Bill Prensky is a Cyber Work Visionary. He is the CEO of CNDG: Chant Newall Development Group, LLC (Chant Newall is his Second Life Avatar Name). CNDG builds complex applications and solutions for large global organizations on Second Life. I checked in with him and he reports an uptick in corporate interest in use of Second Life. I asked him what the contributing factors might be and we had a further discussion of the implications for use of Second Life and use of 3D Web technology in general.
What is it that makes 3D Web viable? What distinguishes it from social networking tools such as Facebook and work networking tools such as GoToMeeting? What is the killer application for 3D Web?
Bill Prensky states that the key advantage of 3D Web is to convincingly create the experience of sitting in a room working together, virtually, with others. You can see your Avatar in the same room with their Avatars. You can literally pull up a chair to sit on and sit in on the discussion.
The experience of 3D Web virtual presence, aka immersion, cannot be duplicated through videoconferencing or web seminars, not even with web cameras. Bill emphasizes that immersive interaction facilitates a greater, engaged, sense of social presence while working with others. He calls it, snapping into presence.
I agree with the phenomenon of immersive presence. I am still hesitant that 3D Web allows better presence than the 2D Web (i.e., Facebook, Skype). I think people can project their presence, immerse their attention, into any media of intense interest: for example, into a book or movie or TV show, or even a phone call.
While I don’t concur that presence is the “killer application” for 3D Web, I agree with Bill that 3D Web is an enabler for social immersive interactive presence, where you are “in the flow” with at least one other person, not just yourself.
If you put social interactive options on a scale, you might say LIVE is the most effective, 3D WEB second, and 2D WEB, phone and email third. And for the case where Live is not an option, as in remote collaboration, 3D Web takes first place.
Bill lays out the case for renewed corporate interest as follows:
The revamping of Linden Lab last year was viewed by many businesses as a Good Thing. Companies who want to stay alive must periodically refocus staff and priorities. Even as many residents and educators were dismayed by major turnovers in Linden Lab (layoffs, merging grids, eliminating SL Enterprise, eliminating nonprofit discounts), companies were reassured. They saw these as changes made to keep Linden Lab viable, which, to them, makes Second Life more viable.
For corporations, OpenSimulator has not been an attractive alternative to Second Life. Although OpenSim uses the same engine and browser base as Second Life, there are as yet no companies providing OpenSim services on a commercial basis with close to the same scale of functionality and content (e.g., Assets, Worldwide Availability, Proprietary Media On A Prim Technology), and track record.
Furthermore, in Bill’s experience, after a working meeting, training class, or customer focus group held in the cloud, business people LIKE to go hang out in the rest of Second Life to shop, drive a virtual Ferrari, and meet friends and new contacts at a virtual bar to chat and listen to music in the cloud. OpenSim grids are not connected worldwide on a significant basis.
Another factor is that Linden Lab seems to have gotten Second Life technology done right. That is, with the appropriate balance of performance versus resource demand necessary to run the product on a normal computer and be connected in a 24.7 “cloud” world. Competitors have yet to develop a working alternative that comes close to the Second Life server engine and thin client technology combination. And, lord knows, competitors are trying. Linden Lab also has developer tools built into the public Second Life package for free use by all. This means that, while LL provides the platform, residents provide the content. And there are a lot of residents; skilled, savvy, and creative. No 3D Web competitor with a proprietary developer kit can compete – the cost to try to privately clone SL’s “free labor pool” is out of reach. And the cost to try to privately clone SL’s third-party paid labor pool is also out of reach.
Implications for Use of Second Life
If corporations are seriously revisiting use of Second Life, Bill projects a significant increase in simulator sales by Linden Lab. Not to the corporations – their sim purchases are a drop in the bucket compared to total sim sales – but to corporate employees for personal use. The scenario is that some of the employees who attend work meetings held in corporate sims will become interested in the rest of Second Life, get a personal Avatar, and start to hang out just as other residents do.
Some of these new residents will then further become interested in owning their own virtual homestead, and will convert to a premium account and get land. They will become active economic participants and content contributors in the virtual world cloud of SL. A mid-sized company of 50,000 might add several hundred new active residents a year.
Implications for Use of 3D Web
3D Web practitioners report that virtual worlds are becoming more ubiquitous and accepted by leaders as a valid way of doing business. The adoption pattern is similar to that for net technology, which began in the 60’s, and for web technology, which began in the 90s, that, together, have become part of everyday global life today. If a typical adoption cycle is 30 years, they say, 3D Web has just started and is on its way.
The standard for virtual worlds platforms continues to be Second Life. Entry costs to just try it are low (a computer with a graphics card, a broadband internet connection, and a bit of patience, or a friend who’s already a resident, to get you started). It’s available to login to from anywhere in the world. If you learn to use Second Life you’ll also know how to use OpenSimulator, which has the same technology base.
Alternatives such as Blue Mars are available, but are distant thirds in terms of function and use.
As mentioned, existing 3D Web technologies use a special browser program, installed on a user’s laptop, to interact with the virtual world, hosted on the platform’s servers. A small program is a “thin client” and is desirable. What if a special client weren’t required? What if a user could just use their favorite web browser as their client? Linden Lab and others are working on this but there are limits – browser access lets you “drop in” to view and talk but, so far, you can’t intervene (e.g., pull up a chair). You’re sort of a talking ghost at the banquet, so to speak – a half step backwards to 2D Web (2.5D Web?).
Yet the push to go mobile is clear and it’s projectable that there will be a mobile client that you can run on your tablet, if not your smart phone, to create 3D Web content. Versions will likely be provided by third-party developers for customers, and the technology will evolve from there.
Ease of Use
Bill discussed a recent article decrying difficulty of use of 3D Web clients. Bill states that 3D Web interfaces of necessity must be complex to give the full, intense, immersive experience. I tend to agree, stipulating that complexity is not the same as complicated. Complexity indicates we are onto something workable and learnable. Email is complex – just try to teach someone brand new at it. Texting is complex – just get yourself a smart phone and try it. Both are powerful. Both take a learning curve.
I don’t disagree that 3D Web clients must retain complexity to retain power. I do think that user interface design is still a factor. In fact that’s how Bill and I first really met – I attended a meeting he hosted discussing the new Linden Lab Viewer 2 and how it had hidden key developer commands, sacrificing developer usability in the name of newcomer user friendliness. There are approaches that accommodate multiple use cases and, fortunately, Viewer 2 has since been updated to do so.
3D Web stands as a powerful enabler of social and work networking. Whatever the 3D Web factor is, it seems that it is here to stay.
William Prensky is CEO, Chant Newall Development Group and CTO, The FutureWork Institute
Sitearm is le nom en ligne for James Neville, Planner and Expediter for Projects in Community, Spirituality, Arts.
3D Web is the set of technologies that put user browsers in an online, interactive, 3D environment.
Cloud Computing is “just another place to run your applications.”
Killer Application is a computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology or platform on which it runs.