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

Metaplace and Second Life Head-to-Head: The Future of Virtual Worlds

At a panel on the future at the Virtual Worlds conference in Los Angeles, Raph Koster joined Ginsu Yoon, VP of Business Affairs at Linden Lab. Oh, and Corey Briges of Multiverse who spoke that venture capital “spaces” talk that seems to go on and on without a real point other than to get another product plug in, and Michael Wilson of Makena Technologies who made the compelling point that virtual world companies should stop reinventing the wheel and look to the wider Web for solutions to things like social networking and security and stuff.

But the perspectives of Raph and Ginsu captured two competing philosophies of where the Metaverse is headed, with Metaplace and MMO guru Raph arguing that virtual worlds shouldn’t be destinations, and Ginsu arguing for the power of immersion, the portability of content and experiences, and that it’s the devices that will drive future development.

Now, I wasn’t live blogging so I’ll have to wait for a video posted somewhere to see if what I remember is what was actually said, so this is more an impressionistic thing than direct quotes.

We’re Sure of the Future

Now first, I have to say that Ginsu gave one of the most compelling arguments for the Second Life model that I’ve yet heard from a Linden. THIS guy should be the point person with media. He was witty, clear, suitably self-deprecating, but certain.

After Ginsu gave his version of a metaverse in which digital narrative is facilitated by the sense of place, Raph pulled out his “Snow Crash is soooo 1992″ argument.

Raph also has certainty on his side - and you have to give him top marks for consistency, for taking a mental model of the metaverse and sticking to it.

But it leaves a question: are virtual worlds places? Or will the technologies that enable 3D spaces become so ubiquitous that we’ll stop thinking of them as distinct places? Because in Raph’s view, the tools and technologies to create 3D artefacts, the system for managing your avatar and identity should be EXPRESSION-agnostic. In other words, we should have the tools for creating content and then be able to seamlessly publish that content to cell phones, browsers, Flash, separate clients - whatever, it’s not the viewer, it’s in the engine from which content is derived and creating standards and tools for expressing the content from that engine.

The alternate view is the one of Linden Lab - that only through thinking of 3D space (whether we call it a metaphor or not) as a “place” in which content is expressed and avatars represented will the metaverse evolve to create a truly new medium.

I’m not sure that it’s an either/or proposition. Raph can argue that the metaverse needs to work off the backbone of the Web - something built with standards, interoperability, the ability to embed and express content in myriad ways, but the Web has ‘walled gardens’ as well, and proprietary platforms, and closed off applications, made even more complicated today with the different streams of development being built on top of all that, whether the semantic Web or Adobe AIR or Silverlight or whatever.

So there’s a range - places you go to because by expressing virtual worlds as a space with rich tool sets specific to that sense of space, you can create new forms of narrative, art, expression, and sociality.

And on the other hand, the embedding of 3D forms WITHIN current forms of sociality, whether rooms on Facebook, or mini games on your corporate Web site, or mini apps on your cell phone.

Ubiquity or Interfaces?

Both Raph and Ginsu see the future of virtual worlds as being facilitated through newer technologies - Internet ubiquity on the one hand, and interfaces on the other. Key to driving these visions is the idea that portability will become increasingly important - whether portability of content in the case of Ginsu (being able to take your inventory or identity with you, in a way that respects content developers) and portability of standards in Raph’s case.

Linden Lab has been making this argument for some time, influenced no doubt by Mitch’s 3D camera and running your avatar with brain waves and all that. And I’ve written about this before, but I’m not convinced that the device you use to connect to a virtual world will be a “killer app” in how they evolve - being able to sway and move and have your avatar track to that movement seems unwieldy but maybe I’m missing something.

Competing views of a wider metaverse. Room for both. But maybe not the deep “future think” that paints a picture of the true potential of the metaverse, but kudos to the panel for trying.


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