Thoughts on the Metaverse

futurelab default header

by: Rick van der Wal via Business and Games Blog

I was writing a reply to Dusan Writers (great new design by the way) article on the ‘Sheeps Sweet Spot’ called ‘The Thinner the Client, the sweeter the Pie‘- Overall a good article and as it triggered a line of thoughts I’d been having myself lately It ended up a rather long reply and wanted to keep it documented on my own blog. Maybe to laugh at it at a later point, maybe to get back to in the near future (Why is it some realizations can seem so ‘right’ at some point, and a couple of days later lose all meaning…)

Dusan wrote on the new market the Sheep is trying to address in thin worlds after announcing their (partial?) withdrawal from Second Life, but went into a different direction. I realize his goal was to focus this partly on the ESC’s vision – but I feel that vision will end up in corporate targets and sales pitches, into reasoning ROI without critical mass, or jumping into the obvious bread and butter markets of a popularized/hyped variant of in-game advertising which still has to prove itself.

The graph in the article is used as a nice way to present data as an supposed objective point of view. Because of the 2-axes structure you can pick the 2 objective metrics from a handful of available data, chart them in a way that would create a dramatic picture and support your subjective theory and work from there. But alas, the ’sweet spot’ is pure fiction. A dot on a graph but I don’t see any real reasoning why thin, captivating virtual worlds would be a good all-round solution. It isn’t. You need to cross reference that with demographics, mostly age, gender. Brand acceptability and actual measured results because at the bottom line, you need to create sales. Perhaps then you will find these thin virtual worlds are actually really expensive solutions to something we can already do a lot cheaper, a lot faster, and a lot more efficient if you are looking for brand engagement.

This realization that the 2D web might actually be BETTER than 3D is also the point I am starting to object to “the metaverse isn’t here yet”. The funny thing is the 2D representation on the flat internet is a choice we’ve already made some time ago. We translate 3D info into 2D. 3D is very time consuming and often requires a lot of explanation because of the various point of views, 2D has already ‘framed’ the mental picture’ the sender wants to communicate to its receiver. Furthermore, obviously 3D requires obtrusive applications for mostly fleeting, or ubiquitous actions (chat, music, information gathering) while thin worlds cater to what seems to be the core function of virtual worlds for the masses (almost all fleeting applications) in a much better way thick clients do – which is why these thin worlds could be better than thick worlds, but still WORSE than websites. Which makes for another interesting point. Why is it these virtual spaces have become so compelling to us, that these virtual worlds have become the goal itself…

I believe the ESC is not going to provide the answer we should be looking for to this question. For the Company it’s most of all a niche. A niche they strongly believe in but a niche of companies willing to spend money on exploring these ‘new’ environments. But the truly interesting part to me is what compels us about virtual worlds, is how tremendously compelling they are to those open to its immersive nature.

What I’m inclined to believe at this point, the nature of this compelling behaviour of VW’s is closely linked to its ‘predecessors’, the 3D games. It are the shortcuts to basic human needs. Short reward cycles, where the costs (&risks) constantly outweigh the benefits. In games you have to point and click your mouse to be ‘rewarded’, experience, gold, items. Within this environment, those items are not just the statistics, its the status, and the human feeling of self achievement. The compelling part is the more you play, the more you want it, because the virtual value increases with every day you get more compelled, more immersed, into believing you are actually achieving your goals. These goals however, might not be as ‘fake’ as often associated with virtual worlds. These goals seem to be short term, virtual goals in obtaining a certain level or item, but actually relate more to a more basic human needs as addressed by Maslovs Hierarchy of Needs . These virtual achievements are shortcuts into desirable conversations – conversations which have the potential to full fill the top 3 of basic human needs after the first 2 are provided for.

This will also tell you something about the niche of virtual worlds (and how wrong Phil Rosedale was on assessing them to be from poor economic places, being oppressed. Those people will NOT play Second Life). It will also show why this ‘critical mass’ of a fully, 3D metaverse is an illusion, exactly as the aforementioned sweet spot. I think it argues too much the medium is the message, how the goal of conversation is how you engage. Virtual Worlds, or even the internet is never the goal in itself, so aiming at this ’sweet spot’ is not likely to result into anything unless you find applications that fill this void (in between fleeting and sovereign applications) which will be quite hard but I guess could be sought in visual interaction for fleeting conversations (predictably like Habbo and similar worlds, creating these reward cycles and visual status measurements to create social context for conversations).

The point I’m currently pondering is: isn’t it time to move beyond this technological idea of a fully immersed, three dimensional ‘metaverse’ as the ultimate goal? Either we just call it ‘the internet’ because we use this to connect, and keep ‘walled gardens’ as the virtual environments used for experimentation, presentation and anything that has nothing to do with connecting to a mass audience , or are we going to keep telling ourselves “it’s not quite there yet, but its just around the corner?” The problem with things just around the corner is you’d have to keep telling people about what they can’t see yet – is your vision of what’s there which doesn’t make for very good communication or development. Of course we need to look ahead, but let’s start by defining what’s desirable, what are these applications of this metaverse, instead of defining various technological platforms, each in search of their own mix of critical mass and application…

An Utopian idea – I know, but I still believe the real progress is not technological, not even in communicating the advantages, but by defining the ‘desirable’, the goal(s) of this development and see how these three dimensional worlds can contribute to achieving this, because the power of VW’s is in the shortcuts they hold towards obtaining them.

Original Post: