Linking Virtual Worlds

Supposedly, Australians are leaving Second Life in droves.

It seems, though, the researcher Kim MacKenzie’s words were taken out of context, and she’s fed up about the media looking for ‘Second Life is dying’ stories.

Beating the Ghost Town effect

Reading about the ghost town effect, and having experienced it myself in eery lone visits to Australian landmarks, it’s clear that Second life could have done with a few more European-style urban planners or American new urbanists on the team. They would have pointed out that endless sprawl leads not to a feeling of spaciousness but to isolation. Second Life is effectively a lesson in the pitfalls of suburban sprawl taken to its dysfunctional conclusion. To enter Second Life is the online equivalent of moving from Boston or Seattle to Phoenix, Arizona, or from London to Adelaide. It isn’t that there are no people, just that the residents are spread out over an unfeasibly large area. The ghost town effect is a direct consequence of trying to abolish the scarcity of ‘land’. The saving grace here is that it is in fact already possible to do the opposite – to recreate online the super dense urban slum, that allows maximum, if not optimum, conviviality. Second Life already contains a reconstruction of Hong Kong’s famous and no longer existing Walled City – a city quarter that was in its heyday the densest spot on earth. In SL it’s mostly empty. But In a virtual environment one can have all the benefits of density – connection, liveliness, collaboration – with none of the pitfalls – open sewers and hacked power supplies. Now all that’s needed is to lead people to that kind of space by culling the suburbs. It may seem a bit harsh for those users who prefer to camp out on their exclusive islands in splendid isolation and have no visitors, but the commercial alternative for Second Life is Second Death. Fortunately, Linden Labs is already planning to introduce zoning. It’s a start.

Linking 3D with 2D

Having said that, the real problem with all these virtual spaces is that they fail to link up with the everyday experience of using the internet. In other words there is a great conceptual wall between 3d virtual environments, whose organising metaphor is ‘world’ and the web, whose organising metaphor is ‘book’. The film maker Peter Greenaway has said he thinks film, and by extension television, is still primarily a textual medium rather than a visual medium, a claim which sets in context his interest in expanding what he calls ‘visual literacy’. This comment is even more true of the Internet, which is married to text to an unhealthy extent.

It isn’t that text is in any way ‘bad’. It’s simply that by being controlled by this conceptual scheme – book versus world – some of the many already existing visual capabilities of the Web are overlooked.

Avoiding built-in isolation

When Google announced it was introducing a new virtual environment we could perhaps have anticipated an enhanced version of Second Life. Instead what they delivered was Lively, a severely cut down version. Basically, Google chat users can create their own visual chat rooms in which to host their online conversations. So from this angle, we still have a disconnect. Google’s offering is not bad, but it amounts to a series of isolated spaces that use a spatial metaphor in a limited way. Not so much a virtual world as a set of unconnected virtual bedsits.

Eventually, the many virtual environments out there (in there) will begin to connect and coalesce. Like the door at the back of the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, there will soon be portals from and to Second Life and Google and, crucially into which the standard text-based experience of will be embedded.

An example of how this could work is given by Australian company, ‘ExitReality’. Of the virtual environments so far established, theirs has most fully grasped the concept of integrating the 3D web with the 2D web. The aim is to make virtual environments like Second Life integrate seamlessly with text-based social web environments such as Facebook. In stitching up the web in this way the potential of both the book metaphor and the world metaphor is greatly enhanced. The 2D web becomes attractive at last; the 3D web finally becomes useful.

Virtual business environments

Looking at this kind of environment – one in which avatars meet and share documents, mail, and many other media in a spatial environment – gives me this thought:

In the very near future employers will be competing for ‘visually literate’ employees on the basis of the attractiveness of the virtual filing room. They’d better get building.

Meanwhile here’s a look at 50 virtual worlds… Journal of Virtual Worlds Research

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