Thursday, December 14, 2006

Clay Shirky: On SL and VRML History

Clay isn't much of a fan of 3D and that's legendary. On the other hand, I can't quarrel with his skepticism regards SL. SL seems to be to real-time 3D on the Web what Netscape was to HTML browsers and may be headed for the same fate as the fad wears.

IBM's entry into the market is more serious. They see the same markets that some of the 3D veterans have known were there. The value of the interface is precisely that it engenders the sensation of presence, what the old simulation experts referred to as the power of onset cues to the human brain. So as a collaboration medium for work at a distance, it is better and possibly cheaper, maybe even more reliable than video conferencing.

Then you have to consider the 'off the web' markets. For example, the music industry can't seem to figure out how to keep CD sales from sagging although their immediate demise is exaggerated. The Wal-Mart economy can be bootstrapped by packaging music wrapped in 3D which any gamer can tell you is the cheapest 3D surround sound engine there is. This takes advantage of the phenomenon that once a luxury becomes a feature, it becomes a necessity. The technical aspects of this are easy and the production costs are the dilemma (3D content isn't cheap to build no matter who says it is). Products such as VCommunicator from VCom3D indicate what the military or Berlitz can do with the technology given good authoring tools. If you’ve ever sent any of your employees to India or China or brought them here, you know that the faster you can get past the cultural and language barriers, the faster you can get down to business and the better the results.

What SL and IBM indicate is that 3D is here to stay in various forms. It never went away. Clay was dead wrong about that and probably did give bad advice, but skepticism about the imminent second coming of the web in 3D is healthy. As yet another entertainment offering, it will have a season. As technical innovation in that market, consider it Technicolor or Panavision which had their day and passed into history as digital production overtook 35mm film, but people seldom go back to black and white except for art flicks.

Now it is a matter of smart money, branding and IP. Of those, the third is where the real trouble will start. Despite what Clay said about VRML being dead, there is only one real world-accepted standard for real time 3D. It is the ISO standard for X3D, son of VRML.

What remains to be seen is what the smart money will do about the existence of royalty-free unencumbered international standards for a technology they wish to burgle. If history is a judge, some analog of the W3C which burgled SGML from ISO to create XML will be tried. OTOH, Rome having been savaged once has had the time to get ready for the return of the Celts.

The Cost of Ultra

The ever rising costs of Ultra are not being managed.

Ultra: I’m using this term to denote sophisticated and densely populated hypermedia content such as a 3D world with sound, textures, texts. Today Joe Web Page mashes slices of other content from open libraries and from sampling fixed media such as CDs, scans of photos, Google-selected images and so on. Tastes for sophisticated content lead to burglary just as the protagonist of Anthony Burgess’s novel, "A Clockwork Orange" committed. When finally faced with the content owners as with Alex’s determined old woman, mashup artists are faced with the same kinds of suits that loop-sampling rap artists have contended with. Tastes for Beethoven have to reckon with the costs of orchestra production eventually.

For Ultra, virtual reality is a bell weather. Free user-generated content simply can’t sustain the market emergence. Between the time and skills required and the licensing costs of the wrapped high quality content (e.g., music, photos, animations), either Creative Commons has to become the rule or the user-generated content approach can’t sustain these sites without the kinds of deals CBS made with YouTube. This only works where the money to produce the originals is managed and provided as CBS does or as Linden Labs was doing before the CopyBot scandal. Without it, Joe Web page content lives in the content ghetto. If he releases the work to the web, he gets a short burst of attention but it will be quickly de-assembled and recompiled into the works of others in the ghetto. Worse, if the samples are linked to and mashed into other works, Joe assumes all of the risks while the link pirates have no legal obligations at all and can still profit.

The tensions between technologists receiving a disproportionate amount of the income generated by the user content on the web and the authors are rising. The ‘information wants to be free’ camps won’t admit that they are the shills for the rape of the content economy. Mark Cuban, Tim O’Reilly, Joi Ito and the rest of the “share your content but we keep our Porsche’s” face a 1950s redux of the revolutions that destroyed third world economies and turned the Soviet Union into a group of smaller nations unable to maintain their technologies or lifestyles just as the main body, Russia, became a gangster state. To be fair: O’Reilly did pay for articles published on his sites in stark contrast to others who go so far as to take technical list emails and republish them as branded articles in their web magazines. Yet the ravenous appetite of the web for content is orders of magnitude larger than TV, radio or cable.

When I look at what is required to build even a moderately sophisticated 3D immersive album as I’ve been doing, I remember what we said after IrishSpace: no one will do this for free for long. On the other hand, this is precisely what the major record labels need to sustain CD sales. 3D is not just for the web. What the web did was make the technology cheap to obtain but if the content is to be high-quality, production costs are already at rock bottom and distribution control in the form of fixed media remains stable. That is the dilemma facing the technologists who up to now have been taking the majority of the profits. They need the licenses for the content, Joe Web Page can’t manage it, and the Middle Guys can.

It sucks but there it is. Ultra content does not want to be free. It wants to be managed.

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