Immersive Technology for Social Change

I recently attended the Immersive Technology Summit, which was a daylong showcase of how organizations, storytellers and researchers are using technology to transport people to alternate realities. The term Immersive Technology “refers to simulated realities, interactive devices, and applications that are combined to create an ‘immersive’ experience into technology. It includes, but is not limited to, technology that blurs, if not erases, the line of distinction between the confined physical world and the boundless digital world.”

As Harold Tan, one of the summit organizers, noted when talking about why immersive technology is important, life is about experiences, and technology can be used to immerse yourself in other people’s experiences; you can live a hi-res depiction of an artist’s imagination.

Though I was only able to attend the morning sessions, I was pleased to note how many projects have nonprofit applications. I’ll share some of the highlights here.

Fred Nikgohar of RoboDynamics described how robots are being used to bring people together across time and space. Robots are serving as a mobile telepresence to bring together geographically dispersed talent within a workplace, or to allow an out-of-town manager to be present to oversee his employees on the factory floor. Fred noted that it only takes an average of five days for staff to make the mental adjustment of referring to the robot representation by the remote employee’s name. This has obvious applications for telemedicine and education in geographically remote areas.

Mark Bolas at USC’s Institute for Creative Technology demonstrated how his lab is creating virtual environments for training and simulations, transforming real space into a walkable virtual location using virtual reality headsets and warehouse space. Military and hospital simulations stretch space through redirection tricks like flipping the door to a different wall without the user noticing to minimize the physical space needed. One of the demonstrations in the exhibit hall showed another way of allowing the user to explore a virtual location with a stationary hamster ball-type of apparatus synched with the view in the VR goggles.

Bonnie Bucker and Garry Hare of Imagined Communities talked about their design-based educational experience that connects students with their communities. After rendering their neighborhood in 3-D, youth identify areas of need in the community to reimagine how it could be improved. For example, a blighted area could be turned into a community garden. The youth give virtual walking tours of the neighborhood, and residents can vote on the changes they like the most. The new design can then be realized in the real world. I loved when Garry said, “I’m interested in the political troublemaking aspects of augmented reality.”

Jacquelyn Ford Morie, also from USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies, talked about the virtual humans and avatars the ICT has created for various purposes. She demonstrated Ada and Grace, the virtual human museum guides at the Boston Museum of Science. They can understand and respond to natural spoken language, engaging visitors in both explaining the science exhibits and in demonstrating applied computer science.

In addition, ICT created the “Coming Home” project (also known as Transitional Online Post-Deployment Soldier Support in Virtual Worlds), which provides mental health support to returning soldiers in Second Life. This virtual veterans center provides real-time in-world stress reduction and mindfulness classes and areas where soldiers can come together for peer support. This includes the Warrior’s Journey – a narrative component where individuals’ avatars enter a tower and follow their choice of classic warrior stories from various cultures that depict values like duty and dedication. At the end of the journey, they meet the avatar of that character and can have a conversation with him. This is an opportunity for returning soldiers to “rewrite” and reframe their own personal stories, which they may feel conflicted about. They can then add their own story online by uploading pictures and text.

I think the technology is getting to a point where nonprofits can start looking at whether the immersive approach can help them further their goals. As a panelist noted, when “Jackass 3D” gets the highest weekly box-office ratings, it means that immersive media is making its way to the mainstream. I’m sure we can find better uses than that!

For more reading on augmented reality:

Photo Credit: janjochemo

Too Much Information?

Knowledge is power. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I’m trying to reconcile these two ideas to decide whether learning my personal genetic code would do more good than harm.

I read today about Google founder Sergei Brin’s discovery that he carries a genetic mutation that greatly increases his chances of developing Parkinson’s Disease. Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki, is the co-founder of a company, 23andMe, which offers personal genetic testing. For just $399 (which makes it well within reach for many people), the company will analyze a saliva sample to provide an in-depth report on how your genetics influence more than 80 diseases, health-related conditions and traits. You can learn what is encoded on your DNA and what it might mean for your current and future health.

Do you want to know whether you are predisposed to have a heart attack or develop breast, colorectal, lung or prostate cancer? Are you destined to be bald? Have gallstones? Or live a long life? Would you live your life differently if you knew you did not have the heart attack gene? Maybe not be as motivated to exercise? Or if you were a smoker with the lung cancer gene, perhaps you would be more motivated to quit smoking?

When we move away from the population-based risk generalities and to our own very specific DNA, I am not sure which way the psychology will lead most people. On the one hand, knowing which diseases are more likely to develop than others lets you focus on the health-related behavior changes that may get you the most bang for the buck. If you have the genes for venous thromboembolism, you can take precautions on long airplane rides and be more aware of symptoms that need prompt medical attention. Those with several of the nine genes related to Type 2 Diabetes can focus on losing weight and monitoring changes in their blood sugar over time.

Along these lines, a recent study showed that patients with high cholesterol are more likely to be motivated to stay on their medication after seeing an actual scan of their own arteries showing blockage from plaque — kind of like the medical version of Scared Straight. The only way to get more personally relevant than seeing evidence in your own body of your risk for heart disease is to see what your genes have to say.

On the other hand, the information people receive (and possibly misinterpret) about their genetic inheritance could lead to an unhealthy fatalism that prevents them from taking any action. If it’s written in their DNA, what can they do to stop it? Or the absence of a disease-related gene, such as for breast cancer (they test for 2 genes, but not the rare but high-risk mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes), may lead to an unwarranted sense of invulnerability and the belief that mammograms are no longer necessary.

Of course, biology is not destiny. But it might be hard not to take it as such if you learn that you are at high risk for developing a potentially fatal disease. You may live your whole life in dread, waiting for the other shoe to drop (that is a strange phrase, isn’t it?).

I am reminded of something that happened to me, which illustrates the idea that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Quite a few years ago, I was having back pain and so my doctor had an X-ray done of my back, along with an MRI. In addition to discovering that three of my vertebrae were fused in what was apparently a congenital condition, the MRI showed what the radiologist termed a “syrinx-like cavity” in my spinal cord. So of course I went online, looked up syrinxes and found that they can be a result of a degenerative disease called syringomyelia. It appeared that I would eventually suffer from things like motor impairment, muscle weakness, loss of sensitivity, and chronic pain. I and my family were devastated.

I became an expert on the disease, identified the best course of treatment (surgical implantation of a shunt in the spinal cord) and found clinical trials I could sign up for. Because this is a fairly rare disease, my regular physician and the specialists I consulted with did not have much more to tell me than what I could find myself. The fact that I was asymptomatic was a good thing, but symptoms can come suddenly, triggered by coughing or straining that puts pressure on the cerebrospinal fluid.

I was lucky that one of the world’s experts on syringomyelia was based at UCLA, and after what seemed like a very long time, I was able to get a consultation with him. He took one look at my MRI and said that I did not have syringomyelia. The syrinx was just a vestige of a congenital blip in the development of my spinal cord, and would likely never cause me any problem. And just like that, the random discovery of this anomaly that had turned my life upside down no longer meant anything. False positives are always an issue, as they are with technologies like full-body CT scans that are fishing expeditions for evidence of disease.

As more and more people decide to delve into their genetic endowment, like those at the “spit parties” hosted by 23andMe, ethical issues are bound to pop up. I don’t think we’ll ever have Gattaca-like genetic discrimination, but what happens if insurance companies decide they need to have a look-see at our DNA before they agree to cover us? Genetic testing already plays a prominent role early on in the dating process in some Orthodox Jewish communities, with both parties getting tested and checked against each other to see if they are genetically compatible (i.e., not both carriers of genes for genetic diseases more common among Ashkenazic Jews). Potential couples who may otherwise be perfect for each other may never get together because of that 25% chance of having a baby with a disease like Tay-Sachs or Cystic Fibrosis.

So, what do you think? Do you plan to have yourself and your family tested? Would knowing your genetic code motivate you to take action? Or are there just some things you would be better off not knowing?

Photo Credit: MASH DnArt

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ICANN has Oy-nternet?

I read a story in the paper this morning that gave me a giggle and made me wonder if someone was pulling the reporter’s leg. ICANN, the official internet naming agency, is starting to test using domain names written in languages composed of non-Roman letters. The 11 languages they are testing are Arabic, Persian, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese and Tamil. Yes, that does say Yiddish. Not Hebrew, the language of scores of the highest of the high-tech internet entrepreneurs, but Yiddish. These languages were chosen “based on the online communities that have expressed the most interest in and need for non-English domains.”

Are there really octogenarians and Chasids clamoring for the ability to surf the web in Yiddish? Are the Judenrein communities of Eastern Europe attempting to preserve the vestiges of Yiddish culture online? Or is it a way to avoid dredging up politicized battles by testing the Hebrew characters in which the language is written while calling it by a more nonthreatening name?

I’m going to go reserve my social-marketing.oy domain name now.

UPDATE (10/15/07): Kieren McCarthy at the ICANN blog responded to my question about why Yiddish was selected. She forwarded what Tina Dam, the manager of that project, told her:

“It was not a case of Yiddish rather than Hebrew. These are two different languages that both utilize the Hebrew script. When we were looking at which language to chose to translate the word test for, and hence develop the IDN TLD, we picked the ones where clear need had been expressed.

“However, the list of the eleven was up for comments and review and we had expected it to be expanded with a few additional languages that communities around the world would like to add. We did not get any such requests and so went ahead with the 11 we have today.

“However, please keep in mind that it is not about testing languages – it is about testing a technology. We do need to test the technology on both right-to-left languages and left-to-right languages – Yiddish, Arabic, Persian being the three of the former…

It still amazes me that there are tech-savvy Yiddish-speaking activists out there demanding equal language access.

Passing Off the Costs?

Sony, the Ad Council and the National Crime Prevention Council are running a contest to create a television PSA on the awareness and prevention of cyberbullying. The grand prize winners — an individual and a school group — will receive thousands of dollars worth of video production equipment. Consumer-generated marketing — great, right? Yes, until you look at all the requirements and restrictions they put on the entries.

The contest submissions must be broadcast quality — that can cost serious money. They specify tiny details like the required PMS colors and proportions of each organization’s logo. Entrants have to get talent releases from everyone involved and location releases.

And each person involved in the production has to confirm that “neither he/she nor anyone else has engaged or taken part in (or induced or encouraged anyone else to do so) in any activity or conduct that may or is likely to harm or create a risk of harm, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to any person, other living thing or any property.” Does this mean that kids who have been involved with cyberbullying (or other types of bullying) in the past cannot be involved in this project as a part of their rehabilitation?

So, essentially, the contest sponsors are asking for someone else to invest the time, money and creative energy in creating a finished spot for them, in exchange for the production equipment they would already need to own in order to create the spot. Perhaps this is the kind of thing a school-based video production class or semi-professional producer could pull off. But it also excludes an awful lot of people who might otherwise want to enter the contest. And those who do enter the contest but don’t win get nothing for their efforts — no opportunity to show off what they created or share it in other venues.

If Sony, the Ad Council and NCPC wanted to get more youth participating and engaging with this issue, why not solicit a broader range of videos with fewer restrictions, select the most creative and persuasive entries, and then cover the production costs to turn those ideas into a professionally created PSA? They could do it on YouTube or MySpace so that everyone can see all the entries and comment on them. This approach would seem a lot fairer to me, and potentially much more effective in ultimately affecting the issue of cyberbullying among youth.

I’m not sure whether this contest was underthought (in terms of the implications of the rules) or overthought (by the lawyers), but I have to hope that it’s not just all about passing off the costs.

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Online Video for the Little Fish

This afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Starr, founder (and CEO turned Chairman) of In case you are not familiar with Revver, it’s a video sharing site that tracks and monetizes videos and shares the ad revenue with the content creators (unlike sites like YouTube and Google Video). We were lucky to get Steven to come speak to our Entertainment Resource Professionals Association group, and it was a nice intimate setting in which to pummel Steven with our questions and pick his brain. Steven took it all with good humor, and his do-gooder ethos (apparently developed while working with Bob Marley) fit right in with our group.

If you are reading this blog, you probably already know about how the entertainment environment is shifting from being dominated by media conglorporations towards a more democratic model where anyone with a camera and some creativity can become a producer or a star. Power to the people and all that. Revver is contributing toward this shift, with a mission of empowering and rewarding creators of great content.

We had a lively discussion about how nonprofits can jump into the world of online video, and here are some of the ideas that Steven and others offered:

  • Don’t forget that online videos need to be SHORT (under 3 minutes). If you have more to say, do it with a series of episodes of 3 minutes each. Each one should advance a story, be entertaining and have some sort of “cliffhanger” at the end so that people will want to watch the next one.
  • Authenticity is key. Anything that looks like it was created by a PR agency will not be of as much interest as something made by a “real person.”
  • Look for your favorite online video creators (especially those who already have a following) and contract with them to make a bunch of videos for your organization to post online. The cost per video will be a fraction of a standard PSA, and the video creators will be thrilled to get money to do what they already love and are good at. “Create your own celebrities.”
  • Run a contest for the best video on your topic, with a prize of some sort.
  • Find existing content that matches up well with your message or organization and buy ads on those videos via Revver.
  • Bring in your own sponsor for your videos and get an additional 20% of the revenue, or at some point down the line, Revver may be able to match up causes with interested sponsors.
  • Ask people in your own network (e.g., your organization’s members and supporters) to take your videos and put them on their websites, blogs, social networking pages and send them via email to syndicate the content as much as possible.
  • Ask people to make videos around a common theme, then use excerpts from each to make a movie. Steven gave the example of people from all over trying to get to CBGB for its final closing night making videos about their experiences, which could then be made into a longer length movie that weaves the different storylines together.

Steven is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary he’s been making about water mentoring about the global water crisis (correction per Steven), called “For Love of Water.” It’s been a labor of love over several years, and hopefully it will be coming out soon, so watch for it.

When I came home after the meeting I was flipping through an old Far Side book I’d gotten from the library for my son (who is now discovering the joys of Larson). One of the cartoons resonated exactly with what we had just been talking about:

I then saw, while poking around in my feed reader, that Ashley Cecil had a new time-lapse video of her latest painting, which is hosted on Revver. I clicked on the ad at the end (because, as I learned today, the artists do not receive any money unless people click on the ads), which turned out to be linked to a site called What Kind of World Do You Taking off on the Five for Fighting (careful – link has audio!) song “World,” the site encourages people to “tell the world what kind of world you want and raise money for charity by making and uploading a video of yourself, your friends or your family answering the question, “What Kind Of World Do You Want”.” Or by watching the clips posted by others and clicking on the sponsor’s ad, a donation of up to 49 cents will go to one of six selected charities. While the contest seems to be over, it’s an interesting example of how a nonprofit might structure a similar contest.

For organizations that don’t have a lot of money or the ability to create and run TV commercials, the opportunity that online video offers to get your message out is enormous. But remember that no matter how “worthy” your organization may be of attention, you will not get noticed unless your content is engaging and entertaining. It’s a true meritocracy out there (at least as judged by the whims of the audience), so find the people who know what they are doing and join forces. Dip a toe into the water and come on in!

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When countries engage in cyberwarfare, as Russia is accused of doing against Estonia, and terrorists are on trial for using the internet to incite holy wars, can we afford to have judges who are not technoliterate?

From yesterday’s story:

A judge admitted on Wednesday he was struggling to cope with basic terms like “Web site” in the trial of three men accused of inciting terrorism via the Internet.

Judge Peter Openshaw broke into the questioning of a witness about a Web forum used by alleged Islamist radicals.

“The trouble is I don’t understand the language. I don’t really understand what a Web site is,” he told a London court during the trial of three men charged under anti-terrorism laws.

Prosecutor Mark Ellison briefly set aside his questioning to explain the terms “Web site” and “forum”. An exchange followed in which the 59-year-old judge acknowledged: “I haven’t quite grasped the concepts.”

It’s not rocket science, people. Do we need a technoliteracy campaign to educate government officials who don’t even know that the internet is a series of tubes?

Photo uploaded by Lady, That’s My Skull