Virtual Worlds a Long Way from the Web

Opinion: Though lots of business is being done in virtual worlds such as Second Life and, ease-of-use issues are creating roadblocks to the mainstream.

In Neal Stephensons seminal 1992 cyberpunk novel "Snow Crash," Hiro Protagonist, the, uh, protagonist of the story, is a struggling pizza delivery guy. He is also a well-known, powerful celebrity with killer samurai sword capabilities.

How is he both of these things at the same time? Easy. In the real world, Hiro is a pizza delivery guy, and in the virtual world of the Metaverse, he is a powerful samurai celebrity. Today, similar scenarios are playing out in our own world.

That quiet and reserved woman who barely talks to anyone at lunch runs a flashy and popular nightclub in the virtual world of Second Life. And that slightly smarmy sales guy who seems to be a jock is a powerful elven wizard in the World of Warcraft MMOG (massively multiplayer online game).

Sure, to many in business these virtual worlds seem to be little more than video games where people hide from the real world. But an awful lot of business is already being done in these virtual worlds and even more will be done in the near future.

However, while virtual worlds such as Second Life and have made great strides in creating highly immersive environments, they are still a long way from the ubiquity or the power of Stephensons Metaverse. They also face considerable hurdles before they can become as ubiquitous and easy to use as the Web is today.

To me, hurdle No. 1 is the environments themselves. These arent small, lightweight applications such as a little Flash program. These are essentially big video games that are large downloads and that can use considerable system and network resources. Its one thing to be at work and have an IM application running on the side. Trying to do work while also having Second Life running is nearly impossible.

Another hurdle is ease of use. As a regular gamer I didnt have too much trouble getting the hang of environments such as Second Life, but Ive seen plenty of other generally savvy computer users at a complete loss at what to do when entering such virtual worlds. This is why so many people who try them out leave early, often never to return.

Finally, there is the fact that these worlds are distinct islands that dont touch each other in any way. If you need to work in more than one of these, youll need to install multiple virtual world applications, create new avatars in each and have a completely new identity or try to port your other virtual world identity to new worlds.

All of these, along with other hurdles, are currently keeping virtual worlds from being as ubiquitous as the Web. But still, many companies are already creating virtual identities for themselves. Go into worlds such as Second Life and youll see offices for real-world companies, attend meetings and press conferences, and, of course, see lots of what are essentially virtual world advertisements.

This doesnt even count the social networking that occurs in these worlds—without a doubt, there have been big business deals that were done between two virtual avatars. This also doesnt count the essentially "intranet" deployments that are only visible to employees and partners of a specific company.


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for a podcast discussing the business of virtual worlds.

So should you rush your business into these virtual worlds right away? Not necessarily. There are still many things about business that dont translate well to virtual worlds and, despite the millions using these environments, there are still far more people who dont use them.

In my opinion, these worlds wont really take off until they are easier to use, interchangeable and easy to deploy and install. Still, I would recommend getting to understand these virtual worlds and where they will be heading in the next several years. In many ways, the technology in these worlds is like the early days of the Web.

But one thing I wouldnt do is dismiss these worlds as some place where only geeky loners hang out instead of doing things in the real world. After all, lots of people said the same thing about the Web back in its early days.

Web Resources

Croquet is an open-source project to create a ubiquitous and open virtual world operating system.

The Lindex tracks the monetary market within the virtual world of Second Life.


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