What Happened to the Virtual Worlds Explosion Analysts Predicted?

A few years back, you couldn’t open any newspaper, magazine or law review journal without seeing yet another article about the crazy things that were going on in virtual worlds.  Today, not so much.  News of the closure of Metaplace didn’t even make it very far beyond the usual VW blogs…  So what’s happened to them?  Not much, according to Samuel Axon over at Mashable.

First, it should be noted that, with the exception of Metaplace, VWs aren’t going away.  In fact, based on the report, adult worlds like Second Life and Warcraft continue to grow at a steady pace.  And, from what I have seen from other analysts, such as KZero, there is massive growth in worlds targeting kids.  But I think that Axon’s analysis is spot on when he posits that VWs do well when they offer a combination of services.  Merely offering a 3-D space for chatrooms and a couple games may be enough for kids, but it can’t satisfy adults with lots of other responsibilities and opportunities competing for their time.

But even if VWs aren’t going away, that doesn’t mean they are going to take over the Internet, at least not soon.  Second Life may offer a host of tools that allow users to design and implement whatever comes to mind, but the underlying interface is still pretty clunky and slow.  If you can get games with better 3-D graphics on your smartphone, you might ask, why get invested in it now?  Apparently Linden has some plans for a massive overhaul, called Viewer 2, that may improve the new user (n00b) experience.  Whether that helps retain the 50%(!) of new users who never return, we’ll just have to wait and see…

My point is, virtual worlds are still in the “massive potential” stage.  They are a niche market that has yet to demonstrate a “killer app” that will break them out into the mainstream the way Twitter and Facebook have.  Which brings me back to the social media aspect.  I think that this element will be the key for the future of virtual worlds because people need a reason to check in as often as they check Facebook or Twitter.  The next VWs need to be much faster, more powerful, easier to use and loadable in a smartphone browser–in addition to having a real cash economy and better-defined avatar rights. That’s a tall order, but without it, I think we’re going to see VWs remain on the backburner of the social consciousness.

What do you think?  Am I missing something?

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About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
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One Response to What Happened to the Virtual Worlds Explosion Analysts Predicted?

  1. EKoreman says:

    You are not missing something. In the nineties there was Active Worlds and it is still around. Second Life was entirely based on that (free) concept of a gigantic 3D space where people could build anything with dynamic building blocks. The AW was impressive for its vastness and endless streets with buildings, but it was also very empty.

    These concepts don’t really work because of the fantasy aspect and the clumsiness of an interface that hardly add anything to the concept of chatting. Of course there are enough people out of billions who like the idea so you’ll have some people online whenever you go peak yourself. And that’s it.

    Expect Google Earth (and Live Maps?) to grow out to a virtual world where a physics engine and photo-realistic rendering will be layers. This will become the online playground, a gaming and simulation platform with access to most, if not all data online, presented in a dynamic and very intuitive way. However, don’t expect people to run around like avatars when they’re not playing a game or first-person simulation. As for interacting/chatting with other like-minded people in user customized environments I expect an interface like the Sims3 where your avatar is a puppet seen from a distance, walking in an advanced Google Street view environment where buildings can be entered and real life data and user interaction is mixed together.

    Real virtual worlds will become mainstream about ten years from now because of advanced multimedia technology. Hard to say when exactly since the technology (nanotech) is still in development. Expect ‘windows’ with crystal clear true 3D views with live as recorded as simulated content. The quality will be like looking at/in a mirror. The material will be capable of emitting/recording electromagnetic radiation in a wide spectrum. Expect frames, complete walls, complete rooms and even things like vehicles and clothing to become (partly) virtual windows. Think about dining with friends oversea where your two dining rooms seem connected and you sit right next to your friend. Think about enjoying a spare moment on the beach in Hawaii while feeling the sun in your face, watching the sunset from a mountain. Or waking up with the Eiffel Tower in sight from your ‘window’ as if you were living in Paris, education, simulations, entertainment, anything. All almost as if you were there yourself, safe behind an almost invisible window or from within a glass cage.

    I don’t think that wiring the brain to computers in order to experience ‘real’ sensations as in The Matrix is going to make it. Most of us appreciate privacy, distance and think human fantasy is more then enough for some make-believe. Most of us don’t do drugs and most of us go out, meeting people and going to places in person. That won’t change.

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