The general format and content of this presentation is drawn from the Delphi forecasting exercise run at the Open University's ReLive 2011 conference. The session was run by .... Participants were split into 3 groups of about 6 and asked to come up with key issues and challenges facing virtual worlds (and their use) in the short (2-3yr), medium (c.5-10yr) and long (>10yr) term. Groups then narrowed their choices to two for each category, shared them with the other groups, and then voted on the collective issues to arrive at 2 for each time period. Two groups had choices that allied pretty closely, and the final set was an amalgam of their selections – and often only the emphasis or wording was different. The third group appeared to have a completely different mindset! Of course although we talk about short/medium/long term there are no hard divisions between the periods, and many medium term issues are already having an impact, and many short term issues will only have a medium term solution! Interestingly there is a BIG jump between the things selected/discussed around short/medium term and those for the long term – even I was surprised at how bold the collective long term view was. I have tweaked the titles on the 6 issues/challenges a bit, but I hope I'm true to the spirit of the discussion/decision. BTW is you participated in the Delphi and think I've misrepresented your view then I can only claim that this is my take on the session – and please post your view somewhere so we can open a broader discussion.
The big short term issue was summed up as “just make it work”. I've broadened it here to seamless to cover some related issues. Using virtual worlds has got to be a seamless part of our online experience if its ever going to reach mass use. That means: - the software has just got to work everytime, all the time, as advertised - the learning curve must be as close to 0 as we can get it - we need to avoid long downloads, ideally running in the browser (although possibly full screen) with no plug-ins - the virtual world needs to be integrated with the rest of our PC, including documents, audio, web cam and even webcam derived gesturing – all with suitable security of course There are also several tensions/dichotomies that need to be considered: - the different needs of users (who typically want want to do to be very obvious), people who want to create (who ideally need in-world build and scripting functionality and open APIs), and professionals (who want a locked down experience for their own users) - whether the virtual “world” is actually one world (a la Snowcrash and Second Life), or a whole series of separate worlds (such as Caprica and Active Worlds) - whether the user experience if fundamentally a directed one (i.e. more game like, such as WoW and Minecraft and even Twinity), or more one of discovery (such as Second Life) - how tight the integration/overlap with social media is – yes being able to sign into a world with Facebook and Tweet out of it is useful – but should the virtual world just be a 3D social network – or more?
During one of the ReLive discussions the question was asked “What if Second Life died?”. Surprisingly, given the audiences collective investment in SL, the view was that not only would this not be the end of the world but it might be a force for good – encouraging other “next generation” platforms to develop. Then during a wonderful “goldfish bowl” debating exercise I had a different insight – what if Google Lively (Google's short lived virtual world(s) of around 2007/8) had lived? Yes there was lots wrong with Lively, and it wasn't true 3D, it was Flash and you could only use an object library rather than build your own, but just imagine if it had worked out, and people started creating all sort of readily accessible virtual worlds.....
When you now did a standard Google search alongside the options for Everything and Images and Video you'd now have one for Worlds. Researching Asteroids? Up would pop links to a whole host of different asteroid related virtual worlds for you to explore, from KeyStage 1-5 STEM experiences, to simulations of the potential NASA asteroid mission to scientifically accurate models of Vesta, Eros and other asteroids to explore. Virtual worlds would have become a part of everyone's web experience. But that future didn't come to pass.
However, me may slowly be getting back to it. Web.alive has been touting its 3D web spaces extensively recently – but the tech is relatively old and adoption low (particularly outside of the US). More interesting is what can be achieved with Unity when run with an MMO server like Smartfox, and then augmented by VW type services as in Reaction Grid's Jibe (and we know another big brand virtual world which is going down this route). Here we do get the chance to just have a VW window embedded in a web page, a quick log on, choose an avatar and we're in the space with other users. Of course there are issues, and there is no teleporting or hypergridding between worlds yet, but its a sign that we may be getting back on the right track. Whether OpenSim+Unity is a way forward I'm not sure – OpenSim has a lot of baggage, but is still a good solution for more conventional VW deployments. And long term I don't think it's OpenSim or Unity.
The other short-term issue was desirability. People have got to want to use this stuff. And its been an uphill struggle so far with barriers to entry typically far outweighing perceived benefit. It is in education and training that we are seeing the clearest benefit – hardly surprising since virtual worlds are a superset of the simulation systems that have been used extensively in the military, transporting and medical arenas. Businesses though are more focussed on the bottom line – cutting costs and increasing revenues. It is in the former that we are seeing the most success – principally be contributing to the “death of distance”, cutting travel time/budget/carbon through remote training, conferences, meetings and collaboration – but even here the argument gets weaker the further we move away from training. And forget revenues – that was the whole 2006/7 bubble when marketeers stormed into SL and stormed out again – not to return until virtual worlds have Facebook style user numbers. For individuals its about social benefits – virtual worlds as places that are entertaining and fun to use, engaging and easy to use – only then will they rival Farmville!
Moving into the medium term – but really already here – devices like the iPad are likely to be the most prevalent computing platform over the next decade – eclipsing both smartphones and PCs (for non-work purposes), and maybe even TVs. I used to think that the small form factor of mobile devices mitigated against their use for virtual worlds – but Unity games on the iPhone disabused me of that, and the iPad screen is little smaller than my 13” laptop. The problem these device do have though, particularly in the short term, and maybe into the medium term is processing power and bandwidth. Forget about video stream services to play games – that might be great for a trial but its not a long term, or elegant solution. But there may be a better one....
The discussion about short and medium term challenges was pretty predicable, but when it came to the long term the participants really looked forward. First up was interfaces. Whilst Kinect type interfaces and tactile gloves are interesting (eg the Milo demo bottom right), I do not believe they are the long term solution – can you image an office of people jumping around in front of big screens. I always apply what I call the FTSE100 CEO test – can you imagine the boss of a big corporation doing it, or even your parents ( for instance I can't imagine either driving an avatar in Second Life – its often just too removed from the end effect – and therein lies a lot of the problem). To me, and I think the rest of the group, the only real solution is going to be some form of very direct neural interface. At its most basic this could be a wrap around headset screen with movement triggered by brainwave signalling (eg Neurosky), and with conventional audio. At is most sophisticated a true neural jack as in every cyberpunk novel from Neuromancer onwards. The images above show two typical SF views (Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell top left, and Lain from Serial Experiments:Lain bottom left), and the best current SF visualisation – from Caprica. Whilst such technology might seam fanciful there is a lot of work going on in this area – particularly around systems to support those with disabilities. There is also a tension between those (like me) who see the personal headset/jack type interface as the best solution, and those who prefer the Star Trek Holodeck approach – we had a good debate on this at MODSIM. And the US is putting a lot of energy into Holodecks (check out the latest Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge and a recent USAF research request).
The second long term issue identified was the changing relationship between virtual worlds and the physical world society. How will real world developments effect virtual worlds – in terms as varied as resources and ethics, religion and war. Governments across the world are pouring money into cyber and influence research and capability – understanding not only how they can keep their own cyber space safe (of which virtual worlds are one part), but also how they, and other can use cyber to judge what is going on in the physical world (eg tweeting during riots), and even influence it (eg the Arab spring). The future of the digital and physical worlds (both are “real” worlds, and both can be “virtual”) is inextricably linked. And as I keep saying at every opportunity at the moment, if you want a good insight/portrayal of where this is all headed you could do a lot worse than watch the first 6 episodes of Caprica – the Battlestar Galactica prequel. – SPOILER ALERT – but shouldn't ruin your enjoyment as well signposted and early! – Daniel Graystone (the guy on the left) IS Philip Rosedale (founder of Second Life). You can just hear his talkshow defence of virtual worlds coming from Philip's lips. Then in the creation of virtual Zoe (girl right – and Daniel's daughter) Caprica gives you probably the most feasible account of how we could create a true virtual personaliity – do fancy brain scans just a mining of every digital trace you've ever left in the world. And then once we have a digital self what are the implications of that self as it moves from computer to robot, and back again, and even to multiple locations – a true divided self. And finally what about digital immortality if the physical self dies what does the digital self become – and how do your surviving physical friends and relatives react?
And that;s it. Just about delivered in 15 minutes, and as refined a version of my view as to where all this stuff is going as I could do on the train between Birmingham and London (and back again for these Notes). And now (still on the train) back into my local OpenSim to do a bit more work on the Graystone house and our virtual Zoe ;-) David Burden If you'd like to discuss anything raised in this presentation then please email me at [email_address] , or tweet me @davidburden.
Virtual Worlds: A Future History
Virtual WorldsA Future History David Burden Daden Limited