Thursday, December 24, 2009

Virtual Worlds 2.0...a few humble predictions

I'm usually a big fan of bold predictions and grand visions of the future, maybe no more so than as they pertain to virtual worlds. I've thought, since the moment I first saw an avatar wandering through Second Life, that virtual worlds hold a promise for communication, collaboration, and learning that is uniquely different than any other technology.

But progress has been slow. The technology isn't quite elegant enough for widespread adoption and those of us who see the future have a difficult path to travel to convince the many naysayers armed with logical and reasonable objections to virtual worlds for serious applications. Its a small and quirky band of visionaries at this stage of virtual world adoption, and we all have our unique perspectives and area of focus. Obviously, my perspective has been from the side of content design, specifically for learning. But its given me a unique view, and ability to look across all of the virtual world technologies in the market and figure out what's working and what's not from a user experience and learning design perspective.

Yesterday, I read this blog post from Justin Gibbs, tweeted by @dshiao (thanks!), about the transition from virtual worlds 1.0 to 2.0. I agreed with Justin's take on the issues with the state of 1.0, but didn't really agree with his thoughts on vw2.0.

The thing is...I don't think we're at the transition to vw2.0 yet. And here's why...

The shift to 2.0 will occur when virtual worlds make a major transition, a technological breakthrough, that takes them mainstream. There are things happening now that will help that along (eg, browser-based technologies) but there are some major technology and user adoption issues that still have to be overcome. I'm actually NOT a believer that eventually virtual worlds will go "mainstream" in their current form. There will be a major change in how people view virtual worlds because of a big change in the technology. I think there are two current virtual world technologies that embody some of the future characteristics of virtual worlds 2.0: Vastpark and Multiverse. And there are two areas of technological innovation, augmented reality and mobile technology, that will be the catalysts to the 2.0 transition.

So here are my "bold" predictions for Virtual Worlds 2.0, and what will push the industry from 1.0 to 2.0:

  • Virtual worlds will be browser-based and seamlessly integrate with the Internet. This will mean that logging into a virtual world will be as easy as logging onto a website, and your avatar will be consistent across different worlds. It will mean that virtual world content will be searchable, and will come up in Google search results (or whatever the kids are using when this all comes to pass). It will mean that there will be standards and a common programming language, like html, but for 3D content. This is where Vastpark is thinking, and I think its a brilliant and forward thinking strategy that could push the industry mainstream.
  • Virtual worlds will rely less on user-generated content. The inception of virtual worlds was founded on "openness" and Second Life's success, and the bulk of their business model, is built on the development of community and experiences in an organic way from the residents themselves. It is really brilliant, on many levels, and an idea repeated in many 2.0 technologies today (eg, Twitter, Facebook). But the difference in virtual worlds is the visualness of the technology, the ability to develop contexts that someone can be immersed in. People have built beautiful 3D environments, and they are amazing to see. But then what do you do there? I just don't think we can rely on UGC to answer this question. We need to start thinking of appropriate design for this technology, and we need to stop just waiting for the community to develop. Just because you build it, doesn't mean they will come. We'll reach the 2.0 threshhold when enough experiences are designed in virtual worlds that accentuate what virtual worlds can do better than any other technology (real-time multi-user experiences) and we can show how communities develop around these experiences. This is actually what I like about Multiverse--it gives people something to do. A unique blend of a virtual world and a gaming platform, a lot of the features of Multiverse allow you to much more easily build engaging content that can provide a context for initial experiences in the world, which can then lead to community building. Of course, I'd like to see more examples for serious applications and less of an entertainment focus, but Multiverse has an interesting and progressive foundation for content development that allows for more engaging content design. And ultimately, content (well-designed content) will be key.
  • Of course it will be open source. Look at the success of Reaction Grid. 'Nuff said.
  • Virtual worlds will be an extension of the real world in a much more meaningful way. Augmented reality and mobile technology are the technology darlings of the day. I'll admit it, I don't know how (and even if I did, I'd probably be pitching it to VCs and not blogging about it :) but I do know that the future of virtual worlds, and their mainstream adoption, rests much more on the fate of augmented reality and mobile technology than anyone currently in the virtual world market would like to admit. Yes, one of the benefits of virtual worlds is that you are "immersed" but what I think we've all been missing is that they also need to be "integrated." Proton Media's Protosphere now integrates with Sharepoint. They get it. One of the tipping points will be when we can do all of the work we do now in the "real world" in a virtual world, but somehow in a virtual world we'll be able to do it better. And this ties into...
  • The user experience and navigation "in-world" will be more seamless. I'll be writing more about James Cameron's movie Avatar, but one of the aspects of the movie that I noticed right away was that the characters were either completely their avatars or completely disconnected. They weren't sitting at a computer, controlling their avatars while drinking their morning coffee...they were in a full body chamber with their consciousness shifted into their avatar bodies. No, I don't think that's how we'll interact with virtual worlds...but it does represent one of the issues with virtual worlds going mainstream. How do we "connect" to the virtual world, and our avatars, psychologically? There will be a shift, a technological advance, and a change in perspective on how this happens. When we can as easily picture ourselves in the 3D world as we can walking into our real life offices, we will have reached a critical step in user adoption. I think this will be prompted by technology as much as broader awareness and acceptance of virtual worlds and ourselves as avatars.
I'm sure I'm missing the one thing that will actually change the industry (like when Microsoft integrates a virtual world technology into their Office suite). But I believe these things will happen and that will be the transition from where we are now to where we see this technology taking us. I'm really looking forward to virtual worlds 2.0.

15 comments:

  1. Nice post. Some things to consider:

    1."It will mean that there will be standards and a common programming language, like html, but for 3D content."

    Already exists, called X3D - ISO standard for interactive 3D, HTML for the 3D web (www.web3d.org). Statements like the one above about the need for a 3D standard should never be said by anyone that works or has been in this industry longer than a week. VW enthusiasts need to spend as much time looking at the tech as the applications or 'platforms' to know about web3D beyond the VW industry hype. This way one is looking further down the road of possibilities and is able to make better long term decision with the tech than jumping around when there is the next upgrade for platform X. ISO standards stand the test of time. Will the platforms you mention other than SL and OS even be around after next year or will they take the path of Metaplace, mighty Google's Lively, and the growing number of others? Support your existing 3D web open standards and be a part of that brilliant and forward thinking strategy that could push the industry mainstream. :)

    2. "I'll admit it, I don't know how (and even if I did, I'd probably be pitching it to VCs and not blogging about it :) but I do know that the future of virtual worlds, and their mainstream adoption, rests much more on the fate of augmented reality and mobile technology than anyone currently in the virtual world market would like to admit."

    Well said and I agree. Currently a growing number of businesses, VCs, and government entities I talk with look at VWs as tools for academics or playlands for teens,tweens, and kids. Who can blame them? The virtual world industry's main event, Engage Expo, is being held with a toy industry event next year.

    Now mirror world information, accessible by AR (it is just a viewing mechanism after all) and mobile devices, is one of the major salvations for the VW industry as it shows how digital/virtual content, 2D and immersive 3D, can enhance our first life, not just be fun for our second. There are entire industries and many markets emerging using immersive mirror worlds that would never touch a VW platform for real world applications and I am sure it is only a matter of time before they include multi-user/avatar elements. I hope this brings VWs back into the mainstream for being those immersive environments that have been shown to enhance and help in communication, collaboration, and learning that is uniquely different than any other technology.

    IMHO

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  2. Thanks for the comment! Please excuse me for being a VW enthusiast for 2 years but evidently being a noob in not knowing the answer, but if X3D is the standard, why is it not more a part of the conversation? I will fully admit, I'm not a technology person--I'm an instructional designer who has immersed herself in virtual worlds because I see their potential, and I probably just know enough about the technology to be dangerous. I've been to every virtual world conference, to gov't meetings, to brainstorming sessions in the industry...and no one is talking about X3D. They are all struggling to address interoperability and everyone has different ideas as to how that might look. So my question is, why? Why would companies build entire virtual world platforms/applications and NOT use X3D, if that is the standard? I will also admit, I've heard of X3D, but really just in passing--not as the solution to one of the industry's biggest problems.

    The truth is, I don't have a horse in this race (technology-wise) and ultimately, the technologies that are successful don't matter to me--IMHO, its the design and the experiences that are the key. But I talk to A LOT of people about virtual worlds and if X3D is the future of virtual worlds, I'd like to hear more about it and why I haven't heard more up to this point.

    I really appreciate you posting, and love that I can learn from others through my blog. I would welcome you to identify yourself--sometimes opinions and information are even more valuable when you know the source :)

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  3. Some excellent points here.

    Over the last 15 years or so there has been numerous attempts at bringing 3D technology to the masses for content creation and distribution. Prior to X3D there was VRML (Virtual Reality Markup/Modeling Language) which was a nice attempt, but in the end lack of bandwidth in the late 90's slowed down (literally) the adoption of this technology. Bandwidth aside - there were attempts during the CD-ROM era of the 90's to use 3D tools for training like Virtus OpenSpace, a plug-in for Adobe (then Macromedia) Director. That went nowhere fast, but the core Virtus 3D engine was used to create products for Tom Clancy's Red Storm Entertainment and Michael Crichton's Timeline Studios. The technology was amazing and we had the tools to build training content, but what happened to the adoption rate? Simply, it was too expensive and time consuming to create the content. These forces will always work against VW adoption in corporations for knowledge transfer.

    To your points:
    1. “Virtual worlds will be browser-based and seamlessly integrate with the Internet."

    The X3D technology will accelerate and we will be able to open up any device and experience a VW in real time. That will happen. The key here is that as content creators we need a set of tools that will allow us to rapidly put together 3D objects and interactions. For instance, take a few pictures with a mobile device and it builds a model. A few clicks more, and you can interact with the object in the VW space. It must be 100x easier than Google SketchUp.

    2. “Virtual worlds will rely less on user-generated content.”

    Exactly. It’s too time consuming to create the 3D content/interactions on our own at this point. New companies will form to create these worlds and resell them to corporations. The 3D entertainment companies could form separate business units to do this, but I feel they are making plenty of money from current releases and will have no motivation to move in this direction. Those “well-designed” worlds will happen – once there is mass adoption of the 3D enabled browser.

    -Josh

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  4. So M1, if that is your real name, ;-)

    I have known about X3D for a number of years and I have to agree with Koreen here; I've been to the virtual world conferences, GDC, government-focused workshops and am even in the midst of shepherding the development of a virtual world platform for my own organization and I gotta say - nary a mention of X3D.

    I have heard talk about WebGL, O3D, and even Canvas and the potential of HTML5 but not X3D. So maybe instead of calling someone a n00b, we should have a discussion about these technologies and even the work being done by the brilliant folk at VastPark on VMML. Maybe we should also have a chat about how X3D is a membership, fee-based organization that allows greater voice for those organizations that can pay the most money. I'm not trying to cast stones here, I've worked for standards organizations myself, I'm just saying let's be up front here.

    I also have my hopes/fears for VW's for training and learning and that lies in our collective ability to see past the power to create virtual classrooms and to begin to envision different kinds of learning experiences. Until we can do that, all the standards in the world don't matter so much - I mean we've worked on standards in the e-learning world for over 10 years and still th height of our design conceit is the "which corner do we put the "next" button?" Let's hope that whatever tech or standards becomes adopted, the collective "we" as designers, do our jobs with imagination and vision.

    Thanks for kicking this off Koreen.

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  5. Thinking about this more (and not at 1 am), what I should have added is that ultimately, the technology SHOULD be a commodity. The Internet is the model I'm thinking of--you don't pay to go to a website UNLESS the content is worth paying for. When virtual worlds get to THAT point, and to your point Josh, when content creation is that easy, then we'll be where we should be--content is king, and the industry will be focused on the value of building contexts--and my guess is, people won't even call them "virtual worlds"--it will be the 3D web, where multi-user interactions are the norm, and expected.

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  6. For some reason I always come back to 'Otherland' as the idealized virtual world though the interface, in the author's conception, is somewhat clunky. I really see mobile and AR as positive next steps but if we are blue sky'ing for the future and widespread adoption we'll need to look to mind machine interfaces to make it all work. If we are hoping for a 'virtual world' that is standards based, globally adopted and racially tolerant I expect, given humanity's track record, we are centuries away. One only need look as are as the Copenhagen Climate Conference for a measure of our collective ability to solve problems.

    Educational content is still a tough road from a business standpoint in spite of the current hype. I think it's more probable the scalable opportunity of entertainment properties will continue to drive virtual world innovation in the near future.

    Nice post Koreen and thanks everyone for the interesting discussion.

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  7. Koreen and Mark:
    I apologize if my comment about lack of knowledge of the standards was calling anyone a noob as that was not the intention. I come from the mindset of 'Googling' every area of interest and have found that when the keywords "3D web or web3d standards HTML" are entered, the Web3D Consortium and X3D are among the top, if not the first in most cases, in search results. Any comments on lack of or little knowledge shows me that the Web3D Consortiumm definitely needs to amp more the exposure of this royalty free, ISO, open standard. Good info for me to know!

    Koreen:
    I also go to numerous virtual world conferences, gov't meetings, brainstorming sessions in the industry and you are right, very few at these events in the U.S usually know of or talk about X3D.

    "Why would companies build entire virtual world platforms/applications and NOT use X3D, if that is the standard?"

    There are those that have built their virtual world platforms off of the open standards. I find one of the more impressive use case to date was New Lively (www.newlively.com). Here is an example of how a group of Google Lively fans recreated this entire platform using the open standard with other 'open' tech and custom nodes so the platform's community wouldn't die once Google announced its closing. If they truly did this once the announcement was made, or even started several months earlier once Lively launched, they cloned the entire platform in a matter of months on a budget I am sure much smaller than Google's.

    Other VW platforms you have heard of are built on them but not openly mentioned. It is what runs somewhere under the hood. Unfortunately for the standard's exposure most investor don't want to share the IP of their platforms just to show support for the open 3D web.

    "I will also admit, I've heard of X3D, but really just in passing--not as the solution to one of the industry's biggest problems."

    I hope to hear of it more but currently it seems some industries are keen on recreating the 'standards' wheel and the VW industry is one of them. Don't get me wrong, X3D is not the end all solution by any means for all that is needed for virtual worlds but it is a damn great start.

    One of the things interesting about the past Engage Expo at the Web3D Consortium booth was the amount of VW industry participants that attended that had no clue, not even a little of the 3D web standards. I found those mainly familar with the standards were from Asia and Europe. Regardless, all seemed impressed once we had the opportunity to educate and show examples on how it helps and takes 3D content beyond just multi-user virtual worlds. Perhaps I can convince Chris to give X3D a track and to show how it can help virtual worlds at a future event.

    Josh:
    Great point! There do need to be better tools that allow for content creators to rapidly put together 3D objects and interaction. Expect to see more X3D support from some popular
    authoring tools in the coming year. I also agree that "those well-designed worlds will happen – once there is mass adoption of the 3D enabled browser." That is why I am very excited about HTML5, what Khronos (WebGL) and Google(O3D)are doing with their lower level web3D APIs and Fraunhofer's work with X3D running natively in the browser (www.x3dom.org).

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  8. to continue...

    Mark:
    You also confirm the need for X3D to get better exposure beyond the international SIGGRAPHs and usual Web3D symposiums.

    Since you have heard of the technologies I mentioned above to Josh, I say check out the recent issue of 3D World magazine as there is a great article with Vladimir Vukićević of Mozilla and his mention about how X3D and WebGL work together.

    I am more than happy to have a discussion about technologies and how to promote open technologies with those that discuss and execute so hit me up. I will ping Bruce as it has been too long since our last chat and it sounds like I need to get the detailed insight of what VastPark is doing with VMML so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I agree that with most membership fee-based standards organizations the greater voice comes with the highest payers but the Consortium does look at what will advance the 3D web and industry as a whole, not just the interests of the top tier members. That is usually the reason that big named companies come and go with their membership. Shame the big wigs go that way, but as you said they are used to playing in arenas where the most $$ gets the stongest voice.

    I commend all you designers and virtual world implementors as you are the ones that make the standards matter. All I strive to do it make sure you have the best technologies that will allow you to create your content/experiences once to display many and make sure that there are the tools and documentation to let you do that voodoo that you do so well with imagination and vision.

    Thanks for the great discussion and Happy Holidays to all.

    cheers,
    Damon

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  9. Koreen,

    Great post. I agree with much of what you're saying and think this is a great discussion to have now - what will virtual worlds 2.0 look like? It however is also a little sad, there was so much enthusiasm with virtual worlds 1.0.

    I think it's also important to understand that 2.0 will likely emerge as Web 2.0 did. The next few years will be an incubation period, companies will experiment with various things and eventually the aspects that come to define 2.0 will emerge.

    As for the X3D discussion. I use to work for Vivaty, which started as an X3D based virtual world however recently launched a Flash based version of their world. X3D currently requires a download where as most users already have Flash installed. Vivaty backing away from X3D doesn't bode well for the standard. O3D and WebGL however have some big people behind them, Google being one. And they're not just pushing the standards for virtual worlds but to fill an important hole in the cloud OS/computers and mobile devices. I'm all for open standards but think those standards will be coming from WebGL and O3D.

    Well this comment is too long, I need to just write up another blog post. My original post threw out the two aspects - browser based and all about entertainment. I mentioned "entertainment" because I was mostly speaking about consumer based virtual worlds. I like you Koreen build training simulations as a day job, but still see them as very different from consumer based worlds. I should probably dive into that some more in my next post, also add many of the aspects you mentioned - open source, "not relying on UGC", and maybe even "conventions around navigation/GUI."

    - justin

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  10. In case you haven't seen it, there's a nice counterpoint to this blog here: http://johncartermcknight.wordpress.com/

    I come at this from a university educator perspective, albeit one that similarly goes back to VRML 1.0. My own predictions are here:
    http://tidalblog.blogspot.com/

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  11. Good discussion here, although I would point to Koreen's original (and very solid) item regarding seamless browser integration. This issue has less to do with VW interoperability and more to do with the Web as a larger whole. We'll see progress on this stream when such governing bodies as the W3C evince greater empathy towards online 3D properties. I'm encouraged by such initiatives as Dublin Core (DCMI) and the ability of SL objects to receive http information.

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