Digerati - Chapter 29

Digerati - Chapter 29

Linda Stone [10.1.96]

Chapter 29


Linda Stone

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Linda is uniquely knowledgeable and plugged in, in a way that makes her one of the best friends you can have. 

Linda Stone is the Director of the Virtual Worlds Group in the Microsoft Advanced Technology and Research Division. She has spent more than ten years in high tech, working primarily in multimedia both at Apple Computer and at Microsoft.

According to Linda Stone, "in real space, each place we go has a different sense of place. Places offer mood, personality, and context. When we choose where we want to take a walk or have dinner, carry on a conversation or shop, we do so based on how a place dovetails with how we're feeling, who we will be with or what we hope to accomplish. Likewise, how we dress and how we generally present ourselves, impacts the impression we make on others. In part, our lives are a process of developing, tuning, and refining who we are...both to ourselves and to others. At the moment, our cyberspace identity is our email signature."

Linda Stone is director of the Virtual Worlds Group in the Microsoft Advanced Technology and Research Division. She is a visionary both within Microsoft and to the industry at large. She is also extremely effective in making things happen. Her vision of the Internet is a place that embraces humanity and serendipity and supports rich social interaction, as well as recreation, information, and productivity. She's been promoting this view for years; it is only very recently that the rest of Microsoft has come to the Internet party and thus realized that Linda's work addresses some of the big societal (and business) issues we all face in the immediate future.

"Multimedia," Linda says, "makes it possible for us to create a sense of place and a sense of personal identity in cyberspace that makes use of sounds and pictures as well as text. This takes us to multimedia virtual worlds. Virtual worlds can bring a social and cultural context to the Internet. For better or for worse, chat and social interaction on the Net account for more than 30 percent of hours logged. People crave contact and connection with other people. People-to-people communication is likely to be a killer app on the Net. Virtual worlds are a substrate for people-to-people communication."

Linda began her high-tech career at Apple in 1986, moving to Microsoft in 1993. For years, she has been working at the intersection of art, culture, and technology; to it she brings a background ranging from art to education, cognitive psychology to hardware and software development.

At Apple, she was involved in business development and market development for multimedia, working with developers, the creative community, and the New York publishing crowd. Apple was testing the waters and wanted to understand what a multimedia developer community would look like, what types of products might exist, where multimedia would be sold, and how the industry would take shape. "For a long time, the big joke was that multimedia was a zero-billion-dollar industry," she says. "Multimedia has evolved in some predictable and some unpredictable ways. The same will happen with the Internet."

As director of the Virtual Worlds Group, she has worked for software wizard and industry bon vivant Nathan Myhrvold; she cofounded and has executive responsibilities for the group that developed Microsoft V-Chat and Comic Chat; and she is continuing to develop virtual worlds‹multiuser, multimedia environments that run on MSN and the Internet. Linda believes that the person-to-computer interface that was a key focus in the early days of the computer industry is in today's world of the Net, being superseded by both person-to-person and person-to-self user interfaces. She describes the person-to-self user interface as the way we define our virtual selves‹everything from our email signatures to our Web pages to our avatars‹all of the things which contribute to our status and reputation on the Net.

Linda is a people person, one of the nicest in the industry. She's also very smart. She is a catalyst: she makes friends, stays in touch with key industry people, and attends major industry events to wave the flag. She's at many events I attend, proselytizing her work with Virtual Worlds and talking to everybody‹customers, competitors, friends, and critics of Microsoft.

Since the beginning of 1995, Linda has also seemed to play a role as Microsoft's unofficial goodwill ambassador to the industry. In this regard, Linda, because of her own personal authority, is a strategic corporate asset. No one wants to criticize Microsoft when she is within earshot. No one wants to personally offend this Microsoft executive, who talks openly and affectionately about her years with Apple, and who confides that she used to think of, and nurture, her PowerBook as her child. Linda told me that when she moved to Microsoft she began using a Toshiba laptop. I didn't have the nerve to ask her what, if any, emotional bonding had taken place.

Am I being rational? If so, does it go even deeper? Is the "goodwill ambassador" bit another brilliant smokescreen? Isn't Microsoft Number One because all its actions are strategic in nature? When Linda comes up to me at a conference and says, "Hi, John, great to see you!" my wheels start spinning: who is after what? Has Nathan heard about my mother's recipe for "Brisket Brockman"? (Guess I'd better go the Brisket Brockman route.) Is Bill going to go after my market by starting his own literary agency? (Good, he can have it.) Is Linda's group about to put a multimillion sublicensing deal on the table for the exclusive rights to the "Brockman Avatar" (Will I have to sign a nondisclosure if I am the product?).

Linda Stone is for real, she's genuine; she's "The Catalyst," the peopleto-people communicator.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Effective interplay between content and technology is necessary for us to realize the potential of multimedia. Content with poor technology results in inadequate performance and poor usability. Technology without attention to content may perform well, but it is unlikely to have a purpose. Try to imagine a musical recording, a movie, a book, or a magazine article without something creative to say. Empty. So it is with so many CD-ROMs and much of what we see on the Web. Multimedia is more interesting when content and technology work well together. Multimedia products are often loaded with beautiful images, and high-quality video and audio. Yet even the most perfectly produced multimedia product can leave us cold. It is ultimately point of view and interface that breathe life into any media. When the technology works, it disappears‹it becomes transparent in a way that facilitates the content.

In 1989, an article I coauthored was published on CD-ROM, The New Papyrus. In it, I made the point that the interface is the product. Domino's Pizza is still my favorite example to make this case. We don't buy it for the technology‹pizzas are pretty easy to make. We don't buy it for the content‹there are many other pizza companies to choose from. We buy Domino's pizza for the interface. When we call Domino's, we are always greeted quickly and courteously by an efficient person who offers us delivery of a hot pizza in 30 minutes with a free soft drink. The interface is the primary reason most people patronize Domino's. The interface is the product.

With the proliferation of content, the interface and the point of view will be the product. Think of all the Web sites, imagine all the content being generated. How will we ever sift through it all? The interface will be key. The articles, images, and sounds will have to be adequate. The technology will have to be functional. The interface and the point of view will be crucial differentiators.

In my group, artists and programmers work closely together. Most software companies struggle to create a culture where this can happen effectively. Often, there is a kind of mutual disrespect. Programmers always think that artists are a commodity. Artists think programmers are a dime a dozen. It is hard to create a culture where both sides learn and understand how to acknowledge each other, how to listen to each other, how to recognize the very different kind of intelligence each contributes and how to make equal contributions to a project. This is a big part of what my team is doing. With the Virtual Worlds Group, it's been my job to provide a vision, develop a plan to execute that vision, and bring together a team capable of working together to evolve the vision and to drive creation and production. In less than two years, my group has deployed two products and is well on the way with a third. At every turn, we strive to insure that the creative side and the technical side are working together in a way that allows us to realize our vision.

Virtual worlds, are multimedia, multiuser, social meeting places. These worlds are going to be places where people can live on the Net, a sort of home base for the part of our lives we will spend online. When social interaction is integrated into other activities on the Net‹games, shopping, information browsing, learning‹all these activities can become more engaging. When I first looked at a seemingly endless stream of beautifully produced 3-D shopping malls that had no people, no sense of culture, and no sense of spirit, I thought, Whoa. This place called cyberspace is going to be one lonely, sterile place I won't want to be. There's something wonderful about choosing to go to Soho or the Upper East Side, about going into a neighborhood that has a sense of culture, a sense of place. It seems to me that if we are going to spend more of our lives online, in cyberspace, cyberspace needs to have more humanity.

V-Chat and Comic Chat are both multiuser, multimedia environments in which you can either create a graphical representation of yourself, called an avatar or a character, respectively, or choose a pre-made avatar. All avatars have the ability to gesture. Instead of existing solely as text, or as a body that is still and lifeless, you have an embodiment, an avatar or character, that has some personality, complete with gestures and idling behavior. When you speak to someone, when you say hello, you can wave. When you ask how someone is, you can smile or flirt. You can be playful in conversation. There's a sense of presence. We have found that this is addictive and very compelling.

The Virtual Worlds Group has worked on both graphical chats and virtual worlds. Virtual worlds have persistence, or a sense of history. This takes us beyond synchronous chat to a world that can evolve, a world that has a life and an existence both when we are there and after we leave. In a virtual world, we can "put down roots," rent a cyberspace apartment and have a different kind of online life. Virtual worlds can have neighborhoods with distinct personalities. Links can exist, allowing people to move back and forth between virtual worlds and the Web. Virtual worlds can give social context to shopping or information browsing or other activities we might want to do on the Net. Statistics indicate that people spend a tremendous amount of their time online socially interacting with each other.

There are a number of trends that are pushing us to make the Net a rich social place. I will oversimplify to make my point quickly. Before we had automobiles, people were centered in a neighborhood. Because it was hard to get around, one got to know the people nearby through school, work, and worship. Once transportation became accessible, people began to work farther from home, worship farther from home, go to school farther from home. As a result, we have become much more cut off from each other. Many of us don't know our neighbors, or we see them only on the weekends or in the summertime when we're outside gardening. But we still need to connect with each other, and people are now going to cyberspace to reach out to their friends and loved ones and to meet new people.

I'm interested in how technology can be used to enhance communication, and to enhance and enrich our lives. I'm fascinated by the degree to which the computer can help people express themselves and also connect with each other and relate to each other. As a former educator, I'm interested in how people learn, and how people communicate. The Internet is not just about creating highly produced, beautiful information. It is also about creating avatars, places and spaces people can customize and make their own. When people invest in who they are in relation to others and invest in or contribute to a community, they become more committed to how the community evolves. If we expect a sense of community to develop on the Net, people need to be able to participate fully rather than just retrieve information or exist in someone else's creation.

People talk a lot about community. At a talk I attended recently, someone said, "Look at all these buildings. We've created a digital community." To my mind, a community isn't buildings; it's people, places, and their relationship to each other.

Will the increasing presence of technology in our lives bring about the dystopic visions of many science fiction authors or will it serve to enhance our lives and our relationships to one another in some way? It's up to us. It demands our best efforts and intentions.

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): Linda is doing very creative work with virtual worlds and what kind of social interactions you have there. She's put together a great group. I'm very optimistic about the work she's doing. 

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Linda's working on the most important near-term problem for the Net, which is how to use it to enhance human interaction. A lot of us were inspired by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and said, "Hey that would be neat." Linda's doing it.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): I remember sitting in Tokyo a restaurant with Linda, Max Whitby, and Chris Cerf. Even though we all knew each other, Linda brought us together‹it wouldn't have happened without her. That's one of a number of meetings where her sensitivity to personalities, backed up with her interest, allowed some new thoughts to occur.

THE CYBERANLYST (Sherry Turkle): Linda Stone has a clear and focused min. She is an exemplary dialogue partner.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.