Virtual Worlds and Beyond
After Lloyd Onyett first learned about Second Life at a conference, he spent the following weekend setting up accounts in every virtual world he could find. Onyett, the assistant dean for Technology in the College of Education and Educational Technology, set up characters and tried out different systems but kept finding himself coming back to Second Life. “As I explored it more over the last three years, I kept coming to the realization that it’s still, at this point, the best virtual world out there for education. But I’m willing to jump to something else if something better comes along,” he said.
The teaching amphitheater on Comm Media Island
“Some other company may come along with a better product. Right now, there are at least a half dozen virtual world systems out there— some are better at gaming and so forth—but Second Life seems to be heads above the others with an environment for teaching and education,” Onyett said. “Will Second Life be around two to three years from now? Will a better product come out than Second Life? Will Second Life evolve enough to stay ahead of the game and continue to be the leader? Who knows? But there will be something out there in the way of virtual worlds, I’m quite confident. It’s not just a flash in the pan thing. It’s something that’s going to continue to be out there as another tool, as another way that can be used for distance education and other on-line types of things, but also for enhancing the regular classroom experience, too.”
“It seems to me there are applications for this in almost every realm,” said James Lenze. “I want to explore those and see if they’re worthwhile, see if this is a legitimate technology.”
Lenze, a Comm Media associate professor and cocoordinator of the Ph.D. program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, admits to being a little nervous when people infer he is promoting Second Life or virtual worlds in general. “No I’m not. I’m exploring them. I’m investigating them,” he said. “My job as a professor, especially as a state-employed professor, is to ask the what-if questions and come up with some answers. I’m supposed to be a little ahead of the curve, sort of a scout who goes out ahead and says here’s where this could go, here’s what could happen, and inform the public so they can make good, informed decisions about what they want to do and where they want to go with this.”
Second Life definitely has a certain amount of escapist draw. But Lenze notes that people are practical, and if they’re going to do something over time, they have to find value in it. “The way we find value in our lives is we make money, get education, love… There are relationships forming in Second Life, there are emotional love attachments forming. There are ways to make money. And there are ways to learn. Just like in our real lives, nothing operates independently. People say, ‘To do this, I have to give up some time for this.’ In virtual worlds, it’s all going to converge as well, in that it really might become a Second Life to people,” Lenze said. “My biggest concern is that it will become their first life, which it already has for many. The question is, is that healthy? What are the implications of that?”
Speculation on the future of virtual worlds includes a further merging with reality. For instance, could a neural interface be built that would allow quadriplegics to perhaps live inside a virtual world, where they could walk, run, fly, explore, and interact with other people? As the human-machine interface improves, the virtual worlds will be able to emulate avatars, textures, and experiences to much greater degrees.
“I’m not saying what’s right or what’s wrong,” Lenze said. “I’m just saying the technology is going to make this available. It’s something to explore. It’s something to consider from a moral perspective, from an ethical perspective.
“I’m teaching a course in the fall called Cultures of Cyberspace, looking at how culture has developed there. Part of that will focus on virtual worlds and part on MySpace and Facebook. A lot of people say Second Life is like [the video game] World of Warcraft. Actually it’s more like Facebook and MySpace, in terms of the purpose and goals of it and how it functions. We’ll be doing research and looking at how culture develops in cyberspace, how it is different there, how the normal constructs that we use to make culture—which usually you can’t change or have trouble changing, like gender—how they are broken down in cyberspace cultures and how that affects it. I think it’s going to be a real fun class to teach.”
The future of virtual worlds will certainly include a change in the Internet experience. Similar to the early days of the World Wide Web, when AOL and the other infant service providers essentially had their own private internets, each virtual world currently exists in isolation, with no way to move avatars, identities, or objects across the different platforms. However, it has been known for a few years that Linden Labs has been pressing IBM and Sun Microsystems for an open protocol, which would allow users to “teleport” their identities and possessions between virtual worlds.
“Whichever company makes [open protocol] happen first will have the Mozilla Netscape of virtual worlds,” said Allen Partridge, director of the Applied Media and Simulation Games Center. Such a virtual world globalization would have to surmount the biggest problem with open protocols: controlling the monetary aspect. “At present, there is no clear digital rights management technology that will allow for protection of digital properties [clothes, gear, items, etc., that are created within Second Life] once they leave the domain of the originating servers. If the other domain’s management of that property allows for the ability for that property to be replicated or irresponsibly used, it has unleashed the digital rights of whoever created the art. It has put that out into the public space irresponsibly.”
No one is quite sure when that hurdle might be overcome. But, based on everything known about new technologies, it is clearly happening. The Wall Street Journal noted that, from a business point of view, virtual worlds are now viewed as mainstream. Investment capital in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games and virtual-world technologies has skyrocketed, with MMOs and virtual worlds becoming the fastest-growing sector for venture capital in the games world.
Major research firms predicting future trends say that virtual world technology combined with social networking will eventually become infused into what we currently think of as the Internet. Gartner Group and Forrester, two of the leading analyst firms that track information technology trends, predicted that the Internet would be 80 percent 3D by the year 2012. “Exactly what Forrester and Gartner predicted was not all that clear,” Partridge said. “My guess would be that we’ll see the browser experience modified so that we would have both virtual worlds and the traditional, two-dimensional view. The logical conclusion would be that you’re surfing the Web and you click on a link, and if that link happens to be to a virtual place, then it would simply open a virtual viewer of some sort.”
Justin Ratner, chief technology officer of Intel and director of the company’s Corporate Technology Group, made a major presentation at an Intel R&D conference. He presented several different virtual-world technologies and argued, most notably, that such virtual-world technology is the Internet of tomorrow. “This is not something that a few people are grabbing onto and saying ‘this is the thing,’” Partridge said. “Most of the reliable sources are saying it’s here.”
For people who’ve only used a computer to see two-dimensional things, the idea that we could very quickly migrate to a society where the expectation is that everything would be at least plausibly 3D can be a difficult hurdle. The key will be making the technology easily usable enough for the average person and getting past any specific assumptions about the technology that could prevent new users from being able to adopt it. “There are conventions that exist within technology,” Partridge said. “Even something as simple as a keyboard can be very cryptic to someone who has never seen one before. If they’ve never seen a computer, they wouldn’t know how to turn it on or how to use it. We adopt those conventions as they become plausible to adopt.”
The Second Life Educators listserv connects at least five thousand educators from around the world. “The tone [of the conversations] is very serious, very self-critical, which I think is a really healthy sign,” Partridge said. “If you can be heavily self-critical of the technology as you’re exploring it, then you’re probably onto something because that means you’re evolving it into something real as opposed to just holding up this grand idea that doesn’t have any legs.”