Aug 16, 2012

One Step Beyond

There’s always more to my projects in #SecondLife


I’ve been taking a bit of a break from writing lately due to some external projects and implications thereof, but if you’ve been following my twitter feed @DarianKnight then you know I’ve been talking a lot about the creation of the mesh arcade machines in Second Life with Robbie Heath. For some, I know the seeming barrage of pictures comes across as a one-note tweet and beating a dead horse – “Look how real they look!”, but there is far more going on with the purpose of this project than I actually let on.


There is, of course, the aspect of how detailed one can get with in-world mesh and more appropriately how accurate a virtual representation of a real world object can be. That’s a given, though there is still more to this which I’ll explain.








For starters, I’m exploring the differentiation of texture quality versus subtle realism that such textures would imply. Just because you can have an ultra-high resolution independent vector graphic as your basis doesn’t mean that the crispness and detail translates into a warm and believable texture in-world. Sometimes the HD quality works against you and offers too much crispness and detail, or as I often say –


Imperfection is actually a cue for implied perfection, where overt perfection is a cue for fakeness.


Therein is the first part of this puzzle – implications of attaining an organic feel to your builds versus something too perfect, which in itself destroys your attempt at believability in a virtual sense. The subtle imperfections add the organic feel, and thus raises the believability factor far more than the high definition textures with crispness would – and to wit the ultra high detailed and crisp textures often times sabotages your efforts toward atmosphere believability.


The rest of this project is information that I hadn’t really talked about much, but it’s just as important overall. The reason I chose arcade machines as the subject of this project was multi-fold:


  1. Recognizable brands
  2. Defining the state of prosumer interaction with companies
  3. Learning a bit of history as well as the climate of existing communities
  4. Define a working solution that addresses the context of prosumer overall




Recognizable Brands



It’s nearly a universal understanding that the arcade machines are immediately recognizable. You probably have fond memories of your childhood in an arcade, the many hours pumping quarters into that digital hypnotist which compelled you to continue. While all of this is very important, it is not just the machines themselves that are important but also (and maybe more importantly) the memories and atmosphere they invoke.


There’s a certain feel you get from the arcade, and the arcade machines themselves definitely contributed to that. There’s far more, however – the actual building, the darkened rooms filled with lines of lit marquees, the smell and conglomerating sounds that came together in ambience, which despite the “noise” you somehow managed to focus just on the game you were playing like a laser.



Then there is the external factors that are attached to this project – so let’s get into the second bullet point:




Defining the state of prosumer

interaction with companies


Definitely of interest to me is the relationship that the social media prosumer (producer + consumer of content) has with companies today. After all, social media is quite the driving force in our online world but companies with recognizable brands are still thinking in 20th Century logic. There’s the controlling factor of push media involved, wherein the companies create and control the message, method and form that their brands take in the public. This could manifest as television, print, and radio advertising but also these methodologies are used in the social media aspect with mixed results at best.


So I’m looking at this aspect in terms of 21st Century Prosumer culture, and whether or not companies are actually within their right corporate minds to actually engage intelligently with this paradigm.


For this point, I came across some really interesting situations that had arisen within existing communities concerning the companies who own the brands. Allow me to explain -


In the case of Ms. Pacman, which is a world recognizable icon owned by NAMCO, there are the original arcade machines and a large community of collectors which meticulously restore and refurbish original cabinets with artwork and hardware in order to get the machines back to not only working order but near pristine condition as if they came off the factory floor in 1981.


These arcade cabinets are worth quite a lot of money fully restored, with estimates ranging from $1,500 all the way up to $6,000 in some cases. Restoration of these original arcade machines is a serious endeavor, and not taken lightly by serious collectors.


In order to restore a Ms. Pacman arcade cabinet to factory glory, you need the replacement hardware (if the existing hardware is faulty) and you also need the vinyl decals and artwork. For this you go to an authorized reproduction printer that specializes in arcade graphics for cabinets – in which you are looking for your basic sets:


CPO – Control Panel Overlay

Side Art – Cabinet Side Artwork

Marquee – The plexiglass title on the top front with the light behind it

Bezel – The artwork around the screen as an insert

Kick plate – Usually under or surrounding the coin doors


Now, it’s not as simple as just going to a printer and saying “I would like the Ms. Pacman CPO” because within that domain itself there are reproduction artworks which are not the same as the originals but sometimes are preferable to the collector in a personal sense, and then there is the idea of NOS reproduction which are “New Old Stock” or reproductions of the original artworks for actual collectors trying to restore the cabinets accurately to retain the value or increase the value on resale.


And this is where it gets interesting in terms of Ms. Pacman (and likely many others). When a company is authorized and licensed to be the official reproduction artwork outlet for these machines, that company is then charged with the retracing and reproduction of the original artwork in high quality.


In the case of Ms. Pacman the company who has the license and rights to reproduce the NOS artwork is a company named TwoBits. The problem is that the actual collector community realized that TwoBits, the only company authorized to officially make NOS reproductions of the original artwork, clearly and unrepentantly did a horrible job. Such a bastardization of the original graphics ensued (not to mention the bad quality of the stickers instead of using vinyl) that actually using the official NOS artwork will devalue a restored cabinet.






Apparently NAMCO enjoys forcing a pile of crap down people’s throats



At this point, I’m still talking about arcade machines and detail, and I know some of you are tapping your fingers impatiently wondering when I’m going to stop beating the dead horse. Well, for those of you tapping your fingers and getting impatient, I suggest you instead sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut while I continue. The blatantly obvious seems to have escaped you for why I’d even bother with this project to begin with.


Herein is the important part of this story, and the real relevance to our second bullet point:


The community, upon realizing the horrible botch job that TwoBits was doing with their beloved NAMCO icon, refused to purchase the only official NOS artwork available for their own cabinets because (obviously) they didn’t want to devalue their hefty investment, or effectively destroy something they’ve put so much work into restoring.


But that didn’t stop them from continuing to restore their cabinets to factory appeal, which means they must have had another option than TwoBits.


This is where the relevance to the prosumer community comes into play, and why I chose arcade machines as the subject of this project. What happened next succinctly defines the prosumer relationship with companies in the 21st century versus the 20th century push mentality that companies exhibit. In short – one of the answers I was after in doing this project.


And here you thought it was all about how cool they looked in-world…


The community of prosumers – producers and consumers of media, are no longer in a position where they are forced into a single channel of consuming whatever media is prepared for them without any other options. That’s the old way of thinking, and companies today still (strangely) believe they have this control in the digital age. Since this is the new paradigm, and our prosumer community is no longer bound to accept media as defined solely by the companies within the channels the companies define nor the circumstances, they did what anyone in a social media industry would expect them to have done.


Somebody with the artistic know-how and printing background went out and purchased a high quality original Ms. Pacman machine with as few defects as possible in the original artwork. In short, as near to pristine condition as they could get. This alone set them back quite a lot of money, but it was seen as a beneficial investment for the entire community and world. Therein is one aspect of the prosumer mentality that companies don’t seem to readily grasp – altruism.


They then scanned the entire machine into a computer at high resolution photography, and then meticulously retraced the entire machine – including printing layer separation, into vector format. The results were a near perfect NOS reproduction set.


So what did the community do with this holy grail of arcade artwork that they now possessed?


They attempted to give it away for free to TwoBits, so that TwoBits could sell it back to the community who would then be willing to purchase it. This saving TwoBits and NAMCO further shame in authorizing and producing a bastardization of artwork.


Let’s recap for a moment:


An active and detail obsessed community bent on authenticity was given only the option of decidedly non-authentic media for which to consume and use. Being a prosumer community, they rejected the sub-par offering and set their expertise on recreating accurate artwork instead for both the benefit of the community and the company authorized to reproduce that artwork, as well as do right by a brand name they supported (NAMCO), and they offered that work at absolutely no charge or stipulation.


If anything, TwoBits was now in a very lucrative position.


Any company with a shred of common sense would see this. The community which they were targeting with their products has essentially boycotted their product because of the horrendous job they have done, but is now offering them a highly accurate NOS artwork set that they (a detail obsessed group) have meticulously produced. They are offering it to that company for free and without stipulation, because they want to do right by them, NAMCO and their own community in staying on the right side of the law and supporting both that company and NAMCO.


They stand to make a lot of money and regain their reputation in the process, as well as the universal good will of the very customers which they have wronged. This, for all intents and purposes, is a situation that is entirely in their favor on all accounts.


What did TwoBits say?


They flatly refused, opting to keep their own product offering instead.


So this community of prosumers, still wanting to do right by NAMCO, did the only thing they could at that point. They went to NAMCO and attempted to apply for licensing of the NOS Artwork so that they could legally reproduce it for the community and still do right by NAMCO in the process. Again, there were no stipulations involved in this, other than that they explicitly stated that they weren’t interested in a profit margin and wished only to charge the cost of reproduction, printing and shipping. If there was a licensing fee involved from NAMCO, they would gladly add that to the costs to pay their dues but did not want to make any profit themselves.


After many unsuccessful attempts to get the time of day out of NAMCO, and what I believe was close to a year of waiting, NAMCO finally responded not with a well thought out reply or addressing the devotion and altruism to their iconic IP from die-hard fans, but by stating flatly that only TwoBits had the license and rights to reproduce their artwork.


Open and shut case.


Well, not quite. There is one option left, and this is the option that so many prosumers just skip to from the beginning. Faced with a brick wall from NAMCO and TwoBits, the community still had the holy grail of reproduction artwork on their hands. They sure as hell weren’t going to buy TwoBits reproduction artwork because it would devalue their hefty investments in restoration.


What was left, is what sadly is a normal occurrence in the prosumer culture – they as a community simply gave each other the accurate artworks freely to be sent off to a third party printer. No costs, no production fees. They just gave the vector templates away freely to each other. This in and of itself is IP violation, but that’s the situation that so often rears its head in the 21st century paradigm. These IP violations happen (quite often) not because prosumers haven’t tried to do things the correct way, and follow the appropriate channels – but because companies that own these IP and brands act without common sense, even when the situation is handed to them on not just a silver platter but a platinum platter.


Now that we’ve covered bullet points 2 and 3, we’ve defined the deeper purpose for producing arcade machines in Second Life. That being said, detail is actually a large part – so we’re coming full circle for a very important reason.



Biff to the Future

Make like a tree, and get outta’ here


A few years back, I originally followed a similar path with the Series I arcade cabinets in Second Life. It was an exercise to demonstrate the reluctance and outright ignorance of companies when dealing with prosumer culture. Like the community and the Ms. Pacman scenario, I jumped through countless hoops to get the time of day out of NAMCO and other companies, only to be met with silence or the equivalent answer of:


We’re not in a position to either authorize nor ignore this request. We reserve the right to request removal of your offering at our convenience, but in the meantime we’re not outright telling you no.


Essentially it was the greatest non-answer they could construct. This in itself was intriguing to me because it implies that these companies have no protocol to handle or engage with prosumer communities for their own benefit. You’re either a producer or a consumer to them. Producers create stuff for money and make a profit, they pay you licensing fees and are professionals. You can measure the units of sales, the demographics, etc easily and construct appropriate licensing fees. Consumers are just the people those producers are supposed to be selling to, and companies usually have a strict “No Solicitation” policy in place barring consumers from playing the part of the producer.



Kangaroo Court


You have permission only if we can revoke that permission and claim we never gave you permission.

Also, we reserve the right to hold you responsible for what other people are doing unrelated to you.



The problem is, this situation worked well in the 20th century when consumers were largely not enabled to produce high-quality media on their own so quickly and cheaply. But in the 21st century, it’s a whole other ballgame – and the consumers are now the high-quality producers of content as well, with the ultimate realization that in many cases your customers can actually do a better job than you as a company.


The really interesting thing is that those same customers aren’t looking to compete with you, but are so devoted to your brand and company that they only look for a symbiotic relationship whereby they can offer their devotion freely and for the benefit of all. It’s that altruism and devotion that companies seem to have a problem comprehending.


So the prosumers largely end up on their own little black-market mentality. They’d love to openly show their devotion and support for their favorite brands, but the brands and companies are forbidding it. Regardless, that isn’t stopping the prosumers from going ahead anyway and producing content and showing their support for their favorite brands. For a different context, one need only search for popular music on Youtube.



Devil in the Details


And now we’ve come full circle to why the detail of the mesh arcade machines in Second Life is important.


After learning the current prosumer situation, the attitude of the companies involved, and (yes) even putting in those requests personally myself though I know it’s just a good faith gesture, I’ve come to an expected impasse.









This time around, the arcade machines aren’t for sale. You won’t find them on Marketplace. That much I’ve clearly decided. They do, however, stand to represent a highly-detailed representation of the prosumer concept in action, which is why I talk about how detailed and accurate they are. If there is really any chance of convincing a company like NAMCO (or any company for that matter) that such a thing is in their benefit, it helps to start with an accurate and detailed reproduction in order to show that the quality assurance aspect is not a problem.


That’s one less thing for them to worry about, assuming they bother giving it the time of day at all. The solution for this prosumer atmosphere is still the very thing I’ve been saying since 1998, in that it needs to be addressed on a case by case basis and taken into context of the situation at hand in order that these companies can reap massive benefits in the process in the form of self-propelled social marketing initiatives.


It’s a whole new ballgame for them, and I know change is fought hard.


That being said, the original hypothesis stands – ignoring prosumers doesn’t make the content go away. Better to have the high quality content be official from them than to allow countless low-quality knockoffs that make you look bad. Celebrate the dedicated community making you look good instead of ignoring them and punishing them.


The problem is… those low quality knock-offs are turning out to be the officially licensed products themselves while the unauthorized stuff is putting it to shame.


So here’s the solution (our 4th Bullet Point):




Virtual Intellectual Property and Electronic Revenue [VIPER] Licensing


To an extent, this already exists in a primordial fashion. You see it on Youtube when you search for music and the Artist shows up with an iTunes or Amazon purchase link, but I’m talking about the virtual world context here and further integration in social prosumer context. The thing about the situation is, until recently I hadn’t bothered trying to sort out exactly how to address this gap in a way that would be beneficial for all, and even though I’ve hinted at ideas for this (X-Factor, etc) it has only been recently that I’ve been tasked with sorting that out in detail for an entirely different project outside of Second Life.


What transpires below is just a basic overview of what I’ve been working out in detail. It should give a better idea of what I’ve been up to and how all of this relates. The description here isn’t complete, so implementing it “AS-IS” would probably be volatile at best without those missing pieces which I am keeping to myself.


Essentially it works like thus -


  1. Consumers are also producers of content. In a social media age, this is a no-brainer to admit.
  2. Prosumers are passionate about your products or brands. Again, no-brainer.
  3. They are often quite brilliant and creative. Still not a far stretch and quite obvious
  4. You no longer control the message or direction of the message
  5. Prosumers will still create content whether you like it or not
  6. You do control the brand and image
  7. It’s better that you enable an outlet for that creativity and call it marketing
  8. Automate the channel for prosumers to register projects/products
  9. Set an automatic licensing percentage on digital content sales
  10. Ask only that the company retains the sole right to do quality assurance before and during availability, which the company may invoke at any point before or during the digital offering


We’ll call this the ten commandments of VIPER Licensing. The point is to establish a prosumer friendly situation which takes into account both the prosumers and the community which is capable and already producing content with your brand (overtly or covertly), and giving the option to simply register that creative project/product as a prosumer and agree to a preset licensing fee tier based on the price of the digital asset, context, and volume of sales.


VIPER Licensing does not ask the prosumer to predict demographics, or any of the statistics up front like you would normally ask with a Producer. They aren’t treated like consumers (ignored) and they aren’t treated like production companies (massive licensing fees, etc). Instead, VIPER licensing does what the name implies:


It is a method by which a surgical precision can be applied to a prosumer context, whereby evaluation on a per project basis is enabled but not required. VIPER Licensing is also preemptive in that it automatically assumes clearance and applies a percentage fee for licensing to be paid to the brand owner/ IP owner. Upon review, that licensing may be adjusted or revoked at the discretion of the brand/IP owner.


The purpose of VIPER Licensing is to enable a marketing aspect from prosumers, while also fast-tracking and enabling virtual worlds prosumers to import real world brands. In context, a company/brand that enables VIPER Licensing for their brand in a virtual environment… say like Second Life, would simply set the brand name, the license fee tier, and any additional QA requirements on a Corporate Control Panel of Marketplace.


The company would be alerted whenever a project/product in a virtual world is registered for VIPER Licensing for their brand/company (email) and they may review them at their leisure – either revoking the VIPER License for projects or requesting some changes to keep in line with the QA requirements in order to remain authorized.


Only the projects/products from prosumers that the brand/IP owner feels meets the QA guidelines would remain after the filtering process. Overall, the brand/IP owner can use this wisely or to further defeat the purpose of this system by using it to abuse the good faith of their prosumer community through systematically denying any and all projects/products willingly registered in VIPER Licensing for such brand. In which case, a company is then no better off than they began because they’ve fostered a situation whereby they’ve destroyed the faith of the prosumers who will merely continue creating but no longer trusting your brand in the VIPER Licensing system.


Because the virtual world system (I’m still using Second Life as the example) would be making a percentage of the transaction on Marketplace, and the VIPER License would be setting aside a percentage for the brand owner, while the content creator is still making something for their efforts – everyone wins. VIPER Licensed digital products in a virtual world would likely sell far more since they would be officially sanctioned (and legal), which means that there is a huge benefit for prosumers to have their virtual products registered under VIPER.


It’s a flexible, agile, and elegant solution to the prosumer context with real world brands. It offers real world companies a zero-cost marketing solution that actually returns revenue. It’s a system that is automatic and as painless as choosing from a list of VIPER Enabled brands which are participating. It raises volume of sales being officially sanctioned, which means that the marketplace that enables this makes a larger volume of money through transactions while offering a method by which real world brands can re-enter the virtual world without the overhead.


And now you know the point of the arcade machines.






Other things of interest


Yes, I’ve been quiet and really haven’t sounded off on anything going on. We can blame that on my crippling Minecraft and Google+ addictions for which I may need to seek a rehab. In any event, this post is much longer than usual as I attempt to catch up.


Let’s get this out of the way in the short version:


New Materials coming to Second Life


Specular and Normal Maps, thanks to Exodus team. Great start, but still needs Parallax Occlusion Mapping added to that materials list before I get giddy. Still, some kudos are in order for this. I’ll add it on the list with Mesh Deformer, Built-In Weather, Zones, and a laundry list of other things I expected 5 years ago when I first came to Second Life.


Still, better late than never I suppose.



It doesn’t require Crysis level graphics to do.



Everyone/Nobody is Going to Leave Second Life!


I’ve heard this one too many times.


It’s a statement that only holds true because Second Life is a virtual monopoly with no serious contenders. They can get away with bloody murder for all it matters at this point because there is nowhere viable to go. However, it’s unwise to make an assertion based on an assumption.


It is a situation that is contextual and almost always likely to change going forward. See also every other virtual environment that has come and gone prior whereby they thought they were immune to an exodus and so started pissing all over their customers. Before Second Life there was ActiveWorlds – and they said and did the same things under the impression that there was nowhere to go and so they could use and abuse their community at will.


Funny how that worked out. Linden Lab is not immune to this fact, so don’t jump the gun quite yet. If ever there is an equal or better alternative, you may as well pull the plug on the bathtub, because that’s the sound you’re going to hear in Second Life if they continue pissing on their community. Just because right now there isn’t a compelling alternative doesn’t mean that there never will be one.


At this point, all it’s going to take in order to meet that single requirement is to piss off enough open source programmers who specialize in virtual worlds that they organize and push advanceme – oh wait, yeah that might actually be happening.


Relax and just watch the situation. It could go both ways, really. I wouldn’t say “never” but in the same breath it’s premature to state that right now the situation is enough to trigger that exodus. What I will say to this end is simply that Linden Lab seems to be doing a great job setting themselves up for a future fall, because actions in an ecosystem tend to have a long-tail effect which aren’t apparent until the tsunami comes to shore.


Try switching to herbal non-caffeinated tea. No reason to be bent out of shape for either talking point. We can all come to a happy medium and just be patient to see what transpires without polarized fear mongering and sensationalist rants.


One thing is for certain – with the recent cutting off of open source grids, the Metaverse just got a hell of a lot smaller today. Maybe that’s actually for the best… I’ve always contended that in order to grow into something bigger and better, the open source end had to cut their apron strings and hold their own.


I see this as a fantastic opportunity for the future of the Metaverse. The real question is whether or not the community will seize that opportunity.



Minecraft is the Metaverse?


In a word: No.


I’ve been paying attention quite a bit lately to the latest updates (1.3.1) wherein Mojang changed the server code aspect to where each local client is also acting as a server. I find this interesting because it’s similar to the Hybrid Decentralized approach that I advocated years ago with Solipsis. It’s also one of the future looking requirements for server architecture proposed in the research paper I wrote with LMU for Association for Computing Machinery journal.


There is still quite a bit of lag involved with the new architecture of 1.3.1 Minecraft and the “everyone is a server” mentality. To me this means that the Area of Interest networking nodes aren’t quite optimized yet and the balance between decentralized and centralized communication haven’t been fine tuned. I’m pretty certain though that those aspects will iron out.


If not the Metaverse, I would say at least that Minecraft is serving as a wonderful template for the Metaverse for some crucial aspects. So there’s that – and I’m quite happy to see at least that coming of it.




1 comment:

  1. Addendum:

    Linden Lab to offer Second Life on Steam. See also: Attempting to run a zebra in the Kentucky Derby. At the very least, this should be amusing in the long term.