Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Virtual Worlds don't work....yet (part 1)

Two years ago I jumped enthusiastically into the Metaverse, with Second Life booming and media were eager to cover every company entering this particular Virtual World. The past year we've discovered -too the disappointment of many - that we were living the Gartner Hypecycle curve. At the close of 2007 I've pondered what was going on and what the challenges for 2008 would be. Due to family circumstances I've stepped back from the Metaverse for almost 6 months now and found some time to reflect on the industry. The title of this blogpost has been in my head for months, but only recently I was triggered to actually start writing it.

Virtual World Innovation

The trigger was the announcement of the Virtual World Newsforum and VW Conference Organisation announcing the introduction of the Virtual World Innovation Award. Although my good friend Christian Renaud (CEO TechIntelGroup) is on the jury, I have to be sceptical if I look deep down into my heart.

The thing is... There hasn't been any real innovation in this business for years.

Innovation in my book is a big thing. New breakthrough technology, new insights, exciting new products. When I look at the Virtual World Industry I see a whole lot going on. I see hundreds of new startups over the past year but truth is, I don't see real innovation there, despite the billions of dollars invested into the industry. If I were to nominate candidates for the Virtual World Innovation Award, there would be only three true Metarati: Neil Stephenson, Tad Williams and Ron Britvich , the guy from WebWorlds.

Stephenson, Gibson & Williams

Neil Stephenson is an obvious candidate. In the early 90's he wrote the novel 'Snowcrash' in which he pretty much invented the metaverse. I doubt there is anyone questioning the nomination of Neil Stephenson. A second name, often mentioned in the same breath, is William Gibson, author of the cyberpunk classic 'Neuromancer'. 'Neuromancer' was innovation, it was the start of cyberpunk, but it doesn't deal with the Metaverse, so despite popular believe, I wouldn't count Gibson in with the Metarati but rather fill that spot with the nomination of Tad Williams, author of the 'Otherland' series.

Both the novel 'Snowcrash' and the 'Otherland' series have created the image of the Metaverse and still hold some very interesting ideas, key elements that in my opinion could well open up a new window on Virtual Worlds. From these works we can learn what might work and what won't. Although both are quite dystopian in their full setting (a thing that happens a lot with novels dealing in the future), they do hold a promise, and in their dystopic setting a warning at the same time.

Dawn of the Virtual Worlds

Aside from the ideas presented by Stephenson and Williams, the first breakthrough in the field was in 1994 when Ron Brevitch created WebWorlds, predecessor of Active Worlds.

In the summer 1994, Ron Britvich created WebWorld, the first 2.5D world where tens of thousands could chat, build and travel. WebWorld operated on the Peregrine Systems Inc. servers as an 'after hours' project until Britvich left the company to join Knowledge Adventure Worlds (KAW) in the fall of that year.

In February 1995, KAW spun off their 3D Web division to form the company Worlds Inc. Britvich was eventually joined by several other developers, and the renamed "AlphaWorld" continued to develop as a skunk works project at Worlds Inc, internally competing with a similar project known internally as Gamma and publicly as Worlds Chat. While AlphaWorld was developing a strong cult following due in large part to Britvich's open philosophy of favoring user-built content, Worlds, Inc. favored Gamma for the company produced contract projects for Disney and others.

On June 28, 1995, AlphaWorld was renamed Active Worlds (from Active Worlds Explorer) and officially launched as version 1.0. Around this time, Circle of Fire (CoF) was formed to create content for the Active Worlds universe. This company played a pivotal role in the future of the product. [Wikipedia]

The creation of WebWorlds was innovation. Everything we've seen between 1995 and 2008 is merely spin off.

In this series of articles I'll try to explain why I haven't seen any real innovation and why I call everything since WebWorlds a mere spin-off, What the challenges of NVE's will be for the (near) future and why Virtual Worlds don't work yet.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

AWE kicks off Easter Quest 2008

AWE - Active Worlds Europe, is keen on Quests. Every year they organise several questsd in the 3D worlds of Activeworlds Europe, and every time in completely different surroundings. This time, everyone will be looking for Easter eggs in different worlds, and gain points that may entitle you to prizes.

The AWE Easter Quest 2008:

  • Start: Saturday, March 29, 19:00 hours (Dutch time)
  • End: Saturday, April 5, 24:00 hours (Dutch time)
  • Prize ceremony: Sunday, April 6, 19:00 hours (Dutch time)

This Quest has something special in addition to the other worlds… There are 12 mazes you can only get through if you are good at maths! Every room contains Easter eggs with points, but you can only visit the next room if you got an A for the exercise in the previous room! It could be a good exercise to test your maths knowledge. (and Dutch, as all exercises are in Dutch).

Many of us know only the online demo world of Active Worlds that's been sitting around for ages. You can register here for a tourist account and walk around for a few minutes. Citizenship comes at a price, but as Activeworlds Europe celebrates its 5th birthday this year you get a free membership (2 weeks). You can extend this citizenship by converting the points you've earned during the Quest. If you're good, you can earn yourself a free year of citizenship or even a dedicated private 3D world.

What's the difference between a citizen and a tourist in Active Worlds?

Tourism Everybody can enter our Universe for free as a
Tourist. You can chat with other people, play games, win prizes and even build your own home in one of the public worlds. However, your options and choices of Avatars are limited.

Citizenship Our Universe contains many public Web Worlds
that you can explore for free as a tourist, although citizenship gives you more privileges. If you want to explore all these options, become a Citizen of Activeworlds Europe. This gives you a registered name, a large choice of
avatars, permanent builds and features like contact lists, instant messaging and private conversations in most worlds. It also allows you to open your own Web World. Citizenship costs €6.50 per month or €65 per year.

Is this interesting for you English folks? Maybe not. Maybe you're not interested in doing math-quizzes at all. But with a two week free citizenship, it gives you the chance to explore more worlds and options than the online free demo and explore a bit and see what AW is capable of.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

New HOAP for Second Life















I had lost a little faith in Second Life, but there's new hope coming about when it comes to Second Life being a serious tool for business: Html-On-A-Prim.

Gwynneth Llewelyn wrote an excellent article on this new feature and its implications, here's a short extract:

"A few months ago - not many in terms of “real life”
hours, but an eternity in Second Life® - a brief discussion with Linden Lab exposed the rumour that they were planning to integrate an HTML browser inside the Second Life application client. This is not a revolutionary breakthrough - things like ActiveWorlds or OpenCroquet have done it ages ago, and the world did not shatter and end at that time.

Some eager residents of SL were happy about the idea. At the very least, you would be able to exchange notecards with “rich text”. Perhaps even have a way to browse a bit while in-world - no more need to open up your browser to check the Help pages, do some forum posting, or even insert events directly from in-world.

On a second stage (according to Linden Lab®), HTML may be directly drawn on top of a prim face. This would mean, for starters, a way to get outside information on top of a 3D world. Older platforms already allow for this usage of HTML. Things like proper text management on top of a prim are finally possible - books, slide-show presenters, coreboards, even clothes vendors, will be able to get away with textures for writing text, and use HTML-rendered text instead.

The third stage is full integration. Prims with HTML pages (and LL is still thinking on how this will happen) will be point-and-click browseable. Neither we nor Linden Lab have yet figured out how exactly this will be implemented..."


HTML on a Prim boosts options for virtual workspace

Although the features at this time are pretty basic, it has brought Second Life back into focus for me as a possible platform for serious collaboration. My frustration with SL was mainly caused by lack of real collaboration possibilities.

What it all boils down to is that you rez a prim and put a webpage on it. Now you can look at a webpage with others. Nothing spectacular, but it gets more serious when you can look at secure webpages. I've done some tests with a colleague displaying secure content. Through the built-in media browser you can access and log into secure sites, then use the option to 'send current URL to parcel' and it will display set itself at the parcel media URL and display at the screen. Your fellow observer won't see the webpage unless he's logged in as well. Today we started working through some of our project tools (like JIRA) in which we can monitor our projects.

It works. We could both look at 'classified content' and discuss the status of a project, manage service calls and have a look at the time budgets for the project at hand. At the end there was one question nagging me: Security? Anyone?

The thing is, Second Life doesn't have the reputation of being a safe and sound business environment (remember ABN is partly moving to Active Worlds because they need a secure environment). What happens with my username and password when I enter this info in the built in browser?

A Quick HOWTO:

Maybe it's me, but it took me some time to fiddle out how it worked. And because there's a little bug (it can crash your sim) I thought I'd do you the favour of a quick 'howto'.

The feature only works with the new Release Candidate 1.19.1 client (March 6th) and there are a few new features that are obvious - such as the extra media tab next to the talk settings - and some little settings to tweak in the 'Preferences' bit.

The basic element for displaying web content is in the estate management settings, the 'About Land' configuration where you have the option to set the media url for the parcel. The downside is that you can only set one URL per parcel. Remember to select the texture that will be used on the prims to display the content as well. If you're working behind a firewall or proxy, you now have the option to set proxy stuff as well in the preferences bit (pic right)


Then build the prim, select the desired texture (in this case the new *default media texture) corresponding with the texture set at the media options in the previous step. Then go to the general tab and select prim properties. Where you used to have buy, open and sit options, there are now two extra's: Open Media Content and Play Media Content.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ABN metaverse update

Today I visited the Virtual World Seminar at the University of Delft and finally had time to sit down and talk with Popke Rein Munniksma, the team leader of ABN's 3D Experience and with Emmanuel Gruijs, CEO for Active Worlds Europe. In the past week we have had some contact on the blog ING and ABN flee Second Life which caused a little stir in the blogosphere.

First, of all, one of the remarks on the initial entry read:

"Maybe it has something to do with the company being taken over by Fortis."

Although the future isn't certain this has been denied completely. The takeover is not affecting ABN's presence in any way at this point in time. ABN is sticking in Second Life, but is indeed shifting focus to be able to do real business.

Popke Rein said: "As a bank we have the need to have 1 on 1 contact with our customers behind closed doors." By being a bank ABN is bound to very strict privacy and compliancy rules which make it impossible for them to conduct business in Second Life, hence their move towards Active Worlds.

Overview of ABN in Second Life

In December 2006 ABN Amro was the first European bank to enter Second Life and rode the wave of mass media attention perfectly. They primarily entered with a "just do it" mentality. Their initial 4 islands and offices have grown towards a 27 island presence at it's peak, but is being downsized now. A team of 4 full time employees on average has build and rebuild every experience over and over again, mainly based on user feedback (so I'm estimating a budget of close to 1 million euro).

Every build was an experiment to see to which part of the Bank's business they could find a virtual extention as they are convinced that Virtual Worlds are here to stay.

"Remember who said "The internet, we are not interested
in it," in 1993! That won't happen to ABN when it comes to virtual worlds. Every step the team made had to be checked with risk management and compliancy and other regulatory organs within the bank. We cannot afford to do that, go through that whole process, once virtual worlds become mainstream. Then it's too late."

That process of going through regulatory motions has become quite clear in their TechnoDesk and Tradeglobe sims in Second Life. In Real Life ABN has 5 TechnoDesk offices close to the 5 Technical Universities in the Netherlands. In these offices the bank offers information for High Tech startups and when looking at the population of Second Life, this was their logical 6th office.


The TradeGlobe is ABN's private banking vehicle with which they come into contact with their shamingly rich clients. In Second Life they've held investment meetings and so on.


Over the past year, the ABN greeter, the lovely Mrs. Jung, has had over 1.100 real business conversations with interested customers, which is more than the average local bankemployee has. In this regard, Second Life has been a success for the bank.

However, due to privacy rulings they found they would never be able to achieve one on one advice and were limited to general information only. Because of it's conservative nature and regulations the bank needs a secure environment to conduct one on one business. Active Worlds can offer this, said Emmanuel Gruijs on the growing affection between their world and the Dutch banker.

Trivia:
Popke Rein said: "Remember who said "The internet, we are not interested in it," in 1993!

Do you remember who said this?

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

ING and ABN flee Second Life

Following American early adopters Wells Fargo, AOL and Pontiac, the Dutch exodus from Second Life has started. Banking corporation ING, who initiated the Our Virtual Holland sims are withdrawing from Second Life.... Destination unknown. Residents of the OVH are now trying to make the islands survive the departure and it looks like they will be able to keep the community alive. The ING HQ in Second Life has been torn down though.

The second Dutch banker in Second Life, ABN Amro, is said to be leaving as well. The Word on the street is that they're disappointed by the level of interactivity they've gotten in Second Life and are moving on to a dedicated world on the Active Worlds platform.

For many of us this won't be a big surprise. Many bankers have entered the world of Second Life in 2007, but few have been able to find a concept which comes close to their real world activities, even though virtual economies and in particular that of Second Life are among the fastest growing economies in the world.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Active Worlds

One of the best known Virtual Worlds is probably Active Worlds, which has been around for some time now. Time to take a quick look. No matter how great the world is that you're bringing, the first contact with your new customer is made through the website. I personally find the AW website a bit boring and pre Y2K, like no maintenance has been done in years. The positive side is that you can visit Active Worlds as a visitor, and it's installed in no time.




"Active Worlds, the web's most powerful Virtual Reality experience, lets you visit and chat in incredible 3D worlds that are built by other users. Think you have what it takes to build your own world or Virtual Reality game?
Active Worlds is the place for you, where in minutes you can create fascinating
3D worlds that others can visit and chat in. The Active Worlds Universe is
a community of hundreds of thousands of users that chat and build 3D virtual
reality environments in millions of square kilometers of virtual territory. Take
a quick look at some of our satellite maps and see how our community has grown over the years. Launch the free software and come check us out for yourself. You'll be amazed at how vast our Virtual Worlds universe is."


Each and every world has its pros and cons at this time in the industry. The scenery in Active Worlds looks great, with a far better draw distance than in Second Life, yet the avatars and buildings look less professional / detailed.


The interface is quite simple with clear icons. Its chat window at the bottom of the screen is pretty dominant, but you can get rid of that to see the world full screen. In the top left corner you see a red button screaming "Register", which you'll need to do to get citizenship. That'll cost you about $ 7,- a month

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Monday, October 15, 2007

New VW tech

During the Virtual World Conference 2007 (Fall edition, San Jose) lots of companies were showing off at the Expo. Platforms like Active Worlds, Multiverse and There.com, had a stand. Then there were lots of complimentary tech stands as well, ranging from avatar creating, 3D Modelling to motion capture. Here's the Icarus Studio stand:

From their website:
Icarus Studios is focused on helping our clients launch online virtual worlds,
MMOGs, simulators and 3D collaborative and educational products. We enable our
client's vision with our unique combination of next generation technology and
services, making Icarus a comprehensive resource center for those tasked with
quickly creating all or components of these initiatives. From complete project
development, platform and tool licensing to studio services and library
resources, Icarus will work within our client's time and budget constraints to
quickly create a quality product that meets their objectives.

Another very well visited booth was the stand that IBM had rezzed


Here's what Epredator / Ian Hughes had to say over at Eightbar:

Our stand we had both SL, Active Worlds and the IQ Metaverse (the torque based
one). We also have Jacques from the SMB media and entertainment and the guys
from Vivox there. There was another part to the stand over with Icarus and that
was where Peter Finn set up shop with his alpha demo of blending virtual worlds
with a browser. That needs a whole post in its own right of course.I had a good
chat with most of the stands, though it is amazaing how little time you end up
having when you are talking to press, analysts and bumping into the metarati
that you know from in world and on Twitter.

And certainly the meterati were there. Not all of them, and not all those present considered to be on the official metarati list (but some will make it there I think as the list needs updating.)

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Navigating Uncharted Terrain



One of yesterday's sessions was IBM's talk on Navigating Uncharted Terrain. Here's the announcement:






Wednesday, 11:00am - 12:00pm





Virtual Worlds: The BEST platforms for Enterprise Value
An Examination of Virtual World Platforms From the Enterprise Perspective.
The number of virtual worlds platforms are proliferating from publicly operated virtual worlds to private world engines. Where does an enterprise start when evaluating a platform based on BEST: Business, Economic Value, Social Interaction and Technology? This detailed session will review the leading platforms for enterprise use, talk about the real business value being realized in virtual worlds today and have a look into the future of virtual worlds fit for business.






Speaker: Sandy Kearney, IBM Global Director, IBM 3D Internet and Virtual Business






Here's my notes:








  • Like With the internet we've explored, done a lot of things that we don't want to repeat.


  • It's uncharted terrain with new tools to navigate


  • 3D internet is everywhere, anytime


  • It took IBM 10 years to understand the e-business. It took us 8 months to understand the value of v-business


  • IBM is currently engaged with over 400 clients in v-business.


  • There's an increasing market accelleration.


  • Market trends are guideposts for pioneers.


  • Orienting goals towards Business Value: BEST
    (Business, Economics, Social and Technology goals)




  • There's an enormous value in Enterprise and consumer social platforms: Recognition, interaction, social bonding and a sense of belonging in global enterprises.


  • The IBM Intraverse runs on an Active Worlds platform. A presentation of the intraverse was given at Cornell, and was live-streamed into Second Life to the Metanomics meeting.


  • We're going do see 4D very soon. Already there are people programming their avatars to do stuff when they're long gone. VW's are going temporal.


  • As a community we need to
    - realize business value (leverage the 3D capability)
    - sustain & protect value (ensure 3D internet is fit for business and community)
    - expand value (ensure interoperability, make vw's open and available, easy to use)


  • The desire to be plugged in is growing


  • A universal and generic approach makes VW's more open and available, mass marketable.


  • We're moving from the information age to the conceptual age.


  • Identity management is going to be a very very hot issue in VW's in the coming years.

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