My Interview with a Gremlin

At Engage! Expo, I had my first opportunity to Interview a Gremlin. It all happened fairly quickly and all I had was an old camera take a tape of a laptop screen, so I apologize for the low quality video. However, it does give a sense of what is coming with some fascinating interfaces.

Perhaps the most interesting vendor to me at Engage Expo was Animazoo. They have a motion capture suit that you can wear which can capture a person’s motions and use it to control an avatar. Their current version is a high end, expensive device, but they are working on a consumer version which should become available around Feb 2011 for around $400. Developer’s models, which will be more expensive should start becoming available in Dec 2009.

I spent a bit of time talking with the folks involved. First, I spoke with the folks at the booth. Then, they had their connection to their lab back in England up and running, so I spent a bit of time talking with Matt the Gremlin in the UK. As we talked I thought, this would make a great interview. If we were doing it scripted and planned ahead, I could have set up something like Fraps to capture the screen. Instead, it was completely ad hoc and off the cuff. I asked permission, took out my beat up old video camera and did a quick video.

It isn’t high quality, but it illustrates, quite nicely I believe, what can be done with this motion capture suit and a little bit of software. If we could do this, using a $400 device, existing software, and no planning, just imagine what you could do with an art department creating some fascinating avatars and carefully scripting and storyboarding the action. Let’s push it a little further. Think about what you could do with a dozen people in these sort of motion capture suits; a football game between the orcs and elves; a fascinating dance party for seven year old girls, all of this coming to the consumer market. The possibilities are endless. What are your thoughts?

So, the quality of my first interview with a gremlin may not be all that high quality, but it certainly was memorable, and I’ll treasure this experience of my first interview with a gremlin.

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#EngageExpo Day 1 Recap

During rough economic times, conferences are often hit particularly hard. People don’t have the funds to travel, vendors cut back on their displays, yet the information at conferences remain as valuable as ever, if not more so. Engage! Expo is no different. I’ve run into some old friends at the conference and I’ve established new relationships. I’ve picked up my small amount of swag and taken copious notes.

The first keynote was a talk by David Luner, SVP of Interactive and Consumer Products for FreemantleMedia Enterprises and Teemu Huuhtanen, EVP of marketing and business development for Sulake. They talked about the deal between their companies to bring American Idol into Habbo. There was the standard discussions about other co-marketing efforts, such as American Idol’s deals with Barbie, Dreyer’s Ice Cream, McDonalds, iTunes and Disney. There were discussions of the demographics of Habbo; heavily teen, with a strong influence in Europe and Latin America.

Yet for me, the most interesting part, and one that brought a question was about why American Idol chose to co-brand with an existing virtual world instead of building their own. There were comments about American Idol wanting best in class for virtual worlds and their belief that they were unlikely to do a better job than Habbo had already done, and the risk to the brand of a failed virtual world launch was greater than any upside opportunity that having their own virtual world might have produced. They noted that by using an existing platform, they could launch more quickly.

I view this as a good sign in the movement away from siloed virtual worlds towards a more common virtual space. At the end of the session, Ted Tagami, VP of Business Development for SmallWorlds spoke briefly about their world. They are moving even further towards better interoperability as they connect with Facebook and Bebo and prepare to support OpenID authentication.

The first panel that I attended was Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: A Look at the Market Research. Barry Gilbert, VP and Research Director for Strategy Analytics and Michael Cai, VP of Research in Video Games for Interpret also focused on the move towards interoperability. WeeMee’s integration with Skype and AIM were noted. Mr. Gilbert said they were expecting continued interaction with social networks, some consolidation in the virtual world space as venture capital is reduced during the recession, increased avatar portability, and the emergence of standardized metrics. He noted that the typical user that he was studying was in around four virtual worlds, but they are typically only active in one or two as virtual worlds seek stickiness. The number of virtual worlds the average user is in is trending down, a trend he expects to see continue.

Michael Cai’s presentation provided other interesting information. He spoke about the virtual world space as still being dominated by early adopters, whereas the gaming space has spread across much of the technology adoption curve. He spoke about research into brand preferences of virtual world participants. As I think about the current financial problems, I was struck by a screen about views on automobiles. Virtual world residents currently own cars made by Ford, Toyota and Honda, in that order. Dodge came in fourth. GM barely made the list. For cars that virtual world residents hope to own in the future, Toyota and Honda both remained in the top three, and Ford, the top American brand dropped to fifth.

Another interesting tidbit about virtual world residents is that they have a tendency to be more physically active, exercising at home or at the gym and participating in cycling, basketball, track, football and soccer. They also tended to be more socially active than the population of general Internet users.

After lunch, a different panel took up the metrics issue talking about Virtual World Metric = Measuring Engagement. This area is still emerging and most frequently people look at this in terms of time spent on a site and number of click-throughs. One person suggested that the average time on the typical website is around fifteen seconds, whereas the average time spent in a virtual world was more like ten minutes. He claimed that click-throughs averaged 1-5% in virtual worlds and only fractions of a percent on traditional websites.

Yet Dr. James M. Bower, Founder, Chairman and CVO of Numedeon, which runs Whyville, had a very different perspective. He spoke about how virtual worlds makes marketing about the product and no longer just about the brand. He spoke about information that he could provide to companies about how people interacted on a product by product basis. He had an interesting comment about twelve year-olds interacting with a product in Whyville and ending up knowing more about the product than the salespeople selling the product. He suggested that the metrics used for education are probably going to be the best metrics for virtual worlds. He noted the old adage, “All marketing is really education.”

Here, he wasn’t talking about the sort of metrics that are too often looked at in education, scores on standardized tests about material learned. Instead he was talking about metrics measuring student retention, engagement, contextualization and related ways of measuring how involved the students really are.

He suggested that as we move away from a focus on eyeballs, to a focus on eyeballs connected to brains, everything changes and that it will put more pressure on companies to produce better products. He also spoke about how whenever a new technology comes along, people tend to try and do things they knew how to do with older technology with the new technology, instead of rethinking the way the approach the underlying issues.

The final panel I attended was Parallel Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Browsing the Web. This discussion was moderated by Benjamin Duranske of Pillsbury, and included Steven Hoffman, CEO of RocketOn. Jan Andressen, CEO of Weblin was also supposed to participate but did not make it. Keith McCurdy of Vivaty also joined the panel.

I asked about interoperability at this panel, and one of the panelists really went off on how we won’t see interoperability for a long time and how it is a bad thing for all of the virtual world providers. It turns out that by interoperability, he was thinking about seamlessly moving avatars and assets from one world to another. Instead, he suggested that we might see ‘interchangability’, the ability to import and export some information from one virtual world to another. Interchangability, he suggested, seemed much more reasonable and likely, but still not in the near term. This led to some confusion, since no one had heard the term interchangability before and it sure sounded a lot like what I meant, and I suspect many others mean by interoperability. One of the other panelists spoke about his project already supporting some sorts of interoperability, by, for example, basing text communications on Jabber. This is a topic that deserves much more discussion, and I hope to write a longer blog post about this when the dust settles.

As I wrapped up the first day at Engage Expo, I had the opportunity to speak with Thom Kidrin, President and CEO of is about to DMC World as a hip-hop and music lovers virtual world. Like the discussion of interoperability, this is a topic that deserves a blog post of its own.

After the conference, people gathered at various bars around town. I went down to the Half King Pub and chatted with folks there. One discussion that needs follow up is one that I had with Carol Altarescu of Privo. How does their effort fit with portable contacts and other issues of ‘privacy, permission and trust’? I don’t know the answer yet, so that will have to wait for another day as well.

So, while Engage Expo seemed smaller this year in terms of participants, at least the first day seemed very full of important information. Now, on to day two.

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Engage the Existentialist

And what about the best minds of our generation? They aren’t doing anything as romantic as Ginsburg’s friends, searching the angry gutter for a fix. No, some have been searching for ways to use technology to engage people in politics or non-profits. Others ride the subways joining blank faces beneath the pictures of smiling models. At the end of the day, they get cynical and drunk and boring someone in some sad café, or maybe these days some sad virtual world.

At their jobs, they try to find ways of separating their fellow human beings from their hard earned wages, perhaps by trying to come up with an engaging advertisement in one of these virtual worlds. It almost feels like Freeport in Neuromancer. Yet, perhaps, the joy that some people see as their hard earned wages get stripped from them in some virtual world is not unlike the joy that Sisyphus saw as the bolder rolled back down the hill.

Today, I am at Engage! Expo, a show about how advertisers and marketers can engage their audiences in virtual worlds. How engaging will the speakers be? What new insights will I come away with? Come back later and find out.

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This Week and Beyond in Social Media

It has been another week preoccupied with computer programming, although I did get a chance to participate in some social media activities this week, as well as get through at least a little bit of my email.

It started off with a few messages that I sent out from the Woodbridge Board of Education meeting. I used so my messages went to a bunch of different locations. My first two messages were

At Woodbridge Board of Education where there is a discussion of twenty first century curriculum linking world languages and technology

One of the students is doing a wonderful presentation of the food pyramid in Spanish using the Smartboard.

On Facebook, a Connecticut State Representative, Jonathon Pelto responded ‘wow – cool’. Over on LiveJournal, a friend from Michigan whom I met years ago when her teacher used a text based virtual world that I ran to teach a class on ‘Brave New World’ responded ‘Smartboards are sweet…especially when properly used.’

After the meeting was over, I chatted with the chair of the Board of Education as well as the Superintendent about the real time online discussion I had about the meeting. It says something important about the world our students are being prepared for. There is so much more I want to write about this when I get some free time.

On Tuesday, I received an email from another longtime friend. The Rev. Kate Heichler of Church of Christ the Healer, together with The Rev. Mark Lingle of St. Francis Church, both in Stamford, have set up a Lenten Reflections blog. Kate suggested that I might offer to help the church I attend, Christ Church, Bethany set up a similar Lenten Reflections blog.

I’ve been very busy, so I quickly threw together to live for a season and when I get a little more time will help people at the church with the blog some more.

Thursday, I went to a Mystic Sushi Tweetup. I joined @JoeCascio, @trishdarling of, and @EmrysTetu of at Peking Tokyo in Mystic for a dinner of sushi. We had a great discussion covering a wide selection of topics.

Today, I receive a message on Facebook from State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield inviting people to the Judiciary Committee Public Hearing. In the invitation, Gary said, “"If you care about the Raise the Age legislation and or abolishing the death penalty and you have time on Monday you should come testify." He provides information about testifying at the hearing.

As I went through my emails, I’ve found plenty of other important events. Next Wednesday at 7 PM, Kim will be speaking about election day registration at the Democracy for Fairfield County Meetup at the Silver Star Diner in Norwalk. Ned Lamont will also be speaking there about the stimulus package. Democracy for New Haven will be meeting at Wednesday, starting at 6:30 at Wall Street Pizza in New Haven having a discussion about the Connecticut budget proposal. State Sen. Toni Harp, Co-Chair of Appropriations Committee, and Sal Luciano, Executive Director of AFSCME Council 4 are among the speakers expected for an action oriented public discussion.

The Shoreline League of Democratic Women is also having a meeting the same evening. Their meeting will start at 7:30 at the Guilford Library and will host a panel of State Legislators talking about smart growth.

Then, on Thursday, the Energy and Technology Committee will hold a Public Hearing about four bills, including AN ACT CONCERNING PUBLIC ACCESS TELEVISION CHANNELS, along with three other bills. I haven’t read the proposed bill closely enough to have any opinions on it, but would love to hear comments from others.

Also on Thursday, Common Cause volunteers will be helping get the spring mailing out starting at 5:00 PM at the Common Cause office at 55 Oak St in Hartford. Then, starting at 6:10 in Room 128 of the Main Hall of Yale Law School, the Yale College Democrats, the Yale College Republicans, and the Yale Law School Democrats will sponsor an event with Common Cause to discussion election day registration. State Rep. Lesser and State Rep. Winfield will be speaking.

Friday, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment will be holding its 19th Annual Long Island Sound Citizens Summit: Investing in Clean Water: for Sound health, jobs and the economy. The summit will take place from 8:30 until 3:15 at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center in Bridgeport.

Looking further out, there are a few important social media related events coming up. On March 12, is digiday:Mobile and digiday:Social at the W hotel in New York City. These are two half-day conferences set up back to back to talk about marketing using mobile and social technology.

On March 21st will be Newsout, “What to do when the newsroom lights go out: Options and strategies for New England communities.” It looks like it will be a good discussion with some great speakers.

Then, ending off the month is Freedom to Connect, a yearly gathering of some of the most interesting thinkers about communications and the Internet.

So, I’ll continue to try and balance some computer programming with some family time and lots of social media, both as quick messages on various sites and face to face meetings as well. What are you up to? Will I see you at one of these events?

#yelc09 – Joel Klein

Joel Klein, Chancellor, New York City Department of Education provided the opening keynote address at the Yale Education Leadership Conference laid out the issue very concisely. He started off by quipping that the reason he is so controversial is that he’s too old not to be, and then proceeded to hit his three points. We have a crisis, we don’t have to, and “If we keep having the same dialog we’ve been having, we’re not going to be able to change it”.

He illustrated the crisis by asking how many people would be willing to allow him to place their children into any of the schools in New York City. No one would. The message is clear, that not every school in New York City, or New Haven, or many other places is good enough. He noted that only about 33% of the schools in New York City are schools where principals would be willing to place their own kids, and that is up from 20% when he started.

He spoke about the detrimental effect that skin color, poverty and zip code have on educational opportunities. By eighth grade black students from poor communities are typically already two to three grade levels behind their more affluent white counterparts. He noted that on top of this, U.S. achievement is falling behind achievement in other countries, producing a double achievement gap for the poor and people of color.

With this, he went to his second point. It doesn’t have to be this way. Too often, people suggest that you cannot fix education until you address the issue of poverty. Many people believe that the reason children fail to achieve is because of the effect poverty has on their lives. Klein suggests that it is actually the other way around. You will cannot fix the issue of poverty until you address the issue of education.

His key areas of focus to address the issue of education center around accountability, leadership and choice. He acknowledged issues measuring success. No measurement is perfect, but we need to go with the best we can get.

We all know about what a positive factor parental involvement is on education. He pointed that the starting point of all parental involvement is the choice about which school we send our children to. Those that can afford it chose to live in communities with good school districts or send our children to private schools. Yet for those who cannot afford it, there is little to no choice about which schools their children attend. Providing this basic level of choice is an important first step in increasing parental involvement.

With this, he ended off by calling those of us who are fortunate enough to get our kids a good education, to become ‘educational warriors’, voices for the voiceless, those who don’t have the opportunity to get a good education. It provided a great framework for the rest of the conference and he was given a standing ovation.

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