The future is listening

The future of tracking is rapidly approaching; and it will be tied to and integrated with all the home smart devices. Does this truly benefit you, as the consumer? The stated “benefit” is more targeted advertising (is this really a benefit?).

This article from the New York Times (briefly) explores how “Samba TV” is being integrated into smart televisions (with 90% of users opting in after a brief statement saying it will “help recommend shows and provides special offers by cleverly recognizing onscreen content.”)

Once enabled, it tracks nearly everything that appears on your TV screen (from any input – tv, streaming content, games) on a second-by-second basis. Because it can monitor content from any internet-based source, it knows your meta consumption data, not just the information Google knows from your browser based behavior, or your cable provider from which TV shows you watch, or Netflix which knows from your choices. The tracking goes across all of these, and more.

Always listening devices don’t currently use your television screen as an output device, but what if they combine voice recognition with the content from those “always on” listening, applies AI to it so that it intelligently understands and ties together what you’re saying + what content you’re consuming? It’s not a big leap to that.

And will it be used for more nefarious means? The US government has recently stated that it intends to keep track of, and create a database of journalists, bloggers and social media influencers (trouble makers, all!).

Personally I hesitate strongly to bring any listening or smart devices into my home. But I’m afraid I’m fighting a losing battle, because ultimately every device will be “smart” and I won’t be able to get any that aren’t.

Where is the outrage over digital privacy, and ownership?  People seems to be welcoming these devices in with open arms (90% opt in at setup?!) with nary a thought to who’s listening, what data is being collected, access to what companies know about them, and what it’s being used for.

If the recent public outcry (however brief) over Cambridge Analytica and what personal data is collected, and can be used for isn’t triggering any mass protests, what will?

Building worlds with Xmod’s NetVRk

I attended the Miami VR Expo two weeks ago, at the  invitation of its Co-Founder, Adrian Allen.  It’s their first year, and he told me his goal for it is very clear: to grow the AR/VR community in Miami. A noble cause. As he pointed out, Magic Leap is nearby, as is DisneyWorld’s themed entertainment, and there are a ton of Miami art school graduates who would like to work in AR/VR but end up leaving the area for lack of work. There’s a parallel to that with  Drexel University in Philadelphia and the gaming / animation industry.

I {fortunately} moseyed on by the XMod’s NetVRk booth on my way out, mostly because I spied VR headsets waiting to be used and  I never miss the opportunity to try a new VR experience! – so glad I did.  I put on the VR headset with my guide Linus Chee,  NetVRK’s concept artist and was immediately immersed in their beautiful experience.

I say “experience” because it’s not really a game. You’re greeted by your very own planet (they’re individually spawned so each one’s different), encircled by a fence. Linus and I stood on the edges looking down at the surface, with the builder’s toolbox hovering to my left. The toolbox has libraries of elements that can be placed wherever you like on the planet (zooming uses Tiltbrush’s grandiose two armed sweeps, which were so fun) – elements click together, so you can build a mansion with pre-formatted pieces, or put sharks in the water, drones in the sky etc.  It reminded me of “god mode” games like Civ, or the Sims/Sims City – games where you are building, creating and making decisions. Think Minecraft on super steroids.

After clicking a few elements together into a house, we entered into the full size experience.  We walked around admiring our handiwork, then hopped on a drone to ride it. I was madly giggling at the jumps, where you throw your hands in the air and point while letting go of the controllers, ending up in 20 foot arcs.

By now a stream of people walking by had stopped to watch what I was doing on the screen and were lining up to try it, and I will *not* apologize for hogging it lol…I hopped on a tall masted ship that happened by (on the most beautiful crystal clear water) which you can steer with the wheel (avoiding underwater rocks lol – if I’d had more time I’d crash into them to see what happens). I fell into the water on one of my jumps and Linus had to save me as “the sharks will find you” – not sure what happens when they do 😃

Linus and I giggled like hyenas as we ended up tossing chess pieces into a rotating fan to see the bounce.

I love that it’s multi-user and social. Linus was talking to me throughout, and we were tag teaming actions in the world we’d just built together.

It had elements of Minecraft (spawned planet, drag and drop elements), Second Life / High Fidelity / Sansar (build your own world and “live” in it) but was far more beautiful than Minecraft, and much easier to create and navigate than High Fidelity.

The experience was utterly beautiful. To the point where, a few days later I was on a {real} boat in the clear blue waters off Miami’s coast, and all I could think was, “not as pretty as the water in NetVRk“.

After I took off my headset and realized there were about 20 people waiting (oops), and after fleetingly contemplating once again how ridiculous one looks when wearing a VR headset, and how much I don’t care lol – I sat down with XMod’s Founder Mike Katseli to talk about what they are creating.

Turns out it’s even more than that – an entire platform, currently complete with crypto currency and developer tools – I’d just experienced the consumer / player side. There is a whole platform for developers, B2B applications, trading, making money – all of it.

It’s a digital sandbox where anyone can create their own fully immersive VR world and experiences, regardless of their tech skills.  This is the genius part of it; it lets anyone create an immersive VR experience without any technical knowledge.

And the default is “open” sharing, unlike the walled garden  Second Life ultimately became. I did get very tired of bumping into force fields around private islands there.

Mike and I followed up on the phone a few days later, and his vision is grand indeed.  His description of NetVRk is “A blockchain based network for the creation and exchange of Virtual Reality content”. It sounds and feels in some ways very much like Oasis in Ready Player One to be honest (and I did love that book).

Obviously I have a ton of questions, some being: how is it going to make money? (Mike talked about a freemium model with non-invasive in world advertising, and a tiered pricing structure for companies). Is there going to be a community of open source developers / artists for stocking the ‘libraries”? Will you be able to import objects created elsewhere? What is NetVRk’s  governance model? What tool are provided for users to manage their privacy? ..and so many more.

He said his goal is to inspire creativity, and part of that will include revenue sharing with users and their data, a la Philip Rosedale.  He’s keen on not “owning” and exploiting user data, but instead seems to view this as a community he’s inviting us all in to share.

Mike believes the “golden feature” of NetVRk – and what makes it unique – is that they’ve managed to create an immersive environment that mimics what someone’s imagination feels like. The ease of interaction and creativity make doing it painless – so the experience comes to the forefront. It’s like being in your own dream, that you have the power to shape. and then, experience. Which is why it’s hard to leave! I certainly didn’t want to.

Mike’s inspiration comes from a childhood environment that fostered both creativity and engineering; he has a charming story about how he and his grandfather used to imagine science fiction worlds together, and create stories for that world – combined with his father’s engineering firm, where he learned to build and tinker, but be practical about it.

I like the idea that NetVRk’s goal is to lower the barrier to VR creation entry, allowing anyone to flex their imagination and start creating in an immersive 3d environment. It’s currently not easy to do (and is the same premise behind my own AR startup last year, Djinnio – which also used a library / drag and drop to democratize AR creation). Great minds!

Imagine the creativity unleashed – ideally attracting many, many more people to try creating in VR (particularly since it is social in nature). I’ve talked about the lack of VR applications for people who aren’t gamers in VR, this could be one of the “killer apps” that helps change that.

Xmod’s NetVrk is scheduled to launch in September on the Steam platform. I encourage everyone to seek it out and build something there. It’s a magical experience, impossibly beautiful and incredibly immersive.

Not sure I’ll ever want to leave.

Creative Tech Week 2018 done & dusted ;)

On May 11th I was honored to give a lightening talk at Creative Tech Week around my artist journey with the Google Tiltbrush as part of my 5 day “VRaycation“.

This fish is the first thing I made in Tiltbrush; I talked about the shift from object creation / CAD mindset, to a world building one.

The narrative explored how, as an experienced 2- and 3D artist I was exploring Tiltbrush’s “special sauce”; how each medium has something it’s particularly good for, and my journey to find it.

Hint: it involved giving up on precision, somewhat of a challenge for a CAD artist – but, as I said in the presentation, it’s like karaoke: you’ll have much more fun, and the results will be far better, if you give up any attempts at being good. Plus, think about building worlds – not objects, something I surprised myself by doing initially (there’s a universe to play with, why am I making a fish?!)

For those who are curious, I ultimately ended up creating a world based on a 16th century Persian artwork, and titled it “My Garden of Eden” – complete with a handsome date in a turban (because who wants to be alone in the Garden of Eden?!).  It’s the last thing I made, on day 5 of my HTC Vive rental. Enjoy! – I’m particularly happy with the birds.

A heartfelt thank you to Hello World Communications in New York for the wonderful full room-scale HTC Vive I used (they even threw in a laptop! Their customer service is amazing) and of course, to Isabel Draves of Creative Tech Week for including me in this year’s lineup.

A video of my talk hasn’t yet been released, but when it is I will post it here as well.