How Mobile Devices Popped the Virtual World Bubble

This was just a going to be a quick post to share the link to an very insightful editorial on the rise and fall of the 3-D Web and the virtual revolution.  Although the editorial focuses more on virtual worlds as a component of the video game industry, it definitely captures the way they burst onto the scene as a contender for the “next big thing” only to be overshadowed by services that reduced their appeal to the barest possible component, social interaction.

What I think the article misses, however, is the influence of mobile devices on hastening the transition of power.  At the time that virtual worlds were poised for unlimited growth, back in 2006 and 2007, most people still surfed the Internet from a computer.  But then a shiny new device emerged from Cupertino, CA that really did change everything.  With the iPhone and the ensuing wave of mobile devices that could browse the web and support a variety of rich-yet-simple mini applications, people discovered that they could communicate with their friends and other online communities without being stuck behind a desktop or even a laptop.  Before the mobile/Twitter takeover, phones could be used for texting but no one thought that was going to reshape society–it was just going to give teens carpal tunnel.  Facebook and MySpace were novelties used almost exclusively by students and posting posting status updates was looked on by everyone else the way old-timers used to view rock ‘n’ roll records.

Back in the mid 2000s, virtual worlds were in a perfect position to become the next form of the Internet.  They were well-developed, open spaces where people could freely interact with other people and businesses from around the world, share ideas, build things and play without being tied to a particular mission dictated by the game developer.  But in their appeal also lay the seeds of their eventual undoing…  the rich, 3-D environments and customized avatars required far too many system resources for a device meant to fit in a pocket or purse.  You couldn’t take Second Life with you on the subway. wouldn’t tell you which bar your friends were at (it would only tell you that they were either at home and online or they weren’t).  So while these games showed that people greatly desired to socialize, they could only help you socialize virtually.

It turns out that people still enjoy going to real clubs, drinking real Coke, and flirting with real people.  And at just the point where VWs fail is where social media succeed.  With their streamlined interfaces, you could easily follow Facebook updates and Twitter feeds on your iPhone, even on AT&T’s notoriously slow and unreliable 3G network.  You don’t need broadband to receive 140 characters–which cellular phone networks can deliver without any additional system resources.  Once text messages and social networking moved from teen fad to legitimate business medium, companies no longer saw the value in investing time and resources to develop virtual storefronts that no one ever visited.  And because of the immediacy of social media, businesses can respond instantly to trends and communicate with their customers in real time, rather than passively waiting for them to discover a product or service at their website, virtual store or physical store.

As mobile devices like the iPad and Google’s phone calling integration in Gmail continue to blur the line between phone and computer and mobile networks get faster and faster, maybe we will see a resurgence in virtual worlds, but it may be that their time has simply passed.  Even MetaPlace, who’s world could be viewed from any web browser and which utilized some of the same underlying technology as Twitter, couldn’t quite make it.  Social gaming may be the hot new trend in video game circles, but for now, it doesn’t appear to have the same sort of interest from other circles that services had (there are now several with mobile versions, e.g. Farmville, so it is possible I simply spoke too soon).  I’m not saying they will disappear entirely (I’m still dying to return to World of Warcraft after 4 years of abstinence, so anything that can get its hooks in you like that isn’t going anywhere).  They just won’t have the influence over the Internet like they once had.

Either way, what started out as a short post clearly got me thinking.  I’m sure I’m not the first to realize that the iPhone killed hobbled virtual worlds, but it makes sense.  The interesting thing may be that the legal issues that got me interested in virtual worlds in the first place probably aren’t going to go away just because Twitter is the new Second Life.  As more people use the service for business and other applications incorporate it into their service, there will continue to be new legal quandaries to sort out.  Stay tuned.

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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7 Responses to How Mobile Devices Popped the Virtual World Bubble

  1. Thoria Millgrove says:

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of virtual worlds are premature. World of Warcraft, Second Life, and other MMOG’s and social worlds continue to grow and make a profit. Shake outs, such as the failure of happen in any growth industry during an economic downturn.

    Perhaps the bubble that popped is an ephemeral one of media hype, which has moved on to the “next big thing”.

    • Justin Kwong says:

      I think you’re definitely right. It’s definitely hard not to get swept up in media hype these days. I’m not saying they’re really dead, but that their growth was interrupted by the shift to social media empowered by mobile devices. I’m curious to see how they will rebound, perhaps through augmented reality or with more VR-like interfaces such as those found on the Wii and the new XBox360 motion capture system. There’s definitely a demand for immersive entertainment and if there’s money to be made, someone will figure it out.

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  3. Pingback: Net Neutrality Is Essential for Virtual Worlds « Virtual Navigator

  4. JeniGrige says:

    So, I like to o play games about animals and taking care of them. I found a website called foo-pets. but its confusing
    What are some other websites you can adopt and take care of a virtual pet?

  5. Pingback: How Mobile Devices Popped the Virtual World Bubble « Flexibility Enables Learning

  6. As a ‘social network’ I agree that the iPhone has hobbled the virtual worlds uptake.
    But ‘social networking with technology’ has been around a long time; my grandad used ham radio and AM radio for voice enabled social interactions with strangers from ‘out of town’ 🙂
    But virtual worlds has a huge place in this and the next wave of technology integration, and that is in the domain of simulation, training and…if university authorities (and I don’t mean the open-minded academics) would allow .. in mainstream education not necessarily for socializing but for specific learning and formal collaboration. I am optimistic about virtual worlds and the sooner they can be used with ease on my iPad or similar then I see exponential uptake … and then maybe someone will re-invent the virtual worlds socialization concept that we haven’t considered yet 🙂

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