Second Life: 2D bridges and fragmented worlds

Last week, Intel invited me to California to participate in a panel about Second Life. The panel included a range of people who have participated in the virtual world, and some interesting conversations resulted. Many of the issues that we discussed -- why people use Second Life, what are some of the successful business efforts in the virtual world, etc. -- have been explored elsewhere, and I won't get into them here. But there were a few interesting tangents that are worth mentioning: The intersection of the 2D Web experience with 3D worlds, and the continuing fragmentation of the platforms used for virtual interactions.

The 2D/3D discussion was prompted by a question that someone in the crowd asked: Will the traditional 2D Web browsing experience merge with Second Life? My take: Wouldn't it be cool if Flash or Quicktime or Windows Media supported views into Second Life? That would certainly open up some of the activities taking place in Second Life -- including art, events, and advertising -- to a much wider audience, without having to force new users to go through the hassle of registering for Second Life, and learning how to interact with the virtual world. Even better, a tool like Flash could incorporate limited movement, handling, and maybe even communications capabilities. This is not out of the realm of possibility; Linden Lab recently open-sourced the Second Life viewer API and has APIs for several other tools. The fact that Flash players are so ubiquitous would really give a boost to Second Life -- or, for that matter, any other virtual spaces that enabled these kinds of 2D windows into their 3D environments.

This brings us to the other issue from the panel that I wanted to highlight: Fragmentation of 3D communities. It came up several times, first when the Intel moderator asked about the global potential of Second Life. My take on this is that while Second Life has a foothold in the English and French-speaking worlds, other countries have their own virtual worlds that dominate. I specifically mentioned CyWorld, which is popular in Korea, and the virtual interactions that take place in Chinese 3D MMO games -- including virtual demonstrations. Another participant on the panel, Wired's Chris Baker, mentioned Viacom's Virtual Laguna Beach and Sony Home, based on the PS3 platform. The first virtual world, based on an MTV program, already has a youth following, and Sony's product has the potential to make a big splash among on the PS3 faithful once it launches later this year. Joining either community does not preclude taking part in Second Life activities, but it certainly makes it less likely. Virtual worlds are proprietary, and people tend to loyal to specific technologies, especially if they've invested effort registering and getting up to speed on how to use them. Virtual communities also have the friend factor -- who wants to join one world, if all of your friends are already spending time in another?

What does this mean for companies interested in creating a virtual presence, or conducting virtual events? Such activities could become very complicated to develop and manage, not to mention building participation for, if companies have to accommodate multiple, incompatible platforms in various international markets and among different demographic groups. A few people on the panel expressed hope that some sort of transferable avatar would help the situation, but I am not so confident that the industry wants to develop the required technologies or standards, or work with existing standards such as X3D and VRML -- a few major technology companies that have interest in the 3D/gaming fields have proved to be notoriously stubborn in avoiding standards while promoting their own proprietary formats. Virtual worlds are shaping up to be a new Tower of Babel, and it could be messy for users and companies to decide where to invest their time and money.

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