A-SpaceX, Google, and Virtual Tuesday

Yesterday I had a “virtual world vibe” going.  At 5:30 a.m. when my dog Jack woke me up offering to take me for a walk, the first thing I noticed on my mobile was a series of tweets from Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s social software guru, posted the night before.  Twitter is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one is the ability to snatch asynchronous stream-of-consciousness statements, from strangers and friends alike, as they pass by in the microblogosphere conversation.

Chris went on a tear about Second Life, with several hilarious observations and comments within the space of an hour, so here are several from his public Twitter feed:

  • ckras Second Life hasn’t become a mass-market phenomenon. Early adopters loved it, but mainstream customers found it time-consuming and baffling 09:54 PM July 07, 2008 from web
  • ckras ask @spdrock how to collaborate in SL. Run away from the nerds in there 09:42 PM July 07, 2008 from web
  • ckras @helenmosher I don’t think magical elves are the secret to enterprise collaboration 09:28 PM July 07, 2008 from web in reply to helenmosher
  • ckras 2nd life does not make your organization “hip” or “with it.” majority of young folks entering the workplace think it is ridiculous..agreed 09:14 PM July 07, 2008 from web

Finally, in response to a question from our mutual friend Bob Gourley of CrucialPoint, Chris wrote his definitive statement:

  • ckras @bobgourley “If I have to choose between a Intellipedia and magical elves in SL, I’m going with Intellipedia” official quote 🙂 10:18 PM July 07, 2008 from web in reply to bobgourley

You can listen to Chris expound further on his views on virtual worlds and his skeptical approach to intelligence use for Second Life in this podcast interview posted last month, though you have to fast-forward through the background info on wikis; virtual worlds are discussed about halfway in.  This skepticism hasn’t always been the hallmark of thinking in some IC circles on SL; CIA’s chief of Intellipedia development Sean Dennehy told Federal Compute Week just last September that some users were asking for a virtual world for the intelligence community similar to Second Life: “I think it is a no-brainer,” he said. “We could use it for training and other things.”

The Virtual Vibe Continues

I then attended yesterday’s big A-SpaceX Industry Day over at the University of Maryland (near the new IARPA offices). Helpful layout of the intent to use “synthetic worlds” to enable incisive analysis, or in the program’s words “the use of virtual worlds and shared workspaces to dramatically enhance insight and productivity.”

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth was mentioned four different times by the A-SpaceX program manager in his main briefing, though at least twice when he mentioned it he also added, “… or we could use Google Earth as well.” 

There’s been much blogosphere interest in A-SpaceX, some of it thoughtful and supportive, for example Jeff Carr’s “Intelfusion” blog or Drew Conway’s “Zero Intelligence Agents” blog, while much of it has been skeptical, like the usually-thoughtful Noah Schactman’s somewhat kneejerk reaction on the WIRED Danger Room blog.  I believe that in large part the skepticism comes from a fundamental misconception about A-SpaceX, which aims to be a closed metaverse for IC professionals.  (Read the actual official description here for what will be designed.)  Its goal is not to perform intelligence collection and espionage inside an open virtual world – like some run-of-the-mill commercial company mining Second Life activity for insight into invidividual consumer intent.

Anyway, the virtual vibe rounded off last night when Google announced its own virtual-environment product, Lively.  Over on GigaOm, they aren’t receiving it very graciously – their story pans it as an unimpressive Me-Too effort, summing it up as “Not a contiguous, immersive, fully user-created metaverse like Second Life, as it turns out– so it’s not really a direct competitor– but a series of virtual world chatrooms.”   The New York Times this morning calls it “cartoonlike.”

Well, we’ll find out if there’s a crying need for more cartoonlike virtual conversation.  For now, I’ll stick to dipping an ear into the Twitter stream every now and then, and helping others figure out what A-SpaceX should and could be, to improve intelligence analysis.

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for the mention, Lewis. It’s appreciated.

    I referenced your coverage on Lively in my post this morning which takes a look at the explosion in VC money pouring into Virtual Worlds. I’m also more than a little concerned about the snail’s pace of development that IARPA projects will have to endure. Based on your experience, is there any way to bring the rapid agile development process that we see in the private sector into IARPA and our federal labs?


  2. Lewis: the first and last tweets in the block were quotes. I followed each with a ref link in twitter.

    SL hasn’t become a mass-market phenomenon


    it ain’t hip is a comment to interview piece in Gov’t Executive


    The great thing about open source, open source-ish, or comparatively “cheap” deployments (compared to end-to-end and legacy agency-specific IT projects) such as SL is that if they catch on they catch on, the price is right. We need to “fail quickly” and adapt.

    I’ve seen some very cool things done in virtual worlds but in the short-term I think more time and money should be spent on bolstering the widget and mashup movement and strengthening backend Intellipedia “metrics.”


  3. Lewis, Chris and others of similar ilk,

    I’ve let several leaders in the IC know my opinion of A-spaceX now, and I encourage all who have a logical argument to do the same. If I still had my JWICS account I would build an Intellipedia page called “Open Architecture Solutions to A-SpaceX Challenges” and start populating it with ideas and see what others contribute. Maybe that is a way to get a good dialog going on what the after-next A-Space should be.

    One idea would be to take one each of the great (open) collaborative tools (Adobe Connect, Intellipedia), then some of the mashup tools (like JackBe Presto, but maybe IBM QED Wiki or others) and of course some of the new enterprise IC tools like Endeca and Centrifuge and Forterra and then I would add some language tools like Basis Technologies offers. The result would be we could have a new A-Space workstation up and running in a week. And, more importantly, it would be more than a workstation, it would be a capability accessible from any computer in the community.

    For the geospatial layer I think I’d consider Microsoft’s ESP, since it is a good simulation environment, but there is a chance Microsoft Earth or ESRI would be the right layer. Then every time industry upgrades a capability we rush that into A-Space. The result would be more capabilities now and a path to continual upgrade.

    I know it is easy to say things like that and hard to do, but I think it would result in more capabilities faster than waiting for the 15 year research program of A-SpaceX to pay off.



  4. Bob, if you would like to build that page on Intellipedia-U, I’ll sponsor you for an Intelink-U account.

    I have been thinking about virtual worlds for some time for intelligence. I agree with the dismay on the long duration of getting anything done especially since the likelihood of getting such a workstation into our agencies is very low. But virtual worlds are not just a one time phenomenon. The real revolution is going on at the 8-12 year old demographic where the gaming industry is blitzing them with easy-to-use participatory media. It’s quite possible by the time that they are ready to become intelligence officers in 10-14 years that they will come complete with their real life and their virtual avatar(s). I’d hate to be the security officer who has to vet the virtual avatar as well as the real person – it will make Facebook seem rather normal. Second Life is only an analogy for a generic virtual world where anyone entering is free to create their own vision. I don’t go into Second Life as an elf. I go in as a human business woman which is what I am in real life (although I must admit my avatar is a lot slimmer in SL). And I have monitored research by academics on virtual worlds. There is great value in the capabilities and skills that are generated in virtual worlds – collaboration, teamwork, leading teams, writing – skills that most businesses and the government are interested in.

    Another place to start this converation might be with the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds which is sponsored by the National Defense University http://www.ndu.edu/irmc/fedconsortium.html – possibly the technical working group or the intelligence working group. Paulette Robinson’s contact info is at the link above.


  5. Kelcy– Thanks for the offer. If you sponsor me for that Intellipedia-U account I’ll start the page off and we can see where it goes from there.

    You can always communicate with me here at Lewis’s blog, where I check in daily, or I’m on Twitter at bobgourley or hanging around my blog at ctovision.com.



  6. I am going to try not to ramble on with my opinions about second life. I wanted to chime in on the twitter conversations last night, but as I was driving through DC to get home, I didn’t think that would be wise.

    Essentially, I have a SL account and I have not used it in forever. I was thinking OK there had to be some activity at Harvard … no dice, went to Barack Obama HQ … no dice, stood before an empty congress, floated around LA and performed to an empty Roxy, and then I went to Italy (Sorrento I believe — some discoteque and there were lots of people having conversations. All this was happening about 11pm East Coast time, so this was real early morning for those Italians.

    So from my initial observations were that Americans didn’t seem to be anywhere I go, but there were a lot of foreigners. And I wonder if that is because, as gamers and geeks we are looking for the end game? the win? the final stage?

    Second life doesn’t seem to offer that and thus probably loses some appeal to our short attention spans. If there is no set desired outcome, how can you get your users involved?

    If we decide to go down this road in the future, we will have to look into this what is in it for me attitude we all have when wanting to adopt a new technology.

    At the very least, wiki’s and blogs make sense for the people I talk to when teaching social software, the what’s in it for me seems more apparent.


  7. Lewis,

    Second Life needs real-time motion capture to come alive.
    The problem currently is that the motion capture input devices on the market are still somewhat rudimentary:


    Fret not! There is yet hope:


    When the motion capture suits hit the market you can bet there is going to be a lot more sophisticated snooping going on as the “virtual affairs” become less virtual and more realistic:


    What happens when your own avatar is unfaithful to you? Time for the avatar to get the “Verminchip”!


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