Mitch Wagner recently posted a piece on his blog titled “Why I hardly ever go on Second Life anymore.”
I respect and value Mitch’s perspective a lot. He’s been exploring virtual worlds for years, and it’s clear that he loves their potential. But he’s frustrated by their lack of broad adoption and the multitude of barriers to entry for new users.
Those are sentiments shared by many. But I have a slightly different perspective of the future.
In his recent blog post, Mitch said:
“But I think Second Life, and virtual worlds, may have gone as far as they can go, that maybe the whole avatar-in-an-imaginary landscape metaphor is the wrong metaphor to best achieve the benefits that Second Life provides, just as Usenet was the wrong metaphor for mass adoption of online discussions, and blogs turned out to be the right one.”
I disagree that the current metaphor is irrevocably flawed. I believe there are near-term advances in user interface devices that will refine the metaphor and make it much more human. Anyone who has used Kinect will know exactly what I mean.
But I believe there’s a longer-term advance in technology that will solve the problem completely.
What Virtual Worlds Are, and What they Are Not.
Lightweight social media today (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) is all about managing weak social ties in a way that is primarily asynchronous. Quickly check on your friends. Quickly update your status. In and out. Social network proprioception.
Virtual Worlds are a completely different experience. It’s all about synchronous interactions and high emotional bandwidth. Becoming part of an ongoing deeply immersive story that you both experience as well as create on your own.
Lightweight social media platforms are like magazines. Virtual Worlds are like participatory theater.
The trick, of course, is for someone to make participatory theater a lot easier to jump into.
We’re already living in a virtual world that is partially collapsed into our physical world. We just don’t notice it.
We have a long history of scoffing at and then eagerly embracing portable technology that expands our senses into the virtual. 50 years ago, nobody believed we would be walking around today with portable phones and music players, experiencing a significant part of our daily auditory reality as “virtual.” Not too long ago, the idea of walking down the street talking to people who are not there, or driving one’s car while listening to a symphony seemed ludicrous. Yet today, we can’t imagine living any other way.
The next big step for virtual worlds will involve augmented reality. And I don’t mean the current “look at the world through a tiny screen in your hand” model. That’s just where we are today. The future won’t involve peering through keyholes. It will involve simply looking at the world around you.
Imagine wearing everyday glasses that are enabled with augmented reality, overlaying the virtual with the physical. To see and communicate with avatars integrated with our daily physical world. To see virtual vistas through physical window frames. To walk through a park downtown and see virtual landscapes stretching before us.
Sure, it will take a while for such technology to exist. But as Wayne Gretsky put it, the smart thing is to skate to where the puck will be, not where it currently is. Current virtual world evangelists and developers, take note.
The next step is to completely dissolve the interface for virtual worlds into our daily perception of life.
That’s the endgame for virtual worlds. And it will surely happen.
Because we’re already halfway there.
-John “Pathfinder” Lester
UPDATE 2/15/11: Phil Marston posted a link to a concept video from HP about an augmented reality game. Watch it, then imagine playing it without having to look through a handheld device. I particularly like the use of audio cues to alert the player of a giant virtual boulder rolling after him. 😉