Saturday, August 1, 2009

Software Developers: Quit Recreating The Physical World-We Already Have That

As an IT professional and electronic musician I see a lot of new computer products and innovations from day to day. I've come to believe that as a society we, collectively, have the wrong idea about what digital technology is good for.

I know that is a sweeping statement, but it is exactly what I mean. We have the big picture all wrong.

Example 1: Musical Instrument and Effect Modeling

If you read about amp sim DAW plugins (or modeled synthesizers or effects) the discussion always comes around to how closely the software duplicates the sound of the original. This makes sense as many of us wish we owned amplifiers that we can't (rare Fenders) or just aren't willing to pay for (overpriced Marshalls [1][2]). Having a piece of software approximate what you can't physically possess is attractive.

There are two problems with this. First, it is always going to be an approximation. Digital technology, by its very nature, can not reproduce the behavior of physical electronics exactly. Even if you put the computer inside an amplifier cabinet and program it to compensate for the differences between the cone in its cabinet and the cone in cabinet being modeled it will not be the same. It can't. Digital modeling will always have quantization errors, no matter how small. Besides, human programmers can not take into account the infinite (literally) number of variables impacting the sound of physical electric/electronic circuits.

That is the pragmatic problem. The goal is unattainable. Sure, some useful software is produced as a result (everyone needs more distortion plugins, right? I know I do.) but it will never do what it purports to do. No matter how good the plugin sounds, it will never put a 1960's Fender Bassman at my disposal.

The philosophical problem, to me, is much greater. Is this a good use of our efforts? Should the best minds in software development, in audio or any other field, be making digital replicas of things that already exist?

No. We should be making things we never had before. We should be making things that could only exist in the digital realm.

Example 2: Second Life and the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse

I had the pleasure of attending an Avatar Orchestra Metaverse rehearsal a number of months ago. AOM only performs in the on-line virtual world, Second Life. I am only an occasional user of Second Life. Although it superficially resembles a 3D game in that you control and are represented by a charactor, called an avatar, it is fundamentally different. There are no set game objectives. Therefore you need to have a reason enter Second Life or, like real life, you will find yourself bored.

A meeting heald in Second Life.

The AOM rehearsal invitation from Humming Pera gave me a reason to be there. Then, it blew my mind.

A 2008 AOM Performance

Most music in Second Life is simply piped in. Most bands and DJs who "perform" in SL are either playing recordings or capturing live performances and streaming the results into SL over an Internet connection. AOM is committed to playing music in SL.

At the rehearsal I was introduced to some of the instruments AOM use. These instruments exist as software objects and only in SL. They are built with SL's scripting language, LSL. In this way, they have created instruments that can be played, in real time, by Second Life avatars. The ones I tried out at the rehearsal had heads up displays (AKA "HUDs") that have the effect of overlaying the instrument's controls over my avatar's field of vision, again like a video game, but created by users of the system, not a game designer.

An example of an SL HUD. This one is for a social networking add-on for SL called MetaLIFE.

These instruments that are used by AOM have never existed before. Even when they use familiar metaphors for their interfaces, an image of a piano keyboard for example, they are still fundamentally different from anything that exists in the physical world. Best of all, there is no need for them to emulate physical instruments.

Second Life contains many recreations of physical places and objects. This is fun and makes the environment less overwhelming and foreign. But these things are not at all what makes SL special.

Marshall McLuhan wrote about the relationship of communications media to time and space. Books, for example, overcome time. The text of a book can be preserved for hundreds of years, every letter in tact. Telephony is much more ephemeral but is very good overcoming the problems of space. A voice can be heard, literally, on the other side of the world via telephone.

Looked at as a communication technology, the manipulable 3D environment of SL overcomes, bypasses and even negates space in ways no other medium, including e-mail, video chat and the World Wide Web, can. The sense of place within SL differs radically from the physical world. The "islands" that make up the SL world occupy places in a digital map but for all practical purposes they are equidistant from each other in that location on the map has no bearing on how long it will take to travel to a given island.

In SL objects can not only be seen by users the world over at the same time, effectively overcoming space on the macro level, like telephony. But these same virtual objects can also change their size arbitrarily at the will of a user or programatically. Thus, SL also overcomes space in the virtualized local environment.

For example, I have conceived of a collaborative step-sequencer that that could be programmed and played by a group of people. In the physical world this has the problem of requiring its interface to accommodate an arbitrary number of users. In SL it can be scaled to the room and the number of users on the fly. I once saw a picnic table in SL that always had an empty chair around it. When an avatar sat in that chair the table automatically enlarged and a new, empty chair was created. Try that on your physical patio!

My Second Life Avatar, DualCore Rhode

Likewise the (virtual) physical abilities of an avatar are unrelated to the physical abilities of the human controlling it. Again, SL overcomes the problems of immediate space. In SL all objects are controlled by computer keyboards and mice. Rather, they are controlled by the standard software commands from keyboards and mice. For people with non-standard bodies this means they can do everything others do in SL assuming they have access to appropriate alternative input devices (AKA, assistive technology). To SL and the objects built there, it doesn't matter at all.

This is what computers, the Internet and other modern digital technology are really good for. If you want to spend time in the physical world, do. But don't recreate it. We already have a real world. I quite like it. I spend most of my time there. When I leave, I want to see something different. More importantly, I want to do something different.

Build something new.


Rik Panganiban said...

awesome post! I totally agree that virtual worlds are kind of cool when the re-create real world objects and places, but that does kind of miss the point.

DJ Dual Core said...

Thank you. I think it becomes a policy question at some point. I started out talking about music, but it goes beyond that. Are governments and NGOs going to fund development of innovations that expand people's options or are we going to keep virtualizing the wheel, over and over.