This week, both in class and in my faculty seminar, I'll be speaking about the future of virtual worlds. It's been a topic on many people's minds of late, including Trevor's great thoughts, Raph's riffs on those, the open source panel at VW08, and Mitch's 3D camera demo. I'm putting my talk together today and will post on it when done.
But in organizing my thoughts, there are a few things I think I think:
- In thinking about virtual worlds -- especially in the R&D and innovation sense -- we need to try to see 5-10 years into the future. Projects seeing 1-3 years into the future are already underway, so if predictions are to have value, we need to take a longer view. We need to think about what happens when Moore give us 8-64X more transistors, so either a similar gain in speed, reduction in cost, reduction in power requirements, or a blend between. 5-10 years means wearable or portable displays of some kind, ubiquitous mobile broadband, ever increasing GPS accuracy, vast sets of local search data, and new generations of mobile input devices.
- As much as I have argued that 3D is a fundamentally different experience than 2D or text -- different, not better -- 3D is not a solution to all problems. It enables different mechanisms for trust building, perception, data organization, etc, but these mechanisms are only useful if they are leveraged as part of larger decisions about what the goals are. Want to sell books in 3D? A 5fps tour of a bookstore that takes an hour to load is a bad use of 3D. Want to enable the power raters on Amazon to give you a personal tour of their favorite books and you have a client that runs on most computers with an easy interface? Maybe that would be a good use of 3d. Want to let people put their data into a 3D memory palace to help them remember and correlate data? Maybe a good use, but text and well indexed search might be better.
- In my opinion, usability is not appearance. Craigslist is not pretty, but it does an excellent job of loading quickly, running on any browser or computer, and letting you find what you want now. Games and MMOs do a much better job than virtual worlds of answering the "what do I do?" and "why am I here?" style of questions. Virtual worlds in the future will need to do make those answers easy to find. "You can make money" or "you can go listen to music with your friends" are compelling answers, but they're hard to discover -- and compounded by hardware requirements -- today.
- Attempts to strongly separate "play" and "work" virtual worlds will stunt the growth of both. Communities that play together work together better. And vice versa. While different applications will need to find proper balance between play and work, being able to do both at a distance is a big part of why virtual worlds are so interesting.
- Future virtual world will obviously play nice with the web, but more than that, they will have to integrate well with browsers. Raph has a post up about 3D and the web, but it's more than 3D. Virtual worlds share a need for features common to many applications that are moving into browsers -- seamless online/offline operation, strong collaboration and sync features, "use anywhere" mindset, painless (or not) installation -- that are at least as important as 3D.