Quite some excitement among virtual worlds fans: Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, confirmed that they work on a new virtual world. They won’t let themselves be restrained by concerns about backward compatibility with the eleven year old Second Life as they want a fundamentally better virtual world and not just incremental improvements. CEO Ebbe Altberg of Linden Lab said that the ‘old’ Second Life will continue and new developers are being recruited for the new project. In the meantime, the founder of the Lab, Philip Rosedale, is working on yet another new virtual world, called High Fidelity.
I cannot help being excited about these new developments, yet I don’t think we’ll see a spectacular growth in virtual worlds usage. My impression is that Linden Lab tries to benefit from the excitement around Oculus Rift, telling the world that the biggest open-ended and user generated virtual world is Second Life. However, people outside the fan base of Second Life are sceptical (as reading the discussions on Reddit makes abundantly clear).
My guess is that the niche of users of Second Life and OpenSim (the open-source version of Second Life) will be dispersed over three worlds now: the old and the new Second Life and Rosedale’s new project, but that the whole open-ended user-generated virtual worlds scene will remain a niche-thing. Will it change in a few years time when motion trackers, body sensors and 3D-cameras will become more mainstream? Maybe, but it won’t be next year.
Second Life fans often say that the lack of traction of virtual worlds is because of the learning curve and the difficulties in using mouse and keyboard to navigate those worlds. I think the real difficulty is the identity-play: the fact that people represent themselves by avatars which may be very different from the physical person using those avatars. For some this opens a world of creativity and exploration, for many others it’s just a bit creepy, especially in ‘serious’ (for instance work-related) contexts.
The other issue with these worlds is that they tend to be very time-consuming. Social networks and mobile communications help people to navigate from the physical to the digital world in fast bursts of time – checking updates, having a facetime of Google Hangout videotalk etc – but without spending hours immersed in a virtual environment.
Both these behavioral phenomena – preference for short time span interventions and for seeing ‘the real other’ – make widespread usage of open ended virtual worlds a tough sell.