Segalen – A Keyboard free Second Life

March 3, 2008


So, since this fateful day of January 15th (see OSAF 2.0 and me), I’m now a full time employee of KEI (Kapor Enterprises, Inc.) and working on a project code named Segalen (picking its name from Victor Segalen for the curious) in Mitch Kapor’s “incubator”. That is to say that I’m basically working alone on the technical stuff and with Mitch on the idea, business aspects and everything else.


The objective of the project is to dramatically change the way users interact with online virtual worlds. The online world (or metaverse or MMO or whatever you want to call it…) in question for this project being, of course, Second Life.


For the moment, the Segalen mission is simply summarized in that short sentence:


Keyboard free Second Life!


That’s it! That’s what we’re trying to create. I’m hacking the open source slviewer and implementing different ways to interact with SL (navigate, change camera focus, initiate animations, interact with objects) without ever having to learn those weird and complicated navigation keyboard sequences (Alt-zooming anyone?) and, above all, allowing users to naturally interact in world without having to do everything with one single pointer (the mouse) and a handful of keystrokes.


To do so, we started exploring the use of new “3D” cameras, those capturing not only RGB but also depth or distance to the camera for each pixel. This makes the tracking of body features in real time much easier than simple “2D” cameras. In the first weeks of working on it, I was able to hack enough into the slviewer code to plug in a camera and start interacting within SL without the use of the keyboard. Things started working “for real” 2 weeks ago and Mitch got a little excited and spilled the beans at the Metaverse Roadmap meeting in Stanford.


I had to work extra hours over the following weekend to make the “segway” navigation he talked about work and, on the next Tuesday, I made a first demo to the whole KEI staff. That was received with cheers and applause. It felt great though, clearly, there were a lot of challenges ahead.


Since then, I completed the whole navigation UI: walk, turn, fly, jump, crouch, etc… It’s really cool and demos amazingly! It’s also a true different feeling being around SL with your own body (so to speak) instead of being tied to this darn keyboard.


Next on my list: direct interaction with objects inworld. I’ve some pretty cool ideas already and can’t wait to get enough code in there to start playing with them. The object edit code though lies in a completely different (and unknown to me) part of the source tree… Well, I guess I’ll get there as I did with the other part (navigation). 


In short, I’m not done yet but making daily progress. I wanted to keep things quiet but I saw that some people are starting to pick up on Mitch’s story so I wanted you to hear what’s going on from the horse’s mouth. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be done with everything I want for a first really knocks-your-socks-off demo (if something like that ever existed) but I think it will be weeks rather than months. Optimism is  required in this kind of job!


Patent System going Open Process

June 7, 2007

One recent article (Administration Seeks Overhaul of Patent System) on the patent system upcoming reform had me smile with relief. At last, people with common sense tackling the USPTO problem.

The idea that:

Reform legislation […] should require the applicants to conduct a thorough search of related patents and technical journals, and then explain why the patent being sought represents a significant innovation beyond previous ideas in the field

had me wondering if anyone read my own blog entry on the subject where I was suggesting that exact same thing. A quick look at my blog stats made clear that this was unlikely and that this idea germinated independently in mine and their minds. Not surprising: it’s just common and practical sense after all.

One thing I haven’t thought about is the following:

The patent office is experimenting with the concept of opening the examination process to outsiders, inviting public peer reviews. On June 15, Mr. Dudas said, the patent office will begin a pilot project for open reviews of software patents. The patents in the pilot program will be posted on a Web site, and members of the public with software expertise will be allowed to send the patent office technical references relevant to the patent claims.

As we say on Chandler’s mailing list: “+1 to that!” and shame on me for not thinking about it since this idea of “Open Process” is something we at OSAF are trying to promote and put in practice.

Anyway, it’s a really good idea and a welcome development in the current software patent mess. I hope the experiment will bear fruits and that no special interest or company with deep pockets will try to shoot that one down.

Republique 2.0

April 10, 2007

An article in Le Monde pointed me to a voluminous “dossier” signed by Michel Rocard (ex French prime minister) on the “numeric industry” and named with a good dose of irony Republique 2.0.

I downloaded and browsed through it rapidly. It deals among other things with Open Source, Free software, DRM and software patenting issues, all things eminently interesting for the author this blog.

It’s in French of course but I’ll read it and try to post a critique on it later here.


March 22, 2007

I’ve been way too busy recently with Chandler to post here. I’ve been waiting for Feature Complete to make a big splash or something like that… Bad habit…

So tonight I’m moved to post to report on FLOSS in my home country (France). It’s pretty interesting to see how things are evolving and, as always in France, things can look very idle, even stalled and then, boom, everything falls into place and move really fast. Something like that is happening with FLOSS over there.

I reported here some time ago about the French parliament adopting Linux. At the time Strassblog pointed me to the emerging SSLL movement. So that’s government and professionals acting. Good but not enough.

Now, thanks to an article in Le Monde on the upcoming Libre-en-fête event, I’m discovering the user movements. I think I’ll be tracking what the April and AFUL are doing in the next few months. I can see Chandler as an interesting addition to the soup of free software used over there.

MacIE Spotting

February 12, 2007

Back in the days when I was at Microsoft working on Internet Explorer for Mac OS X, we played a game called “MacIE spotting”: mentions any occurence of ads or other printed material where a screenshot of a webpage sporting MacIE was used. Since Macs were (and still are) a favorite in advertisement shootings, and since “web browsing” seems to be the only cool activity to do on them, MacIE was seen everywhere from apparel ads to techies articles.

MacIE died long ago (circa 2003) so it was somewhat cute to see it resurected today on the front page of the “Real Estate” section of the New York Times: the whole page is laid out as a mock up “browser” and sports on its top the MacIE for OS X toolbar. Of course, the web version of the article doesn’t show this. You’ll have to buy the print version to see it.

Note also that the same issue of the NYT mentions Chandler in its business section.

On Silly Patent Advice

January 30, 2007

I’ve been in the throes of some patent idiocies recently and, while I won’t comment on that (too bad, it’s funny but I don’t want to poke fun at troll layers, they’re just too easy of a target…), I’m prompted to bring on the subject after reading how Microsoft backpedaled on some patent. I also read Michael Kölling account of the story.

One thing that Kölling clearly doesn’t know is that, at Microsoft, developers are actively requested not to check prior art and other patents. So, in his case, even if management was aware of the prior art, the engineers may have moved ahead and filled for a patent unknowingly of even the existence of Kölling. If the spec was written by the Program Manager with no reference to Kölling and since devs can do stuff independently of PMs (they don’t report to each other and notoriously distrust each other), it’s entirely possible.

This “don’t read” policy is a really weird counter common sense piece of advice. The reasoning is one of those lawyer’s logic that states that, since infringing on something knowingly is worse than unknowingly, working consciously in ignoring things makes you less exposed to liability. Certainly, the fact that fines can be 3 times higher if you knew you are infringing rather than just infringing unknowingly is sort of making sense of the advice.

This might be good lawyer thinking but it’s really going against common sense and, more than likely, the intent of the law. The patent law doesn’t specify how you are supposed to do your work but it certainly assumes you do it with all the competence “commonly used in the art”. Getting to know other engineers work is part of this. So making an effort to ignoring this work is a way to game the system by adopting a counter to common sense attitude. Not convinced? Consider this.

When I lived in Jordan, I was scared by the way drivers crossed intersections: they honked and purposefully looked in front of them and left when engaging in an intersection. That despite the fact that the right of way is on the right hand! This seems highly stupid (and dangerous). The driver to who I made the remark explained to me that, in case of a collision, your liability is less if you can explain that you actually didn’t see the car on your right hand. So, in order to lower his liability, he was only glancing right and pretending not to see a right hand car coming (he certainly could see it and would stop for a fast or determined driver but his gesture was emphatic enough that the driver in the other car could see he was looking the other way).

If you think this is stupid, consider that the logic behind it is similar to the “don’t read” policy served to developers in all major software shop. It’s like saying: if having eyes makes you liable, poke them or, at least, blindfold you. Pretend you can’t read or you’re too busy for this. Playing dumb can save you. This is pushing “Ignorance is bliss” into unethical corner. Accidental ignorance can be forgiven, practising it is evil.

I think judges should simply stop giving inventors a break on ignorance when finding out is easy. Ignoring a patent (in particular when filing one…) shouldn’t be treated differently from infringing it. The USPTO patent corpus is easily browsable now so such excuse makes no sense. Ignoring papers published only in, say, russian in an obscure publication and never quoted anywhere can be understood. Ignoring a landmark paper shouldn’t. It should be considered as gross incompetence. Akin to an architect not knowing recent finding in building material engineering: do you think that an architect could plead ignorance convincingly if a bridge he builds collapse because he ignored well known material limitation? The legal difference is that architects are licensed while software engineers are not (though that could be the problem and is a contentious issue treated here and there…).

So basically I’m advocating to stop using this 3 to 1 differential when fining companies for infringment: there’ll be no incentive for looking “left” when crossing the road.

I also think that the USPTO should charge companies extra when a patent is sent back for further review: for each patent the reviewer finds that is within the invention domain and that is not discussed by the inventor, the USPTO would charge some fee. The USPTO would have an incentive to do a good job and, more importantly, the companies would have an incentive to let the inventors do a thorough research and due diligence prior filing a patent. No more “don’t read patents” sillyness.

This would have some nice consequences:

  • less “silly” patents being filed
  • a less backlogged USPTO office
  • better informed engineers (this can only be good for the industry…)

It will also put the patent system back on track with its original purpose: make inventions public so that others can improve on them or create new ones… or pay their license fees…

How programming is like sex

January 9, 2007

We’re starting to see quite a bit of bytes getting thrown after Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code. I’ll certainly have other opportunities to talk about that book once I read it in details (I only perused a copy so far and I do recommend it, and not just because Scott’s a great guy) and, likely, get asked by commentators here my take on this or that aspect of Chandler’s story.

In the meantime, I read Scott’s interview in CIO Insight and can’t help but lift that quote: “in so many books about making technology, you’d get to the point where people actually start creating the software and then it would be kind of like the sex scene in an old movie: They would just skip it, cut to the next morning, cut to the marketing team getting ready to ship the product.”

Wow! Sex as a metaphor for Writing software. Hmmm… Not that inadequate may be, since, like sex, writing software:

  • requires a tremendous up stream effort for often disappointing results
  • everybody professes deep knowledge of it but no one really knows anything about it
  • passed success is no guarantee for future success
  • real experts are somewhat creppy
  • you have more opinions on the subject than facts
  • everybody thinks he (or she) is doing it right and everybody else is doing it wrong
  • leave you open to serious issues if done without caution
  • can easily turn into a 24 by 7 obsession
  • has a high productivity peak late at night
  • we’re all too impatient to do what it takes to make it really right
  • at some point, you got to “ship it” even if it’s not perfect
  • in the end, it’s really a miracle that we can get it done at all…