Location, location, location
Spatial location, or the perception of it, is an important factor in cognition. The brain associates memories and information with numerous factors, including scents and emotional states, but the perception of location within an environment is another important factor in reinforcing and recalling memory, and in the sorting of short term mental states for active cognition.
While text-based virtual environments arguably trump the current generation of 2D and 3D graphical virtual environments for immersion (by which, I mean, the ability to engender focus and to promote immediacy), the graphical model has advantages in accessibility by way of simple acceptability. People are simply more inclined to use them, and the tradeoffs of reduced immersive power are offset by the appearance of broader utility.
Either way, the sense of location is a key to sorting memory, retention of knowledge, and the arrangement of ongoing cognition. The sense of being in a space helps us order our thoughts.
Non-game virtual environments (that is, those not actually designed with core gaming functionality in mind) fall into several core categories: Research, utility, communication, publishing, economic, and (paradoxically) gaming. The majority of non-game uses of VEs fall into one or more of these categories, and while they overlap some of what can be done on the Web, it seems clear that one is not going to be replacing the other for the foreseeable future.
Research is certainly not a new category for VEs, and has at times included research and development, data-modeling, simulation, event-recreation and architecture.
Communication extends beyond just social chatting between platform users, extending into business meetings, education and training. While these are also important uses, social conversation and serendipitous interaction are psychologically important uses, and extend to the creation of groups, social structures and the expression of both the individual and of cultural and sub-cultural affiliations, though this starts to blur into publishing.
Publishing includes a variety of content-creation activities, both individual and collaborative, though not typically content that is already at home on the Web. While some Web connections are inevitable, given the technology to support them, the Web quite naturally does Web-appropriate content far better than any other platform is ever likely to do. Publishing includes art, museums, music, dance, performance, the creation of new intellectual properties or the replication of existing intellectual property from other sources.
Economic use includes currencies, marketing, trade, promotion, gambling, fraud and theft, and the general exchange of value, both between the VE users and the VE operator and between individual VE users among themselves.
Gaming rates as a very strong usage for non-game virtual environments. People are as keen to create and play games within VEs as they are to create games out of workaday activities offline.
Given these categories, most VEs are either 'general purpose' (clearly enabling multiple categories of activity) or 'special purpose' (supporting half or fewer of of these in any vigorous fashion).
A fresh perspective from the convergence of ideas
VEs teach us a lot about our online and offline world and societies. One of those things they teach us is that we actually know very little about those things, as a rule.
Whether it be the nature of property taxes, or the rules of copyright, VEs can make us feel stupid about technology, economics, law, politics, property and all the complex myriad principles which VEs simulate, mimic, enable or replace. Ultimately, they draw us to think more about many of the things that affect us all every day than the narrow slices of those topics that we've habitually become accustomed to.
A general-purpose VE is more than just servers and lines of code; it's a gallimaufry of business interests, legal complications, intellectual property, taxation and government regulation, human rights, economic interactions seasoned with every kind of human interaction that doesn't require physical contact.
Highlighting our lack of understanding in key areas that we've always taken more or less for-granted isn't a broadly popular thing, but some would argue that it is a necessary one.
An evolving medium
VEs have a longer history than the Web, predating it by some years, but the maturity of a technology is not so much tied to a simple chronological age than it is to the number of user and developer hours spent with the technology; so while VEs are older than the Web itself, they still represent a relatively immature technology.
A large part of that is that we ourselves have not figured out how to apply them optimally at this stage. Users don't yet have anywhere near the grasp of VEs that they do of the Web (and perhaps less grasp of the Web than many of us give them credit for). That breeds immature forms of usage, coupled with immature development efforts from operators and developers who do not fully understand their user-communities and the directions in which uses are changing.
The way to foster the maturation of VEs and their use is simply to use them; to pour in user and developer hours, to push the envelope in the directions of actual use. Individual platforms that can't or won't mature as a part of that process will be replaced by ones that will.
Virtual environments are not going away, indeed the trend towards using them is growing as the technology matures. There's no sign that is going to stop anytime soon. Notions that VEs might somehow supplant the Web, though, seem laughably remote.
While the two might complement each-other in many ways that are still being figured out, each one lends itself to the other's job quite poorly. To force one to attempt to supplant the other is to ask users to step down to second-rate systems, regardless of which way around you're pointing the stick.
Some have said that 2010 is the year of the virtual environment, but I'd disagree on that. It was 2009, and we won't really be seeing the fruits of that for maybe five or ten more years, with mass-market adoption for most virtual environments closer to 10-20 years out.