Existential questions about virtual worlds

It has been interesting to be away from virtual worlds stuff for a few weeks. I had some catching up to do, but at first sight it seems not much has changed.

There is another famous Linden Lab employee leaving the company, Jack Linden. Other virtual worlds are presenting themselves as alternatives for Second Life, such as OpenSim. Blue Mars continues to promote is’s nice graphics and Twinity it’s mirror worlds.

But looking at all this from a distance, it seems the momentum of those projects and companies is lost, at least for now. Outside the feverishly working communities of those virtual places, nobody seems to care. What’s hot right now is Zynga, Facebook, Twitter, the iPad and the epic struggle between Android and Apple, and of course there is Microsoft’s Kinect. People wonder constantly whether Second Life is still around, and as far as Blue Mars, OpenSim or Twinity is concerned, well even most accomplished geeks won’t know what you’re talking about unless they happen to be members of those tiny niche-communities.

I was not surprised at all reading Botgirl’s post about Pew research which points in the same direction:

According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It’s pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it’s clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.

I couldn’t agree more with Botgirl’s solution:

After reading the report, I’m more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.

Wagner James Au at the New World Notes has been suggesting this Facebook Connect option for quite some time now, but in his post discussing Botgirl’s article he says he’s “starting to think there’s an even better way to make 3D virtual worlds more mass market: Integration with Kinect and Xbox Live.”

So I went to watch the latest Metanomics video for inspiration in times of crisis in virtual worlds. As usual there were distinguished guests such as Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, Brian Kaihoi of the Mayo Clinic and Terry Beaubois, Professor of the College of Architecture and Director of the Creative Research Lab (CRLab) at Montana State University, being interviewed by Robert Bloomfield, Professor of Accounting at the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management.

All these people invested lots of time and money in Second Life projects, at one point they really believed this was an important part of the future (I do not exclude some of them still do believe that). Now they are still very active, but they admit times are different now. The financial crisis made institutions look hard to save costs, but there is more than that. The Gartner Cycle of Hype was mentioned and I confess, being a slightly cynical journalist, to me that sounds like “yes, we completely lost traction, but hey, fancy consultants tell us that it’s nothing to worry about: after the Disillusionment will come the Slope of Enlightenment and we’ll get to the Plateau of Productivity.” Yeah, right. Maybe. Or maybe not.

So is this some convoluted way of saying that I lost all hope virtual worlds will have a bright future after all? Well, it’s convoluted because it’s a complicated matter. As the folks at the Metanomics show said, there is the technology (and the business), but there’s also the community. It remains true that the Second Life community is awesome: highly creative, inspiring people, not just using new technologies but actually living technology.

It’s also true that there’s a lot to be learned in “social technology”, such as using text backchat during live shows, ways to produce chat shows, to integrate live events with video, chat, social streams etc. I actually apply stuff I learned in Second Life in the context of my newsroom, facilitating a virtual community, organizing chat sessions etc. But I don’t use Second Life, because of just too many practical hurdles and a cost/benefit which I cannot justify.

As some of the panel guests said, Second Life and similar environments are a “third place” where you “go” to actually meet other people. But then again, a CoverItLive chat box is also such a third place where people meet each other. I do know the arguments explaining why virtual environments are more intense: the representation by a virtual body means that people actually apply real world principles while meeting each other (maintaining a certain “physical” distance, for instance), implying that what goes on is somewhere in between “just chat” and “actually meeting”. But maybe people just want to attend an online chat event without any hassle, and they’ll use forums to connect with others…

All of which means, for my practice, that I’d love to have a lite version of Second Life or a similar world, very scalable, browser based, and yes, also allowing for using mobile devices. Also, in some way we’ll see further down the road Augmented Reality applications combining the physical and virtual worlds, and maybe the Kinect can facilitate a revolution as far as interfaces are concerned – all of which means that Second Life as we know it will have been a useful stepping stone on the road to somewhere very different.

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About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
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