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.