My first encounter with 3D web, sometimes called virtual worlds, was well over three years ago whilst I was consulting on corporate culture with one of the worlds largest companies.
The team I was working with needed briefing were physically spread around the world, I thought about a webinar. ‘Won’t work’ I was told, ‘they’ll just ignore you and do their email’. So it was suggested we had the briefing on their private island in Second Life, which we did, very successfully.
If we fast forward a year or so and I find myself back within the 3D web world with clients such as Nokia and Apple and a colleague of mine who is one of the most accomplished practitioners in that field. Having now spent more than a year immersed in the subject it is a good point in time to share some of my thoughts and experiences.
Why bother? Well, maybe you can ignore the coming tsunami of change, just like people tried to do with web 2.0, until it was too late. Gartner, Forrester, UK universities and a whole host of industry analysts are convinced that 3D web is scheduled for massive growth in the next two years. Think of what boxes need to be ticked for a technology to gain investors and it’s likely to be defence, pornography, online dating, gambling and, more recently, social networking. Well 3D web, like it or not, has all of these, either now or, in the very near future.
There is a problem, and it’s called Second Life, which some believe is the whole of 3D web by virtue of its poster child status. The reality is that there are over 300 virtual worlds powered by many different engines. There are virtual worlds for children, teenagers, adults, education, dating and music together with mirror worlds of Dublin, Berlin and Singapore and elsewhere. There are public worlds, private worlds (Second Life has a ‘behind the firewall’, enterprise version in beta at present), proprietary, open source and every other variant you can think of.
If you disregard children’s, teenager’s and other entertainment worlds you are left with a few engines with business applications: Second Life, Opensin, RealXtend, Sun’s Project Wonderland, Active Worlds, Olive and Twinity. There may be one or two others, and the list may, and does, change over time. Some larger organisations such as IBM and Nokia are working with multiple platforms simultaneously.
Why is it that 3D web is becoming a better choice than other options?
Moore’s law and its numerous variants, such as disk and network, means that it is now technically feasible to do what until recently would have been impractical.
The brain prefers to be in immersive environments rather than in 2D, meaning that people are more involved in the process.
Carbon awareness coupled with the economic situation means that anything that can reduce travel and associated costs is looked on favorably.
It is what the new generation, who are sometimes called millennials, are looking for and expecting.
What does the future hold? What may we expect in the next few years?
Standards will evolve or middleware will be produced that will enable digital assets to be moved easily from one world to another. Whilst this is possible today it is by no means easy, and ease of use is needed for new technologies to cross the chasm from early adopters (visionaries) to the early majority (pragmatists).
Devices will become available to translate gesture and emotion into the 3D web. Microsoft’s Project Nirvana is one type of device and work is well under way on webcams with emotion recognition, so called ‘stress cams’. Most of the development in this area comes from the video game industry.
The underlying architecture will change to be more mainstream, more scaleable and easier to use. A number of today’s engines have scaleability problems or need large downloads; solutions to these issues are now being worked on be a number of different organisations.
The 3D browser will arrive. Sometimes thought of as the ‘holy grail’ of the 3D web, a browser will bring with it volume and universal acceptance. Remember, Google did have their own 3D web offering, Lively, for a while until earlier this year.
Fourth generation building software will arrive, which will be able to replicate 3D objects from drawings or photographs. This kind of functionality will again appeal to the pragmatists who want it to just work.
One of the biggest changes in the near future will be the shift from communities and part-time developers playing at the edges to projects with clear objectives and ROI.
Some of the most advanced uses and technologies you could imagine, virtual reality for example, are probably already in use or in development for defence applications. Think The Matrix meets Minority Report.
What to do?
Don’t ignore it; the ostrich methodology is unlikely to work in this case. Also, put aside all the hype you may have heard, the hysterical press comments, prejudices and past experiences. The 3D web of the future will not be the same one as the past.
Organise a cross-functional pilot project to gain some experience in different areas of the business in how to work with 3D web and to explore the opportunities it will present. Beware too much blue-skying at this point and treat as you would any other proof of concept by learning to walk before you start running.
Don’t underestimate the training needed to use 3D web in a commercial environment, ignore the enthusiasts who say it’s really easy, some people will take time to adapt and adopt.
Don’t end up with a large basket full of eggs, remember there will be changes in what engine, or engines, you will eventually use from the one you initially use. Keep a watching brief on a few of the market leaders and be prepared to switch if it makes sense.
The 3D web is going to have a rapid rise in take up and popularity in 2010/11 and it will be driven, not by technology, but by the organisation as a whole. This is not the social-only aspect of 3D web, but the business applications of it. It is important to stay abreast of development and start with some structured usage before you are asked to do things with difficult timescales and little background knowledge. IBM are a good example to look at, and you may even meet Sam Palmisano as an avatar -he does have one!
Terry Thorpe FBCS CITP is an award-winning technologist, founder and principle of KohdSpace who work exclusively in the sphere of 3D web.