Arrive Without Traveling

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

In the sci-fi novel Halting State, users visit multiple MMORPGs and corporate web sites "in character" — their cartoon avatar representations of self — while preserving also their magic swords and collected booty between virtual destinations.

Last week, reality…or virtual reality, to be exact…sort of caught up with this narrative conceit (and rip-roaringly entertaining book), as Google, Second Life, and IBM all made announcements that raised at least two questions: 

  1. Is traipsing between virtual worlds possible, and
  2. Whether it is or not, who cares?

First, some quickie definitions, in case you need them:

Avatars are visual representations of character, so they’re glorified cartoon versions of elements in a story (like actors) or representations of self (a "you" that you can move around some virtual space, much like you would walk around a real place).

MMORPGs are massively multiple online role playing games, which are virtual versions of cities, fields, or any other place online in which multiple avatars can participate in games with one another (like the swashbuckling magid/swordplay fantasy of World of Warcraft), or just go walk around and socialize (like Second Life).

The Second Life/IBM experiment involved enabling avatars in one world to move, or teleport, to another. Normally, users are locked into using their avatars in the world in which they built them; like MySpace and Facebook, virtual worlds like Second Life are closed systems: your avatar from one place would look like just a bunch of broken software code on another, so all of that work you put into customizing your digital appearance can’t travel with you.

Until now, or so the experiment suggests. 

The other test comes from Google, which announced the beta of a free service called Lively. It seems to let people create 3D chats, using the Lively platform to create their avatars and then call it up from a variety of other social sites. Imagine having a conversation with somebody in one language and then discovering both of you speak another one; Lively hopes that people will opt to migrate their discussions to a service that lets their cartoon selves join in the blather.

There are great differences between the experiments, most notably that Second Life aspires to create avatars that are sort-of, kinda, maybe realistic-looking, a little, whereas the Lively simulacra are consciously-cartoony (a la IAC’s Zwinky characters).

But a common theme is the presumption that consumers want to visualize their online lives. I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Enhanced online experience has much more to do with content and interactivity than visual representation. People can get desperately involved with an eBay bidding war or Amazon book search. Text chat can be passionate and compelling; email is an addiction for millions not because of how it looks, but what it communicates. 

Purpose is a common theme among immersive, rewarding experiences, whether online or off. Sure, it helps to see really cool things in a videogame that you can obliterate with your laser pulse-cannon, but it’s the series of tasks, accomplishments, and ongoing risk of failure that keeps gamers glued to their controllers. This is one of the reasons why Nintendo’s Wii has been such a success over Sony’s PlayStation3 and Microsoft’s Xbox360: the latter two devices deliver greatly enhanced visuals, but the Wii provided better, more participatory games.

We see similar dichotomies in other technologies, like music reproduction (the access and sharing qualities of .mp3s make them more popular than the arguably better-sounding CDs that are harder to get and store). 

And we see it in brand marketing overall, as usually the "best" content isn’t necessarily the most glossy, or even obviously creative. Exposure to content can’t be measured in clicks or time; it has to be relevant to whatever it is consumers are doing (or want to do). The best brand marketing works because it matters to people, and motivates them to do things. 

IBM, Second Life, and Google are experimenting with ways to insert avatars into online experiences. I think it’s cool that my cartoon self could arrive at one destination in the cybervoid without traveling.

I just don’t get why. If you have an answer, feel free to seek me out on Second Life, where my avatar is named Timewise Randt. He never goes anywhere.

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