Beyond Second Life: Virtual Worlds' Second Wind

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Remember Second Life, that trendy virtual world that was going to revolutionise business in the way that the Web did back in the 1990s? Perhaps you also remember how the life rather went out of it once the public's short attention span was saturated by all the virtual world coverage, and it moved on new fads.

Second Life is still there, of course, with a new CEO to boot, and rather more realistic expectations about what it can and can't do, notably in terms of commercial applications. But it looks like we're in for a second bout of virtual world vertigo. As TechCrunch reports:

A report put out today by Virtual Worlds Management tracks $161 million put into 14 virtual-world investments during the second quarter of 2008. In the first quarter there was even more activity, with $184 million put into 23 virtual worlds and supporting technology companies. That brings the total this year alone to $345 million across 37 deals.

The highest-profile move in this space is from Google with its new Lively service, even though its ambitions here are somewhat underwhelming:

Create an avatar and chat with your friends in rooms you design

Which is a bit of a come-down after the richness of Second Life, which for all its overblown hype, at least *had* a business application.

Moreover, Google seems to have shot itself in the foot by requiring Lively users (Liveliers? Livelivers??) to be running Windows XP or Vista. It can hardly be beyond the wit of the massed Google geniuses to come up with a cross-platform solution that runs on GNU/Linux and the Mac as well. Maybe this focus on Windows reflects the kind of user they expect to get excited about creating an avatar (wow!) and chatting with friends in rooms you design (far out, man!). It's hard not to see Lively as another Orkut, Google's me-too social network that nobody outside members of certain Brazilian subcultures seems to use these days.

The disappointing nature of Google's Lively announcement is made all the more manifest against the background of some really interesting virtual world news, which comes from Linden Lab and IBM:

Linden Lab, creator of the virtual world Second Life, and IBM have successfully demonstrated virtual world interoperability by teleporting avatars between the Second Life Preview Grid and an OpenSim virtual world server. The joint development project represents an industry first of a quantifiable milestone for virtual world interconnectivity.

...

Teleporting an avatar between platforms has the potential to have a significant impact on the future of virtual worlds. An open standard for interoperability would allow users to cross freely from one world to another in a seamless transfer, just as they can go from one Web site to another on the Internet today.

As the above notes, teleporting between platforms is equivalent to moving freely between Web sites: today's isolated virtual worlds are the equivalent of CompuServe or AOL, where users where kept locked within the confines of a single online service. The key, as the press release rightly points out, is “an open standard for interoperability”, just as it was openness that powered the Web's success. It's also worth noting that the teleporting took place between Second Life and an OpenSim virtual world server: the latter is an open source implementation of the Second Life protocols. As its home page explains:

The OpenSimulator Project is a BSD Licensed Virtual Worlds Server which can be used for creating and deploying 3D Virtual Environments. It has been developed by several developers. Out of the box, the OpenSimulator can be used to create a Second Life like environment, able to run in a standalone mode or connected to other OpenSimulator instances through built in grid technology.

Unlike Google's standalone Lively, interoperability between virtual world platforms has an important application in the business world. Just as companies typically run intranets for their staff, and perhaps extranets for their suppliers and customers too, both of which are kept secure and separate from the main Internet, but remain compatible with it, so it will soon be possible to create secure internal virtual worlds for employees, and closed worlds for customers or suppliers, but with the option of using the same avatar there and in public virtual worlds like Second Life.

It is no accident that the above press release comes jointly from Linden Lab and IBM: the former remains the pioneer in this space, while the latter has been working on the development of enterprise-grade internal virtual worlds for a while. Although there is still much work to be done – one tricky area has to do with managing objects between virtual worlds – the interoperability announcement is an important step in the right direction. It also emphasises that the really interesting work is going on in the field of open standards and open source, not in the closed world represented by Lively and its ilk.

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