Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Virtual World as Medium, Platform and Product

A prior post in this series described how new mediums evolve through ongoing feedback loops between creators and consumers of technology. This time, I view virtual worlds as medium, platform and product.

"All media are extensions of some human faculty - psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of  the central nervous system.” Marshall McLuhan
The value of any new medium is its ability to extend human capability, doing a better job than the tools it incorporates, extends or replaces. The most ubiquitous mediums deliver value across a broad spectrum of human experience and eventually modify the way we experience the world around us. A recent example is the smartphone which has has integrated and subsumed many prior mediums: We use them to take photos, shoot video, read books, watch movies and interact on social networks. Texting and other forms of mobile messaging have changed the way we communicate in both business and personal life. The impact of mobile devices is pervasive and consequential; we are never out of touch, never offline.

A medium isn't bound to a particular product or vendor and includes the whole service environment that supports the technology and its application. For instance, the medium of the automobile includes not only cars, but the supply chains that create, sell, fuel and service them; the industry organizations that set standards and lobby for their mutual interests; and the businesses that depend upon them.

The Virtual World Medium

From this perspective, it's easy to see that the virtual world medium is very immature. One reason is that there aren't enough vendors in the market to create the service environment needed for widespread value and adoption. For instance, existing virtual world platforms are not integrated with each to allow for transportability of digital assets and avatar identity. Imagine how different the mobile phone medium would be if you could only communicate with people who use the same brand of phone and carrier. Virtual world platform providers need to begin thinking like an industry rather than as isolated competitors.

One key stumbling block that inhibits the adoption of virtual worlds is their poor reputation. The overriding stereotype views virtual worlds as places for illicit virtual affairs, or at best as a type of role playing game. So a requisite step in moving the virtual world medium forward is changing public perception. This requires the popularization of compelling positive stories to replace the negative images people already hold. Virtual world users are doing great things in a wide range of domains including the arts, the sciences, education, religion, healthcare and entertainment. Virtual worlds providers such as Second Life should be promoting those types of stories through marketing, public relations and user community outreach.

Virtual World as Platform and Product

Second Life is actually two products. It is a platform product that allows users to create and sell virtual goods and services; and it's an end-user product for people to consume the crowdsourced goods and services.

The mission of a platform provider is to deliver a package of tools and capabilities that others can leverage to create products and deliver services. A platform is, of course, a product in itself, but much of a platform’s value to end-users is delivered through the work of third-parties. For instance Apple’s iPhone is both platform and product, but a great deal of its utility is created by the work of thousands of software developers, creators of peripherals, and content providers who create mobile-friendly versions of their websites, videos, books, etc. One reason Second Life (and IMVU) emerged as the most popular virtual worlds was that they provided tools for third-parties to create products and the infrastructure to distribute and sell what they produced.  

Software developers improve their products through a number of primary strategies:
  • They understand the needs of users so deeply that foresee what will delight them, creating new features and capabilities that users didn’t even consider;
  • They listen to stakeholders so well that they know what they want and then deliver; and
  • They find partners with complementary technology and content. 
Second Life lost its way when Linden Lab disrupted the feedback loop between platform developers and platform users. In the early days Lindens were enthusiastic community members of the world they were building. They didn’t only have an intellectual understanding of the users’ point of view, but knew it viscerally through first-hand experience. Since the departure of Philip Rosedale as CEO, the direction of Second Life has been largely in the hands of people who aren’t active and enthusiastic users of Second Life. This disconnection caused them to waste resources on initiatives that neither brought in new users nor improved the experience of existing users.

In the next post of this series, I'll walk through my vision of how the virtual world medium can advance and how Second Life might be be a positive force in that process.


Widget Whiteberry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Widget Whiteberry said...

You mention "arts, the sciences, education, religion, healthcare and entertainment."
As a producer of regular events that are best described as 'science' and 'public policy,' I wish SL search would allow me to tag programs in a way that actually describes them. Education and Discussion are inadequate.