Billions of Us – Virtual Solutions for a COVID-19 World

Over the last few weeks the world has been forced to forge a new path as we learn to protect ourselves and each other while trying to keep support services functioning. This first phase has been reactionary. We’ve mainly been figuring out how to establish a home base from which we can accomplish the things we need to do. Even those who still go to their workplace, like those in public works or emergency or medical services, are figuring out how to operate in a much changed work environment.

Fortunately humans are adaptable and already we seem to be shifting to the next phase in which we try to figure out how to best leverage available resources. One initiative I see working in this direction is Billions of Us, “a creative collective devoted to using virtual technologies to improve the real world in this time of vast systemic change.” This effort is just getting off the ground so their website has minimal information. Instead, they are engaging more on their Billions of Us Facebook group which you can request to join if interested. Yesterday after I saw a notice about it on LinkedIn, I messaged Reuben Steiger who graciously welcomed me to the Facebook group.

While making use of social media channels, Billions of Us has also set up space in the virtual world of Second Life (SLURL: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Billions%20of%20Us1/245/12/28). This specific venue appeals to me because I know from past experience Second Life can provide the framework and opportunity for people to work together to achieve goals that might not otherwise have been possible. If you have not yet been in a place like Second Life this may sound surprising. And yes, there are places in Second Life, like in our offline world, that are NSFW. But there are many places only focused on business where professionals engage and learn from each other and have been doing so since the early 2000s. I have worked on projects by both teleworking and by working in Second Life. Only the experience of working with others in a virtual world like Second Life has allowed me to develop the same type of professional relationships I would develop in a face-to-face environment.

Billions of Us Town Hall in Second Life

So what will Billions of Us achieve? And will this situation in which we find ourselves become our “new normal? Obviously it’s too early to tell, but I like the idea of a group focused on leveraging technology to help us get through it. So I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to participate and learn from others in the group and provide any support I can. I hope others who are interested in or who are already well-versed in virtual technologies will also join the initiative. We are all in this together, and what we achieve together will determine our outcome.

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Free 3D Software for Civil Engineers

If you regularly read this blog, you already know we strongly believe 3D visualizations and environments will play a big role in the future of civil engineering. Over the last several years we've seen an increasing use of 3D products to help people better plan and build large-scale developments and structures. Last year, FHWA incorporated 3D into their Every Day Counts initiative, and recently President Obama announced the launch of two new digital manufacturing hubs. It's interesting to note the President's weekly address this week covered those launches along with a push for innovative infrastructure – one day, in our industry, both topics will most likely be closely aligned. But like any change or new innovation, there are naysayers and those who resist the transition, and there is little we can do to change their mind. Like the old draftsman clinging to his ink pen and Leroy set, they will be left behind. Instead of worrying about convincing them, we wanted to reach out to all of you who are looking forward to the future yet might not know where to start or to those of you who might be wondering how to pick up some 3D skills without having to spend a lot of money. Below we've listed several programs available for free or at a low cost. They are grouped by complexity of the software.

Introduction to 3D

Autodesk 123D – an Autodesk suite of free 3D software:

While Autodesk's flagship products like AutoCAD and 3ds Max might have a price tag out of reach for most of us, the company fortunately offers several free products you can use to build your 3D skills. You can even use most of these programs to create a 3D print of your creation! Here's a list of each program you can try out:

123D Catch – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to transform a photo into a 3D object

123D Design – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to create 3D designs

123D Creature – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily create a 3D creature

123D Sculpt – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily sculpt 3D models

123D Meshmixer – a computer-based program allowing you to develop 3D models

Tinkercad – a web-based program allowing you to create 3D models (this is free for personal use at this time, but may in the future transition to a low-cost subscription based program).

 

SketchUp – SketchUp Make is the free version of the popular 3D modeling program now owned by Trimble.  

Sketchup Interface

 

3D Tin – this free, web-based program allows you to easily create 3D models. You can save and export them and even send them to a 3D printing site. The key thing to keep in mind before using this site is that it requires a specific type of browser. I was able to use the most recent version of Firefox to access it. Below is the screenshot of a few 3D letters I easily created with the object-based tools. 

 

3D Tin Interface

 

MakeHuman – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create human 3D models. 

tree[d] – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to easily create 3D models of trees. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

tree[d] interface

 

Intermediate Level 3D

The following programs will most likely require a little more effort to learn than those in the introductory category. Fortunately you can usually find your way around the software by making use of the tutorials and community forums available for each program:

Seamless 3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

Seamless3D Screenshot

 

Sculptris – a free computer-based program allowing you to create 3D organic looking models

 

AC3D – a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost for one license is $89.95. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

AC3D Interface

 

Wings3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a model I uploaded of a creature I made using the 123D Creature software on my iPad.

Rendering in Wings3D of a creature model

RaySupreme 3D – this is a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost of the software is $39.99. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a rounded cube.

Ray Supreme 3D Interface

 

Clara.io – Thanks to Mimetic Core for bringing this site to my attention after I posted this article. The site is in beta, but is very functional and easy to use. I am listing it as intermediate since it appears to offer more advanced 3D features than those included in the Introductory section. This is a free, browser-based program that allows you to create 3D models after you register on the site. There are also several pre-made models available for you to load and edit to get used to the software. You can see the ladybug model in the screenshot below.  

Clara.io Interface

Second Life / OpenSim – I'm including these free, computer-based programs even though many in the industry would not probably think of these as 3D modeling packages. This is probably because while both programs have always allowed people to create 3D models, until last year, whatever people created could not be exported for use in other programs. Fortunately within the last several months, a third-party developed the ability to export models created in these environments. So now, people can use the building tools in Second Life or Open Sim environments to easily create a 3D model and then export it. And even though the building of the model is relatively easy, I put the program in the intermediate category because the interface is much different than any of the other programs listed here and might take some time to get used to. This is because instead of just installing a software package and using the commands like a regular program, people build in Second Life/Open Sim by entering the software through an avatar or digital representation of themselves. I included a screenshot of the interface below showing my avatar building a basic cube in Second Life.

 

Second Life 3D Modeling Interface

 

Advanced Level 3D Modeling

The programs below are more involved than those listed above. Usually they have more advanced features and the interface is more complicated to navigate. While it will take some time to learn these programs, there are many tutorials and resources available online to help teach you what you need to know to use them.

Blender – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Blender is a very advanced tool with complex features including the ability to animate objects and create scenes, video games, and movies. Because of this, it does take some time to learn this program. Fortunately there are many resources and tutorials available.

Blender Interface

 

DAZ 3D Suite of Products

In addition to their higher cost 3D program, Carrara (which is still fairly low-cost at $149.95 and $285.00 for the pro version), DAZ 3D offers several free and low-cost programs. Occasionally they have also allowed a free download of their products for limited times throughout the year. While you might have to devote more time to learning how to use these programs, there are many sites out there offering videos and tutorials to help you learn. 

Hexagon – this free, computer-based program allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a basic 3D object.

 

 

Hexagon Interface

DAZ Studio – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models, scenes, and artwork along with animations and poses. While I've posted this in the advanced section so it could be grouped with the other Daz products, DAZ Studio is actually very easy to use. Below is a screenshot of the interface. My main use of it at this time is to create poses for 3D models of people.

 

 

DAZ Studio Interface

Bryce – this is a low-cost (at the time of the post it was selling for $19.95) computer-based program that allows you to create 3D environments

 

Unity3D – this is a free, computer-based program that can be used to create 3D models. However, most people seem to be using this program to develop 3D environments into which they place 3D models made in other programs. Unity3D is a full-featured, advanced software package that takes some time to learn. Like the other programs listed in this post, there are many sites available online where you can find tutorials and other educational resources to help teach you how to use it. There is also a higher cost pro version of the program available, but most people can get by using the free version – particularly if you are just trying to become familiar with 3D modeling. Below is a screenshot of the interface of the free version showing a scene I created by following a tutorial.

Unity3D Interface

 

(Post updated March 2, 2014 to add Clara.io site)

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Another Voice in the Wind – Thoughts on Qualities of a Virtual Leader

Photo from SL10B

Over the last few days I've been reading the responses to the departure of Rod Humble, the CEO of Linden Lab – the company that owns and operates Second Life. Here are a few sites where you can find some in-depth and thoughtful discussion.

The Oracle of Pixels on Andromeda, written by William Burns

Rod Humble Leaves Second Life on NALATES' THINGS & STUFF, written by Nalates Urriah

Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL on Living in a Modemworld, written by Inara Pey

An Open Letter to the Lindens on Hypergrid Business, written by Maria Korolov

What struck me in a few of these articles is once again the similarities between local governments and Second Life. In at least the first two of these posts, you could replace "Second Life" with "local agency" and most of the article would still apply. There are also many interesting points and suggestions made in each article related to leadership and management of a community and specifically Second Life's community. The comments in these posts got me thinking about what qualities I believe a good leader of a virtual community should have. So I am adding my own voice to the others now discussing the future of Second Life. The points presented below are merely observations I have made from working about 30 years in and for local government, being a member of the Second Life community since late 2006, and actively reading and listening to opinions, thoughts, and ideas from other Second Life members including those from the articles listed above.

 

1. A community leader needs to be confident enough in their abilities and skills to listen to new or opposing views and ideas

This is one of the suggestions I got out of reading the post written by Will Burns. In it he points out that companies can end up with a leader who does not allow any voices of opposition or criticism. And as you might expect, this can lead to poor decisions, mistakes, and failed ventures. This is exactly what can happen with a city – a poor leader who is put in place through either an election or through appointment who refuses to consider any suggestions or comments that do not agree with their own will eventually prevent their city from innovating and growing at best and at worst will diminish its appeal, stability, and sustainability. In some cities, like in some companies, the population will realize something is amiss and will replace their leadership through an election. Other times, the citizenry is left unaware of the actual cause of the community's decline and the leadership remains in power. While I don't have insight into the type of leadership at Linden Lab that Burns might have, I do agree the best type of leadership for any company or agency is one in which opposing views are not blocked or dismissed with absolutely no consideration.

I've also worked at cities where people like Will Burns regularly challenged us, and he is correct to conclude having someone questioning leadership can help motivate and compel an agency/company to improve as long as the leader is willing to listen. This doesn't mean leadership ends up always doing exactly what is suggested, but more times than not, the challenge forces the agency/company to do a better job at making and thinking through decisions.

Photo from SL10B

2. Advisory committees are helpful

Burns also suggests the establishment of an advisory board. To me this seems similar to the citizen advisory committees or commissions often set up by cities. These often provide needed insight and improvement to operations and policy. But for committees to provide the most value, it is critical that they are created and supported under certain guidance with careful regard for who serves in this capacity. Fortunately it looks like Linden Lab already has the Linden Endowment for the Arts – a working committee model from which they can build. Here are some more specific issues to keep in mind:

Decision makers are not obligated to, nor should they perhaps, always follow the recommendations made by an advisory committee. Yet they need to keep in mind that constantly choosing a path in opposition to a committee's recommendations will devalue the purpose of the committee and can risk alienation of its members. If that is happening, it is many times a sign of disconnect between the leaders and the community and both need to work on finding common ground.

These positions are typically held by volunteers from the community so that the committee members bring a more community-based viewpoint to the table. But consideration needs to be given in choosing these members so they are not those who will only use their position to improve their own interests at the expense of the community.  

Usually more than one committee or board is necessary, and for Second Life with its diverse and unique community needs, this seems even more true to ensure the majority of needs and aspects of the community are addressed. 

Committees and boards are supported in their efforts by the decision makers. If necessary this would include financial support in a manner similar to what is done with the Linden Endowment for the Arts.

Bay City at SL10B

3. The leader needs to be engaged

This is one area in which government typically excels over private business – probably because the leadership in a city is usually placed there by popular vote. And you don't get elected by being a diminuitive wallflower. While many companies can still succeed by ignoring this requirement because of the type of product they sell or service they deliver, a community-based company like Second Life cannot really do so and expect to provide anything more than average service. You can better understand the importance people in Second Life place on the engagement of the leadership at Linden Lab by reading the post by Nalates and Inara. Each discusses communication issues and accomplishments – both top issues upon which a citizenry places great focus and emphasis. Mayors and Village Presidents and other elected officials who understand this end up achieving much for their communities while still maintaining an overall positive reputation within the community. Sure they have some naysayers – after all they realize you aren't going to make everyone happy all the time, but they have somehow managed to figure out the secret sauce in pleasing enough people to make them the popular choice at each election. (This could be related to No. 5 below.)

This probably sounds crazy to most business people, but the critical need for this type of leader when the product involves community services makes me wonder if Linden Lab would do best to choose their next CEO from the pool of those who have served as popular and effective mayors. After all, they understand and have experience with leading and managing a community while effectively handling finances and still delivering projects and meeting needs of citizens. Some might suggest along this line of thought a city manager is better suited. But while a chief administrator of a local government might be able to manage a company, they normally lack the community engagement skills elected officials seem to naturally possess. 

SL10B Photo

4. Leaders need to convey passion and commitment to their community

The other critical skills needed by leaders are the ability to show great passion and belief in their community which is why leaders are best chosen from within. One of the primary reasons for this requirement in a leader is that communities, including Second Life, rely on financial investment and economic stability to succeed. Using a city as an example, if I own a major corporation and am looking for a community in which to build my headquarters or base of operation, which city would I pick?

In Strong City, I meet with the mayor – an outgoing, engaged person who makes me feel welcome throughout my entire visit. As the mayor describes their city and its benefits, I sense a strong passion and love for the place from this person. The mayor shares commitments and efforts made not only by the government, but by the private sector to improve, innovate, and grow the area. There is a care and dedication to the needs, assets, and future of the community and its members. The mayor also describes the involvement and engagement of the members of the community in many different areas. I leave with the idea this is a place that is focused on constant improvement and the needs and involvement of its members.

In Weak City, I meet with the mayor – a quiet person who makes me feel as if there is barely time in their day to accommodate our meeting by avoiding eye contact and glancing at the clock. The mayor's voice lacks concern or regard or passion for the place – instead I receive a canned description of what they can do for me and the requirements I must meet to set up shop there. It is all business with little to no discussion of the sense of place or community. The mayor rarely mentions the population or does so in a dismissive and annoyed manner.

If both places are competing for my investment, I am probably more likely to choose Strong City as the site for my new headquarters. Why would I want to invest in a community where even the leader does not seem to care? A positive leadership approach can also extend to attracting people and visitors to your community – not just businesses.

SL20B Photo

 

5. Leaders need to understand the bell curve concept

I've been meaning to write a whole post about this since over the last year, I've come to discover how much of a key the bell curve is to most things that happen to us. But to sum it up in a short paragraph specifically as it relates to a community, good leaders realize the bell curve can be applied to members of a community – those on the left side represent the negative people in the community. You will never win them to your side so quit trying. Those on the right represent community supporters and fans. There is nothing more you can do to win them to your side – they are already there and will always be the community cheerleaders. The key is with the middle or majority of the population. They can go either way and will based on what they hear and see or sometimes who gets to them first. That is the group upon which you focus your attention and resources. I will add here that when this concept was first presented to me, I thought it at first harsh, but since that time have had it explained to me from several unrelated angles. I now believe understanding the bell curve is a crucial part of managing or running anything, but will save the entire discussion for a full post because it is a fascinating yet potentially scary concept I really want to explore.

Photo from SL10B

Moving Forward

While people have questioned if Philip Rosedale was right for the job, I have always thought he made a good leader for the community because to me he displayed all of the aspects of a good community leader based on the requirements stated above. And while this seemed to be demonstrated somewhat in his reference as "Governor Linden" I wonder if Linden Lab never truly embraced the local government similarities or approach because people in general tend to portray and think of government in a negative light. (In mentioning my respect and admiration for Rosedale, I do not mean to imply I think he should return as CEO – he seems to be pursuing new opportunities, and a good leader understands a healthy cycle of new leadership, as long as it is still of a high quality, ensures the community will benefit from new ideas and energy.)

It is too bad these misconceptions about local government exist in people's minds because if Linden Lab would really look into how much they operate as a local government, they would find numerous resources in the local government sector to help them in their management and understanding of and service to the community. They would also find organizations, associations, and millions of other government employees who do understand exactly what they have on their hands and who would freely share tips and advice on managing it all.

Photo from SL10B


A side note and update on my own meager efforts to offer local government resources

For years I've been writing posts on this site about the parallels I've noticed between Second Life and local governments. So much so that I begin to think people are probably tired of reading about it. Those who aren't in Second Life or haven't visited a virtual world probably can't relate to the comparisons nor imagine how something like a virtual world can possibly function as a true community. As for those who are members of Second Life, I don't think many are local government employees and if they are like most people, at least those in the U.S., they don't pay a lot of attention to exactly how local government works. So the end result has been that I'm not sure I've done very well in convincing people of this overwhelming similarity. But I continue posting articles about this topic because the similarity is so glaringly obvious to anyone who has worked in local government right down to the problems and issues that arise because the company has not adopted good local government management practices.

 

A while back, my frustration built to a point at which I moved forward on the one action I felt I as a member of the community could take which was to initiate and help prepare a comprehensive plan for the community. While this started out well, I was forced to slow down the effort last year about this time when I accepted a job offer from a different government agency. If it had been a move to a similar type position, I don't think I would have had to suspend much of what I had been working on, but my new job involved performing in an entirely different function within a whole new framework. It was and continues to be a tremendous opportunity for me so I've been focusing most of my time and attention on getting up to speed and working hard to maximize the value of my work. Over the last year, I was able to complete a few of the other commitments I had already made prior to taking that job, but they were short and didn't involve as much time and effort as a comprehensive plan for a virtual community. Now, after spending almost a year getting familiar with my new job, I finally feel more comfortable getting back involved in developing the community plan. And with the recent loss of the CEO for the company that runs Second Life, I have even more reason to dedicate the time and effort to complete this project. If you want to follow its progress, you can visit the Virtual Vision 2020 website. A draft of the introduction section of the plan is under review and will be posted there in the near future for community review and comment.

(All photos in this post are from last year's Second Life Birthday Celebration – a community run event)

 
Photo from SL10B
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Terrain Files for 3D Worlds

For some time I've experimented with creating terrain for use in 3D immersive spaces. Usually I am trying to alter DEM files to create simulations of project sites. But lately I've started to explore creating specific shapes or designs, and I think I've finally found a work flow that might make the whole process a little easier. Here is a file I created that can be used in a world like Second Life or OpenSim. If you have estate powers, you can go to the estate menu and upload the file as a RAW file to create this land. It is a square measuring 256 x 256 meters with 4 star-shaped hills rising out of star-shaped water features.

Star Terrain Overhead View  Star Terrain Ground View

If you click this file name, you can download the file for your own use. I am releasing it under a Creative Commons license that would allow you to basically use it for anything except selling it as is. Since this is my first time offering a file I created, please let me know if it does not work for you.

 

 

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3D Visualization of an Alley Streetscape Project

Downtown alley looking westA while back I was working on a project to change an alley from a typical asphalt driveway to a pedestrian walkway. Because it is in a downtown area, this project allows for many design opportunities to enhance the downtown area and the pedestrian experience. During its planning stage, we had a lot of input from property owners, co-workers, and others in the community on what they wanted to see in that space. But as I put together the civil drawings, I thought it would be so much better to also have a 3D view of it so we could actually see what it would look like when we put in everyone's ideas. I decided the easiest and fastest way for me to build the best looking model for this was to use something like Opensim or Second Life software. Due to the size and purpose of this project, I ended up setting it up in Second Life since I could make it in a premium sandbox, take a photo of it when done, and then store it in my inventory. Below is the result of my work.

Downtown Alley in 3D

If you look close, you will probably notice it really is not a perfectly executed model. This was intentional on my part. For this particular project, my goal was to see how fast I could set up a model that while not perfect was good enough for visualizing a design.This is because when I have built things like this before, one of the main questions I get from co-workers and other engineers is "how long did it take you to do that?" And in the past, I never really paid attention because I was more focused on the building aspect and trying to make it look exactly like the actual site. But for professional design work, time is one of the most important considerations. So I wanted to focus on how fast this could be done yet still achieve the goal. In the end, for this project, which covered roughly 30 feet by 400 feet, I would say it took about eight hours to take the photos, create the textures, and build the model. I might have been able to finish it sooner, but it took me a while to shop for the string lights and buy them in a Second Life store.

Here are a few more photos with different lighting and different views. Obviously with more time, a lot more elements could have been added and more ideas tried. The good thing about having a model like this is once it is built, it is so easy to just add other objects or try different designs:

 

Alley 3D Visualization Looking East

Alley 3D Visualization Looking West at sunset

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Update to “How Much Credit Do You Have To Give?”

At the end of last year, I published a post exploring copyright issues titled "How Much Credit Do You Have to Give?" Recently Bay Sweetwater contacted me to let me know some important information related to copyright and the Terms of Use for Second Life. She also shared a link to a very informative, copyright-related post published on her blog, Second Living. In her article Bay points out "Linden-granted rights are far from sufficient to monetize an SL video. And the Linden Snapshot & Machinima policy can lull you into thinking it’s all very easy. It sounds as if you can check a few land covenants, shoot your video, go post your Youtube video, receive a Youtube invitation to monetize, and you’ll be rolling in the dough. Don’t. Do not pass Go. Stop first. Make sure, for ALL content, you truly either own the copyright or have a license for commercial use."

In the "How Much Credit Do You Have to Give?" post I had mentioned the Linden Lab Terms of Use and took them to mean users were allowed to take photos and machinima of content as long as the person owning that content placed it in a publicly accessible space. Here is the actual language from those terms:

You agree that by uploading, publishing, or submitting any Content to any publicly accessible areas of the Service, you hereby grant each user of Second Life a non-exclusive license to access the User Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content In-World or otherwise on the Service solely as permitted by you through your interactions with the Service under these Terms of Service. This license is referred to as the "User Content License," and the Content being licensed is referred to as "User Content." excerpt from Second Life Terms of Use

One of the issues Bay picked up on in the Terms of Use that I missed is the fact that the word "commercial" is absent from this language. So while you might be able to take photos and produce machinima if you meet all the requirements, you still might not have permission to use it commercially. Bay also questions the permission to film avatars. Because her site offers so much more detail and more fully explores copyright issues and the use of Second Life material, I highly encourage anyone with an interest in copyright to visit Bay's blog and read through her entire article.

However, as a final disclaimer, both Bay and I are not lawyers – only a couple Second Life users interested in highlighting and sharing the incredible content we find there. But there probably are attorneys out there with knowledge and experience in this topic. It seems like it would be very useful if we could find a few willing to attend a series of talks in Second Life related to copyright issues.

 

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