Friday, August 27, 2010

Here Come the Blobs!

Now that iPhones and Androids have catalyzed a vibrant ecosystem of services that allow you to check in to places like Starbucks, doesn’t it seem likely that a next logical step will be the ability to check in to people?  Such a feature would be the social equivalent of gravity, incentivizing people to form and maintain proximity clusters or blobs.  

I’ve already seen a version of this feature in the wild - in RL!  Way back when I was a kid spending summers at Latvian Camp we’d often play a game called Blob, essentially group tag.  Each iteration would start with one person designated as “it”.  Their goal then was to capture additional people, each time adding them to the ever growing blob.  The game would end with a large swarm of kids spreading out the blob in a line to trap the final speedy kid in a corner of the playing field.  

Now imagine an app called Blob, loosley based on the same principles.  The app would reward people for 1) checking in to other friends’ cell phones, 2) remaining in proximity, and 3) growing the blob.  Thus clusters of people would earn points, just like Foursquare or Gowalla, for forming groups (much like atoms form molecules), maintaining density, and increasing the size of the blob.  For many early adopters this behavior would be fun in and of itself.  For normals it’d become more enjoyable as 1) the incentives increased, 2) other apps/games were developed for blob (the Party Version, the Gym Class version, the Flash Mob version), and 3) the functionality was mixed with other potent services like Groupon (imagine that you and your blob could get 10% off coffee for checking your group in at Starbucks).  

Like location check-ins, the concept is such a no-brainer next step that I’ve gotta believe companies like Facebook, Foursquare and Yelp are developing it or something similar right now.  Facebook Places already allows people to check in their friends to locations (a logical first step for grouping) and mapping crowd-sourcer Waze recently announced a groups feature that allows people to caravan together on trips.  The next obvious move is to establish game incentives for group formation, which will then enable a whole mess of emergent behavior, services, games and next-level complexity.

My bet is that over the next 6 months we’ll see more than a few established geosocial players releasing grouping features or discrete apps.  They may call it Social Gravity, or Molecule, or Grouply, or ClusterFu*k, or maybe even Social Node.  But let it be known, the Latvian Camp kids would prefer they call it Blob.

Image by Zach Armstrong

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Acceleration of Gaming

Life must be lived as play. ~ Plato

Fueled by provocative presentations/posts by gaming-oriented thinkers like Jesse Schell, SCVNGR’s Patrick Seth Priebatsch and VC Bing Gordon, the idea that games are spreading into serious areas like work, transportation, shopping and health is finally beginning to spread to the masses.  Of course, like most ideas, this concept has been around for a very long time, taking on various forms.  We can trace it back to iterations like Justin Hall’s Passive Gaming, Zyda’s spin on Serious Games, Wolfram’s work on Cellular Automata, John Nash’s Game Theory, MIlton Bradley’s The Game of Life (1860 - later associated with cellular automata) and even statements made by Plato like the one above.  

But games have been around even far longer than humans have been aware of them.  Thinkers like Wolfram and Nash argue, convincingly, that games are baked into nature itself and originated perhaps billions of years ago, certainly when organisms appeared and began competing with one another for resources, and that people rely on games from moment-to-moment to process thoughts (neural nets), emotions and to inform their behavior.  This big picture view is key as we now contemplate the ongoing spread of games.  It helps us get at the deeper why, rather than just the fascinating how.

Schell does a great job of pointing out how games will interact with pervasive sensors and computers (aka The Internet of Things), which lines up nicely with Gordon’s “video-game-ification of everything” principle and Priebatsch’s argument that 2010-2020 will be the decade of “the gaming layer”.  Each of these frames is a very useful guides to the near-future.  That said, to get the whole story it’s also critical to place these ideas into the context of life-as-game and and accelerating change.

When I refer to accelerating change, I’m not simply talking about Moore’s Law (the regular doubling rate of computer processors) and other hard-tech advances.  I am referencing Kurweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns which he links to information technologies and thinkers like Korotayev argue is the product of the increased rate of networking of human brains (which totally jives with observations like Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law).  We as a people-populated planet are steadily, inexorably getting better at mapping systems and simulating our environment thanks to the information networking enabled by rapidly emerging communication technologies.  It appears to be a natural  planetary development driven by convergence of human created technologies and data pools, and even more fundamentally, the nature of life itself.

Through competition (which also ends up expanding to cooperation - Evo Devo), life produces increasingly more complex structures capable of controlling more resources.  This game has brought us to to 2010 and a world in which games appear poised to saturate everything, just as as technology is poised to do the same.  This parallel timing is not accidental.  Better technology leads to better games.  Better games (aka behavior templates and/or guides) lead to better technology.  The two are intertwined and it can and should be argued that game patterns themselves are a form of technology.  So I am now arguing that games are absolutely critical to the planetary phenomenon that futurists have come to call convergent accelerating change.

If this is the case, then we can venture the prediction that games will proliferate in direct relationship to other accelerating vectors like computer processing, information, communication and perhaps even human intelligence.  There are already countless examples of games being used to generate better products (this can be applied to computer processors), assemble knowledge (crowd-sourcing), facilitate communication & interaction, assist with learning.  It makes a whole world of sense to me that games will be absolutely essential if general acceleration is to continue.

In particular, I find it interesting to contemplate the interaction between games and virtual models of the world and other systems of interest.  Back in 2006 I contributed to a prescient cross-industry foresight project called the Metaverse Roadmap that identified convergence across Virtual Worlds, Mirror Worlds, Augmented Reality and Life-Logging (life logging has since been reconceptualized as Rich Video).  The project slug read: What happens when video games meet Web 2.0? ... What happens is the Metaverse.  This concept applies now, in a big way, and offers great insight into the near and long-term future of gaming.  As we construct virtual infrastructure like Google Earth, Facebook, YouTube and Augmented Reality, we’re ultimately building what IBM researcher Jim Spohrer has dubbed the World Board (what Baudrillard would equate with Hyper-Reality), a cohesive system that allows people to access data about anything and everything in the world around us.  Like the World Wide Web, the World Board seems to be a developmental inevitability.  And it sure looks like gaming is essential if we’re to build this quickly, as the macro trends I listed above suggest must occur.

So then, if games are in fact part and parcel of accelerating change, as I believe must be the case, then we can use that knowledge to formulate new predictions and hypotheses about the future of games and the future in general.  For example, we can argue that the gaming industry will grow massively through 2020. Or that serious games like Waze will explode in popularity. Or that web-based gaming will become essential to managing typically conservative domains like government, business and education.  Or that game theory and studies will be required learning circa 2015.  Or that games will be essential to the increase of human capability and intelligence.  Or that games are likely to plummet in price while increasing in performance and experience rapid commodification.  

Summarized, the general point I am making is that games have always been critical to the evolution and development of living systems, that they are key to our economy and behavior, and that we can expect them to evolve and spread rapidly as we proceed through the knee of some powerful curves that affect everything we know and have come to hold dear.  If acceleration is to continue, games too must accelerate - and we can use that realization to help inform our models and predictions of the world.

Fortunately we have a great deal of experience in this area. As Plato reminds us, we are and have always been compulsive gamers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An app for every tree in Central Park by 2015?

Sometimes I like to think of humans carrying smartphones as Imperial Probe Droids capable of quantifying the world around us.  After all, millions of prosumers use these devices to snap photos, record audio, shoot video, map the position of things and even record our paths.  Smartphones can and do double as truly capable reconnaissance tools.

Much of the information collected through smartphones is then made available on the internet where it can be pulled into a variety of very useful graphs, web pages and applications.  There is tremendous business, consumer, and social demand in place to incentivize these flows.  This pull force is getting stronger as we collectively discover new ways to unlock the value of this data.

A powerful example of this effect is Google Earth.  Since its birth as Keyhole (2001), Google acquisition (2004) and ongoing evolution, Google Earth has steadily added content and increased its resolution.  One can now view weather, traffic and demographic data and even 3d representations of landmarks, trees and buildings (the company I manage,, specializes in constructing these) using this contextual 3d map

It is also possible to add information to the objects embedded on Google Earth in the form of custom layers, Google Places pages, or links to websites or custom location/thing apps.  Fueled by Google, a growing number of geosocial startups, businesses looking to differentiate their locations and a growing population of Google Earth enthusiasts, the number of 3d objects paired with rich data is exploding, resulting something that closely resembles Jim Spohrer's augmented reality World Board, the internet of things (a scenario that originally envisioned cheap networked sensors scattered all over the place), or even a virtual version of Bruce Sterling’s spime concept.  (If you're not familiar with these concepts then they're definitely worth a read.)

So the year is 2010, all of the above is possible, the number of smartphones is rapidly rising, and there’s tremendous demand in place to map and link the world.  The next step to proper evaluation of the Central Park scenario now requires consensus on what constitutes an app.

Although most folks probably define apps as programs that run on smartphones, the definition is in fact a bit broader:
Wikipedia: A web application is an application that is accessed over a network such as the Internet or an intranet. The term may also mean a computer software application that is hosted in a browser-controlled environment (e.g. a Java applet)[citation needed] or coded in a browser-supported language (such as JavaScript, combined with a browser-rendered markup language like HTML) and reliant on a common web browser to render the application executable.
The cost of generating an app generally ranges from free (simple widgets, Yahoo pipes) to tens of thousands of dollars fro full-fledged iPhone or Android apps.  But, in general, these figures are dropping as more developers come online, HTML5 enables the insertion of basic apps into web pages, and big companies make it easier for non-technical people to create useful apps.

With over 100,000 Android apps, 225,000 iPhone apps and countless other smartphone-viewable pages that also function as apps, it’s obvious that by 2015 there will be many millions of apps, some useful, many not useful.  

The question at hand is whether or not each and every tree in NYC’s Central Park (there are upwards of 25,000) will have its own app, or website that contains apps, that can be easily accessed in the year 2015.  Here are some of the trends that critically support this scenario:

  • Rise of the Prosumer: With increasingly more and less expensive means to produce content (higher resolution picture and video quality on smartphones by 2015 + new devices such as panoramic lenses or auto-object tagging AI) and a web marketplace for this content, it’s a safe bet to believe there will be many millions more people playing the prosumer game circa 2015. Especially significant will be the growing number of Super Quantifiers (the 3d equivalent of hardcore Wikipedia contributors, few but powerful!) looking to map everything around them for reputation, $ or other social currency. 
  • Crowd-Sourced Photosynthing: Google, Microsoft and a handful of other companies are in an escalating war to most quickly map the world (no surprise as this is absolutely critical to the future of search).  This battle has spread from basic maps, to Street View, and finally to 3d.  3d components are generated by stitching together satellite, aerial, and ground-level photographs.  This process is now taking a big leap forward as new rapid photosynthing processes are developed.  Photosynthing is currently less effective than building 3d models of buildings and trees from carefully taken photographs, but in the next few years we expect it to overtake standard 3d model generation in efficiency.  When that happens, circa 2013/2014, it will be possible to grab public geo-tagged photographs of a given space and to automagically create fine 3d models of everything in that space.  With millions of people taking photographs of central park from various angles, it’s reasonable to believe that there will be sufficient data available to crowd-source a high resolution 3d map of all the trees in Central Park in the year 2015.  Throw into the mix better location positioning, higher-rez aerial photography and perhaps cash incentives for photo-snapping consumers (Google, Microsoft or 3d Party Quantification Company) and it becomes even more likely that a 3d Central Park model is likely to exist by 2015. 
  • Google Things? To grow its advertising base, Google will continue to steadily add value to its Google Places and drive adoption.  It’s reasonable to believe that by 2015 every single Google Places page will either 1) be made available as an app in and of itself, or 2) contain one or many custom apps (thanks to HTML5 or a succeeding web language).  I find it likely that Places will be expanded to include Things or Objects.  Google is, after all, in the business of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful.  ... If Google doesn’t do this, Microsoft, Facebook or some new start-up likely will.  But doesn't Google Things make sense as the next iteration of Google Goggles?
      With a 3d model of every tree available on Google Earth and the ability to easily add a Places or Things  page associated with any geospatially located object, the next logical question then is whether or not it makes sense for Google to generate a custom Places page for each tree in Central Park. 

      Why would a company like Google or Microsoft do such a thing?  Would people demand it?  

      Here are a few reason why I think this is likely:

      • The Benefits of Simulation: Simulations help people to monitor and manage places. Many groups including the City of New York, park managment, citizen groups looking to preserve Central Park, tourism agencies and educational institutions will see the benefits of a simulated, true-to-scale, true-to-object Central Park - local World Board.
      • Search Wars: The demand for increasingly better Search will drive Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, etc, into every niche that is not defended. Wherever there is information, they'll be there.
      • Key Gaming Catalyst: 3d simulations can serve as the robust scaffolding for new applications and games.  It’s developer heaven.  If these simulations enable lots of new fun games then there will be a large class of people that demand to play them and thus demand the mapping of each and every tree in Central Park.  Imagine Grand Theft Auto with a closer-to-exact map of NYC? 
      • Super Quantifiers: With technology dropping in price, Super Quantifiers will probably quantify the areas around them regardless of wht the rest of society thinks, unless their behavior can be restricted by legislation first.  There are compulsive mappers out there.
            But then again, all things future are uncertain, and it’s possible that the 3d Quantification of Central Park will not progress as quickly as I imagine.  Some reasons for this may include:

            • Social Quantification Backlash: At some point the world will realize that rapid, rampant quantification may not be in its interests.  Privacy, security, or plain lifestyle concerns could stop the other trends in their tracks. Events leading up to 2015 could turn people against graph stewards like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. 
            • Revenue Control: The whole process could be slowed if NYC determines that it wants to control the revenue derived from simulations of Central Park.  This could lead to slow negotiations with Google or Microsoft, or strict regulations that slow the process. 
            • Technology: If the world enters a harsh depression, then it’s conceivable that technological progress will slow by 2015.  That said, the necessary building blocks for tree mapping and apping are already in place.  They don’t have to progress all that much for this to remain a viable scenario.
                Conclusion: So long as there's no social will to regulate against deep quantification of our surroundings, it's highly likely that by 2015 we'll have created 3d versions of all the trees in Central Park via Crowd-Sourced Photosynthing.  It then becomes an almost trivial matter to pair each object of interest contained in these simulations with its own web app or equivalent.

                The implications of such a scenario are profound.  It's a confirmation of the idea that the rate and resolution of our world-modeling behavior is increasing in direct proportion to advancing computing, sensing and social media technologies.  As we capture more data and get better at patching it together into cohesive simulations tools like Google Earth will grow more valuable (and dangerous).  They will then serve as platforms for social commenting, interaction, commerce and gaming.  But along the way the value chain will probably transform and new social behaviors will emerge.  

                Over the next 5 years the web will rapidly spread into the world.  This will not necessarily require the abundant, cheap sensors typically referenced in conversations about The Internet of Things (which is more about direct object-to-object communication).  Instead, it's more likely that prosumers will enrich rich virtual mirror worlds and then access them via geo-coordinates at home or on the go.  

                Here comes Sphorer's World Board, sprouting first in densely populated public areas, like Central Park.

                P.S. I'm not arguing that all of the tree apps in Central Park circa 2015 will necessarily be used very often, just that the means will be there to establish such systems at uber-low cost.  It'll be fascinating to watch use cases emerge.  There will be many we cannot anticipate.

                Thanks to Venessa Miemis for the conversation that inspired me to write this post and to TakuyaMurata for the iPhone user photo - Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0.

                Tuesday, August 10, 2010

                Waze Releases Groups Feature, Social Positioning Takes Another Step Forward

                Waze, the start-up that crowd-sources map creation and refinement by turning it into a game for smartphone users, has added a killer new feature to its latest release - Waze Groups.  A next logical step in the LBS app feature war, grouping now allows Waze cliques such as families taking trips, friends organizing pub crawls, cab companies mapping cab positions, road builders transforming terrain, realtors coordinating their sales agents, and so forth, to map and view their respective positions in real-time.  Members of Waze groups can also view status updates posted by group members so that messages that pertain to their experience can be shared intuitively.

                All in all, this appears to be a smart strategic move by company looking to up its influx of user generated content while at the same time grabbing a bigger chunk of the LBS market.  Expect to see more and more advanced geo-grouping features from companies like Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown, Loopt, Yelp, etc, in the near future.  Most probably have grouping features in the works.  But those who don't will probably scramble to react once they realize this maneuver could threaten their core.

                It's fun to watch the fast pace of the geosocial mobile apps!  My bet is that it'll accelerate as more entrants jump into this hot new space.