Call me a cynic, but I have still not bought into the notion that 3D Avatar Chat (called the 3D internet by some) will, by itself, change how we live. Still, futurlologists (a typo I’m going to keep) like to point to investment in virtual worlds as a barometer of how big they’ll be. Big, huge, and 3D!
Well, I take investment in virtual worlds as a much more basic barometer of how much money people think can they can make in the next 2 years, assuming, of course, their particular project turns into the 3D equivalent of MySpace, Facebook, or even Orkut (at the lower end of success, at least in the US). I don’t know how many people invest $7-10m in a 3D startup hoping it’ll become the next BlabNote, for example, though many wind up that way — goofy and marginalized.
And while we’re talking about this $345 million number that’s bandied about as fact, keep in mind, those numbers are generaly rumored or self-reported by private companies. As it happened, last year’s $1B number included at least one company whose CEOs told me the numbers ascribed to them were not correct; not to mention the Club Penguin deal which is fueling a lot of this new gold rush — it included a $350M acquisition of a whole business, not exactly an investment, plus an other $350M as incentives for later. And that, right there, was 70% of the $1B number.
Anyway, though I really like the look of Lively, as I mentioned, I got bored. It remains to be seen how fast and deep a gaggle of 15 year olds will jump in — whether or not 3D will be the new "cool," in the same way that Harry Potter got kids reading big fat books with "words and stuff." There’s always potential, but throwing more and more spaghetti at the wall does not guarantee that any of it will stick. In fact, throwing it all at one small spot pretty well guarantees a fistful of fail.
Now, there’s much ado about open standards vs. walled gardens. And we’ve talked about this before. An enterprise solution wants to be walled for the most part. The open internet does not. A kid’s world wants to be walled and patrolled and indeed limited in interaction. But object definitions, inventories, reputations, networks, and so on would do much better if they were free and portable. However, just look at how hard it is to get the big "1D" social networks to give up their core data — your friends list — to outside apps, because that’s their bread and butter, not that they really own it, but they do covet it as if they do.
Let’s just agree that we do need open standards — high standards are even better — and that standards add a multiplier effect when they enable a million different ideas to come together into a bigger whole. But before HTTP changed the world, Gopher and FTP were also standards. One could have built the web using FTP instead, though it would have rightly sucked. So I’ll just emphasize this basic point — the right standards, and the appropriate level of inter-connectedness is what’s needed. And beyond that, we also need the Mozilla of 3D — the app that makes it all accessible — and that’s not quite there yet.
So I’ll put a stake in the ground and claim that the 3D Internet is still waiting for its killer app. It is not avatar chat. Avatar chat has been around since the 1980s at least.
The qualities it will have (let’s try to be positive) are more like:
- Re-imagines the web as a series of connected spaces, some of them 2D, some 3D, most mixed. The Metaverse and SL got the notion of one big Euclidian space wrong IMO — proven, I’d argue, by the fact that SL had to add teleporting and remote islands to break the continuity anyway. There’s nothing wrong with portals. Many people, in fact, nagivate by landmarks and see the world that way. And portals better match the existing notion of websites and links, where you don’t need such a tight coupling of "adjacent" sites. If someone wants to build a giant 10,000m2 site, that’s fine. But their internal load balancing schemes, as with the web, should be hidden from view and they should connect up like everyone else.
- Makes all content, text, 2D, 3D, etc.. accessible using the same basic protocols. However, those protocols need be done right. For example, we do not [usually] ship whole web pages as bitmaps — we ship it as text with markup or even script (e.g., flash) that is procedurally interpreted on your computer to render a final page. Same idea needs to happen for 3D content. No more polygons and vertices, much less hard-coded "put this object at XYZ" type stuff and more semantic relationships, more akin to "the art-deco lamp sits on a glass and marble table," where geometry is built on the fly.
- User interaction goes way beyond chat, subsumes email and voice mail (your avatar represents you, even when you’re not on-line), and conveys more emotion than can be driven with a 2D mouse and F1-12. Facial recognition, speech, gesture, and so on are critical elements, but not the whole story.
- Helps spaces come alive. Enough with the "build your 3D living room and host a soiree" crap. If the host of the party is not home, why would you go? On the other hand, if I make a theme-park with games I design for you to play, stories I write that you can jump into, now we’re talking about something you might find fun even if I’m not virtually there to entertain you all the time.
- Enables accelerators like indexing and archiving to both find existing content and build on it, rather than always starting from scratch or re-using a small palette of specially crafted items. This goes back to the 2nd item above. When we move from polygons to a language of 3D shapes and relationships, we can begin to more easily search the set of existing and potential objects along intuitive lines, find similarities, and even morph objects into something new. For example, "Find me an art-deco lamp. Now make it more like this other one."
Try doing that with textual webpages and you’re lost in semantic hell. But it’s actually easier to do in 3D, where geometries and relationships are much more fundamentally quantifiable.
Do all that, and we have the beginnings of something really game changing. Do it right, and it becomes the basis of the next level of human-human communication, a new visual language that mixes literature, gesture (originally called dance), movies, and games and accelerates your everyday interactions to a degree we can only begin to imagine.