Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Education in Virtual Worlds, Events

Where Virtual Worlds are Going: Why is the New What, How is for Tomorrow (Report on 3DTLC)

I was going to live blog the 3DTLC conference and take lots of detailed notes on the case studies and panel discussions but then got distracted by the Twitter feed of the show which was kind of exciting – I felt like I was at Metanomics casting out pithy comments in the back chat and feeling witty (which isn’t the same as BEING witty, of course) except that I wished the panelists could WATCH the back chat – nothing like rattling them with a few comments to throw them off message right?

In any case, it wasn’t like my first virtual world conference which covered kid’s worlds, and openSim, and platforms and collaboration and….well, and anything that could be thrown into the giant basket that could be called virtual worlds. The organizers at Show Initiative (publishers of Virtual World News) decided to split things off and so we had the Engage Expo which I didn’t attend, and which I take it was more of a consumer thing, which meant of course mostly a kids thing, and there was 3DTLC, which was positioned for the adults.

So there was a cast of – well, a hundred or two attendees and a few dozen panelists, with “wow, I know that brand” names on their business cards, among them many of the usual suspects like Intel and IBM and Sun, but others that I maybe didn’t expect, like Chevron and BP and KPMG and then the one guy who totally didn’t fit in but who generated the most discussion: he trains volunteer police forces for virtual worlds, and he talked too long and I couldn’t follow him, but his bottom line seemed to be that virtual worlds are filled with users with criminal intent and it’s time to raise a militia, man.

What’s in a Name
second life whats it called

One of the first themes of the conference was wording. Or I call it spin, but this being Washington they probably just call it par for the course: war on terror one week becomes overseas protective actions the next or whatever they’re calling it these days.

So 3DTLC wasn’t called the “virtual world training, learning, and collaboration conference”, it was called 3D….but I didn’t see anyone presenting on PaperVision or Google Earth or PhotoSynth – what I saw were avatars, and they were all in 3D spaces, and in my books those are all virtual worlds.

Erica Driver kicked things off by reminding us that she’s calling all this stuff the “Immersive Internet” which is odd – because I’ve felt immersed in the Internet forever, there’s nothing non-immersive about it, although maybe the idea is that 3D makes it even more so.

But I won’t use the term “Immersive Internet” with clients because it has this faint ring of escapism: “hey, bring your staff into this new 3D technology stuff, they’ll be immersed!” – at which point the VP of Marketing or whatever raises an eyebrow and pictures his staff running off to Warcraft and being so immersed that the phones don’t get answered and the e-mail gets piled up and he’s running interventions.

So there was this sort of low-grade struggle to come up with the right name. The reasoning seems to be that if you call it virtual worlds it has too many negative associations. And so you have people calling it “3D Internet Technology” but hardly anyone calling it the “Metaverse” which is too geeky anyways, and who can spend the time explaining the four quadrants all the time?

But my problem with what you call it is that the term virtual worlds isn’t encompassing enough, even when it’s clearly a world that you’re talking about – like Second Life, say, or the many mini worlds of Metaplace, or the ‘simulations’ behind the firewall or whatever. Because the richness of virtual worlds is increasingly an ecosystem of connections and content that bleeds from Web to world – whether it’s tracking your friends in Plurk, or posting your in-world photos to KoinUp, or booking virtual meeting with your colleagues through Lotus Sametime.

For now, I just call it an application, or a virtual world, or maybe Web 3D.0 – like Web 2.0 only better and with an extra letter in it. Because virtual worlds are places, with people, and it’s 3D, and it’s social, and everyone’s looking for the next venture capital gold mine, right? And while Web 3.0 is taken, no one understands the semantic Web anyways, and besides I tucked in that extra letter.

But the reality is that the exciting stuff to do with 3D isn’t necessarily happening in virtual worlds anyways: frankly, I’m not sure it is. Which is fine, because it’s all starting to bleed together, and into the browser, and into Flash.

There’s more intriguing work being done right now with 3D desktops (like the sparkly and intriguing Bump Top, for example. Or Photosynth, which I mentioned above, which turns photos into a David Hockney painting.

PhotoSynth Sample

David Hockney

Now, before we leave naming conventions, the other name that I discovered has evil connotations was the word “game” – so much so that after it was first mentioned, panelists kept referring to it as the “G word”. Now, this is intriguing to me, because I thought all the money these days was in games, and that companies were delivering little game widgets to their staff to keep them motivated and trained, and I follow the Serious Games discussions, especially the health related ones, and they don’t seem to be struggling to come up with another name – so maybe it’s just the virtual worldy types have other things in mind, or there’s a cultural thing there somewhere, I’m not sure.

But all of which had me thinking: I’m not sure who these people are pitching to, but maybe they need to find the folks in the corporate chain with a little more imagination than someone who convulses and twitches if you use the words ‘game’ or ‘virtual worlds’.

What is Yesterday but How is Tomorrow
Regardless of what it’s all called, 3DTLC clearly marked a break between the what and the why. It’s kind of like the days when I was pitching the Internet and you’d have to spend an hour explaining WHAT a browser is WHAT a link leads to. Same with virtual worlds – yesterday it was all “What” stuff:

- What is a virtual world
- What is an avatar
- What is the technology underneath it all
- What’s my business model.

And so the kind of rotating, geeky, acronym and jargon-laded chat of last year (with an even greater number of people using that word “space” that drives me so crazy, as in “I’m in the training SPACE” instead of just saying “I work in training”) has been replaced by “Why’s”:

- Why should I use virtual worlds
- Why should my boss care
- Why will this be a success.

So the hunt was on for metrics and studies and returns on investment and PROOF: give me some specific “use cases” (did I just use the term use case? Shoot me!), show me why this has a lower tolerance for failure than it did a year ago, and remind me why I’m doing it so we can measure it and prove it works.

And this is where the 3DTLC conference succeeded: it was all about proofs. Examples. And I think the audience was thrilled that Sun was retaining MBA students by using virtual worlds, and that Chevron was training people on how not explode a refinery, and that we could all go home to our bosses and say “yeah, but BP is using this to bring global teams together, and they’re not some little prim shoe maker in Second Life, this stuff is REAL!”

The problem is I’m always sort of thinking of the ‘how’s’ – the questions that come AFTER the “let’s do a virtual meeting” phase of things, like:

- How do I embed this technology in my current enterprise systems
- How do I make virtual worlds part of my brand planning process
- How do I embed and collaborate on 3D models of my plant, (or mock up store designs, or import meshes)
- How do I take advantage of the fact that there are incredibly talented people out in the world who are working in virtual worlds and tap into that creativity to bring my school, or my enterprise, or my career more value?

In the hunt for proof, we risk forgetting that in addition to trying to water down what we call this stuff, and selling the simple, “easy-wins” to our bosses or colleagues – this “space” is also about the big stuff, the game-changing and transformative potential of a technology that brings people together in an engaging, collaborative and, yes, immersive way and produces more than a cost-savings or an improved retention rate.

It matters because it contains whimsy, and connection, and stories. Problem is, you can’t fit that in a conference title. So in the meantime, when I hear the terminology watered down I’ll ask the question: are you doing that to make it more palatable, or because you’re trying to capture that the metaverse is as big as your imagination.

Additional 3DTLC Coverage:
Live Twitter stream from conference

Ian Hughes (E-Predator) Gives a Comprehensive Review

Jeff Lowe – On Why Immersive is Better than Virtual

Karl Kapp on Education Panel

3DTLC – “What did I learn” – Synapse


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