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 social media 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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7 Responses to Existential questions about virtual worlds

  1. botgirl says:

    I like it when people agree with me! I have a few more rambling thoughts:

    Another factor I’ve been thinking about is that social networking and games for instance, have a lot of built in positive reinforcement mechanisms that reward participants multiple times per hour. Although there are much deeper benefits to be found through creating a “virtual life” which are higher up on Maslow’s pyramid, it usually takes many frustrating, boring, laggy hours (or even weeks) to start to come into your own and start feeling like you’re part of some community. But even then, you have to continue expending effort to create your own positive experiences.

    I know quite a few long-term avatars who have been through one or more cycles of “the honeymoon is over”. The demands of time are pretty high to not only maintain relationships, but to retain the psychological sense of a viscerally real virtual environment. You can keep up with Facebook or Twitter with a few minutes attention a few times a day. To keep up within a virtual community can take quite a few hours per week. Maybe with browser-based and mobile clients, it would be easier to pop inworld during the course of a day.
    It would very interesting to be able to move as seamlessly in and out of the 3D virtual world grid as you can with 2D social networks.

  2. Pathfinder says:

    I think the current model of having a relatively “heavy” and complex-to-use downloadable virtual world client will always have a good (albeit niche) market, particularly in education and research. But for very broad use, I agree that web-based/mobile/game consoles are the way to go. Some of the stuff I’m working on at my current gig with ReactionGrid involves just that. http://bit.ly/Jibe_Summary

    We need to be exploring more alternatives. And I think some of the problems with the current state of virtual worlds revolves around the tendency for over-enthusiastic folks to think that a particular platform is ideal for *all* use cases. When you’re very excited about your shiny hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  3. The ability to enable an avatar based web browser with viewer log in entertainment is a step in the future of entertainment for people as connected TV becomes ubiquitous.
    The Model for social TV won’t be telling people what you are watching a la foursquare – but will be that which enables the viewer to become the player in the game like a 1 vs 100.
    I predict an era of micro gaming – where people will play games live on their connected TV through a MMO web based browser, either with people they are friends with on FaceBook or otherwise using an avatar for presence. Something like the gameshows I do inworld, The 1st Question and The Dating Casino.
    And of course Second Life is an effective platform for media, as a graphics engine we use it very effectively for real – time animation.
    http://www.pookymediafilms.com/

    I still have the thought – “what if Niels Bohr had a virtual world in which to meet fellow scientists from all over the world?” It is a great advancement for community and knowledge transfer.

    And I do agree with Pathfinder that we who love our virtual worlds have the fervor of patriots for a nation we feel we have carved out of the mountain with our bare hands. And also agree that nothing is for everyone, not even the home we might love virtually.

  4. The ability to enable an avatar based web browser with viewer log in entertainment is a step in the future of entertainment for people as connected TV becomes ubiquitous.
    The Model for social TV won’t be telling people what you are watching a la foursquare – but will be that which enables the viewer to become the player in the game like a 1 vs 100.
    I predict an era of micro gaming – where people will play games live on their connected TV through a MMO web based browser, either with people they are friends with on FaceBook or otherwise using an avatar for presence. Something like the gameshows I do inworld, The 1st Question and The Dating Casino.
    And of course Second Life is an effective platform for media, as a graphics engine we use it very effectively for real – time animation.
    http://www.pookymediafilms.com/

    I still have the thought – “what if Niels Bohr had a virtual world in which to meet fellow scientists from all over the world?” It is a great advancement for community and knowledge transfer.

    And I do agree with Pathfinder that we who love our virtual worlds have the fervor of patriots for a nation we feel we have carved out of the mountain with our bare hands. And also agree that nothing is for everyone, not even the home we might love virtually.

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  6. Buffy Beale says:

    All very good comments, and love your comment Path that SL is not the golden hammer. My experience with making connections with like-minded people and non-profit awareness is one where I don’t care what platform I use, but I know there are many house-bound and disabled folks where SL is a lifeline. I hope there will always be a place where they can fly and not have to squint.

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