MediaSapien Interview at GameScenes

23 11 2010

MediaSapien was recently interviewed by the folks at GameScenes, a wonderful blog dedicated to games and art.  In the chat we discuss virtual identity, interactivity and the future of the human/machine relationship.

Marque Cornblatt: From the earliest cave paintings through modern times, the self portrait has always been a means of establishing one’s place in the world – to say “I am here.”  In this new virtual territory, reputation has become the most important form of social currency, and we are no longer limited to a single identity.

Read the whole interview here.  Thanks GameScenes.


Bruce Willis, Surrogates and State-of the-Art Telepresence

24 09 2009

An interesting take on the state-of-the-art… With Die Hard!!


How far are we from sending robots into the world in our stead?

Anne Marie Corrley writes:
“Imagine a world where you’re stronger, younger, better looking, and don’t age. Well, you do, but your robot surrogate—which you control with your mind from a recliner at home while it does your bidding in the world—doesn’t.”

Read the whole story here.

Why I Hate Facebook, The Anti-Social Network

4 02 2009

Like the Borg, resistance to Facebook seems futile.

In the early days, it was easy to ignore. After all, Facebook was only one of a growing crowd of 2.0 websites and services.  There was MySpace, Friendster LinkedIn and other emerging technologies competing for my limited bandwidth, not to mention IM, texting and even a seldom-used email listserve for my Burning Man campmates.  With so many options for communicating to my tribe, Facebook was the least interesting of the bunch.  But somewhere along the way, many of these other technologies either lost their relevance or settled into a specific functional niche and seemingly out of nowhere, Facebook took the lead as THE social network to join.  This digital Darwinism, coupled with the ever-growing number of requests to join in my inbox finally worn me down.

So join I did, figuring Facebook was now a required card in the online poker hand that is my professional career.  A few months ago I registered, uploaded a profile picture and started exploring the features.  Since then I have friended a mix of about 125 people – current friends, younger family members, old school chums, ex-girlfriends and a few professional contacts.  I launched a Facebook fan club for Gomi Style, my online DIY video series, as well as a second group, dedicated to robots and telepresence.   I joined groups too, with shared interests like video art, Sarah Palin bashing and DIY.  I uploaded videos of my new projects and links, I wrote pithy and frequent status updates, and commented on a very small number of daily friends updates – Its hard to reply to every flake when one is buried in snow – and tried to give Facebook an sincere spin by migrating the bulk of my online networking to this (alleged) network.   I had to draw the line at playing Mob Wars, trading green patches, and otherwise embracing the hundreds of 3rd party applications that promised to suck away every last bit of my attention.  Games and widgets aside though, I committed, installing the Facebook App on my iPhone, and methodically checking and updating my status many times a day in an effort to master this social network and gain a realtime pipeline to some of the most relevant people in my life.  What I experienced was the opposite of what I expected. 

A technological lifetime ago, sometime around 2007, prior to the convenience of Facebook and social networks in general; people had a natural buffer of time and space between themselves and their larger circle of friends and family.   Sure, we complained that keeping in touch was a chore, but most of us secretly relied on these hurdles to afford us some measure of control over our personal interactions.  Over the last decade, these barriers have slowly been eroding as we become more accustomed to the ease of social contact via the web – and Facebook has emerged as the leader of the bunch, recently estimated to have one out of every 50 people on earth as a member.  How could anyone not find Facebook a stunning example of technology’s ability to flatten the world and allow that old friend currently working in Shanghai and the guy in the cubicle next to you to both be a single democratizing click away?

Given these facts, why do I consider Facebook the antisocial network?  For one, I can see the updates, comments and activities of far too many friends and acquaintances.  By any measure, do I really need to know that some guy who I was in the Boy Scouts with 25 years ago is considering gum surgery, or look at yet another photo album of drunken partiers I don’t recognize? Sure, the onslaught of updates can be funny, informative, surreal, or heart-felt.  Or just plain self-indulgent.  How quickly the novelty of always-on knowledge wears thin.

Often these updates, notices and invites beg a response, or at least an acknowledgement.  While it is pretty straight forward, even on Facebook, to wish someone a happy birthday, it gets murkier knowing the correct response to an old classmate’s daily expression of ennui.  Worse, I now find myself updating my status, posting videos and roommate notices with the wide-eyed hope and expectation that my stream of personal activities will get the attention of my network and inspire enthusiastic replies. 

One reason this always disappoints me is a result of what I refer to as the Facebook Effect:  More than ever before, we are becoming comfortable NOT responding to the heartfelt announcements, confessions and daily updates from our friends and loved ones.  While glancing at, and essentially ignoring the chaos of daily life can be a healthy defense mechanism in real-life, having those traits on Facebook has a hardening quality that I don’t like, especially in myself.

The problem lies in the numbing effects of so much data from so many people.  Everyone knows that we all experience daily ups and downs, birthdays, professional milestones, etc… and we increasingly share these things on Facebook.  But in some ways, seeing the gigs of ex-classmates and birth announcements of old friends only reminds me that I am not really in touch with them any more with Facebook than I was before I joined. 

In fact, where previously it was easy to let old acquaintances fade away naturally, Facebook now serves as a daily reminder of just how far those relationships have faded from view.  But instead of inspiring me to get more active and involved with the 125+ people in my list, it has the opposite effect of turning up the heat on the guilt gumbo that I already had simmering on the back burner. 

Facebook makes me feel less connected, not more, yet I still check it throughout the day; looking, lurking, updating and occasionally commenting.   I can’t seem to stop, hoping I will start to click with it, not wanting to lose the zeitgeist.  I guess resistance really IS futile.  Maybe a Twitter account will help cure me…

Virtual Crimes Equal Real Life Punishment

23 10 2008


Thanks to BOING BOING for pointing out these recent stories.

Virtual crime is nothing new.  We’ve been hearing about it for a while now, but mostly these stories focused on the relative difficulty of establishing fair criteria regarding issues of juristiction, IP rights and other facets of a virtual case.  Recent events seem to indicate that the law is finally catching up to the tech, however.  A Japanese woman, accused of murdering her ex-husband’s avatar, has been jailed in connection with the crime – she did not murder a flesh-and-blood person, but an in-game avatar from the online games called “Maple Story.”  While there is no specifc law regarding virtual murder, the exact charge against her is inappropriate computer access, which carries a 5 year jail term and $5000 fine.

In a similar story of RL catching up with VL, a couple of teenage Dutch bullies were convicted of roughing up and stealing goods from a classmate within the virtual world of RuneScape.  Under Dutch law virtual goods are goods, and this was clearly an act of theft.  The teens were sentenced with 160 and 200 hours of community service – I wonder if they can serve their time in-game, or if they will be picking up trash along the dykes?

Naturally, MediaSapien finds this blurring distinction between V and R a natural progression, and wonders why it’s taken so long for legislators to catch up with the times.  Wait… Did I just seriously say that?  I must be high.  At least they’re starting to get it now.

Vint Cerf Confirms the Future of the Internet Belongs To Telepresence Robots

4 09 2008

Vint Cerf, quoted from an Interview with Ed Cone:

“I expect to see much more interesting interactions, including the possibility of haptic interactions – touch. Not just touch screens, but the ability to remotely interact with things. Little robots, for example, that are instantiations of you, and are remotely operated, giving you what is called telepresence. It’s a step well beyond the kind of video telepresence we are accustomed to seeing today.

This image of little robots is different from the typical autonomous robot you see in the AI world. They could be sitting in a conference room, representing me — not autonomously, but allowing me to be in more than one place at the same time. They can move around, interact with things, talk to people, see like everyone else can.”

Wow.  This description of a world populated by web-enabled telepresence robots has been a Mediasapien dream for years.  It sounds like he is describing Sparky, my Autonomous Telepresence robot.

Wii Fit Workout 30 Day Exercise Challenge – Week 3

24 08 2008

Day 15

Nursing a sore back again, so Mediasapien kept it light.  20 minutes of yoga-based stretching and a walk of about 1.5 miles.

Day 16

Today: 30 minutes of yoga (all Wii Fit poses) and 30 minutes of boxing in Wii Sports.

As week # 3 get under way, Mediasapien is frustrated.  Some chinks in the armor are staring to appear that have me ending my workouts feeling angry and frustrated, not drained and relaxed.  Mostly its because the boxing I’ve been enjoying so much seems to have real limits as I progress through the ranks.  When I first boxed in the game, I was able to feel a reasonable connection between my punches and those of my avatar.  As I faced tougher opponents, I had to improve my game – and it showed.  I was getting stronger and faster with each bout.  But something happened along the way.  I started noticing missed or dropped punches – my avatar was unresponsive to faster punch combo, and missed many uppercut and roundhouse punches all together.  This would leave my avatar exposed too long and slow to recover, and the opponent would seize on this opportunity and pummel my avi to the mat with a quick succession of blows.  

As a test, I tried to shadow box a little to see how responsive it could be and the game failed.  IMHO, if the game misses one out of 10 punches, I could live with it.  But if the game is missing 4 out of ten, then there is little point in playing.  I even went to my local Gamestop and purchased a used copy of another Wii boxing title, Showtime Boxing.  This game was such a complete dog.  I returned it immediately.

Evaluation: The accuracy of the Wiimote had better improve if Nintendo expects people to play these games more than once or twice.  There is some research to indicate that 60% of Wii Fit owners use it once, and then never again.   Granted this research seems to be a quote from a Microsoft exec., but still, no Nintendo spokesperson has stood up to refute the claim.

Day 17

Funny thing.  While rooting through the Wii Sports menus, I came across a fitness test that predates Wii Fit, and was clearly the inspiration to take the idea further.  It consisted of 3 tests – 2 boxing oriented tasks (hitting the trainer’s mitts and not the trainer, and KO’ing a punching bag), and one agility test based on avoiding balls thrown at you by the trainer.  These were fast and fun, if not particularly useful, and inspired me to do something foolish – break out the Wii Sports boxing and the inevitable frustration that it has come to represent.  Like a prophesy fulfilled, by the 2nd bout, I was getting angrier with each non-responsive “punch.”  I threw the Wiimote so hard that it literally flew down the hall into the next room, and smashed against the far wall, breaking the battery compartment lid.

I blame myself.

I knew this would happen.  It’s the same pattern that has developed in the last week or so while boxing.  It’s a shame because it is clearly the most fun AND the best workout available on the console, but I really must stop playing it.  What good is a workout that ends in rage?  

Since I acted some rashly, and broke my toy, I decided some punishment was in order, so I went through all the strength-building exercises at the maximum-allowable reps.  Fortunately, this took me past the minimum required 30 minutes, and I was able to power down the Wii and walk away.

Evaluation: I seem to be hitting a wall with Wii Fit and it’s cousins.  I am looking deep within the game and options to find a useful and enjoyable workout, but I might be reaching a point where the limits of the game are starting to show. Ironically, it’s the system’s selling point – the Wiimote – which seems to be the weakest link.  With just under 2 weeks remaining in the 30 day test, the outlook is becoming less rosy for the game.

Day 18

Once again Mediasapien is sidelined by chronic back pain issues.  No Wii Fit today.  Hell, no sitting upright today, for that matter.  I have 18 holes scheduled for tomorrow in Golden Gate Park actual outdoor exercise with people, not Mii’s to keep me company.  I hope I’m up for it.

Mediasapien out.

Day 19

Well Mediasapien’s back is still sore, but it comes and goes.  So I’m off to the park and some RL disc golf.  I’m going to record my walking distance (and call it a hike) even if I don’t toss the disc.  Either way I will record my outdoor activity for Wii Fit credits and perform a body test later.

…Later. Golf was great.  Here’s the evidence, according to my iPhone and Pathtracker software:

After adding my Wii Fit credits, I took another body test.  My BMI hasn’t really budged much.  I’m still about 8-9 lbs overweight, but my improved center of balance and coordination have brought my Wii Fit age down to 36.  Woo Freakin’ Hoo.

Tomorrow Mediasapien is going to compare Wii Fit with an older Xbox game called Yourself Fitness – Microsoft’s effort at making a fitness title 3 years ago.

Day 20

Bad new for Mediasapien.  Due to the flair up of old injuries, I can no longer continue my test of Wii FIt and other exercise and fitness games.  As reported several times over the last few weeks, the lower back was intermittently in spasm, and as I fired up the Xbox title Yourself fitness today, my left knee blew out severely.  Mediasapien hasn’t been in this much pain since first ruining my knees as a ballet student, which effectively ending any chance of a professional dance career back in high school and required 3 months of physical therapy.  So no exercise for at least 3-4 days. Period. None.  Even typing hurts my knees.

Too bad, because Yourself Fitness seemed to have potential.  The initial body test seemed more accurate than the Wii’s, even without the motion sensing tech – It evaluated resting and active heart rates, lower, core and upper body strength, weight and flexibility.  It even offered a built-in menu planner for weight loss, as well as the option to use any existing equipment you already have in your workouts.

Since the 30-day evaluation plan was cut short, I will hustle to get the final verdict posted within a day or two.  But for now, Mediasapien has to get off these throbbing knees, sit back and relax.   Maybe I’ll finally get a chance to sign up for Warcraft and see what all the fuss is about.

Wii Fit Avatars, Gold Farming and the Future of Exercise

22 08 2008


What does that word mean to you?  Probably something along the lines of : wake up, shower, commute, work, commute, eat dinner, watch TV, go to sleep, repeat.  Even if you have a different routine, chances are it is exactly that – a routine.  Unless you’re professional snowboarder Shawn White, a chill dude who seems like he doesn’t have any routine at all, chances are you have a daily grind.

For many people, that “work” part of the grind entails sitting at a workstation or staring at a laptop for most of the day.  Regardless of the way their job used to be done, now it is done online, or at least on a computer.  It’s hard for many of us to remember, but once every job was done without a computer.  Now, it’s hard to find a job that doesn’t put the computer front and center.  The overwhelming penetration into our work lives by computers and digital technology has created a new grind so rapidly that we are just now getting our collective head wrapped around it. 

There is however one group who seems to understand the new grind.  I refer to gamers in general, and WoW players in particular, who have seized on the notion of grinding in-game as the most basic analogue to “work.”  And in the economy of Warcraft, grinding is a discrete means of creating value.  So much value, in fact, that a whole, RL economy has sprung up around the concept of outsourcing the activity of actually playing the game to low-wage earners in China and even Canada.  For a modest hourly wage, these tech workers will dutifully play your character in WoW, while you sleep or work or whatever, mining virtual gold or slaughtering digital rats, incrementally but steadily advancing your character’s level.

Why would you pay someone else to play your game for you?  The two main reasons are you are lazy or you are greedy. 

For some, the many, many hours needed to raise a character’s level high enough to make playing fun is too much commitment, and so for them paying someone else to slog through endless repetitive task seems like a good deal.  They get to cruise right into an advanced character.  To others the resale value of a high-ranking character is appealing.  A mature character with lots of money, property and rare valuables in the game is worth plenty of RL cash.  To these players, the cost of hiring the digital equivalent of day laborers to literally grind away day and night at a character is minimal compared to the  potential returns.

Look, it's Andy!

Look, it's Andy! Oh, it's just Mediasapien in drag.

But WoW is not the only virtual world with ties to RL economics.  There are dozens of MMO’s and virtual worlds where things of value can be made, found, and most importantly, traded.  Inevitably economies develop by the players, if not planned outright by the developers.  I’m reminded of dancers in Second Life, more specifically, people who are employed within SL to be entertainers at clubs, discos and casinos.  By placing their avatars on specific hotspots, they will begin to dance based on the particular animation loading into that hotspot.  A dancer doesn’t choose his or her moves – they act essentially as a marionette performing whatever animation the club owner installs.   The owner is willing to pay for this service because it makes the club seem more “happening,” so the dancing avatar earns in-world money called Lindens for every minute they remain on the hotspot.  Because lindens can be converted into US currency there is the ability to make RL money dancing in SL.  This might sound like a good deal, until you consider that the converted wage is often just pennies per hour, while you ( the player), are just sitting there, idly watching your avatar cycle through the same moves endlessly.  Compared to playing, exploring, meeting people and seeing new things in SL, the earned value of robotically dancing in a club seems pitifully low, yet there is no shortage of people willing and eager to dance. 

Why is that?  Would these people be willing to do the same activity for the same value in RL?   Probably not.  Yet the most mundane, boring and repetitive tasks, regardless of the equivalent lack of RL value, seem to offer something to players in game. 

With this in mind, what is there to prevent a RL company from setting up sweatshops in virtual worlds as a way to exploit people’s willingness to work digitally for pennies?  An employee-intensive business could just fire the folks who sit at computers in RL all day (eliminating the cost of offices, health care, etc…) and replace them with volunteer avatars who sit at virtual desks in SL.  The work getting done would be the same.  The only difference is that the boring task has now been made enjoyable simply by adding an additional layer of mediation.  Accounts receivable is boring, but virtual accounts receivable is fun.  Updating the corporate database is a drag, but updating a database in a video game is a blast!

Future Cubicle Farm

Future Cubicle Farm

All of this grind-think is because of the commitment I’ve made to spend an entire month evaluating Wii Fit and other video game-based exercise and workout options.  Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of exercise for it’s own sake.  Although not specifically a couch potato, rarely do I go for a run or hit the gym.  I have in the past been extremely fit and active as a bike messenger in NYC, and as a full time ballet student for several years.  But these activities were waaaay back in the 20th century – in recent years I’ve become more sedentary, working at a computer almost all the time.  I may not be cocooned in a matrix-style goo-pod highrise, but some days it feels close. 

But I am a gamer and technology fetishist.  I believe in the power of serious games and entertainment technology to provide new and valid experiences, so I am often willing to experiment and push the boundaries of what can be done with technology.  I’ve never argued one way or the other whether violent games will make kids violent, only that they  make kids better at being violent.

So I posed the basic question to myself of whether the virtual environment has the richness of experience, the allure to provide actual, valid exercise – a real workout to a user who is pretty lazy about such things.  As of this writing, I am just past the halfway mark in my one month test, and I’ve had a lot of time to consider why this interaction with technology has inspired me to remain committed and working out 6 days a week for roughly an hour.  It’s a modest commitment really, not terribly focused or even well defined.  Yet here I am, eager to fire up the Wii, warm up with 40 minutes of yoga, and then hit the ring for a half hour of virtual boxing.  These are not activities that I would normally be excited about, whether I had made a commitment or not.  I’ve had gym and yoga studio memberships in the past and I dragged my ass there with decent regularity, but I always let the membership expire within a few months.  It always became a grind.  The same commute, the same exercises, the same people.  I got bored or distracted. 

Ping.. something or other

Ping.. something or other

But gaming has been a passion of mine since a little white square first started bouncing between two paddles, and rather than growing out of it, I find that I am more committed to these technologies than ever before.  I am the Mediasapien, after all. But being the Mediasapien doesn’t require me to like all games.  In fact I am very picky about games and don’t enjoy most of them.  I’ve never played Diablo or WoW because I hated the notion of grinding.  Boring.  Repetitive. 

Grinding is at the heart of most exercise, and grinding is at the heart of many game activities.  Separately, these two forms of grinding are hard for Mediasapien to take, yet somehow the combination of the two activities creates a new thing altogether, one that seems to overcome the limitations of each while creating a compelling environment for fitness.  The synthesis of the two seems natural and inevitible.  Wii Fit and it’s ilk may be easily distained in some circles today, but the next generation or two of theses technologies have seemingly unlimited potential and won’t be so easily dismissed. The future of exercise, like so many other futures, will be hypermediated through video games and entertainment technology.