Monday, June 14, 2010

Virtual worlds industry changes and what it means for learning

A few things have happened over the last week that have been big news in the virtual worlds industry...but what does it all mean for learning?

First there were rumors, then there were the actual Linden Labs layoffs. From all accounts, it appears that the enterprise focus of Second Life is gone, at least as far as Linden Labs is concerned.

Next, Proton Media announced their partnership with IBM. Given they were already integrating with Microsoft, that definitely puts them in line to pick up where Second Life was leaving off.

And then this week (today actually!), Reaction Grid launched Jibe, which they describe as:

... unique among virtual world solutions, offering the ability to deploy under your own branding on your existing websites & blogs. It works in web browsers, desktop (Mac & PC), mobile devices like iPhone & iPad, and even game consoles.

So what does all of this conflicting information actually mean to us, enterprise proponents of virtual worlds for learning?

1. Despite the chicken littles out there, the sky is really not falling for virtual worlds. Probably not even for Second Life. Yes, maybe Second Life won't be the leading enterprise virtual world platform, but I've said from the start that Second Life isn't the best platform for learning and that's not what it was designed for anyway. The enterprise focus was a retro-fit, an attempt to capitalize on the obvious benefits of virtual worlds for collaboration and learning. But there were many more drawbacks than benefits of using Second Life for those purposes, and other virtual world technologies like Protosphere from Proton Media, Vastpark, and Teleplace have focused on overcoming the functionality deficits that Second Life had in addressing enterprise customers' needs.

2. We're moving towards the browser. In a year or so, any virtual world that isn't accessed via browser with no or minimal plug ins is probably not going to be viable.

3. Social networking will eventually move virtual worlds more mainstream, not business. Just like other social media technologies, virtual worlds will be successful when people see the social benefits and it doesn't seem like work. Right now, they are a lot of work. That will shift and will move virtual worlds as a much more viable enterprise learning tool. And since learning is social, it just makes sense, no?

4. Content and design are still the key. Virtual worlds will need well-designed and appropriate content to move forward. Reaction Grid's Jibe seems to be moving in that direction, allowing for learning affordances that haven't been seen in other platforms to date, or at least not all on one platform. It will continue to be the case that no matter how cool the tools and technologies are, that the content design and user experience will drive adoption. We're still woefully behind in the learning space in having great examples of appropriate virtual world content design. But we'll get there, or virtual worlds won't.


I'm encouraged by the recent news that change is coming for virtual worlds. I've been waiting for a shift, a big announcement or event that would throw virtual worlds into the limelight and drive adoption. What's more likely, based on the news of this past week, is that the little steps will keep accumulating, until we don't remember how we practiced things before we had avatars in virtual worlds.

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    The browser may be a bit of a misnomer, but its what people understand and IT departments seem to let work. Of course with things like Chrome having its "native" running mode I am not sure what the lockdown control crews will have to say about that as it will be a major way around the plugin or install requirements of any application.
    Anyway when we see big changes we know the future is arriving. Nothing worse that stagnation :)

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