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VW Fall: The Visionaries, Where the Platforms are Going Next
Svetlana
post Oct 16 2007, 08:45 PM
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The past year has seen tremendous growth within the virtual worlds landscape, offering an array of unique new worlds to choose from with many more on the horizon. In addition, technology's exponential acceleration continues to push the boundaries. To give further insight into what lies ahead, some of the industry’s leading visionaries took the stage during the Virtual Worlds Fall Conference to ponder where the platforms are going next.

Each of the gentlemen had their own ideas, and accordingly each is currently in the midst of managing their own virtual platforms with their distinctive focuses. To get the ball rolling, blogger Mark Wallace from 3pointD.com led the discussion and asked the panel members point blank what lay in store for us all.

Corey Bridges, Co-Founder and Executive Producer of The Multiverse Network, told the audience to expect more web integration in addition to near-term growth within the industry. “Integration with social networking sites will serve to propel virtual worlds into the mainstream,” Bridges stated, alluding to the great opportunities that many social networking sites have at nabbing otherwise complacent virtual world participants. We’ve already seen companies such as SceneCaster ( see previous article ) encompass both 2D and 3D elements, allowing for easier interfaces and portability to several other 2D environments (notably, eBay and Amazon).

Raph Koster, the easily recognized virtual worlds guru who is currently developing the much-anticipated MetaPlace with Areae, fervently believes in the power of meshing the 2D with the 3D. He sparked some debate, and applause from the audience to be sure, when he said that the idea of a 3D web as a sort of Holy Grail for the industry is a red herring. Certain things are not conducive to 3D, he argued. “Blogging in 3D is dumb,” Koster succinctly told the audience amidst cheers and grins. He cited the possibility of true representation agnostic, which in layman’s terms is data that automatically shows up appropriately (either in 2D or 3D) depending upon the user’s need.

On the other side of the coin, there are clearly industry leaders who believe more 3D will be integrated. Case in point was Microsoft’s Stephen Lawler, General Manager for Virtual Earth. Showing the audience the Virtual Earth representation of the city of San Jose on the screen, Lawler informed us that Microsoft views it differently. “3D isn’t going to replace 2D necessarily, but it’s going to go way beyond gaming and the like. It’s still difficult to navigate but it’s getting more intuitive,” he told the packed room. “Our brains can more easily parse 3D, whereas we can’t process things like locations as easily in 2D.”

Lawler believes that the web itself will go 3D, much like ASCII and DOS went to Windows, as he noted. “There will be a shift away from basic text speech (where currently some 280 million people utilize instant messaging) to a 3D mode enabling exploration, social interaction and commercial searching,” he said. By the way, for those unfamiliar with Virtual Earth, I can only say it is impressive. Boasting accuracy within an unprecedented 4 inches, it allows for street-level viewing in addition to bird’s eye. What’s more, it’s a true platform, offering operation across the Internet with access from desktops to cellulars and other mobile devices in addition to integration with most back-end data systems. While I’m one to believe that 2D will always have its place, it is certainly tempting to imagine more 3D integration thanks to the mind-boggling details and features of Virtual Earth and the like.

On the subject of integration with mobile devices, Chris Klaus, Founder and CEO of
Kaneva, cited it as a key element to consider for the industry’s future. “My phone is with me all the time,” he continued, “It would be great to stay connected with your virtual world friends or business contacts when you can’t be near your desktop.” Just as Aaron Delwiche of Metaversatility told his audience the previous day ( see previous article ), the ability to perform certain basic functions when out of world will be integral in the progress of the platforms. However, there are some parameters which pose problems as Raph Koster said, most notably with regards to the variety of mobile hardware itself in addition to the plethora of mobile carriers worldwide.

Wallace inquired about the questions of identity in virtual space, to which we heard several responses indicative of the need for some form of ID, yet the perplexing problems that subsequently arise. Corey Bridges stated that ID management will be key, enabling us to share what we want across platforms and sites. Mike Wilson, CEO of Makena Technologies, argued that while it is an important issue to tackle, not everyone should have to share his or her identities online. “I might not want everyone knowing that I play a girl in There.com and a cow in World of Warcraft,” he argued, with a tone of humor. But certainly, the underlying question is just who needs to know our identities, and to what extent. Bridges concurred with Wilson that there are certainly times when it is unnecessary (if not adverse) to divulge ID’s.

What about the questions of business models for virtual platforms? Currently, many operate on the traditional gaming-inspired models of monthly fees, but given that many participants are reluctant to pump money directly into something they are yet unsure of, it has analysts asking some tough questions. “I believe we’ll move away from initiation fees and monthly costs and into more commerce-driven fees to support the financial side of things,” Bridges told the audience. Klaus agreed, though he cited that recent analysis suggests some participants will still want elevated, pay-per-month status that will likely remain an option for many platforms. “I think in general we’ll see more blended models including commerce, some subscription fees, sponsorships and e-commerce,” Klaus stated. Wilson chimed in stating that it remains difficult to gauge the value of advertising in virtual space, citing, “We don’t yet understand how to charge for virtual world advertising.” Likewise, Lawler agreed and asked the question, “How do we value each of the advertisements that can collectively and eventually lead to a sale?”

Perhaps more platforms will look to China’s QQ Card that are sold in retailers across the nation and offer easy access to virtual funds, as Hui Xu, Founder and CEO of HiPiHi suggested. Klaus concurred, citing retail sales for gift cards (i.e. iTunes cards, etc) as on the rise and an avenue for more virtual platforms to explore.

An audience member inquired about the possibilities of more virtual devices integrated into platforms, such as Nintendo’s Wii controller. “Ultimately, we’ll need integration between hardware (such as the Wii controller) and software (such as the virtual platforms themselves),” Bridges responded. “Until more people have access to the hardware, then we’re stuck waiting for now,” he said, noting the general cost of hardware to be a particular hindrance.

Some panelists gave their final thoughts on questions surrounding interoperability. Bridges succinctly stated that the smart companies are the ones building in the interoperability standards, noting, “Anyone who isn’t thinking in those terms is putting themselves at risk.” Koster spoke of the profound importance of what he appropriately dubbed ‘reducing the Balkanization of virtual worlds’, alluding to the separation of the varied virtual platforms and their communities. Even so, he expressed his intrinsic belief that despite certain feasible portability options, “people will [regardless] naturally break off and form smaller, familiar groups.” And that, my friends, is food for thought.



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"The future is here, it's just not widely distributed yet." - William Gibson
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