Soon the Word "Virtual" May Mean Virtually Nothing

September 13, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Posted in collaboration, Gaming, virtual worlds | Leave a comment

As part of my research into enterprise use of virtual worlds I spoke to a virtual event solution vendor called Unisfair today.  I like what they offer as it seems to meet their user’s needs, but am apprehensive that the phrase “virtual” may be getting distorted.

First, what did I like?  Their proprietary event management system and Flash-based interface takes some of the good features of Second Life and dispenses with some of the problems.  Which good features and problems do I mean?  Well, the good part is that it has some of the cool factor of Second Life, looks 3D, and allows serendipitous social interaction and discovery things the user was not explicitly looking for, and can display content in several forms (video, slides, text).  Unisfair dispenses with some problems that enterprises have had with events in Second Life such as scalability/performance issues, distracting unbusinesslike elements (e.g., flying, strange-looking creatures as avatars, bizarre clothing), griefers (flying unmentionables at conferences), and a larger learning curve to get around than first-time business users want to tackle. 

So far, so good.  But it’s not a virtual world.  Unisfair says it is a “virtual environment”, not a “virtual world”.  I suppose that helps a little, but not a lot.  It’s clear a connection will be drawn to virtual worlds and Second Life though.  For example, The PC World article “Cisco Launches Virtual World for Resellers” about Cisco launching on Unisfair states

Cisco Systems Inc. launched a virtual online 3-D world based on a trade-show motif Thursday … the new Cisco Industry Solutions Partner Network (ISPN) is loosely based on the animated look and feel of Second Life and related sites … Relying on the concept of Second Life makes sense for serious business needs, Sage added.

An environment suggests a world, which implies to me (and I think many others) that it does 2D rendering of objects in 3D space.  There’s a big psychological difference using an interface that allows free movement versus one that only allows movement up and down a set of prescribed paths.  Sure, once you are in a virtual world for a while you may not stop to smell the flowers anymore, stare out over the water, tilt your head up just to see the clouds.  But you like to know you still can if you want to.  If a user cannot interact with their environment, what is the difference between an environment and a bitmap with hotspots?  When you look at a room using one of those 360 viewers on a hotel (like this one) or real-estate website – where it’s really just one big wide bitmap but they let you scroll right and left and zoom in and back – is that a virtual environment?  Or virtual representation of the room?  Was the old videogame “Dragon’s Lair” (which looked like you were moving through a lushly animated 3D world but was really running a cartoon clip off a videodisk that ignored your joystick except at cut points) a virtual world?  Nah. 

This is deja vu from covering portals.  In 2002/03 when portals were hot, too many vendors called their product a “portal” to connect to a meme that guaranteed attention.  When I quizzed many of them privately about their portal features, they admitted they were not really portals “in that sense”.  And sure enough, when portals cooled down a few years later they all took the name “portal” off their products.  The same could be happening with virtual worlds and Second Life.

So what?  Does that matter for users of Unisfair?  Not really.  They’re not there to walk around the booths and study the architecture of the conference center from all angles.  It seems like a good solution for online events with social networking and communication capabilities and a hipper navigational interface.  I don’t mean to disparage them and I’m sure my teammate that covers conferencing, social software, and chat tools would especially appreciate the integrated and purpose-built nature of the tool.  But it’s a signal to me that I now have to be careful when I see the word “virtual” being thrown around.  For the next few years anyways.

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