Google Lively AvatarThe past few weeks have seen the release of Google Lively and Electric Sheep Company’s WebFlock. 3D environments have been around for years, with the initial attempts using VRML, an HTML like markup language. VRML was an interesting idea but had problems because the computers and typical network speeds for users made the environments too slow to be usable. Now, cable modems and dual-core processors remove the speed problems, but we have not seen many 3D environments yet.

A lot of people see great potential for these environments, but we are still in the technology’s infancy on the Web. SecondLife, the veteran in this arena, has been around since 2003. Much of SecondLife is based on its virtual currency which can be purchased with real US dollars. SecondLife is largely based on commerce, much like our own world. However, this commercial basis has led to some problems. Obviously, these problems can be dealt with in various ways and in some ways can show the maturity of the application.

The other newer 3D environments, like Lively and WebFlock, take a different approach. Lively does not seem targeted to a specific purpose yet, but you can clothe your avatar, create a room and furnish the room. You can also interact with people in the various rooms. There does seem to be a plan for commerce in the virtual world, as the furniture that you can shop for have prices associated with them, typically free currently.

Commerce and monetization are obviously important for services like these, but what can they be used for? In the case of SecondLife there are virtual storefronts that people can visit or build, but this might make people uneasy at this point. Typical ecommerce sites like Amazon.com provide plenty of information for people to be comfortable making a purchase. Ecommerce can not be the only reason to pull people to a 3D world, because it is far easier to make a purchase at a traditional site. What other ways can we use 3D environments? Let’s look at the more popular content available on the internet.

Porn is extremely popular and readily available. However, why would someone pay for virtual porn in an environment like SecondLife? I would think that virtual porn would require more of an immersive environment like the “helmet and glove” virtual reality worlds. Portals and news sites like Yahoo or CNN have no need for a virtual world either. We have text stories and streaming audio and video, so there is minimal value added in a virtual world.

Virtual conferences and education seem to be more likely industries for virtual worlds. In many cases, people cannot travel to conferences and having a virtual option could be a helpful alternative. We already have “webinars,” but the virtual world could provide an interesting venue. Education and “immersive” training could also be a big industry for virtual worlds. For the same reasons as conferences, a virtual meeting place provides more interaction than a typical online classroom. “Seeing” someone talk during a lecture would seem more interesting than following a chat transcript or an audio stream.

So how do we get to mainstream virtual worlds? First, movement and basic concepts like sitting, standing and body gestures needs to be much simpler. I found Lively extremely awkward to move through. You can zoom in and out, change your perspective and drag the mouse to move your avatar. I am very familiar with computer graphics, and found this far too complicated. When most people go to a virtual world, they will want to move around the world and interact. If movement is complicated people will leave. This is especially true if a competitor, like SecondLife, makes movement simple.

Another issue is with the avatars themselves. People are used to choosing everything on an avatar, eye color, hair color, hair style, and loads of other things. They can click and change anything at will. If virtual worlds insist on making people learn to take shoes off before putting a new pair on, they will leave. This kind of thing can be an option for some people, but the majority will not want that complication. People want things to be like the movies. We want to be able to touch a sensor to our hair and change its color.

Two other virtual environments provide an interesting perspective. Vivaty scenes are available for Facebook or Aim. They explain their purpose clearly:

“Get a Vivaty scene: Vivaty is a fun way to socialize and share your web stuff in a personal virtual scene. No big downloads — it’s all in the browser.”

Why is this interesting? For the same reason people find zombie games in Facebook interesting, it is fun and entertaining. Once they get a good amount of use, commercial offerings are likely to follow.

WebFlock is the other interesting player in the virtual world industry. They offer a hosted solution that is entirely flash-based.

“WebFlock is an application for private-labeled, Web-based virtual experiences. It provides a visually immersive environment for social interaction, media consumption and game play.”

If you look at the product page, they are looking at in-world advertising, other monetization as well as integration with “other Web content or profile systems”. By taking the hosted approach, and integrating with information outside of the virtual world, they are inviting enterprises to build worlds where people can visit without the concerns of unsavory content like the public worlds. Imagine Sony building a virtual store, or Harvard building a virtual classroom. This is available in other worlds as well, but companies will like the control they can get with WebFlock.

Overall, the virtual worlds are interesting and possibly entertaining. However, outside of the education and conference industries, I fail to see why a virtual world is that interesting or useful. Until a truly immersive experience is available, like the virtual reality worlds, there will not be true mainstream acceptance. This assumes that these worlds also figure out how easily usable their world needs to be.