Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Virtual World Platforms

The Competitive Landscape of Virtual Worlds

For those who track the virtual worlds industry the competitive landscape usually comes down to a handful of usual suspects and a bunch of hangers-on while the reality is that the ‘game-changers’ won’t come from our traditional definitions, it will come from innovations that exist elsewhere. Not dissimilar to the game industry which had a myopic view that included consoles and large MMOs and then found itself side-swiped by casual games, virtual worlds are about to face competitive threats that won’t come from the expected quarters, and which will place huge pressures on the existing platforms to adapt or die.

My post yesterday kicked off a discussion that I didn’t intend to have happen, and it’s my fault really, because in a larger post about the vitality (or my impression of vitality) of the virtual worlds industry I made a throw-away comment about Web.Alive (that, um, basically it shouldn’t be) which brought the tireless Rigbys out to defend the utility of the virtual world platform. While I applaud any competition that will help to widen the adoption of the metaverse, my broader point about Web.Alive wasn’t that I have much of a problem with the platform itself, but rather that it represents a fairly narrow band of innovation in a fast-changing technology landscape.

I also made another throw-away comment, which I’ll also probably regret, that if there was a Second Life-killer in the wings it’s probably Unity, but seeing as that will also be misinterpreted, I’d probably better try to clarify and ramble a little so I can later defend myself by pointing back to vague and non-committal comments.

The Usual Suspects
The traditional storyline goes like this: virtual worlds divide roughly into two large camps – ‘adult worlds’ which embody escapism but also education, simulation and collaboration; and ‘teen worlds’ (which aren’t just for teens) which are really social media with avatars. In the latter category are worlds like Kaneva and IMVU (and, I’d propose, Metaplace, which has never quite shaken its tweeny-type feel), while the fomer category includes Forterra, Protosphere, Wonderland, Croquet, and a few latter arrivals like Web.Alive.

The de facto leading virtual world remains Second Life. Its challenge is that while it has a ‘deep’ community who spends countless hours and hundreds of millions of dollars in-world, it seems to be perpetually poised to break into wider adoption without ever quite getting there. Hopes become pinned on improving the first hour, relaunching the Web site, making it more friendly for business, and a host of other fixes and tweaks.

SL leads the way, or is the example at least of what a 3D world can look like including how it can be used by enterprise (including schools and non-profits and so on). In response to SL’s weak spots other platforms come to fill the gaps. Protosphere, for example, has carved out a nice niche for themselves and raised millions in venture capital financing based on the simple premise of being business friendly and highly focused on specific solution sets and markets. Forterra built an expertise in government contracting, basically, and simulation for the military. OpenSim yearns to be the “Apache of 3D Worlds” but hasn’t, so far, but HAS become a mirrored version of Second Life with more administration and server control and a lower price point. Finally, Blue Mars is betting on visuals as the ‘attraction point’ but has really based its business model on being an MMO developer platform where the developer only needs to worry about the environment and not the hosting, QA, back-end technologies and registration.

The storyline branches off a little between business applications and consumer use of the technologies. We can argue about virtual worlds for business and then have trouble reconciling that with widespread adoption by consumers.

I personally think these categorizations either narrow our language and expectations (in the case of business uses) or set an impossibly high expectation (in the case of consumer use).

When we think of virtual worlds as business platforms, we start talking about holding conferences and meetings with remote offices, or doing some sort of training kiosk idea, and miss the deeper potential for virtual worlds to change how we think about the enterprise itself or as sites for radical innovation.

When we think of them for consumer use, we immediately set up a comparison to console games and MMOs. Second Life does not currently have the wider appeal of Warcraft, say, and certainly doesn’t have the ability to scale like Farmville, or XBox gaming.

Now, I have no issue with virtual worlds that DON’T scale, that don’t have the potential to be ubiquitous, either in organizations or amongst consumers. There’s nothing wrong with writing up an application that allows deep simulation or prototyping, say, which is what I’ve seen as a major appeal of Web.Alive and its detailed mesh models. But when I think of the broader opportunities of the metaverse I DO think of game-changers – the kinds of technologies that will be competitive “must-haves” rather than niche “nice-to-haves”.

Expressive Domains
My personal preference is to think of virtual worlds as expressive domains. In this definition, virtual worlds have no competition. While there are all kinds of ways to express ourselves – whether on blogs or youTube, on community forums or in the back chat on Warcraft, virtual worlds are constructed so that the range is both wider, and the ability to co-participate in that expression is deeper.

This market definition allows virtual worlds to embody BOTH consumer and enterprise, entertainment and education, creator and consumer.

As expressive domains, virtual worlds allow a level of self-expression, storytelling and sharing that is rich, varied and deeply immersive. For enterprise, (or schools or non-profits) the virtue of being expressive opens up significant value in the potential for creativity, innovation, empathy, and deep collaboration.

The value of virtual worlds isn’t in making geography non-existent or in holding corporate conferences or whatever – it’s in creating a shared space in which exploration and expression leads to tangible and very real results. Expressive domains allow the creation and exploration of artefacts that in themselves can create changes in attitudes or behaviors that you won’t usually get from watching a youTube video or taking a Web-based course. Expressive domains allow a level of person-to-person interaction which lifts inhibitions and fears and opens us up to divergent viewpoints and more creative ways of approaching problems.

Against this definition, virtual worlds may not be able to compete for real-time communication time with things like Twitter, but it can provide an ‘island of calm’ in the sea of social media where we can better assimilate what information MEANS.

Against this definition, virtual worlds may not be able to compete with an XBox for the entertainment time or dollars of a teenager, but it can compete for the time of the person who wants to extend their self-expression and have more control over their personal narratives.

Now, not everyone is a 3D content creator, and the idea of an expressive domain isn’t meant to define the users of virtual worlds as the ones doing the creation. But virtual worlds provide the site for expression which can serve as the backdrop for others – who find their own immersion and participation to be equally expressive, even if they aren’t the one rezzing a prim.

The challenge, however, becomes this: that in a world where the Web gives lots of other ways to express ourselves, virtual worlds are hobbled by the fact that while the tools and quality of expression are vastly superior in many respects, they are both difficult to use and difficult to share.

Blue Oceans
So when I think of the competitive landscape for virtual worlds, I don’t think of it as a fight between virtual worlds and NetMeeting. Or between Web.Alive and Second Life. I think of it as a competition between the different ways in which we can participate, with others, in immersive and rich expressive domains, and the ease with which we can do so and, further, can share those experiences.

This allows us to consider augmented reality and mirror worlds and their potential as expressive domains. While I’d argue that mirror worlds are an important technology which will help to display information in intuitive and useful ways, I don’t see them immediately competing as expressive domains. This is one reason I don’t particularly fear seeing avatars pop up in Google and on further reflection is a better way of thinking about projects like Near London, which didn’t set OUT to be an expressive domain but is an informational one that is tied to geo-specificity.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, DOES hold the promise of being an expressive domain, although I’d propose that for the folks who have abandoned attention to virtual worlds for the joys of holding their iPhone up to a storefront at the local mall, it’s probably still a little early to be pushing the tools easily as forms of expression – we’re still sorting out the underpinning tech and there will be a lot more hype and fails before the inevitable trough of disillusionment and then something approaching wider adoption. Mind you, if you’re Tish Shute, that’s the part of the curve you love following so more power to you. LOL

But the winner of the virtual worlds race will be the ones that solve the challenges above: to make it easier to use, and to make it easier to share. And to accomplish that, we’ll need to see game-changing improvements that go beyond creating another Second Life clone where avatars can walk around, talk, and maybe click on a Web page or two. Those are platform features not game-changers.

This is one of the reasons why, so far, I’ve been disappointed with OpenSim. I’m patient and will give it time and still hold out hope – because I believe in the idea of OpenSim, and I believe it is a site for solving some key challenges around interoperability, say. But I haven’t seen the kinds of innovations I had hoped for, and can’t help feeling that what we end up with is a cheaper version of SL.

And it’s why I’m not excited about Web.Alive, which seems to be trying to match feature sets with all of the other virtual world platforms out there but which hasn’t yet, to my mind anyways, shown anything unique in its model other than more detailed meshes. To appropriate a corny business term, Web.Alive is red ocean thinking rather than blue ocean strategy – it’s an engineering task but not an innovative disruption. It has its place, it deserves its niche, it’s a solid product – I give it all of those things. If I cast aspersions I only mean to do so as a way of seeking out the game-changers and not just incremental improvements that amount to not much more than “mine can do that just like yours only with more polygons”.

Game Changers
We can argue about what Second Life would need to make it more acceptable to the masses. But those are proxy discussions for the larger questions of what the expressive domains of the future look like. When we talk about avatar identity, privacy, IP ownership, platform governance, and other forms of policy, these also are proxies that help us understand how and why these things work or don’t. With some of it, we may not like the current models, we may not agree with Linden Lab, and we may wish it was handled differently. And some day maybe it will – because the lessons today will inform the platforms tomorrow that are able to crack these challenges in new and innovative ways.

My own short list is just a guess, or a wish list maybe. If any of these were radical industry-changing innovations I, um, probably wouldn’t post them here, and the reality is someone way smarter than me will figure it out. But it’s a start:

- Variable Immersion: the ability to participate in the expressive domain at varying degrees of ‘presence’.
- Cross-platform: easy-of-use across platforms including mobile.
- Input devices: use of different controllers including things like Microsoft’s Natal or Wii controllers used in a way that fundamentally rethinks avatar and immersion control
- Social media integration including clever ways to link identity portfolios
- Leveraging the potential of 3D in the browser
- New ways to handle distribution of content (server-side rendering)
- Intuitive and seamless execution of data visualization

A very short list although I’ve blogged other ideas before. I’ve also blogged that in the short term, the issue isn’t feature sets, it’s solutions. Build the best 3D conferencing solution in the world and you have a winner. Be able to import architectural models and share them easily with clients and you have another. Solutions are the current killer app.

But if we’re going to talk about platforms, I’m not convinced that there’s room for more than a handful of 3D spaces with avatars and Web pages embedded in them. This isn’t to say that we won’t see niche products – that’s fine. And it wasn’t my point about Web.Alive in particular, as I noted above.

One of the things in fact that’s critical about game-changing innovation is the creation of the ecosystem around it. And this is where it won’t be sufficient to have a good technology, you’ll need to build up, as well, a business model around it, a management team, an approach to governance and monetization. And this is where Unity DOES seem like an “SL-Killer” – because it has created a technology and business model and has facilitated a development community which, frankly, puts Linden Lab in a very poor light, and which may very well be on par with game consoles.

Because at the end of the day, without the people evangelizing and believing in your platform, like the Rigbys do with Web.Alive, and without the hooks to get them there and the incentives and sense of community that will make them want to stay, then you DO end up with Betamax. Which you can be proud of for its spec sheet and engineering but which was a game changer that never had its day.


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