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. :)

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