Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unity: A 3D Virtual World In Your Browser ... Plus A Bonus And Entirely Gratuitous Rant (Unity3d.com via Makeuseof.com)

Makeuseof.com featured the Unity plug-in for Firefox, IE and Safari the other day. They gave it pretty strong reviews, so I downloaded it to my Firefox browser and was equally impressed with the high quality 3D world the simple browser plug-in was able to create.


Unity is fundamentally a tool for developing 3D games and virtual worlds available on-demand through the internet. I am not technically sophisisticated enough to know if all of the promises the Unity team makes about the ease of programming are worth the pixels they are written with, but I was massively impressed with the simple installation and immersive quality of the 3D graphics.

With only a small plug-in (less time consuming to install than you would expect), the world that Unity creates is very realistic with excellent lighting effects, realistic physics and the capacity for ambient sound and interactive objects. You can see a screen shot below of Unity's demo island.
Clicking on the screen shot (when will people learn to always make an embeddable version...) will take you to the page where you can download the plug-in and explore the island yourself (use the mouse to look around/change direction and arrow keys to move. Hit the space bar to jump over obstacles). It takes seconds to download and install and is well worth it. While in the world, right click on the mouse and try the software on full screen as well.

What does this have to do with either teaching or intel? Quite a bit, I'm afraid. As this kind of technology becomes less and less expensive (in time and money) to use and easier to develop and deploy, the more it will be used to create educational environments that are more immersive -- and do a better job -- than traditional methods. It seems to me that understanding these technologies, their capabilities and their limitations, along with other similar technologies (like the augmented reality demo from yesterday) is critical to planning for the educational environment ahead.

On the intel side, I think it is even more important. It seems to me that virtual worlds/augmented reality are just more places where the national security intelligence community has the potential to fall behind. Back in the 90's, the IC was in the forefront of productivity technologies like instant messaging but, since then, the community has had to play catch-up on the adoption of wikis, blogs and now social networking tools like MySpace and Facebook.

The lastest example of ceding the technological high ground comes at the expense of President-elect Obama's Blackberry. Rather than figure out a way to securely and legally allow the President to use his portable communications device, the generally accepted solution appears to be to simply take it away.

Whether you like Obama or not, his ability to effectively utilize technology is one of the reasons he is where he is today. To simply take those tools away from the president -- without a fight -- seems ludicrous to me. How effective would you be if someone took away all of the tools that you use on a daily basis (electronic or otherwise)? What if you had to learn entirely new and arguably less efficient means of doing work? How long would it take you to adjust? How productive would you be in the meantime? Can we afford that right now? It is not the question of whether the President gets to keep his Blackberry or not that bothers me; it is the attitude that the technology does not matter that really scares me.

I would encourage the President to take a page from Colin Powell's playbook (which he may well be in the process of doing). When Powell became Secretary of State he had grown accustomed to using refdesk.com as part of his daily workflow. He was told he would have to give it up for "security" reasons. Secretary Powell indicated, in polite but unequivocal terms, that he was the Secretary and that security was there to support him, not the other way around. Surprise, surprise, they managed to come up with a solution that got the internet not just on the Secretary's desk but on many of the other desks in Foggy Bottom.

It can happen Mr. President-elect, it can happen...

1 comment:

Richard said...

I am a developer using the Unity3D engine and I am very impressed with the application and ease of use. If you wish to see a great example of the technology in action for academic puroposes go to VisibleBody.com

If you wish to read more about My Unity Testimony