SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009

CARTOON  OR SUPER-REALISM

Do the graphics really matter

in virtual worlds?

… and is Blue Mars really the third generation?

Blue Mars 2050 … does super-realism matter?

I have always wondered just how much the graphics matter in virtual worlds: I know my personal preference falls into the super-realism category when it comes to graphics but I’m well over the age of 30 and even as a youngster never had much time for cartoons or comics.

I ‘ve been enamored with World of Warcraft for years as well as the latest Grand Theft Auto offering. The CryENGINE (R)2 graphics,  when proposed for Entropia  Universe, really turned me on. I’m also intrigued  with the possibilities of Lenova elounge, by Nortel, and the  latest offering from  the MellaniuM stable,  the Furnace, and love  today’s graphics in Second Life, especially when seen through some of the better viewers on a high-end computer. I also felt  the failure of Google’s Lively to get any traction with any age group was due to the cartoony style of its graphics.

However, the digital generation, unlike the digital migrants or my generation, the digital dinosaurs, seem to have no problem with cartoon characters or environments: Look at Habbo Hotel (135,000 m users). Although accurate figures are notoriously hard to come by the best estimates from the industry-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds, British-based Kzero, suggest that 57 percent of the estimated 579 million people who are registered users of MUVEs around the world, are children.

Virtual Worlds ‘not a passing fad’

As Victor Keegan reported in the UK Guardian almost  all of the 39 percent growth in MUVE usage reported by Kzero for the second quarter this year came from children.

“Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars,” he said. In this largely unreported cartoony VW  flood poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – had 76 million registered users; among 10- to 15-year-olds, Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million). The numbers start tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million), underlining the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds, he  said, arguing that virtual worlds “are not a passing fad”.

Do those digital generation figures mean, however, that Second Life,  described by  Larry Johnson, CEO New Media Consortium, as “the most currently evolved of the virtual world platforms … the seminal first instance of what the 3D web might look like”,   could  be beaten to a pulp in the marketplace, either by  virtual world  offerings which have even more realistic  graphics  or  over the long term, as the current generation of teens and tweens become adults,   by cartoon worlds like Habbo Hotel.

But, although, we’ve also seen the growth of  the Second Life software-based, opensource OpenSimulator environments, such as OpenLife, OsGrid and ONGENS among others, the arrival of behind-the-firewall applications such as Nebraska and offerings from other stables such as OLIVE Forterra, Twinity, Wonderland, Kaneva and peer-to-peer offerings such as Vastpark , Second Life at the moment, like Microsoft before it, seems to have the critical mass, the content  and the graphics to carry the game among adult MUVE users for at least the next five years.

That doesn’t mean to say that Second Life  wont have competitors in the  short or the long run.  It currently  seems to be moving  to ensure that it can beat this competition by  again emphasising  real life applications;  in some ways it is moving away from its core  user-base, of mainly nerdy, older (as compared to the popular teen and  tween worlds)  fantasists, first movers, former lounge potatoes, weather-bound, shut-ins  and others who delight in interacting with each other around the world, but at a distance.

Mainstreaming Second Life

Although apprehensive about some of the future plans the Lindens have for Second Life, which I feel will, in many ways, destroy the things which contribute to its attractive game/play/art/on-the-edge  feel,  I think the Linden move  to promote training and education uses of virtual worlds and its expressed goal of mainstreaming  through “extending the value of Second Life beyond the virtual world (through) helping Residents more closely integrate Second Life with their daily lives” are  correct moves in  an economic sense.

As Larry Johnson, summing up the growing momentum of Second Life and virtual learning, said in April this year, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.”

For many users, however, that is probably the “boring’ direction. And it probably means that many  early Second Life adopters are already moving or will move on to other more edgy worlds taking their creativity – if not their content – with them.

One of those worlds just might be Blue Mars 2150 which  is scheduled to launch into its open Beta phase tomorrow, September 2. Or, of course, it too might join the virtual world scrap heap which is already littered with virtual worlds which have been created, promoted, and sometimes marketed,  and then faded away over the last few years. Remember Outback?

From the preview above – and remember it is a promotional video –  Blue Mars’ graphics are stunning, as are its partners.  It to obviously wants to cash in on the fact that the average social website user today spends $US148 each year, a figure that can only rise.

Blue Mars 2150, which  describes itself as the third generation of virtual worlds (also here) and like Linden Labs is based in San Francisco,  has already secured joint ventures with numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the National Association of College Stores, with its 30,000 plus members, TERC, the National Geographic Society Alan Watts, NOVA and Smithsonian Institution.

It remains to be seen just how successful  Blue Mars 2150 will be. My belief is that unless someone comes up with something like “interactive, shared, controllable, lucid dreaming”  the Lindens are going to be very difficult to knock off their perch.

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The SLENZ Update – No 121, July 31, 2009

VIRTUAL WORLDS “BOOMING” despite doomsters

“Twitter makes the noise while

Second Life makes the money”

-Victor Keegan, The Guardian UK

Second Life can do his … Tribute to Lachlan Campbell from the
Second Life Relay for Life benefit event – July 11, 2009.
LabGraal: Vocal, Rosalba Nattero

While Facebook and Twitter are lauded to the skies,  neither has found a way to make money – whereas virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, Entropia Universe, Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin and Second Life are all profitable because their business models are based on the digital elixir of subscriptions and micropayments,  according to Victor Keegan (pictured) in the UK  Guardian.

It’s a formula that other websites, including newspapers, would die for,” he says. ” Twitter makes the noise, Second Life makes the money … actually, they are booming.

In a message which will have the virtual world doomsayers frothing at the mouth Keegan quotes the UK consultancy kzero.co.uk,  the world-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds,  as reporting that membership of virtual worlds grew by 39 percent in the second quarter of 2009 to an estimated 579 million, although not all are active.

“If you think virtual worlds are a passing fad, look at the figures,” Keegan says “Almost all of the 39 percent growth came from children. Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars. This goes largely unreported because the users don’t read newspapers, but as Kzero reports, poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – has 76 million registered users.keegan, victor

“If you move up to 10- to 15-year-olds, users rival the populations of countries – led by Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million).

“It starts tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million) – but it underlines the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds. The telephone was a one-to-one experience; email linked friends and colleagues; Facebook extended this to friends of friends but virtual worlds offer – as Twitter does in a more constrained context – the opportunity to link with anyone on the planet sharing similar interests.”

Keegan, noting that Second Life  is consolidating as it tries to make the experience easier and less crash-prone,  says it is still the creative laboratory of the genre even though it may not end up as the preferred platform as new business models take advantage of the rapidly improving technological developments elsewhere.

“In order to get a more streamlined experience, most of the new virtual worlds don’t allow users to make their own content,”  he says. ” Twinity, which has just raised €4.5m in new funding, has a virtual version of Berlin and Singapore (with London still in the pipeline): you buy existing apartments or rent shops but can’t build yourself. Bluemarsonline.com – still in testing mode – promises much better graphics and more realistic avatars at the expense of not allowing members (as opposed to developers) to create their own content.”

“With technology moving so fast and a whole generation growing up for whom having an avatar is second nature, virtual worlds have nowhere to go but up.

“Only they won’t be virtual worlds – just a part of normal life,” he concludes.

Kzerochart

For the full kzero reports go here and here and here

The SLENZ Update – No 44, February 4, 2009

Strangers: off to the world

rollo-mike-fiona

UK-born Mike Baker (SL: Rollo Kohime),  a senior lecturer in the Degree in Arts and Media programme in the School of Arts and Media at Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology, Nelson, NZ-Aotearoa, has had papers on his Masters project accepted for three national and international conferences in February and June.

The papers will be delivered at intercreateSCANZ Symposium, at New Plymouth, in Taranaki, New Zealand, PSI15 Performance Studies International Conference, in Zagreb, Croatia, and the SDHS Society of Dance History Scholars: Topographies: Sites, Bodies, Technologies, at Stanford University, USA. He has  also been named to an international panel to deliver/discuss the paper of Isabel de Cavadas Valverde: Envisioning virtual cartographies for corporeal interaction: dance and performance convergent applications of Second Life 3D Metaverse social environment, at the SDHS Conference at Stanford.

Baker (pictured above with wife Fiona), who has danced and worked with: BodyCartography Project, (USA/NZ) Wilhemeena Gordon, (NZ) Nancy Stark-Smith, State-of-Flux Dance Co, (Melbourne, Australia) Martin Keogh (USA) jzamal Xanitha (USA) and Catherine Chappell – Touch Compass Dance Trust (NZ), is completing a Masters in Art and Design (majoring in dance and video) with AUT University,  Auckland.

His performance-based Masters project, “Company of Strangers – Negotiating Meetings, Exchanges and Conversations in Urban Spaces”, critically explores both in the real world and Second Life the forces of indeterminacy which he maintains are responsible for the dynamics which create the personna of the ‘stranger’ in encounters between people in urban spaces. He uses interventionist dance strategies to prompt and then interrogate the formation, nature and parameters of encounters in designated public places. The experimental movement frameworks employed are informed by the discipline of Contact Improvisation Dance. The working process is documented using a range of video narrative and internet blogs.

The Second Life portion of Baker’s dance project is based on the NMIT/SLENZ island of Koru. His blog is at: http://hoststranger.blogspot.com

Better SL viewer ahead?

On the face of it the churn rate of “newbies” entering Second Life is probably unacceptable in business terms but 15 percent of those trying out Second Life for the first time, deciding to “settle” in world, to my mind, is nothing to get discouraged about.

Given similar problems to those Second Life has had over the years many five-year-old – old hat? – businesses would be pleased with the on-going, steady retention rate. philip_rosedale

Linden Labs’ executives, Philip Rosedale and Mark Kingdon appear far from discouraged even though they would like to “triple that number,” according to an exclusive report by Ian Lamont, in The Industry Standard. (Story and transcripts http://www.thestandard.com/news/2009/01/30/exclusive-linden-lab-executives-plot-second-life-growth-interface-concerns-persist?page=0%2C0&source=nlt_daily)

Both Rosedale (pictured right) and Kingdon (pictured left) said in the Lamont interview that on-going, significant work to make the user interface less complex would have a huge impact on the retention rate of the virtual world.kingdon2

Singling out search, the user interface and new user orientation as needing major improvements, to up the on-going user retention rate, Rosedale told Lamont, “We need to collapse the orientation experience on learning the interface down to a 30-minute timeframe. We’re not there yet.”

Going on to describe the current interface as “overwhelming,” Rosedale said, “The basic UI of the software also needs to change. “It has too many pixels,” he said referring to the buttons, numbers, and other data presented to users on the screen. “They’re all kind of demanding your attention — your [Linden] dollar balance, your inventory window, all the buttons on the bottom bar, chat and text that are visible in the window, that’s asking something of you, blue pop-ups that are coming up.”

Rosedale said that Second Life had moved beyond an emerging application for technology-savvy users. “There is a lot more diversity in use, demographics and behavior in Second Life today than there was, say, at the end of 2003,” he said.

Kingdon added. “There is a very compelling set of activities that virtual worlds are incredibly powerful for. They erase geographies, they allow for a type of interaction that you can’t get in the real world and they bring with them really interesting economic and business opportunities for users.”

Kingdon detailed localisation projects for countries in Europe, Asia, and South America, and cited in-world training and remote meetings as compelling activities for companies. Both he and Rosedale portrayed Second Life as a competitor to enterprise video conferencing, which they believe is unable to match Second Life’s ability to make people feel comfortable interacting with other remote users.

VW education/meetings do work

lbj_close_talker

On Mark Kingdon’s case (above) for the benefits of holding real world meetings in virtual worlds Metaverse developer Caleb Booker has provided a compelling argument for the use of virtual worlds like Second Life for real world education environments and meeting spaces.( http://www.calebbooker.com/blog/2009/01/27/roi-in-virtual-worlds-1-why-webcams-fail/)

I have to agree with Wagner Au  in New World Notes (http://nwn.blogs.com/) that up until now, “the notion that the professional world should prefer meeting in the metaverse over speakerphones or web cams or other technologies seemed roughly crazy.”

He based this on the assumption that  in-world meetings put on by companies like IBM and Microsoft “were mostly limited to the early adopters already familiar with Second Life.”

However, Au goes on to say, that Booker lays out his reasoning lucidly for why the professional world should change its view through comparing being “close” to  people in an avatar sense to getting the “close-talker” feeling of  being trapped counting the other speaker’s nostril hairs, as in the Lyndon Baines Johnson picture above or a la webcam, and not being able to look away.

Suffice to say, Caleb argues cogently that Virtual space experiences work better than a webcam experience because one can maintain some “personal space”;  whatever learning mode one is in, chances are one will do fine;  and the experience fills one’s field of vision far more readily.

Read Caleb’s article: its one of the best expositions on just why education as opposed to other forms of elearning WILL work in Second Life and other virtual worlds.

Kermit for the third time..

intellagirltully

My final word on the saga of  the believability of Kermit. Intellagirl Tully (real life Sarah Robbins) is recognised as one of the foremost researchers/educators operating in Virtual Worlds. She probably has thought more about academic identity in a non-academic world than most other people. I’m indebted to a SLED list poster for pointing me to her “enjoyable and insightful” piece for the SLCC Education Workshop in 2006 titled, ” ‘Image Slippage’: Navigating the Dichotomies of an Academic Identity in a Non-Academic Virtual World.” You can read it at: http://secondlife.intellagirl.com/SLCC-Robbins.doc

Is the writing on the SL wall?

blumenthal

The on-going debate inside the walls of Linden Lab and among Second Life educators and others on the benefits or not of merging the carefully policed, but poorly-patronised Teen Grid with the well-patronised adult grid, has been brought into sharper focus by MySpace’s decision to remove the profiles of about 90,000 US-registered sex offenders.

The question is not whether Second Life can survive the addition of a teenage group of possible hell-raisers (grin) but whether it can survive the imposition of more stringent controls such as proof of age, identity, location and possible background checks being placed on the general population of Second Life, things which may be required by some US regulators to ensure the safety of the teens.

Personally I’m not a proponent of the Nanny State and think this would be a step too far. I have enjoyed, for better or worse, the “anything goes, frontier” feel of Second Life – even the griefers – for the past four years and hope to continue to be surprised and astounded by the activities/art/works of my fellow residents for years to come, no matter what their real life backgrounds.

Proof of age is currently not mandatory within Second Life and is required only for specific “adult” areas – I’ve only come across one proof-of-age-barred area over many hours of exploration – but given the general in-world penchant for privacy I don’t think the introduction of mandatory proof-of-age on the general grid would be a good thing.

[Interestingly the Linden Lab ban on casinos and sexual age-play among adults has, as predicted, reportedly only served to drive these activities underground.]

The thoughts on this issue were sparked by comments made by Connecticut Attorney-General Richard Blumenthal (pictured above at an unrelated occasion, but appropriate-looking “friend”) who initiated the release of the MySpace figures which were almost double the number that News Corporation-owned MySpace officials originally announced last year. (http://preview.tinyurl.com/c62qqs)

Blumenthal said the “shocking revelation” backed up his campaign to ensure that social networking sites should be barred as “playgrounds for predators”. “

Almost 100,000 convicted sex offenders mixing with children on MySpace is absolutely appalling and totally unacceptable,” he said. “For every one of them, there may be hundreds of others using false names and ages.”

Blumenthal said the new data unmasked what he called MySpace’s “monstrously inadequate counter-measures” and noted he would continue “to fight for reforms and safeguards at MySpace and other social networking sites to protect children, including age and identification verification.

“I urge MySpace and the social networking industry to end their resistance to age and identify verification,” he said.

One wonders how long it will be before he and his fellow travelers look at virtual worlds, now that social networking and virtual worlds are coming together.