Saturday, January 19, 2008

I have seen the future, but how do I get a piece of the action?

Accoding to Max Borders, Croquet is the technology wave of the future:
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," Alan Kay is famous for saying. That's largely how he and his team came to the conclusion that they would have start from scratch with a new DNA for computing. Kay got together with an evolutionary biologist (Julian Lombardi), a grid-computing guru (David P. Reed), a Web 1.0 wunderkind (Mark McCahill), a Squeak developer (Andreas Raab) and 3D worldmaker (David Smith). The result has been a collaboration that can only be described as Copernican.

Right now, Croquet is more a platform than a world. The consortium built around Croquet is accreting interest and resources much like the HTML standards consortia of the past did early on. Military eggheads with loads of cash are perking up, too, of course. But like Arpanet (a precursor to the Web) eventually spread like a fungus into our homes and offices, Croquet may become our homes and offices.

But what is it, exactly? As Louis Armstrong said of jazz: "if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know." Croquet is a thing immune to elevator pitches. But let me try:

Croquet is a development platform that allows for radical collaboration in immersive online environments. "Online" is charitable, because Croquet will absorb the Internet eventually. The technology is scalable and an open (non-proprietary) standard like Mosaic was, but this time for a networked 3D future. Our human ability to handle information in tidy 2D hierarchies is pretty good, but it pales compared to our capacity to negotiate in the 3D environments we evolved in. Learning to live, work, collaborate and share information in co-creative worlds will help us find as many Archimedean points as stars in the sky.

Croquet is thoroughly peer-to-peer in both its application and its architecture. So it is not vulnerable to the limitations of hierarchy - either conceptually, or technically. It is a platform for networking just about everything. Mac? PC? Linux? It doesn't matter. Croquet is built on a "virtual machine", which means it transcends the boundaries of both operating system and geography alike, like some encoded blueprint for the space-time continuum. It not only can it scale to the level of the imagination, it will eventually look cooler than any game dreamt up by 20 geeks at Sony - and we will all participate in its creation.

I hope my clumsiness in elevator pitching was offset by my sense of awe. Because I've seen Croquet in action. And once you see Croquet operate, your understanding of this world, and all those possible worlds, will never be the same.

If you missed out on the PC revolution, then the GUI operating system revolution, then the Internet revolution, then the housing boom, well just hang on for awhile, because there's bound to be a next big thing. It might be Croquet. But can one of my more technically savvy contributors give me a clue as to what it really means for the future?


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I well remember when I was introduced to Mosaic.

I was at the second-fastest computer in the world, in a room with some of the top geeks from Champaign-Urbana, IBM, DoD etc.

They couldn't get the damn thing to load. Finally, after a long and embarrassing (for them) time, they brought up a picture of a building.

I was unimpressed.

It was quite a few years before I was impressed.

January 19, 2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

It looks interesting. In many ways, it's my doctoral thesis project redone for modern technology. And, it's true, it's hard to describe to people outside the field. The simplest would be that Croquet is a box of tools for building the metaverse from Snow Crash or NeuroMancer. Or building things like World of WarCraft or Second Life.

As in most things like this, doing the thing is very easy — getting everyone to agree on a doing it in a common way is very hard. Croquet is trying to create a common way of interacting in 3D virtual environments, the way HTML did that for 2D pages.

January 19, 2008 4:45 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I can see how that would revolutionize gaming, but how is it going to revolutionize everything else we do with computers? I remember when cyberpunk/virtual reality was the new, hot thing, and many of the sci-fi movies had hackers interacting with the web through 3-d representations of everything: security systems, bank accounts, etc. Is that what they're talking about here? I wasn't very convinced back then that that would be the way things would be.

So instead of managing my bank account using forms on a web page, I'll be interacting with a virtual teller in a 3d MUD? Sounds like a lot of wasted computing to do something very simple.

I don't think, apart from a small group of people, that we'll be giving up reality for virtual reality. But I'm a Boomer, so don't listen to me.

But if it does happen, which company stocks should I be investigating now? Who's making this happen?

January 19, 2008 5:18 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

That's mostly hype. And it's unlikely to have much effect on gaming, because that will require a level of performance not available in this mechanism (just like you don't build word processors in HTML).

You may scoff at banking in 3D, but many non sophisticated users may not, especially if the 3D interface resembles a bank lobby. Rather than looking through the links for "Withdrawl", you'd go to the table and grab a "Withdrawal slip" just like in a bank. If you want online help, you walk up to the teller. A key thing would be that the non-geek users learn one interface (moving around in 3D) and it then applies to all their online use because the visual interfaces correspond very directly to the physical world actions they know (like, how to do things in a bank).

On the other side of the age gap, kids are all very comfortable with moving around in virtual 3D spaces to do things from their games, so they'll pick up the interface without even thinking about it.

Nearer term, there's a lot of engineering and scientific collaboration that would find this very powerful. Just consider architecture. Or landscaping. Or molecular biology. Or network design.

January 19, 2008 6:52 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

At some point, maybe not far off, the concept of bank lobby and deposit slip might be alien to the young'uns.

About 8 years ago, the high school drama program my kids were in put on '42nd Street.' In a big crowd scene, there was a vignette of 3 girls going into phone booths to make calls.

The prop booths had '42 style phones. I didn't catch it at first, but the woman sitting next to me cracked up when the girls started dialing.

They just spun their fingers round and round without stopping. Of course. None of them had ever seen a dial phone; they didn't know about the detente.

January 19, 2008 7:53 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Perhaps. Yet kids still know what a Victrola record player is, and many of them have never seen a vinyl record. Whatever imagery is current when this becomes wide spread is likely to persist for a very long time.

The underlying theory here is that, even though it's a lot more information in a technical sense, a human can process a 3D scene such as a lobby much faster than lines of text with links.

January 20, 2008 7:25 AM  

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