Monday, January 7, 2013

Future of Virtual Worlds

This post is an answer, or a complement to a few other posts. The excellent post of Botgirl Questi ("Virtual worlds is dream over") which summarizes things very well, the also excellent post of Tateru Nino ("That's just plain embarrassing") which launched in the last few days a debate on the "game" aspect of Second Life, and how to classify it, and my own post ("Shrinking of communities in Second Life"), which was intended to be polemical (or at least not fully "politically correct" by being the "Devil's attorney" and mentioning that users too may be somehow guilty of the shrinking of communities in Second Life).

As Botgirl described it extremely well in her post, there is a serious loss of hope in people who were dreaming of a "Metaverse". This came due to two main phenomenon : 1) The numerous issues with Second Life, and 2) the fact that none of the other alternative Second Life-derived grids got enough power to attract a critical mass of users which would be enough to launch a real global movement.

As I wrote in the previous post, it is more than just an issue on platform, it is a way deeper issue, which is: how do we want the Metaverse to be shaped?

What made the success of Second Life was the fact that nobody needed to be a programmer to enter the virtual world, and to become part of it. Sure, some communities of builders emerged, and some individuals did truly amazing work as “builders”, “fashion designers”, “SL photographers” ... but the vast majority of users did not. They simply “lived” their Second Life, rather fully (which explains also the extremely high number of “Adult” oriented SIMs). And what was amazing in Second Life is that NUMEROUS independent communities were co-existing in relative harmony. I believe there is nothing like a “SLebrity”, but there were a lot of “community SLebrities”. Some people in Second Life got famous among some circles (sometimes hundreds, or even thousands, of people) for “blogging” about SL and the Metaverse, but were vastly ignored by a majority of users. Some people from some very strong communities, let's say for instance, the Gorean community, reached a similar status of “Legend”, and were known or heard of by any people in SL Gor, but there name was never mentioned in other communities. In Star Wars Role-Play, some people were known by all (for instance the former leader of the Hutt Council, Darmutta the Hutt), and their words were extremely respected ... but if a Hutt comes into a non-Star Wars SIM, people would probably laugh at him a lot.

This superimposition of various communities was I think a key in Second Life's success. Second Life reached a lot of people. It was revolutionary because it succeeded to reach a lot of people.

The new platforms are not succeeding that so far. One issue I think is that they are mostly doing the same thing than Second Life. Less expensive, more open ... anything goes ... but it is still very similar in a lot of aspects. And, some are less “user-friendly” that Second Life used to be. Without any experience of virtual spaces, you could navigate your way in Second Life almost intuitively. Without previous experience of Second Life, it is in some platform rather complicated to build something …

But the Metaverse is not linked to a single platform. We already had such a discussion few months ago on this blog ("Metaverse, Hyperverse, Cyberverse"). New tools, such as augmented reality, human-machine interfaces ... the possibilities are endless.

An issue still is the “democratic” aspects of virtual worlds. A problem I see in the current avatars of the “Metaverse” is the existence of an “elite” of people travelling from one platform to another (in “platform”, I include blogs and twitter too), very active and very involved. But I fail to see a democratisation of the Metaverse currently. A true Metaverse will emerge and exist only when (much) more users will come and join. A lot of attempts to use the Metaverse for something else than just being there often failed (I think particularly about education ... a lot of places tried to have courses or lectures in Second Life, to conclude that it was easier to do it in normal class or in tele-conference). That does not mean that virtual worlds can not be used for educational purposes. Just, we need to think to that differently (I say that, but I am not claiming to be better than the others nor to have the magical answer on that). Virtual worlds have potential for education, but we did not sized it fully yet. Same goes for a lot of other applications.

So, if the virtual world of Second Life may be not giving us too much hope, in no way would I say that the Metaverse is over. Virtual worlds are the future, I am rather sure of that !

Friday, January 4, 2013

Lab Update: Media Coverage

Some excellent Media Coverage for this New Year !

As expected, the "Virtually Naked: Virtual environment reveals sex-dependent nature of skin disclosure" paper published in PLoS ONE got a lot of media coverage. Some comments were really nice, some less ... but that is due I think to the provocative subject of the paper. However, if people actually READ the paper itself (and not just the press resume), they can see that we were extremely cautious with what we said. Still, a question coming often is : And ? What does that mean ? Well, two answers to that I guess : 1) virtual spaces allowed us to study human behavior without the external (environmental) constraints (and the "social" constraints, even if arguable, but in the paper you can see we did an experiment on this aspect); and 2) it does have important practical implications too. When we will want to design efficient medical virtual spaces, we will need to control for all the parameters of the avatars. Including, how they are named (Guitton MJ (2010) Cross-modal compensation between name and visual aspect in socially active avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 26:1772-1776), how they look like (Giard F, Guitton MJ (2010) Beauty or realism: The dimensions of skin from cognitive sciences to computer graphics. Computers in Human Behavior, 26:1748-1752), how they create group according to their appearance (Lortie CL, Guitton MJ (2011) Social organization in virtual settings depends on proximity to human visual aspect. Computers in Human Behavior, 27:1258-1261 or Lortie CL, MJ Guitton (2012) Looking similar promotes group stability in a game-based virtual community. Games for Health Journal, 1:274-278), how they relate to a community (Guitton MJ (2012) The immersive impact of meta-media in a virtual world. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 : 450-455 or Guitton MJ (2012) Living in the Hutt Space: Immersive Process in the Star Wars Role-Play community of Second Life. Computers in Human Behavior, 28:1681-1691), or how they dress (this new paper in PLoS ONE). Yes, taken individually, those papers may seems strange, but we need to get the "bigger picture", which is, understanding the multimodal reality of an avatar.

Second nice point : the Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (edited by Prof. Zheng Yan, in which I wrote the Chapter on Cyber Behaviors in Canada) got nominated for the Outstanding Reference Sources Award by the American Library Association ! This award recognizes  and recommends "the most outstanding reference publications of the year for small and medium-sized libraries". Well, the Outstanding Reference Sources Committee still has to do the final review of each title nominated, but still, it is a very positive outcome for this fascinating project. This Encyclopedia also got a really nice review published in Choice Magazine (from the Association for College and Research Libraries, which is a division of the American Library Association).