Yes, it does have mass appeal

I’m tired of naysayers complaining that Second Life — and, by extension, OpenSim — has no mass appeal.

That it’s too hard to use.

That regions take too long to load.

That there’s never anybody there.

Or if they’re there, they’re rude and annoying.

That it’s all sex and gambling. Or, these days, sex and vampires.

That it’s for “broken people.” For nerds, loners and losers. For people who don’t have a first life.

That you can’t find anything.

That, when you log in, there’s nothing to do.

That there’s too much stuff to learn.

That there’s no point to it.

That it has no place in business.

That schools waste their time when they experiment with it.

That you can’t make any money there.

That it costs too much.

That it’s too commercial.

That there’s too much free stuff.

That there’s too much piracy.

You know what? None of that means a thing.

It doesn’t.

Because if it did, we wouldn’t have the Web.

Remember the early days?

You needed a dial-up modem. You needed to install the modem. You needed to install special software to access the Internet. You needed to pay exhorbitant, by-the-minute rates.

And you always got a busy signal.

Websites took so long to load… one … word… at … a… time.

It was so bad, you turned off the graphics because it would take forever to load a single picture.

Remember those days?

It was so insecure that if someone tried selling something on a website, they would ask you to call them on the phone to give them your credit card number.

And you couldn’t find anything. It was all junk.

And perverts and weirdos were everywhere.

And people worried about “Internet addiction.”

There were business executives who wouldn’t even check their own email — their secretaries would print them out for them.

Remember when no real companies were on the Internet? It was just crazies and the occasional college professor posting a course schedule.

Some people even thought it was a fad.

Remember this guy? I love that guy. I keep coming back to him. He was saying — in 1995 even! — that the Internet wasn’t going to go anywhere, when a lot of people were already getting excited about it. A year earlier, probably everyone would have agreed with him. Heck, most people probably agreed with him when the article ran.

The fact that it was slow didn’t stop the Internet, and it won’t stop the adoption of virtual worlds.  But, on the positive side, it will get faster — our computers will get faster, and our Internet connections will get faster, and we’ll look back at these days with nostalgia.

The fact that it’s difficult doesn’t matter. The Internet only got easy enough for my mother-in-law to use just now, when we got her a Kindle Fire. (An iPad would probably have also worked.) And the kids have to help her use it. Before, if she needed something only available online, she’d have one of us do it. And the Web is 20 years old. Virtual environments will also get easier to use. It will come. In time.

The fact that it’s expensive doesn’t matter. Prices will drop. It’s inevitable. On the OpenSim side, prices are dropping like a rock. But in the end, if it’s something people want, they will pay for it.

Piracy and security won’t matter. The security will improve and piracy — well, piracy hasn’t slowed down the growth of the Internet any. I’m not condoning piracy. I’m just saying that the fact that there’s free stuff on the Net doesn’t exactly make people stay away. It might make the record companies and movie companies stay away — but their records and movies are still going to end up online. Fortunately, they’re starting to figure it out, with iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and all the rest. Hopefully, it won’t take 3D content providers twenty years to learn the same lessons.

Sex and gambling don’t matter. People certainly don’t stay away from those things! Sure, they’ll complain about it in public. With all that complaining, it’s a wonder why all the seedy places are so crowded. But somehow, they are.

The social stigma doesn’t matter. The stigma will go away once everyone is doing it. And then the guys who were doing it first, back when they were branded loners and losers and “broken people” suddenly become heroes, innovators, role models and trendsetters. Funny how that happens.

So what does matter?

What made the Web grow? Other technologies come and go, but the Internet stuck around.

Here’s what I think.

The Internet made it possible for people to express themselves in a way that they couldn’t do before.  Folks who previously couldn’t get heard could put up a Website and invite the world to come visit. Or they could go troll the forums and discussion groups.

Today, platforms like Second Life and OpenSim allow people to be creative in a brand new way, and to connect to people in a way not possible in any other medium.

I cannot think of any creative medium that has died out. Even the caveman staple of painting on walls, that is still with us today.

Creating immersive environments is a brand-new medium, an exciting and social one, in its own way. Maybe it’s not for everybody, but then, neither is running a Website.

The Internet made it possible for people to connect with other people, in a way not possible previously. A gay kid in Kansas — or China, or Saudia Arabia — could find a supportive community online. Football fans could find others for their fantasy leagues. Desperate yet picky singles could find that one person they could connect with — even if that person was across the country or across the world.

Immersive environments take connecting to a new level, combing the reach of Web-based communication with the immediately of face-to-face contact.

We are social animals. Anything that improves our ability to connect with others is going to be significant — posted letters, the telephone, email. Text messaging. These technologies allow us to stay connected to people even when we’re apart, and to connect to new people who may currently be beyond our physical reach.

People kept finding new things they could use the Internet for. To distribute newsletters. To find suppliers. To catch up with old friends from high school. To distribute videos. To distribute books. To do video calls. To access enterprise applications. To put funny captions on pictures of cats.

People are already finding things they can use virtual environments for. Corporate training and simulations. Machinima. High school drama classes. 3D modeling and data visualization. Sales training. Rapid prototyping of machinery, buildings, retail layouts, and office remodeling. Role playing games and virtual dating. Therapy and counseling. Even weight loss.

As technology improves, we’ll continue to see new uses for virtual environments emerge.

People will start arriving in-world. Maybe out of curiosity, to see what all the hype is about. Maybe because of a successful marketing campaign. But mostly because there will be something they have to do there.

At first, they may be reluctant, and put it off, or ask someone to take them through it. But, at some point, they will attend their first virtual meeting. Or a virtual book reading. Or a virtual concert. Or go on a virtual date. Or walk into a virtual store. Or get virtual training. Or virtual therapy. Or attend a virtual class reunion.

Then there will be something else that they need to do in-world. And something else. And pretty soon, they’ll be old hands at it and wonder how they ever did without it.

It will become ubiquitous. Where was I twenty years ago when Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the Web? I was 22. (Don’t do the math.) Just out of college. I was reporting for The Chicago Tribune, which involved a lot of driving around and attending school council meetings. Filing a story electronically meant dialing into the newspaper’s computer system and uploading my files.

There was a page of instructions that had to be followed exactly — a keystroke out of place, and the process would fail.

I was familiar with Internet Relay Chat and Usenet news groups, but they were only accessible to people with university computer accounts — usually only engineering and computer science majors. Logging in meant using a terminal to access a mainframe.

Today, I live on the Internet. And I’m not alone – there are folks in the emerging world who get smart phones before they get anything else.

It’s not just a geek thing anymore.

My day is probably typical. I work a desk job, so I spend most of my time on the computer. My computer is connected to the Internet — I’m never more than a mouse-click away from my email, Twitter feed, Facebook page, Google search screen, weather report, or Castleville game. (I got hooked over Christmas — it’s my first casual game addiction.)

In the evening, I relax by reading — sometimes paper books but, lately, more often than not, ebooks on my iPhone. I watch TV online — Neflix, Hulu, Crackle — we finally cancelled our cable subscription because we don’t watch live TV anymore.

There’s always a laptop or smartphone within reach, to check email, look up a recipe, add something to a shopping list, check the calendar. To fall asleep, I read or play Sudoku on my iPhone — and the same phone wakes me up in the morning.

I’m not too dependent on technology. That would be like saying that… I’m too dependent on my shoes. Or my microwave.

The Internet is useful. It’s ubiquitous because of its usefulness. Because it’s engaging, because its social.

Twenty years in the future

If virtual environments progress the way the Internet did, where will we be?

I’ll still be working then, and since I like having co-workers, there will probably an office involved of some kind. But I also like living close to my kids, who’ll probably have children by then.

So the morning meeting will probably take place in a virtual office. My avatar will reflect my facial expressions and gestures, but won’t reveal the fact that haven’t brushed my hair yet. If I’m a sim-com millionaire — due to the fact that Hyperica goes public — I’ll probably have meetings for much of the day. Budget discussions. Personnel issues. Dealing with investors and media. Planning a new marketing strategy with the ad guys to try to keep Google from eating our lunch. Meeting with a therapist, to deal with the stress.

You know, that doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe I’ll be following my other dream, of becoming a successful novelist.

I’ll be sitting, writing on a beach at sunrise. Writers get to live wherever they want — I can live near a tropical beach. After I do my bit of writing for the day, and have a swim to cool off, I’ll attend a virtual meeting with my writing group to get their feedback on a new character. Then I’ll meet with my agent — virtually, of course — to discuss movie rights. After a nice dinner at the local seafood restaurant, I’ll take my grandkids on a tour of a virtual science museum while their parents cook dinner half a continent away. And maybe I’ll squeeze in a date with my sweetheart, who’s travelling on business — being a sim-com millionaire is hard work. Better them than me! We’ll stroll hand-in-hand on a virtual beach, under a virtual summer moon, and watch the dolphins gambol in the waves. On Saturday, I’ll have a virtual book reading at a popular virtual bookstore. And that night I’ll be at a virtual coffeehouse, hanging out with my friends, listening to live music, and waiting for my sweetheart to wrap up for the day and join us.

Or maybe I’ll find a new dream. I might become a designer of interactive experiences, a world creator. My team and I will create rich imaginary worlds, populated with complex characters, where visitors will face challenging quests, solve mysteries, make lifelong friends, and discover things about themselves that they had never known before.

I don’t think the Web will go away — it’s just too efficient a mechanism for distributing information. And we’ll still have movies, and writing, and music, and art, and every other medium we have today. Though maybe transformed a bit by new technology.

Who will own the metaverse?

I believe that the open source genie is out of the bottle.  Any critical new technology will either be based on common open source platforms, or be compatible with them.

It will be decentralized — anybody will be able to have a virtual world. It will be as cheap as websites are today — hosting providers will offer unlimited land as part of the deal, the way they now offer unlimited storage, even though they used to charge by the page or by the byte.

It will be interconnected.

It will be photo realistic.

Environments will load quickly — but not enough to be perfect. That’s because whenever the technology improves, the environments get richer, the graphics get better, the animations get smoother, the scripts get more involved, so there’s more stuff to load.

Museums will hold virtual exhibits — including of all the stuff that they normally keep in storage because there’s no space.

Musicians will tour virtually to build up audiences between live appearances. Retailers will have virtual stores staffed with automated agents as well as with live people.

Companies will be able to cut back on most of their corporate office space, allowing workers to telecommute to virtual offices. The job market will get more efficient, as workers will no longer be limited by geography when looking for work. And the environment will benefit as well, with fewer people driving.

New industry segments will appear. There will be jobs we can’t imagine today.

But before we get to that point, we will have a boom. Probably after a decent viewer is released. There will be an influx of venture capital, and suddenly everyone will have a virtual business plan.

But none of them will make money, and there will be a crash. And survivors will emerge from that crash, stronger than before, and the world will never be the same.



Maria Korolov