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.

The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Talking about OpenSim, John “Pathfinder” Lester, an expert and strategist in educational online communities and virtual worlds, launches an open club for anyone interested in group explorations of virtual worlds on the Hypergrid and sharing their experiences with others.

Pathfinder officially starts the Hypergrid Adventurers Club:

We’ll be meeting regularly each week, and the first meeting will be Sunday October 24 from 10pm-11pm GMT.

For more details and a link to our calendar of scheduled meetings, please see my new Hypergrid Adventurers Club main page (there’s now a permanent link to that page in the header bar of my blog).

strongly feel that the future of the Metaverse will involve Connectivity.  So let’s put theory into practice and explore that Connectivity together.

Could Second Life be a portal for the Metaverse?

I attended a wonderful Metanomics community meeting in Second Life, where Jennette Forager (Metanomics) interviewed Maria Korolov from Hypergrid Business, a website focusing on enterprise users of virtual worlds. Korolov talked about the development of OpenSim, the open source server platform for hosting virtual worlds. OpenSim is compatible with the Second Life client.

Maria compared the current metaverse situation with that of the web and AOL in the nineties. AOL had a big community and was very convenient while outside of that walled garden smaller sites developed, often very primitive and lacking big communities. This could not prevent people from trying out the wide open web.

OpenSim is very much like the open web, in this sense that you can start your own site world, eventually host it yourself, decide whether to link it up to the wider OpenSim grids or keep it private. The platform is growing rapidly, and trade in virtual goods is taking off. However, Second Life remains by far the bigger place, with large communities, sophisticated and convenient tools.

I don’t think the folks of OpenSim hope that Second Life will somehow disappear. OpenSim is catching up technologically, but typically waits for certain developments to succeed in Second Life (voice, or mesh import) before really introducing those possibilities on a large scale on OpenSim grids.

Korolov has a vision: that of Second Life as the place where one can meet lots of virtual worlds people, and which is a kind of portal for the wilder, Far West zones of the Metaverse – the OpenSim grids. For that to fully succeed, it would be useful to be able to teleport back and forth avatars and virtual goods from Second Life to the OpenSim universe. Problems regarding property rights could be solved by enabling content creators to restrict their goods to one particular world – Second Life, or some OpenSim grid for example.

Read also: The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Gaming in the cloud is great news for immersive journalism

I love playing Pocket Legends from Spacetime Studios on my iPad (my avatar is the courageous but clumsy Wilbear). The game has all the characteristics of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft: quests, group action, contests between players and player groups etc. It’s pretty good graphically speaking, but don’t expect the actual World of Warcraft graphical wizardry.


But then again, this game may get some competition very soon, maybe from World of Warcraft itself and from even more high-end games. Dusan Writer mentions the Gaikai cloud service which may do just that: enabling players to immerse themselves in pc- and console games right in their browsers. Which also means enabling the game companies to reach potential customers without awkward downloads or distributing physical stuff: one click on almost any device as long as there’s a decent broadband connection.  Yay for cloud computing!


Now, this is a real revolution for the gaming industry. Giving players and potential players direct and effortless access to the games also helps the game developers and designers to instantly analyze how people react to the games. Of course, it’s bad news for those living from the physical distribution of games – even though it may take some time before that distribution will be extinct (we’ve the same conversations about print news media of course).

Talking about news media: this development would eliminate yet another hurdle for using immersive journalism techniques. Now we had examples of immersive journalism in Second Life such as this project about the Guantanamo detention center:

Another immersive project by Nonny de la Peña, Cap&Trade:

Other possibilities for journalism include talk shows with a virtual audience, inviting people who would be difficult to get (or rather expensive) in the physical world (Metanomics is a nice example, they’ll have Noam Chomsky on October 12). Or you could simply convene a meeting with community members for an open-ended discussion, more immersive than when using a traditional text chat (have a look at the We Are the Network meetings in Second Life, but there are many other examples).

The problem: not many members of my newspaper community for instance are ready to download the Second Life client, and those willing to do so could run into problems because their computers are relatively low-end or because they are behind some corporate firewall. All those problems could be solved if projects such as Gaikai really succeed in bringing Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars (working with another company, Otoy) on any device, anytime and anywhere (always assuming there is decent broadband!). There is also OnLive – which is already up and running in the contiguous US – but which seems to need a limited download (which can be too much asked for office environments).

Once virtual environments are accessible in one click the mainstream audience could unlock easily the possibilities for immersive journalism and immersive storytelling. It will give journalists and storytellers new possibilities to interact with their communities and will make methodologies used in software development even more relevant so as to keep up with news stories and the requirements of the community. This in turn could inspire citizen-journalists or non-professional storytellers to go deeper and create content themselves, knowing that there is a big and relevant community out there to explore their work.

Message to journalism institutes: this makes ‘serious gaming’ and virtual environments even more relevant for your student-journalists. Help them to explore content, network and business opportunities of this development!

Rosedale about applying the principles of LoveMachine Inc in media companies

Philip Rosedale at the SLCC 2010, picture by Elisabeth Leysen

A few weeks ago I started exploring  liquidnews, an open project for collaborative media.  It reminded me of projects in Second Life, where developers at Linden Lab use the Scrum methodology for their viewer project (Snowstorm), publishing the documentation and getting comments from the community for the project.

The Second Life community also has a tradition of community conventions (SLCC), which are organized by residents of the virtual world, independently from Linden Lab (even though Linden Lab is a major sponsor and has key people deliver keynotes). Those gatherings are very inspiring and also give the residents the opportunity to question Linden Lab policies.

I asked the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale, for an interview. This was before Linden Lab made an announcement which shocked the education and non-profit community in Second Life: basically the end of the discount pricing for those organizations. So I’ll have to disappoint those involved: the interview was strictly about the application of Agile, Scrum and more radical versions of these philosophies in media projects. I discovered that ‘radical version’ of an open company while studying LoveMachine Inc, another company Philip started.

Even though MixedRealities is not a “Second Life blog”, I do have my virtual office there and up to this day Second Life is a major source of inspiration for my social media practice at my newspaper. So I attended today a gathering of non-profit and education people at Rockcliffe University, an online non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of education and science in 3d virtual environments. About 70 avatars discussed the new pricing policies. There will be a meeting with a representative of Linden Lab, organizations start looking for closer collaboration and/or study possibilities to move away from Second Life and establish themselves on for instance OpenSim grids.

There are lots of complaints about the communication by Linden Lab. Educators and non-profits are among the most interesting content creators in Second Life, but they don’t know what the strategy of Linden Lab is. Yes, the new thinking of “fast, easy and fun” has been discussed at the community convention, but educators were taken by surprise when it was announced there that the Teen Grid (Second Life for teens) would be stopped. They were also shocked when Linden Lab announced lay-offs and a reorganization, but then again, Linden Lab is a private company.

The whole situation is once again very interesting for all those who have a broader interest in social media. The content of Second Life is produced by the users/residents, using the platform and tools provided by Linden Lab. Does this mean that the residents should be treated as citizens rather than as customers of a private company? Is Linden Lab just a company, or also a kind of government? Should the residents have a right to be represented in the board of directors?

These are fascinating questions, and many others could be added (like about the relationship of Second Life with the open source universe of OpenSim). But, as I said, the interview was not about Linden Lab or Second Life as such, but about the organization of media start-ups.

Philip Rosedale told me that at Linden Lab he is not applying the same principles as at the LoveMachine. I also should mention that the LoveMachine is not a virtual world, it is a company building a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). It is a start-up and as such can experiment more than a more established company. Even though the interview is not about the transformation at Linden Lab, it was interesting to learn about Rosedale’s vision on a new model for start-ups, allowing them to survive and outsmart established companies.

Read the interview and the context on my blog at PBS MediaShift: Linden Lab’s Rosedale Considers ‘Scrum’ Method in Newsrooms.

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.