From a recent internal email thread (slightly modified and redacted):
I’ve done a reasonable amount of work developing 3D spaces and evaluating the opportunities in immersive worlds. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about virtual worlds and the people who frequent them, least of which is the unfortunate reality that nobody seems to be able to make any real money on the open-ended, user-generated content model.
While Second Life enjoys the occassional publicity bumps on the backs of Boing Boing and Wired et al, they have yet to really nail down their business model short of “get bought by Google”. As others have noted, the connection between their virtual economy and that of the real world are tenuous at best and criminal at worst (see the shady operations of some of it’s private banks…). IBM and others respond to the hype and dump millions into corporate islands, only to realize that people aren’t particularly interested. The tools offered to users suffer from poor UI and steep learning curves, leading to small cliques of content creators sucking up Linden dollars from downstreamers who wish their avatar was more interesting. As we learned with Atmosphere, letting the users take responsibility for all the content leads to very limited and insular creativity with a lot of folks simply standing around in fancy outfits. Spending any substantial time in SL or the other user-content worlds leaves me with the sad aftertaste that millions and millions of polygons are being wasted on a fancy chat client.
Now clearly, virtual worlds are extremely compelling. We want cyberspace and the metaverse, and companies like SL ride this sci-fi future dream as far as they can hoping that if enough people believe it, then it will come true. A common side-effect of the hype machine is that people jump on the panacea bandwagon and start to think that the 3D world can replace everything we do on the desktop or IRL. As others have noted, running trainingseminars in full-featured flat apps like Connect is much better than trying to do it in 3D. Likewise with watching video or surfing the web or writing spreadsheets. To find value in virtual worlds is to determine what they do better than flatware. Blizzard knows that one of the best things 3D worlds do is provide an immersive environment in which to unroll a compelling narrative. SL ditched the narrative and assumes that the users want to create their own world from a blank palette. A simple glance at the numbers shows who has the better game plan for virtual worlds right now.
Content creation in 3D worlds is fraught with peril due to it’s complexity. Modelling in 3D will always be a professional endeavor, as it should be. It’s fricken hard. Scripting actions is also challenging but a little more accesible. Skinning jpegs for fashionable avatar textures? Maybe your average photoshopper can do this if they wish but don’t we already make a lot of money off the professional gaming companies that integrated PS into their workflows a long time ago?
The real point of interest for me in spaces like SL is not the creation of virtual design content, but the creation and management of social content. The most compelling thing in any social network, flat or 3d, is the ability to find your friends/connections, to share and retrieve information, to discover affinity groups based on your interests, and to have access to simple agents that help better integrate the online self with the real-world self.
To my mind, the current value proposition lies in creating extensible flash widgets that crawl through social nets and help users manage the data and enhance their productivity. How can I find the knowledge experts that can help me use Photoshop for pre-press? As a knowledge expert, how can I let others know I’m here to help? How can a user manage and personalize their Suite workflows and integrate them with their online data? What’s the easiest way to meet a LinkedIn contact in a Connect session to show off a portfolio of Flash content? How can I derive a color space from an image that will then lead me to an online resource for similar images? How can I capture real world media inspiration from my mobile and make sure it easily and reliably gets into my Suite workspace? How can a Second Life avatar show more personal attributes, interests, connections, profiles, etc to others in the virtual world? If an SL buddy texts a friend from within the 3D world, can the friend receive the text and respond with their cellphone?
I think we need to regard virtual worlds not as islands of discrete opportunities but as extensions of the real world and of the datasphere. I see little value in creating tools to enable SL/There/etc content creation or in buying advertising space in-world. To me, the most exciting virtual space right now is the social information and collaboration space – and it’s moving into the mobile form-factor a lot more quickly than into 3D worlds. The best value, IMHO, is working on the interstitial technologies that integrate all of these diverse spaces and workflows.
In the meantime, I’ll continue dreaming about the metaverse until it arrives.