Friday, January 11, 2013

Virtual Worlds in the Unforeseeable Future

In short, the virtual worlds paradigm is an also-ran in the marketplace and there is no indication of a significant positive change for the foreseeable future. That's why my optimism is for the future we can't foresee, which will be the focus of the concluding post in this series. Second Life vs. The World.

Before I play Nostradamus and try to predict the unforeseeable future, I want to reply to those who disagreed about my assessment of the present and near future.

A number of people mentioned the Gartner Hype Cycle which tracks new technologies through what Gartner sees as a predictable life-cycle. Inara Pey and Dale Innis both proposed that virtual worlds are in the "Trough of Disillusionment":
As it stands, Gartner see VWs only now starting to climb out of the "Trough of Disillusionment" which results from the period of over-inflated hype about a new product. Further, they place the emergence of VWs as a widely-adopted, productive technology as still being 5-10 years hence. Inara Pey in a comment
I took at look at a few of Gartner's most recent reports and I thought they painted a much less positive picture for the future. They report declining interest in education, the consumer space and the business market, with no prediction of significant success in the future:
Without a clear audience value proposition across multiple age groups and sectors, early interest in social worlds has declined . . . . In the short term, virtual worlds remain a "sandbox" environment for experimentation in training, community outreach and collaboration, but the buzz has died, and enterprise interest remains static. In the longer term, virtual environments still represent useful media channels to support and engage with communities in an immersive fashion, but they appear unlikely to induce transformational change.  Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2012 
This series of posts began by asking if our virtual world dream was over. I think Gartner's phrase, transformational change, is a good description of the hopes we had for virtual worlds. We didn't see Second Life as just a place for us to hang out and enjoy ourselves.  Many of us believed that virtual worlds would eventually have a tangible positive influence on our overall society by empowering personal expression and creativity, promoting tolerance and diversity, providing a global marketplace providing economic opportunities, etc.

I still believe in that vision because I've personally experienced the virtual world's potential to actualize such lofty aims on the small scale. But I don't see any clear path to wider acceptance. Second Life, the 1000 pound Gorilla in the virtual worlds market space, is a long shot. Their technological platform is ten years old and riddled with technical debt. Their brand is more associated with flying penises and cross-gender affairs than as a credible platform for the general public. Linden Lab's R&D is  focused on other products rather than pushing Second Life to the next level.

I think OpenSim providers have a great opportunity over the next few years to capture significant segments of Second Life's customer base, especially companies like Inworldz who are investing in moving the technology forward. Their main challenge is in wooing enough content creators to create a robust marketplace. But I don't think OpenSim has any better prospects than Second Life for breaking into general use, since the product, even with improvement, is just a clone of Second Life.

There are a number of business oriented vendors that provide 3D meeting and exhibit spaces, such as Altadyn and VenueGen. Although there are niche markets for those services, their value proposition isn't that compelling in relation to 2D solutions such as GoToMeeting.

Finally, there are a few emerging general use platforms such as Jibe and Cloud Party. It will be interesting to see how they evolve, since they are not tied to kludgy legacy code or change-resistant user communities. The challenge is that we still haven't found that compelling use case . . . the killer app . . . which will open up the public's eyes to the power of the virtual world paradigm. Although I have no idea what that magic idea will be, I have a few idea of how we might get there:

  • Developing iteratively with active user participation. Using an agile approach, the direction of a product is guided by the emergent priorities and requirements of engaged users. The only way to end up with a product that is better than we can initially imagine, is to move forward in collaboration with both the customer and the emerging product itself. I've seen this time and time again in products my company has built for corporate customers.
  • Focusing on providing a compelling solution to a specific audience for a specific purpose. There's currently too much attention on product features and technology instead of creating compelling solutions for specific use cases and clearly defined user groups. 
  • Creating an Open Services platform that encourages other players to add value. Second Life took this approach to a limited extend by allowing people to create and sell content on their platform. But they've turned away from supporting third party viewers, interoperability between grids and third-party marketplaces.`I would love to see Cloud Party or Jibe create open APIs that allow third party applications to easily integrate with their platforms.
So that's my Nostradamus act for today. It's been interesting thinking about this stuff again and I appreciate everyone's comments and the ongoing discussion.


Coughran said...

This is a great summation and I agree with your three conclusions, particularly the second, regarding focus on specific solutions for particular uses. This is what I have been doing with "Avatar Assisted Therapy". Virtual Immersive Environments are a very usable and effective tool for connecting counselors with clients. The delivery of mental health counseling, drug abuse treatment and related therapies to people in rural areas, in unsafe neighborhoods, or who are physically challenged or worried about the stigma of entering a drug abuse center (for example) has been a standing challenge in the mental health field for decades. This technology is beginning to gain momentum as an alternative and real solution to those challenges and will likely continue to do so.

Unknown said...

Virtual immersion is still coming. SL is, has been, a useful technology for feeling out some of what can be done, but with technology like Google Glasses and the neural interface work being done to help amputees, I think we're less time than most people realize from the possibility of a truly immersive world, connecting on more sensory channels than only sight and sound and potentially overlaid on reality.

Botgirl Questi said...

Coughran: That's a great example of what I was describing in my second of the path ahead. It would be very possible to create an OpenSim client, for example, that would be limited to the feature set needed for that use, which would make it much more usable for participants new to virtual worlds.

Botgirl Questi said...

Creag: I agree that new hardware is likely to create some interesting opportunities. It will also be interesting to see what develops with augmented reality over the next few years.

ZZ BOTTOM said...

When one considers virtual worlds a mirror of only one culture, no future can be predicted!

Anonymous said...

Hence my comment that SL could potentially survive - if only as a niche "leisure" product. As might VWs as we know them today.

Beyond that, I'm in agreement; VWs as we understand them today are not in any way transformational in nature. But then, is the technology underpinning them capable of presenting them as truely transformational?

Really, the most damning thing that could come from this period of VW experimentation / development is that the entire idea is pushed to one side as being "worthless". In that regard I find Gartner's broader view more positive than perhaps you do.

There is still time for the technology (and here I'm talking in a general sense, and not specific to Second Life or any other platform) to mature and to gain a broader, more meaningful acceptance.

What is not being asked here is how much influence perception has on shaping a VW. In that, SL has left a questionable legacy, one which is potentially impacting development of VWs in general.

Unknown said...

*Laughs* Alright, show of hands... how many people started out that last one wondering what was supposed to be transformational about Volkswagens?

The Lone Quaker said...

Okay, I had to type over my initial, more snarky (and truthful) reply. I'll just say this - if you are honestly saying you are disappointed that virtual worlds did not become "a tangible positive influence on our overall society by empowering personal expression and creativity, promoting tolerance and diversity, providing a global marketplace providing economic opportunities, etc..." I'd say "hello - reality is calling - please pick up - it is missing you"

(eye roll)

Botgirl Questi said...

Lone Quaker: If Second Life's growth had continued trending as it had from 2006 to mid 2009, user concurrency today would have been over a million users. In 2009, there were scores of major corporations like IBM prototyping inside Second Life for both collaboration and simulation. There were international conferences attended by noted leaders on topics such as religion and science. There were industry conventions in Las Angelas and New York City, with dozens of funded start-ups and hundreds of attendees from major corporations. Thousands of people were making money investing in land and creating content.

So it's easy to roll your eyes now, like it was a ridiculous vision. But at the time, it was very credible.

Anonymous said...


" But at the time, it was very credible"

Or, alternatively, SL was passing over its own peak of over-inflated expectation.

This is where you and I part ways somewhat - and I admit, I am helped (to a degree) by hindsight. But being totally honest, even sitting through the period 2006-2009, I felt it to be fairly evident that, behind all the hype and excitement, there was little clear idea from anyone - be it LL or any of those companies so ardently promoting SL - as to what it actually all meant or how it could actually be effectively leveraged - or indeed, if it could be effectively leveraged.

Therefore, I always felt that the boom period was unsustainable, as it was built on hype which perhaps started in 2005 with Paul Sloan's piece in CNNMoney and spiralled upwards from there.

As I said in Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth in 2011:

It was an aberration. While it was true that with an enterprising bent and a desire to succeed, a person could make money from within the virtual environment, the opportunities for large organisations to do so were far more limited – if they existed at all.

In many respects, SL's "boom" period was little different to the dot-com bubble of 1997-2000, which again exemplified the reality of the Hype Cycle, and saw huge amounts of investment, etc., largely based on hype.

(As an aside, it's also interesting to note that it took the likes of Amazon, who went through the entire dot-com boom/bust and managed to survive, 10 years to recover their position, valuation-wise following the bubble bursting - and 5-10 years is the time frame Gartner give for virtual worlds to reach a productive maturity - which is also not to be taken to mean I necessarily expect SL itself to be around in 10 years' time.)

Botgirl Questi said...

Inara: I agree that the hype cycle contributed to the rapid rise of Second Life. The publicity you mentioned sparked people's imaginations and created an idealized image of the virtual world that was not matched by the reality of the platform. But I don't think that the stagnation of the past few years is due mostly to Second Life's stage of the hype cycle, but limitations of the platform and years of bad business decisions and poor customer relations by Linden Lab.

Botgirl Questi said...

Inara: I agree that the hype cycle contributed to the rapid rise of Second Life. The publicity you mentioned sparked people's imaginations and created an idealized image of the virtual world that was not matched by the reality of the platform. But I don't think that the stagnation of the past few years is due mostly to Second Life's stage of the hype cycle, but limitations of the platform and years of bad business decisions and poor customer relations by Linden Lab.

Bobby said...

The eventual success of virtual worlds is as certain as your eventual death. It really is inevitable. The question is when?

Second Life, as it stands today, is simply an early (albeit important) evolutionary step to this inevitable outcome.

My own personal view is that VWs will be pretty universal (in the sense that everyone will use one) within a decade. But not tomorrow. And probably not Second Life.

skydeas said...

Virtual Worlds are the inevitable next step in the convergence of the Internet, 3D graphics and social media. They are the digital commons of the future. The steps we take today are building blocks of whatever these worlds will become. But I predict they will go through their technological evolution and end up 3D web-based and then go through a commercial rebranding that takes them to the next step. Today's virtual world technology will be remembered as quaint when commercial interests start wielding them for their own purposes. If only creativity were a capitalist enterprise! We'd be so much further along. I personally feel that health is the killer app for these worlds and the things that Coughran, myself and others are doing have incredible potential to show the power of shared virtual spaces.