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Why The Virtual Worlds Bubble Is a Lie

2010 April 27

One of the most prominent criticisms of virtual worlds (like Second Life) is that we’ve already experienced a virtual worlds bubble – a period of high enthusiasm, followed by market over-saturation, followed by collapse.  Most of the bubble happened in 2006: profits and non-profits alike (from IBM to NASA) spent a great deal of money to create Second Life presences for their organizations.   Reuters even opened a Second Life office.  Then what happened?

Well, nothing, and that was the problem.  Although everyone was talking about virtual worlds, relatively few people were using them, especially compared to number of users in modern social gaming.  What went wrong?

Some people in the industry claim it’s because virtual worlds were just another over-hyped tech that no one ever needed in the first place.  But I think that’s a little too simple.  There were a number of barriers to the success of virtual worlds at that time:

  1. No one knew why they were deploying in a virtual world.  Most organizations built Second Life campuses because they were told “it’s the next big thing” without a clear reason for doing so.  Were they launching a new training initiative where inexpensive scripted simulation would be useful?  Were they created a targeted marketing campaign for tech-savvy users to get more familiar with their products?  No – none of these things.  They were building virtual worlds because they were told to.  And that’s not a recipe for success.
  2. They expected the users to come to them. Many organizations believed that people using virtual worlds were some sort of vast, untapped market of people that they didn’t already have access to.  By moving into Second Life, they would not only gain this market but also the vast “future” market of users.  But there was never any evidence that either side of this assumption was true.
  3. They didn’t have a plan. Like with any tool (especially technology), you must have a plan to use a tool before trying to use it.  Do you turn to a blank wall in your home with a hammer and assume it’ll all work out by the time you’re done?  Certainly not!  You have a plan, schematics, and a clear path to the finish line.
  4. The barriers to entry were too high. Second Life requires you to download client software, create an account, and wait for the 3D engine to load before you can even make a judgment as to whether it is enjoyable or worthwhile.  Farmville, on the other hand, is the most popular game/application on Facebook.  There are plenty of people who play Farmville once and never play again.  But there are millions of players who tried it on a whim and got hooked.  They were only able to do this because the barriers to entry were low – a couple of clicks, and you could try it out.

These four features together spelled the death of virtual world popularity in 2006 – the “bubble” popped and Reuters closed its Second Life office.  Since the bubble has burst, does that mean virtual worlds are no longer worth our attention?

Absolutely not!  This is the lie perpetuated by those always looking for the next tech.  “Virtual worlds have passed,” they say.  This is absolutely false.  The bubble of artificial popularity may have burst, but virtual worlds themselves still have a great deal of promise.  Just because a few carpenters destroyed a house by using tools they didn’t really understand doesn’t mean that the tools themselves have no value.

The key to virtual worlds is addressing the four problems above.  As far as general popularity among the masses, I think Problem #4 is probably the biggest.  Until you can run Second Life with zero lag and fully scripted/customizable experiences within a browser window, Second Life will never gain mainstream acceptance.

But I’m not interested in mainstream acceptance – I’m interested in whether or not virtual worlds can be used effectively in organizations, especially in regards to training, and that is a very different question.  Consider:

  1. We know why we want to deploy in a virtual world.  We want to use virtual worlds to take advantage of the multi-user environment for training purposes.  We can created scripted encounters far more effectively and at a much lower cost than if we were building a physical facility, which would involve training people to run the facility on top of building costs.
  2. We’re bringing the users to the VW, not the other way around. If we’re replacing training interventions with VW interventions, it will be because we brought the virtual world to the users – setting up VW software on office systems and training employees on navigation of the virtual space.
  3. We have a plan. The key to successful virtual world deployment is the identification of training goals that can be best addressed in a VW.  If you’re just going to give a PowerPoint presentation, does it matter if you put it in a VW or in the conference room?  Absolutely not.  But what if you want to train users on a dangerous or costly machine?  What if you want to simulate customer service or leadership interactions with people of different races or sexes as part of training on discrimination?  These things are simple in a VW.
  4. The barriers to entry should be minimized by the organization. By making VWs part of a company-supported training program, the organization takes on the costs of deploying the software and training its users.  Any barriers to entry are mitigated by appropriate training and support from the organization.

We may be on the opposite side of a virtual worlds bubble, but that has absolutely no impact on what should be our core concern: can virtual worlds be used to minimize costs or improve outcomes for workers, and how do we do it?  This question has not yet been fully answered, but there’s no reason to stop trying now.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010

    Some very good points Richard. There are points I do wish to differ with you.
    1 ) Until you can run Second Life with zero lag and fully scripted/customizable experiences within a browser window, Second Life will never gain mainstream acceptance.
    This is a old debate in the VW community. VW in browser, or browser in VW. I like to use the analogy of putting a 600 hp engine in a Volkswagon, you can do it, but its not a good idea. I think the same is true for trying to make a virtual world run inside a browser. Its possible, but the experience is going to be less. I prefer the browser in the virtual world. It makes for a more immersive experience.
    Zero lag is impossible, but making lag not noticeable is the goal. SL did a good job of this in the past, but then the content got larger and larger, and lag got worse and worse. There are a number of key architecture choices that are the root of this, that I dont think SL will overcome in their current architecture.
    In theory SL does a good job of minimizing download, many of the games that are downloadable require gigabytes of content download. SL install is around 20 meg, trivial by todays standards. but then you run into the lag. That and a very difficult user interface kept SL out of the mainstream. One of the other key issues that most people never even consider is scalability. With SL you can only fit 50 people in a region, if you want more people, you need to buy more regions. Bad for business IMHO. My companies platform uses dimensions, so if a region fills up, an identical dimension(s) is created in parallel. So you can reuse the same content for 10,000s of users. If you are interested in a different kind of world, come check out Prototerra world. We are talking to a number of universities about hosting online education and simulations.

  2. May 18, 2010

    Given the current constraints of web browsers, I agree completely. But in this approaching era of HTML 5 (and beyond), integration of nearly lag-free 3D graphics in the browser will be easier to achieve. It’s definitely coming – it’s just a matter of when. Immersion is definitely an issue though.

    The architecture of SL frustrates me for exactly the reasons you describe. If I’m deploying SL within an organization to support a training intervention, I don’t really care how big the initial downloads are because I can have the IT function install it when the core users aren’t around. This is what SL’s behind-the-firewall option should provide, but I suspect it doesn’t. Although I wonder if scalability is as much of a concern when the server is behind the corporate firewall?

    I am intrigued by your description of Prototerra – creation of parallel dimensions sounds an awful lot like the description of what the Internet evolves into in David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy. If that’s the same idea, you can trigger one person to be present in all dimensions (for example, the speaker) while everyone in attendance fits into their own dimensions? That would be a technical accomplishment indeed!

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