Thursday, April 17, 2014

Video Edition of Message of the Virtual World Medium

Excerpts from my comments on The Past Present and Future of Virtual Worlds panel at this year's VWBPE. You can view the unedited two hour video here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Message of the Virtual World Medium

My view on technology has been heavily influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan. Although he died in 1980 and never directly addressed current mediums such as the internet, social networks or virtual worlds, his perspective is still very relevant today.

Two of his ideas are especially useful in framing how we think about virtual worlds. The first is that each successive technology extends one or more biological human capabilities. The concept is simple. The wheel extends the leg; the alphabet extends speech; paper extends our memory; and so on. Virtual worlds extend multiple human capabilities. Avatars extend our physical bodies; realtime video and audio extend our voice and our sense of sight and hearing; and virtual identity extends our singular wallet name identity. When a new medium becomes dominant in society it can shift the balance of our senses. The alphabet, for instance, shifted the dominance from sound to sight. Shifts in sensory balance impact the underlying perspective through which we perceive the world.

The second idea is, “the medium is the message” which means that the overall influence of a technology has vastly more impact than any particular product, vendor or content. Its influence doesn't just include the technology itself, but the entire service environment that surrounds it. For instance, the automobile medium includes highways, gas stations, the oil industry, the aftermarket, etc. Our pervasive use of the automobile is vastly more consequential than anywhere in particular we drive. It has contributed to revolutionary societal change, ranging from the rise of the suburbs to wars in the Middle East. Another example is the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which advanced human ability to think abstractly. That baseline enhancement of human potential is much more significant than any particular book that's ever been published.

So what’s the message of the virtual world medium? I don’t think it’s been voiced yet. Virtual worlds are used by maybe a million people worldwide. Compared to the approximately 1.5 billion users of social networks and smartphones, virtual worlds barely show up on the map. New technologies succeed to the extent that they provide those who use it with a quasi-evolutionary advantage over those who don’t, or what is now referred to as disruptive change.

So far, virtual worlds have not provided the type of clear-cut advantage that propelled smart phones and social networks to ubiquity only a few years after their introduction. The main limiting factor is that existing technology doesn't integrate virtual worlds with the rest of our physical and virtual lives. Imagine if you could launch into a virtual world as easily as you enter into chat on Facebook or rez into a multi-media enabled VR conference room from a GoToMeeting link. Two mundane examples, but I believe that it will take those type of relatively pedestrian use-cases to pave the way for virtual worlds to become a mainstream medium with the potential to expand human capacity. Virtual worlds can not change the world until a critical mass of people spends part of their lives within them.

From my own personal experience, creating a “second life” within an open virtual world can actualize latent potential for creative expression and provide significant insight into the human condition. Unfortunately, like falling in love, it is a very subjective transformation that can not be communicated well to those who have not experienced it for themselves. I hope that the next wave of virtual worlds will make it easier for newcomers to participate and better support the integration of the experience with the rest of their life.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why Immersive Games are More Popular Than Immersive Worlds

The global MMO market has about 400 million users. In his recent VWBPE keynote, Philip Rosedale estimated there are about a million virtual world users. Why have immersive games, a relatively narrow use of VR, captured hundreds of times as many users as full-blown VR platforms like Second Life? One reason is that most new users who try Second Life never experience a state of immersion.


My perspective is influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed all mediums as extensions of biological human capabilities. So the wheel extends the leg. The alphabet our voice. Paper our memory, and so on. So when I consider virtual worlds and MMOs, I see them as extensions of our physical body, our senses of sight and hearing and our identity. Psychological immersion is required to fully actualize those unique extensions of human capability and awareness.

Immersion takes place when one's point of view shifts from looking into a virtual environment through a computer monitor to the visceral sense of being physically present within both the world and your avatar. It’s akin to becoming so engrossed in a movie that you temporarily lose awareness of sitting in the theater. Unlike a movie where you can sit down and quickly become immersed by passively watching a story unfold, immersion in a virtual environment requires active engagement by new users. Without immersion, virtual worlds and MMOs aren't very compelling.

In Second Life and other similar virtual worlds, new users must go through many hours of frustration before they gain enough mastery of the software for the shift in consciousness to take place. Some people report having spent weeks or even a month in Second Life before they felt they had mastered the environment. In its first years, Second Life drew early adopters who were so enthusiastic about the virtual world medium that they were willing to take the time to master it and then go on to contribute content to the platform. Second Life’s growth has been stagnant over the last five years because the public is now jaded to the concept of experiencing a virtual environment through an avatar. They have hundreds of other less frustrating options including games and 3D chat platforms like IMVU. This brings up the second related reason that immersive games are more popular than virtual worlds:

The Value Proposition

Immersive games offer users a clear value proposition, which is the fun of playing. Games are strategically designed to not only motivate players through the initial learning curve, but to encourage them throughout the entire course of weeks or months of gameplay. Game designers achieve this by balancing challenges and reward to keep players interested in (some say addicted to) progressing through a game. If it’s too hard, users give up. If it’s too easy, they lose interest.

Second Life is not a game. When a new user enters Second Life there are no game mechanics that provide the staged series of challenges, achievements and rewards delivered by games. The user receives practically no direction or support. They must not only learn out how to use a dense and complicated interface, but also figure out what to do, where to go and why to keep coming back. The reason to learn a game is obvious for those who enjoy them. The reason for a newcomer to go through the learning curve and keep coming back to Second Life is much more nebulous.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

My Take on Rosedale's Keynote

In 2006, virtual worlds were hyped as the next big thing. Many of us in the virtual world community thought that people would soon be routinely using virtual worlds in the normal course of their day-to-day lives. Eight years later, the use of avatars within virtual 3D environments has gained little widespread traction outside of games. Over that same time period, mediums such as social networks, Web 2.0 meeting services and mobile apps have all exploded into mass market ubiquity. How were we so wrong?

Philip Rosedale tried to answer that question in his VWBPE Keynote. His main thesis was that virtual worlds have been too difficult for new users to learn and aren’t responsive enough for seamless communication. He believes that new technology will make virtual worlds so intuitive and compelling that the medium will see exponential growth, from a million to a billion users in the foreseeable future.

Although I agree that learning curve and immature technology are limiting factors, I don’t agree that virtual worlds will become mainstream just because people will be able to jump into an intuitively designed virtual world from a Facebook link in their browser. Mainstream use of virtual worlds requires compelling mainstream use cases that clearly trump other options. Better technology doesn’t matter to people who don’t know why they’d want to use a virtual world at all. That’s the challenge that no one has successfully addressed.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Approach to Identity and Privacy in the Transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3D

There are a wide range of questions that come to mind when imagining a transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3D. Identity management and privacy are two of the most important.

Just a simple scenario of shopping at a single site brings up a lot of alternative possibilities. For instance, when I’m shopping today on, other people browsing don’t know I’m there or what items I’m viewing. But if I’m shopping at an Amazon 3D virtual store, will I be visible to other shoppers as if I were walking through a mall in the physical world? Will they see what I’m browsing? Will my avatar be visible publicly, but my identity cloaked?  If my avatar isn’t generic, might it be recognizable or searchable even if my user name is hidden? Will I even see other people or will I be alone in the store? If I'm alone, doesn't that undermine the social aspect of the virtual environment experience?

Here’s one possible solution: What if there was an identity management feature that lets me represent myself differently in real-time to different groups of people. So if I’m walking around a 3D version of, strangers might see me as J.Doe1001 in a generic avatar, virtual world friends would see me as Botgirl Questi in her form, and my RL friends and family would see me my wallet name with an avatar matching my physical form.

What do you think?