Pokemon Go: a New Tool for Gaining Power in Society?

A few months ago I wrote in this blog about the way augmented reality games will transform the face of the gaming industry: they’ll turn the entire physical world into a gaming arena, so that players would have to actually walk around streets and cities to take part in games. I also made a forecast that players in such games will be divided into factions in order to create and legitimize rivalries and interesting conflicts. Now Pokemon Go has been released, and both forecasts have been proven true immediately.

By combining the elements of augmented reality and creating factions, Pokemon Go has become an incredibly successful phenomenon. It is now the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, with more users than Twitter, and more daily usage time than social media apps like WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat. One picture is worth a thousand words, and I especially like this one of a man capturing a wild Pidgey pokemon while his wife is busy giving birth.

But is the game here to stay? And what will its impact be on society?

 

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Pokemon birth. Source: imgur

 

Pokemon Go in the Long Haul

It’s no wonder Pokemon Go has reached such heights of virality. Because of the game’s interactions with the physical world, people are being seen playing it everywhere, and in effect become walking commercials for the game. Pokemon Go also builds on the long history – almost twenty years – of pokemon hunting which ensures that anyone who’s ever hunted pokemon just had to download the app.

Will the game maintain its hype for long? That’s difficult to answer. Dan Porter, one of the creators of Draw Something – a game that garnered 50 million downloads in just 50 days – wrote a great piece on the subject. He believes, in short, that the game is a temporary fad. It may take a year for most people to fall off the bandwagon, so that only a few millions of the hardcore gamers will remain. That’s still an impressive number, but it’s far from the current hype. As he says –

“For the casual Pokemon Go player, the joy of early play I believe will eventually be replaced by gyms that are too competitive and Pokemon that are too hard to find.”

I agree with his analysis, but it does depend on one important parameter: that the game does not undergo evolution itself, and continually readapt itself to different groups of users. Other social games, like World of Warcraft, have successfully undergone this transition to maintain a large user base for more than a decade. Niantic may be able to do that, or it may not. In the long haul it doesn’t matter: other, more successful, AR games will take over.

Pokemon Go is bringing in a lot of revenues right now, with the estimates ranging from $1 to $2.3 million a day. Some analysts believe that the game could pull in a billion dollars a year once it is launched worldwide. That’s a lot of money, and every half-decent gaming company is going to join the race for AR very soon. It could be Blizzard that will recreate Starcraft’s fame in an AR fashion, with teams running around buildings, collecting virtual resources and ambushing each other. Or maybe Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone, with players who can collect thousands of different cards in Hearthstops around the world much like Pokemon Go, and use them to build decks and fight each other. Heck, I’d play those, and I bet so would the tens of millions of gamers whose childhood was shaped by these games. The dam gates, in short, have been broken open. AR games are here to stay.

And so we must understand the consequences of such games on society.

 

A Whole New World

Pokemon Go is already starting to change the way people interact with each other. I took the following picture from my house’s window a few days ago, depicting several people walking together, eyes on their phones, without talking with each other – and yet all collaborating and being coordinated with each other. They were connected via the layer of augmented reality. In effect, they were in a world of their own, which is only tenuously connected to the physical world.

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People coordinate via Pokemon Go.

In Australia, a hastily advertised Pokemon Go meeting has brought together 2,000 players to a single park, where they all hunted pokemon together. And coffee shops-turned-gyms around the world have suddenly found themselves buzzing with customers who came for the win – and stayed for the latte. And of course, the White House has been turned into a gym, with all three Pokemon Go teams competing over it.

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The game has made people to go to places they would not ordinarily go to, in their search for pokemon. As a result, at least two dead bodies have been discovered so far by players. If you watch players walking on the streets, you’ll also notice their peculiar pattern of movement: instead of following the road, they’ll periodically stop, check their smartphones and change course – sometimes making a U-turn. They’re not following the infrastructure in the physical world, but rather obeying a virtual infrastructure and entities: pokestops and pokemon.

And that’s just a sign of what’s coming, and of how power – the power to influence people and their choices – is starting to shift from governments to private hands.

The Power Shift

What is power? While many philosophers believed that governments had power over their citizens because of their ability to mobilize policemen, the French philosophers Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault realized that the power control mechanisms are inherent in society itself. Whenever two people in a society exchange words with each other, they also implicitly make clear how each should behave.

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Infrastructure has the same effect over people. And has been used since time immemorial as a mechanism for directing the populace. For a very long time now, governments used to control the infrastructure in urban places. Governments paved roads, installed traffic lights and added signs with streets names. This control over infrastructure arose partly because some projects, like road paving, are so expensive but also because things like traffic lights and signs have an immense influence over people’s behavior. They tell us where we’re allowed to go and when, and essentially make the government’s decisions manifest and understandable for everyone. There’s a very good reason that I couldn’t erect a new traffic sign even if I wanted to.

But now, with Pokemon Go, the gaming industry is doing just that: it’s creating an alternative virtual reality that has new rules and different kinds of infrastructures, and merges that virtual reality with our physical one so that people can choose which to obey.

Is it any wonder that authorities everywhere are less than happy with the game? It has fatwas being issued against it, religious leaders wanting to ban it, Russian politicians speaking against it, and police and fire explaining to citizens that they can’t just walk into jails and fire stations in their search for pokemon.

In the long run, Pokemon Go and AR in general symbolizes a new kind of freedom: a freedom from the physical infrastructure that could only be created and controlled by centralized governments. And at the very same time, the power to create virtual infrastructure and direct people’s movement is shifting to the industry.

What does that mean?

In the short term, we’re bound to see this power being put to good use. In the coming decade we’ll see Pokemon Go and other AR games being used to direct people where they could bring the most good. When a kid will get lost in the wilderness, Niantic will populate the area with rare pokemon so that hundreds and thousands of people will come search for them – and for the child too. Certain dangerous areas will bear virtual signs, or even deduct points from players who enter them. Special ‘diet’ pokemon will be found at the healthy food sections in stores.

In the long run, the real risk is that the power will shift over to the industry, which unlike the elected government does not have any built-in mechanisms for mitigating that power. That power could be used to send people to junk food stores like McDonald’s, which as it turns out is already in partnership with Pokemon Go. But more than that, AR games could be used to encourage people to take part in rallies, in political demonstrations, or even simply to control their movement in the streets.

This power shift does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, but we need to be aware of it and constantly ask what kind of hidden agendas do these AR games hold, so that the public can exercise some measure of control over the industry as well. Does Pokemon Go encourage us to visit McDonald’s, even though it ultimately damages our health? Well, a public outcry may put a stop to that kind of collaboration.

We’ve already realized that firms that control the virtual medium, like Facebook, gain power to influence people’s thinking and knowledge. We’ve also learned that Facebook has been using that power to influence politics – although in a bumbling, good-natured way, and seemingly without really meaning to. Now that the physical world and the virtual world become adjoined, we need to understand that the companies who control the virtual layer gain power that needs to be scrutinized and monitored carefully.

 

Conclusions

Pokemon Go is not going to change the world on its own, but it’s one of the first indicators that can tell us how things are about to change when physical reality is augmented by virtual ones. The critical question we must ask is who controls those added layers of reality, and how can we put constraints on the power they gain over us. Because we may end up controlling all the pokemon, but who will gain control over us?

 

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Do You Want to Understand the future? World of Warcraft Holds the Answers

Players of World of Warcraft love to complain. There’s nothing new to that. Blizzard largely seems to ignore the players’ pleas, yells and moans, and yet recently one of the executives has decided to answer the community. In a response to a forum thread, assistant game director Ion Hazzikostas explained how World of Warcraft is actually working right now. His response tells us a lot about the inner works of a world of abundance – where everyone have their basic needs fulfilled.

 

Catering to Minorities

The first thing we need to understand, according to Hazzikostas, is that World of Warcraft is composed of many minority groups. As he says –

“A minority of players raid. A minority of players participate in PvP. A tiny minority touch Mythic raiding. A tiny minority of players do rated PvP. A minority of players have several max-level alts. A minority of players do pet battles, roleplay, list things for sale on the auction house, do Challenge Mode dungeons, and the list goes on.”

The result is that Blizzard – the omnipotent lord and god of World of Warcraft – is catering to minorities. In fact –

“…almost every facet of WoW is an activity that caters to a minority of the playerbase.”

This is what happens when you have a world of abundance. When people know that all of their basic needs will be taken care of, they feel free to do whatever they like. A minority will create art. A minority will sail boats. A minority will focus on re-engineering their bodies, roleplay or do robot battles.

And the government will need to cater to all of these minorities.

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World of Warcraft: a future of minorities. Credit: Polygon

The Self-Focused Minorities

Another point made by Hazzikostas is that the minorities are extremely self-focused. As he puts it –

“…due to the cooperative nature of the game, players tend to make connections with others who favor a similar playstyle. I’m generalizing a bit here, and there are certainly exceptions, but I’d guess that a typical Gladiator-level player probably doesn’t have a WoW social group that consists of people who mostly solo-level alts and explore the world. And most small friends-and-family guilds don’t spend a lot of time talking to competitive Mythic raiders. So when there’s a change, or a feature, that is aimed at a portion of the game that isn’t your personal playstyle, it’s easy and in fact natural to have the sense that “everyone” dislikes it.”

Hazzikostas is essentially talking about group polarization – a phenomenon that occurs in groups in which people agree with each other. Their views resonate between each other, and the group member become more polarized in their opinions. In a way, they become detached from the complex reality of each situation, and become unable to consider things from other points of view.

Group polarization is happening in the real world too, and it’s gaining speed. Ezra Klein recently wrote about political polarization and how it’s becoming an issue in the United States. People are becoming more polarized in their political views, and part of it has to do with the virtual world. In the past, you would’ve needed to interact with people from other factions everywhere you went. Today, Facebook automatically makes sure via its algorithms that most of your interactions are with the people who think the same as you do. As a result, people are essentially segregating themselves willingly into self-selecting groups, and their views become more polarized, so that each group finds it more difficult to agree with the other groups than ever before.

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World of Warcraft: a future of group and minority polarization

A Mirror for the Future

In those two aspects at least, World of Warcraft is a mirror of our future. As we reach a state of abundance in food and shelter, we will start identifying ourselves according to our hobbies and our interests. A world of abundance would therefore also be a world of minorities. And due to the virtual nature of much of that world, those minorities would find it more difficult to agree with each other than ever before.

It just might be the in the long-term, the only viable solution would be to essentially create a different world for every kind of minority. This proposition is, of course, impossible in the physical world where resources are limited by their nature. It can be achieved, though, in the interaction between the physical and the virtual worlds.

In the case of World of Warcraft, the virtual environment ensures that funds are essentially unlimited. Blizzard sets the challenges and the rewards, which are virtual in nature. Luckily for us, many aspects of our lives in the future are going to be virtual as well. As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) become part of our lives, we will receive highly personalized and individualized information from physical reality. In many cases, the virtual layer of reality will allow us to transcend the physical bottom layer.

To understand that, consider that in twenty years at most, many of us are likely to walk around with augmented reality goggles over our eyes. These will provide an additional virtual layer over everything that we see. In that way, a signpost on the street can consist of just a white background and a QR code in the physical world. The AR goggles, however, will translate the QR code into a personal ad that will fit specifically for the individual using the goggles. Similarly, every house can be virtually transformed into a palace, by wearing an AR device. A palace, or a cave, or a torture dungeon, or a boat. To each minority – their own.

 

Conclusions

World of Warcraft is a virtual world, in which players enjoy a state of abundance. In a way, it serves as a social or political studies lab, and the insights we gain from it can be valuable. Those insights can help us better understand the future of a world of abundance, and of a world in which the virtual and the physical layers become intermixed. If you want to know what the future holds in store for us – you probably want to keep on watching how World of Warcraft evolves.

 

Why “Magic: the Gathering” is Doomed: Lessons from the Business Theory of Disruption

Twenty years ago, when I was young and beautiful, I picked up a wrapped pack of cards in a computer games store, and read for the first time the tag “Magic: the Gathering”. That was the beginning of my long-time romance with the collectible card game. I imported the game to Israel, translated the rules leaflet to Hebrew for my friends, and went on to play semi-professionally for twenty years, up to the point when I became the Israeli champion. The game has pretty much shaped my years as a teenager, and has helped me make friends and meet interesting people from all over the world.

That is why it’s so sad to me to see the state of the game right now, and realize that it is almost certainly doomed to fail in the long run.

 

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Magic: The Gathering. The game that has bankrupt thousands of parents.

 

The Rise and Decline of Magic the Gathering

Make no mistake: Magic the Gathering (just Magic in short) is still the top dog among collectible card games in the physical world. According to a report released in 2014, the annual revenue from Magic has grown by 182% between 2009 and 2014, reaching a total value of around $250 million a year. That’s a lot of money, to be sure.

The only problem is that Hearthstone, a digital card game released in the beginning of 2014, has reached annual revenues of around $240 million, in less than two years. I will not be surprised to see the numbers growing even larger that in the future.

This is a bizarre situation. Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the company behind Magic, had twenty years to take the game online and turn it into a success. They failed miserably, and their meager attempts at became a target for scorn and ridicule from players worldwide. While WotC did create an online platform to play Magic on, there were plenty of complaints: for starters, playing was extremely costly since the virtual card packs generally cost the same as packs in the physical world. An evening of playing a draft – a small tournament with only eight players – would’ve cost each player around ten dollars, and would’ve required a time investment of up to four straight hours, much of it wasted in waiting for the other players in the tournament to finish their matches with each other and move on to the next round.

These issues meant that Magic Online was mostly reserved for the top players, who had the money and the willingness to spend it on the game. WotC was aware of the disgruntlement about the state of things, but chose to do nothing – after all, it had no real contenders in the physical or the digital market. What did it have to fear? It had no real reason to change. In fact, the only smart decision WotC managers could take was NOT to take a risk and try to change the online experience, but to keep on making money – and lots of it – from a game that functioned well enough. And they could continue doing so until their business was rudely and abruptly disrupted.

 

The Business Theory of Disruption

The theory of disruption was originally conceived by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, and described in his best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen has followed the evolution of several industries, particularly hard drives, but also including metalworking, retail stores and tractors. He found out that in each sector, the managers supported research and development, but all that R&D produced only two general kinds of innovations: sustaining innovations and disruptive ones.

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The sustaining innovations were generally those that the customers asked for: increasing hard drive storage capacity, or making data retrieval faster. They led to obvious improvements, which brought immediate and clear benefit to the company in a competitive market.

The disruptive innovations, on the other hand, were those that completely changed the picture, and actually had a good potential to cost the company money in the short-term. Furthermore, the customers saw little value in them, and so the managers saw no advantage in pursuing these innovations. The company-employed engineers who came up with the ideas for disruptive innovations simply couldn’t find support for them in the company.

A good example for the process of disruption is that of the hard drive industry, a few years before the transition from 8-inch drives to 5.25-inch drives occurred. A quick look at the following parameters of the two contenders, back in 1981, explains immediately why managers in the 8-inch drive manufacturing companies were wary of switching over to the 5.25-inch drive market. The 5.25-inch drives were simply inefficient, and lost the competition with 8-inch drives in almost every parameter, except for their size! And while size is obviously important, the computer market at the time consisted mainly of “minicomputers” – computers that cost ~$25,000, and were the size of a small refrigerator. At that size, the physical volume of the hard drives was simply irrelevant.

Attribute 8-Inch Drives (Minicomputer Market) 5.25-Inch Drives (Desktop Computer Market)
Capacity (megabytes) 60 10
Physical volume (cubic inches) 566 150
Weight (pounds) 21 6
Access time (milliseconds) 30 160
Cost per megabyte $50 $200
Unit cost $3,000 $2,000

The table has been copied from the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen.

And so, 8-inch drive companies continued to focus on 8-inch drives, while a few renegade engineers opened new companies and worked hard on developing better 5.25-inch drives. In a few years, the 5.25-inch drives were just as efficient as the 8-inch drives, and a new market formed: that of the personal desktop computer. Suddenly, every computer maker in the market needed 5.25-inch drives.

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One of the first minicomputers. On display at the Vienna Technical Museum. Image found on Wikipedia.

Now, the 8-inch drive company managers were far from stupid or ignorant. When they saw that there was a market for 5.25-inch drives, they decided to leap on the opportunity as well, and develop their own 5.25-inch drives. Sadly, they were too late. They discovered that it takes time and effort to become acquainted with the demands of the new market, to adapt their manufacturing machinery and to change the entire company’s workflow in order to produce and supply computer makers with 5.25 drives. They joined the competition far too late, and even though they were the leviathans of the industry just ten years ago, they soon sunk to the bottom and were driven out of business.

What happened to the engineers who drove forward the 5.25-inch drives revolution, you may ask? They became CEOs of the new 5.25-inch drive manufacturing companies. A few years later, when their own young engineers came to them and suggested that they invest in developing the new and faulty 3.5-inch drives, they decided that there was no market for this invention right now, no demand for it, and that it’s too inefficient anyway.

Care to guess what happened next? Ten years later, the 3.5-inch drives took over, portable computers utilizing them were everywhere, and the 5.25-inch drive companies crumbled away.

That is the essence of disruption: decisions that make sense in the present, are clearly incorrect in the long term, when markets change. Companies that relax and only invest in sustaining innovations instead of trying to radically change their products and reshape the markets themselves, are doomed to fail. In Peter Diamandis words –

“If you aren’t disrupting yourself, someone else is.”

Now that you understand the basics of the Theory of Disruption, let’s see how it applies to Magic.

 

Magic and Disruption

Wizards of the Coast has been making almost exclusively sustaining improvements over the last twenty years: its talented R&D team focused almost exclusively on releasing new expansions with new cards and new playing mechanics. WotC also tried to disrupt themselves once by creating the Magic Online platform, but failed to support and nurture this disruptive innovation. The online platform remained mainly as an outdated relic – a relic that made money, to be sure, but was slowly becoming irrelevant in the online world of collectible card games.

In the last five years, many other collectible card games reared their heads online, including minor successes like Shadow Era (200,000 players, ~$156,000 annual revenue) and Urban Rivals (estimated ~$140,000 annual revenue). Each of the above made discoveries in the online world: they realized that players need to be offered cards for free, that they need to be lured to play every day, and that the free-to-play model can still prove profitable since the company’s costs are close to zero: the firm doesn’t need to physically print new cards or to distribute them to retailers. But these upstarts were still so small that WotC could afford to effectively ignore them. They didn’t pose a real threat to Magic.

Then Hearthstone burst into existence in 2014, and everything changed.

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Hearthstone’s developers took the best traits of Magic and combined it with all the insights the online gaming industry has developed over recent years. They made the game essentially free to play to attract a large number of players, understanding that their revenues would come from the small fraction of players who spent some money on the game. They minimized time waste by setting a time limit on every player’s turn, and by establishing a rule that players can only act during their own turn (so there’s no need to wait for the other player’s response after every move). They even broke down the Magic draft tournaments of eight people, and made it so that every player who drafted a deck can now play against any other player who drafted a deck at any time. There’s no time waste in Hearthstone – just games to play and fun to be had.

WotC was still deep asleep at that time. In July 2014, Magic brand manager Liz Lamb-Ferro told GamesBeat that –

“If you’re looking for just that immediate face-to-face, back-and-forth action-based game with not a lot of depth to it, then you can find that. … But if you want the extras … then you’re eventually going to find your way to Magic.”

Lamb-Ferro was right – Hearthstone IS a simpler game – but that simplicity streamlines gameplay, and thus makes the game more rapid and enjoyable to many players. And even if we were to accept that Hearthstone does not attract veteran players who “want the extras” (actually, it does), WotC should have realized that other online collectible card games would soon combine Magic’s sophistication with Hearthstone’s mechanisms for streamlining gameplay. And indeed, in 2014 a new game – SolForge – has taken all of the strengths of Hearthstone, while adding a mechanic of card transformation (each card transforming into three different versions of itself) that could only have been possible in card games played online. SolForge doesn’t even have a physical version and could never have one, and the game is already costing Magic a few more veteran players.

This is the point when WotC began realizing that they’re falling far behind the curve. And so, in the middle of 2015 they have released Duels of the Planeswalkers 2016. I won’t even bother detailing all the infuriating problems with the game. Suffice it to say that it has garnered more negative reviews than positive ones, and made clear that WotC were still lagging far behind their competitors in their understanding of the virtual world, user experience, and what players actually want. In short, WotC found themselves in the position of the 8-inch drive manufacturers, realizing suddenly that the market has changed under their noses in less than two years.

 

What Could WotC do?

The sad truth is that WotC can probably do nothing right now to fix Magic. The firm can continue churning out sustaining improvements – new expansions and new exciting cards – but it will find itself hard pressed to take over the digital landscape. Magic is a game that was designed for the physical world, and not for the current frenzied pace of the virtual collectible card games. Magic simply isn’t suitable for the new market, unless WotC changes the rules so much that it’s no longer the same game.

Could WotC change the rules in such a dramatic fashion? Yes, but at a great cost. The company could recreate the game online with new cards and rules, but it would have to invest time and effort in relearning the workings of the virtual world and creating a new platform for the revised Magic. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that WotC will have time to do that with Hearthstone, SolForge and a horde of other card games snarling at its heels. The future of Magic online does not look bright, to say the least.

Does that mean Magic the Gathering will vanish completely? Probably not. The Magic brand is still strong everywhere except for the virtual world, which means that in the next five years the game will remain in existence mostly in the physical world, where it will bring much joy to children in school breaks, and much money to the pockets of WotC. During these five years, WotC will have the opportunity to rethink and recreate the game for the next big market: virtual and augmented reality. If the firm succeeds in that front, it’s possible that Magic will be reinvented for the new-new market. If it fails and elects to keep the game anchored only in the physical world, then Magic will slowly but surely vanish away as the market changes and new and exciting games take over the attention span of the next generation.

That’s what happens when you disregard the Theory of Disruption.

 

Can We Defend Our Culture From Terrorist Attacks? Yes, by Virtualizing It

I gave a lecture in front of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, which is a lot like the Justice League, but Jewish. I was telling them about all the ways in which the world is becoming a better place, and all the reasons for these trends to go on into the future. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: more people are literate than ever before; the number of people suffering from extreme poverty is rapidly declining and is about to fall below 10% for the first time ever in human history; and the exponential progress in solar energy could ensure that decontamination and desalination devices could operate everywhere, overcoming the water crisis that many believe looms ahead.

After the lecture was done I opened the stage for questions. The first one was short and to the point: “What about terrorists?”

It does look like nowadays, following the attacks on Paris, terrorists are on everybody’s mind. However, it must be said that while attacks against civilians are deplorable, terrorists have generally had very little success with those. The September 11 Attacks carried the worst death toll of all terrorist attacks in recent history, in which just 19 plane hijackers killed 2,977 people. While terrorism may yet progress to using chemical and biological warfare, so far it is relatively harmless when you only calculate the cost in lives, and mostly affects the morale of the people.

I would say the question that’s really bothering people is whether terrorists can eventually deal a debilitating deathblow to Western culture, or at the very least create a disturbance severe enough to make that culture go into rapid decline. And that raises an interesting question: can we find a way to conserve our culture, our values and our monuments for good?

I believe we have already found a way to do that, and Wikipedia is a shining example.

 

Creative Destruction and Wikipedia

Spot the Dog is a series of children’s books about the adventures of Spot (the dog). In July 3, 2012, the Wikipedia entry for Spot the Dog was changed to acknowledge that the author of the series was, in fact, no other than Ernest Hemingway under the pseudonym Eric Hill. In the revised Wikipedia entry the readers learned about “Spot, a young golden retriever who struggles with alcoholism and a shattered sense of masculinity.”

Needless to say, this was a hoax. Spot is obviously a St. Bernard puppy, and not a “young golden retriever”.

 

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What’s interesting is that within ten minutes of the hoax’ perpetration, it was removed and the original article was published as if nothing wrong had ever happened. That is not surprising to us, since we’ve gotten used to the fact that Wikipedia keeps backups of every article and of every revision ever made to it. If something goes wrong – the editors just pull up the latest version before the incident.

A system of this kind can only exist in the virtual world, because of a unique phenomenon: due to the exponential growth in computing capabilities and data storage, bits now cost less than atoms. The cost for keeping a virtual copy of every book ever written is vastly lower than keeping such copies on paper in the ‘real’ world – i.e. our physical reality.

The result is that Wikipedia is invulnerable to destruction and virtual terrorism as long as there are people who care enough to restore it to its previous state, and that the data can be distributed easily between people and computers instead of remaining in one centralized data-bank. The virtualization and distribution of the data has essentially immortalized it.

Can we immortalize objects in the physical world as well?

 

Immortalization via Virtualization

In February 27, 2015, Islamic State militants brought sledgehammers into the Mosul museum, and have carefully and thoroughly shattered an unknown number of ancient statues and artefacts from the Assyrian era. In effect, the terrorists have committed a crime of cultural murder. It is probable that several of the artefacts destroyed in this manner have no virtual representation yet, and are thus gone forever. They are, in a very real sense of the word, dead.

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An Islamic State militant destroying an ancient statue inside the Mosul Museum in Nineveh. Source: AFP

 

Preventing such a tragedy from ever occurring again is entirely within our capabilities. We simply need to obtain high-resolution scans of every artefact in every museum. Such a venture would certainly come at a steep cost – quite possibly more than a billion dollars – but is that such a high price to pay for immortalizing the past?

These kinds of ventures have already begun sprouting up around the world. The Smithsonian is scanning artefacts and even entire prehistoric caves, and are distributing those scans among history enthusiasts around the world. What better way to ensure that these creations will last forever? Similarly, Google is adding hundreds of 3D models of art pieces to its Google Art Project Initiative. That’s a very good start to a longer-term process, and if things keep making progress this way, we will probably immortalize most of the world’s artefacts within a decade, and major architectural monuments will follow soon after. Indeed, one could well say that Google’s Street View project is preserving our cities for eternity.

(If you want to see the immortal model of an ancient art piece, just click on the next link – )

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Architecture and history, then, are rapidly gaining invulnerability. The terrorists of the present have a ‘grace period’ to destroy some more pieces of art, but as go forward into the future, most of that art will be preserved in the virtual world, to be viewed by all – and also to be recreated as needed.

So we’ll save (pun fully intended) our history and culture, but what about ourselves? Can we create virtual manifestations of our human selves in the digital world?

That might actually be possible in the foreseeable future.

 

Eternime – The Eternal Me

Eternime is just one of several highly ambitious companies and projects who try to create a virtual manifestation of an individual: you, me, or anybody else. The entrepreneurs behind this start-up have leaped into fame in 2014 when they announced their plans to create intelligent avatars for every person. By going over the abundance of information we’re leaving in our social networks, and by receiving as input answers to many different questions about a certain individual’s life, those avatars would be able to answer questions just as if they were that same individual.

 

 

Efforts for the virtualization of the self are also taking place in the academy, as was demonstrated in a new initiative: New Dimensions in Testimony, opened in the University of South California and led by Bill Swartout, David Traum, and Paul Debevec. In the project, interviews with holocaust survivors are recorded and separated into hundreds of different answers, which the avatar then provides when asked.

I think the creators of both projects will agree that they are still in very early phases, and that nobody will mistake the avatars for accurate recreations of the original individuals they were based on. However, as they say, “It’s a good start”. As data storage, computing capabilities and recording devices continue to grow exponentially, we can expect more and more virtualization of individuals to take place, so that their memories and even personalities are kept online for a very long time. If we take care to distribute these virtual personalities around the world, they will be virtually immune to almost all terrorism acts, except for the largest ones possible.

 

Conclusion

In recent decades we’ve started creating virtual manifestations of information, objects and even human beings, and distributed them throughout the world. Highly distributed virtual elements are exceedingly difficult to destroy or corrupt, as long as there’s a community that acknowledges their worth, and thus can be conserved for an extremely long time. While the original physical objects are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, their virtual manifestations are generally immune to any wrongdoing.

So what should we do to protect our culture from terrorism? Virtualize it all. 3D Scan every monument and every statue, every delicate porcelain cup and every ancient book in high resolution, and upload it all to the internet, where it can be shared freely between the people of the world. The physical monuments can and will be destroyed at some point in the future. The virtual ones will carry on.

 

 

 

 

 

The Future of Evil in the Mixed-Reality World

I was playing World of Warcraft – the famous Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) – last night, and became a member of a party of five players in order to complete a challenging dungeon. Normally, journeying together with four other people in a virtual world can be heaps of fun. The warriors hit monsters, the healers heal the warriors, and everybody is having fun together.

Well, not this time.

Halfway through the dungeon, one of the players began spouting some national slurs – “Russia rule you soon”, for one, and “Filthy Ukranian” among others. The response was pretty immediate – after a minute or two of shock, the offending player was kicked out of the party. We found another player in less than a minute and completed the dungeon at our leisure. The remarks, though, left an impression on me and made me think all through the evening about an interesting question: why don’t we see more breaches and break-ins from the physical world into the virtual one?

National slurring personally experiences in World of Warcaft
National slurring personally experiences in World of Warcaft

Virtual Worlds

Perhaps the term “virtual worlds” needs to be better defined. After all, Facebook too is a virtual world, and we see people bringing their problems and biases from the physical world into Facebook all the time. World of Warcraft, though, much like other MMORPGs, is a different virtual world. It’s a simulation, in fact, of a fantasy world filled with dragons, dungeons and real monsters who would like nothing more than to chew on your virtual bones.

This detachment from reality is probably the most important difference between MMORPGs and Facebook: on Facebook, you’re supposed to ‘play’ yourself and emphasize your views on the physical world. MMORPGs, however, are viewed more as vacation-time from reality. You go to MMORPGs to escape the conflicts of the physical world, not to accentuate them. This common understanding among players helps ensure that few incursions between the two worlds occur.

It is also my belief (and I don’t know any research to support it, since the field of MMORPGs has largely been ignore by political and social scientists) that MMORPGs bring into the equation something that we humans sorely lack in the modern ages: an evil enemy. Namely, I’m speaking of the computer that is controlling the world and the monsters in it. Those monsters will kill you if you don’t get strong enough. They are the ultimate evil – they can’t be reasoned with, and you can’t deliberate with them. It’s a kill or be killed environment, in which you have to become stronger constantly just to survive.

Compare this black and white environment to the one we experience in the physical world. In past times, tribal and national leaders tried to paint their enemies with a good vs. evil color palette. Namely: we’re the good guys, and they’re the bad guys. This kind of stereotyping doesn’t really work so well anymore, now that you can read everywhere about the woes and dilemmas of the other side, and realize that they’re humans just like you are. But realizing and accepting this fact requires conscious effort – it’s so much easier to hate, demonize and vilify the other side!

What wonder, then, that players are so happy leaving behind the grey national animosities of the physical world, and fight the good fight in the virtual worlds?

Meaning for the Future

These thoughts are pretty preliminary and shallow, and I post them here only because they are important for our future. In a decade or two from now we will enter a world in which the virtual and the physical aspects become mixed together constantly. As I wrote in an earlier post, wearable augmented reality devices are going to transform every street and every walking lane into a dungeon or a grassland field filled with monsters and treasure.

The virtual world is different from the physical one in many aspects, but one of the most important is that virtual wealth is infinite and priceless. One can find enormous treasures in the virtual world, beat his virtual computer-controlled opponents time after time, and in the future also enjoy virtual love (or at least sex) with virtual entities.

But what is the meaning of life in a virtual world? And since we’re about to experience a mixed-reality world soon, we must also consider: how do we keep on providing meaning and motivation to everyone in it?

It is possible that, based on the lessons of World and Warcraft and other MMORPGs, the programmers of the mixed-reality world will put an emphasis on the creation of true evil: of evil ghosts and dragons, and a perpetual fight for (virtual) survival against those. Maybe then, when we’re confronted by a greater enemy, we’ll be able to overlook our religious, national and racial biases and come together to fight the good fight in a game that will span nations and continents.

Does the future of mixed-reality holds dragons in store for us all, then? One can only hope.

Virtual Reality Will Take Gaming Outside

Featured image by Phil Whitehouse on Flickr

One of the complaints I hear most often from concerned parents, is that their kids spend most of their time in the virtual world. Their eyes are constantly glued to their smartphone’s screen.

“How can those kids live like that?” They demand to know. “Are we raising a new generation of zombies, totally dependant on their screens?”

My answer, always, is to remind them just how recently ago smartphones appeared on the world stage. Until 2007, there were no smartphones for the public. That means that this innovation is basically eight years old – a ridiculously short period of time compared to the history of humanity, or even to disrupting innovations like trains or cars. We’re still figuring out how to use the smartphones, well, smartly, and how to engineer our gates into the virtual world. And I tell those concerned parents that in ten years time, their children won’t look into their smartphones to find the virtual world, but will find the virtual world coming to them instead, unbidden.

To understand what I’m talking about, you just need to take a look at one of the hottest scenes in technology today: the virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR). Devices like Oculus Rift, Vive and Samsung Gear VR are coming to the consumer market in this year and the next, and the experience they provide is like nothing we’ve seen before. Trust me on this one: I’ve tried both the Rift and the Gear VR, and found myself swimming in the ocean with whales, visiting Venice, and running from real-life monsters in a temple… without actually getting up from my chair.

A trailer sample of the new generation of VR headsets: the HTC Vive, created by HTC and Valve

The forecasts for the virtual reality are incredibly optimistic, with Business Insider estimating that shipments of VR headsets will double in number every year, and will create a $2.8 billion hardware market by 2020. The Kzero consulting firm has forecast that annual revenues for VR software will reach $4.6 billion by 2018. This growth rate leaves the iPhone’s far behind, and will mean that – if those forecasts are anywhere near accurate – VR is about to take the world by storm in the next three years.

A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate - which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.
A forecast by Business Insider for the near future of VR devices. Notice the 99% cumulative annual growth rate – which essentially means a doubling of the number of shipments every year.

For myself, I’m still hesitant to believe that the VR market can rise so rapidly to prominence. The VR devices, while creating beautiful sceneries for the users to explore, are still cumbersome to wear on the face, and leave you disconnected from your immediate surroundings. So I prefer to stick to the old adage (allegedly by Arthur C. Clarke, and later proven by research in foresight) – “Experts are too optimistic in the near future, and too pessimistic in the long-run.”

These limitations will change in the future, and will most probably lead to the creation of augmented reality (AR) devices, which will look more like a normal pair of glasses, but with the pictures being displayed on the glasses themselves. In that way, the user will be able to see the physical world, along with the virtual world being overlaid on it.

Such AR glasses as described are already in existence, though they are still quite limited in capabilities. The Lumus glasses do just that, as do the Meta glasses. While both are still clunky, cumbersome, and have a limited field of view, they’re the early birds in the AR-Glasses field. If we assume that technology will keep on progressing (and honestly, I can’t see a way for it to stop!), we can be sure that the next AR-Glasses will be thinner, more energy-efficient, and more usable in general.

Let’s talk a bit about the games that AR and VR could open up for us in the future.

Gaming and VR / AR

Using VR for gaming is a no brainer. In fact, that’s the main use analysts are thinking about for VR in the next five years. Imagine running in the virtual landscape of Azaroth in World of Warcraft, or climbing the virtual towers and cathedrals of Paris in Assassin’s Creed. Those are experiences that will make the hardcore gamers flock to VR.

However, I would like to consider a different sort of gaming – one that might be accomplished by means of AR. The gamer of the not-so-far-away-future may actually be the athletic sort, because many games would be played on the streets of the city. By using AR-Glasses, every player would see a different image of the street: some will see the street as a dungeon with a dragon at its end, while others will find themselves forced to evade virtual deadly robots on the prowl, and still others would chase virtual butterflies on the pavement. Admittedly, that’s one crowded street!

Ok, this idea sounds a bit silly when you consider all the human congestion and potential traffic accidents that could occur, but there is definitely a case for streets and physical infrastructures that would be used as playing ground for the hard-core gamers. Even ‘soft gamers’ like most of us could find themselves taking a walk or a jog in seemingly-ordinary streets, with the AR-Glasses in our eyes turning the jog into a run from a dragon (with extra points if you make it out safely!) or involving some interesting activity while walking, like finding and picking up virtual playing cards on the pavement.

There are tantalizing hints in the present for this sort of outdoors-gaming. The “Zombies, Run!” game for the smartphone, is all about being chased by zombies in the real world. The zombies, of course, are virtual and you can only hear them behind you as you run, with the narrator giving you missions. Also, the more you run, the more supplies you collect automatically to build up your base. Another app, by the Mobile Art Lab in Japan, lets you see butterflies through your iPhone’s camera, and swipe at them to catch them – and turn them into discount coupons for restaurants.

Perhaps the most impressive example (although it’s more of a publicity stunt than anything else) of what augmented reality could do for the gaming world has been shown recently by Magic Leap – an AR company, obviously. Take a look!

Obviously, these are only hints for the future, but they’re pointing at an amazingly colorful and fascinating future for us all. The virtual world will no longer be far away from us, or force us to take our smartphones from our pockets. Rather, it would be all around us, and we’ll be able to see and hear it via the AR-Glasses and earbuds that we carry all the time.

The Challenges

Why isn’t this future not here by now? The challenges can be divided into two sorts: technological challenges and societal ones.

The technological challenges consist mainly of battery limits, which have been the ban of smartphones and other wearable computing so far. In the case of highly-sophisticated equipment such as AR-Glasses, the size of the projectors that send pictures to your eyes or onto the glasses is also a problem, and makes for extremely unfashionable glasses. Interestingly, the computing power does not seem to be a real challenge on its own, since AR-Glasses and other wearable computing devices could use the smartphone in one’s pocket to do most of the toughest computing tasks for them… which brings us back to the need to invent more efficient and long-lasting batteries for the smartphone as well.

None of these technological challenges represents an impassable barrier. In fact, if there’s one thing we can promise, it’s that future devices will have more efficient batteries, and will have the potential to be smaller. The trends indicate clearly that batteries are rapidly making progress towards better energy density.

The growth in batteries energy density over time. Originally from "Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries"
The growth in batteries energy density over time.
Originally from the paper “Thermodynamic analysis on energy densities of batteries“, which was brought to my attention in Quora.

The other big challenge is the societal one, and this is where Google Glass crashed into a wall. People simply did not like the fact that the person they’re speaking with could take a picture or a video of them at any time, or may even watch porn during a face-to-face conversation. The design of the Google Glass itself did not do anything to ameliorate those anxieties, and thus people just stopped using the Glasses to avoid becoming social pariahs.

While many believe the Google Glass has completely failed, we must remember that every device begins as a partial failure, since nobody knows how it will be used or how people will react to it. Google Glass was an experiment in design, and Google is now working relentlessly towards Google Glass 2.0, which will fit better with people’s desires and uses.

In short, while there are still challenges to the AR scene, they will be solved sooner or later. Any other conclusion forces us to think that somehow technology will cease to evolve and that companies will stop adapting their products to the consumer market, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Conclusion

There are plenty of uses for virtual and augmented realities other than gaming, and in future posts we’ll deal with them as well. For now, I hope I’ve convinced you that at least part of the gaming activity would not take place solely in front of a screen, but in the streets and the parks. It’s going to be a pretty interesting world to live in, full of colors and messages and experiences that will blend seamlessly with the physical world.

And wouldn’t you like to play such games?