Friday, August 24, 2012

Thoughts on the Book, Ready Player One

Ready Player One follows Wade, aka Parzival, around in both the real and virtual world.  It takes place in the near future; 2044.  The author, Ernest Cline, uses a literary tool that can draw in several readers who otherwise would not be inclined to pick up a science-fiction book.  The main story line is developed around one character's obsession with 80's and 90's music and movies.  The story is good by itself, but it was heightened as I experienced the full impact of nostalgia from almost every reference.   

It is always fun when science-fiction selects a time that is within a generation away.  This way, the world has to resemble present reality, but the author has the free range to deviate for technologies that may soon get developed.  And as today's technology is continually surprising people with its progress, much is likely to change by 2044.  

The technology Ernest Cline uses to enhance his world is augmented reality (AR).  He describes all the equipment that alter each sense to take the user from a bleak life in reality to one, or several, more fulfilling lives, in a virtual space.  Earlier movies such as The Lawnmower Man attempted to use the idea of AR for scary effect.  Because it is new and foreign to people it easily lends itself to making people feel uneasy.  And while the applications Ernest shows may make people feel uneasy, he depicts real world uses that overall make the world a better place to live (as long as the company is controlled by a worthy individual).

New technology tends to make people uneasy.  However, as it slips into existence people get used to it, and it becomes common place.  There was no place for an iPad until Apple created the market.  How much time is currently spent playing video games.  That question includes Farmville, or whatever other new game has come along.  First AR will be used for video games.  It is the most natural progression.  Then, multi-player role playing games.  Then, massively multi-player role playing games (MMRPG).  As the video games find massive audiences, Facebook and Google will upgrade their Face Time and Hangouts (interfaces that allow people to interact with each other with video), respectively into new social networking virtual experiences.  

Gaming Consoles have Explored Different Interfaces. Now Nintendo is Edging into the Social Network platform. Not Much of a Leap to Create a New AR Interface and then you could Control your Already Customized Avatar.

The virtual realities may start out as simple block like environments such as Mine Craft, but they will eventually evolve to be as real as any user wants.  Eventually go to Hell and back in a marathon session of the latest all too realistic Diablo.

"There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users'." -- Edward Tufte

People and the environments they interact in will seem to evolve in a flurry of activity. Why go visit family when you can plug in and have the same connection without having to drive? Why go to a friend's house to watch a movie when you can plug in? Eventually, as more and more memes get sucked into the AR sphere businesses will begin to take advantage of the cost savings and added customer communication.  Cline point out those advantages as he subjects Wade to the abuses of being a help desk rep.

That is all the progression needed to turn the majority of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One from science-fiction to fiction. Part of my interest is that he explores the potential reinvention of a couple long standing institutions; education and prison systems. The next posts in this series will discuss his vision and how society might get to a point of implementing some version of it.

UP NEXT: Thoughts on Ready Player One: Education
COMING UP: Thoughts on Ready Player One: Prison

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Google I/O: An Ethos of Google

Lore tells that in a particular instance of a particular Google board meeting, Google tasked the attendees to come up with a company motto.  While several tried to come up with elegant descriptions of what the company stood for, one was far more catchy and captured the spirit of what was desired than the rest; 'Don't Be Evil'.

Since that time, several issues have risen to test the robustness of their motto.  Competition between the likes of Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, and Microsoft test the lengths that they are willing to go to be on top.  Countries have been on both sides of their actions.  And individuals debate whether their technological expansions are innovations or invasions of privacy.

Is Google a monopoly? If it is, is that a bad thing?  After the 'Too big to fail' banking fiasco, I am quick to say nothing should be too big to fail.  That is part of capitalism.  However, C-Net recently posted an article explaining the benefits and necessity of some industries consisting of only a few major competitors.  Primarily, in industries that have a large initial expense, smaller competitors will not be able to compete.  The example was given of aircraft manufacturers, where the primary companies are Airbus and Boeing.  Are people going to be benefited by having more companies?  That point can always be argued both ways.

Google has been fined several times for gathering data that is deemed as an invasion of privacy.  For them to provide the best services they need to gather the best data.  To best locate a person, wi-fi locations can be mapped.  This gives better local results.  To give the best street view experience, they actually have cars that drive around taking pictures everywhere.  People complained about their faces, their houses, their license plates.  Governments place cameras everywhere, but as soon as Google takes a picture in public everyone is offended.  The company satiated the complaints by incorporating technology to automatically blur the offending areas.  Seems like cameras should be required to incorporate the same technology.  It would be horrible if you took a picture of a friend at the beach and posted a picture of someone else on your favorite social media site because they were in the background of your picture.  I go the other way.  I want to know when Google would be driving by my house so I could take one of those old timey pictures.  Do a search for my house and you would see a picture of my entire extended family standing outside (no one smiles) along with many of the possessions from inside the house. I never know their schedule or how to find that, so it will never happen.   

In contrast, Facebook has this whole wiki post listing their ethical mine field.  My favorite is the PR company, Burson-Marsteller, they hired that ended up doing an anti-Google smear campaign.  The campaign was trying to highlight Google's horrendous privacy policies.  Many of which are similar to those of other companies, except that Google tries to be more up front about everything.  Or perhaps they are only more up front because of the smear campaign.  The entire history of Burson-Marsteller would make for interesting reading because if someone uses them there is almost certainly a juicy reason that PR is needed.  Come on David Fincher, this would make a great follow up to The Social Network.

In comparison to the other companies competing in similar markets, Google seems to be on higher ethical ground.  Granted, the motto was not 'Don't be as evil as that guy'.  But, when Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google at the time, went before congress to defend the actions of his company, he did use the argument that with technology advancing every day, even though Google looks far superior on that day, it is only a couple steps from falling behind the other tech giants.  The technology sector is notorious for moving from one big thing to the next.

Some people who are Google fanboys will still talk against them when discussing so called deals with the devil.  They forged a deal with Verizon to get a demanding presence in the mobile industry.  To expand into China they agreed to censor certain search results.  They eventually did pull out of China when their requests were too great.  Also, going against the Verizon deal is Google's effort to introduce incredible fiber networks.  Kansas City is the first location to receive that opportunity.  Having enormous quantities of bandwidth to play with opens several possibilities that will allow them to perform the Herculean effort of rectifying their deal.

On top of that they also have side projects such as cars that drive themselves.  They recently achieved 300,000 miles on open road.  Another big announcement was that of Google Glass; their augmented reality headset.  The key point for those announcements is disruption; disruption that evolves the societal infrastructure.  Perhaps those could become new revenue sources.  If not, it keeps people talking about Google and going to their website.  It is a great business model cause the more people that look at the internet, the more revenue they get.  It boils down to the more time they free up for people, the more money Google makes.  It's beautiful.

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