Second Life: What's There Is Potential

An experienced Second Lifer responds to our novice sojourner

Gary, I share your pain.

I've been a Second Lifer for a year. I've had many of the same problems, experienced some of the same fears, and have repeatedly slammed the relentless hype about the virtual world and the activities there.

But here's the thing: Despite the terrible user interface, the presence of strange avatars, questionable marketing campaigns, bizarre monuments to artistic vision, and the myriad other issues that have vexed people and companies trying to use Second Life, we have only just scratched the surface of this virtual world's potential. Put aside the problems and the hype for a moment, and consider some of the obvious strengths:

  • The ability to simulate real-life objects in three dimensions.
  • Letting users build 3-D models based on "blue-sky" concepts, ranging from "sandbox" experiments to giant building or product sims that let companies test their ideas without having to make major real-world investments in land, equipment and human resources.
  • Structured activities in 3-D spaces, such as orientation islands and tours of museum sims.
  • A shared, real-time space that can host widely distributed groups of people.
  • Interpersonal communication that incorporates body language and visual cues.
  • A safe space that protects the privacy of users while letting them project real or ideal identities.

Many individuals and organizations place great value on technologies that provide these features. Three-dimensional modeling is a crucial tool for the architecture, aeronautics and automotive industries. The military has used 3-D simulators for tank crews since the 1980s, and now uses "America's Army," a 3-D game based on teamwork and missions-specific goals, for training and recruiting purposes.

Conference calls, Web conferencing and even videoconferences are firmly ingrained into corporate culture. It's not a stretch to imagine these activities expanding into Second Life or other virtual worlds, where new modes of cooperation and creativity can be realized.

The experimentation has already begun. Clearly, many of the experiments have failed, but there are some success stories. A few entrepreneurs have established money-making businesses in Second Life. Others have built wonderful buildings and simulations, and some larger organizations have reported successful training and customer engagement efforts.

Take Harvard University, which has offered for-credit classes in Second Life for more than a year. Instructor Rebecca Nesson told me that virtual worlds, when compared with earlier distance education technologies, are a "giant leap forward" in their ability to enable communication, class participation and certain types of simulated activities. More than 100 other schools and universities have also held classes or sessions in Second Life, and a few professors have even used gaming platforms -- Everquest, World of Warcraft and the like -- to teach teamwork and management skills.

What can we expect in the years to come? Certainly, we will see more failures and cringe-inducing experiments. But I expect the complaints about the Second Life client and connectivity problems to drop away as developers improve the building tools, infrastructure and user interface. In addition, more people are going to try out virtual worlds and decide they want to stay. That's not only because more game- and social networking-savvy Generation Yers are registering, but also because virtual world graphics will get really, really good, thanks to exponential advances in hardware and software technologies.

Forget the blocky shapes and blurry textures that now dominate Second Life. The virtual worlds of 2012 will look even better than the high-definition 3-D gaming environments currently offered by the PS3 and the XBox 360. The virtual worlds of 2017 will be photorealistic, and the simulations will be fantastic. Eventually, new tools, business models and enabling technologies will emerge within these worlds that are more efficient than processes in real life or the text-based Internet.

It may seem like a stretch to imagine these things now, but if we have learned anything from observing the evolution of software, hardware and networking over the past few decades, it is that mainstream applications of these technologies are seldom apparent early on. Virtual worlds are still in technological toddlerhood, but they will reach a level of mainstream maturity in the next five to 10 years.

Ian Lamont is Computerworld's senior editor, new media.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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