Saturday, August 25, 2012

My take on the future of the Metaverse: If there has been a failure, it is ours

Fleep Tuque posted a fascinating essay yesterday 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 is now actively working to distance Second Life from OpenSim.  One of the leading OpenSim grids recently announced that they're abandoning the platform to focus on its own Unity-based product. Although there seems to be some growth in hypergrid compatible OpenSim participation, proprietary 3D chat room and social gaming platforms like IMVU to 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.


Chestnut Rau said...


You managed to turn my vague gut reaction of "don't think so" into an articulate post. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Yes, many people like to send messages.

However, many people also like to play engrossing games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. In fact, the two are not mutually contradictory -- there is quite a bit of overlap between the two groups.

Right now, the mobile space is driving a lot of innovation. At some point, the pace of innovation in mobile will slow down -- everyone who wants a tablet will already have one -- and the focus of innovation will move on to other things.

At some point, for example, we'll see another big jump in screen sizes, in game console graphics, in bandwidth. And that will help lay the groundwork for mass adoption of general-purpose virtual worlds, not just the single-purpose gaming, training or socializing environments we're seeing now.

Anonymous said...

You mean you can't do something else besides SL?
I can.
I watch tv, work on the internet, harass the cat and am active in SL, all at the same time.
Mind you I don't text, I don't even have a mobile phone.

But modern kids do not just text.
Many of them spend countless hours in world of warcraft, just messing about on facebook or playing other games.
It is a billion dollar business, and these games need your full attention as well.

I think there is a big future for the virtual world, it just needs to adapt.
It could be the gobetween between facebook and games.
Image posting on facebook while being an avatar in a virtual world and then the next moment you put your avatar in combat gear and move it away from facebook, trough your virtual living room and into France 1944 for some shooting.

And then when your gran asks how you are doing via facebook, you pause your liberation of France, walk your avatar back to your virtual apartment, change your clothes and invite your gran in.
Without having to download or understand a complicated viewer, your gran sees your virtual room and avatar on her screen, you can show her around, show her some pictures and when she is satisfied that you're ok and you are eating enough, it is time to put on some nice dress so you can join your boyfriend for a date, watching an online movie in an online virtual cinema on a movie rent website and then back to Second Life for some dancing in a club.

SL needs to open the backdoors and try and lure as much stuff in as possible.
Connecting to Steam could be a good step.

Botgirl Questi said...

Chestnut: Thanks. I've gone back and forth in my optimism about the near-term future of virtual worlds. But I've seen zero increase in over the last five years in my RL circle's interest in virtual worlds, or from my company's clients (we're a software development consultancy). I've also seen many people disappear from Second Life who were very active three or four years ago and in leadership positions in active communities. So unless there's some significant technological breakthrough that makes the general public rethink things, I can't imagine what would suddenly make people who have resisted virtual worlds for years become active participants.

Botgirl Questi said...

Maria: I agree with you that gaming does demand a lot of attention. My comments were about the idea of a Metaverse that would be a mainstream virtual overlay that people routinely use to augment their social and business lives.

Botgirl Questi said...

1920sberlin: I think the narrative about "your gran" is plausible when (or if) technology advances virtual worlds to the level they're depicted in Science Fiction versions. But after nine years of Second Life being available, only a fraction of a percent of the public chooses to spend times in non-gaming virtual worlds.

Maybe a matured version of a browser-based platform like Cloud Party will draw more people in, especially for things like art exhibits, music performances, etc. I hope it happens. But I'm not especially optimistic.

Anonymous said...

I can only echo Chestnut's response. I've been trying to frame a response to a comment Will Burns posted on Darruis Gothly's site. You've encapsulated things perfectly.

Mind if I just drag & drop your article by way of reply?! ;-)

Kevin Russell said...

Good article. 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

sororNishi said...

Brilliant post and I whole-heartedly agree.
I had envisaged a better level of graphics, available sooner than it will be; better broadband, hardware and screen resolution.
VWs look a bit amateurish and this is not likely to change for many years.
If this improvement does come it will not widen the appeal but will make VWs a more useful tool for a few.
I have never believed in the myth of millions of users, but a good business could have been made out of the limited number of dedicated users, had they been cared for and catered for.

Botgirl Questi said...

Inara: Thanks! And feel free to drag and drop it. ;)

Kevin: Thanks for bringing up the continuous attention reference. I'm using your comment as a starting point for a post I'm working on for tomorrow.

Claus Uriza said...


Been through Fleep's very informative and nice post but found this up my alley for a comment.

Though I haven't been very active in SL the past year I'd say:

Don't blame the platform. It is unique (and I've tried hard last few years to find better).

Blame the gap between LL and the community and ofcourse the businessmodel.

Onwards to OpenSim and hypergrid
re: Metaverse thinking.

Maybe animations (realistic movements, facial expression etc.) will move us way more into augmented reality the next 5-10 years.

The impact on games vs. virtual worlds...

I believe Google or Facebook will launch or buyout som shiny new stuff for the masses (in case it makes sense) (interesting to see the development of Cloud Party).

It's worth to keep in mind worlds like SL reflects RL way more than WoW, Skyrim etc.

Maybe we'll say: OMG we (avatars) looked crazy back then.

Joey1058 said...

SL isn't "the" platform for VR. Although they were the platform that made it easiest for interactivity and creativity, and most importantly, outspokenness and criticism. Before SL, numerous VR worlds simply banned you if you dared to speak against the parent company. In that regard alone, I feel that Second Life was wildly successful. I don't think Cloud Party will gain any momentum outside its niche. Facebook entered VR for the same reasons that Google tried Lively: Because Linden Lab was so successful at it.

Eventually, I think there will be a blend of virtual places within physical reality powered by augmentation. As long as you have to separately open a stand alone client to immerse yourself in a world, it will always be a niche market.

Moni Duettmann said...

Although agreeing with Fleep in many regards, I don't see a lot of new arguments in her article. The problem with an idea like "The Metaverse" is, it simply MUST be compatible. I that regard SL is still unparalleled, until there is easy and open exchange in a multitude of OSis. I still don't see this anywhere nearly - and I don't see it coming anywhere soon. Part of the problem is copyright, a thing SL had cared about (at least they tried), with amazing results in productivity of creations. In short: I think there can only be ONE Metaverse, and SL is still the furthest on the way to it.

SL has to be improved in many ways: better "search", more Wii-like direct avi motion control, more inworld tools, like a mesh-tool, better voice/sound-modulation etc. That's where MY wish-list begins! And those would be Metaverse-improvements, instead of gamifications.

Burhop said...

I hate to add yet another SL perspective... so I won't.

Rather, I'd point to the book "the Lean Startup" by Eric Ries. It is interesting for this group since Eric was part of the team that started IMVU.

I agree that the community itself created a lot of the SL problems but there are so many things Linden Labs could have done better. Getting customer input, the transition from early adopters to mainstream customers, the user of minimal viable products to test ideas and do validated learning are just a few.

It is pretty easy to read the book then look at SL and say "ah, that is what management should have done".


P.S. I still like SL better than IMVU :-)

Botgirl Questi said...

Soror: I also thought more progress would have been made over the last five years in improved graphics, enhanced capabilities and better performance. In my case, I think that's as much the influence of all the science fiction I've read and watched about virtual worlds rather than any rational analysis of emerging technology. :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Clause: I'm sure all of our future selves will look back on our speculation with chagrin. It's easy to forget that we're in the Model T days of virtual worlds.

Botgirl Questi said...

Joe: Since Cloud Party is a browser-based platform, why do you think it will not gain momentum outside of its niche, and what do you think its niche will be?

Botgirl Questi said...

Moni: I agree with you that Second Life is currently the most fully featured platform, with the most resources (virtual goods/tools/etc.) and the largest and richest user community And I don't think that Linden Lab has any responsibility to move it in the direction of an interoperable Metaverse.

Botgirl Questi said...

Burhop: I didn't know the connection between the book and IMVU. It's a hot book at our company now. We've been an Agile shop for many years and it seems to be the business equivalent of the software development paradigm.

ZZ BOTTOM said...

We are in fact the failure, as long as we still think that there are not alternatives to Second Live, or knowing them, to still trust LL.
And i still do trust it, and i know the alternatives pretty well, so Im not only a failure, but also a masochist, cause i still go and still be premium and atil spend a lot to feed a bunch of greedy stupids that don't have a clue how they could have changed the World and not only the virtual one!

Burhop said...


That seems to be happening a lot lately... ideas from the creation of software being applied to new industries.

The core concepts of agile development, test first coding, open source, even source code dependency management are turning out to be pretty valuable in the "real world" :-)

iliveisl said...

"what people want today is technology that demands as little attention as possible"

i completely agree that this is the mainstream - it is only a very small number of people that want to create stuff (think book authors)

Unknown said...

"It’s because texting allows them to control their attention and split it between conversations and whatever else they’re doing."

Interesting and sadly true comment that Sherry Turkle points out is a potentially harmful situation (see Sherry Turkle studies how our devices and online personas are redefining human connection and communication -- and asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have.

Botgirl Questi said...

iliveisl: I was thinking more of people using virtual worlds as they do RL entertainment . . . hanging out, going to performances, sightseeing, etc.

Donavan: I respect Turkle and agree that it's well worth thinking about and paying attention to. I'm a bit skeptical though about whether using network/computer mediated communication is undermining human connection as a whole. I think it's more adding a lot more "thin" connections.

Anonymous said...

what are you talking about?

jscott365 said...

I think your commentary is basically spot on, especially when it comes to the reality that most people (everyone?) experiences the internet in a much different fashion than when virtual worlds first came around. I'm still tossing this around in my head, trying to wrap my brain around "we have the tools to do it" - I wonder, what do we do?

jscott365 said...

I think your commentary is basically spot on, especially when it comes to the reality that most people (everyone?) experiences the internet in a much different fashion than when virtual worlds first came around. I'm still tossing this around in my head, trying to wrap my brain around "we have the tools to do it" - I wonder, what do we do?