Virtually Eternal: A Positive Pathway to a Healthy and Sustainable Virtual Worlds Industry?

With grateful thanks to John Hengeveld of Intel and others for many concepts and wording

Heady Times for Early Adopters


The early years of a technology is frequently characterized by a boisterous cacophony of players. Each player has a dream, but to realize that dream, they have to build everything from the ground up and develop their own platforms. Early consumers of technologies are limited to a small group blessed with the patience, wealth or time (or all of the above) to deal with the gaps in these home grown gadgets to get something to work. Automobiles went through this phase as did personal computers. The medium of Virtual Worlds finds itself there now.


Slowly, through gradual or mass extinction, industry players disappear or merge together and one or more monopoly powers emerge. Concentration of resources and marketing prowess then creates the basis for mass adoption. This happened in the 1930s with the telephone company once affectionately known in the USA as Ma Bell.


The close cousin of virtual worlds, online game worlds, finds itself further down the road to maturity with several big commercial successes under its belt. Game play worlds have settled into a model not unlike the film studio system of the 1920s, with aggregation of talent around big projects producing a few “hits” generating large returns. The game world studios must always be working on the next potential hit as current box office returns fade to black.

Stuck on Max Headroom Island

In the 1980s, before the coming of the Internet as an “intentional but accidental” common layer to access information, online systems of all kinds existed, having their own custom browsers and file systems. E-mail systems, SGML document stores, academic abstract databases all lived happily in their own walled gardens and none experienced much growth. The creation or imposition of a common layer of technology both underneath and on top of information brought maturity, profitability, and the freedom to innovate to a wide swath of the software industry.


Ironically, both social virtual worlds and game play worlds today exist as a kind of 1980s Back to the Future meets Max Headroom island universe within the 2000s internet. These platforms feature expensive, custom built browsers accessing content and serving experience through proprietary servers. As a result, ventures must constantly re-invent the wheels, engine block and body of their virtual world vehicles. In this world, the cost of innovation is high, the reach of solutions is bounded and the value they provide are self limited

From the Islands to the Mainland

So how do virtual worlds, which have far less resources than their more massive cousin the game worlds, plot their course from this isolated archipelago within the Internet and journey to the mainland?

One way for this to happen is to let market forces do the captaining.  Let one or more monopoly players emerge, enforcing a common standard. In this case we don’t have to do anything but sit back and watch. The risk we run is if no healthy monopoly emerges and we enter a new “winter” period (see my previous Terra Nova posting at


Another way is to create the conditions for growth is by encouraging cooperation to lower the barriers to creation and adoption of virtual worlds. Does this kind of cooperation have a precedent? Yes! In the late 1970s, Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet at Xerox hit the road promoting TCP/IP as an open networking standard. He faced an uphill battle against entrenched technologies but he prevailed and we live in Metcalfe’s world today. Metcalfe’s force of personality, some lucky accidents, and a healthy dose of self interest pushed TCP/IP over the tipping point by the early 90s, just in time for the spread of the Internet to the masses.

So one could create efforts to encourage standards, but at what level? Standards of interoperability have been promoted for virtual worlds for over a decade, starting with the Avatar Standards track at Earth to Avatars in 1996, and more recently with an effort to create interoperable avatars between major platform providers (see OpenSim and the Open Virtual Worlds project).

However, the history of Instant Messaging provides a clue at how successful interoperability can be at this “highest” application level: efforts to provide cross-platform IM have all ended up on the rocks. It seems that creating common layers is more difficult the higher up one goes in the application space. What about examples of low-level interoperability? HTTP and various open web server technologies like Apache are the very definition of interoperability at the technological ocean bottom. How about the recent open source or open standards virtual worlds efforts? Would they, given sufficient resources, provide a common layer upon which a wide range of platforms could be built? Could Second Life, There, IMVU, Active Worlds and other existing platforms successfully unhook from their current servers and connect to a new one? Or are these platforms too tied to complex interaction and optimization to be able to be unhook? And what if some of these companies survive through sales of their proprietary servers?

The Invasion of the Small Worlds?


There may be another approach piloting our way over the horizon, that of the coming of ubiquitous “small worlds”. Small worlds are a concept coined recently by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer in describing The Palace, a mid 1990s lightweight 2D avatar platform. Small worlds typically have small, easy to install and run programs or plug-ins serving lightweight spaces hosting a small number of users. These are in turn connected to a larger grid of small spaces (or Web of Worlds as recently suggested by Intel’s John Hengeveld), sometimes served peer-to-peer. Will Harvey’s IMVU is an example of a new small world platform. Small worlds could exist in close connection to the web, especially embedded within social networking sites like FaceBook, and draw traffic from the natural flows over its pages. In contrast the walled-garden “Big Grid Iron” worlds exist in isolation from the web and its click-link traffic patterns.

But would small worlds get us to the mainstream mainland?

The Small Gobbles Up… Everything!

As we can see from the history of computing, it is often the case of “the small gobbling up the big, and everything else”. Trivially small, lightweight yet rapidly replicating platforms often grow up to become all-encompassing solutions. DOS grew up to become Windows and along the way the PC triumphed over the time-shared mainframe, minicomputer and workstation. Could it be that there is some small world platform out there that is destined to become the standard? Dick Gabriel of Sun Microsystems has written much wisdom and books on this phenomenon ( in which he posits that one of several ways to create a virally spreading success is to hitch your wagon to something that is already growing. Does this mean that a small world embedded in Facebook or some other social network(s) is the answer?

There is another wave about to break across the internet that will change everything (including virtual worlds). That is the coming of powerful front end user interface frameworks that will take us well beyond Web 2.0. One such framework is Adobe’s AIR ( which merges Flash, Actionscript, AJAX, a SQL database and many, many other goodies. Small worlds in AIR are definitely on the way. AIR may remove significant barriers to developing virtual world front-ends. The ubiquity of Flash suggests that you would be hitching your wagon to an already big success.

But What in the World is a World Good For?

So there may be a glimmering of some ways forward on the technology side, but what about the applications? What in the world is a (virtual) world good for? Creating a widespread, ubiquitous platform requires profound understanding of what people will find useful. The Home Brew Computer Club members had little idea of what would appeal to the average household having a personal computer. Club members like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others built their empires on finding and holding on to a clear picture of that understanding. Game worlds are balkanized into genres, but each genre typically has enough of a market to create a sustained “hits” business. Virtual worlds genres are only now being defined, and they fall into two categories: spaces where people engage in random or purposeful social interaction, and everything else. Given that social networks on the Web are a blend of random and purposeful group interaction (think Twitter), it seems that the biggest “footprint” of user attention is by this time well understood.

Other "serious" genres in the virtual worlds camp might include learning spaces, business conferencing, commerce supporting spaces, media sharing spaces, and purpose-built events. Other smaller but self-sustaining genres could include grant-supported artistic worlds, and industrial worlds such as used in project development (architecture, urban planning, CAD/CAM) or training (military and non-military). Am I missing anything?

It may well be that the genres and sub-genres are so different that no one common technology platform or business model can serve them all. Today CAD/CAM companies and their platforms are so highly developed, expensive and specialized that it is hard to ever see them using some kind of common 3D platform or format (other than for file interchange).

Virtually Eternal

The best way forward, therefore, might be to concentrate on the platform that has 1. the biggest footprint of potential adopters and 2. the lowest barrier to those users adopting the platform. I posit here that the obvious answers to one and two is:

  1. Social interaction both random and purposeful is the big user footprint available to virtual worlds especially when embedded into high-trafficked web-based social networks and
  2. The small world form factor using already ubiquitous front end technology would naturally be the lowest barrier to entry to these users.

We would then have to have the faith that properly managed  such a platform would “grow up” to serve more and more virtual world genres. One persistent visionary player therefore might develop a widely adopted small world platform and insinuate itself into any social virtual world platform. Bill Gates and Paul Allen managed to get Microsoft BASIC on every microcomputer around and later built a powerful monopoly upon that strength by procuring DOS for IBM. On the back end, perhaps adopting a simple, yet open virtual worlds server, open-sourced like Apache, could smooth the pathway to ubiquity.


Could “eternal life” for virtual worlds be in the offing once a ubiquitous web-embedded "small world" platform comes into being?

Is it Time to Invite the Players to a New Poker Game?

Builders of large grid-based virtual worlds with proprietary and heavy browser technology may be doing well enough to not be interested in an approach more likely to create mainstream adoption. The Big Grid-Iron worlds approach may be enough sustain a company or two but this is not sufficient to create a healthy industry.

Small worlds companies with venture funding may soon be rising up to duke it out in the social networking browser space. Comprehensive ubiquitous client framework suppliers like Adobe may have inkling that small worlds could generate some kind of positive pull for their efforts and willing to consider features that would make small worlds really run well there. Corporate grant funders, academic institutions and government agencies might be willing to fund a free, open Apache-like back end server if they could see a longer term research return.

Back in 1995 I established an organization, the Contact Consortium (, whose charter was to bring together all of the groups and people building and using the first online virtual worlds platforms and stimulate the development of the medium. Is it time for a new Consortium effort? One could envision inviting key players to a common poker game where the payout at the end of the evening might be a common small world platform tuned to the biggest user footprint and adopted by the biggest trafficked social networks?

The stakes in this game are a new medium and a healthy industry and… social virtual worlds everywhere!

Anyone ready to deal?

Posted by Bruce Damer on July 1, 2008 | Permalink

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Comments says:

The only problem with the smaller virtual worlds is that they are basically glorified chat programs. They are going to have to pull something magical out of a hat in order to compete with the massive gaming worlds.

Posted Jul 1, 2008 12:39:18 AM | link

lewy says:

Agreed. Smaller virtual worlds at this stage are a solution is search of a problem.

Piggybacking on top of social networking sites or large sites like Amazon does make a lot of sense. I don't really want to have to take the trouble to sign up a virtual world account and then get my friends to sign up as well in order to interact with them. I'm not sure I would take the trouble to sign up for an Amazon VW account to talk to people with similar tastes in books and movies. If my existing Amazon account got me in I might give it a shot.

Posted Jul 1, 2008 2:27:43 AM | link

Bruce Damer says:

A point to make here is that we are pretty much talking *only* about social virtual worlds not game play worlds. Ie: no expectation of social (user created) space competing with big game spaces. We are looking specifically at the genre of social worlds.

Posted Jul 1, 2008 3:26:35 AM | link

Clive Jackson says:

Great post, I agree that the integration of virtual worlds and social networks is going to happen big time and will offer a similar, yet different experience to virtual worlds like Second Life. Personally I prefer the term casual virtual worlds to small virtual worlds. Just because they are embedded in a social network does not mean they have to be small, through load on demand the worlds could have infinite size. Even if they are not, in-world linking (teleporting) to other casual virtual worlds would lessen the effects.

Casual virtual worlds have the advantage of being quick to download, typically 5-10 MB and do not require any additional registration or logging in beyond the initial login to the social network. Depending on the technology used to create them, they can also be very inexpensive create and host, with processing done on the client and as opposed to server farms.
“The only problem with the smaller virtual worlds is that they are basically glorified chat programs.” If this is the case it should not be due to any technical limitation, but rather basic design decisions. There is very little preventing casual virtual worlds from offering the visitor a very similar experience to that found in the more monolithic style virtual worlds.

Posted Jul 1, 2008 4:15:09 PM | link

Nikolaos says:

By controlling your environment, you give yourself the best chance to maximize your focus on the game and be a winning player. This is far and away one of the biggest assets available to all online poker players.

Posted Jul 2, 2008 6:48:56 AM | link

Esme says:

Great read. thanks for posting

Posted Jul 2, 2008 2:34:53 PM | link

Internet Strategy says:

Letting a few monopolists enter the market does good in ways..for example the Google revolution. But others may not be as endearing considering the opportunities involved.

Posted Jul 3, 2008 1:51:42 AM | link

Futurist says:

Uncanny! Your small worlds future has arrived Bruce...

Check out

Posted Jul 3, 2008 6:07:10 AM | link

Bob Detremont says:

Sounds like the SL platform is getting frozen out by the virtual winter of discontent. Photo-realism is the key to creating interesting virtual environments. Social networking is OK for the chattering classes but education needs more than the blah, blah, blah of the school teacher.

Posted Jul 3, 2008 9:15:40 PM | link

Bruce Damer says:

Wow very cool, I will check out
Gosh how could I have missed this one? It is a sure sign of the health of an industry with this pace and variety of innovation going on!

Posted Jul 4, 2008 3:23:56 AM | link

Jan-Anders Thorsveen says:

Great read! One of the more interesting for a while on TN (for me at least ;) ). Good to see some discussions around the "bigger picture" of the industry and the relation to how all industries develop in more or less the same way, although the duration and intensity of the phases varies. To give my "answer" to your question, isn't it always time to invite to new poker games and new consortium efforts?

I might be going off on a tangent here, but your writing and some of the comments got me all exited :)

I believe that the virtual gaming world market is already in or at the least entering a state of an established market. A state where you have a few major players, and a plethora of niche products. All good, as the mass market will have its WoWs, and "the rest of us" can find our favorite niche to play around in.

I think you may be right that the "small" (I read this as meaning small in technical complexity and scope, not user base - big footprint/low barrier), or casual if you will, worlds linked with other social networks are going to be the WoW of social worlds.
With the emergence of advanced mobile devices and the impact it is already having on the worlds population (google nomophobia for a hint). I think a really big footprint world has to build on the existing social networks out there (and at some earlier comments, why would a facebook or amazon VW use anything but your already existing profile and network?), and be small enough to run everywhere - desktop, browser, mobile, you name it. Yes, it may be glorified chatrooms, but that is what the mass market wants it seems, so why deny them?
Yes, you need more complex worlds for proper educational, business and other uses. But that doesn't exclude simpler worlds, nor does the mass market dictate what is needed for special or niche uses/markets. Why does mass market success have to be the only measure of success, and why do we (some of us) always frown upon those that get it? A "glorified chatroom" may expose a huge user group to a new technology, and open their eyes to other and more "worthy" uses of it. And they don't really need to compete with more advanced worlds or games, do they? They serve different purposes.
In the gaming sphere WoW is the mastodon, and you often hear people wishing for, or predicting a WoW-killer. Sure, WoW will be replaced by something eventually, but that's not important imho, what's important is the huge market growth and general awareness it created, and the doors that has opened for all sorts of new (and even resurgence of older) games in it's shadow. Maybe that's what the "social virtual world" market needs as well? Something simple, to the point, polished and easy to use that grabs the masses attention, and thereby creates lots of opportunities for the existing and to-be more advanced platforms (photo realistic or not) to grow and gain acceptance?

This rant is long enough :) Thanks again for a good read!

Posted Jul 4, 2008 9:35:00 PM | link

chris arkenberg says:

Thanks for posting this, Bruce.

VM has been trying for a while to figure out the features it needs to get the people. As you note, it may be more sensible to get the people first and then figure out the features. (Or in the web2.0 model, get the eyes, then worry about your business plan.) Acknowledging the common denominator is perhaps the most direct path.

It's fascinating that social interactions do seem to be the primary activity in most immersive worlds. We're all so wired for communication, collaboration, & community that these fundamental programs will inevitably carry with us into any virtual space. It's pretty much our default runtime state.

The work we did with Adobe Atmosphere in some ways speaks to your suggestions. We enabled small worlds to be deployed and embedded in web pages but attempted to tie them all into a central com server. No one controls the content but everyone can communicate and interact.

Seems like we could take a cue from the web 2.0 service paradigm and work to separate the 3d scene from the social layer. Every platform builder will always want their own renderer and will want to control their feature set but the core data/comm pipes that are wiring through the cloud should be shared and available between all worlds, apps, & devices.

Instead of building a single open platform, it may ultimately be simplest to establish a standard API that negotiates the comm layer across immersive worlds and other web2.0 cloud technologies. Standards for indexing and user findability, for metadata and xml parsing, for RSS and SMS management, event sharing & synch, UI/scene methods and properties, etc. We need to explicitly and willingly punch holes in the walls so the need to connect is not impeded by the technology.

We need a shared standard for communication & collaboration within and across social nets and immersive worlds. It should be as simple as possible for users to find each other, communicate, and collaborate. Platform builders need to include rich API layers that allow users to analyze their behaviors & extend their functionality. And they need to wire in to existing Facebook, Flickr,, Vimeo, & Twitter API's. (The ubiquitous dissemination of web2.0 entry points and datastreams (think "YouTube embeds or tag clouds") is why these apps are growing so quickly.)

Once this is present, once you can easily find & be found, Twitter your friends across multiple worlds, RSS-push your personal updates across all domains, and share you Facebook/Linked-in profiles between avatars, then it's a simple matter of beauty and artistry that will carry the value of hi-res, hi-poly, shaderific 3D worlds over 2d chat rooms and homogenized corporate vehicles. Once you have the eyes, then the platform will have more strength and flexibility to push the really interesting features.

Posted Jul 7, 2008 9:32:37 PM | link

Bruce Damer says:

Yegads! With yesterdays announcement of Google's Lively beta and today's announcement of Tony Parisi et al's Vivaty which shows a demo plugged into facebook!

When it rains it pours (hey, I am in rainy London right now anyway).

Posted Jul 9, 2008 8:38:16 AM | link

chris arkenberg says:

Bruce, it's funny that Lively & Vivaty are getting so much press for bringing 3D to the browser. Seems we did that several years ago with Atmosphere...

Posted Jul 9, 2008 1:39:13 PM | link

Kriss says:

A little max headroom of the future for you then...

Or not, I'm not entirely sure what I have created but I went with the max theme since it felt about right :)

Posted Jul 10, 2008 11:46:29 AM | link

Bruce Damer says:

Yes Chris you are right. It makes me consider what the reasons might have been that Atmo didnt make it. Probably a lot to do with the times and Google having such market presence/traffic and that wonderful "embed" code facility. Your thoughts?

Posted Jul 10, 2008 4:07:50 PM | link

chris arkenberg says:

I think we didn't focus enough on user affordances. We should have made it easier to find people and to join them in whatever world they occupied. I always wanted some sort of xml layer that users could easily fill with data about themselves.

We should have done more to create compelling avatars with scripted actions that could be easily added by anyone. In general, we should have created more canned objects, avatars, and scripts to lower the barrier of entry for content users/creators.

I think we also tried to do everything in 3D when it was probably more important to really focus on the things that naturally work well in the medium and leave the rest to 2D. Eg, how are 3D meetings and conferences better than using the flat-pane 2D web? Or why is it valuable to watch movies or browse the web inside a 3D scene? How could we create compelling narratives or games or social environments?

Ultimately, I think we were both ahead of our time and unaware or unwilling to face the reality that mostly people want to hang out and look nice, chat with their non-local friends, and get caught up in games and stories. I also think that so much was accelerating in the 2D web that 3D was generally seen as cute and fluffy, unless it was a fast-twitch hyper-real game.

My general feeling now is that 3D worlds should use the 2D web as a guide and build worlds that are explicitly open and wired into the established communication, collaboration, interface, and service models that are now laying the foundation of the cloud experience.

Posted Jul 15, 2008 2:52:59 PM | link

Bruce Damer says:

Well said, Chris!

Posted Jul 16, 2008 7:32:27 PM | link

Janet Hale says:

Hi Bruce, it's been quite a while since I stopped by but great post! My company, WiloStar3D WiloStar3D. serves the K-12 education market and one key element that is critical to our educational paradigm is the ability to allow end-users (students) to create, manipulate and invent their own worlds. We have been trying for years to get out of the "walled-garden" server set up however the tools are still not out there for reliable Web-based 3D worlds. It's getting so much closer now and it's exciting. Our students live and breathe and go to school in our accredited 3D campus so stop by and see what we are up to one of these days!

Posted Nov 12, 2008 2:15:42 PM | link

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