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Re-Thinking 3D Virtual Worlds Development

November 6, 2010

Introduction

Scratch is a programming language developed by Mitchel Resnick’s research group at MIT Media Lab.  Scratch “makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.”  Scratch was designed for youngsters, to encourage them to build applications and games without having to learn the ins and outs of conventional programming languages.

Scratch programmers use their mouse to snap together blocks to form “stacks”.  The stacks embed actions.  For instance, some blocks allow players to control characters via keystrokes.  Programmers sequence their blocks to create animations and games.  Let’s consider how the concepts behind Scratch could be applied to 3D virtual worlds.

Virtual World Evolution

Previously, I wrote about the evolution of virtual worlds from self-expression to marketing to monetization.  With the concepts behind Scratch, however, I wonder whether a similar framework for 3D virtual worlds can re-ignite the Self-Expression stage.

Wider Adoption via Easier Development Tools

Scratch was created to empower youngsters by making it easier to build computer applications.  A similar approach may be needed to empower creators of 3D virtual worlds.  Let’s face it, creating a virtual world is not easy – it requires specialized skills.  Those who can afford it (e.g. corporations) often outsource 3D virtual world creation to agencies or development shops.

What results is a classic “chicken and egg” problem – the barrier for creation results in less supply (e.g. fewer interesting 3D worlds), which depresses demand (e.g. less people interested in visiting virtual worlds), which keeps the supply low (e.g. less interest to create them, since no one will visit).

This phenomenon may explain why IMVU is thriving, while other services (e.g. There.com, Google Lively, Vivaty) have folded.  IMVU brings the world to you – that is, the self-expression is focused around your avatar, rather than building worlds.  It’s easy to customize your avatar – and, if you’re so inclined, you can design virtual clothing and accessories, that are then made available to other users within IMVU.

Importance of Feedback Mechanisms

Scratch has two feedback mechanisms that are central to its success.  First, users can see the result of their work (in real-time) as they’re building the application.  The conventional cycle of computer programming is “code, run, debug” – with Scratch, you don’t debug, so much as you adjust your application as you go.

The second feedback mechanism comes from the Scratch community. Users can upload their application and have others post comments and suggestions.  This gives programmers the positive reinforcement behind their work (e.g. there’s an audience for my creation), which creates more incentives to create more applications and be part of an active community.

Both mechanisms could be effective in 3D virtual world creation.  The community aspect, in fact, addresses the chicken and egg problem, as the developers create an audience for each other – and can encourage their network of friends and colleagues to visit virtual worlds that they’ve found and reviewed.

Open Sourcing, Sharing and Remixing

The name “Scratch” is derived from the way disc jockeys scratch records to re-mix existing songs into new creations.  Community members can view the code for any uploaded Scratch application and are free to re-mix and modify existing applications.

This is a tried and true way to learn computer programming – take someone’s existing program, study the source code, then add some pieces to it.  Once you’ve done that a few times, you’re ready to write your own program from scratch (pun intended).

Sharing and re-mixing makes it easier to get started, will encourage wider adoption and is sure to generate interesting creations.  Imagine if a similar framework existed for 3D virtual worlds.

Conclusion

One of the prominent barriers to 3D virtual world adoption is the lack of easy creation tools.  Let’s learn from what MIT Media Lab has created with Scratch and see if we can apply their concepts to 3D virtual worlds.  How about it?

Related Links

  1. August 2008, NewScientist, “Creating your own computer game is child’s play
  2. March 2009, Wired, “Scratch Lowers Resistance to Programming
  3. May 2008, American Libraries, “Minds at Play
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“It’s All Virtual” On Virtual Worlds

October 3, 2010

Introduction

Given Microsoft’s rumored interest in acquiring Linden Lab (developers of Second Life), I thought I’d assemble some recent virtual worlds content.

Related: “Microsoft Buys Vivaty For New Project, May Be Looking For More,” from Virtual Worlds News

Virtual worlds have taken a hit, as Twitter, Facebook and other services have become media darlings.  And while I love social networks as much as anyone, I do think the market is under-considering (if that’s a word) the potential of virtual worlds technologies.

At A Crossroads: Where Does Second Life Go From Here?

I analyzed different directions that Linden Lab could take Second Life.  Of course, one that I did not cover was an exit – if the rumored exit (Microsoft) were to happen, I’m very curious to see how and where Microsoft folds the Second Life technology into its business.

On a slightly related topic, I wrote about how virtual worlds can be more like Twitter and Facebook – that is, more social and more open to the rest of the web.

Related: Guest Post from Pooky Amsterdam, “The Business Benefits of Second Life.”

Conference Coverage: FountainBlue Virtual Worlds (September 2010)

  1. 3 Virtual Worlds Technologies To Watch
  2. Trends In The Virtual Worlds Industry
  3. Hear From A Panel Of Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs

Conference Coverage: Stanford Media X Virtual Worlds (August 2010)

  1. Stanford Media X Event: Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs Show The Way
  2. Stanford Media X Event: IMVU’s Online Community

Trends In The Virtual Worlds Industry

September 28, 2010

How do you keep up with industry trends?  You hear from the people setting the trends.  On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.  The event featured a session titled “Trends in the Virtual Worlds Industry: An Update on What’s New and What’s Coming.”

The panel:

  1. Facilitator Jeff Pope, Founding Partner, Spark Sky Ventures
  2. David Helgason, CEO and Co-Founder, Unity
  3. Chris Platz, Creative Director and Art Lead, Stanford Sirikata Labs
  4. Eilif Trondsen, Research and Program Director of the Virtual Worlds @ Work Consortium at Strategic Business Insights, SRI International
  5. Mark Wallace, Conversation Manager, Linden Lab

Related News: From Virtual Worlds News, “Unity Launches Unity 3, Wins Innovation Award

Terminology

The panel agreed that the term “virtual worlds” may no longer be applicable.  Eilif Trondsen noted that many technologies (e.g. Teleplace, Protosphere), provide virtual spaces (for corporations), rather than an entire virtual world.  Interestingly, at a Stanford Media X event, IMVU noted that they’re “NOT a virtual world“, either.  Chris Platz noted that he refers to the technology as a “real-time 3D collaborative spaces.”

Adapting to a changing user community

Platz noted that many virtual worlds technologies were designed for an older audience – one that will soon give way to a younger generation (e.g. Gen Y).  The technologies will need to adapt to a user base who grew up in a “virtual world” – they will have a different set of expectations.  An audience member noted that for some kids, their first experience online is in Club Penguin (or a similar “world”) – before they experience the broader web.

Platz encouraged virtual worlds to tear down the “walled garden” (e.g. closed system) in favor of an open system that integrates with Facebook, Twitter and other systems.  Platz developed and experimented with a Flash-based MMORG (massively multi-player online role-playing game) that ran as a Facebook app.  He predicted that some time soon, someone would develop a fully functional 3D virtual world embedded in Facebook – one that users interact with while on Facebook.com.

Avatar or no avatar?

The panel had an interesting debate on the use of avatars.  The debate was spurred from a point made about someone’s notion of an “ideal corporate learning environment”, which listed the following attributes:

  1. Ability to give presentations
  2. Virtual whiteboard
  3. Document collaboration
  4. Desktop sharing
  5. Use of avatars is secondary

What the debate really boiled down to is not “avatar or no avatar”, but “immersion or no immersion?”  Mark Wallace from Linden Lab took the “avatar stance”, noting the deep association between a user and her avatar – and the resulting impact of that connection.  Wallace noted that Second Life residents whose avatars participate in virtual weight loss programs actually lose weight in real life.

Audience member Laura Kusumoto noted that Wallace’s example referred to “Club One Island” on Second Life – I wrote about Club One in a posting about a Stanford Media X event in which they presented.

For me, it’s useful in a group learning environment to receive signals about the other members of the group (e.g. are they paying attention, are they engaged, are they asking questions, etc.).

There are non-immersiveness tools that can be leveraged (e.g. webcams, text chat, message boards, etc.).  However, I do see the value of immersiveness for learning – I’d compare it to an in-person team meeting vs. an audio-only conference call.

Augmented social graph reality

David Helgason made an interesting prediction with regard to augmented reality.  Helgason believes that the future of augmented reality includes your social graph overlaid onto your AR experience.  In the near future, your smartphone may be able to perform facial recognition on a person – and overlay your social graph connections to that person (on your smartphone’s display).

Perhaps the more immediate opportunity is already happening – via location based services as opposed to augmented reality.  For example, I arrive at a restaurant and find reviews from people in my social graph.  Reading my friends’ reviews lets me know whether I should go in to grab a table.

Second Life Enterprise

Linden Lab’s Mark Wallace was asked to comment on future plans for Second Life Enterprise.  Wallace noted that Linden Lab is taking a holistic approach to the entire platform – looking to make improvements to the user experience that apply to all users.  Wallace would not comment specifically on Enterprise, noting that the improvements underway would benefit everyone.

Conclusion

This isn’t your father’s virtual world any more.  From hearing this panel, I’d say that virtual worlds technologies (or, real-time 3D collaborative spaces) will continue to morph and blend immersive experiences with the social graph, social gaming and augmented reality.  As facilitator Jeff Pope noted, it will be interesting to gather again in 12 months to re-assess where the trends have taken us.


Virtual Recap: Recent Postings On Virtual Events And Virtual Worlds

August 26, 2010

Virtual Events eBooks

  1. Virtual Events: Ready, Set, Go – download the eBook
  2. Social Media and Virtual Events – download the eBook

Across the Industry

  1. My guest post at PR Meets Marketing, “Go Virtual for your Next Press Event” – how virtual events can be an effective platform for PR and marketing simultaneously
  2. Ken Heyward (vcopious) with a guest post on this blog, “Flexible Platforms in a Virtual World,” which addresses considerations for SaaS vs. on-premise software for virtual events
  3. ROI for Virtual Events,” a posting I authored on the INXPO blog, with insights on virtual events ROI from thought leader Todd Hanson from ROI of Engagement

Virtual Worlds

  1. Stanford Media X Event – Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs Show The Way
  2. Stanford Media X Event – Summary of IMVU Presentation from Brett Durrett, VP Engineering at IMVU
  3. FountainBlue Event – Annual Virtual Worlds Conference hosted by Cisco (Milpitas, CA)

Virtual Events Calendar

  1. There were a few virtual events in August as summer winded down – but look at what’s scheduled for September – events on luxury travel, natural products, publishing, higher education, autos, wireless technology, cruise shipping and eBooks.  Glad to see virtual events being leveraged across so many distinct industries

Stanford Media X Event: IMVU’s Online Community

August 23, 2010

Brett Durrett (@bdurrett), VP Engineering at IMVU, gave an interesting presentation at a Stanford Media X virtual worlds event.  IMVU achieves a $40MM annual run rate, primarily from the sale of virtual goods.  Several virtual worlds entrepreneurs were in attendance at the event, which meant that Durrett’s talk received a lot of attention and interest.

IMVU is NOT a Virtual World

Durrett began the presentation by stating that IMVU is not a virtual world.  Instead, they are an online community “where members use 3D avatars to meet new people, chat, create and have fun with their friends.”  Many members of the early management team came from There.com (including Durrett) and their experience told them that an expansive “world” may not be the best solution.

Instead, the team considered connecting (with one another) the core function of the experience, so they built rooms and spaces where members can meet, connect and chat.  IMVU has achieved large scale usage.  At any time of the day, there’s usually 100,000 (or more) users logged into the system.  And while there’s no single “world” connecting them all, a user can find and connect with any other user who’s online.

User Generated Content as Key Enabler

How has IMVU achieved their current run rate?  User generated content.  IMVU generates very little of the virtual goods for sale in their marketplace.  Instead, it’s the community that creates the virtual goods for sale.  Durrett noted that IMVU could have hired a staff of developers to create the 100,000+ pairs of womens’ shoes available in IMVU.  But at the end of the day, they wouldn’t know if users liked those shoes.

And, that would have covered just shoes.  The way to scale to the wide assortment of goods now available is to open up the creation to the users.  With so many goods available, how do users find the items they want to purchase?  Durrett noted that like any online retailer with a large inventory, intelligent tools need to be built, a la Amazon’s recommendation service.  IMVU can recommend new items to you based on your past purchase patterns.

Competition Drives Engagement

Durrett described how IMVU creates daily contests based on pre-determined themes.  Users dress up their avatars in the particular theme and then submit a snapshot (image) of their avatar.  The community votes and the top avatars are displayed on a leader board.

To appear on the leader board, the reward is “virtual” (i.e. recognition, rather than cash, virtual credits, etc.).  And yet, the contest creates an intense amount of interest and competition from the community – a great thing from IMVU. If members happened to admire a particular user’s outfit, they could purchase all the items in that outfit with a single click.

Expanding the Inventory

Expansion of virtual goods inventory will be a key driver to IMVU’s continued growth.  They already make user generated music available (in MP3 form) and they recently launched games.  For games in particular, it will be interesting to see if IMVU creates inventory items around game status and advancement, as is common in many of today’s social games (e.g. FarmVille).

While IMVU does not support user generated games today, that could  be an interesting avenue of growth.  They’d probably want to review and certify submitted games, to prevent malicious activity from occurring.  In this manner, they could create a sort of iTunes App Store for games.

Related Links

  1. Interesting and related presentations from Brett Durrett (SlideShare)
  2. TechCrunch: IMVU’s Virtual Cash Cow: Doubling Revenues, Focused On Gaming (Video)
  3. Virtual Worlds News: IMVU Hiring, Anticipates $60M Run Rate

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