Why virtual worlds are important for business

(“Ooh, an important-sounding weblog entry! Can we put in pictures of kittens?”

“No, no, this is important grown-up stuff! No kittens!”

“Maybe just at the end?”)

There is a ton of debate and discussion and information Out There about why virtual worlds are, or aren’t, or might someday be, important for business. Important, that is, to people who are wearing their money-making hats to know about, or to use, or to invest time or effort or money in.

There are a lot of smallish reasons that virtual worlds are important, today, for various businesses in various senses. They can fit cost-effectively somewhere between teleconferences and face-to-face meetings for some purposes; they can be at least potentially effective education and training platforms in some use-cases, and so on.

But I don’t want to talk about any of those reasons right now. I want to talk about a much bigger, if somewhat speculative, reason.

Virtual worlds are important for business, right now, because they are going to be extremely important, for just about everyone, eventually.

I believe, in a way that I can’t prove but through intuitions that I’ve come to trust over the millennia, that in the medium term virtual worlds are going to transform the way that we think of and use computers, computing, and information, and the ways that we interact with the world and with each other, in significant ways. At least as significantly as, for instance, the internet, or mobile phones, have done recently.

Even if I’m only halfway, only one-quarter, right about that, there are going to be some huge revenue streams associated with virtual worlds, and there are going to be moments at which pretty much any business that’s out there doing stuff is going to be in a position to capture, or to fail to capture, some part of one or more of those huge revenue streams.

In order to have a good chance of making that capture, a business organization is going to need to have enough people who, when an opportunity related to virtual worlds appears, will be more likely to think “hey yeah, that could work”, rather than “isn’t that that porn thing I saw on CNN last year?”.

So this doesn’t necessarily mean that a business should, today, be moving their weekly manager’s meetings into Second Life, or that your average high school drama class should have their own OpenSim region to meet in. (Those things might be true, or false, but this particular thought isn’t about that.)

What it does mean is that a business should have people who use virtual worlds. Who aren’t afraid to reveal the fact to their management. Who maybe even try using the technology for a business-related thing now and then. Maybe an IT guy who runs a little clump of four OpenSim regions on a spare server in the corner, and gives accounts to whoever happens to ask. Without getting in trouble for it.

And IT businesses, in particular, especially in software and especially in services, should have some pilots going, some studies. Maybe they’re on the shortlist to be cut when revenue is down, but they should be there. In the corner of someone’s eye. Being worked on in what’s left of the skunkworks. Being brought up in the last five minutes of executive briefings, under “ad-tech activities”.

The short-term benefits of virtual worlds have, I think, sometimes been oversold, and that’s led to us riding the usual hype curve more than once.

But if the long-term effects are anything like what I think they are going to be, businesses are well-advised to have, as well as any short-term stuff they’ve got going on with the technology, a culture in which the thought leaders have an eye on virtual worlds, are playing with them, and working with them. And management knows about it and is cool with it.

’cause, ya know, we won’t be selling buggy-whips over the counter forever…

(And in closing:

)

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UGC FTW!

(That’s “User-generated content for the win!”, or “it’s good to let people make stuff”.)

flickr picture with lots of user-generated SL content that it's hard to imagine the world owners ever getting around to making themselves

This is another in a series of posts in which I take some stuff that I wrote sometime in the past as a comment to someone else’s weblog or something, and post it here, so as to expose it to more of my readers, and to get easy content for the weblog and add to my worldwide fame without doing much additional work.

The following little rant was originally posted as a comment to this digado posting, which started out as a discussion of whether browser-based virtual worlds were going to take over, was dragged (by me) into the issue of whether “browser based” is actually a property of virtual worlds at all, and eventually ended up on the question of whether it’s important (for the success of the world) that a virtual world allow ordinary users to make stuff. I strongly believe that it is, but in the course of the discussion (and of a very similar discussion that took place around the same time inside my company’s firewall) I realized that my favorite reason for believing that (the first one given below) is in practice not early as important as another reason (the second one below).

Discussion and comment and the general spreading of my worldwide fame is most welcome. And now, the actual content.

I think that user-generated content is very important for a successful virtual world that wants to be a general-purpose virtual world rather than just a MMORPG like WoW or whatever. And it’s important for two reasons:

First and I admit somewhat idealistically, I think that everyone wants to create, and will create if we make it easy enough and foster a culture that encourages creation, and that everyone will be richer and happier as a result. It doesn’t have to be the creation of the shapes of virtual objects (”3D phtotoshopping”); it can be that, but it can also be textures, or music, or design specifications for an object that someone else will actually build, or room layouts in a building, or text and writing or all kinds, or sound effects, or the mechanism of a quest game, or a set of jokes, or a new way to organize a committee, or a script to power a funny hat, or… But in any case empowering people to be creative in these ways in the VWs means providing User Generated Content.

Second, and much more practically, user generated content is important because without it the owners of the platform are a bottleneck for every single stupid thing that anyone needs built. Someone wants to open a store to sell either real or virtual goods, and they want the store to have a distinctive look rather than being just Generic Store #3, they have to file a petition with the platform owners and hope someone gets to it. There’s a craze in RL Korea for skirts with huge flower-shaped ribbons, by the time the VW owners notice (unless they’re in Korea themselves) and provide the corresponding virtual content, the craze will have been over for a week. A corporation wants a conference room structured around the basic principles of their new Seven-Sigma Continuous Improvement Business Innovation for Stakeholder Success Philosophy, they aren’t going to want to queue up behind the people who are badgering the platform owners for custom houses done the Dark Elvish style.

UGC frees the economy. We know that the way an economy produces the right goods and services is by way of a price system and a free market (modulo market failures, externalities, rights violations, and so on). We know that central planning of the means of production doesn’t work in the real world. Why should we expect it to work in the virtual worlds? Why would Linden Lab be any better at predicting what ought to be designed and created for its residents than the Supreme Soviet turned out to be for theirs? UGC puts the decision-making power out in the user community, where imho it belongs.

And note that this isn’t just about the people who want to create stuff. Even if my idealistic idea is wrong, and some people really are born to be passive consumers who only want to buy, never create, UGC is still the right way to make sure that the stuff that they want to buy is available. A vibrant economy will do a pretty good job of making that happen; a bunch of people sitting in a room at Linden Lab trying to decide what objects to add to the world next will do a very bad job of it.

End rant. For now. :)

End of actual content. Oh, and props to Ahuva, who was I think the one who most clearly brought out the “it’s good for non-builders, too, ’cause they can tell their builder friends what they want” idea in the internal discussion.

Meaties

When the negotiations were over for the day, Vystar and his team spread their wings and spiraled down out of the tree, landing on the enormous lily pad at the base as protocol demanded. With nods and whispers to each other, they each blinked out to their separate evenings. Vystar went a few thousand meters up and several regions west, floating in an undulating purple mist as he changed from avian form to something more relaxed, a curvy young woman with feathers for hair and long purple fingernails, dressed in cotton lounging pajamas.

She whispered to Patrice and Gentle Logan, to AnyFred and WhaTilde, and eventually was summoned to the latest version of the Sound Crystal Amphitheatre, suspended above an orange desert, where five or ten of her friends sat or sprawled on cushions in the crowd listening to a young dragon playing a citern and singing imaginary folk songs. Patrice had a new collection of semi-autonomous follower objects swarming around her head, and Vystar amused herself sending them little rushes of force and meaningless commands, just to see what they would do. Patrice stuck out her tongue, but was too absorbed in the music and some quasi-sexual exchange with a winged warrior to do anything about it.

The dragon finished his set to general applause and the launching of numerous color-rockets, Vystar fended off a pair of whispers from annoyingly persistent ex-lovers, and people had just begun discussing where to go next when she frowned and lay back in her ornate golden seat.

“Excuse me a moment, folks. Something happening Outside.”

Patrice crinkled her face at her, and Gentle Logan said, “Be careful”; Vystar’s eyes glazed over and her body relaxed.

He put down the controller and stood up from his lounge, blinking as he pulled his gaze away from the screen that covered half the wall. He flexed his arms and shoulders, opened and closed his hands, out of the healthy habit that everyone tried to cultivate when going Outside. The noise that had disturbed him continued, and he crossed the room to the window, a slightly pudgy pale man in undyed cotton pants and a thin shirt.

The room was small and spare, clean, subtly lit by indirect lighting. It contained only the lounge, the screen, the terahertz box, a selection of controllers and goggles, a small refrigerator in one corner, a door leading to the shared bathroom in the other. Vystar stepped to the single window, and looked down.

Down below, the usually empty street was half filled by a mongrel band of ordinary Outside humans, who walked or slowly drove battered-looking autos between the plain faces of the apartment blocks on each side, blowing the horns and whistles that had disturbed him, and waving signs.

“Come out and play!”, the signs said, “The Real World Needs You!”, and “Remember What Matters”. One of the leaders of the ragged march was a tall unnaturally fit-looking man that Vystar remembered vaguely having seen on an Outside feature on some news program; the former owner of a defunct automobile company, or newspaper, or something.

Slow and noisy as it was, the disturbance moved out of sound and sight soon enough, into what looked like an Outside evening. Vystar shook his head and went back to the lounge, rejoining the world to find that most of his friends were still there in the Amphitheatre, looking at the night’s list of public performances, debating the merits of the artists, remembering old adventures, making ridiculous hats.

“Back,” she said, stretching her legs and putting on a tall conical headpiece with a slowly-turning propeller.

“What was it?” Patrice asked, from under what appeared to be a squid.

“Bunch of noisy Meaties out in the Outside street. Having a protest or something.”

This was met with much laughter and rude noises.

“Walking right down the street?” asked Scarflame, a friend or associate or alt or something of Patrice’s.

“Walking, and even driving. Old automobiles! Can you imagine the carbon footprint?”

More rude noises.

“Meaties,” said Gentle Logan, the swirls around his horns expressing exasperation.

“Yeah,” said Vystar, shrugging her shoulders, “what can you do?”

Thanks to someone, maybe Ahuva, for pointing me at an article that I can’t find right now that suggested that, far short of brain-uploading, people might simply start leading sparse and spartan RL lives, because their virtual lives would be so much more interesting and rich. So here we are. This story is not intended to express any particular opinion, positive or negative, of the possibility…