Are virtual worlds off the boil ?

By | October 28, 2010

The August release of Gartner’s 2010 hype cycle for emerging technologies, which sees Virtual Worlds lodged in the pit of the disillusionment trough, has generated some interesting discussion in the blogosphere. VW’ds marketing consultant Mary Ellen Gordon asks why this has occurred, especially in light of Gartners’ much quoted 2007 declaration’ that by 2012, 80 percent of Internet users would have an avatar.

One way to look at this is that Gartner pretty much got it right: the notion of ‘avatar’ needs to be widened, and seen as one’s personal web identity, across social platforms and beyond.

But why does Gartner predict VWd’s  are 5-10 years away from mainstream adoption, when in 2009, it suggested the range of 2-5 years was the more likely marker?   Chris Arkenberg, a researcher at California’s Institute of the Future proffers this insight:

‘The ongoing failure of virtual worlds is due to their failure to embrace the predominant social API’s. Walled garden worlds only work if you have a massive budget and a solid narrative and reward system, ala Blizzard. Otherwise, you have to leverage the social platforms that the first life uses if you want them to feel like the second life is a place they should spend their time.”

Indeed, the diffusion of virtual worlds and social media (a two-way process, each taking from the other) is readily observable, especially when looking at the way digital goods are generated and transacted. Facebook supports a number of 3D apps, remember Vivaty? Smallworlds is a more recent example, and there are numerous others. Cyworld (Korea) has been doing it since 1999, with personalised 3D home pages. In these cases, the motivation for ‘rooms’ is chat and  content sharing ( goods and media) for recreational use.

Smallworlds, integrates social media with virtual worlds – but if virtual worlds are to be mainstream, the diffusion needs to occur at a more systemic,  institutional level…in financial, goverment, education  and so on.

The breakthrough for virtual worlds will come when users will be able to ‘go virtual’ from whatever web page they are on. This will be the litmus test of the two-way diffusion, and will roughly coincide with the time that ‘social media’ ceases to be a feature in itself and instead  becomes intrinsic to our  web transactions across many different business and service domains. It’ll be a simple question: “is what we need to do best suited to being in the virtual environment ?” And if the answer is yes, users will simply go there. Standards will need to be in place, embodied avatars will need to be able to easily migrate from one system to another. One platform may well end up being the industry standard.  And  it will be the launch pad for a thousand(s) plugins that tailor make the virtual experience, according to users needs, just as we have seen with iphone apps.

When the first bank, government agency or hospital launch a virtual worlds platform from their home page, we’ll really know the social/ virtual diffusion has been fully realised. (Tell me which platform it’ll be, I am ready to invest).

Meanwhile, I look to evidence of the use of Virtual Worlds for strategic thinking and international collaboration,  such as the Virtual World Conference 2010, convened by the UK’s Open University amongst others. Here in Australia, our own Open University is seriously evaluating virtual environments, in particular Avaya’s Nortel. The opportunity for engagement and action via virtual environments in remote learning situations is where the driver for in a 2-5 year time frame for adoption lies, rather than a 5-10 year adoption which Gartner is latterly espousing.

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20 thoughts on “Are virtual worlds off the boil ?

  1. tagami

    Hi Mandy –

    A great read. Let’s extend the definition of virtual worlds without the requirement of an avatarized 2D/3D dimensional space.

    With the ability communicate synchronously and asynchronously with friends and colleagues, play games, and share media, social networks like Facebook bring the Gartner prediction to reality. I would argue the profile page has become one of many avatars beyond WoW, Xbox Live, SmallWorlds, et al, that the digital citizen uses today.

    BTW, I have moved on, but will forward this link to my friends over @ SmallWorlds. Stay in touch! ~ t

    1. mandy Post author

      Ted, I absolutely agree. And should avatar ’embodiment’ be desired, let it be suggested by and also a window to the amalgamation of profile data. (but then again, I’ve just been to see ‘the Social Network’ so things might look different in the morning)

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