Virtual World Futures: Five Trends from VW08

Think you know virtual worlds? So did I. Then I went to Virtual Worlds 2008 and had my eyes opened — both good and bad. It’s a relatively small conference (say 1000 people) that features some of the best and brightest in the space. And the diversity of that space struck me: from proprietary platforms to “curated experience” to open clients to world staffing and more. And nearly all of it focused on entertainment, not business (though back room chatter says the organizers engineered it that way). Here’s a rundown of the major trends I saw:

1. “There’s Nothing to Do”
In the list of top complaints about virtual worlds, that has to be at the head of the class. And folks at VW08 were painfully aware. (Not that there weren’t a good number of examples of that old “if you build it, they will come” cluelessness.) Compelling content draws people, the community retains them. And that’s why events are central to the future of virtual worlds. Make way for service companies who know how to do them right. Take Electric Sheep’s CSI: Second Life.

2. Measured in Minutes
Websites are high penetration, quick engagement; virtual worlds are low penetration, long engagement. In the CSI experience, for example, they saw multiple hundreds of thousands of people spending an average of 36 minutes exploring the space. The idea is to package experience, not information. One speaker put it this way: “With virtual worlds it’s no longer about content, it’s about context.” Or, the ad folk put it: “Traditional online advertising is measured in 12-14 seconds. Virtual world engagements are measured in minutes.”

3. Emergence Matters
There was plenty discussion about the unique power of virtual worlds to enable the speech, gesture, sketch interaction paradigm. I don’t particularly buy it. What I do buy, though, is the water cooler effect. Perfect quote: “I’m not going to bump into you on a half million dollar telepresence session.” Emergence is a more significant value of virtual worlds than most people think. Capitalizing on it is the challenge.

4. Come Together
40% of virtual world users also use social networks, and there’s also a good deal of overlap between virtual worlds users and gamers. The prevailing thinking at VW08 was that all three would start to look pretty similar. We’re already seeing this with the social end user content creation features in games (Halo 3, Little Big Planet) and the emerging social networking features in virtual worlds. Our kids won’t know the difference between a virtual world, a social networking site, or a game. All three will be everywhere, just to different degrees.

5. The Age Divide
If you’re over 30 you’re in Second Life, if you’re under 30 you’re anywhere but. A packed room was asked who used Second Life and every hand went up. So went the conference demographics. Will Linden be able to convert folks who’ve grown up with Habbo as they age? They should worry.

Bonus! Quotes
Some great quotes overheard:

  • Avatars: “Avatars are the ring tone for the younger generation — it expresses what you like to everyone around you and, at the same time, makes you feel good.”
  • Standards: “Right now we’re in the CompuServe/AOL days. Walled gardens everywhere. Standards are coming but there’s no business case, which is causing grief. They will come.”
  • Measurement: “Google made the click through metric mainstream. But in the early days of the web, we tried to measure eyeballs, which ended up not working out at all. Virtual worlds are different again. It’s all about time spent.”

Time spent. It’s the holy grail in our ever accelerating sound bite society both, online and off. We don’t pause, we perpetually multitask (to our detriment). I recently spoke with photographer Raul Gutierrez, who was troubled by just this problem. As improbable as it might sound, then, perhaps some future virtual world might provide his solution.

image via dean terry

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