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State of Virtual Worlds – Part 2- Back to Basics

In the last post on the State of Virtual Worlds we covered my impressions from the Engage Expo’09 at San Jose. In this post we’ll look to answer why companies are moving back to basics with Virtual Worlds.

The phrase “Virtual World” became so popular in 2006-08 that almost anyone doing anything remotely 3D or 2D started ‘tagging’ their work as such. I think that led to a vast amount of generalization. Increasingly,now  the trend is towards the opposite end. We see most companies trying to distance themselves from the term. So words like “Immersive”, “Interactive” and “Real time” are being used with more frequency to describe environments which would have passed off as “Virtual Worlds” about a year back :).

Ironically, these words were being used to describe “Virtual Worlds” back in 2007 as well. This movement back to look at fundamentals of what “Virtual Worlds” mean and do, is not limited to semantics only. Most companies including ours are trying to go back to basics and keep what is important and shed what is not. I think the need to make 3D environments complex started when people thought that all virtual worlds had to mimic something like Second Life.  Which meant most 3D environments needed :

  1. Multiuser capability -with very high concurrences ( without any thought for whether those levels were required for the solution)
  2. Full 3D – high graphic requirements  ( again without any thought for whether a 3D environment was even required for the solution let alone high graphics)
  3. Ability to author objects – ( most environments do not require users to be able to create content- most clients still insisted on this capability!)

These requirements led to over engineering and unnecessary cost and timel; with real Return on Investment ( RoI) falling  as the capabilities were rarely used. Or in the worst case, due to the necessity to include these features costs would shoot up ; and the client would back out due to budget constraints.

Over a period of time though the vendors and clients have become more aware of  the what and how of using  these 3D environments.  Expectations have become more realistic and so have outlays and billings. This rationalization was necessary and good for the industry.

Thanks to spectacular early failures, the recession and increasing realism in part of the industry advocates and vendors; in 2009 the market has become more realistic and sustainable. Now these environments , especially for enterprise deployment, previously grouped under “Virtual Worlds” as a whole get categorised as :

  1. Interactive – at this stage it can be 3D or 2D
  2. Immersive – mostly 3D but could also be 2.5 or 2D.
  3. 3D – Only if required
  4. Online – hosted on a server either connected or not connected to the Internet.
  5. Multiuser – only if required with defined concurrency levels;usually between 10-100 concurrent users for most enterprise type environments.
  6. High graphics – only if required. Infact most clients are willing to compromise high end graphics for the ease and savings associated with being able to run these environments on  commodity grade computers.
  7. Closed authoring – almost no enterprise asks for content creation capabilities for users. In fact it’s considered a nuisance in most cases.

Thus we see an increasing shift towards distinguishing between features which were previously bundled together into what came to be defined as a “Virtual World”. And this modular approach has led to higher Returns on Investment and faster deployment time. In doing so, the lines between Serious Games, Simulations and what used to be called “Virtual Worlds” is becoming more distinct. This is healthy and lets virtual worlds like Second Life do what they are good at doing,namely create a virtual community based around art, entertainment and virtual goods, while keeping a limited and focused tool set for other immersive applications. Ultimately, I think the industry really didn’t have any choice but to get back to basics and this may yet lead to the redemption of 3D , multi-user, online, immersive, interactive environments aka ‘virtual worlds’ 🙂

– Sid Banerjee