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.