Is Google planning to launch its own virtual world?
Okay, so Google already has a virtual world: it’s called Google Earth. But I’m talking a Second Life style virtual world, with avatars and community features and big furry-penised love machines all over the shop. Well, maybe not that last one.
The rumour’s come from Arizona State University, where students have been asked to sign up to beta test a new product from “a major internet company”, with the signup form (pictured above) mentioning 3D modelling, gaming and avatars, and asking specifically if they have a Gmail account. The university has strong ties with Google in other areas.
As an over-excitable blogger, that’s all the proof I need to start shouting about GoogleLife’s imminent launch, most likely blending Second Life style 3D avatars and environments with accessible casual web games. And stuff. The ASU signup form says the mystery product will be publicly launched “later this year”, so I won’t have to wait long to be proved entirely wrong.
(via Ars Technica)
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The backbone of most of the circulating stories is the piecing together of core Google applications – Google Earth, Google Maps and Sketch-up – three apps based around the presentation of referenced spacial data plus the ability to create 3D modeling. So, on this basis it would seem like a logical step.
What has tipped the balance on this theory is minor news flow relating to a trial involving Arizona State University. News flow or a very subtle leak? We shall see.
But, there’s a fundamental piece of this jigsaw that needs to be explained – the role of user generated content.
There’s no doubting the power of Google’s spacial tools but these all relate to mapping/referencing/presenting real world places. In a way, this is not a virtual world platform but instead a synthetic environment – places recreated rather than created.
What makes metaverses so appealing, particularly to older early adopter demographics is the ability for people to create bespoke objects – objects that then become houses, vehicles and even entire regions. How does this fit in with a potential Google virtual world game plan?
One school of thought presents the idea that Google will make the world as we know it today (well, the most heavily populated parts for starters) accessible by avatars in a virtual world environment. This concept would mean you could place yourself in a digital city, built in 3D and have the collaborative aspects common to virtual worlds.
This approach then provides a nice tie-in to the revenue monster driving Google – PPC (Adwords). As you move around the city in question, real world companies using Adwords could carry advertising outside the office (recreated based on the location and design of the original). Those that did not use real world PPC would not carry the advertising.
How consumers would react to this type of media placement remains to be seen. I doubt it would have a major impact in the short term.
One major element holding back the creation of 3D recreation of cities and towns is the recreation itself. Again, Second Life for example thrives on the resident being able to create. The result? A chaotic urban landscape, as different in design as it is in function.
The development timescales for a major city recreation would be long. And who would actually do the build? Google themselves? Perhaps, but you’re still gonna need a pile of developers. What about the developer community doing the build themselves – An open source approach. This approach is more feasible but the results from a design perspective would not be consistent.
Another school of thought relates back to the media headlines referring to a ‘Second Life Rival’. If Google was developing a virtual world on the same basis as Second Life, then this option would not be using Google Earth or Google Maps as a driver. Why? Because these applications both present real world data. There’s no way to ‘add-in’ an invented city, town or place.
So, straightaway, taking this approach may well appeal to younger demographics (a great thing for brand targeting these groups) but probably not older consumers – they like to create.
And again we have to come back to the actual development of the world. Virtual worlds are not created overnight – they take many months of hard work by many thousands of active residents. This approach also presents the issue of consistency in terms of overall design.
This option however does dovetail into what Google fundamentally does – present information (in this context ‘places’) created by ‘everyone else’.
So, two different options.
Are either of these options rivals to Second Life? No. Because it’s not a like for like comparison. These are different applications. Second Life is user generated content in its purest form – not saying that’s the be all and end all, it’s just what it is. The latter of the two options is the closest thing to Second Life but highly unlikely.
What is the game plan then?
What research from Second Life has shown is the popularity (more for newer residents than older ones) of real places recreated in a virtual space. People resonate towards points of familiarity. So, the most likely strategy being developed is the managed roll-out of a synthetic world, starting with major cities based entirely on the real world – a more manageable and controllable option.
And finally, taking this option to its logical next step, we have to think about the Google revenue streams and market offerings.
Take targeted ads for example – the driver behind PPC. This approach could be nicely augmented into a synthetic world. For example, if you’re visiting a virtual car dealership then you’re presented with in-world advertising for car finance and insurance. Visit an in-world concert and get the option to visit the website of the artist or record company. Etc etc.
The Google Account itself? Well obviously this is a gate key for entrance. Encouraging the take-up of a Google Account is at a centre of most activity.
World domination by Google? It’s talked about a lot so why not the virtual world as well? Undoubtedly in a world increasing gravitating towards the management and presentation of information Google have to be in this space. But is it a Second Life killer? No, just as we’re seeing ‘Vertical worlds’ coming down the pipe, we’re also going to see ‘Synthetic worlds’ – different environments for different people with different uses.