Archives for September 2009

Archi-Me: CAD to virtual world

airport2 There’s no denying the demand by business for virtual environments that allow for replication of real world products and processes. Forterra’s OLIVE platform, TeamingStream’s NoviCraft, Second Life and OpenSim grids are just four environments used extensively by business for prototyping products or business.

Archi-ME is a new entrant in that space. Created by UK-based company MOOFU, its stated purpose is “a new solution that enables designers to create fully interactive avatar-based virtual environments from 3D CAD models”. If you spent a couple of minutes watching the video below, you’ll see Archi-Me in action. Those who’ve used Second Life in particular will see some big similarities around appearance and the ability to manipulate objects and change textures on the fly. In fact, there’s very little from the demo that can’t be replicated in Second Life. Which isn’t the point really: this seems an application designed for building and architecture firms who want an easy way to bring their CAD-based designs into an avatar-driven 3D environment.

To get some more details, I shot some questions through to Nick Palfrey, Managing Director at MOOFU:

Lowell: Can you give a ball-park estimate on typical cost of something like a basic house walk-through?

Nick: For applications where the client is using toolkit functionality and requires very little tailoring, which would be the case for many Architects we would be looking at under £5k. We also design custom interfaces and environments for larger organisations such as property developers, with budgets of up to £25k as new avatars, functions, networking and design options are all re-visited.

Lowell: Is there any intention to allow people to own their own copy of Archi-Me i.e. pay a license fee to create their own content rather than rely on it arriving on a DVD.

Nick: We plan to offer an import system at some point so that users can generate their own environments through their CAD models, we should stress that we are not replicating Second Life and the system will not have tools for building spaces in it. Archi-Me is all about showcasing designs and for that reason, we rely on the client or user having a thorough understanding of either 3DS Max or ArchiCad. It is also important to note that only we can package the system up for web application and hosting.

Lowell: What is the fundamental architecture that Archi-Me is based on – is it a ground-up proprietary virtual environment or does it leverage say Forterra’s OLIVE platform or something similar?

Nick: We use Unity 3D to compile our code and for all of MOOFU’s game work, we stick with this. All code, assets and scripts are customised as well as a number of SDKs being used. We use Unity because it compiles the data instantly on-screen and for visualising large buildings with multiple cameras, this functionality is very helpful!

Nick: Are you able to disclose who the client or clients in Australasia have been?

Lowell: Yes… Dr Kenn Fisher Associate Professor Melbourne University and Director of Learning Futures Woods Bagot Architects, Melbourne. This has been a project organised by him with a number of international stakeholders. More information on Kenn is available at Rubida.net!

The Virtual Worlds Story Project: HIV/AIDS

The Virtual World’s Story Project (TVWSP) is a partnership between Jena Ball (SL: Jenaia Morane) and Marty Keltz (SL: Marty Snowpaw). We’ve previously covered one of their other story quests and they’ve certainly been prolific in the health and education field.

Their latest project is focused on HIV/AIDS and is titled The Life and Times of Uncle D, which you can get a taste of in this four-minute summation:

This week sees the in-world launch of The Life and Times of Uncle D. It’s occurring on the 1st October at Noon SL time, which is 5am on Friday the 2nd October AEST – you can find out more info here on the TVSWP site.

It’s another example of the power of machinima, and the virtual environments they’re created in, to assist in providing meaning to real world issues.

(For those interested in the use of virtual worlds in sexual health education or in health more broadly, don’t forget to keep an eye on sister-site Metaverse Health.)

The Watch – virtual worlds in the news

1. Marketingweb (South Africa) – Corporate gaming and virtual worlds. “Throughout 2009, the corporate world was exposed to the reality of virtual worlds which has seen a growing influence on how companies train, market, advertise and communicate. This trend was largely driven by the rising influence and profile of virtual online worlds, which allow users to create ultimate realities such as that offered by Second Life, and in a similar vein the computer game SIMS. This is a trend that is expected to continue as organisations begin to recognise the merits of incorporating gaming into their basket of communication tools. As a social dynamic, computer gaming is an influential reality. People under 35 grew up in a world influenced and informed by computer gaming rather than traditional board games. If we consider that society has always used games to teach children the skills they need to be successful adults, the role and influence of computer games is going to increase within the corporate world – driven by the fact that an increasing segment of our marketable demographic have had their values and worldview affected by computer gaming. This growing social effect is one of the drivers behind the probable increase in virtual world activity by the corporate world.”

2. Washington Post (USA) – A Virtual Theme Park for Kids Explores Life’s Wonders. “”I think this is educational,” observes my 8-year-old stepson, about half an hour after logging on to Wonder Rotunda, a Web site aimed at kids that was recently launched by a Washington area dad. I wonder briefly if the jig is up, but he continues to explore the virtual theme park, intrigued by the prospect of winning and spending the game’s “wonder dollars” to buy virtual food and loot with which to decorate his virtual treehouse. I’m not sure whether he’ll be playing next week — who ever knows these things? — but for now he’s intrigued enough to sit still through discussions about how the human digestive system works and which presidents appear on U.S. currency.”

3. CNET (USA) – Audi creates virtual Audi Space within PlayStation Home. “Automakers are like forum trolls. Every time you turn around another one of them is yelling, “First!” This time it’s Audi claiming to be the first carmaker to develop its own virtual area in Sony’s PlayStation Home. Audi Space, as it will be known, will come on line in late 2009. Audi Space will at first feature an Audi TV channel delivering video content relating to the German automaker. In December of ’09, Audi Space will be expanded to include Vertical Run, a futuristic racing game featuring Audi’s e-tron concept. Players will collect electrical energy that will presumably be untamed by the e-tron as they race for the highest possible speed. Be the fastest and you could earn a place for your Home avatar in the virtual Audi apartments, located in a large tower in the center of Audi Space.”

4. Manolith (USA) – Second Life Economy Healthier Than First Life. “Some of you may not be aware of what Second Life is. Some of you might have tried it, gotten frustrated, and then quit. Some of you might still be SL citizens. Whatever your experience with it, you have to be amazed that it’s still around and apparently doing some thriving business. Linden Labs, the company that created this virtual space, has recently reported that SL citizens have transacted over one billion dollars’ worth of services and goods with each other, estimating fifty million dollars being exchanged per month. Furthermore, 1,250 text messages are sent every second of the day, and the virtual geography of Second Life has grown to roughly the size of Rhode Island.”

5. The Guardian (UK) – Maths is the bedrock of the digital age. “It is a situation eerily familiar to most gamers: I am lost deep inside a pyramid, being pursued by a monster about to devour me in a spectacular way if I don’t make a decision pronto. The only difference to most other games is that the problem involves geometry. An arrow appears beneath my avatar’s feet with a length on it, say 5 metres. Above are four boxes consisting of triangles, rectangles and other shapes with sizes marked on the side. Unless I drag the box with the right answer down in front of me, I will be devoured. If I succeed, a fresh section of a stone path opens and the game moves on. Called Pyramid Panic, it is aimed at key stage 3 – and is one of a family of “serious” or educational titles launched today by mangahigh.com. Others range from doing simple arithmetic to make flowers grow to solving quadratic equations to guide a spaceship to its destination.”

6. Virtual Edge (USA) – Two Recent Surveys of Marketing Professionals Shed Light on Trends in Virtual Events. “ON24 and Unisfair recently conducted studies seeking to understand how marketing professionals were planning to use various marketing and collaboration technologies. While the Unisfair survey found that 48% of the respondents planned to increase their use of virtual event solutions. The ON24 study identified some of the drivers for that kind of growth, with cost savings leading the way and time savings close behind. This was a multiple choice question so some of the options we’d like to see weren’t offered but the Unisfair research shed additional light on marketer’s priorities. Not surprisingly, new customer acquisition followed by customer retention lead the marketers’ initiative list. These are two functions that virtual events are very well suited for.”

7. Silicon.com (UK) – Are dinosaur managers and poor teaching holding back Digital Britain? “More must be done to convince grey-haired business leaders to embrace web 2.0 developments, a panel of experts has warned. A panel assembled by the British Computer Society (BCS) were asked to consider whether IT could lead the UK out of recession. But it warned the UK’s potential around technology – and thus the potential of IT to drive economic recovery – is being held back by the current crop of business leaders who are failing to ‘get IT’, and also by the failure of the education system to inspire young people to acquire the skills needed by the industry.”

8. New University Online (USA) – UC Irvine Gets Grant to Study World Of Warcraft. “UC Irvine received a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an ethnographic study earlier this month on “World of Warcraft,” (WoW) a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) with over 10 million subscribers. UCI Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Bonnie Nardi and doctoral student Yong Ming Kow will analyze how players engage in creative collaboration in this virtual 3-D universe.”

9. Minneapolis Star Tribune (USA) – Dangerous adventures in Barbie-land. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could go about your daily life as a better-looking, thinner, more perfect version of yourself? That semi-you could go to work, shop for groceries and go out on the town and the real you could schlub around your house all day long, living vicariously through your surrogate. That’d be great, right? Well, not so fast, says “Surrogates,” a subpar sci-fi thriller set in an Atwoodian alterna-future where regular folks stay at home glued to a complex computer screen while their surrogates venture into the world.”

10. The Times Online (UK) – Angelic pretender Aion threatens to knock king of fantasy games off its throne. “Once upon a time, in the world of online gaming, there was but one king: World of Warcraft — the role-playing extravaganza that has snared millions of fans to become one of the most valuable entertainment properties. Now there is a challenger for its crown: Aion, created by the South Korean company NCSoft. The game had already been ordered by more than 400,000 players across Europe and North America before its launch in Britain yesterday.”

Weekend Whimsy

1. Second Life – Clocks

2. Second Life Tribute 2 Salt N Pepper, C-Dep Dancers

3. Live at the USO of Second Life machinima trailer

Shopping

Took my dad to the shopping centre the other day to buy some new shoes (he is 84)..

We decided to grab a bite at the food court.

I noticed he was watching a teenager sitting next to him. The teenager had spiked hair in all different colours: green, red, orange, and blue.

My dad kept staring at him.

The teenager would look and find him staring every time.

When the teenager had had enough, he sarcastically asked: ‘What’s the matter old man, never done anything wild in your life?’

Knowing my Dad, I quickly swallowed my food so that I would not choke on his response; knowing he would have a good one.

And in classic style he did not bat an eye in his response:

‘Got stoned once and fu*ked a peacock. I was just wondering if you were my son.’

Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds

fallenearth

1. This week sees the launch of two new gaming worlds. The first is Fallen Earth, a post-apocalyptic world, will cost you US$49.99 for the boxed or digital download versions plus a monthly US$14.99 fee (there are discounts for multi-month subscriptions).

The second is the fantasy MMO Aion. It too costs US$49.95 plus US$14.99 per month. Both require Windows XP or Vista, with no Mac OSX support. I know OSX is still only around 10% of the userbase, but in a burgeoning MMO marketplace, surely it’s a worthwhile proposition?

2. OpenSim continues to go from strength to strength – a post over at Maxping gives some reasons why. They also have a story on new enterprise virtual world solution, Amphisocial.

3. Ren Reynolds has a great piece over at Terra Nova on journalists not fact-checking stories on virtual environments.

4. Here’s some original music and machinima from Australian Second Life resident Shakti Cianci:

5. John Waugh at SLENZ has posted an insightful piece, wondering why New Zealand educators aren’t utilising virtual environments more widely in their practice.

6. For lovers of theatre, why not check out the Avatar Repertory Theater’s staging of 13 Objects: Studies in Servitude by Howard Barker:

Performances will be on Oct 20, 4pm SLT and October 21, 2pm SLT at Coventry University Sim. On October 21, 2009, more than 50 theater companies will stage readings and performances in celebration of the 21st anniversary of the founding of Howard Barker’s theater company, The Wrestling School. A.R.T.’s virtual theater will be another facet in the world wide celebration, from Mexico to Iceland, Australia to Cyprus, in five languages. Organizations participating include the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and the Skylight Theatre Company in Perth. A.R.T. will be performing “13 Objects: Studies in Servitude” by Howard Barker, live in Second Life, October 20th at 4 pm and October 21st at 2 pm SLT at the Coventry University sim. 13 Objects shows the secret lives of everyday objects, such as a cup and saucer, or a camera, to make intimate connections and inspire powerful feelings, with poetic language, provocative ideas and dark humor.

http://slurl.com/secondlife/Coventry University/32/171/751/

The Watch – virtual worlds in the news

1. Ethiopian Review – Virtual Maps For The Blind. “The blind and visually impaired often rely on others to provide cues and information on navigating through their environments. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t give them the tools to venture out on their own, says Dr. Orly Lahav of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education and Porter School for Environmental Studies. To give navigational “sight” to the blind, Dr. Lahav has invented a new software tool to help the blind navigate through unfamiliar places. It is connected to an existing joystick, a 3-D haptic device, that interfaces with the user through the sense of touch. People can feel tension beneath their fingertips as a physical sensation through the joystick as they navigate around a virtual environment which they cannot see, only feel: the joystick stiffens when the user meets a virtual wall or barrier. ”

2. The Register (UK) – Second Life slapped with counterfeit sex toy suit. “A pair of Second Life entrepreneurs are suing the game’s creator, Linden Lab, for allowing other players to sell “knockoffs” of their virtual sex organs, erotic poses, designer clothing, and other trademarked items. Kevin Alderman (known in Second Life as “Stroker Serpentine”) alleges that Linden facilitates and profits from in-game pirates copying his IP-protected line of adult-themed virtual goods. Alderman claims his SexGen branded items and animations are among the most popular virtual products sold within Second Life, making his US trademark a valuable resource to distinguish himself amongst competitors selling alternative methods of bumping ugly online.”

3. ReadWriteWeb (USA) – Shouldn’t Schools Have Embraced Second Life By Now? “When it first launched, the tech and business worlds were transfixed on Linden Labs’ Second Life as a new marketplace. Science fiction fans flocked to the site for its Snow Crash and Matrix-like neo-apocalyptic feel. And finally, educators arrived to build inexpensive and immersive learning environments. While the hype has certainly dissipated with Second Life, the librarian and educator community remains. Today Linden announced the first statewide roll out of a virtual learning environment. Funded by a grant from the University of Texas State’s Transforming Undergraduate Education Program the company will provide a huge space for faculty, students and researchers to explore a virtual undergrad degree program.”

4. Tonic (USA) – Mombasa’s Cable Gives Africa Better Internet Access. “Prince Charles might describe the Seacom Landing Station in Mombasa as “a monstrous carbuncle, located right next to Mombasa’s most imposing sight, Fort Jesus, built by Vasco da Gama in the 16th century,” according to Rory Cellan-Jones, writing in his BBC.com technology blog. This is where the Seacom cable comes ashore, bringing with it East Africa’s first “decent connection to the internet.” Mahmoud Noor, a telecommunications engineer, runs the station, which, Cellan-Jones said, “is just one link in a network stretching from Mumbai to Kenya, and along the cost of East Africa.” The new cable increases Kenya’s telecommunications capacity by 240 percent.”

5. Business Standard (India) – Spammers target online gamers. “With online games attracting gamers from across the globe, spammers have been trying to cash in on the popularity of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) videogames. Using phishing and Trojans, cyber criminals have been stealing players’ login names and passwords. Analysts explain that by creating characters that send unsolicited ads for items such as extra weapons and playable characters, spammers target gamers in MMO games. “In-game characters controlled by individuals working for spam companies infiltrate these virtual worlds and bombard players with unsolicited ads for the sale of in-game virtual items like swords and even playable characters. Since cyber criminals need large audiences to perpetrate their crimes, they have begun preying on residents in virtual worlds and players in online games, particularly in Asia where these games have become extremely popular,” explains Abhinav Karnwal, product marketing manager APEC, Trend Micro.”

6. Medical News Today (USA) – Psychologists Set To Discuss The Psychosocial Impact Of The Internet. “The internet now plays a major role in many people’s lives. Over the last 20 years psychologists have built up a substantial body of knowledge about people’s social interactions in cyberspace. A symposium at the British Psychological Society’s Social Psychology Section annual conference today, 16th September 2009, led by members of Nottingham Trent University’s Cyberpsychology Research Group will examine some of the current psychological issues surrounding people’s use of the internet. ”

7. NT News (Australia) – Computer games good for doctors. “LEADING health professionals are encouraging health workers to play computer games on the job to improve their skills. Professor Terry Poulton and Dr Tenneth Dalipanda have endorsed Second Life and Virtual Patients at a health conference in Alice Springs. The virtual reality games allow graduate doctors and nurses to learn from their mistakes without killing or harming their patients. Simulated scenarios will be rehearsed with other allied health workers for professional development.”

8. PBS (USA) – Second Life. “When the sun comes up in Second Life, which it does every four hours, you are immediately overwhelmed by the vast, brightly colored mish-mash of stores, houses, and malls stretching across multiple continents—all of it, including the mountains and forests, designed and built from scratch by the tens of thousands of people who regularly visit here.
Move your mouse and you tour the Taj Mahal. A few clicks and you are launched on a NASA rocket into low orbit. Click again and you can join a service in an Anglican cathedral. This live, online world called Second Life was launched in 2003 by the San Francisco company Linden Lab and its founder Phillip Rosedale, who says he had no idea what would happen. PHILIP ROSEDALE (Chairman of the Board, Linden Lab): Well, I always figured in the beginning that if Second Life looked like anything we were able to predict that we would have failed, that if it was predictable we weren’t doing the right stuff.”

9. Nextgov (USA) – Generation V. “There’s an interesting conversation going on at IBM’s Smart Work Jam about the concept of age being just a number when it comes to social networking and virtual worlds. “I’ve led groups of zealous, older managers into Second Life sessions, where a number of younger managers were less interested, and managers of all ages have opted into the online community that I launched for them,” one commenter states. As a result, many have begun using “Generation V,” or “Generation Virtual,” which is not age-specific, to describe individuals who engage in Web 2.0 and virtual worlds. In fact, as one commenter stated, the debate over the generational divide in the workplace when it comes to technology is actually diverting attention from the real issue: “When workers of any age (including old) see business value, they are quick to adopt. So here’s the issue that’s masked: how do we demonstrate business value to people of all ages?”

The Zipper

the bus stopped and it was her turn to get on, she became aware that her skirt was too tight to allow her leg to come up to the height of the first step of the bus.

Slightly embarrassed and with a quick smile to the bus driver, she reached behind her to unzip her skirt a little, thinking that this would give her enough slack to raise her leg.

She tried to take the step, only to discover that she couldn’t. So, a little more embarrassed, she once again reached behind her to unzip her skirt a little more, and for the second time attempted the step.

Once again, much to her chagrin, she could not raise her leg. With a little smile to the driver, she again reached behind to unzip a little more and again was unable to take the step.

About this time, a large Texan who was standing behind her picked her up easily by the waist and placed her gently on the step of the bus.

She went ballistic and turned to the would-be Samaritan and yelled, ‘How dare you touch my body! I don’t even know who you are!’

The Texan smiled and drawled, ‘Well, ma’am, normally I would agree with you, but after you unzipped my fly three times, I kinda figured we was friends.’

Dark Siren: Part 4

Dark Siren CoverIt’s time for part four of the Dark Siren serialisation. You can see Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and if you like what you read, please do support an up and coming author and buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card.

Chapter 7

Instead of going back to his office, Nez headed to the courtyard for a smoke. He sat on a wooden bench in the afternoon sunshine and studied Everett’s folder. There were contact details of the main players: the FBI’s rep in Canberra, James Whitman, Wayne Chapman from the Australian Federal Police, and Simon Austin of the AHTCC – a new high-tech crime agency he hadn’t heard of. The next page contained a list of the four Avataria names Kyrylo had been in regular contact with: Carmen Verne, Alan Menuti, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley.

Stapled together was a scanned copy of a standard NSW Police evidence log – a long list of items that had been seized in the raid including the contents of the laptop. A number of things caught his eye – the presence of Steganos software, an article from the political e-zine Salon.com about Senator Jack Gallagher, and a memo from Simon Austin noting the possibility that a certain Joss Guest was another of Kyrylo’s avatars.

The use of Steganos was kind of ironic, he thought. Developed initially to foil hackers, it was now being used by them. He knew the FBI were concerned that they were intercepting fewer and fewer communications between Druzhba operatives, but far from meaning that they were doing less business, this actually suggested that they were using a new way of communicating each other without being tracked. Steganos could insert encrypted files into all sorts of files including bitmapped images – one of the formats used by thousands of Avataria residents to take screen snapshots and pass them around.

Back in his office, Nez checked his watch and picked up the phone to call Canberra. An assistant answered, but Simon soon came to the phone. Nez introduced himself.

“I’ve been asked to call you about your interest in Avataria.”

“Are you with the FBI?”

“We work with them.”

“You know about the raid, then?”

“I’ve just read the stuff you sent me on Kyrylo. Interesting reading. We have a history. So what do you want to know?”

Simon came straight to the point.

“I’ve been logging on to Avataria and some other online games for several months in connection with an Al-Qaeda inquiry. That didn’t go anywhere, but we’re taking Avataria seriously as a potential criminal medium for money laundering, identity theft, communications channel – you name it.  When we busted Kyrylo’s office we found a laptop with a Avataria viewer. There was evidence of credit card scams and identity theft of some of Avataria’s Australian residents. Would that ring any bells with you?”

“Bet your life! Before Kyrylo skipped to Sydney he was into the same sort of scams in LA, but the Bureau could never pin anything on him. I didn’t know he was doing stuff in Avataria, though. That’s a new development.”

“Once the raid threw up the link, I went online,” Simon continued, “and checked out all the avatar names on Kyrylo’s viewer. I’ve sent you the list of them: Carmen Verne runs an in-world newspaper, the AvPost, and Alan Menuti is its Advertising Manager. But it’s Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley who interest me – particularly in the light of that Salon article on Jack Gallagher. They’re rent boys.”

“With those names, could they be anything else?”

Simon laughed. “They’re not monks, that’s for sure.”

“So what are you saying? That Jack’s been playing away from home in a virtual gay bordello?

“Not exactly. But isn’t he the great white hope of the Democratic Party in the next Presidential election?”

“You wanna be careful, using that phrase in American politics.”

“Great white hope?’

“Yeah. Do you know what it means?”

“Sort of…”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then.” Nez laughed.

“Tell me.”

“It was a play, then a film… the story of a successful black boxer that a racist society wanted to bring down… with one of their own.”

“Hence the term, Great White Hope?”

“Yes.”

“So not applicable to Gallagher?”

“Not really… but I know what you mean. Let’s just say that Gallagher’s the frontrunner.”

“I don’t want to sound alarmist, but given Kyrylo’s background…”

“Mainly fraud, forgery and extortion,” said Nez, “but so far no blackmail.”

“There’s always a first time.”

“So how can we help?”

“I’ve been told to catch Kyrylo. As you can imagine the federal cops here aren’t exactly happy with a heavy duty crim like him on the loose.”

“I thought the Bureau gave you a tip off where to find him.”

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the phone.

“They did, but he got away.”

“Got away?”

“The place we raided had an exit we didn’t know about.”

“Surely the regular cops will catch up with him sooner or later?”

“Maybe, but I’m not holding my breath. I reckon the best chance of finding him is through Avataria.”

“Tracking him when he next logs in, you mean?”

“Possibly, although we think he may have more than one avatar. I think we should try to trace those other guys.”

Nez leant back in his chair and put his feet up on the corner of the desk. “You seem to have made some progress already.”

“I’ve gone as far as I can online. I’d guess that all those avatars on Kyrylo’s contacts list are American citizens. I can’t trace them from here – that’s a job for the FBI.”

“You may be right,” said Nez. “but first you’d have to find out who the avatars belong to.”

“Could you lean on the Avataria management?”

“The CEO’s an old friend of mine. I’m hoping I won’t have to.”

Martin Bremer answered the phone with characteristic energy.

“Frank! What a surprise! Good to hear from you… how’s life at No Such Agency?”

“Bugging you all as usual,” said Nez good-humouredly, used to wisecracks about his old employer’s legendary obsession with secrecy. “But you’re out of date. I’ve moved on.”

“How come?”

“It’s a long story. You know the current administration’s love affair with public-private partnerships. I’m still technically with the Agency but I’m on attachment to one of their contractors.”

“Is that so? Funny, only the other day I was reading about you wiretappers being privatised.”

“Martin,” said Nez, “I’ve got a favour to ask. We think some very bad people are using your game for all the wrong reasons, and we need your help to stop them. I’ve got some names I’d like you to check out, and I want to come over tomorrow to get me set up in-world with a fancy avatar.”

“No problem. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll ask Nathan, one of our guys, to help you  – he’s a whiz with avatars.” Then casually, “Do you have a warrant?”

“I’d like to keep this unofficial for the moment, Martin. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Sure… as it’s you, but do remember if it comes to court…”

There was the tiniest hint of alarm in Martin’s voice, Nez could tell. Come to think of it, he was alarmed as well. Why had Everett wanted it kept hush-hush? These weren’t terror suspects, they were almost certainly ordinary Americans. Was Everett holding something back? That was a no-brainer – he was such an obnoxious son of a bitch, secretive and always covering his ass… if push came to shove, he would deny all knowledge.

“Yeah… I know. 9.30 tomorrow morning OK for you?”

“You know where we are.”

On his way home, Nez pulled off the freeway and stopped at his local mall to get a takeaway dinner from his favourite Chinese eatery. At this time most shops were deserted and the bookstore next to the takeaway was just about to close. On impulse, he went inside and started browsing the computer gaming section. One title jumped out at him: ‘Life and Love in Virtual Worlds’. He thumbed through the pages; not all of it was relevant to Avataria, but there were some promising chapters on sub-cults, cyber prostitution, how to conduct online business, and, much more relevant to his present frame of mind, virtual speed dating. He took it to the cash point and paid, picked up his Singapore noodles from next door and headed home on the freeway just as the light was beginning to fade.

Chapter 8

San Francisco Bay Area, CA. 25 January 2008 : 9.35am

The offices of Avataria were located just off the Mountain View-Alviso Freeway with an attractive outlook over the County Park. Nez pulled into the shiny new complex a few minutes after the designated time and walked the few yards from the visitors’ car park to the main entrance. The sun was shining with the steely brilliance of a Californian winter. For the first time in months he felt a spring in his step – he was looking forward to catching up with Martin and sniffing around his virtual empire.

As he approached the building he couldn’t help noticing the Porsches, Jaguars, and other exotic marques parked in the executive bays on the other side of the walkway, which he guessed was the designated domain for the staff. The building was long and low in an almost Japanese style, with a shallow moat on either side of the entrance. The whole effect would have been of stylish, restrained opulence had there not been life size figures of a male and a female avatar in garish outfits on either side of the entrance steps. Disneyland had a lot to answer for. Nevertheless, he made unfavourable comparisons with his own seedy workplace, a far cry from this and the glass-and-chrome extravagance of NSA Headquarters at Crypto City. For a brief moment his ebullient mood left him and he felt quite depressed.

The glass doors opened automatically, but instead of revealing a conventional lobby with a receptionist and a desk there was a large circular area painted brilliant white, vaguely resembling a Star Trek teleport. A hi-def plasma monitor faced him, set into a curved teak panel set well forward from the back wall. Below and in front of the screen was a highly polished teak surface with a built-in keyboard and screen for checking emails, a few pens and notepads and a cordless telephone. On either side of the room were more screens showing constantly changing panoramas from Avataria, but more surprising were the seats: four beautifully made garden swings in the same teak as the TV wall panel, upholstered with exquisite Thai silk cushions. The subdued but distinct tones of Gamelan music could be heard issuing from hidden loudspeakers.

As he approached the screen flickered into life. An attractive female avatar vaguely reminiscent of an Asian flight attendant appeared and smiled as he approached:

“Good morning Mr Nez, how are you today?”

The voice was synthesised, but he could hardly tell. Stifling his astonishment, Nez replied coolly that he was good.

“You’re here to see Mr Bremer, I believe? He is expecting you, will you take a seat for a minute please?”

The avatar continued to smile, but in a slightly vacant way. Nez half expected her to fold her arms behind her head and pout like many Avataria women with custom animation overrides did when they were conversing.

He sat down nursing his briefcase on one of the swings, which gave a slight creak as he rocked gently backwards and forwards. He had to admit he was impressed, although he wondered how the avatar receptionist would greet a visitor who wasn’t on the database of the face recognition software. Default to ‘Good morning Sir/Good afternoon Madam’ perhaps, though determining sex based on CCTV data might be risky, he thought with a wry smile.

“My, what a long time it’s been. Eight years?” Martin Bremer was standing in front of him, right hand extended in welcome.

“Martin! I was miles away. You’re looking as fit as ever. I was just admiring your receptionist.”

“Oh… Maya? She’s cute, isn’t she?”

Bremer led the way behind the teak wall into an airy open plan room decorated in primary colours with large north facing skylights. It couldn’t really be called an office. In one corner was a group of young men and women clustered around some monitors on a bench, in another an arrangement of squashy sofas around a couple of plasma screens, and in the middle where the nearest thing to conventional work stations could be seen, Nez observed two small dogs lying asleep on an old blanket. On the right was a mezzanine level punctured by a fireman’s pole that terminated underneath in a heap of bright yellow plastic cushions.

“Love the fireman’s pole.”

“It’s the nearest thing we could get to a teleporter,” Bremer said with a laugh, nimbly stepping over a Segway personal transporter someone had abandoned in the middle of the room.

“Toys for the boys?”

“We call this the Nursery,” said Bremer without a trace of irony in his voice, and turning left passed through some double doors into a wide corridor. Here the atmosphere was more corporate, with several small glass-walled offices on one side and computer rooms on the other. Bremer’s office was at the end, sparsely furnished in the quasi-Japanese style of the building’s exterior. They both settled into easy chairs away from the desk and Martin called an assistant to provide some coffee.

“How’s the lovely Eva? Are the kids still at high school?.”

“Yeah. Alex is in Year 10 and Julia wants to do a gap year teaching kids in Africa when she finishes next year. Eva and I aren’t together anymore, by the way.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I presume that she got custody?”

“Yeah… well… life goes on.”

“You’ve got a list of those names for me, I assume,” said Bremer, tactfully changing the subject. He pulled out a small notebook from his inside jacket pocket and produced a pair of half-moon reading spectacles, “so what would you like to know about them?”

Nez handed over Simon’s list of avatars and detailed his requests: the names they signed up with, credit card information, chat and Instant Message logs, IP Addresses, and a list of ‘friends’ of each of the names and any records of whom they might have met online.

Bremer dutifully recorded all this in his notebook, then looking at Nez over the top of his glasses said, “I’m willing to do all this off the record for you, Frank, but I have to say this: until the day Congress legalises all this eavesdropping you might have a problem getting any court convictions without a FISA warrant.”

“You’re right,” said Nez, “but this directive comes from above, and I don’t really have any say in it.”

Bremer shrugged.

“Now. How else can I help? You want to go into Avataria undercover?” He laughed. “I almost said just like all the others.”

Nez smiled. “Well, look at it this way. I’m not exactly your typical Avataria demographic, am I? I need all the help and advice I can get so I don’t raise any eyebrows.”

Bremer continued to look over his glasses, but made no comment.

Nez continued: “We can only do so much with electronic snooping. This guy Kyrylo is already wanted by the Feds for a whole bunch of serious crimes, plus we think he may be up to something even more sinister. There may even be a political angle to it. I’ve gotta to go in there and do some old-fashioned investigating.”

“OK. But let me assure you of one thing. There is no typical Avataria demographic. Not really. It’s not just a game for students and computer geeks. You’ll be surprised to know that over 40% of our residents are over 35 years old. The way things are going in a few months’ time you’ll be just about average. And here is a statistic that might interest you: 27% of the women in Avataria are really men! Isn’t that something? I can’t remember how many gals are playing guys. Far less, I’m sure.”

“So it’s all about roleplay, then?” Nez was fascinated.

“Yeah. Roleplay… sex… and money. The usual elements of the human condition. Why would it be anything else?”

“Fertile ground for carpetbaggers and sharks with an eye to the main chance, then?”

“That too. It’s still caveat emptor out there…” He put his notebook away in an inside pocket and stood up. “OK… let’s go find Nathan.”

Bremer led the way out of his office to a technical area off the main corridor. In one of the cubicles a young man with a shaved head and an earring was scrolling through some code on a large plasma screen.

“Frank, I want you to meet Nathan King. He’ll take you through the basics of downloading the Avataria viewer, logging in, exchanging money, teleporting, and communicating with the residents. I’ll catch up with you later… have fun.”

Nathan was a bright Jamaican-British ex-pat from South London. He waved Frank into a seat next to him and typed away on his keyboard launching some 3D software. A few more strokes and a glamorous looking avatar appeared standing on a small plinth.

“OK… you’re the geezer who wants to go into Avataria as a chick, yeh?”

Nez nodded in affirmation. Bremer had recommended a female avatar as it was easier to talk to both male and female residents. He’d also hinted that if Nez wanted to get into the AvPost, a woman would be more likely to succeed as some of the management listed lesbian predilections on their profiles.

“This is Lauren Falmer. Tasty bird, innit?” He pointed to her luxurious shock of blonde hair. “Took me bleedin’ ages to find that ‘air. Now, before we start, have you played with Avataria before?”

Nez shook his head. “Not really. My daughter used to play it and showed me the basics.”

“You’ve gotta understand that some of the residents are very observant. Especially the ones who’ve been there a few years like the girls at the Post. Which is where you want to go, right? A lot of blokes who try to pass themselves off as women make some really basic mistakes. Like giving their avatars enormous tits for a start. Another dead giveaway is coming on too aggressive.”

Nathan paused, and revolved the camera around his creation. He glanced at Nez.

“So my advice is, don’t get too technical and always compliment the chicks on their outfits and hairdos. Believe me, it works a treat.”

Avataria supports the Equal Rights Amendment, I take it?”

“Not wiv you, mate.”

“Never mind.”

Nathan continued undeterred. “Now, Have I explained lag to you?”

“No.”

“You won’t get it here, ‘cos the computers are fast and you’re not going through the internet. But if you was to play on a slow connection, or in another country, you’ll get lag.”

“Which means?”

“That your av will take a few secs to respond. So you’re tapping away on the direction keys and Lauren’s not doin’ nuffink. So you keep hitting the key and she suddenly takes off… can be quite awkward.”

“In what way?”

“Well, climbin’ stairs is the usual one. Mind you, if it was me I wouldn’t bovver wiv stairs in Avataria at all. Too much trouble. That’s wot teleporters are for.”

“Then why have them?”

“The punters want ‘em. Reminds ‘em of home or somefin’. I dunno, you tell me.”

Punters?”

“Residents, customers, players, wotever… I calls ‘em punters.”

Nez couldn’t resist another dig.

“It’d be so much easier without the punters, wouldn’t it?

“You’re telling me.”

After explaining the options available to enhance Lauren’s movements and expressions, Nathan switched seats and let Nez try his new character out. He urged him to experiment with the everyday routines of changing Lauren’s clothes, adding animation overrides and walking without bumping into walls.

“You know there’s voice communication, dontcha? Not many people use it – they’d give the bleedin’ game away… know wot I mean?” He chuckled, and looked at Nez knowingly. “So if anyone asks you to talk to ‘em, say you ‘aven’t got a mike.”

Nez nodded, totally engrossed in propelling Lauren through a landscape of Gothic castles, California bungalows, night-clubs and shopping malls.

Nathan continued, “Okay, you seem ‘appy… I’m going off to do summink else, but here’s some places you should check out, yeh?” He pointed to a printed list next to the keyboard. “Visit a night club, go dancing, chat to people, get the ‘ang of the place. Then I’ll come back and test ya. Let me know if there’s anyfink you don’t understand.” He flashed a broad smile revealing a row of gleaming white teeth and a stud through the centre of his tongue. “Just keep off the cyberbonking, yeh?”

Weekend Whimsy

1. haka second life

2. Star’s World – Dancing Love and Life in Second Life

3. BODA YAIZA Y TONI SECOND LIFE

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