Archive for April, 2008

Death (and Typing) in Tokyo

Eyes squinting, zero light, monsters everywhere, you’re typing for your life. Yeah, you heard me.

The sudden obsessive uptake of a certain competitive typing game called TypeRacer reminded me of a recent visit to Tokyo. You see, it was there that I saw a couple kids playing Sega’s fabulous Typing of the Dead with unusual fervor late one night in Shinjuku.

For those unfamiliar, Typing of the Dead is a refit of the stunningly mediocre shooting game House of the Dead, but where the former provisioned traditional light guns to dispatch monsters, the latter hands you a keyboard. In TOTD, each word you type right blasts a monster, and speed counts — bigtime. That seemingly minor twist makes a boring game brilliant. If you haven’t tried it, you must.

Typing of the Dead has never appeared in arcades outside Japan (it has seen console release stateside). And it was fun to see Japanese players stuck to it like glue when the game really didn’t get much love back home. Good times, particularly since the kids couldn’t stop giggling to themselves as they nonchalantly typed Japanese characters at blinding speed. Competitive typing, cooperative typing. Either way, it’s goofy awesome.

Ah, Japan. And speaking of Japan, where else can you find fresh pastries just outside the door of an arcade?

Holy cow! Has it really been 6 months since I got back from the Asia trip? I’ve got lots of stories to tell. More photos soon!

Virtual World Futures: Five Trends from VW08

Think you know virtual worlds? So did I. Then I went to Virtual Worlds 2008 and had my eyes opened — both good and bad. It’s a relatively small conference (say 1000 people) that features some of the best and brightest in the space. And the diversity of that space struck me: from proprietary platforms to “curated experience” to open clients to world staffing and more. And nearly all of it focused on entertainment, not business (though back room chatter says the organizers engineered it that way). Here’s a rundown of the major trends I saw:

1. “There’s Nothing to Do”
In the list of top complaints about virtual worlds, that has to be at the head of the class. And folks at VW08 were painfully aware. (Not that there weren’t a good number of examples of that old “if you build it, they will come” cluelessness.) Compelling content draws people, the community retains them. And that’s why events are central to the future of virtual worlds. Make way for service companies who know how to do them right. Take Electric Sheep’s CSI: Second Life.

2. Measured in Minutes
Websites are high penetration, quick engagement; virtual worlds are low penetration, long engagement. In the CSI experience, for example, they saw multiple hundreds of thousands of people spending an average of 36 minutes exploring the space. The idea is to package experience, not information. One speaker put it this way: “With virtual worlds it’s no longer about content, it’s about context.” Or, the ad folk put it: “Traditional online advertising is measured in 12-14 seconds. Virtual world engagements are measured in minutes.”

3. Emergence Matters
There was plenty discussion about the unique power of virtual worlds to enable the speech, gesture, sketch interaction paradigm. I don’t particularly buy it. What I do buy, though, is the water cooler effect. Perfect quote: “I’m not going to bump into you on a half million dollar telepresence session.” Emergence is a more significant value of virtual worlds than most people think. Capitalizing on it is the challenge.

4. Come Together
40% of virtual world users also use social networks, and there’s also a good deal of overlap between virtual worlds users and gamers. The prevailing thinking at VW08 was that all three would start to look pretty similar. We’re already seeing this with the social end user content creation features in games (Halo 3, Little Big Planet) and the emerging social networking features in virtual worlds. Our kids won’t know the difference between a virtual world, a social networking site, or a game. All three will be everywhere, just to different degrees.

5. The Age Divide
If you’re over 30 you’re in Second Life, if you’re under 30 you’re anywhere but. A packed room was asked who used Second Life and every hand went up. So went the conference demographics. Will Linden be able to convert folks who’ve grown up with Habbo as they age? They should worry.

Bonus! Quotes
Some great quotes overheard:

  • Avatars: “Avatars are the ring tone for the younger generation — it expresses what you like to everyone around you and, at the same time, makes you feel good.”
  • Standards: “Right now we’re in the CompuServe/AOL days. Walled gardens everywhere. Standards are coming but there’s no business case, which is causing grief. They will come.”
  • Measurement: “Google made the click through metric mainstream. But in the early days of the web, we tried to measure eyeballs, which ended up not working out at all. Virtual worlds are different again. It’s all about time spent.”

Time spent. It’s the holy grail in our ever accelerating sound bite society both, online and off. We don’t pause, we perpetually multitask (to our detriment). I recently spoke with photographer Raul Gutierrez, who was troubled by just this problem. As improbable as it might sound, then, perhaps some future virtual world might provide his solution.

image via dean terry

Mexican Pictures and the Future of Photoblogs


I’ve been a fan of Raul Gutierrez’s photography for some time. His understated style has always gotten under my skin in that subtle way: the first time you see the image, you pause for a second and keep going. Only later do you realize it’s still with you and come back to it again, this time for longer. There’s an authenticity in his style that really makes you feel a connection with people and places far away. He captures the small things.

I became a devout follower of Raul’s photoblog, Mexican Pictures, a few years back — watching his travels from Tibet to Cambodia to China to Mexico to Vietnam to East Texas with increasing interest. Then, in late 2007, his posting suddenly stopped.

And the way it stopped was mysterious. Those last sets of photos were different than what went before. Instead of travels, we started seeing scenes from home; photos of his wife and kids. Why walk away when you’ve got such a good thing going? What happened?

Turns out life did. Raul puts it this way:

The easy answer is that two new babies entered my life in 2007, my second son, Gabriel, and the company I helped create, 20×200. I went from around 5 hours sleep to around 3 which is pretty much my breaking point.

From the way it ended, you certainly could have guessed. Just as fellow photoblogger Rion Nakaya’s blogging changed after her clever baby reveal, so did Raul’s. But somehow those home photos are no less magical for it. Take this shot that, for me, evokes Guiherme Marcondes’ dreamy Tyger:

But that’s only half the story. For Raul, the concept of the photoblog itself was failing:

The more complicated answer is that for over a year I’ve been noodling with the idea of a more refined form for the photoblog. I came to feel that simply posting pictures daily didn’t give them enough context. They became disposable visual junk food. Clicking through a linear site like mine becomes a somewhat random experience especially if you are a photographer who shoots in a variety of settings and has a diverse project set (it’s less problematic with photographers who are very focused and work around and around a singular idea or set of ideas or whose photographs are a linear part of their journey). Showing the work as portfolios is the obvious answer but most portfolio sites are boring and static (the content might not be boring, but the form is). You visit a portfolio site once and are done with it. So the problem is how to design an image based site that is dynamic with regular infusions of fresh content but is able to present those images in context. The other design goals are to be clutter free, and easily navigable by anyone and to present nice big images. I haven’t figured it out yet.

So the deeper question, then, is how do we help photographers show their work online in a meaningful way considering our ever accelerating bite sized info overload culture? It’s a tall order but, if you consider the richness of seeing a photography exhibit in a physical gallery, it’s tough to argue that we can’t do better. While sites like flickr have some of the trappings of galleries (community, dynamic content, custom albums), they’re also full of noise, random access, and just general ADD. Plus, any artist wants fine control over their presentation and flickr forces everything into one monolithic style.

Where to next? How do we give the web the meditative quality and context of a gallery visit? Is it a zooming UI? Some VR walkthrough? Perhaps one direction lies closer, in the fan’s experience with Mexican Pictures. While surely not everyone lingered at the site, I did. And I found myself getting sucked in again and again, looking up names of places I hadn’t known before and wondering about the people who live there, the people I was seeing in Raul’s photos. That extended and deepened my experience, even though it didn’t all happen in one shot; even though my first engagements were invariably short ones. The question then becomes how do we encourage this kind of behavior? How do we provide tranquil spots in a random access world?

Fortunately, we may not have to wait until the problem is fully solved to see the return of Mexican Pictures. Raul tells me that he’s got some new projects in the works that will likely make it onto the web. Here’s hoping.

For more, see the Mexican Pictures archives, Raul’s text blog Heading East, and his flickr stream. Liz Kuball has an interview and his new business venture 20×200 has seen some nice writeups, too. Raul last showed offline at the Nelson Hancock Gallery.

That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t

There’s been a lot of talk about the value of immersion in 3D virtual worlds of late. Overheard at VW08: “It’s just like the real world, but you’re able to share it with far flung friends and family. You can see them standing there and all the things you do in the real world happen naturally — presence, gesture, place — they all transfer. That is the power of virtual worlds: to be immersed.” Many of us want to believe; especially considering all the sex appeal currently associated with online worlds. But take this example:

Players in World of Warcraft are in the heat of an epic battle. And they’re losing. Just as the last great warriors are about to fall, a sword powerful enough to vanquish the evil one is discovered. But at the pivotal moment when the sword is being handed over to the valiant party leader, the action comes to a screeching halt — and a sheepish farm boy asks: “Uh… How do you hand something from one player to another?” Response: “Bring up your inventory screen Control-I…”

Hello man behind the curtain! This is a classic scene from South Park, but the reason it’s so funny is that it rings true. Immersion in online worlds is beautiful, but it ain’t perfect. Just because a 3D world looks reasonably close to the real one doesn’t mean it’s perfectly straightforward to interact with. Often the contrary.

People are central to virtual worlds, but it’s instructive that we have so many different ways of representing ourselves. Which is the most immersive representation? Which lends itself most readily to deep social interaction? Avatars in Sony Home might look realistic but that level of detail makes them more complex to customize (plus they’re precariously close to the uncanny valley). Representing people as dots makes them super easy to customize but limits expressiveness. Nintendo’s Miis offer a clever middle ground — where the design of emotive avatars is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

So, avatars are central to immersion, right? I mean, we’re visual creatures, after all. But so many questions remain: Is it easier to socialize in WoW or IRC? Is it easier to stay in touch using Twitter or Second Life? Folks come down hardcore on all sides. Why? Because it depends. One might be better for presence, the other better for focusing on the thread of conversation. One might be better for being in the moment, another for tracking communication over time. Some folks might find a pure text interface engaging in its simple immediacy; others find a graphical world engrossing for its visual detail. All these things can be immersive.

Text adventure innovator Infocom traded on just this issue — making it known that leaving something to the imagination can be more powerful than laying it all out there. And while Infocom ultimately broke its promise to never make a game with graphics (it’s most masterful games remain the text ones), the point still stands. Immersion is contextual: it’s different for everyone. It’s all about getting into that flow state where the medium disappears and the world consumes you. Which is more immersive: spending years in an empathic online forum for breast cancer survivors or playing Call of Duty 4? Just as I can be equally immersed in a book as in a movie, so I can be equally immersed in a text-based world as in a 2D graphical one as a fully 3D surround sound shutter glasses lights out rumble enabled experience. Want an example? Witness the endlessly addictive ascii art of NetHack.

Immersion isn’t about taking over your screen, it’s about taking over your mind. And it never happens the same way twice.

Why Darth Went Dark

Annie, are you OK? Not particularly. I’m out at the Javits Center attending Virtual Worlds 2008 and run into this. Genius.

While the “break glass and use” light sabers showing up in bus stops around NYC are hugely clever and the “Chewbacca: the Original Wingman” ads have a lowbrow appeal, this one has to be my favorite. Hey, maybe I will watch Star Wars for the 2000th time after all.

Lust Design


This week had us infatuated with design transformation: building up, tearing down — but always emerging with something wicked.

Building Lust – NYT has a great behind the scenes look at the making of Bjork’s stunning new video Wanderlust

Living Bridges – transformative bridges that do far more than transport people; they become a destination

Design Gets Minted – comparing the beautiful new British coins to the horrid design-by-committee US five dollar bill

Murakami Retro – the Brooklyn Museum launches what looks to be a fabulous retrospective on the father of Superflat, Takashi Murakami

Where Billboards Went Рsuper clever repurposing of trashed Ṣo Paulo billboards after the public advertising ban

Jamming Apparel – appropriately raunchy mockeries of American Apparel keep popping up all over NYC

image via pitchfork

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