Virtual Worlds: The World Describes, The Web Predicts

Ericadriver_7By Erica Driver

At the MetaverseU conference at Stanford University this weekend, Ginsu Soon, VP of Business Affairs at Linden Lab, shared a framework for thinking about the future of virtual worlds. He said that in some ways it’s appropriate to draw an analogy between virtual worlds and the Web and in other ways it’s appropriate to draw an analogy between virtual worlds and the world in general. His main point — and it’s a good one — is don’t mix the two analogies.

  • You can describe virtual worlds by saying they are “like the world.” For example — when thinking about the emotional weight of being involved, peoples’ expectations of the experience, or social scale. There is strong descriptive power in comparing the way it feels to be in virtual worlds with the way it feels to be in the physical world. Even when you are interacting with avatars that don’t look anything like the people who are operating them, or you are in virtual space that looks nothing like real-world space, the immersion and interactivity of the experience allows you to suspend your disbelief and you feel like you are really there. Stanford professor Byron Reeves, who also presented today at Metaverse U, has studied the physiological response to participating in virtual worlds and found that a person’s response to its avatar being touched in the virtual world is the same as if the person’s actual body is touched. But when you try to make predictions about how virtual worlds will evolve using the “it’s like the physical world” analogy you start getting into realms like evolution, economics, government and politics, nature, and myriad realms of human behavior, and the analogy breaks down.
  • You can predict what’s going to happen with virtual worlds by looking at the Web. Now we’re talking about things like business models, interoperability, usage patterns, and regulation. What’s my take on this? We might use technological aspects of the past to predict things like: Web3D will be the next major wave in the evolution of the Internet. Web3D will be a system of linked interactive 3D and 2D virtual environments, which will include everything from use-specific, private applications to virtual worlds targeting a segment of the population or workforce, to virtual worlds open to anyone who wants to join.Web3D will deliver an interactive, immersive user experience rather than the static, text-oriented or even interactive graphical user interfaces of today’s Web. People will be represented visually by avatars that can move in space and communicate with others via voice and text, gestures, user-directed motion, animation scripts, and social networking tools. And Web3D will integrate seamlessly with other tools and technologies (e.g., Web applications and Web 2.0 tools). But if you start using the Web to describe virtual worlds (e.g., you can IM with people, you can get information about companies, you can chat in chat rooms), the analogy completely breaks down.

Comments

re: Virtual Worlds: The World Describes, The Web Predicts

Erica: It's your first point that has always formed the basis for my belief that there is no stopping the emergence of virtual worlds in business. If you could save say 10% of Forrester's spend on air travel by using virtual worlds (after all, interactions in them "feel" like real in-person visits), it would be quite something. Or 10% of corporate real estate spend. Extend this to the overall business economy. If avatar interactions feel real, it is only a matter of time before business interactions in virtual worlds are accepted as real interactions. As graphics improve, speeds improve, and interfaces become more "natural" (pressing the arrow key feels right for wordprocessing but not for 3D interpersonal communications), the immersive and interactive elements will only deepen.What's really exciting to me is that my children (who are both under 3 years of age) will not remember a time before MMORPGs and virtual worlds. They will presumably never question whether on-line interactions through avatars are "real" no matter if the avatar looks like a person or a penguin. What are the chances that their generation will NOT use virtuality of some kind to bridge distance and culture? If two four year olds in different countries can interact virtually on-line today, I would argue that there's no chance they won't continue to do so when they're executives in their fifties.

re: Virtual Worlds: The World Describes, The Web Predicts

Dave, you are so right. I had dinner at a colleague's house last night and what was her 9-year-old doing after dinner? Playing in a virtual world. And the news coming out of this year's Toy Fair in New York is that virtual worlds are one of two hot toy / game categories (the other is green toys). Here's a link to a blog post about it at Virtual World News: http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2008/02/toy-fair-goes-v.html#more.