This is the revised transcript of the Fast Company.com Call-In titled, Next Generation Interaction: Are Virtual Worlds Waiting in the Wings? that took place on November 2008. Portions of the dialogue have been re-written with the consent and in collaboration of the speaker. The idea behind the edit was to improve accuracy and readability.
I have divided up the conversation into three sections and added links to enable you to explore citations within the copy.
I invite the entire Fast Company community to voice their thoughts on the discussion.
Donald Schwartz ‚ Moderator ‚Technology Coordinator Fast Company.com. ‚ Transcript Editor
Tish Shute ‚ guest. URL: http://www.ugotrade.com
Bruce Damer ‚ guest. URL: http://www.damer.com
Audience Speakers:RJ Lavallian
Fast Company.com Organizers:Sherri Smith
Lynne d Johnson ‚ Senior Editor
Event Sponsor:Symantec - http://www.symantec.com/index.jsp
Steve Prentice Definition of Virtual Worlds
Whats Coming Up
Foster Research— Watch The Space Carefully
Foster Research Virtual World Categories
A Brief History: 1980 To Present
Views on Report & The Integration of Virtual Worlds Within the Web
Call-In Audience Offers More Realistic View of Future Virtual Worlds: The Youth Market & Browser-based Virtual Worlds
What's Really Driving the Virtual World Market?
The Importance of Presence: How Virtual Worlds Will Go Mainstream
Having a Version of Yourself that Acts More Like You
Making Virtual Worlds More Inviting— Familiarity Breeds New Levels of Involvement
Who is Investing Where?
Comparisons to 1997, 98 Virtual World Growth Pains: Too Many Entrants
Gamers View of Social Virtual World Participants—Are There Advantages to Social Virtual Worlds
Providing A Broader Context For Interpreting Virtual World Growth
Past Comparisons—Making Sense Out of the Many Virtual World Platforms
Case Study: User-Generated Content Insures the Survivability of Active Worlds
The Role of Community Involvement
Open Sim Defined & Probable Future Development Road Map
Will Web-Friendly Virtual World Technologies Make A Difference
History of Computer Interfaces — Affects on Human Interaction
How Will We Get From FaceBook and MySpace to Virtual Worlds Worthy of Attracting Investors?
Key To Acceptance: Tools, Interfaces, Usability
What's Working In Virtual Worlds — Education
Education Example: Pacific Rim X Project (http://pacificrimx.wordpress.com/)
Education Example: GreenBush (http://roots.greenbush.us/)
ED Game Example — SPORE (http://www.spore.com/ftl)
Virtual Worlds Issues: Navigation, Learning Curve. What's the Real Benefit?
What's Driving Virtual Worlds? User-generated Content? Entertainment?
Virtual Worlds as Centers for Online Collaboration — How to Appeal to Enterprise
What's Coming Up
What's coming up is we're going to cover a couple of different topics. First, we're going to start with the change in the mood to Virtual Worlds; then we're going to take a look at the money situation, which I call "Follow the Money;" and then we're going to be looking back before going forward, which is one of the reasons that Bruce is on the line with the rest of us. Then we're going to cover "Future Barriers to Adoption of Virtual Worlds" basically, as a means of social interaction.
Foster Research — Watch The Space Carefully
Starting here, Foster Research recently released a report titled The Revival of Consumer Virtual Worlds, and what they did is, they recommended that consumer product strategy professionals watch the space carefully. They didn't say to jump in, but they said to watch the space carefully, if you‚'re not already involved. Gartner said they anticipate that in the next 12 months there is going to be a momentous change in consumer Virtual Worlds.
Foster Research Virtual World Categories
What Foster considers a virtual world is MMOG, Second Life, that sort of thing. There's a number of different categories lumped together here. So the first question we're going to ask our two experts, and either Tish or Bruce can pick it up, is why the change of mood? Why now?
A Brief History: 1980 To Present
BRUCE: I think what's happened we had a generation of worlds in the 1980s - mostly, sort of experimental - and the 90s, you had an early-adopter wave from 1995 to 98 - now, we've got this wonderful, huge 2nd generation which of course, MMOG (Massively Multi-player Online Game), but my specialty is the social VW: some of the kid's worlds, Second Life, and now, the most exciting development for me is these Web Worlds (sometimes called "Small Worlds"), which are embedded in your website. It's much easier for people to get into a VW and being an avatar - you can embed it in your Facebook page, and people jump right into your world.
DONALD: What is your view, Tish?
TISH: I think in terms of this report, the change of mood, I'm not quite sure what they're referring to there. They were very bullish on Kids' World in the previous report - so, I'm interested to know the basis for the report because I think these kids worlds have been very strong for a while, no change of mood, but I think that one of the problems here is by lumping all these things together, you don't get much of an idea of where this is going.
When you get to the next question about "follow the money," you'll see that most of the money went to an entertainment space - and I think the portion of this that really isn't yet coming through on this report is the part of the VW which sits between online games and web 2.0. I think this report is really not making clear what things are going to happen in those two areas when VW get more integrated, both with the web or become really big online gaming ventures. I think it has to be unpacked - we have to look at what it's really talking about.
DONALD: I agree. In a couple of minutes we'll be getting to the money situation using a study by Virtual World Management (www.virtualworldsmanagement.com). Since we have a modest sized group, depending on what they're doing, is there anyone who has a particular view or expectation?
You might recall recent history, virtual worlds have experienced and up and down expectation ride. Virtual Worlds were the greatest thing since sliced bread; virtual worlds were going to reach the level of the Starship Enterprise's holodeck where everyone was going to be in 3D. Then Gartner came out last year and said "corporations should avoid virtual worlds." Following that assessment the press really piled on Second Life which, at the time, was getting all the attention. Now, things seem to have settled down and the current appraisal appears to be a more rational, more mature look at what the possibilities are. If anyone would like to add something as far as that goes, I welcome it.
Paul Rowland: I was listening into what you were saying - you (Tish) mentioned the popularity of developments in the youth area. I second that.
I count 150 virtual worlds operating or in development which focus on the eighteen and under age group. Actually one of the key drivers for this was the success of Club Penguin (http://www.clubpenguin.com) and neopets (http://www.neopets.com) . And while researching I found out that many virtual worlds or MMO's have had to have downloads due to the browser & Flash technology but as this improves a virtual world or MMO becomes accessible to the mass markets people are willing to invest large amounts of money. The likes of Habbo (http://www.habbo.com)and IMVU (www.imvu.com) are popular browser based virtual worlds, and early developments I've noticed have been focused on following them. A huge space has formed in the older age group which second life was pitched to because most of the focus was on children's markets.
RJ LAVALLIAN - I'm a writer out in CA releasing a book this week, targeted at technophobes rather than technophiles.What's really been fascinating is seeing how this industry mirrors that of other industries when you're working on more advanced technologies that those inside wouldn't keep advancing if it wasn't for the technology. And yet, it's really first adopters that you're grabbing. While the FBs (Facebook's) of the world, the non-avatar-driven spaces are the ones that are really mass-market darlings right now; the avatar space is still relegated to heavy gamers or kids who are probably, now at this point, 3rd generation gamers.
DONALD: Tish, you wouldn't agree with that point, would you?
TISH: I think if you're just looking at where we stand now, re the integration of virtual world technology into the internet, we're still at a very Alpha stage. The kind of interesting things that are going to benefit from the possibilities of a mash-up come when we have the core of virtual world technology widely available as open source modules. The core of this technology, in my view, is that anything you do is automatically presence-enabled and you can interact with an application or in a changing context together with people.
Currently virtual worlds are limited to lightweight kids' worlds, walled gardens and/or monolithic Second Life worlds. We're at an inflection point where both the potential to create really massively scaled networked online 3D social /gaming communities is going to grow while walled garden virtual worlds will gradually disappear.
Virtual Worlds will become a heterogeneous part of the network - a mainstream part of the Internet. When that happens, then you'll get all kinds of possibilities - people's imaginations will go wild and find other ways that this technology can be incorporated into our lives.
RJ Lavallian - One of the projects I've undertaken is designing garments - really cool Renaissance jackets that you can embed all your technology in. There's one on gamer.com - you can see the real cool black/silver one. The idea would be that if what avatars are about as embodiment and movement and presences of people. Think of going into your flat in 2012 or 2015 and you have a wall-sized display; you walk in your cool jacket and immediately as you're walking along the wall your avatar is walking along inside the VW. There's a whole crowd of your friends on that wall. You're talking, and waving, and so your VW is kind of like a gigantic Wii.
But that's one potential vision of embodiment - the movement and shape that we have in the social networking of what VW have taken to whatever extreme of beyond just looking at a little tiny interface and clicking on things to set up stuff. It'd be like a cocktail party shimmering on the wall in your flat - you enter that space and you walk forward and the world walks to you.
(Unidentified Caller # 1)- I thought Tish really spoke to it very elegantly, where we stand today, that cut bridge between where we were and Web 2.0 - basically insinuating that Web 2.0 isn't here yet.
(Unidentified Caller) - Comparing today's experience to say the 90s, I think there's a big difference is just familiarity with 3D. I think a lot of people have been watching the 3D games on PS2 exposing a lot of them to interactive 3D.
The acceptance of 3D probably feels a bit more comfortable. And then there's been some recent success stories like WOW (Worlds of Warcraft) which six or more million people use. Before that I don't think we expected that many people to be using this space in such large numbers. People have gotten comfortable with doing more random things on the internet of late too; unproductive, frivolous but rewarding things.People are more cavalier about trying new things online. Pipelines for content - there wasn't good 3D content back in the 2.0 era. And now there's more pipelines producing good 3D virtual world content. Of course some of the download problems are still there. Flash, for virtual worlds, has made these environments more accessible to the world wide web. A whole bunch of these things have converged to make 3D spaces more inviting.
[Unideified Caller — Original Transcript] ? - comparing it now, to say, the 90s. A big difference I think is just familiarity with 3D. I think a lot of people have been watching the 3D games on PS2 and whatnot, really started to come on strong in the early 2000s - I think a lot of people have been exposed to interactive 3D. It probably feels a bit more comfortable. And then there's been some recent success stories, like WOW (Worlds of Warcraft), which before 6 or more millions of people use that - I don't think people expected that many people to be using that space in such large numbers. People have gotten comfortable with doing more random things on the internet of late too - unproductive, frivolous but rewarding things. People are more cavalier about trying new things online. Pipelines for content - there wasn't good content back in the [garbled-? ] era - and now, there's more pipelines producing good content. Any of the download problems are still there. Flash, for VW, has made it more accessible. A whole bunch of these things have converged to make it more inviting.
DONALD: OK, I think we should move on at this point and talk about the money situation which Tish had brought up to some extent. What I wish to talk about is apropos of what Tish had to say regarding the Virtual World Management Study (www.virtualworldsmanagement.com/2007/index.html) of accountable transactions. This study has to do with who's putting money where.
Media firms have invested 148.5 million in twelve virtual world related companies, and that's just in the 3rd quarter of 07. But if you break those numbers down, the big money goes to Gaia Online (www.gaiaonline.com), a teen/young-adult world which picked up $11 million, and Trion World Network (www.trionworld.com), which picked up $70 million. Or, to the teen/tween audience. So to a greater extent what you're talking about is the worlds some of us may aspire to. Looking at the future for virtual worlds including Second Life and Lively, now folding, is that these virtual worlds are barely on the radar of most people. Editor's note: Update Virtual World transactions for venture capital and media firms Q1-Q4 2008 URL: www.virtualworldsmanagement.com/2008/vgoods2008.html.
So Bruce, what do you have to say about that?
BRUCE: I think that this is potentially a replay of 97-98 when there was just a crowded field of companies with cool technologies but without much business model/market share or really a grasp of how to make a sticky, sustainable experience and what we saw during that period was a real crash. I mean, the investors forced mergers of companies— really only a couple survived from that era. It's a wonderful thing to see all the innovation and new approaches, but there's a consequence; people do run out of cash and they don't find relevance and it's kind of a new Winter. If there's a new Winter coming, it's a little bit of a jarring experience when that happens. It's part of the birth of the new medium, but there are probably way too many entrants in the market right now for what the user base can sustain in the social worlds.
DONALD: Does anybody have an advantage in terms of the social worlds? When I was at GDC (Game Developer's Conference), I talked about 2nd Life particularly among the gamer crowd, their view was that the people involved in social worlds were just futurists. We were people who had aspirations, aspirational players, and as far as they were concerned it wasn't really relevant. Does anyone have an opinion on that subject.
TISH: I have an opinion on the whole social media issue. I think there's a kind of myopic tendency to see virtual worlds in a short-sighted frame. That tendency can be seen in Web 2.0 where social media is sometimes seen as the dominant part of Web 2.0. This is like seeing virtual worlds just as recreational social media. This is just my take on it all. If you want to really get imaginative about virtual worlds, look at where the internet is going. There is much more going on than just social media.
To illustrate my point, I was really lucky on Friday night to spend an hour looking for a sandwich with Tim O'Reilly, and in conversation with him I got an inside view where he wants to put his energy - that's basically projects about linking the web to the world, the non-keyboard input data web. As the web meets the world, the Internet is transformed into something else, something we have not experienced before.
For example, one of the projects that Tim O'Reilly is supporting, they are working on aggregating the world's energy data. The kind of interaction 3D space will have with this transformation of the internet into the internet of things or the database of things - that's where stuff's getting interesting. Actually, I will just give a counterpoint to Bruce's wonderful vision of the avatar. Tim O'Reilly sees non-avatar driven virtual environments- where, for example, the cameras are the sensors (like Photosynth) which will create 3D spaces that we learn to navigate. Then there may be doorways into more virtual spaces - even a more user-generated virtual reality, etc.
This is a very creative time right now and when I look at these very myopic views, I think "well, that's good because people need to make stuff work now using what's around, using the technology as it is today.' But there are lots of big possibilities that we're really only on the cusp of."
DONALD: Let's look back a little bit. I was reading something about Bruce's book "Avatar," his history, he's been working on the history for quite some time; the history started with "May's (?) World" in 1974. But let's focus on something a little more contemporary - say, the mid 90s. Bruce, I'd like to explore a tad more with you about some of the lessons learned: there were a lot of competing agendas, lot of competing platforms. When the VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) Spec came out, it didn't go anywhere. Tony Parisi tried to do the X3D spec (www.web3d.org/x3d/), and that didn't go anywhere. Can you chart the rise and fall of expectations? How it's similar? The platforms and standards between then and now?
BRUCE: I think one thing really important when we refer to VRML Worlds: they had almost no intersection with Avatar space. Most browsers that used VRML as single-user, kind of 3D file browser. Of early avatar platforms with traffic, Blaxxun used VRML (with modifications) for multiuser and Onlive Traveler used another modified early version of VRML. But VRML was not architected for multiuser experience nor was it architected for streaming, important for that era's slow modem speeds. Most of the technology in early avatar worlds was based on custom engines tuned across a whole spectrum to deliver 2D and 3D experiences. But that said, the only platforms that survived that period were the ones where the users built the most content - Alpha World, which was a skunk-works project at Worlds Inc. While this platform may have been created by one guy (Ron Britvich), the users built all these incredible spaces and actually took over that platform when Worlds Inc. went into Chapter 11. That company is now called Active Worlds (www.activeworlds.com) and it's still around and still doing business. There's a lesson there. It's almost like Apple: the users loved Apple products and they kept the company afloat during the bad times.
DONALD: You just recalled something I had a conversation about not too long ago, at one of these conferences. The fellow from Habbo (http://www.habbo.com) was talking about how - yes, they are making a profit, but the users dictate what Habbo is going to do moving forward.
What role, Tish and Bruce, do you think the user plays in driving this thing? Do you think any lesson can be learned form that kind of community involvement in terms of how people can make money on this?
TISH: I think that is where you see a kind of interesting example in the Open Sim com (http://opensimulator.org). Basically, it's very young itself, so we can't pay -
DONALD: Can you explain Open Sim, for those who are not particularly conversant with it?
Open Sim Defined & Probable Future Development Road Map
TISH: Yes, Open Sim, or Open Simulator was a project that first began with publishing the basic libraries of Second Life. It developed into a re-engineering project of the server side. Open Sim works with the open-source Second Life viewer and a number of other alternate viewers that can be found on the OpenSim Wiki.
Having the open source SL viewer to start with was very helpful to this project because to have the complete package made it a supreme test platform where young companies could try out new ideas or test a business model very cheaply. This isn't the only open source virtual world technology, but in terms of OpenSource thinking it is important that there is a community to drive that. Well, it may not have been the only place to start or maybe not the best place to start, but there was a very powerful developer community in Second Life that created the little hotbed for developers to pick up on this technology and do the work to re-engineer it. The developers made the code more useful by making it modular. The modular code could than be remixed and matched using scalable architecture. I think, in terms of standards, top down standards aren't going to work.
There's a top-down standard from MPEG-V - basically just a set of requirements at the moment - but on the internet, that's too slow. These are community-driven projects. It's about people cooperating - a rough consensus - to develop protocols where two differently organized virtual world technologies can communicate. Much of this development can be done on already common standards like HTTP.
It's way too early to really know if the new standards are going to be useful. I think it's all community driven at one level, at the developer end. But I think that applies at the enterprise end also. This is really the whole game: the idea that we're going to have 35 companies sitting down and hammering out requirements. And this new standards group is for example, MPEG-V, and then they're going to come out with it in two years, and the result is going to be something useful? That's pretty far-fetched.
DONALD: What about, for instance, efforts - I'm talking about the Electric Sheep (www.electricsheepcompany.com) company, where they're trying to make it more HTML-friendly. Inspired by the Platform Ogoglio (www.ogoglio.com) ES put together PaperVision 3D (http://blog.papervision3d.org) and Apache's MINA (http://mina.apache.org) into a product they call WebFlock (www.electricsheepcompany.com/webflock ). I'm talking about this in terms of something that might have a chance of greater adoption, or do either of you think that's not the way to go?
BRUCE: I think really the understanding certainly of the technology of getting things in Flash or if you already have an installed base, and you can do a rich-experiences-shared, that's a really great step. We were trying to do that in 2000, 2001 using Java, rendering 3D scenes, lightweight little worlds. Beyond that, one has to understand what do people want to do if they're going to a page and suddenly they're given the option to jump into a world; what are they doing there? If you're a teenager, you could be using one of these platforms to have a little date, and it's very brief discussions that may be tied to your IM or Twitter feed - it's all blended in. What other things could you do?
Things we're doing- we worked with NASA for 10 years, and developed open source VW platforms to do space missions simulation. One of the cool things it these learning spaces, we're doing one on the Hubble mission repair. It's as easy as going to a website and going to these little rich, experiential spaces where you're becoming an astronaut, for example. Maybe that's just for learning, but that's quite powerful. There's a whole group of people who like robotics and space, but you'd find a lot more people visiting sites like that.TISH: There's a lot proprietary code for virtual worlds which is a problem. People keep re-inventing the wheel when really the wheel should be something public and open that's available for everyone to use. What we do with the wheel is what counts. These propriety virtual worlds are all going to fall away very quickly. Everyone is doing something in a slightly different way, in a proprietary way. The development costs of this approach are ridiculous.
TISH: The only thing that's ever been seriously proposed in that way was the original proposal of Croquet (www.opencroquet.org) as a legit replacement for HTTP. That's the only serious time that was really proposed. Just to backtrack, on JSON - that's about integrating on current web technology. It's a way to get data in, data out; people talk about having a browser world, but when you think about it, do you want to be using the backbone? What you really want to do is be able to bring data in and out from a web service into a 3D space. It's the transaction of the data that's important. This idea that there's going to be some 3D internet that replaces some 2D internet doesn't drive me. The core of Croquet still has to be matured - that is, making P2P rock and roll. If you've ever played with Croquet, you're sort of wooshing in and out of Windows; that's an idea. P2P (Peer to Peer) hasn't really come of age. We're going to see some big game-changes about that one. JSON is really just a web standard, and I've been promoting that efficiently.
BRUCE: The historian of computer/interfaces, I've seen almost 30 years of different ways to present experiences. You've got a document metaphor, which came out of the Xerox camp in the 70s, which dominates now. Various experiments in rotating data camps, and text walls, and all this sort of stuff. All of them seem to come and go. People do prefer to slide around virtual 2D interfaces to do stuff. If you look at it, it's really whiz-bang.
There are many platforms which show a VW, but they've never gone beyond. Our whole industry has a tremendous loss of memory. It's only been 5 years since a major startup failed: Inside World , and yet, people still come up and get funding, and try to do this again and again. Often, people will start enterprises where they take pictures of people's faces and try to put them on avatars. I've seen six or seven companies come and go who try to do that.
I think this is why we're doing the VW timeline project, which is VWtimeline.org - because we're trying to say,‚Äùlook guys, don't try and reinvent this wheel over and over again. The wheel was only good in a certain set of roadways. Don't try to do the things that have already tried and failed because it doesn't fit the medium, and here's the history of the medium, which is very ephemeral: Here's all the artifacts from all the stuff from the last 30 years that they've been tried and worked. Let's focus on the things that are likely to work.‚Äù
DONALD: Since you have to bring people along, why in your opinion are people loathe to make a drastic change? Incrementally what can be done to transition people to something that ultimately might be, whether it's for education or, as Bruce said, simulation, for research purposes, to advance the cause of virtual worlds? People are loathe to learn something completely new.
BRUCE: I think that you're pretty much - a lot of interaction modality is now locked into the goodies we have. You're not going convince them with something new, something that introduces a lot of cognitive complexity, like navigating a 3D space to read your email. I agree with Tish in that way. I think I also agree with Tish that unless we have some really, really powerful open source frameworks, it's no way to build an industry to have a whole lot of startups get funded and then go under, and leave all the technology in a big pile. Then you're left with nothing and you're starting all over again, and it may happen. Things like Open SIM, Croquet, and our platform were sort of - we're the long-term-ers, we're the lifers. We're trying to build this medium and we're willing to go through another couple of winters. We can build a really good open framework then people can build companies on the open framework.
DONALD: I'd like to chime in on that, because Bruce you have a very long history in this area - you've seen what has come before as have I, because we were both in the VRML SIG way back when. What is your opinion as to an approach? What is, as I think you suggested, the avatar-based approach? People using their avatar as some kind of ID, some kind of persona as a way of getting in to virtual worlds. Because, unless I interpreted you wrong, I think that's something you would support. Is that a way to go? Is there something else to unravel this kind of complexity? Because people don't care about technology. What happens to them when they use the technology is what matters. Virtual world participants want to know what's going to make it more interesting or more compelling. What's your opinion?
BRUCE: I think the merger of Facebook - for instance, when I got on my Facebook account, and I've got tons of pictures and I've put music up, videos, whatever, it would just - I think this is maybe where Tony Parisi and his company or Electric Sheep are taking their company - I'd like to go into a really cool "My Pad" in MySpace which pulls together all of my pictures and my stuff, and where my Bot is sitting, and says "Hi! Do you want to talk to this cool guy that owns this flat?" And the bot sends a message to me in the world because I'm always wanting to build new fans. That kind of thing could take off. If you had a complete blend of the people promoting themselves and their creative ideas, building their networks, showing off their stuff, and if you could make such a world then it would match all the metaphors. If Tish is pointing out there's going to be one really huge successful company that does that, then that becomes the standard. Or, maybe that kind of an open framework - and those are small worlds, so those don't require 20,000 servers and $50 million in investment, those small words and the Facebook pages. So I'm keeping my eye on that one.
DONALD: Talking about the whole subject of investing, moving beyond the game community and the teens, whether it's their Webkinz (www.webkinz.com), or Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com) - is there anything out there that someone on this call can recommend that would be worth investing in? Or should we just wait and see and who gets the money, who has success and who will fail? Is this just going to be a totally hit or miss thing? Or is there some prescription that anyone sees, that might be useful for the people to follow?
TISH: Do something useful. Then whatever happens, it will turn out good. That's a mantra that works. It might not work as a social media concept perhaps, but this is a counterpoint to Bruce's wonderful creative vision of what could go with some of these small worlds - but you've got to remember that there's some big plays going on in the technology in general. Things like Photosynth are coming out where people can build their own 3D worlds from their photos. And this was Tim's idea that this would help people get used to navigating 3D space.
There's gonna be whatever Trion produces with their $70 million. What's produced is gonna get more and more kids into navigating 3D spaces in different ways. I really think that the thing we're all going to get used to is: we think of virtual worlds as these kind of places we go on the flat screen, but someday 3D spaces are going to be projected into our living rooms. This is the border between augmented reality, mirror worlds, user-generated worlds, and photosynth kind of worlds. The breaking down of borders is where things are getting interesting. I'm sure that venture capital will go with some proprietary code ideas too. And as Bruce described, there will be "reinvention of the wheel." But you know it's being creative with where the Internet as a whole is going; that's really key in my view.
DONALD: In terms of getting people excited about the possibility of trying virtual worlds maybe breaking down and removing a tremendous obstacle to virtual world acceptance and adoption would be to eliminate the keyboard and the mouse as a mean of accessing the world inside the computer screen. There are combinations of things out there; for example, we can look to Linden Labs puppeteering project and EMOTIV's head mounted user interface product due out in the first or second quarter of next year. This wireless interface has a framework of sensors that you put on your skull, reading EEG and EKG signals. In terms of playing the game you feel that you're more a part of it—you're not thinking with your fingers— you're thinking and moving things with your mind.
PAUL ROBBINS: I just love listening to you guys talking about this cool stuff. The removal of the keyboard and the mouse - the fact is: that's still a long way away. The fact is you need to give people a reason now, because there's not a whole lot of investment going in. The problem is it's not accessible. Do you think that maybe some of the virtual worlds should take a few steps backwards to get people a very accessible experience. A little bit like a mobile phone - years ago, people never thought they'd be using a personal computer to make phone calls. It's now standard because you've been eased into technology over time. You were introduced to Symbian (www.symbian.com/symbianos/index.asp) and things, now you're emailing on your PC which happens to be your phone. So - what's happening with the virtual world technology is it's just so inaccessible and people are scared. That was proved when Second Life peaked when it did. It didn't really get any more momentum. Maybe if we could just take it back a few steps and ease people in slowly‚Ä¶
TISH: I think there's a lot of projects trying to do that and I like Raph's Metaplace a lot. It's gonna give a lot of opportunity for creativity. I don't know what business models will emerge from Metaplace. But I think there are a lot of efforts at 2.5D, lightweight virtual worlds. That's what the Habbo Hotel phenomenon is about.
I think that many people are developing in Flash. And I think people are working in Flash because as you say its web friendly and I think you're absolutely right that accessibility is key. You can't have these things impossible to use. Look at how much trouble it is to get used to a new 2D program, even this 2D collaborative space. It's hard to get it working. Look at the work it took setting up this web-meeting today.
The issue is not really just to do with whether it's 3D or whether you're using augmented reality, or if it's a keyboard or joystick or even some other interface altogether which makes it easy or hard. We were on a keyboard with this online conference in a very ordinary 2D interface. We still maxed out at the 20-person concurrency and had quite a few difficulties. I don't think you can assume that accessibility is going to come from just limiting yourself to 2D space. I don't think we can make that assumption. I'm very happy to see projects like Metaplace, but I think you mustn't make the assumption that playing by these certain rules (of the 2D internet as we know it today) is gonna give you something that's accessible and usable.
(Unidentified Caller #2 - Edited Version) I just want to make a point. I attended a panel for video games where they had 13-17 year-olds, and this is sort of a paring with what that other gentleman had to say. The games they like best were the ones they didn't even have to think about: Donkey Kong or Super Mario Brothers. So, yes, the games have to be easy to us, but the question is: if we're looking over the horizon, how do we bring people forward. How do we interest them in something they might ultimately enjoy if they would rather play something in 2.5D?
[OTHER GUY- Original Copy] - I just want to make a point - I attended a panel for video games, where they had 13-to-17 year-olds, and this is sort of pairing what that other gentleman had to say. The games they liked playing best were the ones where you didn't really have to think about them. Donkey Kong, or Super Mario Bros. - they even talked about enjoying playing games on the Atari because they didn't have to think. So - I mean, there is a factor - yes, they have to be easy to use, but - the question is "how do we use - if, we're looking over the hill, we're looking at the horizon - how do we bring people forward? How do we interest them in something they might ultimately enjoy if they would rather play something in 2.5D?
(Unidentified Caller #2 — Edited Version)
I wonder if synchrony, that communications happen at precisely the same time, is a barrier? One of the things that's allowed Facebook and text messaging and some of the more recently popular ways of socializing to be so successful is that they're a-synchronous. That there is a time gap that gives you a much broader window of opportunity for socializing.
I could imagine a different wave than the way things are done now, where rooms are emphasized. I could imagine a telescoping experience where there's an avatar on your social networking profile page that's kind of an agent, kind of a representation of you even when you are not there.
There are some trivial asynchronous avatar interaction like Buddy which is a recently popular thing on Orkut (www.orkut.com) in Brazil. Digital Chocolate has an interesting little game called AvaPeeps (www.avapeeps.com), where you go out on dates and you're never actually on a date in real time; it's more like your profiles are interacting with each other. There's a lot of room for improvement over BuddyPoke (www.buddypoke.com) and AvaPeeps, but maybe the avatar - stuff you do with your avatar as far as dressing it - goes out on your social network on dates. This maybe one level of interaction as an agent. In another level of interaction your avatar goes out on dates even when you're not there. And if you really want to have the immersive experience, then you can go into a world or get a room.
[OTHER GUY- Original Copy] I wonder if synchrony is a barrier. One of the things that's allowed - things like Facebook and text messaging and some of the more recently popular ways of socializing to be so successful is that they're a-synchronous, which gives you a much broader window of opportunity for socializing. I could imagine a different wave than the way things are done now, where rooms or places are emphasized could imagine a telescoping experience where there's an avatar on your social networking profile page that's kind of an agent, kind of a representation even when you're not there. There are some trivial asynchronous avatar interaction like Buddy Poke(www.buddypoke.com) is a recently popular thing on Orkut (www.orkut.com) in Brazil. Digital Chocolate has an interesting little game called AvaPeeps (www.avapeeps.com), where you go out on dates and you're never actually on a date in real time, it's more like your profiles are interacting with each other. There's a lot of room for improvement over BuddyPoke (www.buddypoke.com) and AvaPeeps, but maybe your avatar - stuff you do with your avatar as far as dressing it - goes out on your social network on dates, may be one level of interaction as an agent. It goes out on dates when you're not there - is another level, and if you're really want to have the immersive experience, then you can go into a world or get a room
DONALD: Get a room. I like that. Well we have about ten more minutes. What I've found particularly interesting in Second Life is the involvement of educators, at least the ones I spoke with, who have been using virtual worlds as a teaching tool. They find that what the students bring into the virtual worlds in certain cases offers them a certain level of freedom that they haven't experienced before. Some students feel less encumbered than then they would when trying to speak up in a classroom situation.
In terms of wrapping this up, let's take a quick look at some things that are actually working and that people are embracing, beyond Facebook, beyond Twitter. What is working in current virtual worlds that might bear improving upon or extending to other forums?
BRUCE: There're numerous projects educators are using in virtual worlds. A friend of mine Jason from Modesto California created the Pacific Rim X Project where they had students in Modesto building a virtual island with students in Japan. Jason has triplet sons and they were all involved. Just meeting these kids and realizing the cultural expansion and mind expansion that they've had across the Pacific. It's a simple project, sort of extra-curricular, but I know those guys - one of them came up to one of our NASA conferences and I know that his interest in virtual worlds sparked his interest in simulation for space and maybe he'll have a career in that. His new interest never would've happened if he didn't have that playground learning space, social space, of the 2nd Life Island that those guys put together across the ocean.
TISH: There's a wonderful project on OpenSIM called GreenBush. They just do stunning stuff. It's a group of 8 and 9 year-olds. They're using the building tools in a way that's totally appropriate to what the kids can do with the tools, e.g., simple building projects using basic prims.
While I haven't actually been in Green Bush, I've just seen videos. But it looks very, very different. We've barely touched on what we can do with these experiences. They are very compelling. I know this from my 9 year old. He can't go in 2nd Life. But I have set him up with an OpenSim and he's happy for hours, just building and creating his own world, even if it's not a social thing because none of his friends have there own OpenSim yet.
PAUL ROBBINS: Can I mention Spore? Because I think Spore is an amazing example of - all they did was release a "creature creator," and I sat with all the kids in our family and showed them it and they loved it. I agree with you, Tish, on the creativity side - Spore is an amazing example. I think it'll be hugely popular because you can create stuff, and I think there'll be a group of people, albeit still a huge one, will go deeper into the game. But at least millions of people have got that first initial feel of creating something, being involved in a virtual world. Also, it's semi-scientific.
DONALD: So are we suggesting here that some other problems — be they navigation, the learning curve—that can be overcome, if - whether it's young people, or old people, middle-aged people - see real benefit? Is there something that they can do that will cause them to persist in getting over the hump?
GREG PFISTER: You need something that people find irresistible. They have to do it. That will cause them to do all kinds of things. I've been around this for a long time. I remember when back in the early '60s the psychologists claimed that people would never use a mouse because it was so much of a cognitive difference between the mouse and a white pen, that you were actually interacting with the screen. You can imagine that's in some aspects true, but people got around it. If they NEED to.
DONALD: Can anyone suggest off the top of their head what they think would be something for those who are not into creating content. Tish, I like creating things on the internet. But what about the people who just like to be entertained by what other people do, and are less likely to overcome some of these barriers to entry? Is there something for them as well, or is it all about the user-generated content that will drive virtual world adoption?
TISH: There's always something. "To get quickly back to Spore, that is such a high-end experience." Millions of dollars of investment, years of work, and the best designers in the world were involved in its creation. Spore has given people this really wonderful experience with user generated content.
But to get back to Donald's closing point - there's masses of things that can be done and you can look at examples in social media that have nothing to do with virtual worlds. For example, I don't know if you've heard of a dating site from ages ago called www.iminlikewithyou.com? The website is a very compelling site. I'm out of its age demographic, but I challenge anyone who's in that age demographic not to get totally hooked into this silly set of things they have put together in terms of a little gaming idea and a very pleasant interface. There's this very interesting way iminlikeyou interacts with real-life communities that sort of extends out of the online community in real life in interesting ways. Getting pings on your mobile while you're meeting people you've met online; it's very, very compelling.
Again : many interesting things are yet to be done with Virtual Worlds. This is why I promote open source - so we can be creative and put these things together in different unexpected ways.
Someone mentioned robotics, you can optimize your Sims to a much higher A I (artificial intelligence) experience or you can add virtual robotics, create a mixed reality experience, or you can bring the whole thing down to a very simplistic level by limiting the experience in some ways or creating more controlled, less user generated, world or sims in a box.
You can be creative and spend less money by using open source modules. You don't have to rely so heavily upon venture capital or development money. You can just get started with your creative ideas.
DONALD: Last thing on this. There is so much more we could talk about. Greg mentioned that we've been talking about training and education, but in terms of a collaborative medium we've come up a bit short. I met Christain Renaud at the Virtual World Conference when they were at the Javits' Center in New York.
From Cisco, Renaud, Chief Architect, Networked Virtual Environments, was talking about how the corporations want some kind of forum where they can use their existing tools, the tools that they know such as MS Word, Power Point, Excel. These companies want to get the output from this software in there as easily as possible. Could fulfilling this need be something really fruitful in driving virtual worlds forward? If the cost of transportation, face-to-face communication, becomes such a barrier to getting together, knowing that people still have to meet with one another, is virtual world a "place" to go?
BRUCE: I've just spent a week with people in London - Tish was there too - who were looking at VW for business meetings. It's kind of a tough sell. I'm CTO of a company that has almost 200 employees and I'll tell Mr. CTO of X,Y,Z company I've used VW for meetings in my own company, DigitalSpace, for years, but I would never ever use them in practice in this larger IT company. Business leaders and time-pressured employees just don't have the patience to figure out the interfaces and handle the additional cognitive load of navigating a space to just recognize where people's avatars are standing. It just doesn't make sense to go through all that when we can have a 20-minute old fashioned 2D WebEx(www.webex.com) session and get it all done. We don't need the "presence" and social benefits offered in an avatar space to get our work done. Learning experiences, team building and other uses of virtual worlds have real possibilities of adoption but I am skeptical about their utility in hard-pressed, tough businesses like IT, sales, finance, and product development.
TISH: This approach, using VWs for internal collaboration and team building first, is IBMs. They made the VW an opt in choice with a very low bar to entry when they integrated OpenSim into Lotus SameTime. So using the virtual world is just an option among others in Lotus SameTime (www-01.ibm.com/software/lotus/sametime). If you want to you can instant message someone and say "come in this space" and meet. That gives people an opportunity to get used to it. It's a very easy way in. I think Bruce is right, but I think the search for new tools for collaboration is happening throughout the enterprise. It is almost a no-brainer that within the next two years real time collaborative technologies based on many of the ideas we see in virtual worlds today are going to be pervasive throughout enterprise and consumer web technology.
BRUCE: I'm not convinced. We've deployed them into companies for 10, 15 years and I'm not convinced it's going to get us a foothold in the enterprise. I'm really not.
TISH: Well, it may not be in all the forms. For example, I went to London.
DONALD: One minute - I'm sorry to cut people off, this was absolutely fascinating to me being one of my passions going way back as Bruce knows. I want to see virtual worlds go.
I hope we will have resolved some of our technical issues and allow more people in on the next occasion. Perhaps, we can actually show some examples via video stream.
I'd like to thank Tish - I'm just in awe of Tish. I've been following her stuff for over a year now, and I think Bruce has always stretched my imagination dating back to the time we first met at the New York VRML SIG.
In addition, I'd also like to thank Fast Company for allowing me this opportunity. I'm sure next time we'll definitely get it worked out and more people can participate. This Call-In will subsequently be available for a podcast and maybe we'll put it up on the technology forum as a transcript that way people can find their way into it; start picking up on their own sense of what we talked about today. Thanks to the Fast Company staff. I'd like to thank everyone who participated. Have a good night.