Sunday, December 30, 2007

Turning the page on 2007 in virtual worlds - What happened and what's next

Virtual worlds are at the heart of what Not Possible IRL is about. Without them, our group and our cause would cease to exist. 2007 was the year I discovered Second Life. I am too new to look back and too new to look forward - with any real sense of perspective - so I turned to three thought leaders and veterans of virtual worlds who are deeply in touch with the ups and downs of the metaverse in very different ways.

Larry Pixel (aka Larry F. Johnson, Ph.D.) is the CEO of the New Media Consortium (NMC), an international consortium of more than 250 world-class universities, colleges, museums, research centers, and technology companies - and the largest educational body in Second Life - dedicated to using new technologies to inspire, energize, stimulate, and support learning and creative expression. He is also the founder and chief instigator of the prestigious Horizon Project , an annual status report on emerging technologies and education.

Forseti Svarog (aka Giff Constable) is the COO of The Electric Sheep Company, the largest startup dedicated to the creation of 3D content and sticky experiences in virtual worlds Second Life and, including the "I am Legend" survival game on behalf of Warner Brothers, and the "CSI NY: Virtual Experience" - both in Second Life - as well as the OnRez viewer, a User Interface that makes navigating the metaverse more intuitive and accessible.

Seifert Surface is a post-doctoral mathematician who is probably best known in Second Life for creating a tesseract house inspired by Robert A. Heinlein's short story "--And He Built A Crooked House--," as well as his math-inspired sculpture, but I will likely think of him first and foremost as the winner of the Not Possible IRL logo contest.

Bettina Tizzy: Insofar as virtual worlds are concerned, what are you looking forward to?
Larry Pixel: I am pleased to see the work Linden Lab (LL) is doing to address stability and quality issues -- I am seeing real progress, and many signs that indicate that it is a major focus for them. I am also excited by the large number (50+) of players in the larger virtual worlds space, many of them new in the last few months. LL has been especially supportive of the work education is doing in Second Life, and that, along with the clear successes we are seeing in the edu space, makes it easy to be excited.

Forseti Svarog: I think 2008 will be a continued year of interesting experimentation for Second Life. SL will continue to see amazing creative exploration but its overall growth will slow until Linden Lab and the broader SL ecosystem are able to solve some of the things holding SL back such as stability, scripting limitations, limited APIs, usability, and more. I actually do not think that it is the visual capabilities (i.e. Windlight) that are getting in the way of its success right now, and LL needs to be careful not to focus on visual sexiness in such a way that they push the platform out ahead of most people's computer capabilities. SL needs more killer apps, i.e. more reasons for non-creatives to come, but the platform really needs to become more robust to get there. That said, I do expect SL to remain an interesting and active virtual world.

2008 should see a lot of virtual worlds activity around the youth market, more private worlds on a diverse set of platforms, and more "stepping stone" approaches where projects bridge 2D, flash-based worlds, and 3D. There will be continued corporate and educational experimentation in Second Life, Wunderland, and other tools as people try to understand how virtual worlds aid in team and group learning and collaboration. It shall be interesting to see what Google/Sketchup does in 2008, and if that consumes some of the architecture/design energy that has been pouring into SL this past year.

Seifert Surface: Lots of stuff. Better and faster scripts with Mono, and physics with Havok 4 should lead to lots of new ideas becoming possible to realise. Longer term, I think sculpties will be only the beginning in terms of better support for 3D objects.

Bettina Tizzy: What technologies or trends have you particularly intrigued?
Larry Pixel: I am very, very interested in social networking, something that is inherent in Second Life, yet still not implemented very well, especially when you compare it to some of the other major social networking platforms in common use on the flat web. An entrant that can bring the "user-built" philosophy and the openness to IP and ownership of virtual work that LL has pioneered, and mesh it with true ownership (ie backup to disk), easy compatibility with other 3D creation platforms, and rich social networking tools, will take over this space in no time. I have not seen that company emerge yet, but I am watching!

I am soooooo ready for SL on my iPhone. I hope someone is working on that client right now.

Forseti Svarog: There will be a host of private worlds built on emerging 2.5D and 3D virtual world platforms, but I'm guessing that many will not be as accessible to creative exploration as Second Life. Multiverse is quite interesting but my impression is that it is oriented around much bigger game and virtual world projects with larger teams and budgets. I think this audience should keep its eye on Metaplace, which should be a really neat avenue for creative exploration, albeit quite different from SL in that creativity will orient around 2D and 2.5D art and game design.

Seifert Surface: There are many interesting 3D interface ideas happening, particularly the Wii Remote and what people are doing with it. Imagine building in 3D by moving things around in 3D. Also, check out this video on head tracking for desktop VR displays using the Wii Remote:

Bettina Tizzy: What, if anything, has you especially concerned in regards to Second Life and virtual worlds' evolution?
Larry Pixel: Second Life, in particular, is already suffering from the perception of it as a "walled garden." We are seeing a move, among companies especially, to far less capable platforms, which are "open" and which they can "own" (ie, put behind a firewall). This may not be a bad thing for SL, but it is not a good thing for virtual worlds in general, as it will drive dollars to lesser platforms.

Linden Lab has said publicly several times that they want to go open, and have with the client. If they can open the backend in 2008, they will grow immensely. If not, we may be seeing them in 2-3 years as an interesting early player -- like CompuServe, or AOL.

Forseti Svarog: I remain very bullish on the entire virtual worlds space, but it is going to fragment in 2008 in more platforms and more private worlds. I think Second Life is going through a transition period where the technology, and our broader culture, has to catch up to the vision. SL's ability to succeed will depend on how well and how quickly Linden Lab is able to execute, and if and when someone puts forth a compelling competitive alternative.

Seifert Surface: Nothing really, I think the seed has been planted now, and no matter if it is Second Life or some other virtual world that becomes the de facto metaverse, it's going to happen. I guess the demise of net neutrality could be something to worry about.

Bettina Tizzy: Is there anything in particular that you wish Linden Lab was doing differently?
Larry Pixel:
1) See above re: open sourcing the back end.
2) Find some way to relax the Byzantine hoops and rules one must go through to do anything with highschoolers.

Forseti Svarog: This is hard to say without a clear window into their priorities and active projects. I know they are aware of all the problems and challenges, and complex software is not written or improved overnight. This stuff takes time.

Seifert Surface: There are occasional issues, I think, that could be handled better than they are, but generally I think they're doing a pretty good job.

Bettina Tizzy: Any personal goals or projects you'd care to share with us?
Larry Pixel: NMC Virtual Worlds plans a big announcement after the first of the year. It will come out first in the NMC Campus Observer, about January 10th.

Also, the NMC's highly influential Horizon Report (75,000+ copies downloaded or purchased in hard copy in 2007) will be released in late January. The contents of the 2008 report will be announced on the wiki next week.

Notably, this will be the first year since 2005 that some form of virtual worlds is not mentioned in the Horizon Report. I am not sure if that means it is now mainstream for edu, or if it is passe, but among my Real Life constituency, there are many many established projects, and many of these are clearly reaching mainstream faculty and other groups. Within the NMC, virtual worlds are still important, but are no longer considered the set of hot emerging technologies they once were.

Forseti Svarog: My own bandwidth for taking on creative projects remains extremely limited. In 2007, my only big creative project was the book of avatar portraits. In 2008, I hope to find time to either dive into a personal Second Life Machinima project, or try something completely new on Metaplace.

Seifert Surface: Well, there's my new sim, "xyz", currently (and likely for the rest of time) under construction.

Finally, I asked if they considered themselves optimists or pessimists. Turns out that all three identify themselves as optimists, but Larry added, "Clearly an optimist, but also a pragmatist. I am quite optimistic that good ideas will be adopted broadly -- it just takes time. Some fall by the wayside, but as someone who has devoted a career to implementing emerging technologies, the ride is always fun, and there is much to be learned by studying ideas that seem to have great promise, even if later it becomes clear they were a side road on the path to another set of ideas."

I can't help wondering if all participants in virtual worlds... really, all early adopters, must be optimists in order to remain sane while embracing and exploring new ideas and opportunities.