Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hurdles to faster metaverse deployment

After some extensive exploring around in social MMO (massively multiplayer online) Second Life, it is more clear than ever that metaverse worlds are in Mosaic (e.g.; in the phase of the Internet at the time of the Mosaic browser – the early days). Unfortunately, not Mosaic in the exciting sense of the big pop being around the corner but in the somewhat disheartening way of how early stage the Internet 2.0 metaverse worlds are.

The three main challenges to faster metaverse world deployment are 1) platform inaccessibility, 2) disappointing chatroom culture and 3) myopic video-gaming niche visioning of world creators.

1. Platform inaccessibility to the mainstream

The first hurdle is meeting the system requirements of having a high end processor and graphics card and broadband.

Second, beyond rudimentary walk around and avatar adaptation functionality, there is a steep technical learning curve and economic cost for participating in a meaningful way. Digital graphic design, object creation and programming/scripting skills are necessary to be creative. Like the multi-year wait for tools allowing non-html experts to develop web pages, one or more generations of technical and knowledge-building tools will be required to allow non-expert users to be creative in digital environments.

Third, one must actually spend real money in the world (even to access the environment as with the Sims Online and There; Second Life’s participation jumped when they made an environment login free) to buy and develop real estate and post it in the search engine and teleport people there. Money can also be used to purchase avatar clothing and objects but this robs the participant of creativity.

Platform inaccessibility restricts the community of participants to a small group of technical experts and excludes other individuals, groups and institutions.

2. Disappointing lowest common denominator and homogeneous online culture

Digital environment culture is disappointing in three main ways: behavior, appearance and activities.

First, in some sense, Second Life, the Sims Online and There are no more than their lowest common denominator, manners-free 3-D chatrooms.

The openness of the interactive medium is an important parameter but there is a social code of respect called for in specific venues, such as education classes. Interruptions can be in the form of distracting avatar behavior, irrelevant posts to the chatstream and offensive posts to the chatstream. This could be partially handled by giving the session leader optional control of the chat window and to screen comments so that questions related to the session are included but extraneousness is not included or posted to a secondary chat window.

Of course part of the whole point is to explore what naturally evolves in an online world, and censorship is no more applicable here than in the physical world but the degree of impoliteness is fairly high and suppressive in attracting a wider online audience.

Second, avatar appearance is surprisingly homogenous especially compared to the physical world where we have less control over many of our appearance attributes. Clothing and accoutrements are heterogeneous but shape, size, hair styles and age all display tremendous homogeneity. There are many further social science explorations possible regarding avatars and some early research on avatar construction is coming out, but here the point is citing the homogeneity.

Third, activities and venues are primarily related to commercial activities, sex and gambling. While not unexpected, the narrow slice of activities retards new users. The point is that the digital environment is a platform to develop and launch whatever activities one would like but new community members will start by joining not creating. Sex as a big focus area helps to explain the previously mentioned avatar homogeneity.

3. Myopic niche visioning and video-game culture of world creators

The third challenge to faster metaverse world development is the niche video-gaming mentality of the world creators. The companies running digital worlds, Linden Lab with Second Life, Electronic Arts with the Sims Online and Makena Technologies with There are myopic and under-visioned.

That the wide-ranging potential of their platforms is under-realized by the world developers is clear from the market positioning which narrowly targets video-gamers, skilled software graphics developers and software programmers. Clearly it is necessary to market to early adopters first, but these companies are moving too slow in addressing subsequent target market segments.

Perhaps the most important way the video-game mentality retards news users is in the attitude towards knowledge and skill development. Everything about the user experience has an attitude of anti-help. Instead of the obvious “Second Life for Dummies” move-to-the-mainstream helper, help is scarce and non-intuitive. As with video games, a user needs to use forums, fansites, blogs and talking to other players as a means of learning and getting help even on basic topics. The mentality is to figure it out as you go along, that the fun is in figuring it out. This approach can be followed by the users who prefer this approach; the mainstream takeoff would be speeded by more accessible help.

Video game mentality also means that the scale-down of system resources required (e.g.; open to a wider audience) will likely not be seen as an imperative.


At present, greater than rudimentary participation in the current digital worlds is generally inaccessible and meaningless to the mainstream. The expectation of metaverse platforms is greater than that of a video game or a chatroom; the expectation is that higher forms of human creativity, collaboration and communication can and are occurring in digital environments. Hopefully metaverse worlds will continue to evolve in this direction.