It is 1994 all over again, but the stakes are even higher this time around. A new battle for development, acceptance, and control of information delivery is underway in Silicon Valley and across the globe. Numerous companies, most of which you have never heard of before, are racing to develop and deploy the next generation user interface. Which company will win? What business models are they using? How will the future look? The shift in technology will be so great that it will affect how you use the Internet, how you communicate, and even change the equipment you use to access the Internet.
It is not Netscape and Microsoft this time. Facebook and MySpace have already lost. The new guard is Second Life, Active Worlds, World of Warcaft, IMVU, Shanda, Red 5 Studios and others. Their new landscape is not the quaint two dimensional reproductions which we have become accustom to in Explorer, FireFox, and Safari. It is a rich and robust three dimensional world that can convey information and culture in an effective and engaging way. Within these robust virtual worlds, the only limitation is our own imaginations. Virtual technologies are in their nascent development stage, but are growing faster than anyone would have ever predicted. A confluence of infrastructure, computer technology and social behavior theory is yielding powerful new ways to interact and socialize over the Internet. The idea of “goggling into the Metaverse with your personalized Avatar for a meet and greet” as predicted in the futuristic vision of Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash” is truly not far from today’s reality.
Second Life, World of Warcraft (WoW), and IMVU offers a fabulous view into the future of immersive communications and the next generation browser development. Watching how people team together to overcome the game challenges in WoW has spawned interest from social interaction to leadership development academics, as well as the Military. The application of immersive environments on learning and education are limitless. In the future, teamwork and leadership may no longer be a pedagogical exercise contained to sterile classrooms; it will be a fully immersive hands-on learning experience where students learn skills in various virtual settings and scenarios. The U. S. Army believes in this vision so much that they spent six million dollars in research and development and sponsored “America’s Army” video game to train our youth before they ever enter basic training. Ubisoft, the game’s developer, wrote that “America’s Army” was the “deepest and most realistic military game ever to hit consoles.” A small audience by WoW and Shanda standards, the game has over 30,000 players everyday and is available on Xbox, PlayStation, cell phones and Game Boy. Another and perhaps better use for the technology is education. Hiring newly minted MBAs with little real world experience has always been a sticky point with employers, especially with today’s education and talent challenges. What would companies pay to hire an MBA graduate that had spent a couple hundred real hours in Jack Welsh’s simulated shoes? And we thought EA’s Madden Football was big. In the near future we will be able to teach, test and hone key skills to produce better knowledge workers and leaders with the advances in new immersive browser technologies.
Today, the virtual world business models are in development. WoW has a subscription service where it charges about twenty dollars a month to login to the virtual fantasy world. China’s Shanda with its Legend of Mir and other virtual properties has a pay per usage and subscription models. IMVU has a novel model. Its chat environment is so rich and realistic that users actual pay for virtual clothes for their avatar and virtual gifts for others. Active Worlds has taken a more platform centric approach charging for the base application for others to develop upon. Second Life has virtual money called Linden dollars which is used to pay for goods and service within the virtual world. Linden dollars can be purchased with real currency. Walking around in Second Life and seeing all the billboard type advertisements does make me think about the Internet’s early days where advertisements popped up out of nowhere and there were no usability guidelines or design best practices. But, which model will win? There is room for several models, but it is too early to tell which browser will win.
I bought my last desktop seven years ago and don’t plan on ever buying another. Being tethered is no longer an option. Surfing while walking between rooms, booting up at the coffee shop, and logging on at the airport is normal behavior for most of us. However with new emerging technologies, our computing habits may change even further. myvu and iTheater are making goggles that project information right in front of your eyes. It is primarily for game consoles and iPod movies today, but it has potential. In the near future, you may have a pair of goggles which have a higher resolution and are lighter than your laptop LCD display, as well as delivering significantly more privacy while on the airplane. Celluon has technology that laser projects a keyboard on any flat surface, eliminating the need for a physical keyboard. With advancements like these, will our future computers look more like a soda can hooked up to goggles than the rectangular paperweight of today? Hardware advancements along with the developing interactive virtual software will merger to deliver us a new totally immersive user experience.
One downside is that the most virtual worlds require a large application download and installation. Each virtual world requires its own application, so if you develop for Second Life you are limited to Second Life residents and have no access to other audiences. The application diversity is a big negative for revenue scaling. It harkens back the browser interoperability of the ’90s, where companies had three versions of their websites to accommodate browser differences. But eventually, there will be a de facto standard and the winning application will come preloaded on your computer. I am interested in seeing if this shakeout also produces anti-trust litigation.
The new 3-D browser battle is being waged today and the future of interactive communications is up for grabs. Will Silicon Valley produce the next 3-D interactive browser standard or will China? Only time will tell. However, the impact of immersive 3-D virtual worlds on communications, social interaction, and education will change our lives as much as the microwave and remote control…and perhaps TiVo.