Google Wants to Make the Web More Lively

Three-dimensional virtual-reality-based social networking! Just saying it can make you want to cringe. Didn't we already go through this with "Second Life" and its ilk? We all know the problems. Most of these programs like "Second Life" are big fat applications, essentially video games. They have a high learning curve that discourages casual users. And they don't integrate well with Web sites and other social networking tools. But what if instead of a big fat application you had a small browser plug-in? And what if it had a relatively low learning curve? And instead of people being forced into a big virtual world in order to connect, customized virtual spaces could be easily dropped into Web sites and collaboration systems? With that you might actually have a 3-D virtual-reality-based social networking system that people and businesses would embrace. This is the concept behind Lively, which was just released as a beta by Google. Lively runs as a plug-in to Firefox and Internet Explorer and with it sites, businesses and people can quickly get up and running with virtual spaces that enable avatar-based collaboration, chat and social networking.

Three-dimensional virtual-reality-based social networking! Just saying it can make you want to cringe. Didn't we already go through this with "Second Life" and its ilk?

We all know the problems. Most of these programs like "Second Life" are big fat applications, essentially video games. They have a high learning curve that discourages casual users. And they don't integrate well with Web sites and other social networking tools.

But what if instead of a big fat application you had a small browser plug-in? And what if it had a relatively low learning curve? And instead of people being forced into a big virtual world in order to connect, customized virtual spaces could be easily dropped into Web sites and collaboration systems? With that you might actually have a 3-D virtual-reality-based social networking system that people and businesses would embrace.

This is the concept behind Lively, which was just released as a beta by Google. Lively runs as a plug-in to Firefox and Internet Explorer and with it sites, businesses and people can quickly get up and running with virtual spaces that enable avatar-based collaboration, chat and social networking.

Based on initial tests I found a lot to like about Lively, but most of what I like is the approach. I think this is the right way to do 3-D social networking.

But the current state of the Lively beta leaves a lot to be desired, with many features not working well. And since Lively currently only runs on Windows systems, a lot of potential users are left out in the cold (or would that be virtual cold?).

Getting up and running with the Lively beta was simple, and if you already have some form of Google ID (such as a Gmail account) then you can use that to sign in. Once I installed the plug-in I was able to get start visiting other people's Lively spaces (called rooms) or creating rooms of my own.

The tools were simple and straightforward. An avatar builder let me quickly create a simple virtual representation of myself. I then created a room using basic room layouts and added furniture and items within the space (click here to visit the Lively room I created for eWEEK Emerging Technologies).

Some items allow for additional capabilities. For example, I was able to run YouTube streams from within the virtual displays in my room.

When creating a room you can allow different levels of interactivity for visitors, from letting them add or move items within the room to limiting them to basic chat and avatar interactivity.

While setup was simple, the current state of the beta limits customization. The preloaded customization options were very limited and even using the "shop for more" option didn't provide much extra. Worse, while browsing for extra customizations I ended up getting a 403 error from Google (used when Google thinks you might be a robot), which locked me out of the customization catalog for over an hour.

All custom content is being created by Google partners for now and no API or tool kit is provided to let users create their own custom items for their virtual worlds.

So while I like the approach of Lively and think it has great potential to finally bring about useful 3-D social networking, I think it might be a little while before it has a chance to fulfill this promise.

To try out the beta of Lively for yourself, go here.