An Open Letter to Chip and Dan Heath about Second Life

November 21, 2011

The following is a guest post by Pooky Amsterdam.

Dear Chip and Dan,

I read, with interest, your article at Slate.com titled “Why Second Life Failed.” Me? I run a successful media enterprise in Second Life and produce award winning videos using the very cost and time effective 360 degree views of this graphical engine. I meet people from all over the globe, work, converse and laugh with them while doing incredible things. I do not have a blue tail (Though some of my best friends have tails) but I have a Chanel style wardrobe to die for.

I’d like to respond to a number of points that you made in your piece. You wrote:

“You—sitting right there, reading this article—you’re an avatar in Second Life. You work a Second Life job, earning Linden dollars. You have blue hair and a serpentine tail, and you’re dating an androgynous digital skateboarder named Rikki. Also, you are a ninja. Life is great.”

So far so good. Next, you wrote:

“At least, that’s the way things were supposed to unfold. In 2006, the future was Second Life. Business Week put Second Life on the cover. American Apparel, Dell, and Reebok, among many others, rushed to build virtual storefronts.”

That a company would build a store and not put anyone in it is bad planning. No company in their right mind would build a store in the physical world and leave it unstaffed. Just as in the physical world, this is a space and location. It’s virtual yes, but to succeed you still must know where and to whom you are selling. That there are businesses which make over a million dollars in Second Life is a testimony to what happens when you know your customers. Stiletto Moody made over a million USD last year selling virtual shoes.

Did Second Life fail – or did the business fail? There is a difference. Failure of the platform this is not, this is a failure of the business to understand their customers, and therefore their business. It was also a fault of consultants who overcharged and  gave an incomplete picture of the business model.  For in truth, it is how you handle your business after your location is built, no matter where it is, that determines your success or failure.

Let’s say, you went to China,  did not speak the language,  hired experts who said they would get you a store somewhere and you would make money, but actually no one bought anything (okay you had no Chinese speaking sales help in the store, but these experts said you didn’t need anyone there!) The shop is a failure – is it China’s fault? Did China just fail your business? Or did you have lousy advice and a translator who didn’t really know the language? Oh go ahead and blame China, it will make you feel better.

Knowing your customers and how to service them is critical. Customer support and marketing is the basis of all business.

“Reuters even created a full-time Second Life bureau chief. People rushed to sign up and create their own avatars. Blue hair and Linden dollars were the future.”

Yes there was a lot of hype almost 6 years ago – for good reason, the press and a lot of businesses jumped on the bandwagon, and without the necessary depth of either journalism or market research, were left with some egg on their faces. I guess this still hurts because for some reason, reporters writing about Second Life actually go to lists like “Help A Reporter Out” and ask for people’s negative reactions only, from Second Life, and then write articles. This actually happened two years ago, because I was on this list, saw the post, and read the subsequent BBC article written by Lauren Hansen.

“Looking back, the future didn’t last long. By the end of 2007, Second Life was already losing its fizz. “Businesses are shuttering in Second Life, it seems, because no one is using them,” wrote Morgan Clendaniel in a brutal piece in GOOD magazine.”

Oh for heavens sake, this article is about how the reporter couldn’t find his penis. No wonder the man couldn’t take his head out of his pants. Sex! Penis! 2007! and did I say penis??? All adult and x – rated activity has been moved to an Adult age – verified region called Zindra.

“There were never any employees at stores like Dell and Reebok when I visited, nor were there any customers. But that wasn’t that shocking because, for the most part, there seems to be no one in Second Life at all.”

Is it shocking that the press would feed into a hype cycle?

Below I quote from a January 2007 CNNMONEY.com article written by David Kirkpatrick:

“Linden Lab claimed 2.5 million ‘residents,’ meaning people who have registered for Second Life. But the service has only around 250,000 active members who still sign in more than 30 days after registering. Nonetheless, that group of active users is currently growing at about 15 percent per month.”

Please don’t get all excited about the “10% of registered users.” 10% is pretty much par for the course for virtual worlds. This is a rule of thumb, not gospel like the  (sarcasm alert) milk shake test. In 2007 a quarter of a million people was hardly “no one.”

Below is a Linden Lab chart which details information about the Second Life economy.

In 2009 the total size of the Second Life economy grew 65% to US$567 million, about 25% of the entire U.S. virtual goods market. Gross Resident Earnings are $55 million US Dollars in 2009 – 11% growth over 2008.

Second Life provides a brilliant platform for those who take the time (which granted not everyone has, but clearly – which some folk have and benefit greatly from.)

Your purporting of fallacies is self serving, and so I really wonder what is behind this. I am truly surprised most every time I read a reporter or analyst’s overview of  Second Life. (Exception of note is Vizworld as the reporter spent time in the field at a variety of places, recently) Most reportage is just bad, a retread of 2006/7. The authors are using a voice of authority, when they really are going after a target for easy pickings.

Hookers! Sex! Blue tailed Avatars! 2006!! Read what I’m writing! Buy my free book! Please!

“Today, Second Life limps along. In the first half of 2011, the company reported that an average of about 1 million users logged in every month—which, you have to admit, is about 999,990 more than you expected.”

I hope that you didn’t have your heart broken in Second Life, for I cannot imagine why you would say something like that. Is part of the milkshake test telling someone they shouldn’t like strawberry? Why would you not expect it? Who made you a platform god? Second Life has been around for almost 10 years. That is an achievement. Almost a million visits a month is impressive, so I don’t know what you mean by limps along.

The platform continues to enthuse and nourish many. I can give you a few first hand examples of a kind of experience very hard to find elsewhere. At a mixed reality event in 2009, I saw veteran journalists  Helen Thomas and Bob Schieffer, in Second Life.  They were  receiving the  Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement award. She took questions from the virtual audience and I was able through my avatar, to ask Ms. Thomas a question. She responded with an amazing answer about the press, 9/11 and  the Bush administration. I really don’t think that is going to happen at IMVU.

When I interviewed Holocaust Survivor Fanny Starr, for the documentary “Why Now?“, a Catholic High School many miles away brought her class of 14 – 16 year olds also into Second Girls. In real time, these young girls talked with  this 87 year old woman who had survived 6 years in ghettos and concentration camps. They asked and learned what her life was like at their age. These stunning examples of what is happening on the Second Life grid are not going to happen on Facebook.

More? I interviewed a cancer survivor for treet.tv who started Relay For Life in Second Life. This year over $330,000USD was raised. It went directly to the American Cancer Society, and ACS put the live weekend’s events from Second Life on their home page while it was running inworld. The commitment  and the amount of money raised is phenomenal. Even more importantly, those in our extended virtual community who have experience with this life threatening disease are literally helping to save the lives of others, as they communicate with each other in real time. This isn’t going to happen on Twitter.

Under the brand Virtually Speaking, Jay Ackroyd and Widget Whiteberry produce 5 weekly public affairs programs in Second Life and on the web.

One of my favorites is Virtually Speaking Science, hosted by the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) whose Scientists work at premier  institution like CalTech.   VS Science hosts are MSNBC.com’s Science editor Alan Boyle – author of The Case for Pluto – and Thomas Levenson, who, in addition to being the author of Newton and the Counterfeiter and Einstein in Berlin heads up MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Graduate Program in Science Writing.

I have been part of the listening, commenting and questioning studio audience for Jay’s interviews with Daniel Ellsberg, Gloria Feldt, and Dahlia Lithwick.

This might not be for all, but it is incredible activity by anyone’s standards. Nourishing beyond belief, if this is your interest, and indicative of what can be.

This has enabled bright and even brilliant people to keep advancing their intelligence while looking better than they ever have before.

There is, additionally, an incredibly vibrant artistic and powerful performance community who raise their voice every time something like this comes out.  I don’t have time to list all the incredible artists, musicians, performers, comics (Okay, Lauren Weyland) and others who play nightly to an international audience that assembles very locally – at their computers. Your arrow sorely misses the target. In fact you are wrong to set your sights on Second Life for anything but a remarkable phenomenon, one that people are truly a part of, yes admittedly in ways you have no idea about.  Because of the wide variety of activity from advanced topics to just hanging out and listening to some amazing music, it does have something for everyone.

And Will Wright of The Sims, (yes The Will Wright) just joined the board. I would say the future looks incredibly exciting here. Is Second Life a bit of a challenge? Yes, it is, and so it isn’t for everyone. It is for a better educated number of people who have disposable income and spend an ARPU greater than other virtual world sites (some estimates, like Nick Yee, have it at almost 10 times other VW ARPU, the population is older as well. It’s a great demographic). Virtual goods are a huge and growing market and some estimates reach $12 billion by 2015. The recent introduction on Second Life of building mesh makes for greater graphics (and lower lag). This is a profound platform for virtual asset creation

“But during this same period, Facebook averaged roughly 500 million logins per month.”

Please compare ANYTHING to Facebook – I think you would find many businesses, social networks, video companies, traditional media offerings such as Television shows, etc. fall a lot short of Facebook monthly logins.  Oh let’s use your favorite term – FAIL. What TV show has 500 monthly views? Does the Superbowl even get 500 million people watching it? The Oscars? And these are events judged by viewership. Second Life is certainly a form of social network – but it is really not the same as Facebook. What is?

“How did we misread the future so badly? Mind you, this Second Life hype didn’t involve distant, sci-fi predictions about the future. (“Someday we’ll all commute to the moon using unisex RocketCrocs!”) This was just five years ago. We were just months away from the iPhone.”

And don’t forget $580 million for MySpace!

“After enduring a lifetime of mega-fads that flame out—Apple Newton and PointCast and the  Segway—why are we so quick to extrapolate a few data points into a Dramatic New Future? Well, here’s the frustrating part: Sometimes the Dramatic New Future arrives, exactly as promised. The mega-hyped Internet? Yep, worked out OK. Ditto Google and Facebook and iPods and iPhones.”

Blue Mars did not really survive. And let’s be realistic, though valuation is intense on companies such as Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, what are the real numbers behind their profitability?  How many years did it take YouTube to finally begin to turn a profit? Second Life is profitable for Linden Lab, and for many who understand the platform. It has a clear business model, and does not survive on advertising alone.

And now, let’ go to this video – which I think is a good example of hubris, and true irresponsibility because the video while salacious does very little if nothing to prove any point at all.

Second Life Vice Capades: Virtual Hooker (VIDEO)

I can not stop laughing at this video from I think 2007 or 2006 (again?) – it’s priceless – Did it take this woman three weeks to fail at becoming a prostitute?  She was not able despite her best efforts at tarting herself up and trying her best, to find someone to pay for sex. Despite Second Life’s reputation for sex, often presumed, then highlighted, by the media, (sex sells?) it’s not easy to find random people for sex. In the entire film there was one place that people went to – yes that happens with people – there is porn on the Internet (it was in fact a driver for The Internet).  It depends where you go and what you look for, yes?

Of course she was looking to be a hooker, yet couldn’t find a client.  She bought into the hype that you could just go and start any kind of a business, anywhere. Even being a successful hooker might entail some business planning.

Also please note the adult region has been separated in an area known as Zindra for over a year. Now a fledgling prostitute would have to go there to ply her trade. The main grid has severe restrictions on X–rated businesses. These exist only in Zindra, in an age-verified region removed from the general population. So this video is quite outdated.

And sex might not be that easy to find, as that people develop relationships in Second Life with like minded people. You find others with common interests. Second Life racks up over a billion voice minutes a month, which is what former CEO Mark Kingdon told Robert Scoble when the Scobleizer interviewed him last year.

Would this woman possibly, if she found an outlet for herself and her creativity find someone who also was interested and interesting, and might they start becoming romantically involved? Possibly yes. She had 3 weeks to turn in a sex tape…… It’s very cute though, and not scary, hard-core or really well much of anything. I think she was brave and it was kind of funny. It tried a bit too hard, as did she. And maybe people go to Second Life to look for sex because they are lonely or horny or both, but come out with a whole lot more. I know this is true, and I also know many stories about Marriage 3.0 where Second Life has saved couples.

I will grant that the learning curve is tough, it is. It takes some dedication to master it, believe me I still move like a noob, and it takes that thing we just don’t have much of, time. It also takes patience and being able to laugh at yourself, which are not bad qualities to possess. And it takes a kind of humanity to reach out to others in this world, a curiosity. You kind of have to be a special person to really get it. Second Life offers the kind of premier experience you can’t get anywhere else. You must be able to understand it though, and when you do, you feel incredibly empowered and connected. Yes, it takes time and is not easy, it is worthwhile. And let me say this again – it isn’t for everyone, yet.

I don’t like cheeseburgers, but I don’t spend my time writing about why no one else should like them. I would never presume to dictate to someone else what to like, or what to do. I can’t imagine being Mayor on FourSquare, but obviously others enjoy this. Good on them.

“Christensen asks us to imagine a group of marketers at a fast-food restaurant who want to sell more shakes. As they comb the customer data for insight, they discover something interesting: Most milkshakes are sold to early-morning commuters who buy a single milkshake and nothing else. Why milkshakes?”

That inworld businesses generate millions of dollars, reflects the wealth of the Second Nation. Second Life provides great opportunities for business, virtual enterprise, shopping, social engagement and much more.  It is a great platform for prototyping, there are inworld TV stations, there are Film Festivals, and  real time discussion amongst groups or individuals who can chose how they wish to present themselves. What can be done on Second Life has only just been scratched. There isn’t much that can’t be done – except eat – no one has really invented virtual food you can eat yet. Whoever does wins, I’m convinced of this. My money is on the 3D Printer.

These commuters, according to Christensen, are “hiring” milkshakes to do a job for them: to supply a breakfast that is filling and non-messy and cupholder-compatible. So to sell more milkshakes, the marketers don’t need to create a more delicious milkshake. Deliciousness isn’t really in the job description”

Second Life is affordable, easy to get to, filled with interesting things to do and people to talk to. It is pretty cool home entertainment.

“So when you evaluate the next big thing, ask the Christensen question: What job is it designed to do? Most successful innovations perform a clear duty. When we craved on-the-go access to our music collections, we hired the iPod. When we needed quick and effective searches, we hired Google.”

And it became apparent that there was gold in them there searches, and now we have Bing. That it isn’t as big as Google does not mean it is irrelevant. I don’t know if it passes your Facebook test of 500 million hits a month. No industry that is successful has zero competition.

“And looking ahead, it’s easy to see the job that Square will perform: giving people an easy, inexpensive way to collect money in the offline world.”

Square takes a 2.75 percentage of the sale price for its service. At 800,000 merchants, they were wise to drop user limits from $1,000 / week, and should see business grow. That is until someone charges a 2.25% on a similar service, which if it is successful, will happen.

“But what “job” did Second Life perform? It was like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé—fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze—but no actual labor skills. The same was true with the Segway. No one was interested in employing a $5,000 walk-accelerator. (Though, to be fair, Segway eventually got a part-time job saving tourists from exercise.)”

Actually it is like a job candidate with fluency in all major and most minor world languages, and expertise in everything from Rocket Science to fashion design. In other words, smarter than most employers and here is the rub, also somewhat intimidating. The Labor Skills though have created a platform which is robust and dynamic while turning a profit for it’s parent company. Labor also delivered Open Source code which is the basis of new grids forming all the time. Labor is creating right this moment.

Second Life has performed the job of building the most exciting user created content platform in the world. You can make virtually anything, any place, any time, broadcast events, stream productions and find a remarkable wealth of opportunities. I am sorry that you couldn’t find the chunky bits in this milkshake – others have.

One complaint is “everyone is beautiful,” but do you know what that really means? We are not judged, as we are in the physical world by how we look, and the sometimes shallow reactions that affect our confidence and therefore our abilities.  Here, in Second Life, the way you look doesn’t matter. There is no better looking member of the family so to speak. What defines you is your character, and what you do inworld, what you say and what you really represent.  Again not for everyone….

“What about the Apple Newton, the first widely hyped PDA back in the 1990s? It was clearly applying for the right job—to give us mobile access to our calendars and to-do lists and such. But it was a lousy employee, with notoriously poor handwriting recognition and a limited attention span (from low battery life). PalmPilot got the job a few years later.”

What about Prodigy? Prodigy was far ahead of it’s time.

Second Life hasn’t failed anything as it serves its user base well, and turns a profit for it’s parent company. The limitations as I see are that it was so far ahead of the curve. The rest of the universe needs to catch up, and I am confident that it is doing so as I type. Second Life will be here 20 years from now.

“If the Christensen test alone could predict the future, then the two of us (along with Christensen) would be the richest venture capitalists of all time. It’s not a perfect predictor. But by our count, Christensen’s test calls correctly about a half-dozen of the big technology hype cycles of the last 20 years.”

Hmmmm……that is true! However it isn’t, but let’s just talk about the successful parts of the 6 technologies they called correctly, because it serves your purpose, as your writing similarly picks out the “flaws” of Second Life to support your case. If the Christensen test looked at 10 cases and predicted 6 right that is a huge difference than if 120 or even 1200 technologies were tested. You do not give an adequate frame of reference to judge your proclamation of victory.  Any more than you give relevant data in your prediction of failure. (“….which is 999,990 more than you would expect” whoa can I pay you to come up with an analytic like that?)

“At a minimum, it provides some protection against over-optimism. Think of it as a tinfoil hat to insulate you from the nuttiest predictions.”

I need tinfoil glasses to protect me from the erroneous and self aggrandizing reportage of those who can’t even be bothered to use a video or figures from this decade.

New user logins went to over 20,000 a day this week. This week……November 2011, not 2006. Why must the press bring up the questionable business practices of American Apparel from 2006 every time there is an article on Second Life? Please find something new, it is almost 2012. I beg you, I can’t keep stopping everything I’m doing from my incredibly vibrant and productive work inworld, to keep writing these wake up and dress your avatar replies.

For excellent reporting on Second Life, I would suggest Tateru Nino. She has a tremendous grasp of what is happening.

The Author: Pooky Amsterdam

Please feel free to contact Pooky Amsterdam at info@pookymedia.com.


Why Second Life Passes The Milkshake Test (But Fails In Other Ways)

November 14, 2011

Introduction

Chip and Dan Heath have published a new book, “The Myth of the Garage” (get it for free on Kindle at Amazon.com). In an excerpt of the book published at Slate titled “Why Second Life Failed,” the authors put Second Life to the “milkshake test.”

Adapted from Clay Christensen’s book “The Innovator’s Solution,” the milkshake test asks the question, “what job is a product designed to do?” According to the Heath brothers, “Most successful innovations perform a clear duty. When we craved on-the-go access to our music collections, we hired the iPod. When we needed quick and effective searches, we hired Google.”

The authors then conclude that Second Life failed the milkshake test:

“But what ‘job’ did Second Life perform? It was like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé — fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze — but no actual labor skills.”

My Take: Second Life as Multiple Milkshakes

While I agree with the authors when they write, “today, Second Life limps along,” I disagree on the milkshake test result. In this post, I’ll highlight why Second Life passes the milkshake test, but fails in other ways.

Hired for: Escapism

Dictionary.com defines escapism as “the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.” And this is precisely what many users loved about the service. They “hired” Second Life as a perfect way to escape from the real world.

If you’re a middle aged man with a 9-to-5 job in real life, you could be a muscle-bound, highly attractive (and young) ladies’ man in your second life. In a matter of a few hours (or less), your “new you” (an avatar representation, that is) is ready to go explore the “world.”

Downfall: Turns out most of us want the opposite of escaping. We want the real world.

The mainstream has voted with their mouse clicks and tablet swipes. Their preference is rooted more in the real world and the ability to share, connect and stay in touch with friends, family and others. Instead of spending time on 3D islands, they’re logging on to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Hired for: Self-Expression

It’s quite easy to “hire” Second Life for self-expression. Everything you do there can be about self-expression, from the look and appearance of your avatar, to art that you create in-world, to entire islands that you build there.

You can be a virtual DJ and spin tunes in Second Life (e.g. see Doubledown Tandino, @Ravelong on Twitter) or you can create virtual art to sell. So not only can you self-express, you can make income as well.

Downfall: With a complete free reign on self-expression, instances of prostitution, nudity, sex and lewdness drove away any chance of an ongoing presence from mainstream users.

Counter-example: IMVU is a service that allows for self-expression and is doing quite well. Interestingly, their Terms of Service do not permit you to “use explicit/obscene language or solicit/post sexually explicit images.”

Hired for: Simulation and Training

Perhaps its largest success in passing the milkshake test is in simulation and training. Several branches of the Federal Government have used Second Life for military training and combat simulations. Loyalist College in Canada used Second Life in a training program for border crossing patrol agents. And finally, Dr. Peter Yellowless at UC Davis used Second Life to teach about the experience of schizophrenia.

Downfall: Linden Lab didn’t take the necessary steps to formalize products, services and support around this particular use of Second Life.

If they “productized” a simulation and training offering (perhaps on private, self-contained islands), I think we’d be hearing about a lot more compelling case studies. And it might even place Second Life into a different product/service category.

Conclusion

While I agree with the Heath brothers’ characterization that Second Life is limping along, I continue to see potential in the service. Today, Second Life’s milkshakes are like Baskin Robbins (available in 31 flavors). They’d be better off going Neapolitan, with milkshakes available in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry only.

Related Links

  1.  Thoughts from New World Notes on the same Slate article.
  2. Summary of virtual worlds innovators from a Stanford Media X event.

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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.


Stanford Media X Event: Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs Show The Way

August 20, 2010

Introduction

Media X at Stanford University hosted a workshop titled “Cashing In on Virtual Worlds: Entrepreneurial Insights for the Healthcare Industry.” The workshop was organized by Parvati Dev and Laura Kusumoto, who combine leading edge research, expertise and hands-on experience with virtual worlds and virtual worlds platforms.

In her introductory remarks, Ms. Kusumoto provided a perspective on the current state of virtual worlds. While the consumer-focused virtual worlds have seen notable platform closures (e.g. Google Lively, Metaplace, There.com, etc.), there has been positive activity on the enterprise side of virtual worlds, including virtual events and virtual trade shows.

Virtual Worlds: On An Upswing?

Kusumoto referenced a recent Gartner Hype Cycle Report that positioned “public virtual worlds” in a phase of “Trough of Disillusionment.”  The good news is that the subsequent phases are called “Slope of Enlightenment” and “Plateau of Productivity.”  Web 2.0, Tablet PCs and Wikis are positioned in this “Slope of Enlightenment” phase in Gartner’s cycle.

In the afternoon, we heard 5-minute pitches from entrepreneurs who were looking to launch virtual worlds businesses related to health care. These entrepreneurs showed me how virtual worlds (and notably, the surviving virtual worlds platforms) can embark on an upward path towards enlightenment.  Here’s my view on how virtual worlds are evolving:

Circling back to the Gartner Hype Cycle, I look back at the following progression:

  1. Technology Trigger: Artists and Hobbyists discover this technology for self-expression
  2. Peak of Inflated Expectations: Fortune 500 brands enter the mix, expecting a transformation of marketing and advertising
  3. Trough of Disillusionment: An assortment of virtual worlds platforms fold
  4. Slope of Enlightenment: Entrepreneurs develop innovative businesses that ride on top of virtual worlds platforms

The entrepreneurs who presented are leading the way towards enlightenment and the virtual worlds platforms (e.g. Second Life, Unity, OLIVE, etc.) stand to benefit.  The new business model is the purchasing of virtual land (or, the licensing of virtual world platform technology) that entrepreneurs leverage to drive monetization and revenue.

In a sense, this is similar to the smartphone app store – the entrepreneur creates intellectual property that rides on top of a “platform”.  The entrepreneur then leverages that platform to drive revenue to a direct sales channel (customers).

Noted Entrepreneurs

I’d like to highlight some of the presenting entrepreneurs (and their businesses).

Club One Island

Lose weight in a virtual world, on Club One IslandCeleste DeVaneaux gave a fascinating overview of how participation in a virtual world program can facilitate habit change.  It’s one thing to urge people to eat slower – it’s another thing to show them how.  And, to have their own avatars practice the habit of doing so.  Club One Island runs on top of the Second Life platform.

Related: How I lost 20 pounds in Second Life (featuring Club One Island – by Hypergrid Business)

CliniSpace


CliniSpace is a collaborative virtual medical environment created by Innovation in Learning, Inc. (the company led by Parvati Dev, one of the event’s organizers).  The goal of CliniSpace is to provide virtual world-based training to physicians, nursing students, etc.  A virtual patient can start out completely healthy, but then be programmed to worsen, such that s/he requires CPR within 15 minutes.  The service runs on top of the Unity platform.

InWorld Solutions


InWorld Solutions “incorporates a wide range of avatars, content and features specifically designed to facilitate clinical and educational applications.”  InWorld can facilitate treatment for substance abuse by having patients in a virtual world, with their doctors observing from the same physical space – or, from within the virtual world.  Patients can experience peer pressure (virtually) and be advised and coached on how to respond.  InWorld runs on top of Forterra’s OLIVE platform.

Conclusion

These were just a few of the innovative business concepts brewing in one particular industry (health care) around virtual worlds.  As more entrepreneurs launch virtual worlds businesses, the platform vendors (e.g. Linden Lab / Second Life, Unity, Forterra / OLIVE) stand to benefit.  And importantly in this vertical, another entity stands to benefit: the human condition.

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Top 5 Virtual Event Posts Of 2010

August 5, 2010

Here are the Top 5 posts (on this blog) for calendar year 2010.  The Top 5 List is in descending order and based on the number of page views per blog posting.

#5: Virtual Events 101: Tips For Building Your Virtual Booth

My guess is that many readers built their first virtual booth during 2010.  This posting provided tips planning and objectives, content strategy and booth staffing.  In addition, it provided tips on content presentation, “search optimization” and how to stand out from the crowd.  This posting is part of a broader Virtual Events 101 page that provides tips on virtual events.

#4: Bringing The Physical Event Experience To Virtual Events

This posting did some brainstorming on features that virtual event platforms could provide to bring physical event experiences to virtual events.  Then, it covered tips for virtual events, including how to gauge attendee interest, how to connect with interested attendees and how to create better attendee networking.

#3: COMDEX Re-Launches As A Virtual Trade Show

This was big news back in March, that the famed COMDEX show would return as a virtual event in November 2010.  I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store this November at COMDEX Virtual.

#2: How 3D Virtual Worlds Can Be More Like Twitter And Facebook

Twitter and Facebook have taken the world by storm – this post received a lot of traffic by association.  I thought it was logical that 3D virtual world platforms could adopt some of the principles developed by Twitter and Facebook, such as the pervasive “Like” feature from Facebook.  I posited on some new concepts, such as closed circuit TV and on-demand TV for virtual worlds.

Finally, I guess I foreshadowed “Second Life Shared Media”, when I suggested that web content be embedded in-world – Linden Lab announced that feature a few short months after my blog posting.  More recently, I wrote about Second Life being at an important crossroads.

#1: The Future Of Virtual Events

There’s always something about the “future” that generates interest and curiosity.  I’m still a believer in the vision of the future (for virtual events) that I painted here.  While none of it has come to fruition, it’s just a matter of time.  In the future, that is!

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

July 2, 2010

Crossroads

June 2010 will mark an important month in the history of Linden Lab and Second Life.  On June 9th, the company announced a restructuring that included a 30% reduction of their staff.  On June 24th, the company announced that CEO Mark Kingdon was stepping down and named company founder Philip Rosedale its interim CEO.

Second Life is clearly at a crossroads – it will be crucial for Linden Lab to determine the best path forward.  To do so, they need to identify the right questions to ask and then determine the right answers to those questions.

What is your audience and customer segmentation?

Second Life takes quite a broad approach today – there are a wide assortment of communities [audience] (see their Destination Guide) and an equally wide assortment of land owners [customers].  Having cut 30% of staff, the question at this juncture is whether the company (and the platform) is well suited to cater to “anybody and everybody” or whether it’s better to narrow the focus.

One “focus area” may be in evolving the platform to cater to the hobbyists and loyalists who helped grow the Second Life community from the early days [consumer focus].  Another focus area, while unlikely, may be in catering to corporations for business use (I say “unlikely” because the Enterprise group was let go in the June staff reduction).

Yet another focus area may be in catering to particular categories (e.g. Music, Art, Education).  If Second Life focused their resources around building the #1 immersive music experience, would that have a larger impact than evolving the broader platform to meet everyone’s needs?

So the question really comes down to “narrow vs. broad” – by identifying narrower segments to target their service, can Second Life create a more rewarding and enjoyable experience for both residents and land owners?

What is the revenue model?

Today, the Second Life revenue model is based around a virtual economy, whose currency is the Linden Dollar.  Residents purchase Linden Dollars with real money (e.g. US Dollars) and can then buy land (in-world) or buy virtual goods from in-world merchants.  One of the challenges inherent in this model is its dependence on others to sustain a viable audience (community).

The model works when the audience is growing and the community is thriving; however, when the audience declines and becomes less active, purveyors of virtual land find the ROI less compelling and the audience decline snowballs (since users have fewer residents to interact with each time they login).

Are you a media company or technology platform?

Second Life can go one of two ways here – they can morph into a media company (and have direct influence over the audience) or they can move to a pure-play technology platform provider, which shifts the audience generation “burden” to licensees of the platform.  As a media company, they’d be similar to Facebook, Zynga, IMVU and Slide, with revenue being a mix of advertising, sponsorship and the sale of virtual goods.

Today, I’d say that Second Life is somewhere in between – they’re a technology platform that has no explicit and associated “force” to drive audience (like a media company does).  Resolving this “grey area” will be important.

Where do you take the technology?

To some degree, the technology vision was shared in the June 2010 restructuring announcement – the company will migrate Second Life to a web-based experience, with no software download – and, they’d look to integrate popular social networks to be more accessible and relevant.  Of course, there’s a delicate balance to manage here, since a core component of the Second Life community uses the service for the immersive experience that a downloaded client can deliver.

Here, Second Life can take a page out of OnLive’s book – if OnLive can deliver immersive, action-rich, multi-player video games from the cloud, then one would imagine that a 3D immersive virtual worlds can move to the cloud as well (though, of course, it’s not trivial to achieve).  Second Life needs to think beyond the web as well and determine the viability for apps running on iPad/iPhone, Android and related mobile operating systems.

My Answers (Recommendations)

These are obviously complex questions that require a lot of analysis – in addition, there may be other questions that need to be asked.  The answers to these questions are interrelated and need to be answered together, not individually.  Here are my high level answers / recommendations:

  1. Audience and customer segmentation: Go narrow – you’ll lose segments of your user base, but the core segments you choose to focus on will see solutions and experiences that are more targeted and relevant.  Build upon these small successes and grow outward again.
  2. Revenue model: Move to a SaaS licensing model (priced in US Dollars) – keep the Linden Dollar currency system in place for the purchase of in-world virtual goods.
  3. Media company or technology platform: Become a pure-play technology platform that partners with media companies as a sales channel.  Give media companies incentives and easy-to-use tools that foster growth in virtual real estate – encourage them to be your sales champions and bring their audiences into the community.
  4. Technology evolution: Complete the transition to a 100% web-based offering (no small task!) – and, on the journey there, have plans in place for iPad and Android apps.

Times of turmoil give companies the opportunity to throw convention out the window and reinvent themselves.  Consider another company whose original founder returned to transform them from a “has been” to the most valuable technology company on the planet:

Apple Computer.

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