VWFE: What's the future for virtual worlds?

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Phew. We’re at the final session of the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe conference, and my head is spinning from all the ideas buzzing around from the last two days. The final panel should provide a few more, since it’s focused on The Future. Where is all this going, and what will it mean for us punters?

We’re just getting the first William Gibson quote of the session. Who had 5.6 seconds in the sweepstake? Marvellous. First up, the panellists are going to introduce themselves. Professor Richard Bartle from the University of Essex says he co-wrote the first virtual world in 1978. “That’s all I need to say really.”

Robert Lai is next, he’s the chief scientist at the Cyber Recreation District in Beijing, which is an ambitious Chinese take on the virtual worlds phenomenon. His first point is that the virtual and real worlds will come together.

Second: “There will be some form of government in the virtual worlds of the future.” Third, brand names will have new structures. Fourth: there’ll be conversion indexes (I didn’t quite catch this bit, sorry – he mentioned a pound of meat though, if that helps).

Okay, now he’s showing images of the Cyber Recreation District, which is an area of Beijing with the infrastructure to support virtual worlds. It’s got government support, and foreign companies are welcome to work with the CRD. He’s now showing slides, very fast, and I’m not quite following what they mean. The world will include shopping, games, banking.

“This is an absolutely massive state investment in a real world shopping mall and business centre, and the same thing being created virtually,” explains moderator Mike Parsons. A-ha.

Now, Jason Stoddard, who works at a company called Centric, and is also a published sci-fi author. “I’m a social spaces and virtual places agency by day,” he says (that’ll be Centric), and they have offices in Shanghai, LA and Tokyo, and work with big media and consumer brands.

Right, down to the nitty gritty – Mike says we’re going to look at virtual worlds in two years time, five years time and ten years time. Richard Bartle first. In two years time it’ll be like what it is now, except there’ll be “a lot more people losing money”.

He reckons a lot of games firms are trying to be the next World of Warcraft, and many won’t succeed. He also sees a lot of virtual worlds for academic use – “people aren’t using it to teach, they’re using it to acquire academic grants. They say they’ll use it to teach, but they won’t.” He’s an entertaining speaker.

He says you have to see virtual worlds as places – Second Life is just like London. “If you wanted to advertise in London, you wouldn’t set up a shop and expect people to come there. You advertise within the space.”

How about in ten years time? “We’ve got the good, the bad and the ugly. The good, virtual worlds are recognised for the marvellous ways they can free up human beings from the mundane constraints of reality. They give people the reality to become themselves. You get the freedom, always always about freedom.”

This is good stuff. “The bad. Someone’s patented the concept of moving between worlds, and you’ll have to pay them. Lots of things have happened legally to tie you down. It only takes one stupid judge in one stupid state in America to make one stupid decision, and everything’s wiped out.”

So well-meaning legislation that’s badly framed could mess everything up. Richard thinks, for example, taxing online games won’t work, but it might in virtual worlds like Second Life. “The bad is where it all goes wrong because the real world doesn’t understand virtual worlds in time, and accidentally crushes them.”

Now the ugly. “People create virtual worlds, but don’t understand the concept, and lose everything that was special about it… If we water it down and dilute it through bringing things in and not understanding what you’re dealing with, you sour the milk. You’ve spoiled it. Unless people really understand what they’re doing, we could get a complete breakdown. All real world cities aren’t Leicester, and all virtual worlds aren’t Second Life.”

That’s an edited extract, but gives you the flavour. Now over to Jason, who disagrees on the advertising side of things. Well, he does agree with the notion that virtual worlds like Second Life and HiPiHi are places. Oh, and he thinks the futuristic thing about current virtual worlds is that effectively, every object has RFID inside it – you can see who made it, its manufacturing history and so on. “It’s like the real world’s going to be 20 or 30 years out.”

So, his disagreement – he thinks we shouldn’t look at real-world advertising formats like billboards, because they’re not relevant. “I don’t think it’s as simple as just advertising in a place.”

A sidenote. The problem, I find, with futurologists, is that they talk very fast, and so when you try to liveblog it, you miss half of what they’re saying, and it makes even less sense. They are making sense in the flesh, I promise. Most of the time, anyway.

Anyway, looking for questions from the audience. Someone wants Richard to expand on his ugly section – why won’t people understand what they’re creating in terms of virtual worlds? “Virtual worlds have a particular property they can give to people – a sense of freedom to be themselves. If we change into a… if business transactions become the dominant thing for virtual worlds, we lose the sense of why people play them in the first place.”

Check out other stories from the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe in our Virtual Reality category.

Stuart Dredge

One thought on “VWFE: What's the future for virtual worlds?

  • Stuart, I think you did a real good job of capturing this session, it wasn’t the easiest. I left when Robert got into the discussion about cotton and making shirts. I think what was an interesting take out for me was Richard’s point that we must not let all virtual worlds become the same, we need to keep out ubiquity and the mundane constraints of real life. That’s why we haven’t built a real Boots store in SL, I see it more of a social space, with retail as almost the incidental. We’re also using our space to raise money for Breast Cancer Care, which is one of the brands long standing social interactions in RL, which can carry over to the virtual world without making the virtual world mundane.

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