Welcome to The Virtual Whirl, a new weekly Massively column covering virtual environments generally. The term 'virtual world' is slowly seeing less use, being supplanted by the more general 'virtual environment', but the world term still has a fair bit of life left in it.
Virtual environments covers a whole lot of ground. From William Crowther's original efforts in 1976 that based a game in a virtual version of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, virtual environments have been a part of gaming, artificial intelligence and behavioral research, modeling, telemetry and process control and more.
Nowadays we're seeing Second Life, Blue Mars, There.com, IMVU and others trying to find places in non-game contexts, like content-development and prototyping, publishing and performance, entertainment and social, education and business; efforts that are met with varying amounts of success.
There's dozens of virtual environments that fall into this category, and dozens more in development. As I said, that gives us a whole lot of ground to cover and explore, which we'll have to do progressively, because the virtual environment industry is already too large to view as a whole and there are too many environments to round up at once. We'll be looking forward to your feedback as we get on with this.
Let's start with a selection of resources to get you going. There are more than 1,300 bloggers going just on Second Life alone, not counting other virtual environments. Let's look at a few that give you more than just that.
Aside from Massively, of course, you'll probably want to check these out if you aren't already reading them:
The Metaverse Journal – News and views about virtual environments generally, combined with an Australian focus.
New World Notes – Primarily Second Life centric human interest pieces, with a slice of opinion and prognostication, and a smattering of other environments.
Dusan Writer's Metaverse – Also rather Second Life-centric, but frequently touching thoughtfully and intelligently on broader VE issues.
Listen to them
As for podcasts, well they have yet to gain a significant amount of traction in the virtual environment scene, but if you're a podcast fan and virtual worlds aficionado, you should definitely not go past Metanomics.
Mitch Wagner's Copper Robot is likewise not to be missed, and also includes a delicious and aromatic blend of other technologies, pop-culture, books, science fiction and politics.
Simon Newstead is the founder of Frenzoo, a virtual environment that started out as a sort of virtual fashion environment blended with facebook style networking. Fashion creation can be appealing to a wide variety of ages. More recently, however, they've added in 3D scenes and spaces more like you'd expect to find in IMVU. Someone who got a start in Second Life and made it really big there has turned those profits into a significant stake in Frenzoo. Frenzoo and Simon are up-and-comers worth watching.
Michael Wilson is the CEO of There.com. Despite some troubling cuts at Forterra, There.com still seems to be going, and might even be growing. We don't see so much news out of There, but maybe there's more than meets the eye. There.com might not be the 800 pound gorilla, but they're still very much alive. Don't count them out of the game quite yet. They've got their own approach and there are lessons to be learned.
Mark Kingdon is the top banana of the 800 pound gorilla; CEO of Second Life developer, Linden Lab. Linden Lab rakes in the big bucks, and can barely hear negative press for the deafening roar of money being made. Even so, not many would envy Second Life's largely undeserved reputation among the media for being a haven of freaks and geeks. Mark takes it all in stride, and has good reason to smile.
News of the Whirl
Identity and privacy are much in the news with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's recent controversial stance that the age of Internet privacy was at an end. Privacy has always been an issue among virtual environment users online, who generally expect no less privacy than offline. Linden Lab's new Conversation Manager touched a nerve when writing on related topics of identity and privacy this week. Rather than allay fears, it seems that he sparked resentment and alarm. Whether that reaction is warranted, remains to be seen.
New World Notes took a poll, in which a third already associate or plan to associate their offline identities with their virtual environment identities, while two-thirds were opposed.
Linden Lab's upcoming viewer release appears to be causing a mix of curiosity, anticipation and dread – the latter most common among those with older hardware, or who have misgivings about application details revealed in a recent accidentally leaked test-report.
Certainly how well the new Second Life 2.0 viewer might perform on hardware that is already struggling with the post-Windlight generation of viewers represents a frequently overheard conversational topic in-world, as well as suggestions that new back-end grid technologies and consequent protocol revisions might cause all present and past viewers to become unusable in the latter half of the year. It's too soon to call, but it's certainly a plausible concern.
Pretty much every virtual environment with an economy is fund-raising for victims of the disaster at Haiti. Virtual environments with their microtransaction-based economies are ripe pickings for fund-raising and charities, with six figure sums being raised annually for cancer research.
As yet, however, user-driven organizations are not yet able to adapt sufficiently quickly to changing circumstances like the sudden need for funds for Haiti. It's likely that long-term reputable umbrella groups will be needed to give users the sort of trust that is needed to know that their donations are really going where they are needed. There just aren't aid organizations at that level that are recognizable to the average user.
My editor assures me that we are out of time today. Join us again this Saturday, and hopefully every Saturday thereafter, for another mad whirl! Next time we even promise to actually try to get it right! ;)