Business in Virtual Worlds, Virtual World Platforms

Virtual Worlds Gone Mainstream

Virtual worlds quietly tipped into mainstream acceptance and I missed the party celebrating the milestone. Or maybe we all did. Or maybe I’m just a slightly delusional “n” of 1 who’s picking up highly anecdotal feedback and believing that it represents a sea change.

See, I’ve been doing road trips which, on top of some personal stuff that threw a giant curve ball my way, has kept me in a kind of nether zone of airports and hotel rooms with crappy wireless and mainly out of touch. But I’ve been talking about virtual worlds and social media, and I figure over the past few months I’ve presented to a combined total of a few hundred people – some consumers but a lot of enterprise types, pulling in a range of large companies and small, not-for-profits and military, government and healthcare clients.

And something funny happened along the way: the part of my presentation where I talk about social media was greeted with a lot of nodding heads, but the part about virtual worlds is what consistently lit a fire.

Now, I’ve been flogging virtual worlds for a while. And I’m coming at this later than a lot of people which has ended up being a good thing – virtual worlds have moved beyond early adopter phase and are creeping into ever-widening use cases and I can sort of make the coy claim that “oh, yeah, we examined the technology in detail before we brought it to you”, as if I had been waiting in the wings while the tech matured when the reality is I just kind of stumbled on it like some people learn to program Flash one night when they’re bored.

And as you’d know if you follow this blog and the work we do, I put virtual worlds in a broader perspective that includes ‘traditional’ media, social media, and interactive. And where a year or so ago I was greeted by a lot of ‘huhs?’ when it got to the virtual part, the response has changed, and it has changed in a way that feels, to me at least, significant, because now what I get is “Oh, yeah, I’ve HEARD about that, how do I get started?”

In particular, what I DON’T get are:

- Cynical responses about avatars – “you want us to play cartooooon characters?”
- “It’s a game, right?”
- “Come back when you can prove it has an impact.”
- “It probably costs too much.”

What I get instead is a sort of open-mindedness that’s a wonderful change. It sure makes the discussion a lot easier when you don’t have to convince people to pay attention in the first place. And there’s something refreshing as well about the delight people seem to have in the very idea of the avatar. I mean, you still get the odd, um, curmudgeon or whatever, but more frequently I do a demo and my audience will ask questions about whether you can choose your own outfit, or customize your look, and, 100% guaranteed: “Wow! Look at that! Your guy can fly!”

The question becomes whether virtual worlds can deliver once you have their agreement that they’re worth considering.

Designing Solutions
So, again, this is just my experience. And maybe my audiences are self-selecting or something. But let’s take it as a given for a minute that there’s a higher level of receptivity to virtual worlds than before.

But one thing that’s missing is a simple “language” of case studies, examples and common design approaches that point people to specific solutions.

Solutions are few – Protosphere, definitely, along a fairly narrow bandwidth. A bunch of Flash-y virtual conference things which are, frankly, the bane of the industry. A few ideas poking around with Web.Alive, maybe, which is a product that should, well, die a quick death in my opinion – I mean, haven’t we moved past Unreal?

Now, I’m not saying that we need a shelf of out-of-the-box products. But think of it like Web sites: in the early days, customers needed metaphors as ways of thinking about what they wanted out of the Web – an online store, a brochure, a company report, a catalog. They then shifted into business-driven results: “I want to increase sales, or retention rates, or customer loyalty, or staff knowledge”. The last part of the curve was to then use the technology to transform business practice itself.

Virtual worlds, I’d propose, are still at the early Web site days, and if they don’t shift to higher levels of the value curve soon, they may miss the opportunity of a receptive market.

For myself, I’m lucky to have Metanomics and Immersive Workspaces as working examples: they both give a short-form way to “read” a virtual world project. There’s a language to how it’s put together that’s familiar and can be attached directly to a value proposition. But what are the similar examples for, say, training? We have some of our own, of course, but there isn’t yet a wider shared language of these experiences – a few simple ways to describe and display the idea of training in a virtual environment.

So I spend a lot of time trying to create short cuts that can help people get past that “hey that’s cool” phase into the “Oh! I could use it for Project A”…and yet our shared database of experiences, our case studies and samples and language are scattered.

I’m convinced that virtual worlds have moved past skepticism and have shifted into wary acceptance. The challenge now is to simplify the entry path not just for users, but for enterprise too.


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