Monday 7 July 2014

Who will build the first billion user Virtual World?

Just recently we have learned from Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, that they has been quietly working on a new, more advanced Second Life. But the announcement comes not only after the much hyped High Fidelity already in development by former Lab CEO and SL inventor, Philip Rosedale, but also not so long after Facebook bought up Oculus Rift for 2 $billion as well. And so we now get the ground shattering news that Facebook's Oculus developers are part of FB's aim to build the first billion user virtual world!

Interesting that Ebbe has been saying something similar stating that Second Life Two (or SL2 for want of a name) will be aimed at a mass audience with the clear intention of breaking out of the niche corner it's been in for the past 11 years and try to get on the mainstream social network bandwagon. He is on record saying it's going to be "Multi-device from day one (including phones). "We're building the next-generation platform for hundreds of millions of people; not for millions of people." he said in an interview. So it probably is no coincidence either that Oculus CEO, Brendan Iribe mentioned the "Metaverse" specifically while speaking about Facebook's Oculus acquisition at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference. He said his team were very surprised to learn exactly what Facebook's aims were which amount to nothing less than a massive Facebook virtual world with its own cities, entertainment venues, businesses including a currency and full commerce - not unlike the current Second Life model basically but more advanced and fully supporting aspects of virtual reality such as the Oculus Rift goggles of course.

So it's clear the race is on and, arguably, Linden Lab has the experience and a good head start to launch the first of the next generation of virtual worlds where cartoonish avatars are replaced by life-like virtual representations of real people. The graphics will be stunning for sure and lag will be a thing of the past. The new avatars will work, play, shop and socialize online like never before. Imagine buying real world goods in a virtual Amazon store where you get to see demonstrations exactly what a product will do. Imagine too, dressing your avatar in beautifully crafted top brand clothes that are available for real by mail order. So long as you create an avatar that is an honest clone of your real self then you'll be able see how the latest fashions look on you as you strut your stuff in your Oculus goggles. Moreover, the next generation of virtual worlds will almost certainly be seen on a web page rather than downloading a viewer for, if you recall, Cloud Party, which made use of WebGL to render their world in a browser, was bought up by Yahoo very recently too. Firefox and Google Chrome are both planning to add special features in order to allow virtual reality support in their browsers which will advance this much further (see here). What we are seeing now is that all the right peices are coming together and the big players are gearing up to take advantage of a true virtual reality revolution in the making.

gears of war 2 ipad wallpaper via:

You can expect the learning curve to be much lower too and it is probable that new ways to interact with the world like using head sensors that detect brain wave paterns (see Emotiv Insight) so the user can literally think what they want to do or even use facial expressions to direct actions - no hands needed! Possibly there wont even be any building tools in the browser version either because it will be aimed at a mass consumer audience and the creative people and those who want to make money will be offered separate developer software at a high price no doubt thus ensuring the big players with the money to invest enjoy something like an exclusive developers club. In any event you can bet your bottom dollar all the big online stores will want a very prominent and focused presence and that will mean huge sums of money being invested in desgin and presentation not to mention the fees to the VW platform owners.
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of virtual world and MMO fashion
cutesy of New World Notes
Identity and privacy are big issues for the current VW users and Facebook's refusal to allow pseudonyms could turn out to be its Achilles heal when it comes to trying to rule the Metaverse. Linden Lab policy is firmly rooted in respecting their residents use of pseudonyms and it's hard to see how that can change while, for Facebook users, they have been conditioned (some would say brain washed) to reveal all to the world so FB can exploit it for the benefit of the advertisers. It could happen though that if SL2 is to go mainstream as Ebbe hopes then the Lab policy might change on identity too. However, the Facebook virtual world even with it's real names policy is going to be a lot different from the current experience of checking FB 15-20 times a day to see what real world friends and relatives are doing but I doubt anyone really knows just how much of a difference it will be. People prance around in front of their Wii now to get fit and do sports so will they prance about wearing Oculus goggles doing similar things with their friends and relatives in a virtual space in stead? Will people be floating along in the new FB/Yahoo/Linden Metaverse while actually on some kind of tread mill? Mores the point will everyone want to look like super models because they can? And you can bet your life the Adult industry will wade in with every which way to enjoy virtual sex. I mean, think of Haptic technology that provides physical sensations where "acoustic radiation" stimulates a sense of touch on the skin without the need for cumbersome gloves and body suits. There are so many questions one could ask about a Facebook virtual world but it's coming and I don't think Linden investors want to miss out this time round.

Now, we know that there is a lot of disquiet amongst Second Life residents on whether the Second Life they know and love will close after the new platform is launched and also whether or not the residents can take their names and inventory with them. Ebbe gave some
Picture Credit: Emotiv Insight
rather mixed messages on this saying on the one hand you will probably be able to take your stuff but on the other hand he says they are not interested in backward compatibility. Linden Lab is a business after all so it’s not really surprising that the Lindens are saying they have no plans to close SL1 because it would be financial suicide to say otherwise. Ebbe Altberg just hasn't been choosing his words very well but there is enough in what he has said to suspect they are keeping the "antique" SL1 afloat while its high pricing model continues to finance the development of SL2 and their other products.

Picture Credit: Sinful Robot
So, the Lindens are saying they wont close SL1 but they are not saying too much about SL2 other than it will be a lot better but really a lot of this is all corporate double speak and the Lindens have a pretty poor record when it comes to dealing with their residents. The directors seem to care nothing for the fact Second Life is a social entity and huge passions are stirred up when changes are made. To the directors it's a business in which business decisions are made with all regard to what will maintain and improve the profitability of the company. Don't be surprised to be told SL1 is closing once SL2 is firmly on the road. It will just be a business decision that has probably already been taken but, for now, they have to keep the golden goose alive. Linden executives have their price like any other business the world over so don't be too surprised either if SL2 ends up another Facebook acquisition in its drive to become the ruler of the Metaverse.