26 key points about virtual worlds for 2011

Here are some ruminations over the last few months. The list is neither exhaustive, nor final.  Comments welcome.

  1. The immersive Internet is a generic term for technological platforms that enable a 3D or 2.5D (a flatter perspective) graphic rendering of real or composed scenarios, events, people and places. Simulated environments are hosted on servers and are sold as software, or delivered as a service. Variable elements include graphics, interaction, media input, documentation and presentation tools, scalability and bandwidth. Typically, the more elements, the higher the level of immersion. A fully immersive environment is commonly referred to as a ‘metaverse’.
  2. Users gravitate or enter an environment because of a common interest or purpose, such as collaboration, education and training, co-design, entertainment, industry and community events, and social interaction.
  3. A customisable avatar denotes a user’s presence in the virtual environment. Avatars are the digital representations of their users, they are a means to mediate the action and interact with others who share the virtual space. With high end immersion, avatars hold data, such as profiles and have digital content held in their own repository, an ‘inventory’. Users interact via multiple channels (chat, voice, gestures, and movements) and at the high end of immersion, can share synchronously the common content. The keyboard is used to navigate although new modalities such as gesture are being introduced. Commands create avatar movement, as well as zoom, tracking, and alternate viewpoints functions.
  4. In immersive worlds, users are free from the constraints of their real-world physical status and locality. Yet users are not depersonalised; there is a sense of personal space and entitlement: if an avatar bumps into you, you will step out of the way. People with disabilities report they can be ‘more themselves’ (CBS, 2008)
  5. Virtual worlds are described as ‘persistent’, that is to say content is maintained or even updated by others, regardless of whether a user is logged on or not. Content within the space is created by the platform-developers and/or by users. Items can be intrinsic to the environment (terrain, buildings) or acquired as enhancements (apparel, gifts, inworld services, animation).
  6. Activity in virtual worlds can be recorded as data and measured in the same way as conventional web sites (web-style analytics). Content such as live events, fictional narratives or learning experiences can be captured and edited. In effect, a film clip, these artefacts are called ‘machinima’.
  7. Interoperability and content transfer between worlds is currently limited to a few platforms such as OpenSim and Second Life, which share the same client. Moves towards an industry standard (X3D) are progressing, especially amongst the Open Source community. Some proprietary companies continue to see commercial value in silo-ing their customers.
  8. Numbers of virtual world registrations are notoriously inaccurate as there is no standard measurement. Some figures include Asia; others are skewed towards the Europe and US markets. Another inconsistency is whether a given figure refers to ‘cumulative’ (unique) registrations or whether it refers to ‘active users’ (people who regularly log in). In the wake of an independent standard, analysts use data provided to them by platform companies, which are not in themselves, always verifiable.
  9. The biggest uptake is in the 5-16 ages group, indicating that children find such environments enjoyable places to be and play. (KZERO 2010). This suggests that immersive technologies should be considered as a new opportunity for teaching and learning, and projects. KZERO reports that in 2009, there was a 90% growth in virtual worlds amongst children aged 5-10 years. This suggests that virtual worlds will gain acceptance as an expected mode for online activity for the coming generation of adults.
  10. Virtual worlds are emerging as marketplaces for digital goods, where creating and acquiring virtual (intangible) goods are becoming intrinsic to user experiences. Goods are objects or services that offer revenue streams for platform producers, content makers, and end-users. The management of inworld digital goods and the ease with which they can be traded is now a high priority for developers and publishers across all industry sectors. 2D games, accessed through social networks have firmly established the business case. The Boston-based, industry analytics company, Viximo (2010), predicts the virtual goods industry is predicted to increase by 51% in 2010-2011, accounting for 20% of all US games software revenues in 2011.
  11. The education and health sectors are the standout areas of virtual world innovation. Over 100 Australian institutions use virtual environments for learning. In the area of science and engineering, virtual environments show promise for modelling and controlling complex system.
  12. In the business and enterprise domain, virtual environments are being explored but are not yet core to companies’ strategies. One obstacle to wider uptake is that virtual world platforms are competing with traditional collaborative tools provided by well-established technology companies such as Cisco, Adobe, Microsoft and Lotus with whom there are pre-existing relationships. However, one industry sector showing strong leads is the tradeshow and conference market: clients and customers can ‘meet’ in branded spaces, and view and discuss products and issues. Efficiencies in terms of travel and associated down time, energy consumption, and overall cost reduction are now documented. Moreover, early adopters have reported pleasing outcomes in terms of human resourcing, network building and sales outcomes.
  13. Boundaries between social networks and virtual worlds are increasingly diffused. Immersive environments and social networks share behavioural factors such as reputation, customisation and building communities. Increasingly, social networks have attributes associated with virtual worlds, such as avatars, rooms, digital goods, currency and a managed economy. On the other hand, the success of 2D flash-based games such as Farmville, which are attached to social networks, and played between friends, are creating a stronger awareness of alternative distribution paths for immersive tools.
  14. Motivations to acquire virtual goods mirror those of the physical world: as status, an enabler or an identifier. Digital goods are effective as incentives for behavioural change (Mao and Shi, 2009; Reeves and Reid, 2009) and also for fundraising, demonstrated by Zynga’s ‘Haiti Relief Fund’ and the American Cancer Society’s ‘Relay for Life’.
  15. We are in a transition period. Prominent platforms such as There, and Metaplace folded in 2009. The well known Second Life now comes in two versions: a business-to-customer (B2C), ‘open’ (that is, publicly accessible), social world and an enterprise ‘closed’ solution which is hosted privately, and sits behind a company firewall. Time will tell if its developers, Linden Lab, can manage both identities. In the B2B space, integration with the enterprise legacy system has not been well addressed. In the B2C space there is as yet, no standout market leader, such as is Facebook has proved to be in the social networking sphere.
  16. There is a notable migratory trend from Second Life to OpenSim, the open source platform. Content from Second Life, may be transferred into bespoke worlds built on OpenSim, and is gaining popularity in the education sector, (eg: Reaction Grid).
  17. Open social worlds present some perplexing issues around governance, as regulatory elements are largely in the hands of developers. Subscribers have limited rights over the environments in which they have invested, and are subject to end user license agreements (EULA) over which they have little or no input. Should a virtual world collapse, users have no recompense for their digital assets, and storage of their virtual assets is usually not an option due to lack of interoperability and IP concerns. Real-world authorities lag behind virtual world practices and are uncertain about how to regulate public virtual worlds, especially where illicit acts such as money laundering, tax avoidance, scams, harassment, and theft are involved.
  18. Stability, useability, security, integration into corporate IT, and the need to set standards are challenging the rate of take-up. However, the more virtual worlds are used, the more their limitations are highlighted, and the quicker progress is made. The next generation of virtual world architecture will likely fix many current shortcomings.
  19. On the positive side, the virtual environments sector is evolving rapidly and a next wave is discernable. Avatars are becoming more lifelike, and many systems accommodate users’ actual faces (Teleplace, VastPark, 3DXplore, ProjectX, Mycosm). A clear separation between business applications and social/game worlds is developing; the former are being designed around corporate activities, with flexibility at the customer end; the latter emphasise virtual goods acquisition and trade as part of their business model. Open APIs will drive participation from third party developers. In this respect, Open Source platforms such as OpenSim, VastPark and Open Wonderland are well positioned for future integration.
  20. Next generation products (2010 onwards) are lightweight and better suited to mobile devices. They are capable of incorporating real-world data such as traffic congestion, shopping supplies, and entertainment events, translated as high-resolution, real-world imagery. As the technology develops, the physical world, enhanced by virtual overlays – augmented real-world environments – will become widely used and compliment screen-based, computer-generated worlds.
  21. Public entities which involve vast amount of accessible data and services, or which attract many visitors, such as museums, parliament houses, art galleries, libraries, educational institutions, government offices, hospitals and tourist locations, are suited to adopting virtual worlds technology. Experiencing such places virtually brings with it, many benefits, both creative and practical.
  22. Tiers of the immersive Internet industry include platform creators, content developers, inworld facilitators, marketing and advocacy support. At the user end, there is invariably an inhouse advocate who undertakes to lobby senior management and CTOs. Without these groups, a virtual world strategy within a given organisation is unlikely to succeed.
  23. In relation to the building of the National Broadband Network (NBN), many Australians are asking what the business case for a super-fast broadband service might be. Virtual environments ought to be considered in such discussions for they are the sorts of technology tools that will enhance existing services and indeed, create new ones. However, they are bandwidth hungry – even lightweight platforms are impacted if user-groups are simultaneously looking at multiple embedded rich media, such as streaming video, streaming audio and presentations.
  24. Promising experiments in virtual health care (Arinthio 2009; Virtual Ability, 2009, Wiecha, 2010), along with the demand for innovation in the e-health sector (Dept. Health and Ageing, 2008) suggest there is value in establishing a nationally-funded program to consider the immersive Internet’s potential for services such as chronic-care programs, the establishment of virtual clinics and using virtual environments to assist the disabled and the elderly.
  25. Virtual environments are another platform for delivering services. If government agencies were to develop an interest in immersive technology solutions, it would be a fillip to the services economy in general, for as an exporter of goods and services, Australia is a trusted supplier. Developing existing exports, such as education, as virtual experiences, not only builds and extends established brands, but may significantly add to the value chain. Project trials are an obvious next step.
  26. A communications infrastructure capable of handling immersive technologies is required in order to meet the expectations of coming generations; their Web will go beyond the connect and share paradigm of today to a system that enables users to experience and interact with data around them. Input will come from everywhere, and data overlays, as we are already seeing in a range of applications on smart phones, will be immersive to a greater or lesser degree, depending on preferences, or as dictated by the jobs at hand.

References

Arinthio, D. 2009, ‘Daneel Ariantho’s laboratory: A blog about chemistry and healthcare in Second Life’ retrieved July 2009, < http://daneelariantho.wordpress.com/ >

Australian Department of Health and Ageing 2008, ‘The National eHealth Strategy’, retrieved October 2009, <http://www.health.gov.au/Internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/National+Ehealth+Strategy>

CBS NEWS 2008, retrieved August 2009, < http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3547970n>

KZERO, 2009, ‘Virtual Worlds: 2010 and beyond Report’, retrieved October 2009, <http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog >

Mao, Y. and Shi, L. 2009, ‘From “Dragon Dollars” to Philanthropic Dollars: the Role of Virtual Currency in an Online Forum’s Fundraising and Volunteering Activities’, (unpublished paper), UCLA School of Public Health.

Reeves, B. and Reid, J.L. 2009, Total Engagement: using games and virtual worlds to change the way people work and businesses compete USA, Harvard Business Press.

 

Virtual Ability, 2009, retrieved December 2009, http://virtualability.org/default.aspx

Viximo 2010, ‘Viximo Quarterly Outlook: Virtual Goods in 2010 and Beyond’, retrieved April 2010, http://blog.viximo.com/corporate/2010/04/14/quarterlyoutlook/

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