TCS Daily

The Next Big Thing

By Patrick Cox - October 23, 2006 12:00 AM

The Internet continues to evolve, integrating video and podcasts as well as the inexorable increases in broadband access and processor speed. Browser enhancements proceed and the Web is now the largest recipient of advertising dollars. Blogs have achieved a critical mass and online magazines are more central to the intellectual debate than printed materials as more people get their news online than from any other source.

These changes, however, are only marginal in nature. The Internet, at least as experienced by most users, feels as if it has at last plateaued. One cannot help but get the impression that changes from this point forward will resemble consecutive versions of the Windows OS -- more a honing than transformation.

This is an illusion.

Forces are coalescing that will produce a shift comparable at least to the spread of broadband. This change will have enormous financial, cultural and political repercussions, and the most interesting aspect of the coming transformation is that it will not be some new and unexpected thing.

Rather, the Web for many will become the cliched 3D virtual reality that has been so overused as a literary and cinematic device that most of us have forgotten how compelling that vision was when it first appeared. Before describing this evolutionary leap, however, we should spend a little time thinking about the key event that led to the last one: the Internet you are using now to read these words.

Specifically, I refer to the misunderstood role played by Netscape Communications.

In the mid 1990s, the Mountain View-based Netscape Communications released Netscape Navigator, inspired by the Mosaic browser that founder Marc Andreessen co-authored for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. It was neither the first nor the only software capable of accessing online content, but it was the first user-friendly browser or "client" unbound by the limitations of content providers and ISPs.

Those who were not paying attention in the early days of the modern Internet may not find this point immediately useful. So, let me expand on it.

The online world prior to Netscape Navigator consisted of two groups. On one hand was the Internet of relatively sophisticated users exploiting the open system created by the Department of Defense ARPAnet. On the other hand were the balkanized ghettos such as AOL and Compuserve where content was mostly controlled and supplied by the service providers.

I actually don't know much about those closed services, as an email address from within those walled providers provoked utter disdain among many of those who were capable of navigating the original Internet -- largely for e-mail and newsgroups. Those early netizens had at least a basic familiarity with Unix and some hardware issues. To view a photograph or play a music file, one had to download a program and install it manually. There were no plugins or extensions; No built-in media viewers.

To a remarkable extent, this more knowledgable community of users happened to be in Silicon Valley. The Internet then was almost a local phenomenon, if you lived in Northern California. Though nodes spanned universities and research groups around the world, the majority of casual Internet users actually lived and worked on and around "The Peninsula," the spit of land running from San Jose to San Francisco.

The reason was simple. As the home of the computer hardware revolution and industry, it was the center of the tech world. I lived around the corner from the minimally guarded SRI complex in Menlo Park where existed the master DNS server, the very heart of the entire Internet.

I remember, therefore, as an event of revolutionary impact the announcement by Netscape that its graphically enabled point-and-click browser was available for download. And I do mean revolutionary -- in the political as well as technological senses.

Netscape's real impact came from merging ARPAnet's openness with a relatively easy-to-use interface. For the first time, especially when Netscape added the ability to easily put content on the Web, anybody could publish and anybody could access. The metaphorical walls fell and the Web was truly born. For the first time, the Internet was one place, accessible to anybody, and the astonishing transformation began.

Many people were already thinking seriously about an electronic three-dimensional real-time world, open to everybody. This included people like Doug Engelbart, author of "The Virtual Community", and Xerox PARC's Howard Rheingold, author of "Virtual Reality".

On the culture side, William Gibson's novel "Neuromancer", in which he coined the word "cyberspace", was published in 1984. Two years before Netscape launched, one of the best elucidators of the VR concept, Neal Stephenson, published "Snow Crash", in which he popularized the term "Metaverse" to describe a shared computer-generated world of commerce, entertainment and media. In the same year, the movie "Lawnmower Man", initially titled "Cyber God", was released.

There was also a political aspect to this community, though it did not fit well into the traditional left-right model. Numerous journalists have noted, in fact, how ideologically libertarian the Internet was in its youth. Even as libertarians, however, these early activists did not fit the model. having had less to with the Libertarian Party than they did with the formative more "geeky" days of Reason Magazine when the publication focused more on science fiction and futurist issues like longevity research.

The milieu was a seditious, infectious expectation that an unrestrained Internet would liberate information from the control of the philosophically monolithic media. Others daydreamed of landless tax-free sovereignties where citizens chose their allegiances based on personal preferences. Serious thought was going into issues like encryption and private money along the Austrian economists' model. Behind it all, of course, was the long game -- the Metaverse.

There seems, ironically, far less discussion of VR today than there was then and the very term has a distinctly cheesy ring to it now. VW for virtual worlds, in fact, seems to have replaced VR among serious researchers, as has been pointed out by one them: Edward Castronova. Similarly, the libertarian dominance of the net world no longer exists, though its imprint persists as a bias in favor of an unregulated Internet among activists such as EFF and net celebrities such as Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds.

As an example of that initial Silicon Valley culture, I remember a party in a private home somewhere in the Valley held about the time Netscape launched. It was attended mostly by people who were working on immersive VW systems, and had been well before Snowcrash or Lawnmower Man. Timothy Leary was there as well as a Japanese television crew, interviewing developers for a market already obsessed with its own cyberpunk anime like the 1987 classic Baburugamu kuraishisu, or Bubblegum Crisis.

As far as I know, none of those VW projects survives today, but not because the technology did not exist to allow their success. While processor speed and bandwidth were not ready for a fully-blown real-time metaverse, the more important limiting factor was the market. People, even the early adoptors who downloaded Navigator betas, were simply not ready for such a radical transition. It is largely forgotten, or was never known by most people, that some of Netscape's earliest browsers contained incredibly advanced and visionary groupware and 3D browsing features that have not yet appeared in Microsoft's IE or even Firefox.

During the first few years of Netscape's meteoric rise, it was understood that the company's open Internet strategy, as opposed to the efforts by AOL, Compuserve and Microsoft to build huge subscription-based "walled gardens", would eventually force a response from those giants. "Has he noticed yet?" was a question I heard frequently around the Netscape offices.

The giants did notice when Netscape acquired a small startup led by Bill Turpin, from whence came the technology that became Composer -- the first WYSIWYG HTML editor that was henceforth included with the browser. Suddenly, anyone could build online content.

Turpin's startup, however, was not content to give users the ability to put up simple Web pages. In 1994, Turpin and crew realized that the static pages were scarcely touching on the Web's true power, and set to work creating a scripting language that could be used to dynamically assemble complex Web pages, on the fly, based on information from both the client and the server. This scripting language went on to be called JavaScript, which finally succeeded in waking the sleeping giant Microsoft, and led to the creation of JSP, ASP, AJAX, and ultimately Web 2.0 (to say nothing of Web 1.0).

In addition to competition from formidable competitors like Microsoft, Netscape had its own bureaucratic problems; probably not surprising considering how quickly it had grown. In the end, I suspect, it may not have been possible to compete head-to-head with Microsoft, but there might have been an avenue of escape if Netscape had taken advantage of its status as the number one site on the Web to do something besides market its servers. The ultimate error, in my opinion, was the choice to forego developing its own search engine.

Regardless, to recap, Netscape accomplished one critical thing, setting the stage for the modern Web. It tied together the entire Internet and gave everybody, free of charge, the ability to produce and access dynamic content. Instead of having to be another huge organization like AOL, you could be a scrappy startup born in a garage (eBay) or a dorm room (Google).

Having made that point, we can return to the original vision of a 3D virtual space. That it did not appear full-blown at the time should not lead one to think it will not eventually. In his book Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova makes the point that practical VR is already among us, in the form of the virtual worlds of video games. We will return to this point. Much work has been done regarding business/technology cycles but it will suffice to paraphrase Ray Kurzweil who has said that the impact of new technologies are almost always overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run.

When the promise of practical VR is fulfilled, its impact will exceed most expectations, simply because three dimensions, even virtual dimensions, are so much better than the two we experience on our monitors today. It is the difference between having a series of walls to work on versus real space. Programs, web pages, desktops, all have in common now that we hang stuff on two-dimensional screens. You may be able to go to another screen through something you've hung, but its really just 2D.

Imagine how much more useful your computer experience would be if you were able to design a virtual office as large or complex as you needed, and reach anything in it without leaving your chair. Voice over IP will be integrated, naturally. Your avatar will be your real image, photographed live and enhanced if you don't want to deal with hair or clothing, and you will be able to meet friends and business associates in VW, your places or theirs, as easily as making a phone call. Blogs and punditry will involve virtual talk show and other environments and, with some planning and enough cameras, audiences will be able to visit any place on the globe, from a Baghdad battlefield to a Broadway stage.

You do not need, by the way, to be totally immersed in a 3D environment to use it effectively, as anybody can tell you who is used to playing video games. Though it was assumed at one time that VWs had to be completely immersive (goggles, gloves, et cetera) to be effective, users have proven the experts wrong in this regard and are happy to navigate a three-dimensional world using the monitor as a two-dimensional window. This experience is comparable, by the way, to the way someone with one eye sees the world. The real world, RW in some circles, is still 3D after all even if viewed without binocular depth perception. We are, however, beginning to see relatively inexpensive eyeglass frame monitors that will put users immersively inside computer games or other virtual environments.

Games, in fact, are the thriving frontier of VWs. For those who have never played 3D video games, it is difficult to explain how compelling the experience truly is. This is particularly true when the virtual world is inhabited by other real people.

My 8-year-old daughter, once a devoted PS2 platformer, now spends most of her gaming time online with friends in ToonTown, Disney's Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG or MMO,) This is despite the fact that ToonTown's game play and graphics are clearly inferior compared to, say, current generation Ratchet and Clank. The social element to MMOs is what brings her and many of her friends together online daily, and frequently with cell-phones held between ear and shoulder. Other games already have built-in group telephony.

In case you are not familiar with MMOs or VWs, each user has an "avatar" or online representation. My daughter has, in fact, half a dozen that she varies as her mood dictates. Much of what she does in the game is not, in the strict sense, gameplay at all but simple social interaction and communication. She meets her friends at some pre-arranged location and they "chat." This is paralleled by the rapidly growing online phenomena among young people of online VW chat, such as IMVU. Yahoo has already introduced some rudimentary capabilities to their e-mail services, though they all appear to be about 16 years old. (I refuse to use an avatar that does not have greying hair and a bald spot.)

My 13-year-old son plays World of Warcraft, or WoW, with his friends. WoW is a particularly important development in VWs and MMOs as it gained five million subscribers in only a year's time. The initial $50 fee for the software needed on a player's own computer would have represented significant revenues by themselves but there is a $15 monthly subscription fee as well. With over 6 million players, WoW's developer, Blizzard, earns around $1 billion in subscription fees annually.

WoW has already become much more than a fantasy VR role-playing game. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are using the realm for a multiplicity of non-game purposes, including political rallies and virtual church services. There are dozens of other successful MMOs, and hundreds are trying to attain that status. America, however, is not the world center for MMOs, that being Korea where online gaming has its own television channels with ESPN type coverage for top games and gamers, as well as its own courts dedicated to online crime. Millions of "gold farmers," mostly third world techies with a low cost of living and a high degree of game savvy, are making their livings by manual labor, "grinding" to earn assets that are sold online to wealthier and less patient Westerners.

The legal and economic issues inherent in MMOs are, by the way, fascinating, and an impressive array of academics and thinkers are now working in those areas. The most notable include the previously mentioned Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds and Richard Bartle, author of Designing Virtual Worlds.

The Korean obsession with MMOs has also given us a glimpse of the way that the economics of VWs may develop. Of real importance, in my opinion, is the development of games that are free for users to begin playing but are profitable because of the online sale of in-game items -- real estate, swords, armor, or even nonessential items such as garb and heraldry.

Hollywood, in particular, is taking note of this important new art form. Many entertainment analysts are convinced that the nearly one-to-one correlation between the dropoff in young male movie attendance and the gains in MMO participation is not coincidental, and the industry is beginning to enter the arena with MMOs based on movie titles. Other major studies are looking at MMO investment opportunities.

I could go on forever about this subject. Books, in fact, have already been written, though virtual worlds are at a stage of development analogous to the pre-Netscape Internet. Like AOL and CompuServe a decade ago, virtual worlds exist as a relatively small number of isolated, walled-off realms, each requiring the user to download separate software. Just as the Internet did not become the social force it is today until Netscape tore down the walls separating Internet fiefdoms, virtual world technology is currently limited.

There is, however, something going on that has the potential to change that, and quickly. Not coincidentally, a team of core developers from Netscape's early days is now developing the equivalent of a virtual world browser for MMOs. Called Multiverse, the company includes the same portentous entrepreneur noted above: Bill Turpin. His team includes Netscape veterans known throughout Silicon Valley, if not the world at large: Rafhael Cedeno and Robin McCollum, who built critical Netscape server technology still in use today, and co-creators of RSS; Jeff Weinstein, who coded the world-changing SSL; and Corey Bridges, Navigator product manager who then went on to launch companies like Netflix and Zone Labs. On the entertainment side, ex-physics major and film director/producer James Cameron, of Terminator and Titanic fame, has thrown his lot in with Multiverse, joining its board of advisors.

Their plan is to provide virtual world creators the client, server, and development tools to create an MMO world. The entire technology platform is free for non-commercial use, so academics are paying nothing to create economic, architectural, sociological and other simulations. For-profit enterprises would pay royalties, but only when their games or other applications collect money from consumers, not before.

This is significant because, until now, creating a complex virtual world required tens of millions of dollars in initial development costs alone. The Multiverse technology, currently in beta-testing, claims to lower the cost of virtual world production to a fraction of its current stratospheric level. For many purposes, such as personal online spaces, there would be no cost at all.

Most importantly, however, all these Multiverse-based worlds, and many are already in development, would be compatible. With the Multiverse client software, users will be able to access any virtual world built using the company's technology. Virtual worlds will become, in effect, ubiquitous. The Metaverse.

I am, I admit, a partisan in this matter as I worked as a consultant for Netscape, initially writing encryption docs for the company's ground-breaking public/private-key products. Later, I did public and media relations work with CEO Jim Barksdale. Since then, I've followed closely what the key players in the company are thinking and doing, based on my suspicions that at least some of those original thinkers would be at the heart of the next stage in the revolution. I've watched a number of Netscape spinoffs go on but the Multiverse crew of ex-Netscapers seems, to me, to be the first poised to replicate the impact of the original Navigator.

My point, however, is not to give investment advice, as you couldn't buy stock in Multiverse if you wanted to. At this point, the company, which is housed in Mountain View offices next to the Mozilla group, publishers of Firefox, is only at the angel-capital stage of funding.

Rather, my point is to encourage those who are currently immersed in the policy debate to understand that the merging of easily created and compatible virtual worlds will present opportunities and pitfalls, both political and economic, similar to those created by Netscape's original vision of a unified HTML Internet. Moreover, this transformation will almost certainly happen faster than most of us want it to. Beta testers have already succeeded in doing things with Multiverse software that have surprised even the developers, such as easily transforming topographical data from national forests into VW form.

On the other hand, I was markedly unsuccessful in my efforts to convince several policy-oriented groups I had worked with in the mid-90s to take advantage of the tools that were being created by Netscape. Actually, I was treated pretty much like a trekkie in Starfleet costume who had wandered into a Manhattan cocktail party.

We are, nevertheless, on the cusp of the Next Big Thing and those who are ready for the transition to 3D virtual worlds will be far ahead of the game. Those who are actually acquainted with VW will be in a position to help determine the direction of the many critical policy debates that will be engendered as the online VW experience becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the RW.

So don't say I didn't warn you.

Patrick Cox is an economist and editorial columnist in Central Florida where he lives on an island in a remnant of original everglades.



Glaring technical mistake
JavaScript did not lead to ASP and JSP. These are server-side technologies that execute using traditional programming languages like Java (JSP) and VB, C# and C++.NET. JavaScript shares basically no common ground with the Java programming language whose J2EE specs later incorporated the web components that would become Servlets and JSPs.

Just saying...

Bravo , Nick
This is the first thing I've seen on your watch that , edited , might make the grade at Wired or The Atlantic.

The whole history lesson portion is full of holes and missteps.
AJAX is a pretty name for years old technology which is JavaScript.
Please define 'Web 2.0'. It's really meaningless market speak for AJAX, which as mentioned before is years old.
It basically looks like you picked some random acronyms and dropped them into the story.

On the content I'm less than convinced that these 3D worlds will 'revolutionize' the way we consume content. They may be great for certain social interactions and specific research interests, but they tend to be less efficient than our boring old, but very functional, 2D interfaces.

maybe... maybe not
I think efficiency is not the only thing to consider for a 3d social environment. MMORPG games are 3D and they work very well. By they are not immersive as, say, being in a mall with your friends. But for instance, Minority report portrays a very good use for 3d desktops. And it works for that particular task of organizing information.
Heck, the Jedi council has meetings in 3D, and they seem to work just fine.

I dont think the point of this, again, is to question if it will work or not. For me the point of it is: will the technology allow this? If so, when? will people use it/like it? great products and ideas die if nobody cares for them.

Re: Glaring technical mistake
Good point. To be more clear, Bill Turpin and crew invented what used to be known as server-side _JavaScript. They were significant in helping refine client-side _JavaScript as well, but at the time, Netscape differentiated between client-side _JavaScript and server-side. That distinction has since disappeared, as client-side _JavaScript is what's more known today, whereas server-side scripting has taken the forms that you mention.

Yeah, I remember playing with VRML back around 1995-96. It was pretty cool to break the flat space of a typical web page with the VRML plug-in for Netscape 2.0. But it definitely was a tech before it's time.

Of far more interest at that time, as the author suggests, was connecting websites with databases on the server side. We used Perl scripts on the server called via CGI. A bunch of client-server scripting languages came and went during that period, all with exe's you'd call via CGI. We used several until Microsft released VB Script, built the interpreter into IIS (instead of using CGI), and let us connect with ODBC. (Microsoft had some horrible scripting product just before that, so I don't even recall the name of it.) So, it really was Perl via CGI that led to VB script, and I'd say it was VB script (as ASP) that led to JSP, ASPX, PHP, etc.

Netscape tried to compete with Microsft with Suitespot by partnering with Informix and others, but they just did not have the ability to control the integration and Microsft won that battle when IIS with ASP hit the streets.

I'd agree with the author that creating a single standard that can integrate VR worlds has potential to do exactly for VR what he says Netscape did in creating the Web in the first place. And it may indeed sneak up on us faster than we think.

However, the real transformational battle facing us for the moment is what Microsoft and Apple are fighting over:the convergence of computing and media in a seemless, transparent, immersive experience. You'll get it in your living room, den or office, then in your house, then integrated with your navigation unit in your car, and eventually wherever you go.

Check out the disucssion of "localizer" tech in Verner Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky"...

Minority Report
Actually the main computer used in Minority Report was 2D, but it allowed multiple points of contact for input on the screens (several 2D screens). This let him re-size, drag, push aside, etc, windows very naturally. He was also able to 'grab' or drag n' drop from one screen to the next.

Touch screens that are able to handle more than one point of contact are just coming out and should bring some real advancements in interface design.

Most current 3D desktops (and there are several available) are only 3D in that they allow you to move a window 'back' as in make it smaller, or to 'turn' it as in make it smaller in a different way. It's all about maximizing the screen real estate without completely losing things.

World of Warcraft
A point: Blizzard earns nowhere close to 1 billion from World of Warcraft. The only way to make that math work is to take 6 million and multiple by $15, which is not how things work, at all.

First, in the Asian territories, which account for a large chunk of WoW's users, Blizzard licenses WoW to third parties who run it for them. Blizzard may get 20-30% of the revenue from those users, and in China, for instance, users are paying $1-$2/month rather than $15/month.

Very well written article, but I disagree.
The Virtual Reality/World metaphor fits well for a game, or similar form of entertainment: for example, running around a fantasy world in-game should be as close as possible to how I would imagine it to be in the real world. However if does not fit for browsing the internet, which boils down to simply reading things. For this, the dekstop metaphor of two-dimensional documents fits much better.

When I read an article such as this one or any other, I don't want to have had to actually navigate a virtual avatar through a world to find it, I just want to read it, plain and simple. I want to see the words in the easiest form possible.

The same applies for other uses of the web, such as discussion or social networking. If I discuss something with someone, being able to see their virtual self detracts from the central part of the discussion: an exchange of words (and possibly images, sounds etc.)

I just don't think you can apply the virtual world idea to the current concept of the web, and to change it to fit would loose its current convenience and mass appeal.

Way off base
I have spent the last 5 years researching information visualization, recently gettinging into immersive (glasses, multi-wall, etc) visualization, and I can say without hesitation that your primary arguement holds no water whatsoever for most tasks relevant to computer users.

"three dimensions, even virtual dimensions, are so much better than the two we experience on our monitors today"

The problem is that you make no case for *why* this is.
I don't want to get too far into the weeds here, but a fundamental concept of design is to strip abstract away irrelevant material (noise) to leave that which is important (signal) for the user. You are suggesting adding moving from a paradigm of 1 dimension (text is 1 dimensional, not two) and moving to four dimensions (time is as relevant as place when you start dealing with avatars, VWs, etc)

The human perceptual system doesn't really work that way. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors left us with a hybrid 1D/2D ability, with limited capacity to perceive or reason in higher dimensionality. If we look at information absorbtion, we can do very well with 2d in the form of pictures, maps, etc, but if the story being told doesn't lend itself to that medium, then we are 1-dimensional learners. Reading and speaking are our primary communication mediums for complex ideas and they are completely linear. (time)

It boils down to complexity. A virtual world adds unneeded complexity to simple phenomenon. (social networking, productivity applications, etc) Value is derived from making information MORE accessible, not less accessible in a prettier way.

well said
that makes my comment shorter. indeed the crux of the question is how to better exchange information and carry out various tasks. just saying that 3d is better than 2d because 3 is better than 2 is pretty naive. some things are better in 3d, and some are not and will never be. the fact that books are still around is a pretty good example of that...

Right On Target
I think that Patrick is right on target. It is not a question of "making information MORE accessible, not less accessible in a prettier way" as briancnorton puts it. If this was the case then plain text books would be more educational then video and interactive content. Entertainment adds immense value to information, and has proven to be an invaluable tool in communication. The addition of video and audio to the web has enriched the experience rather then detracted from its information delivery abilities.
The argument that humans are 1D learners might be true upon initial observation, but seems contradictory to the experiences that people seek out. We would have all been happy with linear game formats like Super Mario Brothers with better graphics, but the most popular formats of today are open ended worlds that don’t require linear game play.
I don’t think that anyone is arguing that text and some remnants of the current web structure are going to go away, just like radio has its place in a TV world. And I agree that navigating a complex 3D environment to find basic information will be a design issue that each content creator will have to address, but it won’t be any more of an obstacle then a poorly designed web page is now.
I think that Patrick is right on target, the merging of the existing web structure with an immersive 3D environment seems inevitable at this point. Just look at Second Life; breaking 1 million users, doing ½ a million in US dollars a day in user to user business, and every big name media and internet company (SUN, REUTERS, WIRED, AMAZON) investing big money.

re: VRML
I thought the VRML component was in version 3 and was a browser built-in - but I might be mistaken. I was at Netscape during those years and the time compression blurred a lot of historical detail.

In any event, the module languished and was eventually orphaned mostly because the computers of the day weren't very fast at generating 3-d; which required some pretty impressive floating point performance. On my cutting edge desktop at the time, it took an unacceptable amount of time to generate a view of a simple scene from a slightly different angle. As others have mentioned here, it was also overtaken by more compelling and immediately useful content innovations.

Croquet - one example

Perhaps your friends at Mountain View would like to know about Croquet, a open source, peer-to-peer 3D environment where participants create the worlds themselves within the worlds, and -all- participants can edit -all- the code while it's running and see the changes immediatly, without any edit-compile-link-debug loop. There's a built in programming IDE with every client installation. Same software installed is both client & server app.

You could have quoted from Janet Murray's "Hamlet on the Holodeck - The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace" to explain the "why" of interactive 3D.

Murray says that interactive 3D teaches by explaining the “process” of the dynamics of an environment that changes over time. It’s hard to explain in just words, pictures, or movies how the intricacies of the interdependent actions and reactions work in complicated systems described by “systems theory”. These systems can be found in social interdependent dynamics as well as the ecologies of the physical world and also in the interdependent dynamics of past discoveries and the changes in the world of knowledge within every discipline. It’s hard to rewind a movie and run it a gain with a few different choices made in the begining to see how it comes out different.

Today, “processes” change so fast and new process constantly created by large social groups, that text and 2D just can’t keep a person informed fast enough. That’s the motive behind the BIM (Building Intelligence Modeling) process. Blueprints just aren’t fast enough anymore to keep all parties informed of all the latest changes by all parties in the time it takes to build a skyscraper or any other large building project.

3D’s best use will be by simulations to, first, document processes, then become “practice-ware” to gain skills in the environments (Google for "Virtual Leader"), and finally as “predictive-ware” when predictive mathematical models take on visual form, substance, and a life of their own that can more meaningfully interact with our own lives. Controlling and defining “processes” in complex, ever shifting, win-lose, interdependent environments and their related economies while absorbing and evaluating massive amounts of feedback, is what many of today’s youth are learning in MMORPGs.

it's more basic than that
"navigating a complex 3D environment to find basic information will be a design issue"It's not a design issue, it's an efficiency issue. A basic principle of effective communication is to use the least complicated medium needed. Text and audio are 1D mediums and work great for 1D stories. Pictures maps and graphs are 2D mediums and work great for 2D stories. 3D worlds are 3d/4d Mediums, and thus require a 3D/4D story to be effective information conveyance tools. The problem is that there aren't a lot of relevant 3D/4D stories to tell because people don't typically think in volumetric 3D. 3D is certainly relevant to entertainment, but that's not what the article author was espousingThat said, I haven't played second life. I have a basic understanding of what it's about, but I don't have enough time to keep my first life in order. :-) I have a very hard time believing that second life will become the dominant paradigm for information access.

Second Life

This was a fantastic article. Thanks.

However, I have to say that I am somewhat baffled that you could write an entire article on "The Next Big Thing" in VW and not even mention Second Life. I was glad to read Navillus' comments, which I thought were right on.

I've been following SL for a few months now (from a distance). Linden Labs is well aware of the history of the internet. If Multiverse is like Netscape, I compare Second Life to Mosaic. Will LL make the same mistakes Mosaic and NCSA/UIUC did? I find that highly unlikely.

LL is on the verge of making SL open source and partnering with Sun Microsystems to out source their data centers. When that happens, THEN we can start talking about transformations.

Leaving Second Life out was a glaring omission to an otherwise fantastic article.


Interesting Debate, but to settle it...
Thanks for the thought provoking article.

It occured to me that hosting community-of-interest conferences is a RW business that might test viability of information distribution within the VW.

I have attended countless software, telecom, and VoIP conferences. In most cases, I feel attendance has been beneficial, even though every piece of information I have picked up could easily have been found thru web searches, within in the realm of 1 and 2 dimensions. There is something about the third dimension in the RW that compensates for the total cost of attending (time, $, spouse points, etc).

I don't want to try to create a taxonomy of reasons that explain why one would choose to attend these conferences. However, from what I have read of SL, it should be pretty easy to build a convention center within SL, and start a venture to compete with RW conferences (Maybe this is already happening... I don't know). If I'm not mistaken, Brian's comments suggest that information theory is a force against the VR metaphor. Perhaps there is more information transmitted within a VR than the text.

If VR can capture a piece of the conference market, then that would be powerful evidence that there is something in the realm of information distribution that VR delivers better than the current 1 & 2 dimensional web experience.

Regarding corproate involvement in SL, I believe it is driven by easy access to a profitable demographic market. When Wired -relocates- out of the brick-and-mortar realm and into the objects-and-networks realm, then the VR paradigm will have arrived. For now, I think of it as a twist on product-placement marketing.


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