Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why Numbers Matter

There was a recent request for numbers of web3D developers by which the seeker was trying to differentiate Second Life and WoW from the VRML/X3D developers and users. The reply made was that SL and WoW are monolithic applications, not standard 3D languages. Comparing these numbers can misinform. If the numbers misinform, then perhaps we shouldn't look for the numbers.

Perhaps we should look at why the numbers happen.

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What is in the content? Why does some number of users go to SL? Why does some number of developers keep developing in VRML97 or X3D? Is SL really an entertainment site or is it the new page metaphor, a world metaphor that wraps activities that people want to do communally? What are the activities that draw them there? Is it entertainment or sales? Or is it what works in most media: entertainment financed by sales? Google is a search company being financed by ads. They used that to expand the activities they support such as user-generated content that enables them to provide targeted ads. Isn't SL a VR world that provides activities to focus sales? Is that what the Toyota Scion site is (shop and race)? Doesn't this combine sales and games just as Google combines search and ads?

The numbers don't interest me as much as the activities. I build content but I don't think the content I build is relevant to those business models any more than network news is relevant to selling hybrids unless they pair news pieces on hybrids with advertisements for Prius's and they do. So how is my content relevant to a revenue generating activity? Do I care? Should I? Well, sure, but maybe the art I make is more relevant to showing other artists (in my case, musicians) how they can return to a profit basis for writing songs? Where do I sell that?

I suppose the real basis for wanting numbers is to show that there is traffic, eyeballs as some used to say, to prove one generates profit-seeking activities. Businesses need those profits or they have to cut quality or services.

There is no free lunch and damm little justice, but karma and duty to the investors are very reliable. So when you look at numbers and what generates numbers, remember you have to keep making more than you made last year to keep investors happy, so you will have to enter into some kind of bargain for access to those eyeballs just as CNet has to put an article up a day on SL and SL has to pay marketing to see to it they do. Restructuring and leveraged buy outs are crueler than the hook in the shiny lure to the fishbrains who swim toward them without hesitation.

Numbers aren't the only reason for doing this. We did Irishspace a) because we could b) because it was fun c) because we were asked and d) because we could make something good happen for a small village trying to make something good happen for their children. None of that is wrong. All of it is valued for some n of value. Did it generate numbers? It did in Tralee and almost a decade later, I had the pleasure with my wife and kids of seeing the real world Jeanie Johnston sail into Savannah harbor and I had a round with the crew. Did it generate big numbers for some n of big. Nope. Should it have? I don't care. Never did.

I'm not particularly interested in YouTube because videos of fat geeks dancing around their computers bore me. A world of poetry and music and beautiful 3D art with a sultry sad devadasi won't interest a lot of people who are perfectly happy with YouTube and FARK. I don't care. I can't care. The generation gap is as real as age discrimination and there isn't much one can do to change that. My tastes are for slower, classier, deeper emotionally evocative content. I'll take the worst Beethoven string quartet over the best song ever sung on American Idol. It's an age thing.

I do it for the joy of doing it and doing it well. I wish that was a profit-seeking activity but it isn't. It isn't entertainment precisely. It is pleasure seeking, not profit seeking, where the person I'm pleasing is me. So perhaps it is entertainment. It just isn't paced to the nerd subculture of fast, short, thin, pale and lacking in fidelity even if long on earnest spiritual values if not practice.

If that makes me selfish, unconcerned about the numbers, unconcerned about the web, I can only say that I've kept my promise made in Monterey a decade ago to fight for the community, to stick with it. That I've done through the lean times. Heck, I've received email that claims I am personally responsible for the demise of VRML. Maybe I am but I don't think so. It takes a hero to make tragic mistakes of those proportions and I am no hero, just a musician who hacks VRML.

Do we need heros? If this is a time of big numbers, it is not a time of heros. It is a time of men with spreadsheets and revenue estimates, a time Pesce said would come. And I'm glad for that. That means I can work on content, enjoy it, and look for work. Managers you will have a plenty, and they will have you too.

Numbers are not the cause of art. They are sometimes a side effect of it, but I'm not clever enough to predict when that will happen. If 2ndLifers want to look at what I do any time soon, they'll have to download an X3D/VRML app. The only good news for me there is that if they want to do that in ten years, it will probably still work on at least one viewer. If SL can make that claim in 2017 given the pressures to make profits and sustain growing numbers, my hat is off to them. By that time, good Lord willing and the oceans don't rise, I'll use Flux to convert it again.

The key to content is that if it is good enough, it keeps being converted and rehosted... year after year, platform after platform. Ask the folks who own the American song bag about that.

Numbers matter. Content cycles. That's why standards trump platforms.

I want a longer cycle even if at a lower profit. If I don't get that, at least I had more fun trying. Rick Nelson had it right:
You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

NEW! Flux Studio 2.0

I use different X3D/VRML editors. Some of them like V-Realm Builder are deadware from the the 1990s but given the stability of the language, still an excellent tool as long as one is building VRML97. Others such as Professional File Editor never go away because a basic ASCII editor has to be in the toolbox of anyone creating works with the web open formats in pointy and curly syntaxes, but again, mostly curly. Some such as Numedia Avatar Studio do one complex task so well and so simply that the tool keeps being downloaded, copied to new servers, distributed and used lonnnggg after the team that produced it is disbanded.

Then something really powerful and affordable (say FREEE!!!) comes out and quickly jumps to the top of the stack. It takes in all of the functions of these editors, complements them, adds even newer and better features, accommodates multiple syntaxes and application languages, and does it all so elegantly that it becomes the workhorse.

Such an editor is Media Machines Flux Studio 2.0.

Provided free for personal use (is there any other kind in 3D?), this is astounding. Flux Studio is the next generation incarnation of a favorite among the furry vermelers, Spazz 3D by Keith Victor. Keith teamed up with one of the VRML inventors, Tony Parisi and his Media Machines company to produce Flux Studio. That's enough history.

3D editors are notoriously expensive beasties when doing high end work. Though there are good free ones such as Blender, most are complex and tend to be useful only by those with a deep understanding and skill set in the mathematics and buzzwords of 3D technology. While Flux has no lack of this, it wraps it in visualization techniques and GUI that make a straightforward work process possible. Features such as multi-texture editing can consume a week of experimentation.

Applying textures and scaling them are simple tasks. Boolean carving is provided. There is a Javascript editor and a Smart Object editor. 3D preview mode (rendering in a 3D browser) is a pushbutton away.

Whereas early VRML editors were strictly VRML editors, Flux Studio imports and exports VRML classic and X3D encodings flawlessly. When converting VRML97 up to X3D, the look of the output is worth the download. Flux Studio scrubs the code and formats it for ease of reading in the ASCII editor. But wait! There is more! Flux Studio can also import and export Google KML files for those doing Google Earth work. The beloved Avatar Studio avatars can be imported and animated using the character animation features.

Extruded text is tough to do without editor support and is an expensive object in the vertex economy but great for startup screens. Flux Studio not only provides it, it provides canned animations. Speaking of this, there are canned animations for cameras as well. Export the code, look at the scripts, and modify to your own needs. There is 2D layer support for HUDs. Very cool!

The complementing product is the Flux Viewer. Also free, this supports streaming media which for the musicians among us, is vital. MP3s are a must have when building kick-ass 3D for the web although I confess I prefer wav files for CD products. Now I can have the best of both.

Soon Flux will have a network node that provides what 3D on the Web builders have needed since the early days: a simple routing mechanism for communications with the web from inside the world without the laborious work involved with setting up Java applets and deep knowledge of network protocol code. This is one feature I am eagerly waiting to see. It is to be demoed at the Perugia conference this spring. Very very cool!

Parisi and Victor continue to provide the Web 3D community a level of dedicated support that is hard to find these days but was so common in the early days of the web. One has to admire that dedication to the values of the pioneers of the web and the continued improvement of the Media Machines product while providing it to the web content community, an underpaid bunch of zealous junkyard dogs by reputation and fact, for a price they can afford: $0. Unreal! The furries say THANK YOU!

Full disclosure: I have zero financial affiliation with Media Machines. I have 100% affiliation with their community values and continued innovation in the open web 3D market.

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