Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Events, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

SLife in Las Vegas: Virtual Worlds Everywhere

SLifeAfter a few days there’s a sort of low-grade hum that seems to tackle you from the back of your skull, and that’s without wandering the casino floor – somehow those bleeps, the thrum of the air conditioning and the sort of muffled quality of – well, of everything, really, whether the clicks of poker chips or the way that people’s voices sort of get trapped in the over-scaled spaces, it all just becomes part of your experience of the place.

Wandering through my hotel, the Venetian, I can’t help but think that Second Life builders could take a few lessons from Vegas, or that Vegas has taken a few lessons from Second Life: these are highly constructed, prim-heavy mini-worlds but if you stripped out the tourists the sims would be fairly empty. A lonely gondolier, a “living statue” and a few people strolling the canal in Venetian carnival masks passing out fliers to some restaurant or something.

And the buildings are super scaled, kind of like Second Life where the fact that most people’s avatars clock in at 8 feet and the camera floats mean that builders make houses with high ceilings, the thing is that here you can’t fly, you can’t teleport, and the hotel that’s right next door turns out to be 5 blocks away, you just didn’t realize how BIG the damn thing is.

I think it was Mark Kingdon who recently compared Second Life to Las Vegas, or maybe compared Zindra to vegas – “if you want the sex it’s there, otherwise there’s a lot of clean fun” kind of comment, although I’m probably remembering it out of context.

Regardless, I can’t help finding something fascinating about this place until I realize how controlled everything is, how much you’re MONITORED, how the front desk seems to have a mini-portfolio on you before you even check in and how even buying a coffee is an exercise in efficiency and being over-staffed.

Vegas is Farmville on steroids. Vegas is the future that I don’t want, as pretty as it is, as well-designed as the experiences might be, as wonderful as it might be that I could probably see isn’t-she-retired-yet-Cher and Jerry Seinfeld on the same night – in one vision of our future, the world is programmed, the world is contained and the texture work is impressive but you still have that hum at the back of your skull and you can’t get the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack out of your head.

Wireless We Go
I come at the CTIA wireless conference with some decided bias and objectives.

At least I HAVE a purpose – makes it easier to weed through the hundreds of booths and elbow some of the 20-odd thousand people out of the way. As we create the infrastructure for our immersive/mobile integration projects it’s kind of nice to realize that there are widget makers and tech types just like in Second Life – people who have cobbled together businesses and set up shop along the back alley of the convention floor, tucked behind the 15,000 square foot Nokia booth or wherever.

There’s a guy who works for us whose background is mobile and he knows all the mucky mucks and sits on all the global steering committees or whatever, but I’m far less interested in meeting the VP of Visa or whoever than I am the guy who flew in from India and has bet the farm on setting up a laptop on a rickety table with a stack of brochures that look like they were printed out on a color copier.

It’s the closest you get to user-generated content.

Actually, it’s the closest you get to an actual sense that people here even REALIZE there are users, that there are real PEOPLE who use phones rather than audiences to be aggregated, portals that need to be SEO optimized, and transactions to be monetized.

EVERYONE here is trying to make bank on the long tail.

And the screen space on which to make that bank is about the size of your palm, which is a heck of a lot smaller than the right panel on the new Second Life viewer.

Long Tails
See, something that strikes me here is that while my bias with technology is to look at it, in part, through the filter of virtual worlds, I can’t help get the feeling that Second Life is now being looked at through the lens of broader themes, trends, and business metrics.

Mark Kingdon wouldn’t look out of place here, or Tom Hale maybe, standing in front of a few thousand people talking about how they’ve created an open API, set up a marketplace, launched a new device (a viewer), and have monetized the transactions. It would sound EXACTLY like a speech by RIM or Samsung – with the ‘wonderful ecosystem of app developers’ being touted not particularly because the app developers are the central strategy, but because the app developers validate that this is a phone/marketplace/carrier worth paying money to.

And not dissimilar to this conference, the folks who actually MAKE the stuff that goes on all these phones are incidental. There are 100s of thousands of apps, and there are a dozen marketplaces, and there are a handful of carriers and phone makers and whatever – but they’re all the aggregators of the bank you can make in the long tail.

There will ALWAYS be app makers and they’ll come and go and churn and try to get attention down there in the long tail, but there will only be a handful of Apples and RIMs whose sole purpose is to create a deep enough ecosystem that they can sell – well, sell more phones really, in an endlessly churning aggregation, in a ceaseless battle to own the standards while everyone else nips around the edges.

There may be bank in the long tail, but the REAL bank is in being able to grab the tail with both hands and give it a furious wag.

Better Worlds
Not dissimilar to GDC or SWSX maybe there’s this sort of conventional wisdom that the world is increasingly ruled by micro-transactions and tiny activities and little pokes and social networks that you not only engage with on Facebook but that you now carry around in your pocket – most of the mobile platforms here now have seamless Twitter, Facebook, OpenID and other forms of integration.

The SLife thing from Samsung (yeah, I know, SLife????) is all about these sort of turn-key social networks and associated mini-apps that you now have on your speed dial not as phone numbers but as a little floating mobile social network which knows where you are and wants to beam stuff to your friends while the REAL bank is in adding transactions to your phone, the ability to not just beam a photo to Twitter but to beam a dollar from your phone to – well, to another phone, or to the register at Starbucks.

The idea is this: link people to location to money and you’ve got it all. And they’re a lot further along than might be imagined, and the industry has enough innovation and competition to mean that people will keep pushing the limits of how MANY transactions people can make through their phones, and how SPECIFIC the location-based awareness can become, and by the way, who NEEDS a wallet anyways? We all have PayPal accounts now.

None of this is inherently bad, except that I’m of the belief that as technology unfurls this conventional wisdom has a counterpoint – that while they talk about scaling and monetizing and aggregating and creating new SEO models to manage the flood of apps and the flood of app stores and the flood of data created by the people USING all those apps there are other trends going on.

There are people out there like my mom who’s vaguely worried about not getting lost in the flood of technology and she’s wondering who it is that seems to know which banner ads to display following her searches for cancer therapies, and there’s a bunch of other people who are getting sick and tired of being ‘gifted’ on Facebook and spending half their day deleting unwanted hugs on their walls, and are tired of trying to find someone to fertilize their crops while they’re out of town for the weekend – I mean, at some point you just let the damn crops die because, truth be told, they DON’T MATTER.

My bias in virtual worlds has been for de-scaling and humanizing, for stories instead of monetization, for creativity and user-generated content instead of aggregation and fighting over screen real estate. And my belief is that virtual worlds allow us to leap frog the conventional wisdom about monetizing and linking social networks and being one of those platform companies (if I hear the word platform one more time I’ll just give up and go bet it all on red) in order to take us to a better future, one in which we are not the monetized, we are not the aggregated, we are not linked and parsed and connected in ways we never actually wanted to be – but that we were still present in our humanity because the technology was in OUR service and we were not in the service of IT.

Las Vegas and this conference show how far someone can take the creation of environments on which we will increasingly rely and in which we’ll increasingly find ourselves beholden without realizing how that dull hum has just become part of us.

But their world of imagination is not the world I’d create with my own.


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