Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Fix List: Virtual Worlds and Why You Can’t Create Tomorrow from Yesterday

There are two triggers for a heated discussion with designers and creative types: the phrase “design thinking” and Bruce Mau. Both are either considered window dressing on something that doesn’t need it, or figureheads for a movement to make the process of design more accessible to more people, including the people inside an enterprise who may have more money than the guy who needs a new product package or an annual report.

So I’ll take both with a grain of salt and in recognition that there will always be something magical about “design”.

You can give it fancy names or you can claim that EVERYTHING should be ‘designed’, as Mau does, to the point where he applied design principles to how own life (as if choosing what to eat and how to dress were some sort of interface challenge that just needed to be pared down to a slogan or a chart in a note book) but you can still end up with, well, crap.

I mean, who’s to say when something is brilliant design or when it’s merely decoration? Best way to figure it out is to follow the money – sure there will be fads, but is someone buying it on eBay 10 years later at 100 times original retail?

Or even better, judge it for yourself. I mean, have a look at this video of Second Life’s Viewer 2.0:

Design Thinking
So we know good design when we see it, although there’s all kinds of metrics for it – do people buy it, do people remember the messages embedded in it, can they use it without electrocuting themselves.

But behind design is the thinking. And this is the part that’s a little bit like trying to get smoke into a bottle, because the designers would say “design thinking is what designers do, and although design is a discipline, you can’t easily capture the inspiration part.”

And I won’t argue with them. Design thinking is something that comes from experience and work at the craft.

But for the sake of discussion, I’m going to pick up on what Roger Martin says about design thinking and its utility to enterprise:

Design thinking combines inductive and deductive processes (which he calls abductive reasoning) and is the process by which we reach out to something which MAY BE in order to explore it.

But I summarize it this way:

Design thinking is the process of arriving at a vision for a future state which can not be extrapolated from the past. If you can PROVE it, it’s not design thinking. Design thinking generally leads to a model for the future which you could not have predicted from past data.

An example might be, say, the iPod (or its companion, the iPhone). If you were to look at the state of digital music at the time the iPod came on the market, you would have extrapolated from the data that file sharing, swapping, illegal ripping and the inability to monetize all of that activity meant that the access to that music was DRM-free, required massive storage, and would best be suited to the aesthetic of Napster or whatever.

But the iPod projected a different future – one that you couldn’t easily extrapolate from past data.

Now, this is all basic stuff, and I’m sure I’m lecturing to the well educated.

But I’m doing so because I’ve been thinking about where virtual worlds and immersive technologies are AT. And while even a few years ago I would have said that they represented a design which was extrapolated from abductive reasoning about the future, they have now fallen into what Roger Martin would call the great danger for enterprise: continually looping the same data back into the system, and not imagining a new future.

They Buy, Therefore We Must Sell in Order for Them to Buy Again
So let me give you an example of this.

Let’s say you’re looking at a virtual world. You want to improve it. You want to attract more users, grow the platform, and maybe achieve ubiquity one day.

So there’s a few things you can do. You can apply true design thinking, or you can get logical about it and look at the problem, the data, and come up with a solution by extrapolating from it.

But how much data do you look at? Do you look at JUST the data in the virtual world? Or do you also look at data on Facebook, say? Do you map out user experiences based on how people spend time IN the world, or do you map out the experiences based on how people spend their time online?

Let’s pretend that you focus on data IN the world. You start to survey the people who are already there, you collect data, you set up a focus group or two with some people who have never been in a virtual world before, you track their activities.

And the data’s clear: If someone buys something during the first XX hours of being engaged in the virtual environment, they tend to stay.

Or maybe the data says: If you can get someone to invest in the virtual world, by buying a piece of land or home, for example, they’ll stay.

Or maybe the data says: It’s all about the people. If you can get new users to meet someone new (or find something cool, or whatever the metric is) then you can get them to stay.

So you look at your process for sign-up, orientation and navigation and you look at it through the lens of extrapolating from past data: Make it easier to buy, make it easier to have land, and make it easier to find stuff, and you’ll unlock the key to the retention.

Later, you’ll come back to the other side of equation, of course – the “stuff”. Two channels: the new user (henceforth called the “consumer”), extrapolated from past data; and the “stuff”.

You’ll break down the “stuff” into content creator, search, promotion, advertising, media…whatever. But the idea is to try to get the “stuff” matched up to what you extrapolated from the “consumer”, because how could you go wrong?

99 Percent Invisible
Buckminster Fuller wrote that “There are very few men today who are disciplined to comprehend the totally integrating significance of the 99 percent invisible activity which is coalescing to reshape our future.”

And I’m struck by the term “99 percent invisible” because it struck me again today as I read the latest statistics from Linden Lab on the Second Life economy.

Now, I’ve long given up parsing the data. There are others who rip the numbers apart with a lot more knowledge than I do. And I won’t even comment on the fact that the basis for the numbers seems to keep changing – something added, some sink calculated in a new way, whatever.

The number I tend to look at is the one at the top right of my screen that tells me concurrency and it hasn’t really budged for what feels like a year.

But what strikes me about the numbers is that, well, they’re the numbers – and while there’s nothing wrong with measuring some of these good solid things, there’s as much missing as there is presented. And much as Roger Martin suggests we resist the notion that by continuing to extrapolate from past data leads to a loop that increasingly narrows our band of opportunity, I also can’t help wondering about the 99 percent invisible.

How big is the gift economy? How much money are service providers making? How many schools are there in-world? How are people rating their enjoyment? How do they compare it to spending time on their XBox? Would they recommend it to a friend?

What’s invisible is joy.

What’s invisible is the measurement of that feeling that in a virtual world many of us once felt we were participating in the future.

Is it still the future? Or is it just a place to shop and waste some time?

Is there still serendipity and magic? And is that magic sustainable if we continue to extrapolate from the same data?

Mauing Mau

Bruce Mau sketched the following as the model for his Massive Change exhibit:

And today’s version of thinking about virtual worlds is a lot like the circles on the left: Virtual worlds are this nucleus which somehow need to connect to social media, and shopping, and enterprise use and, oh yeah, at the end of it all somehow become embedded in improving the human condition.

But I had come to believe that virtual worlds were prototyping a different future and at a different order – like the circles on the right.

Because if, instead of extrapolating from past data, I were to project a different future for virtual worlds, I would go partly on data and partly on instinct. And while I’ve blogged about these things endlessly, I’ll repeat a few of them here, the designs for virtual worlds where I THOUGHT we were headed:

- The avatar is not an interface. The avatar is a repository for expression and signals of identity. On a Web in which data is scraped, and anonymity leads to eroded trust and misinformation, the avatar engenders another form of discovery. Future systems should honor the power of the avatar to embody spirit, data, trust, privacy, art and personal exploration.

- The future does not include a keyboard. Virtual worlds provide an intuitive gateway into new ways to interact with machines, based upon gestural and other forms of physical expression, and screens that are portable and ubiquitous. Virtual worlds should be built to liberate us from wires and allow us to open portals into PLACE even in the absence of keyboards.

- Virtual worlds provide context. In an information landscape where information is like a rushing river, virtual worlds allow us to put our experiences of that information and of our social connections in a context that can be intuitively understood by the brain. In order to facilitate context, worlds must become untethered from the paradigm of objects, and start to embed information itself as objects that can be manipulated and coded.

- The collaborative and atomic nature of virtual worlds does not just facilitate objects, they facilitate imagination and ideas. The paradigms of search and “space” must be supplemented by the realization that these shared collaborative environments are the site in which ideas and imagination are captured and manipulated. The facilitation of imagination is the reason, not the outcome, and it isn’t restricted to the people rezzing prims.

- Virtual worlds change the concept of story by fully embracing the loss of distance between author and reader, consumer and creator. They are not games, they are platforms from which new archetypes can emerge from the blending of authorial voice and ownership, and content consumption and co-creation.

- Virtual worlds create frictionless economies in which IP and ownership does not need to be sacrificed for the sake of accessibility or modification. These economies can shift from being object based to include a deeper range of creative and imaginative forms.

These aren’t particularly stunning ideas. And they’re being nibbled at around the edges now by other platforms and other technologies.

And that’s the challenge – because while we extrapolate a future for virtual worlds from what happened yesterday, there’s someone out there somewhere who’s developing something new, and tackling these challenges in ways that haven’t been imagined yet, while in a world that was once based purely on imagination, our vision for the future has now become to merely be here tomorrow, which is, certainly, a goal, but one that doesn’t get us where we need to go.


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.