Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Even More on the Future of Virtual Worlds

Fleep Tuque posted a fascinating essay in 2012 with the provocative title, "Why Anyone Who Cares About the Metaverse Needs to Move Beyond Second Life; Now, Not Later." It was a lucid and heartfelt account of Linden Lab's transition from an ideal-driven group of Metaverse enthusists, to a market-driven corporation going after the gaming market. She also did a great job describing the impact that the corporate changes had on the Second Life community, of which she has been a long-term leader.

I was one of the Metaverse idealists she described so well. I thought that there would eventually be a seamless integration between Second Life and OpenSim that would eventually be extended to other platforms via open standards. I also believed that virtual worlds would soon move into the mainstream and be commonly used in people's business and personal lives. I was wrong.

Linden Lab went ahead to distance Second Life from OpenSim Although there has been somegrowth in OpenSim grids over the last two years, proprietary 3D chat room and social gaming platforms like IMVU have a lot more momentum.

Unlike Fleep, I'm not convinced that Linden Lab is the main cause of the virtual world's failure to actualize our idealistic vision. Sure, they would have been more successful if they hadn't wasted so much time and resources on their ill-conceived forays into chasing the corporate market; if they had communicated well and reached out positively to the Second Life community over the years; if they had not pulled the rug out from under us so many times, such as the OpenSpace fiasco and the elimination of educational discounts. But even if they had done everything right, I don't think the Metaverse ideal would have been embraced now outside of the current small niche.

The virtual world paradigm is pretty much in direct opposition to the rest of our networked lives. Modern society is actually diametrically opposed to the virtual world ideal of being fully immersed within a single place (virtual or otherwise.) We experience our 2D virtual lives in thousands of bite sized chunks over the course of a day on multiple devices and platforms.

It seems to me that what people want today is technology that demands as little attention as possible. No one would have predicted thirty years ago that text would be the dominant form of teen communication in a future where voice and video were almost universally available. Although my teen children and their friends have smartphones and laptops that can run Skype, they almost never choose video and seldom voice, even for extended conversations.  It’s because texting allows them to control their attention and split it between conversations and whatever else they’re doing. Although many of them are gamers, not a single one has any interest in Second Life or other virtual worlds. It's hard for me to see 3D virtual worlds as the near-term future of the internet when Second Life and OpenSim grids seem to be populated mostly by people in their thirties and above.

Finally, I wonder how important the Metaverse concept is to realizing the aspirations that Fleep so eloquently articulated in her post:
I became absolutely convinced that those of us pioneering these new digital worlds would have the opportunity to do better in the virtual worlds we create than has been done in the real world we inherited, and that we could learn from our experiences in virtual worlds to make the real world a better place, too.
We don't need a universal Metaverse to accomplish those things. We don't need Linden Lab to embrace our vision. The tools we need are available today for those of us who want to use them. So in conclusion, if there has been a failure, it is ours.

The decisions that platform providers make about things like technology, governance, standards, and interoperability obviously shape the infrastructure of virtual worlds. But since I agree with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message, in the long run vendors don't dictate how virtual worlds impact society or the human experience. We can't accurately predict how any particular advance is going to end up shaping the future. That's why, as I wrote in 2011,  all value judgements about new technology suck.

What we can do is pay attention to how we use current technology and perhaps come up with new ways to take advantage of its latent potential. Because what really matters about the Metaverse isn't how we'll end up moving between worlds in the far off future. What's most important is figuring out how we can better use the current virtual domain to improve our lives and the lives of others. And then acting on those ideas to test their validity. Of course, the more fully we can see the present environment, the better chance we'll have of making good use of it.

A comment in 2012 from Keven Russell inspired me to think a bit more about how we use virtual worlds. He wrote,
The txtg use case made me remember. Texting communications fit the continuous attention work of Linda Stone thesis. When VW can easily fit that mode at the human ergonomic / factors level within the mobile context look for greater use. Since 2003, googles HUD and new smart glove patent grant are instructive.
I have a dozen or so avatar-identified friends I communicate with on an almost daily basis via social networks, instant messaging and e-mail. It would be very possible for us to hang out every day in Second Life, Inworldz or even Cloud Party. But we never do. We've never discussed it. I've never even considered the possibility. There are at least a few reasons for this:
  • There's not a lot of point in being in a virtual world if you're afk all of the time. As a matter of fact, it's kind of rude. It even makes less sense if multiple people are doing the same thing.
  • For short conversations, the time it takes to launch a virtual world client, log-in and teleport to a mutual destination isn't worth it when you can instantly chat via instant messaging or even a Twitter DM.
  • We're often mobile. Although there are a couple of mobile clients, there's still pretty kludgy and they don't add much value beyond instant messaging, email or private social network posts.
I realize that some people do use virtual worlds for the kind of ad hoc interaction I described. My point is that I don't think near-term advances in technology or greater integration are going to push many more people into using it in that way. There's some thought that if virtual worlds were fully integrated everyone would spend much of their time online as avatars in the 3D Internet. I think that's probably true for the people who do that now in Second Life, OpenSim or one of the Gaming worlds. But I'm skeptical that many in the general public are going to choose to browse the internet through the abstraction of an avatar and virtual world. Or walk around in virtual malls rather than browse pages.

Despite my doubt of substantial near term growth of virtual worlds, I still believe the medium will have a huge impact farther down the road. When we peek ahead to the emerging technology and its potential, the powerful extension of human senses and capability will be too significant not to ripple across our lives and culture. Here are a few dimensions worth considering:

The Metaverse of Science Fiction. In this scenario we are so fully immersed in a virtual world that we aren't aware of the physical world around us during our participation. This is an extension of the psychological state many virtual world and gaming enthusiasts experience today. Initial extension of this scenario might be through enhanced external gear such as contact lenses, holographic projectors, motion capture devices, smart gloves, etc, as well as enhanced software such as sophisticated intelligent agents and seamless integration of currently 2D sites such as social networks, shopping sites, etc. This scenario depends upon open standards and APIs and a client that can seamlessly move between otherwise incompatible proprietary formats. The ultimate actualization of this scenario would be through biological interfaces that bypass our sense organs and work directly with the brain.

Augmented Reality. In this scenario the virtual world overlays the physical. The augmented aspects of our reality will be so integrated into our life that it becomes psychologically indistinguishable. As in the immersion scenario, this will be initially supported by external hardware with devices such as Google Goggles, natural motion capture hardware and wearable computers, and then realize its full potential through implanted interfaces. In this scenario I would be able to collaborate with two people who appear to be sitting in a room with me, one physically present, and the other virtual. I could project myself into a completely virtual world or invite my virtual friends into my physical space.

Continuous Attention. This is a continuous attention scenario. The best recent example was Cloud Party, a browser-based virtual world that allowed you to hit a link and be almost instantly transported into the world, or embed it in a web  page that transports visitors into the world. In this scenario the 3D virtual world becomes just another type of networked media that we an jump into and out of as we do Facebook, Twitter and Words With Friends. They were acquired recently by Yahoo, so there's no telling when or if that paradigm will reemerge.

Identity-Based Metaverse: In this scenario, virtual identity is the unifying factor that unites otherwise unintegrated platforms into a pseudo-Metaverse. For instance, I'm registered on dozens of sites as Botgirl Questi including social networks, media sharing sites and virtual worlds. Although the individual platforms don't share authentication and identity management, I am sill known as Botgirl Questi in each domain and my profile on each site includes my unique identifying image and personal links.

This is an edited version of a couple of posts from 2012. Two years later the future of virtual worlds is still a very open question.  recovering. please check back soon. :)

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.