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Living In De-material World: On Microsoft, Train SIM and the Virtual Everything

Last Monday I gave a presentation about Sustainable IT at the Big Microsoft Virtualisation kick off in Bellevue, Washington. Tuesday that week my day was relatively free so my time was a jump ball – who in the Microsoft Analyst Relations team would grab it? Two business units stepped in; developer tools and a group within Microsoft’s game division. ACES Studio is the creator of Flight Simulator, a software product even hardened Microsoft haterz love.

I was intrigued but I must admit I was also worried that meeting Shawn Firminger, manager for ACES, was going to be a bit of a waste of his, and my, time. After all, I’m an infrastructure analyst and troublemaker, not a games guy. On the way over Sarah Tatone, the analyst relations rep from Waggener Edstrom, told me not to worry because the ACES division, with its new ESP platform, is about more than games-indeed it already has aviation companies such as Lockheed as customers. Industrial applications of Flight Sim don’t exactly sound like a developer-led or grassroots story, now do they? I needn’t have worried. Not only was what I was to discover probably the single coolest initiative I have seen from Microsoft in the 13 years I have been watching the firm on a professional basis– but it’s also very relevant to RedMonk for a number of reasons.

Battle Plans and Maintenance Fees
The agenda was to learn about ESP. What’s that? Microsoft describes it so:
“Microsoft ESP is a visual simulation platform that enables organizations to create, deliver, and realize the enormous benefits of immersive simulations while gaining a strong return on investment that’s not readily available from other simulation tools today. Simulations built on Microsoft ESP engage users in immersive experiences with very realistic land, sea and air environments.”
The key phrase there is land, sea and air. Flight Sim after all is very cool but almost too realistic – not everybody wants to actually fly a plane. But next up will be Train-SIM (of course not everyone is train spotter either, but run with my here…), then automobile and underwater. Microsoft basically wants to model the entire world as accurately as possible, embedding “real” physics into the system. The ambition is stunning-and so is the work. Microsoft is not only looking to establish a simulation of everything, but then to integrate it, with, for example, Virtual Earth. The model will grow over time and become more realistic. Currently, for example, if you’re using Train-SIM, traveling through a particular geography, the foliage is going to be typical rather than actual- going forward though why not model every major tree on a route? Clearly doing so would require participation from world and dog, but that’s not impossible with the internet as a model. We know user generated content is capable of amazing things.

But once you know what the world actually looks like and behaves, you can begin to model changes to the system. What if we deforested this area? What if we removed all the natural predators from a particular marine ecology? What if we banned all car traffic from a city? What might the alternatives look like?

Microsoft’s initial customers are likely to ask more prosaic questions. Firminger had some truly scary statistics about the costs of keeping aircraft in flight for military training purposes. Anyone for $7k an hour for maintenance, per plane? The big difference now with Flight-SIM- it has evolved from game into a certified platform, which creates all kinds of new revenue opportunities for Microsoft, which will drive further evolution of the platform. The US military already makes extensive use of gaming technology, which could be leveraged in planning for actual battles. Import the street and then run scenarios: If we attack insurgents on this street in Falluja what will be lines of site where we should position our own snipers and take out theirs? At the risk of getting carried away, could we have modeled the surge? Could technology like this have helped the military make the case for more feet on the ground during the initial attack on Iraq? War Games can embed significant truths.

My hope though is that ESP quickly moves beyond applications for the military-industrial complex and into other spaces. Certainly the PC economics – commodity hardware oh yes, the platform is now being designed for multicore—involved make it likely. If the only people that can get their hands on World-SIM are military departments then Microsoft will have failed. But frankly that’s not going to happen. Flight-SIM remains an incredible way to lose hours of your life. Just wait til you can get your hands on the rest of it.

The rise of Bit Miles and Virtual Terraforming
One area that I believe holds out great promise for this kind of simulation technology is in sustainable and sustainability modeling. Take the pilot training example above; while the highest cost may be for maintenance engineers, but how much fuel is being needlessly burned? Training in the real world is expensive. Moving Atoms has a cost. I have recently started talking about Bit Miles as a Greenmonk narrative, defined as is the carbon cost associated with moving a good or creating a service that could instead have been delivered digitally. Bit Miles offer us a moral imperative to digitize: a simulation of the world is a beautiful opportunity to rethink and potentially dematerialize business processes.

Why not Supply Chain Simulator ™, which would pull together all of your plant information (pulled in from OSI, say), where your people are located (Peoplesoft), and how you move goods and services (SAP) around the world? An organisation could begin to run really deep “What If” scenarios about the energy costs of their businesses with simulations like these. But what would really make these models sing is the fact they’d be visual and immersive. Telling is rarely as effective as Showing. What would a low energy manufacturing business look like? With virtual technology we could maybe work it out. At this point it might seem that I have gone off the deep end, but the ESP team inspires that in you. I didn’t see a single Powerpoint slide during my visit. Rather Shawn likes to open up people’s imaginations.

Willows on Leather: a culture of design
Therefore, when you visit the Willows Building where ACES is location, your imagination hits the ground running. One obvious distinction between this and other Microsoft groups is the culture of design. They don’t call them games designers for nothing. I remember thinking that even Matt Jones, design god (see the Dopplr User interface), brutal skeptic and piss-taker extraordinaire might have been impressed. Matt Jones works with Matt Biddulph, Dopplr’s CTO, in a classic developer/designer conversation (I dislike the term workflow for something that is clearly not procedural). From the specific to the general: designer-developer collaboration is perhaps the biggest issue ESP will need to solve as a platform. Who is going to build and extend the platform? What kind of tools will they require?

The ACES team needs to build something that would make Matt and Matt say – aha –”we have to use this for something.”

The ACES design culture doesn’t stop at visual and eye candy though. If you want to see, or should that be hear, some deep modeling, see Microsoft’s sound engineering in Flight-Sim. I was introduced to one of the sound designers, and he let me feel a simulation rather than seeing it. You put a set of noise-canceling headphones on, and through them hear the faint noises of other pilots on the mission. What you feel though is something entirely different: The roar of the engines, coming through a ludicrous set of speakers in the corner, comes right through your stomach. It’s a weird, cool, realistic feeling, and I am pretty sure all hardcore gamers will expect this kind of setup as part of their experience going forward. Clearly for real flight training, noise simulation is invaluable for verisimilitude.

Then Shawn kicked it up a notch- “show him the cone stuff”. It was time for basic physics 101 – stand behind an aircraft and you hear something very different than if you stand to one side. All of this difference is captured within the Microsoft modeling, which I must admit I thought was absurdly cool.

The sound architecture stuff may be old hat- it’s probably as common as Wii numchucks in that community. I’ll be getting an email from Jones saying: “well done granddad”… But it does seem to me that including sound as a modeling dimension could be a boon for building design, for example.

Cutting back on the Cool Aid

It’s important not to get too carried away when you’ve seen some impressive demos. The reality of delivery can be very different, especially at Microsoft. I was there when Microsoft “delivered the bits” for Longhorn (later Vista) in 2003. So I have to be skeptical.

The ESP team is beginning to bring in functionality from other Microsoft games- a human figure renderer here, a line of sight function there. That’s cool, but the more Microsoft platforms ACES needs to integrate with the greater the likelihood of failure. To be fair to Microsoft it seems to better understand the dangers of integrated aggravation these days. It got it right with the x-Box, although the Zune went too far in trying to be different (just what my Windows machine needs for a music device- a whole new music player!).

What about other players and approaches? IBM believes SecondLife can begin to play a training and simulation role for its customers, and make for improved virtual learning. It’s hard to believe Adobe won’t make a play for the world of 3d modeling and simulation beyond its current capabilities in building models, and its clearly far more experienced at building tools designers like to use. Frankly Microsoft ESP would do well to integrate with Adobe tools for exactly that reason. Google will surely introduce What If on top of Google Earth, and has repeatedly shown its awesome number crunching and data gathering capabilities. Apple’s Hollywood experience shouldn’t be ignored either. But then none of these are showstoppers-rather they are potential competitors, which is all to the good.

Giz a Job
At the end of the meeting I told the team- though I wasn’t really actually about to ask for a job, this was a Microsoft team I could actually imagine joining. I can’t think of a stronger endorsement. BusinessWeek came away impressed too. If Microsoft gets the tooling right, can establish the right programming languages and standards, makes the world hackable, doesn’t end up in a digital rights management rat-hole, and provides the right tools it could revolutionise a number of industries. Microsoft needs to think about open sourcing some content, in order to sustain a world community to populate its models. ESP needs to become an architecture of participation, and if it is, then we might begin to know the shape of Web 3.0. It looks a lot like the real world, only simulated.

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37 Responses

  1. Excellent analysis, this. Way to take an odd situation and turn it into something layered and fascinating, James. Well done.

  2. thanks very much Scott. we’ll have to see how this one plays out. But I was deeply impressed

  3. An excellent run through of the concept of what is more frequently termed a Paraverse.

    You’ve described some of the visualization portions and potential simulation usages of Paraverse technology. The potential for any company needing to do training, simulation or plot Real World data is enormous, with the benefits being massive cost/time saving.

    Other aspects of Paraverse applications are importing real time sensor data to reflect actual events in world. You need message publishers, brokers and listeners plus the ability to embed those publishers in any device or system (ahem MQTT)

    The middleware and infrastructure challenges of hosting such a solution for thousands/millions of users simultaneously are a problem unto themselves, these are problems tackled (with mixed results) by other Virtual Worlds and MMO games. The hardware and software products and scaling techniques we use across many industries are equally applicable in this simulation space.

  4. This certainly sounds interesting and promising for the industry in general.
    One of the key elements here seems to be the areas of simulation (whilst clearly they can be altered) are based around instrumenting the real world too. This falls in the category of mirror worlds, or paraverse.
    We know that real world simulations an training works, pilots have been doing it for years. Reaching out and blending with real world, pulling or pushing out real world events are important.
    Cross virtual world and real world interoperability is a good place to be at the moment (as we are at eightbar)
    The key though will be the ability to not be forced into photo realistic or accurate physical simulations for everything. Human communication over the web does not have to even go ear crossing the uncanny valley, as with your chinposin ambient avatars, there are ways for people to reach one another that can be much simpler.
    The relative low tech sets of virtual worlds (when compared to high end games) have an engagement and ethereal quality. It is not unusual to see strange and thought provoking things. I would suggest that in a “real world” simulation someone expressing themselves as science fiction character might jar slightly.
    So yes, is this is all middleware, if its open and does not force the same avatar/island model, but acts as a way to integrate content, mash it up, produce interesting and stimulating renditions of things people can interact with then I look forward to having a go to create something.
    It will have a place as a simulation builder of course, and mirror worlds are 1/4 of the virtual world quadrant.
    Whilst these are my oppinions not IBM’s I should add that IBM does not only use Second Life. That happens to be a very useful, very creative very public environment hat meets the crtieria for some interactions, others need something else. See this link http://eightbar.co.uk/2008/04/21/business-interaction-in-metaverses-reverse-ice-model-to-map-against/ for more on the types of enviroment and its needs.

  5. @Rob Smart and @epredator Thanks so much for taking the time to digest this stuff. Great points- I am particularly taken with your points about instrumentating the real world and feeding it back into the “Paraverse”. Lots more to think about evidently. :-)

    epredator I also really like your point about “simple avatars.”

  6. The feeding back into a paraverse also lets you augment the real world back again with that information.
    We already do that to some extent with sat navs, a model of the world and roads, augmented with your position, but layered with traffice information from the real world.
    Think location based services but with a 3d/positional and temporal layer.
    We dont have to just wear headsets, phones, cameras etc can mash real and virtual.
    e.g. Imagine sitting on centre court at Wimbledon. You have your view from you seat, sometimes you have TV replays of hawkeye on the big screen, yet people in the virtual world version have views from wherever and control over how they consume the real world content. Merge the 2. Hold you iphone2.0 up and let it work out where you are sitting, it can then overlay the tv graphics from you point of view on your view from the camera. Better still, you could get a render of the view from the royal box and probably even see a virtual rendition of you sitting in the crowd holding up an iphone2.0

  7. Great post and excellent comments. I am also very interested in Mirror Worlds. And, I would like to second some of the thoughts of @Epredator about how important it is that the development of Mirror Worlds does not remain in silos “but acts as a way to integrate content, mash it up, produce interesting and stimulating renditions of things people can interact with.”

    @RobSmart and @Epredator and others in IBM have been doing amazing work defining a path forward that can over overcome what Rob describes as “the middleware and infrastructure challenges of hosting such a solution for thousands/millions of users simultaneously….” As Rob notes: “these are problems tackled (with mixed results) by other Virtual Worlds and MMO games.”

    David Gelertner had a powerful vision in his book Mirror Worlds, 1992, that I am very fond of quoting:

    “Mirror Worlds will transform the meaning of ‘computer.’ Our dominant metaphor since 1950 or thereabouts, ‘the electronic brain,’ will go by the boards. Instead people will talk about crystal balls, telescopes, stained glass windows, wine, poetry, or whatever – things that make you see vividly.

    Software today offers assistance to the specialist (in everybody) not to the citizen. The mere citizen deals with the increasingly perilous complexity of his government, business, transportation, health, school, university and legal systems unaided. Mirror Worlds represent one attempt to change this state of affairs (Mirror Worlds, David Gelertner 1992).”

  8. This talk of sensors feeding into a paraverse reminded me of the winners of the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2008, four Australian students with their app “SOAK”:

    SOAK (Smart Operational Agriculture toolkit) is a combination of hardware and software designed to help drought-affected farmers better manage their limited water resources. It uses sensors around a farm that measure everything from dam depth to soil moisture, adds external data such as weather forecasts and combines it with crop lifecycle information to create a highly sophisticated watering system. It controls farm sprinklers and prioritises water use to where and when it’s really needed. It also gives the farmer an instant reading of the water status of the farm via a rich visual front end that uses Virtual Earth maps and Vista gadgets and is also able to deliver the information to PDAs.

    Much more can be found here: http://apcmag.com/imagine_cups_surprise_winners_a_boon_for_farmers.htm

  9. James,

    I got religion on this space of sims/games/virtual worlds for business benefit over a year ago upon reading an August ’07 MIT article on the future of the Metaverse.

    My first step into this world was to host a couple of career fairs in the virtual world Second Life. We made two great hires — but more importantly, I discovered the awesome potential of fully immersive spaces on a sensory level — that were social places to conduct business and build relationships with anyone, from anywhere in the world. We advertised our career fair only in the US but people from the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands showed up. I met a wonderful journalist who came to interview for a job and felt as though I had known her all my life because of the richness of this relationship-enhancing virtual world. (It makes the personal- and business-relationship building many of us are experiencing on Twitter seem like Kindergarten in comparison.)

    I was struck by a quote saying the way we architect information in the forms of non-intuitive web pages, HTML and the like is antique compared to the rich sensory experience that technology can bring us today. We have the ability not to type, “www.Boston.com” and land on a space with text, videos and photos about Boston but to say “Bring me to Boston” and land IN a space that looks and feels like Boston in every way, down to the sound of the wind and birds. We can walk into the restaurants of the North End and check out the vibe and pick up a menu vs. looking at stale pics and simply reading text. Humans operate better that way and technology is here to deliver it.

    I work on strategy engagement and furthering EMC as a great place to work and am frankly over the era of powerpoints, con calls, newsletter articles and big tent meetings as primary means to share information and engage people in the mission at hand. It is a largely one-way model and we’re beyond that in 2008.

    Last week I had a demo from an organization called Brand Games. The concept had me at “hello”. Let’s have folks be immersed in the topic — see it, feel it, hear it, interact with it, compete against others — have FUN with it!

    I took two notes during the meeting, the phase “Immersive Learning” and the other, “Organizations like NASA and airlines have figured out that when it is really important, you simulate it.”

    For me, isn’t getting your workforce to understand a strategy, mission or major product line “really important?”

    I also learned that for many over 40 the word “game” is bad and to them merely means “fooling around.” That’s where the word “simulation” comes in.

    The only bad part of the Brand Games/Simulation model right now is the price tag. Users have high expectations and want the rich experience. To be that good costs.

    The great thing about Virtual Worlds like Second Life is that the cost model is so low and the richness of the experience is so high. We need to crack the code of company firewalls to unleash this huge opportunity to lower carbon impact from air travel, lower T&E expenses, improve productivity, improve collaboration on a global level, improve inclusion, level the playing field for people with disabilities, and more. These Virtual Worlds allow us to bring to life the “Flat World” and truly monetize it — all while having more fun!

    Perhaps a better analogy than the Boston one is an experience we all see often in business. One of our departments at EMC recently had a training event. People were flown in from around the world and someone diligently put together a fantastic agenda for them with top speakers at the company who would, one by one, enter the room and tell them their views on the subject at hand. This went on for 3 days. People left their homes, dealt with airports, hotels, cabs, etc to be there.

    What was it like to the audience? They were dead-tired and struggled to keep their eyes open through the days of largely one-way powerpoint.

    What could have happened? For one hour a day over several days (or weeks) they could have, from the comfort of their home or office, gone to a virtual EMC headquarters where they could have social time, ask questions of the presenter just like in a real conference room, see the same powerpoint (if necessary) and have the energy to interact and retain the subject. There could have been music pumped in, cool things to see and do — like fly in a hot air balloon over our campus with the gorgeous Fall leaves and travel the route of the Boston Marathon, from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay. Business often gets done in the “hallways.” The virtual world experiences brings the “social hallway” as well as the serious business meeting to anyone in the world anywhere in the world — all in an environment that is more comfortable and more interesting than what we practice today.

    Can anyone tell me why learning, collaborating and executing shouldn’t use more human senses, be more intuitive, and be both effective and fun?

    — Polly Pearson
    VP Strategy Engagement and Employment Brand, EMC Corp.

  10. Great piece James and yes Joe and I would love to meet these guys sometime. And they definitely should spend time with Dan Sturges and his team at Intrago too.

    A few thoughts:

    1. Modelling flows of people and vehicles in cities is currently a closed business – it’s not possible for creative new companies (the size of Dopplr) to suggest new transport services, vehicle types, etc, because the cost of showing how they would fit in is too high. They can neither access the tools, nor the data, nor is it easy to work out who is responsible for each section of road, path, etc, along a proposed route. So they can neither design nor sell their new approach. ESP seems to offer an alternative. Only last week a senior transport officer at Southwark Council in London told me that they could only afford to model improvements to one small section of this central London area per year, because “using TFL’s traffic modelling system gets ever more expensive”. This did not seem logical to me, given the falling cost of computing power and sensors, cameras, digital mapping, etc.

    2. Imagine what happens when you add vehicles into the ESP world. When combined with new technologies to authenticate who you are, insure you to use actual objects (vehicles), provide you with best-route info, and to track the location of vehicles you use (and thus protect them), suddenly we are equipped with an entirely new travel interface.

    Instead of cities full of streets of locked parked cars that are hardly used, we have an environment where you can constantly shop for the best way to go from one place to another – both in terms of method and route. ESP becomes a user interface to help you see what is around you to use.

    The end result are cities that provide dramatically easier access to public (shared) and private (sole use) transport. One that gives people more freedom, more choices and is more fun than they can dream of today.

    Mark

  11. Far from being a “waste of time” this is one best ever threads on monkchips. thanks so much everyone for your AWESOME comments.

    @Mark- you and me are thinking very similarly. Its exactly the economics that Microsoft is trying to fix (you have to see Shawn’s graph of related innovation). In fact I had meant to call you and Dan Sturges out explicitly in the blog.

    Wow @Polly- I might just reblog your entire comment as a guest blog post. great stuff – you really do have religion.

    @sscullion lovely point about SOAK. a very cool project that. very cool indeed.

    @robsmart nice mention of WebSphereTT – I have been talking about that a lot lately.

  12. awesome post james (and not just because you we so nice to me) i reckon you should look at some of the stuff that’s happening in the construction industry around modelling and simulation. Dan Hill’s http://www.cityofsound.com is a great resource here. I remember in the dim and distant past when i was at architecture school reading david gelertner’s “mirrorworlds” book and becoming fascinated with the concept of modelling. Then Gates said in an interview that it as going to be one of priorities for MSFT over the coming years. Interesting to see it deliver in things like you describe above!

    I wrote something on all of it a few years back – we should have a pint and chat about it…
    http://magicalnihilism.wordpress.com/2005/05/03/practical-mirrorworlds/

  13. The possibilities virtual environments offer are indeed exciting, aren’t they?

    James, I really enjoyed your post – especially when you start imagining the Supply Chain Simulator™. That’s when I can sense that you’ve “gotten it.” That moment when the light bulb turns on inside people’s heads is what keeps many of us who evangelize virtual worlds going.

    I’ll look forward to more RedMonk posts related to the topic in the future because, as I barely touched on in my last one on Direct2Dell, sustainability and environmental issues (specifically reducing business travel impacts) will be a leading driver for adoption of virtual worlds in the enterprise.

    Cheers!
    ~Laura (@LPT)

  14. Another analyst here jumping into the fray. :) I agree that MSFT has some interesting things going on with regard to immersive technology. My take: don’t expect Microsoft’s information worker division to aggressively embrace the Immersive Internet. Rather, this division is likely to sit back for a while to see how the Immersive Internet develops, and then get in the game. For information workers, Microsoft may move in the direction of integrating Virtual Earth with the company’s collaboration and social computing products. Virtual Earth already integrates with Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 for business data visualization. Imagine if: Microsoft went further and Virtual Earth was integrated with Outlook and Exchange Server and Office Communicator and Communications Server so you could zoom in on any address in your contacts database or buddy list, or in an email signature, and get directions and a 3D image of the location. Take it even further and picture yourself inviting a professional contact to come and meet you in the virtual park outside your virtual office in Virtual Earth, where your avatars sit on a bench together while you IM or talk via voice about, say, an upcoming business trip. Give it five years and this style of communication and collaboration will be commonplace. And Microsoft will likely be one of the vendors delivering it. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about this in July titled “My take on Microsoft’s Immersive Internet play for information workers” (http://tinyurl.com/56p6pf).
    Erica Driver, Principal, ThinkBalm

  15. thanks @tish, @laura and…

    @ericadriver i quite agree, and frankly i don’t think it would benefit ESP to try and get on the Information Worker train. in terms of your broader vision i totally agree: “Give it five years and this style of communication and collaboration will be commonplace”.

    jgovernorOctober 1, 2008 @ 2:24 pmReply
  16. The ACE team is fantastic. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with many of the talented individuals in the team, and we have been supporting and developing add-ons to the Flight Simulation franchise for years, thanks to the open platform architecture.

    Our Garmin GNS WAAS simulation ( http://www.reality-xp.com/professional/garmin-gns-waas/index.html ) running on Microsoft ESP proves ESP is going in the right move toward using serious games as training tools.

    Microsoft ESP is a great challenge and a great opportunity for the simulation market, and Microsoft ACE is delivering on this!

  17. I have been dreaming of this tech for a long time from a videogame point of view.

    Bring on real life SimCity. Can I unleash a Godzilla attack in my virtual universe? ;-)

  18. We’re talking about M$ here… There is no way they couldn’t f*** it up. Not to worry though, Googlevil will bring out an open source equivalent.

  19. I wrote a proposal “Re-Configuring the Global Organisms’ Operating System Through Mobile Democracy” ( http://tinyurl.com/2xadkl ) related to these kinds of concepts before Second Life and GoogleEarth became public, so this is interesting to see emerge.

  20. MS certainly has their ducks lined up. Sooner or later AR is going to kick in and all this development is going to pay off in spades!

    As for the “over 40″ ‘ers, being 50 myself, gaming is nice, and calling it a sim is okay, but a term I’ve always liked is “application”. It’s positive thinking at its best.

  21. In what I read as very bad news it appears Microsoft may be canning this division. See my post update on 3rd Feb.

    James GovernorFebruary 3, 2009 @ 6:03 pmReply
  22. yeah, i agree that MSFT has some interesting things going on with regard to immersive technology..

  23. The FSX flight simulator is the best by far. The graphics are brilliant

  24. Microsoft has canned the flight team, but they are working on a new sim called microsoft flight. Should be out 2012. I hear that it will be more appealing to the general public, whatever that means.



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Continuing the Discussion

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