Jun 132006

© Gary Hayes 2006Give people very simple and highly social tools for producing and creatively sharing content and truly inventive things will happen. In a growing ‘easy to publish’ movement the current user generated, digital personalized content explosion will continue indefinitely – the creative big bang. A digital stills or video camera and a computer in the right hands has already demonstrated wonderful things can happen. Give anyone a pen and paper and a thousand works can be produced, books, comics, sketches, screenplays, personal letters, song lyrics and so on. Give them a simple way (blogger, wordpress etc) to publish their thoughts, opinions and journals onto the interweb and we end up with 44 million blogs and rising. Give them a place like Flickr to store, tag and share their digital photos and as well as a billion images, covering the state of the planet, we also find something the creators never thought of or intended – endless mashups, games and interconnections between users content. In fact the simpler the tool set, the more people can play with it, create their own rules and more importantly extend the environment. Most so-called interactive services or console games suffer from the been-there-done-that moment when the ‘story world’ is exhausted as I mentioned a couple of posts ago. Even some of the RPG online games suffer from this in that you have rule sets, repetition and actions you ‘have’ to perform to continue or rise up the ranks, whatever is your preference – this constraint hinders creative production. So what do you do when you get given a completely new world where the narrative and rules are unlimited?

To answer that question here are some of my current, initial thoughts on being creative inside Second Life. A few have referred to this world now as the future of the internet – in that the 2D website will be replaced by a 3D space not disimilar to what is evolving here. That may well be true, in which case all the creativity we see on the web at the moment will morph into a cluster of shared 3D spaces. I will look in a moment though at photography, filming, creating games and original art inside SL but first what are the majority of the now quarter of a million residents up to? Most have unsurprisingly brought key elements of the real world with them – the three way street of money, socialising and sex. I differentiate the last two because there are only around 10-20 thousand involved in virtual sex – according to the purveyors of the various bits of ‘equipment’ you need to buy. I do feel most though use the world as a place to meet their peers or just as a ‘cute’ way to communicate (an alternative IM or chat room – see Tony’s comments a few posts ago). Of course there are those who are only after making a buck or two, selling clothes, gadgets, buildings and anything else that can be bought on the ‘outside’. For many, judging by the endless malls and classifieds, it is a place to hang and watch the tens of dollars trickle in, for a few it is a real income which means they really have given up the day job. Hats off to them, but not original.

I think many in the world also use Second Life as a means to live the life they never will be able to – the nice house, alternate (sometimes deviant) lifestyle and all the trappings in a nice, like-minded neighbourhood. But what else apart from money, socialising and sex? Is there anything really unique being created rather than cute representations of the real world – sure there are wonderful themed gardens and coastal scenes – but like the scene in the film Contact where Jodie Foster was told (I paraphrase) – “we did it this way so as not to scare you” when referring to how a higher race may communicate with us, by taking us to a familiar, pleasant environment. But what about the unqiue and higher art forms, photography, film, games, sculpture, art, literature, mash-ups and music? I talk about the first four here from a ‘producing-it’ perspective but will get to the last four in a future post.

I have been dabbling, like a few others, with ‘finer art’ photography, filming (machinima) and attending a few lectures. I have also been playing with scripting music and ai type 3D graphics motion but early days yet. I have seen some very nice original art pieces that are enabled by the very basic 3D tools you get as standard but only a handful of people are creating the truly original works. But what about photography? Well it is relatively straightforward to screen capture the world in second life, a what- you-see-is-what-you-get digital photography equivalent. But to produce anything of a higher standard, like real photography, you need to spend time. Not as much as filming of course, but devote time and effort. I have done a few trial shoots (images scattered in this post – Anya above) and found that all the same rules apply as to a real shoot – I have done quite a few professional real life photo shoots on and off over the years. You have to find willing subjects who take direction, you need good clothes, you need to use special lighting and find great locations with suitable environmental elements. Then there are the unlimited poses for the avatars (yes it is sometimes easy to forget when you are in the middle of shoot that these are just 3D graphic models). Then there are the endless expressions and props you have to manage.

©Gary Hayes 2006Finally your photographic sensibility and aesthetic have to be utilised. Composition is critical in a world of unlimited depth of field – the angle of view, elements in the scene and overall colour ranges. These things apply to filming but then you have consider many more things such as animation, moving camera and filmic narrative which complicates things even further – more later. Photography is a very social thing in this world as to achieve good results the communication between avatars (and their puppet masters) is crucial. Just using chat or IM slows things down, one where you are in control of the subject is obviously better but most social, would be to use voice or skype during the session. The key point I am trying to make here is that to produce anything of aesthetic value you need to put in the hours – like the real world it requires dedication. The real world of CG animation likewise requires true dedication shuffling those millions of pixels around, you have full control, but also unlimited variables and possibility – an major effort in filtering and selection.

©Gary Hayes 2006This leads onto making machinima in Second Life – but which applies to any games engine filming. Firstly the story. OK this goes without saying but many machinima narratives have often been constrained or certainly curtailed due to the limitations of the medium. The best stories are the ones that play to the strengths of this medium and like my earlier post on ARGs in Second Life, use narratives that are rooted in the environment. There is a group in second life called alt-zoom that are pioneering filmmaking in this environment and a few friends are also pushing the envelope. Kronos (aka David) is, like me, learning the tricks of the tools and I will do a post later about the more craft/tech side of lighting, frame rates, colour balance, capture settings etc:. The technical side of capturing the real time ‘play’ is relatively straightforward as is the set building (which is a breeze and pleasure here). What is not so easy is the cinematography and the quality of the character animation and facial expression. Using a locked off or auto tracking camera is not so bad but to try and create scripted camera motion takes a serious amount of time especially when trying to achieve synchronicity with the actors – I will call avatars, actors from now on.

©GAry Hayes 2006There are limited sets of animations for the actors and the facial expressions have a long way to go (many are garish) so for now I tend to favour a more subtle approach and use head motion rather than theatrical, comedic standard actions. You can of course create your own poses and anims in tools like poser and import them and that is the only way for bespoke filmmaking in this environment. I am also trying to pioneer live filming in second life. Using a games controller it is feasible (still working on it) to have full 360 degree control over the positioning of the camera in real time, making slow crane shots or unique tracking shots much easier. This then makes the whole process more realistic, especially if your actors are improvising and are in control in real time of each of their animation suite. In fact this really gives second life an advantage over CG produced or games console based machinima in that the whole process starts to match a real shoot. I have included a couple of stills from a test shoot I have just done on this page also. A final ambitious goal for me at least is to try to do a multi camera shoot of the real time scenes – in otherwords you could have ten or more people logged in with three doing a real time three camera shoot while the other seven take the directorial, set design and acting roles. Check posts for updates on this.

As a slight tangent and following on from my earlier post on ARG’s in the world it was interesting pick up on a range of intitiatives set-up by Linden Labs (the world creators) to try to stimulate more, social games in the environment. The SecondCast podcast crew talked about a few on a recent episode called “To the Zoo”. It was no surprise that they also agreed that the less technology in the game, and the more that it involves social interplay and uses the worlds grammar, the more compelling it was. So they reviewed the in-game, games The Collective, SLictionary, Tech Warfare, Boogie Board, Danger Zone, Dark Life, Castle Wars and Blocks SL. The Collective went someway to using the world for the core of its game play narrative in that it required you to ‘experience’ as much as possible to accrue points towards a final play-off – so just saying hi to new people or going to new places was enough to take part in the game and it encouraged more than what most people do in the world. The one that garnered most social interplay was SLictionary. Yes more or less Pictionary, but in SL you a required to build (using tools that most experienced SL’ers are familiar with) objects and everyone has to guess what it is. Sounds simple and yes it was, but most time was spent on it. OK not quite an ARG but I will be playing it soon as it sounded like great fun. In the almost ARG domain there was also Mata Hari that has been covered by Anya, which really was a word puzzle game wrapped in a thinly veiled historial narrative. Not really an ARG, which should really be rooted in the story world of the one you are in and have a much deeper narrative structure, but by all accounts got people interested in more of the same. There are a few more on-going that I will post about later.

Finally onto true originality. There seems to be a lack of uniqueness in second life at the moment. I suppose the time it takes to become fluent in the environment means that only a diehard few will have the time to invent new things. Sure some new fashions have appeared but what does this environment provide us as raw materials to make the unique. Well a few are playing with the fact that in a world of ‘suppressed gravity’ and extended physics, where particle and layers animation is relatively straightforward combined with simple scripting, texturing and easily distorted primitive shapes – quite a few unique things are possible. Anya (again) introduced me to (aka) Clames Clanger (a professional music producer and filmmaker) who has his own special island where he creates unique, out of this world, but no so out of that world, pieces. They are all moving in very fluid ways and few reminded me forcibly of, getting back to the film I mentioned earlier, the transporter from Contact. All are truly innovative and pushing the imaginative envelope of a bio-mechanical future but retaining a naturalistic purity. Then there are his ‘nature’ pieces that exhibit a level of artificial intelligence many using particle physics. All great fun, profound and firmly rooted in what SL should be about.

Clames shows how the tools in the right hands can produce something special, sublime and unique. There are a handful of others ‘playing’ in this space so I am excited to see what evolves. It is was also great meeting up with him as he demonstrated something I had spent a few days creating from my real world panoramic photos, surround cycloramas for the film I am doing. So it was wonderful for Clames to show that SL has its own holodeck (thanks to Nightspy). Yes a box that contains a range of computer controlled, full surround imagery exactly meeting my needs – complete with Star Trek speech commands. More on that experience and how we work with it in a later post.

The speed at which information moves here really promotes creative thinking. The next thing is to move some real world media management thinking inside to provide a strong foundation and to allow the creatives to flourish.

To summarise then. In an immersive enviroment with a unique but simple set of tools anything is possible. I suspect the majority of the potentially one million by the end of the year (if the growth statistics hold up) will be doing what they always have done. A few though will pioneer, do what is impossible in the real world and create totally unique user generated content. It goes without saying that the late 2003 policy of Linden Labs on advice from the forward thinking Lawrence Lessig and his in-world talks helped a great deal in promoting creative thinking here – remove the barriers to unlimited innovation, these include a sense of ownership of the work but with that needs to be very accessible and easy to use tools, and SL has some of the best.

Post and photography by Gary Hayes ©2006

Nov 082005

Dunes Death Valley ©Gary Hayes 2005Who would have thought it? After many years of rampant piracy of TV programmes and films the networks and content holders are starting to fight back. Who would have imagined such a scenario? So it comes as no surprise that CBS and NBC are moving to sell their prime time shows on demand for as little as 99c. Before we look at their models I often think when I see these reports, of an expression a friend in Santa Barbara, Patrick Gregston, used at a Super Distribution conference I produced earlier in the year

“the mountain top is gonna shrink and the foothills are gonna explode but we are pretty sure that those people that are on the mountain top are gonna buy all the best foothills too”

The sort of quote you come out with when you live in glorious Santa Barbara but extremely relevant as the mighty NBC starts to offer Battlestar Galactica (amongst others) for 99c for a week after it airs. As the business wire report points out today:

The way people are consuming content is changing,” said David Zaslav, President, NBC Universal Cable. “Through this agreement with DIRECTV, consumers will be able to watch top NBC content on demand for just $0.99, when they want, without commercials. It’s a huge sea change. This deal is the first of its kind and we value DIRECTV’s partnership in rolling it out.

So the new 100 hour NDS based Personal Video Recorder about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting West Coast USA public through DirecTV will act as a way to distribute these programmes – kind of thinking why wouldn’t they just ask the PVR to capture them on transmission – probably missing something here 😉 Given the use of Sky+ box office in the UK and IQ in Australia the jury is out on how sucessful a ‘order for later model’ will work, but selling the crown jewels this way may prove a winner.

The other giant of US broadcasting entering the fray is CBS who have teamed up with Comcast Cable to offer in January the same 99c model of watch major prime time programmes like CSI and Survivor when they want. The article from PR Newswire quotes:

“Video on demand has fundamentally changed the way people watch TV, and now for the first time the most popular prime-time CBS programming will be available to our customers,” said Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation. “CBS has taken a giant step forward in experimenting with prime-time video on demand. Comcast’s ON DEMAND service has been tremendously successful, with more than one billion program views so far this year.”

OK Pay-Per-Play Video-on-demand is as old as the ‘foot’ hills but this shift of ‘prime time’ on-demand starts to change the whole meaning of prime time. If viewers around the US can effectively get the most popular shows at any time and most importantly without adverts ;

within hours after they air, commercial free, for just 99 cents.

are they not destroying their own business model? If prime time becomes anytime the advertisers will pay less, surely? Perhaps this is the real shift. As enough consumers pay for iPod Video, PVR delivered content, cable on-demand content the advertisers may be completely cut-out of the equation over time. If prime content can be pre-financed by major distributors and sold direct to the viewer at which point do advertisers enter the distribution chain? No thinking about it advertisers will simply buy some of those foothills as well – what else would happen. Certainly the BBC started this ball rolling a couple of years ago with bitorrent distributed programming (I remember being at a momentous internal BBC presentation by Lawrence Lessig in 2003 when the penny dropped for quite a few BBC execs, hence the current BBC-on-demand, creative commons impetus. But back to the issue of advertising funded popular programming vs ppv models it comes down to two:
1 Cheaper on-demand content is full of ads
2 You pay more for less (sneaky on-screen graphics or product placement) or no ads

Whether or not on PVRs and on-demand cable you can skip them then comes down to a simple fact – if the ads are interesting to you, like an interesting programme you watch them – but all of this is another story for another long series of posts. Keep tuned in.

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005