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I got a tip the other day from my buddy Ute Hicks, over at SL Business Magazine, about an intriguing online experiment someone is working on; a way to post to a blog straight from a location within Second Life, via a 'Heads-Up Display' (HUD) that one can physically wear while there. And lo and behold, when I finally got a chance to check out blogHUD.com, I learned it was Koz Farina actually behind the effort, someone already fairly well-known both inside the grid and out. A former staffer for the BBC, now a full-timer at Scott Beatty's Podcast.com, Farina always seems to be working on some cool little new thing for the grid, things that always turn out to be fun little additions to the SL experience.
I recently sat down with Farina at the Podcast headquarters, to discuss the pleasures of public APIs, the frustrations of the third-party developer, and why being an omnisexual might not be as weird an experience as you think. The transcript of our talk is below; and then come October 1, the interview plus lots more photos will run again in our monthly magazine.
In The Grid: So tell me more about BlogHUD. How does it work from a technical aspect? Is it a script that matches up with a blog server?
Koz Farina: it will appear on your screen in a 'HUD' position. The LSL [Linden Scripting Language] scripts call PHP I have written on my server -- all use the httpRequest methods which arrived recently.
ITG: These are the recent changes from Linden, right, that are making it easier to communicate between the web and the game engine?
KF: Yes. The current version will only post to bloghud.com, but I am just putting the finishing touches to the 'Pro' version which can post to Wordpress or Blogger -- and any others I can learn how to do. This is my first HUD. I learned LSL via the Wiki and wrote a Flickr slideshow viewer first.
ITG: You use the public APIs that come with such services?
KF: Yes. Wordpress and Blogger, etc., have APIs to allow posting to your blogs. So, on bloghud.com you will 'log in' (you set your pasword using the blogHUD in SL to access your area on the site), then you add your blogs.
ITG: And ultimately, if I'm understanding it correctly, LSL is just another scripting language, like PHP and the like. Which is why it's becoming easier to mesh the different types of systems.
KF: Well, the language is a bit like 'C,' which I don't know at all. But really most scripting languages are quite alike, though some are very 'strict' like LSL, so it was quite easy to pick up once you get over the intricacies.
ITG: So why only the centralized domain at first for posting? Technical limitations, or did you just want to work on one protocol at first?
KF: As soon as I had a script 'talking' to my web server AND replying back, my brain went fzzzzzzzzzt. I just wanted to prove the concept first -- to create my own little bloging tool -- but in SL you soon learn to 'productize' [laughing]. Once you hear of all the money people are making. So, everyone has asked me for a way to blog to their own blogs too -- so, I'm doing it. It's a challenge -- I learn as I go.
ITG: But does that also keep you focused on the user experience? What was the testing process like, and what things have you heard from your early adopters?
KF: I have worked on web UI for years. Flash, Director, all sorts. I'm also ex-BBC News R&D [research and development]. So, I create 'things' which I like using -- then people say what they like and don't like, and I iterate it.
ITG: Ah! Were you part of the team that started opening up all those archives at the BBC for public use? And convinced them to get involved with SL?
KF: No, that was New Media. I created huge giant newsscreens around London and plasmas in the foreign bureau. I was quite the evangelist at BBC News for RSS and podcasting. I like creating things which create data, which people can then build cool widgets with. So the blogHUD creates a feed for every user and also for every place posted from.
ITG: So here's my big question; now that you've created an automatic SLurl generator in BlogHUD, when will we see the ability to post screenshots from in the grid too?
KF: That's what I want [too]. I met Cory Linden in London a couple of months back and begged them for a better way to send images, as opposed to the current emailing model. It will come. Soon we will get a browser on a prim, and so many new doors will open, if it supports the same things that Mozilla does.
ITG: That's good to hear. There seems to be so many third parties building interesting media interfaces here, almost despite the work of Linden. Although to be fair, they have their hands full.
KF: I just love all the creativity. Sometimes I fly around the mainland for hours. [That's] another reason why I built the blogHUD -- to record cool places I saw, and share them, rather than create private landmarks in my inventory. Also, the in-world search sucks, and is pumped full of keywords. So maybe this could be a better search, as it is based on what acutal people/visitors/customers think.
ITG: And what can you tell us about your own SL experiences, now that you have this ability to record a permanent record on the go? Is it like having a Moleskine in your back pocket or something?
KF: [Laughing] I do actually carry a real Moleskine in my pocket always. For ideas, etc. So it's like that really. And also, as it ties in with the SL maps, you can teleport right to where the post was mode. [And] naturally I hope to make a few Lindens too, to pay tier on all this land!
ITG: Of course. Have you thought of a way yet? Will it primarily be through the Pro versus free version?
KF: Yes. The free version will only post to bloghud.com; the Pro version will post to any other blogs you have. I'm still working out what to charge for it -- but I see many things for sale which took a lot less work. But I also want lots of people to use it. It auto-upgrades too, so I don't have to worry about that. In fact that was the first thing I did, was create the upgrade servers.
ITG: It'd be great if the front end of BlogHUD turned into more of a social network; where each member has their own page, maybe a supplemental photo gallery, even a SLurl map like Flickr just introduced for RL photos.
KF: Yes, the 'my.bloghud.com/yourusername' page will expand. Maybe add contacts/friends etc, images, and also possibly 'call' the SL HUD when your buddies post, too.
ITG: That sounds like a fun way for people to use BlogHUD, even if they don't have programming experience or their own blog.
KF: But a lot of that can already be done in-world with groups.
ITG: Another element of this universe that could stand some improving.
KF: As there's so much to see, and the place is growing so rapidly, I wanted a way to record where I'd been. I also did some RL stuff like this with a GPS device and my PDA at geepster.com. Playing with Google maps -- I intended to do a RL version for that, but had too much 'real' work to do.
ITG: Almost like the original impetus behind Del.icio.us -- the founder wanting a better way to store bookmarks than his browser's Favorites folder.
KF: Yes, exactly. I like to build things I need, then people tend to say, "Hey! Can I have one too?" [Laughing]
ITG: What's your opinion on mapping, by the way? Now that almost all the individual coding pieces are in place, when do you think someone will finally invent a SLurl graphical mapping system, like what Flickr now has?
KF: With the data, you can build anything like that, really. The blogHUD RSS feeds have the SLgeo data there too.
ITG: But a big project, and with a lot of coders not having a lot of extra time, as you mentioned. I wonder sometimes when someone will finally have the time to sit down and pull it all together.
KF: Yes. It's the Web 2.0 way. As long as whatever anyone does produces well-formed XML data of any format, then you can pretty much mash it up however you like. I'm what I call a 'createc' so I'm always looking out for things like that. I work from front-end to back-end, so to speak.
ITG: So when will the public be able to sign up for BlogHUD? It's in a semi-private beta period right now, correct? But with the public allowed to see what's being posted?
KF: Yes. Currently the only way people are getting ahold of them is via me. But now people have started aggregating the RSS feeds on other sites; [readers] see a post, then go to the [blogHUD headquarters] link and teleport in. I just had two people asking for one just before you arrived. So, I am just finalising and testing the Pro features, then do the docs and FAQ, then create some vendors to give them out, depending on the version. I like to prepare as much as I can, so I have less work to do once it's released [laughing].
ITG: Right, that's one of the nice things about the service, is that each account generates a feed. And like you mentioned to me earlier, one could use a feed import script to display posts at an outside blog.
ITG: Very interesting. And since I have you here, tell us; what are some of the things in the grid you do for fun yourself?
KF: Fly and build. Also I go to live audio events. And watch keynote speeches. But when I want to check out the 'darker' side I have an alt for that [laughing]. Who, like you, is omnisexual.
ITG: Does your day job give you a chance to be here from the office? Or is it simply home evening use for you?
KF: I work at home all the time for podcast.com. I'm in London; the rest of them are in Boston.
ITG: Do you find yourself communicating differently as a man versus a woman?
KF: I think people don't really care about what gender someone really is. Maybe some do, but it's [mostly] all about how you want to communicate. I had a nice chat with a horse yesterday! My RL partner is in SL too.
ITG: [Laughing] Oh my! Does your RL partner do gender-bending in SL too? Any opposite-sex dates you two ever go on?
KF: [Laughing] Noooo...we don't engage in all that, really. We met on the internet actually, in a virtual community I built years ago on the web. That was eight years ago!
ITG: So, one last subject we'll talk about, maybe, of what you think of RL 'professionalism' here in the grid. Of how important it is, you think, versus drive, ambition, book smarts, etc.
KF: I think inspiration is very important. I love having ideas. And I looove puzzles. So I therefore like to figure out how to do my ideas. It's great brain-yoga.
ITG: Have your experiences in RL online experiments helped you create your projects more easily here? Or is it stuff you would've picked up on your own, you think, once you got here?
KF: A lot of the code I write has implications towards the next idea. i reuse code as much as possible. It's all pieces of a puzzle. The blogHUD was a flash of an idea; now it's all I've been doing in SL. I can't wait to finish it.