonderful. There’s actually a big stream of questions coming from the audience, and I’m going to just touch on a couple of them. One of them is coming back a little bit to the business model, and you talked before about Xbox. In some ways, it sounds like your business model isn’t that dissimilar to the console model, where you’ve created a console, although in this case it’s online or web‐based, in the Blue Mars platform. And then you have developers who you are selling, in essence, space on which to develop their creations. Where else are you generating revenue from that business model?
  • 11. JIM SINK: I would say that our business model is most similar to Apple’s application store for the iPod and the iPhone. I look at our hosting fees that people pay to keep their regions running, as basic your service fee to put the item out there for sale, and then we take a revenue share of transactions in the World, comparable‐‐it’s actually a little bit less than what Apple charges. DOUG THOMPSON: And then I’m going to sort of broaden that a little bit then to the community management model. Do the developers of the different regions‐‐is that the source of the decisions around things like whether content is adult‐oriented, or how does governance work? Does it work at a region developer level or does it work at a World level? JIM SINK: It works at both. Avatar Reality has their own Terms of Service, the standards that we set for what is and is not appropriate in the Blue Mars environment. A clear example is gambling. We don’t allow gambling. Beyond our Terms of Service and our community standards and the content that we would allow into the Blue Mars network, individual region developers can make their own choices beyond that on what they would like to include. If a developer wanted to create a very, very conservative zone, with very particular rules, you can set those content rules, on a case by case basis, on each individual region. DOUG THOMPSON: Right. Okay. So you have developers who are developing regions, and you’re developing the platform and the tools and creating marketplaces for marketplaces. Where does the promotion or where does the attraction of new users come from? How do you balance between the developers needing to promote their regions and the promotions that you would be doing on behalf of the World as a whole? How do you strike that balance between your promotion of the platform and the developers? JIM SINK: I’m not sure I see a difference. The developers are our platform. It’s all about the developers because it’s the developers who create the content that bring users to Blue Mars. We want to align our interest with our developers so the better they do, the better that we do. The developer is king. Anything that we do to empower our developers to create better content, to create more attractive content, to help them to promote that content, is going to serve Blue Mars as a whole very well, and, I think, make users very happy. The better the content is, the more people will come, and the better time they’ll have. DOUG THOMPSON: I want to ask, there’s a question from the audience from Tom [Oliphone?] who asks how the World will be policed. Will it be user‐reported? Will there be other ways of--how will you govern behavior, I guess, is the question. JIM SINK: Well, I can think of specific instances on how we would deal with it. When it comes to infringement, we have a fairly straightforward standard DMCA takedown procedure. If people find infringing content, they can report it directly to Avatar Reality. The content controls, for example, if someone wanted to say there would be no nudity allowed in the space, that’s a control that’s built into the application layer. So it’s not something that
  • 12. someone has to abide by the rule. The rule is simply enforced on the application level. That nudity, for example, in that instance, would not even be possible with that avatar in that space. So hopefully, we can automate a lot of this control at the region level and at the system level, but there will always be a way to contact a region developer or Avatar Reality, to report inappropriate behavior or content. DOUG THOMPSON: Let’s shift things a little bit to other applications or specific partnerships that you’re talking about. The Smithsonian partnership looks really interesting, that we got a sense of from the teaser video. How are you seeing the potential breakdown of your target audience? Is it consumers, education, enterprise, government? What do you figure the kind of initial percentages will be? Do you see schools coming in and using the platform and that sort of thing? JIM SINK: We look at a couple of different groups. There are educators, it’s a huge passion. I’ve made educational video games. There are a lot of people here who are deeply invested in education. One of the great things about Blue Mars is that, if something is happening in the World, you can track it and report on it in real time. So things like adaptive assessments, having NPCs change their behavior based on how people are learning in the World. There’s some very, very cool experiments going on, on trying to do simulations and first‐responder training using Blue Mars. So education we think will be a big part of Blue Mars. It’s not the right solution for everyone, but it certainly is for some. Another big area we see are digital entrepreneurs, people who are interested in expressing themselves through content, be it clothing or animations, fashions, that sort of thing. The standard things that people like to do as far as make friends and play games and customize their avatars will all be applications of Blue Mars. Beyond that, we look towards corporations to create both training applications and branding experiences, but we think that’ll come later when the user base is a bit larger. Right now we just have a couple hundred people who are in Blue Mars, and we’ll be expanding our Beta releases throughout this summer. Hopefully, that [CROSSTALK] will take place. DOUG THOMPSON: And the Beta release so far is a content or developer Beta? JIM SINK: That’s correct. We’ve focused on our content developers right now. We have a couple of different tools, and we’re creating a whole library of tools for developers, depending on the type of content that they want to create. The current naming has caused a lot of confusion so we’re working on clarifying that. Right now we have an item viewer available to anyone who wants to register, that will allow [AUDIO GLITCH] static content, solid objects, how they exactly look in the Blue Mars environment. Next month we’re releasing a tool for clothing developers, followed by tools for animators, people who want to create textures for characters, hair, that sort of thing and tools to help people manage their spaces, their blocks and shops and residences inside the World.
  • 13. DOUG THOMPSON: We have some questions from the audience, one of which is whether the cities or regions will be accessible from the web, using hyperlinks, or whether it’s a closed system. In other words, is the Blue Mars client the only client that you can use to access the World? And on a sort of related note, which is that, if you’re an educator or an enterprise, are you able to restrict access to your region to specific users so that it’s secure for a specific user group? JIM SINK: The question is: Can you access Blue Mars through a hyperlink? You cannot yet. We do plan to include that functionality, but you won’t be viewing it inside the browser. It will need to launch the Blue Mars client. The second question was: Can you restrict access? You can. You can define exactly which users can come into your region. So if it’s a private space for employees of the company or students at a school, you can absolutely define who can and cannot come to a particular space. DOUG THOMPSON: And there’s another question as well, which is around the pricing, and this comes back again, I guess, to what you were talking about before, which was regions and how you could have a region as a developer and you could perhaps lease out sections of that region. Can you give us some kind of idea of what kind of investments a content developer, or even a casual user, what kind of investments you’re talking about to participate in Blue Mars? JIM SINK: Sure. Our partners set their own prices for their blocks, their shops and residences. So we’ll need to wait a little bit longer to see what they ultimately want to charge for those spaces. I think we’ll see people posting their prices at the end of the summer. We don’t want to be in competition with our customers. We don’t really get involved at the level of renting blocks and shops and residences. As far as the dedicated regions go, during our Beta period, we asked developers to sign a nondisclosure agreement so we can talk a little bit more freely about our plans for the platform, what our pricing is, but we do plan to make that public later this year. If anybody is interested, please contact business@atavatar‐reality.com, and we can get you set up with an NDA. DOUG THOMPSON: Be careful; you might get a flood of emails right after the show. JIM SINK: I hope so. DOUG THOMPSON: There’s a lot of content developers in our audience. I’m going to circle back to the question of the integration with social media tools and that balance between the developers and your own promotions of the platform. One of the things that you would look for, I would think, as a developer, is the ability to promote to--and use tools, what would be in Second Life would be group tools or ways to send messages to your users. And I wonder a little bit about that kind of, the social tools within the platform that will help developers to keep in touch with their user community or to keep in touch with the wider Blue Mars community.
  • 14. JIM SINK: I think we have work to do, working with our partners to develop the tools that they need. I think individual regions will create their own communities. We’ve always wanted to build a platform that was customizable, everything from the interface to the path that people take through their individual experiences. So if one particular area wants to build their social community, we can work to help them with things like broadcast channels for that individual region. We have user pages and developer pages and can extend those to allow membership and groups, you know, group chat, messaging, those sort of things. Is that getting towards the direction of the question you’re asking? DOUG THOMPSON: Yeah. No, that is. That is. And I suppose it brings up another question, which is: How many standard web tools and pieces of content can you integrate into the environment? For example, can you pull html content into the environment? Can you build web services around it? Or is it all sort of within the closed set of tools that Blue Mars provides? JIM SINK: I’m glad you asked that. I almost forgot to mention it. Blue Mars is an offline content‐creation process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have live content in the World. We use a middleware solution called ScaleForm, which is a Flash interpreter so you can have Flash files as textures in your environment, that can call http sources or https sources on the web. When you call a net resource from your region in Blue Mars, it doesn’t go through the Avatar Reality servers. So we had a developer with a database with sensitive material, and they wanted to make sure that that was going directly to their users, and that’s how it works in Blue Mars. There are no caps on that bandwidth or how much data can be transferred. We support Flash Video and Flash files right now. I’ve seen some very, very cool web‐interpreter applications running in our labs, but I don’t have anything to announce right now beyond that it’s compatible with Flash and Flash Video, and we’ll see what else the rest of the year brings. DOUG THOMPSON: Wonderful. So the video we showed before about the partnership with the Smithsonian and I think it was Nassau and the big physical world exhibit that’s happening, tell us a little bit about that, or tell us a little bit about some of the partners that you’re working with, what kind of environments are they building. And why did they choose Blue Mars over, say, building a title for Sony Home or building in Second Life or doing a browser‐based environment? JIM SINK: Well, I can speak specifically to VSE. We know them very well, and they’ve come out to discuss some of the partnerships that they’ve made. I can’t speak directly for the conversations that they had with Smithsonian and National Geographic, but based on my conversations with VSE, National Geographic and Smithsonian were looking for a level of interactivity and a level of fidelity and the ability to scale that they weren’t confident that other platforms could provide them. The National Geographic website gets an unbelievable number of hits, and they’re going to
  • 15. be promoting their Virtual World exhibit through their website, so they needed to know that, if a thousand people showed up at once to look at the exhibit, that they weren’t going to have any issues. And that’s one of Blue Mars strengths. In addition, it just looks great, and it allows for interactivity that’s comparable with a high‐end video game. So we use LUA‐driven scripting in Blue Mars. And you can do a really, really impressive level of interactivity in the Virtual World. DOUG THOMPSON: I guess you can’t really guess what the unexpected will be, but they often talk about game environments and emergent game‐play. And you look at other Virtual World platforms, Second Life did not initially set out, for example, to be a commerce platform. They set out to be a game platform. And I wonder if you’re starting to see any early indications, as you look at what some of the developers are doing, of how Blue Mars might take off in directions maybe that you weren’t anticipating. What types of things are people building that are surprising you? JIM SINK: That’s one of my favorite things about this job, and it’s something that we knew from the gate that people were going to find ways to do things that we had never imagined, and it’s really, really fun. We’ve just recently opened up the doors, to let a good number of developers in, to start using the tools. Partners like VSE were really with us from the very beginning, and we’ve been working with them hand‐in‐hand as we’ve been improving our tool set and creating a more expansive platform. But this sort of second wave of developers who’ve come in recently with our new set of tools, they ask questions about, “I want to do it like this.” I probably shouldn’t give any specific examples right now because they haven’t talked about it publicly. But we’re really, really excited to see all of the different applications for Blue Mars. As I said before, we’re not really a content company; we’re a technology company. So the talent out there for creating these amazing experiences is already running, and we get pleasant surprises every day. DOUG THOMPSON: That’s one of the joys, I think, of Virtual Worlds in general. I was going to ask you a little bit, just before we wrap up, and I’ll maybe have time for another question or two from the audience. But I know that your Terms of Service and EULA Agreements are not yet available, but can you talk a little bit about what some of the principles will be that guide those? There’s been discussions, for example, Raph Koster at Metaplace uses something called an Avatar Bill of Rights to inform the Terms of Service. What are some of the principles as you think about how to construct those governance policies for Blue Mars? JIM SINK: That’s a tough one because we’re not finished with our, so I don’t want to go into any particular detail about what they’re going to be. I’d say, overall, it’s a balancing act between allowing self‐expression and then providing a safe environment. And, by safe, I mean legal and ultimately providing a space where people can protect their privacy. So I say we’re very careful about it. This is a path that has been carefully treaded by many people, and there are a lot of things to keep in mind. Luckily, we have a lot of great examples and
  • 16. very successful companies that have come before us, that have lit the path for us. So I think, in general, people will be very pleased with the path that we’re taking, and it’s certainly keeping users’ and developers’ interests in mind. DOUG THOMPSON: I’m going to try to get you to nail down some dates for us here. JIM SINK: Sure. DOUG THOMPSON: When do you think that you will start to see user‐level Beta, and when will you go into open Beta? What’s your timeframe? JIM SINK: We will go into open download for the client in August. I believe, in about two weeks‐‐and the guys will kill me for this, it might be three‐‐we’re actually going to open up download for the tools. Right now we have a pre‐registration process because we have this enormous list of developers who have signed on to get the tools. We’re rolling it out as fast as we can. We’re just making sure that our support services can scale as we let more people in, within two or three weeks. That’s just going to be a direct download. Anybody will be able to register as a developer and download the tools, and then, within two or three weeks after that, we’ll have open download for the client as well. We have a pre‐Beta client that comes with our development tools right now for people who want to get an early look at the World, but we’ve got some, I think, very impressive improvements to the client running here, with things like the interface and some of the additional content the developers have worked on. And we’re going to be rolling that out throughout the summer. DOUG THOMPSON: Any major technical hurdles still to overcome before you launch? JIM SINK: Well, you know, stability so far has been excellent. We’ve tested the platform to a couple of thousand connections. It runs quite well, and that’s simultaneous connections in a single region. There are always challenges. We’re really focused right now on streamlining the process for developers to get their content into the World. One of the ways that we’re doing that is by running an art competition, to help budding creators get their work out there into the World. And, at the same time, it’s a test bed for us to scale up, bring in content to the World at a high level. And those are some of the things that we’re tackling right now, and, when we get our flood of users after we’re open, I’m sure it’ll present wholly new challenges. DOUG THOMPSON: Well, best of luck as you close in on a wider launch. And I have to say I feel like I have to apologize for the audience today. I don’t think I remember quite so many questions for a couple of shows. We’ve got dozens and dozens of them, which I wish I could ask you, every single one of them. I’m wondering if we can entice you to come to the Metanomics website, where we can post some of the questions, and maybe you can come to the Metanomics website and answer them after. Or, of course, as Bettina Tizzy has just
  • 17. pointed out, she did an extensive interview with you on the Not Possible In Real Life blog, and people can visit that as well. But maybe we can get you to do some follow‐up after the show on the Metanomics blog. JIM SINK: I would love to do that. I’ve seen some questions flash up on the bottom and like, “Oh, I really want to answer that.” So I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone, and I’ll do my best to follow up as precisely as I can on your questions. DOUG THOMPSON: Any parting thoughts or invitations to our audience today? JIM SINK: Yes. This is a great gig. Working in Virtual Worlds is really a pleasure. And one of the best things about it has been virtually the universal encouragement and overall kindness of the people who have come to us and said, “Hey, we want to be a part of this. We want to explore our creative potential in a different way.” It’s what makes it so much fun to work so hard on this. I just wanted to say thank you to all of the developers and all of the users that have written us, asking to participate. And I really appreciate their patience as we go through some of our teething stage launching this new platform. I’ve been constantly surprised by the generosity and the creativity of the people who have started working with us. So I just wanted to say thank you. DOUG THOMPSON: Well, listen, thank you so much, Jim, for being here on Metanomics today. Good luck with the launch, and maybe we’ll follow up with you, once you’re in the World, so to speak. JIM SINK: I hope so. DOUG THOMPSON: So now it’s time. I’m going to take a couple minutes for closing comments in our Connecting The Dots segment. I’ve been excited about Blue Mars since I first heard about it 18 months or so ago. Blue Mars reminded me of the glee, I guess you’d call it, the glee of exploration. It excites me because it reminds me of why Virtual Worlds appealed to me in the first place, as a destination, a place to go where we can be surprised, entertained and where the impossible can be made possible. But the deeper power of Virtual Worlds is what happens after you’ve explored, after you’ve mastered the game mechanics or after you’ve firmed your first set of matching armor. That power happens because of people. Virtual Worlds have always been social spaces. There have always been fan sites and guilds and social connections. But I think something different is happening now. Once Virtual Worlds were the places where communities were created. Now communities themselves are making demands of Virtual Worlds, that they respect our sense of virtual identity, that they give us the tools to facilitate social connections, that they respect our desire to be co‐creators in our stories. I’m less interested in things like interoperability and content‐creation pipelines, and I’m more interested in how I can extend my social
  • 18. connections and sense of self across Virtual Worlds. As we immerse ourselves in these destinations, we can be deeply entertained, engaged, and we can create new connections. But the renaissance of Virtual Worlds is increasingly being facilitated by the many ways in which we carry our virtual identities into new territories, remain in the old ones and bring our friends along for the ride as we explore these frontiers of creativity. That’s all we have for this week. Join us next week when, yes, Robert Bloomfield returns with Kevin Werbach and Mitch Wagner. This is Dusan Writer signing off. Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com Second Life avatar: Transcriptionist Writer