The metaverse is dead. Long live shared creative spaces!

Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world Second Life, is about to launch two non-Second Life products: Creatorverse and Patterns. Creatorverse is an iPad-app:
Patterns will be a ‘new 3D creative environment’. Virtual World-watcher Wagner James Au says on New World Notes that Linden Lab no longer has as mission to make an online world ‘that advances the human condition’ but rather specializes in ‘shared creative spaces’ – not in facilitating the emergence of the metaverse. For those who forgot about the metaverse – which seems these days a bit like an antiquated idea – Wikipedia defines it as thus:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe” and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

Second Life is stagnating, at least not growing like Californian tech companies are supposed to growth (that being said, it seems to be profitable). I’ve been fascinated by that virtual world since about 2007, as it allows to transcend geographical and maybe even cultural distances. It enables people to meet, avatar-wise, in shared and persistent spaces. It has a creative and liberal culture – the world is almost entirely created by its ‘residents’. For a while I thought that maybe the future internet would look like a sophisticated Second Life, and that 2D-objects such as websites would simply be a part of that metaverse.

In the meantime I realized that it’s a niche culture. At first it was believed that Second Life, as a user-generated, free culture for (mainly) adults did not go mainstream because of management and marketing errors. There were other attempts to create a open-ended, user-generated worlds, such as Lively (Google), (Raph Koster), Blue Mars, which failed. Other worlds are still very much alive such as OpenSim (like Second Life, but open source), the very new Cloud Party (browser-based) and Jibe (an embeddable virtual environment, visit Reactiongrid’s new site). I like projects such as OpenSim and Jibe, but those are even more niche than Second Life (and often the users/residents are former Second Life people).

Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Patrick Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Some think that virtual environments will gain traction once they are browser-based (no hefty downloads) and are made easier to use. I’m sceptical: while I feel comfortable in a virtual environment and as an avatar, for many others it’s an uncanny experience, especially in a professional context. I have the feeling that it is about the representation of oneself and others, about identities, not about technical hurdles.

It seems to be different for online games which of course did go mainstream, also for adult audiences – but then again, these are games, not open ended user generated worlds. Minecraft is very popular, but it’s more a game (while there are game environments inside Second Life, the world itself is not a game). As it is explained on the Minecraft site:

I strongly believe that all good stories have a conflict, and that all good games tell a good story regardless of if it’s pre-written or emergent. Free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you’ve got it figured out. It’s like playing a first person shooter in god mode, or giving yourself infinite funds in a strategy game.. a lack of challenge kills the fun.

Still, I do like this notion of virtual shared creative spaces. It is exactly what we’ll need in many different contexts, as globalization increases dramatically and the technological possibilities multiply exponentially. But there is competition. Just suppose you want to link up with other people, elsewhere in the world, for a project or even a joint venture. You don’t have the budget for a high-end videoconferencing system. I guess that Google+ Hangout – with its videoconferencing features, screensharing, chat-possibilities, apps, network, possibility to save the conference and with links with the other Google goodies would do a very nice job. It even is free.
My guess is that you’ll mainly use the Google-stuff. A virtual environment? Maybe to create 3D-objects together, if that would be your line of business or educational project. Or as a fun experiment. Or for a simulation.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of these possibilities. Especially not because I’m a firm believer in the importance of developments such as 3D printing. Creating 3D objects together, or at least experiencing 3D prototypes in a virtual environment might very well be very interesting. But I would not call it ‘the metaverse’.

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14 Responses to The metaverse is dead. Long live shared creative spaces!

  1. Second Life was never “The Metaverse”. It was part of it. The mistake that Linden Lab – and so many other people – made was confusing one platform like Second Life with the concept of an entire information network like the Internet / Metaverse.

  2. I agree. But there was this ambition of linking up with other virtual worlds – I remember how Philip Rosedale talked about Linden Lab offering expertise in virtual currencies for such a universe of virtual places. There was a time it was all very Snow Crash-like, at least in our dreams.

  3. Gaga says:

    I think Opensim with Hypergrid is the closest thing we have at present that can be called a Metaverse and Opensim is far from dead. Therefore, the Metaverse is far from dead. If, however, you don’t think the many connected grids that enable avatars to teleport with their inventory and look the same everywhere is not what “Metaverse” means then fair enough, suddenly it has to be called “shared creative spaces” like some new politically correct label that forms a mouth full of words where one word has generally been well enough understood. Of course, if it makes a good headline then yeah, call the Metaverse an antiquated idea and pronounce it dead.

    And the idea that Second Life once had pretensions to become the Metaverse or even a part of it might have been in some of Mark Kingdom’s thinking but it would never have sat comfortably inside a walled grid like Second Life for it is owned by a single company (Linden Labs) which goes against the very idea of a shared spaces. The Metaverse embraces the full concept of shared creative spaces far better than the Linden grid ever could. The reason is very simple too for Opensim is entirely open source developed by the users and grid owners alike. Indeed, Opensim worlds from the ground up are user created in almost every respect. The platform code, the server management, the building, the content creation. All of it is user made and there is no corporate Overlord to dictate either and if you really need to better define what “Metaverse” means than add Democracy, Global Market, Education and shared experience to it.

    The Metaverse is alive and doing just fine.

    • Point taken that OpenSim is much more like a ‘metaverse’. But it’s not a metaverse in the sense of an all-encompassing universe in which all blogs and 2D-websites are just elements. I think that the founders of Second Life once had the idea that the future of the internet as such would be 3D. I do admire OpenSim, but how many mainstream internet-users have the faintest idea of what we’re talking about when we say ‘OpenSim’? (In the meantime, many also believe Second Life itself is dead – very often I get reactions like ‘is that still around?’)

  4. I think you hit the nail squarely in that next-to-last paragraph. The avatar is the key. There are those of us (definitely a minority) who acclimate quickly to enjoying the 3-D online environment AS an avatar (as opposed to USING an avatar). Some people — the “niche market” everyone speaks of — have a Gestalt moment early on when the avatar stops being “it” (a cursor with arms and legs) and becomes “me.” From that point forward the humanity comes through and immersion becomes possible. The person’s character and emotions flow through his or her individualized puppet and the environment stops being a game (for lack of a better term) and becomes a place, a world. For most people (and I’ve tried with friends and acquaintances with very little success!) such immersion is foreign and even unpleasant.

    Personally I don’t think the general population will ever come to that level of acceptance with the current technology. In that regard the Second Life environment has gone as far as it’s going to go and will remain niche, and OS sub-niche. Only when (if) the possibility of a highly realistic, smooth flowing, three dimensional graphic environment (imagine, for example, interacting within a Final Fantasy type of universe), wherein our motions, facial expressions, and all the subtleties that make us unique are reflected in our Avatarian alter-egos. The technology would be an entirely new paradigm and it would have to be at the source, in the distribution, and in the hands of all the users — a daunting, expensive (and doubtful any time soon) prospect. The recent novel READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline provides an entertaining example of what I mean. Until then (if ever), if any so-called ‘metaverse’ exists it will be in two dimensions, on the screens of mobile devices and laptops, where busy people with more important things to do in the physical world will briefly interact.

    • Interesting that you say ‘briefly interact’. That’s one other aspect of immersive world: they make us forget about time. Unfortunately, time is more than ever scarce, and people use the web jumping from one site to another – staying more than a few minutes on one site is rather exceptional. So that’s something else they have to get used to – the immersive worlds are part of the internet, but ask for more time because you actually meet people, and those interactions take much more time than classical websurfing.

  5. keystonesl says:

    Someday, someone, somewhere will crack the code and come up with some clever ways of solving these metaverse challenges. It may not look like anything we can currently imagine, yet it will probably seem somehow familiar and obvious. All the finger wagging and criticisms of social networking’s failures in the MySpace days were muted when Facebook arrived. All it takes is some dumb luck, right place, right time, a handful of technology advances, combined with a few clever ideas about how to frame it – and away we go.

    • Yes, I can agree with that. But it could very well be very different from Second Life or OpenSim. It could be like a blending of the physical and the virtual realities, a bit like the Rabbit in the novel Rainbows End (Vernor Vinge)

  6. Gaga says:

    I am of the opinion that the 2d web will stay just the way it is and the nearest coupling with virtual worlds might be a viewer in a web browser where again 2d pages can be seen and interacted with in-world via media on a prim but, honestly, I don’t see much point to that when you can run a browser inside your viewer too or in the background and opened it up with a touch. We probably have very different ideas what a 3d web is or looks like and for me, I hate the word actually. It makes no sense and, if anything, seems to want to be something like the 2d web which is impossible in my view. The so-called shared creative spaces that Rod Humble is promoting takes the tools of Second Life so people can make video games to sell. It dose not turn the 2d web into a 3d web and Video games produced by the SL tools turn out to be typical video game challenges with end goals. Virtual worlds – the Metaverse, not the 3d web – is a place, or space, where people pursue open-ended challenges and experiences with no obvious end goal in sight. The Metaverse is cyberspace in every sense of the word. But time will tell and progress in the area of Augmented reality and Haptics is steady. I think the way Rod Humble looks at the Metaverse is limited to commercial considerations where others like myself perhaps have a different vision – a vision you might call antiquated because it harks back to Snow Crash, Neuromancer and even Tron but, whatever, the Metaverse I understand is still evolving.

    • To be clear about this: I myself am absolutely fascinated by Snow Crash and Neuromancer (I’ll have to look at Tron). But even there the Great Cyberpunks themselves routinely say ‘cyberpunk is dead’. I on the contrary think cyberpunk can still be a tremendous source of inspiration. I even would like to organize a peer2peer course about cyberpunk and related stuff:

      • Gaga says:

        Cyberpunk, the genre, is probably dead or it might be more right to say it has been replaced by Steampunk. The difference between Steampunk and Cyberpunk is that the first is evolving and trending in life style and fashion while the older original Cyberpunk probably only carries the ideas of what Cyberspace is or should be. Cyberpunk was about survival in a computer generated Metaverse at a time when the most powerful computers were enormous mainframes. Tron, the movie from Disney, depicted cyberspace as a virtual world where human minds could be sucked in or “Jacked-in” and takes the form of an animated avatar. AI’s, or programs, also took the form of avatars but they were the enemies and all directed by the Master controller. Tron depicts the classic idea of what cyberspace is and was way ahead for it’s time. Second Life and Opensim grids are a much different virtual space than that shown in Tron but all the basics are the same with the addition of money making. Artificial intelligence is present in bots, user created environments, avatars, and danger – yes, I mean real psychological danger too!

        However, it’s interesting that Gui Ambros says there is nothing to keep you in Second Life – that the “the social experience was limited, complex, and not inherently social.” I think I understand this reasoning but it is actually wrong and probably born out of having the wrong expectations in my view. He says, after the initial laugh, there was nothing to keep you there. Nothing like WoW immersive experience, Farmville behavioral mechanics, or LittleBigPlanet-type of fun. Here is where I disagree and, in my view, just indicates that Gui never ventured deep enough or beyond the trivia. Perhaps he is not a role player, I don’t know, but role playing is a big part of Second Life. You see, SL is not meant to be a game in itself and that is too often what people expect when they arrive. They are looking for the game and there is no obvious game on arrival. Yes, that is what people don’t get and the reason is that they don’t venture far enough before loosing interest. SL is a user-created world and the behavioral mechanics and immersive lure is, in my estimation, found in the many examples of role play games created by individuals with the money to invest in regions (yes, the regions are expensive) and the time and talent to produce the scripts, huds, weapons, props and clothing that fit the particular theme. Unfortunately, Linden Labs has never found a way to get people through the gate and hold onto them long enough to open their eyes to the feature-rich and diverse environment that SL is.

        If you can get past the trivia and avoid the seedy side of Second Life where you find the sexual excesses of Zindra there are actually very many role play games that employ all the game mechanics that work to influence a user’s behavior. In Gor, for example, there are indeed powerful psychological forces at work and not least in peer pressure to play right. It appeals to males as it is a male dominated society where females accept their lot as subservient. Gor is a slave-owning society where the slaves are mostly female. This may seem incredible to modern minds but it is actually a powerful incentive to role play in Gor and there are around 15,000 Goreans and over 900 regions dedicated to Gor. Another RPG is Blood Lines where vampire characters use a hud and scripted fangs to wander around the rest of Second Life trying to find gullible residents to bite and draw some digital blood from which enhances their powers in their own Gothic-inspired regions. Generally, fighting is the main draw but you can find all sorts of incentives to play or take part and the point is very few have any sort of end goal. Mostly the games are about survival and the rewards are often, but not limited to, just getting to meet and gain control over another player.

        In my view Second Life, because of it’s traffic and because of the many role play games and role players, has the potential to be the “Metaverse” as it was mapped out in Snow Crash. But Second Life is owned by a company that has to put it’s profit line first. Rod Humble was brought in because Linden Labs could not solve the new sign-up’s retention problem and his solution has been to change the focus of SL towards the kind of video gaming the masses understand. Linden Labs no long have any interest in facilitating the open Metaverse of Cyberspace.

        Enter Opensim which, as I said in a previous comment here, is “user created in almost every respect. The platform code, the server management, the building, the content creation. All of it is user made and there is no corporate Overlord seeking a profit who dictates either.” But I have to go a step further and explain what I think is missing from Opensim grids and something extra that is needed before it can become a true Metaverse. It needs less land but more connecting worlds and citizens. More of these worlds need to be role play themes with the right incentives to get citizens to take part. I say “take part” and avoid using “play” now because, in my view, one dose not play in an adult world of cyberspace because it should be ‘dangerous’ to be a true virtual reality. All ages play in video games but only adults should take part in the Metaverse.

        I wrote an article that touches on this subject on my blog

        • Gaga says:

          I should correct the above statement where I say “only adults should take part in the Metaverse.” I really mean the part of the Metaverse that is dangerous and more closely resembles Cyberspace as depicted in Snow Crash. Other parts are for all ages, Education, Arts & Entertainment, Shopping, etc.

  7. Nice article. It reminds me a bit of “Lessons from Habitat”. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out, you can easily find the papers online. It gives a beautiful perspective about the origins of metaverses online.

    One of the key learnings from Habitat is that technology doesn’t matter, provided that the social experience makes sense. To me that was always the problem with Second Life: the social experience was limited, complex, and not inherently social.

    Of course the technology side didn’t help either; it was (and still is) uncanny from a gfx experience point of view. Sure, you could develop a script to shake hands, dance on a club or make “sex” (or better saying, simulation of basic sex movements in repetitive fashion) with strangers, but after the initial laugh, there was nothing to keep you there. Nothing like WoW immersive experience, Farmville behavioral mechanics, or LittleBigPlanet-type of fun.

    Minecraft went through the opposite route: back to the basics, remove all friction and allow anybody to become a creator, but still keep it reasonably challenging (with its tiered building system and optional survival mode) so people have an incentive to come back. Again, technology is less important than the social experience.

    I liked the concept of Patterns. It’s a Minecract-meets-LittleBigPlanet, with physics embedded. Of course it’ll depend on the execution, but I really hope it works well for them.

  8. Gaga says:

    Here is another link to an interesting article by Will Burns on the subject of Snow Crash and the meteverse

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