Avatar Technology

I recently saw some video clips from “Modeling and Simulations Capitol Hill Expo 2008” where all of the usual suspects on the government/military side of the fence were showing their “serious games” wares for training, simulations, and so forth.

Two things struck me…first, several of the people mentioned “avatar technology” as a big selling point or key aspect of their technology, and second, the “state-of-the-art” being touted at this event (and similar ones) is woefully NOT state-of-the-art.

First, let’s deal with this goofy concept of “avatar technology”. Listening to these people, you get the sense that they really have no earthly idea of what the hell they are talking about, or perhaps they have some inkling but figure that if they talk real fast over the buzzwords, you will be impressed. Being impressed leads to sales!

Imagine a lot of people selling something they don’t quite understand to people that don’t really understand what they need, but feel like they should be buying something to keep up appearances.

But really, what is this “avatar technology” they talk about? It is basically using avatars, or more accurately, 3D characters, as a method or tool for teaching, training, and doing simulations. While this seems pretty obvious to half of the country that has experience with any kind of video game or educational animation, the other half of the country still thinks this is some kind of strange new magical technology.

The idea of using technology from the game industry for non-entertainment applications is generally referred to as “Serious Games”. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that the game industry has been in the lead (for a long time) in innovation, and has been pushing the envelop in multiple areas…3D rendering, 3D lighting, motion capture, artificial intelligence, massively multiuser networking, dynamic load balancing, world creation, behavioral modeling, simulations, physics, and generally anything interactive and immersive. Anyone leveraging any of these technologies in other industries should have a huge edge on the competition, and be able to do some amazing things.

So why is it that nearly every “serious game” application I have come across looks like crap, is clunky, feels like it came from 1996, and is marketed by people that really don’t understand the technology?

My take on this is that the people running the companies that focus on “serious games” (inclusive of anything with the words virtual, interactive, immersive, avatar, simulations, etc.) are generally from backgrounds in government or academia, that acquired some cheap tech and then leveraged their existing connections/expertise to secure grants and government funding. I have yet to see one of these companies run by game developers (current or ex).

The curious thing here, is that this results in a lot of money flowing to these companies, as the military, government, and even corporations are under the impression that they are getting “state-of-the-art” because this is all that they are seeing and being sold. Sure, there are exceptions (and I’ll tip my hat at America’s Army, which used the Unreal engine to roaring success), but not usually.

Probably the most dramatic example of this is the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate enough to have a guided red-carpet tour of the facility recently as part of a team evaluating the facilities (not directly related to my own ventures, I was acting as a subject matter expert).

The Institute at UCF has quite a lot to brag about, and they do so. Repeatedly. I won’t go into details about the 140+ companies that have some presence at the Institute, or the $18M+ in grant money every year, or the sheer breadth of R&D topics being investigated there, or even the multiple buildings (all quite nice) and the new development. That was all quite impressive, and rightly so.

I do take issue with the presentation of everything as the world capital of simulations, or that this was the end-all, be-all of innovation and state-of-the-art. I’ve never been quite this underwhelmed by anything technology related, except perhaps by the E.T. game or the movie “Battlefield Earth” after all the movie hype. I think the most “cutting edge” stuff I saw could be done by a high school student over a weekend in a garage, or might have been considered pretty awesome in 1993.

One of the big highlights of the day long tour was the simulations/training platform for Forterra Systems. They ran a demo for us that was horribly cheesy (worst voice actors ever), with a pretty solid script that definitely showed off what they could do. I was reasonably impressed with that. However, their tech is severely dated (based on the same engine as there.com) and limited to something like 30 or 40 people concurrently logged in to the same virtual environment.

That last bit stunned me a bit so I commented about using commercial off the shelf (Cots) game technology to implement a more robust “back end” (refering to the server side networking) to get a few thousand concurrent users, or even a more realistic 3D graphics (you know, maybe only a decade out of date). I was immediately slapped down by Dr. Randall Shumaker, the Director of the Institute (who never bothered to ask anyone in the group (outside of the leader, for which the tour was to benefit) who we were, what our backgrounds were, or what we were looking for from the Institute).

Anyway, he pretty much dismissed me, and the game industry as a whole by saying that game tech is too flashy, unrealistic, over hyped, incapable of doing physics (beyond simple things), and essentially useless. Yeah, I was shocked. Someone has been drinking too much of their own kool-aid.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is that the “state-of-the-art” is certainly not so, and that the government is spending a lot of money to transition towards simulations to SAVE money, but there are a lot of jokers taking advantage of the gravy train. Why should they really innovate and push the envelop? Isn’t it easier to just snag all of the grants (SBIR, STTR, etc. and whatever else) and just coast?

Just for grins, if you want to see what I was talking about, simply go to the Forterra site and check out their demos (be prepared to cringe at some of the voice acting, particularly for the “kids”).

I was initially surprised that Forterra has been doing a lot with IBM, but then again, IBM thinks that Second Life and Open Sim are great and next-gen. Right idea guys, wrong implementation. The whole “virtual world thing” is not going anywhere as long as the money keeps going to the wrong companies, tools, and technology.

Avatar Technology is a red herring. The avatars are the least important aspect of virtual worlds and what their true potential is. Avatars are nothing more than self-representations of our individual selves.  Getting excited about more dancing emotes or greater variety and realism in clothes misses the whole point. The real value is in the world itself, and the tools necessary to build them, and make them useful.