It’s not just fun and games anymore…
A continuation of my last post, we get to the last three of the of the five innovations which the gaming industry has lead.
3. Online gaming gets mature (ish)
Virtual reality is finally becoming something, well, tangible. It also provides opportunities that early SciFi writers like Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Tad Williams (to name a few) envisioned: fully functional worlds in which life imitates art…or perhaps more accurately art as life, albeit in a digital form.
You’ve probably heard of SecondLife. I was first introduced to SL back in 2003 when a friend of mine suggested I take a look. I soon found myself immersed in the SL community. After about two months, though, I began to think I was wasting my time in a game that wasn’t even a game. Some emerging technologies strategist I am — I soon left the SL community, writing it off as just another online fad. I’m sufficiently humbled now. SecondLife has been around for over four years—that’s a lifetime in the world of MMOs. IBM is investing $10M in its SecondLife presence. Sears, Circuit City, even John Edward’s Presidential campaign have established venues in the SecondLife universe. OK. I get it now. Although for some reason, I still question whether SL can continue to thrive as a lifestyle alternative. Then again, I never did get The Sims…
What I failed to realize in 2003 is that SL would mature into a real, functional environment, complete with its own economic system. Sure, we know that EverQuest was said to have some correlation to actual economies way back in 2001since EQ’s currency’s value when translated into US dollars, actually exceeded those of the Japanese Yen and Italian Lira at the time. But what wasn’t so obvious is that virtual reality economies could translate into an economic model that would have a broader impact by reaching out to the “RL” (Real Life) world. It’s happening today. In fact, IBM, developerWorks, and yes, alphaWorks, are creating presences in the SL universe.
“…suffice it to say that virtual environments may act as yet another disruptive force within software development, changing, as it were, the rules of the game.”
But it goes beyond this one example: similar stories are popping up all over the online gaming industry: MMOs such as World of Warcraft, Ultima Online,and Eve Online each have created a series of virtual universes which contain in one form or another functioning economies, societies, and even corporate constructs.
What’s the lesson? Well, we’ve already seen Collaborative Development Environments (CDEs) becoming a reality. What if CDEs evolved to exist within virtual environments? The implications are pretty impressive. Virtual environments may act as yet another disruptive force within software development, changing, as it were, the rules of the game.
4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
First a disclaimer: Before our Cognitive Science and AI friends become upset, we’re not suggesting that any game currently on the market has what academics (academicians? Hm will check K!) would call a “true AI”. However, that said, games actually offer tangible evidence of relatively intelligent systems designed to react to the actions of human beings, albeit in a virtual environment. In real terms, this means that games have become much more “intelligent” than in days past: a recent game called F.E.A.R. had opponents which would look through windows to see you, take advantage of the environment to hide from, and coordinate attacks based on everything from where the computer AI last “saw” you — or even where it last “heard” you. Innovations such as these (spatial and auditory awareness is a highly complex and impressive feat when one considers the technology and algorithms actually required to simulate real life environments) continue to drive the simulation of real life within games—and eventually to non-gaming virtual environments.
“…we will likely see these innovative AI systems becoming more widely deployed in every-day software…”
For software developers, imagine security systems which take advantage of AI systems to intelligently predict where hackers might attack the enterprise infrastructure, or which monitors in realtime network activity by “listening” for hackers and then reacts by coordinating defensive assets. Or perhaps a piece of business intelligence software that runs through a series of “what if” scenarios (changing the scenarios in realtime based on incoming data) to discover the best opportunities for a company’s specific project portfolio at any given time. On a more tangible level, IBM is already exploring utilizing some of these technologies to solve business problems including how to most optimally arrange components for audio systems in vehicles, for instance.
We will likely see these innovative AI systems become more widely deployed in everyday software running everything from your home’s sprinkler system to offering suggestions for modifying your stock portfolios. Some aspects of these AI related technologies have found their way into some very interesting ongoing development efforts in software. Autonomic computing comes to mind. However, as gaming AIs become more advanced (remember, game developers are usually operating with very real hardware constraints), we will likely see these innovative AI systems become more widely deployed in everyday software running everything from your home’s sprinkler system to offering suggestions for modifying your stock portfolios based on your personal preferences, and risk profile — and adjusts for these attributes in real-time based on real-world events. So, if a coup occurs in a large OPEC producing nation, and the AI system, monitoring a variety of news feeds, detects this, The AI system might suggest you purchase shares of your favorite oil company (and defense manufacturer), while rebalancing your asset portfolio to dump stocks for companies based in the country in question. At the same time, such a system might also monitor your health (in realtime) for potential health issues, optimize your digital recorder to tape shows which might be of interest to your particular tastes, all while ordering dry cleaning for your upcoming trip to the Far East.
Sound a bit too “Jetsons”? Believe it or not, such a system is not that far away. In fact, ”expert systems” exist which perform many of the functions described above, just not in an integrated manner). The future, truly, is now.
5. The dark side: H4X0rs leveraging these technologies
Don’t worry if you don’t understand what follows the colon in the above subtitle, you probably just aren’t a gamer or software developer. Haxors are hackers who use “hacks” –or manipulations of the software system—to obtain an advantage in game play. Wildly popular in certain gaming genres (online First Person Shooters probably have one of the highest percentage of hackers, with MMO ‘farmers’ representing another significant kind of hacker), it’s hardly surprising that hackers proliferate in gaming: human nature is competitive, and if an advantage can be gained by cheating, well, one should not be surprised that cheating occurs. The difference represented here is the scale at which the cheating can occur.
“…human nature is competitive, and if an advantage can be gained by cheating, well, one should not be surprised that cheating occurs. The difference represented here is the scale at which the cheating could occur.”
In a broader sense, hacking should be of concern as technologies, ideas, and concepts migrate from the gaming industry into the software industry as a whole: it wouldn’t take much to completely ruin an entire product line’s revenue potential should insufficient security be used in its licensing system. Take it a step further and apply it to micropayments within an online economic system, and you can imagine the havoc malicious users could wreak. Identity theft could also be simplified in some ways, as could manipulations which could significantly harm a corporate brand with relatively little effort. These aren’t entirely new concerns: identity theft occurs often in today’s business world and numerous corporate brands have been damaged by Web site defacings. Yet the potential for disruptive activities increases almost exponentially with the new systems discussed in this article. Yes, as Huxley would say, it is a brave new world — but it may also be the dawn of a dangerous new world.
These five trends may eventually emerge in the software industry, or, they may not. Nothing is at all certain whenever you talk about emerging tech. What is certain is that change will occur, and it’ll come in successively accelerated waves. The challenge is to see these waves coming and, as an old popular adage says: “Get in the game, or get out of the way.” In the end, however, the case for why the gaming industry is applicable to the software industry is straightforward. There are numerous examples of how it has already occurred, and many examples of how it may occur in the future. If for no other reason, the potential impact of the current activities in the gaming industry on the broader software industry should be sufficient to convince any software company to keep an eye on the latest developments in the dynamic gaming industry. While not all of the innovations created there will translate into the broader business world, those that do may significantly impact the future of software development and business. There is a realization that’s starting to dawn about the gaming industry and its relationship to the business world: it’s not just fun and games anymore.