(editor's note: find a brief bio of Bruce Damer from his March 2007 guest column)
Its been just over a year since my last guest posting and in that time we have put some real beef into the Virtual Worlds Timeline effort. The team led by Henrik Bennetson and Henry Lowood at Stanford will soon start ingesting hundreds of hours of video and other material produced by a number of people during the mid to late 1990s virtual worlds early-adopter "boom" (a veritable "Cambrian Explosion" of VW platforms happened in 1995-96). Our archival efforts took us back even further with Chip Morningstar's digitization of a superb LucasFilm piece about Habitat produced in 1986. This is also going into the VW timeline project (thanks Chip & Randy!) and you can get a preview of it here on Google Video.
But this column is not about looking back, but about looking forward to the future, especially where this current Virtual Worlds boom may be going. The key question I would like to pose the community is: are we already seeing the early sign of a Virtual Worlds downturn that may lead to a "winter" as severe as the one in the period 2000-2003? The second logical question is: if this is so, what can we do to head off or reduce the slope of a new downturn? If the infamous "chasm" lies before us, and not back in 2000-2003, then what can we do to sling a rope bridge over it?
Part ONE: Does the Chasm Still Lie Ahead?
Signs of an "inflection point" or upcoming "chasm" on the adoption and business curve of the current batch of virtual worlds platforms might be indicated by any or all of the following:
1. Is Second Life (the flagship platform) user growth stalled or continuing to expand? Some experts have commented to me that SL's regular usership (die-hards, creators, social mavens) is no more than 20,000 which would not justify its business existence if it was an MMO-game play platform. I don't have any way to confirm these numbers, anyone out there have a more informed opinion?
2. Is the coming of several new VW platforms going to balkanize a
limited usership or grow the user base? In looking at broader scope of
user interactivity demographics, will the move of more people to do
their primary computing on mobile platforms reduce the number of people
using VWs on big screens or put a cap on the growth of the VW market?
Is the fact that there are now so many options for real-time
representation of people online (Skype, Twitter, etc) means that VWs
are always going to struggle for visibility? Is interaction in a VW
that much more enriching and valuable than the simpler modalities
available in other platforms? Will VWs ever really go mainstream? I
continuously hear complaints about VWs not being worth the trouble,
especially from people much younger and hipper than me (I am 46) who
prefer much lighter weight forms of interaction. What does this portend?
3. Are open source efforts the inevitable shape of things to come (ie, creating standardized protocol layers which would lower the cost of entry and operation of the whole VW ecosystem) or simply an expression of frustration with or fear of the long term prospects of commercial platforms?
4. Is the fact that our business treats as normal the building top to bottom custom browsers and servers a clear sign of an immature industry? Would the continuous beefing up of Flash or Adobe's new AIR platform "eat the virtual worlds medium" by creating a single ubiquitous front end?
5. Are virtual worlds already ubiquitous in that they are a part of online gaming (non game play socializing and creating) and gradually appearing as real time affordances in other community settings (Facebook chat, Club Penguin etc)?
6. Randy Farmer talks about the relative desirability of "small worlds" (ie, small footprint, simple to install/use worlds like the original Palace, and perhaps exemplified today by IMVU). Will these small worlds garner more usership in the long run than the big-iron, mega-landscape worlds such as SL and There? If you could embed a small world into your Facebook page, why would you take all the trouble to go to a big alternate universe walled off from the web?
7. If various venture funded VW enterprises start to close their doors in the next year or so, will this "pull down" the whole medium and deflate the already too-inflated expectations (like housing foreclosures do to a neighborhood)? The media will capitalize as easily on the stories of the failures on the way down as they did with the stories of the successes on the way up.
8. Lastly, the "walled gardens" represented by multiple proprietary VW platforms guarantee a certain (high) percentage of failure in the near-term. All industries with a large number of small players using proprietary technologies soon undergo traumatic downsizing or consolidation with a few monopoly players emerging. Think of the telephone system and Ma Bell in the 1920s and 30s and the microcomputer industry in the 1970s-80s before the IBM PC rose to supremacy. But do VWs have such a potent growth driver behind them that there will be capital and incentives allowing dominant monopoly players to emerge? Or will VWs find their fate as a boutique type enterprise embedded within other businesses?
Thats probably enough provocative questions for this first posting. I look forward to your comments, opinions, feelings, questions, and a few rants here or there to make it all interesting! Depending on where the discussion goes, the next posting might be: Part Two: Ways to Cross the Chasm While Avoiding the Big Belly Flop!