Jan 072009
 

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Reflections by me? Been a bit slow off the mark blog wise this year as endless layers of projects overlap and blogging has fallen off the list. But there are some goodies about to be blogged here, just simmering, almost ready for serving. Smell that goodness.

For the moment though two of my ‘thinks’ that others published for me. The first from Bettina TIzzy’s great (‘What the World Needs Now is‘) Not Possible in Real Life (NPIRL) blog who posted a selection of my slightly half-baked thoughts re: virtual worlds. Following that, also featuring SL & Telstra, a rather positive retrospective from ITWire extensively quoting me, about how companies can engage properly, The Pond is a build I created back in early 2007.

OK to the post. I know, a lazy re-posting but there are a few nuggets in here…over to NPIRL.

Gary Hazlitt turns the page on 2008 – What happened and what’s coming in virtual worlds

Sydney-based Brit and marketing wiz, musician, composer and rich content creator in virtual worlds Gary Hazlitt (aka Gary Hayes), is already done celebrating the incoming year, while we wait for a few more hours in the Western Hemisphere for 2009 to arrive.

Gary, who studied physics, is the director of the Australian Laboratory for Advanced Media Production (LAMP), and also heads up Virtual Worlds for the UK-based The Project Factory, for which he produced the highly successful and eminently revistable (as the traffic numbers indicate) Australian Telstra and ABC Second Life presences.

I welcome Gary’s guest blogpost and knowledgeable take on the recent past and the coming adventures of virtual worlds. Happy New Year, everyone! – Bettina Tizzy

In the social Virtual Worlds context, 2006 was about hype… another new frontier ‘kid-on-the-block,’ but became about fast bucks and cheap and cheerful PR. We saw that bubble gently burst in 2007 as the realisation that one world in particular, Second Life – (which is still the leading example of culturally created virtual content), was really about creative communication and artistic expression versus the local shopping mall or a crude business tool.

Last year, 2008, we witnessed a distillation in what Second Life (and by implication other customisable worlds) is really about, leading to a proliferation of new, niche virtual worlds meeting the cultural and entertainment needs of much broader demographics. We effectively saw the ‘fat’ surgically removed from Second Life and an acceptance that this new medium and form is still in its very early days, but in 2008 there are clearer reasons for being a part of the social web mix:

1. An immersive expression of community – Facebook and MySpace-meets-World of Warcraft. This community can create their own environments or swarm around trusted film, TV or lifestyle brands, too.

2. For business, it is more about a place to meet, present and recruit and far less about brand awareness, product sales or vacuous hype. The business model in 2008 clearly came into focus: the community selling to itself – brands needed to court existing inhabitants very carefully.

3. For education, Second Life is one of the most efficient tools in the learning process. Education becomes democratised, everyone can contribute and learn equally, remote learning is far more compelling, fun and immersive.

4 A creative tool. Second Life, in particular, showed significant maturity as we saw a higher number of serious live performance (CARP Cybernetic Art Research Project, NMC, DanCoyote Antonelli, for example), a record number of in-world ‘machinima & TV-like programs’ and by far the largest array of creative statements from virtual environment artists, many members of the NPIRL group. The quality of ‘experience’ creation from talented musicians, designers, photographers, artists, etc., reached new heights.

GROWTH OF WORLDS

Investment across the board – more than $900 million US invested since Oct 2007 – has moved away from generalist worlds like Second Life to more focused niche or user base environments with many starting to exhibit core game elements. These include those with renewed investment after new’ish launches: vSide, Football Superstars, Stardoll, Home, IMVU, Metaplace, Multiverse Places, and Music Mogul.

Towards the end of the year, console social worlds came onto the scene. XBox360 and Wii are very similar in ‘cartoon’ aesthetic, whereas Sony is far more game focused. All have very similar business models – create a space to hang out and be ‘tempted’ by games/film/merchandise. Although these are not yet places for community creation, they will soon learn that to keep inhabitants they will need to be or, like Google Lively, have to pull the plug. Embeddable or layered worlds began in 2008 and are likely to be significant in getting people used to real time communication through ‘representational’ avatars – vs text based ‘social network’ profiles. Also, Facebook worlds like YoVille or Vivaty, or layered worlds like Rocketon or Weblin that are embedded on the existing 2D web. The dominance of the likes of Club Penguin and Webkinz at the tweens end of the spectrum will be duplicated through teens and gen y’s as a series of new, highly focused and targeted social worlds launch next year. This has already begun with Football Superstars and Music Mogul but expect to see many more – including several with user created content as a feature alongside the virtual economy.

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2008

– Graphics in Second Life become teenagers. Still some way from the likes of Crysis, Second Life Windlight turned the world into something far more fantastical for many. It added layers of light, glow and control to a previously very ‘flatly lit’ world. We still wait for dynamic shadows, better environmental sound and an even more useful scripting language (post Mono), but this was a paradigm shift for environmental artists.

– Some companies got it! There was not a plethora of companies or brands entering Second Life but those that did had continued success as they concentrated on the social (people) rather than ‘product’ aspects of their business. Although the Pond leads in dwell terms, new entrants like Warner’s Gossip Girl have done exceedingly well. Car companies still do well even though Pontiac walked away from Second Life, and Toyota, Fiat and Nissan are always in the top 10 brands.

– The quality of machinima across all social and game worlds increased exponentially this year and a growth in communities watching ‘documents’ of the worlds they spend most of their time in. In addition to some machinima appearing in heritage media (“Molotov Alva and his Search for the Creator” and HBO/Cinemax, for example) there has been a growth in long form game-engine films and notably many more serious issues tackled.

– The New Worlds. A fracturing, as it became obvious that Second Life cannot be all things to all avatars – so nearly 70 other worlds all showed up on the radar. Many are focusing on niche interest or are highly branded. Several of the new ‘jack-of-all-trades’ entrants will learn that enabling community creativity and an economy is absolutely necessary. There were several walled garden/locked content mirror worlds and builds in 2008, which will learn to be not about ‘broadcast’ spaces, and realise that their worlds are far more significant than modelling what is around us – “In augmented and online virtual worlds, humanity will exponentially evolve, free from the limiting ghosts of that other virtual world we called reality”.

The second item appeared following my presentation at the Online Distribution and Business Collaboration conference from November 2008 in which I hurriedly went through some good inworld and game marketing case studies. Kathryn Small here picked up on why Australia’s BigPond is working really well – and no, it is not all about the broadband capping situation in Australia. Most of the regular inhabitants are on other ISP’s – anyway the article covers my thoughts on this and I have a much longer analysis with stats for the nearly 2 years it has been active, in the pipeline. (Also worth mentioning something about the item at the start of this one – Tourism Victoria didn’t withdraw its funding, Multimedia Victoria requested I take down a temporary ‘trial’ build of Melbourne Laneways – which had an original 3 month ‘learn as we go’ tenure on ABC Island. Otherwise a good item below.

Despite reports, Telstra and Second Life remain inseparable
By Kathryn Small 28 November 2008 02:20PM

It’s a match made in heaven: Telstra is Australia’s biggest telco and ISP, while Second Life is one of the world’s hottest social networking tools. So when the media reported that “the game was almost over” for Second Life, Telstra was quick to defend its investment.

Recently, Tourism Victoria withdrew its advertising funding from Second Life’s ABC Island. This prompted Deacons technology and media partner Nick Abrahams to comment to The Australian that “the drop in commercial interest in Second Life had been noticeable over the past nine months”.

Abrahams said that at any given time, fewer than a couple of hundred Australians might be in Second Life.

But virtual worlds expert Gary Hayes said that virtual world ratings should be measured in engagement and user hours, not just hits.

“Immersive online experiences need new metrics, and marketeers and academics are realising that social worlds do provide the potential for very high dwell figures,” said Hayes.

“Facebook has 65 million users on for just four hours per month. 132 Americans watch YouTube but they watch only about five minutes per day or 2.5 hours per month,” said Hayes.

“Second Life (and other social virtual worlds) has the highest rates of loyalty and stickiness of any social network generation, more than 50 hours per month per user.”

Hayes said that Telstra’s islands, known as The Pond, had a steady stream of around 50-100 users at any given time.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib quoted figures compiled by The Project Factory which said that BigPond’s islands were the most popular in Second Life.

The Ponds were founded in March 2007 with 11 islands (now 16) which have hosted virtual concerts, ANZAC Day commemorations and even New Year and Australia Day events.

BigPond recently hosted an AUSTAFE event which involved live streaming of the event from Adelaide into Second Life.

The Ponds also contains five residential islands for users to build themselves virtual real estate to live in, at near 100 per cent occupancy.

Telstra spokesperson Peter Habib told iTnews, “BigPond’s commitment to innovation, interactivity and entertainment in Second Life is a key part of our success.”

Habib said that BigPond has opened a virtual in-world service kiosk that allows Second Life users to interact with BigPond customer service staff in a virtual way.

Hayes said that The Pond’s approach to customers differentiated it from many other brands.

“The real success of The Pond is more about the regular events, the creativity of the builders who often come from the community, elements of nationalism, and many of the organic spaces that promote stickiness by their ‘ambience’ rather than superficial interactivity. This has been a real differentiator.”

Habib dismissed the concerns of other providers with success on Second Life.

“While other companies may not share BigPond’s successes, we are more than pleased with the popularity of our Second Life islands”

Hayes said that companies might not succeed in Second Life for two reasons. First, that many brands were brought into Second Life for the wrong reasons, and with misunderstandings about the social network. “You cannot build into a social network and not be social,” said Hayes. “Early entrants simply did not act human; they acted like a corporation, and built clones of the real world, and didn’t think experientally.”

Second, Hayes said that companies needed to change their offering to virtual customers.

“We are seeing the natural exodus of ‘showroom, build-it-big-and-boring’ brands and the settling of second generation ‘social’ and ‘purposeful’  brands. So The Pond, Accenture, Playboy, The L Word, and about five other key brands are really getting to grips with setting up a virtual base in a social world.”

John Brand, research director at Hydrasight, agreed.

“Only organisations who want to be perceived as ‘bleeding edge’ should ever have been involved in Second Life in the first place,” said Brand.

“Now that Second Life is entering its relative teenage years (measured in Internet years at least), the early adopter bandwagon has well and truly been jumped on.”

But Brand (edit: Hayes) noted that Second Life is not the only virtual world.

“There are at least 50 other mainstream entities and the total audience (according to a trusted site on this topic, KZero) is well over 300 million. In the second quarter of 2008, $161 million was invested in 14 virtual worlds, in the first quarter $184 million put into 23 virtual worlds, so the total this year alone is $345 million across 37 new worlds.

“Australia is a tiny market compared with Europe, Asia, South America and the USA, so fluctuations are highly likely. The fact that the user base of one virtual world fell by 23 per cent in a year is common with any service coming out of a hype phase into a stable mature phase.”

Aug 052008
 

Gary Hazlitt, Gazlitt and me take a ‘break’ in over fifty worlds comprising the current metaverse, here is the holiday video…

I am doing a commercial report and curriculum development on the evolving range of social virtual worlds and have recently ventured into fifty of them to review and sample the culture, creative, business and educational potential. On my travels I got out my virtual camera and decided to capture a bunch of small vignettes which quickly turned into a body of audio visual delights – so decided to create a nice seven minute video for posterity.

I thought I would share the video publically as it demonstrates how ubiquitous, popular and streamlined many of these spaces are becoming across the intraweb / ‘cloud’. With over 300 million frequenting or registering for the non-game based worlds and millions of new investment in 2nd and 3rd generation services there seems to be no stopping them…Enjoy the video  (UPDATE: now standing at over 55 000 views!)

75MB MP4 Download available at http://www.justvirtual.com/SVWS_2008.mp4

A few immediate things that struck me on my travels:

  • That there are quite a few worlds now getting their balance on the shoulders of Second Life and really getting to grips with the social networking aspects vs the 3D’ness
  • There IS a balance between a social space and an ‘agreed’ advertorial world – “you give me valid experience, I accept a level of advertising”
  • A few new entrants realise that using a fully fledged, 3D game engine as the client for what is in the end a glamorous 3D facebook and requiring a high spec’d PC is not the best way. Second generation services like vSide have followed a good middle ground
  • As I reported a few days ago the ‘layered-over-the-2d-web’ version of these worlds such as RocketOn Exit Reality and Weblin show great usability and promise
  • Some worlds are demonstrating the precursor to photo realism and smooth motion while others have as much ‘immersion’ by providing intimacy with your friends in more cutesy environments
  • Many of these worlds operate without the hype we have seen with Second Life and have slowly been building up large communities. Beware any world that tries to launch on hype, as most of these worlds are still in adolescence and not ready for mainstream
  • The Metaverse is a world of connected worlds, how/when/if they are connected will be a real challenge from a technical and standardisation perspective. Especially as a few are starting to concentrate on themes, music, sport and probably in the end very defined niches – fly fishing social world anyone?
  • It is important for those who are supposedly representing or blogging about ‘the metaverse’ to get in there and try these services – beyond registering and wandering around for only 10 minutes (I could name several who haven’t a clue!) but…
  • There are not enough hours in the day to attempt to truly engage with each world but it is amazing how adept you become at spotting flaws and innovation when you put the effort in
  • lots more to follow from the official report in a future post…

KZero are turning out to be the best resource on the planet, tracking Social Virtual Worlds and their latent potential. They gave me permission to publish/post this great chart with a great stab at putting many of the worlds in the video across content sectors.

Social VIrtual Worlds Logos - End 2008

Here is a list of the worlds featured in my video in order of appearance:

Video details:

The ‘Social Virtual’ World’s A Stage
A Film by Gary Hayes © Personalizemedia 2008
http://www.personalizemedia.com

“This is not a Game” – Music composed and performed by
Gary Hayes http://www.korkyt.net

Feb 132008
 

1 Mixed Reality Killer App

OK a ‘give us your comment’ competition. Below an oldie but goody clip from CeBit 2006 but what do you think is the main killer application for this particular synchronous interface? – (no sneaking ideas by reading the hundreds of comments on it’s YouTube page!).

2 iPhone Home

iPhone browsing

Above ‘me browsing the lamp site on me lil’iPhone (I have big fingers BTW).

I am beginning to love (read, depend) on my little iPhone (when I don’t unintentionally brick it adding alpha level apps) and one of it’s coolest features of course is web browsing (including YouTube video watching etc:) over WiFi. So although this is old’ish news from December it’s worth posting about. The iPhone browsing market share is huge compared with all the other mobile devices out there. Net Applications last quarter of 07 report showed that it had nearly 0.1% of the total share of browser platforms used to view the web. That is a significant number firstly as it is the most used browser platform after computer screens (coming in at 10th place) and when you think it had been out in the US for around 5 months vs 10 years of the millions of Windows CE and Palm devices – who could only muster about 2/3 of iPhones share. Very significant.

If like me you have been browsing the web on a mobile phone or my last favourite a Palm TX you do have to ask yourself why the sudden dominance? Seamless integration with Firefox or Safari when you doc your phone to a mac (all the bookmarks just fly across)? The wonderful two finger zoom feature, making the experience much more tactile and fun? The nice chunky keyboard that pops up when you are entering urls, especially in landscape mode with its large screen? The fact that the most popular sites like YouTube actually work!? Perhaps because you can actually fill in forms and ‘do’ your social networks? We would be interested in other reasons we all think the iPhone is such a great mobile browsing device?

Here is a quick snapshot of the top 11 of the list, again pointing out iPhone is the next top browser after larger screen computer based systems:

1. View Trend Windows XP – 78.37%
2. View Trend Windows Vista – 9.19%
3. View Trend MacIntel – 3.59%
4. View Trend Mac OS – 3.22%
5. View Trend Windows 2000 – 2.97%
6. View Trend Windows 98 – 0.76%
7. View Trend Windows NT – 0.63%
8. View Trend Linux – 0.57%
9. View Trend Windows ME – 0.43%
10. View Trend iPhone – 0.09%
11. View Trend Windows CE – 0.06%

3 Mirror Mirror

There are a whole bunch of ‘customisable’ Social Virtual World engines/services springing up that are trying to knock good ole Second Life of it’s pretty prim perch. Most fall into the ‘create anything and do what you want camp’ such as Metaplace, Vastpark, OpenLife, HiPiHi or Multiverse etc: Quite a few fall into the ‘fixed and/or branded’ space such as There.com, Habbo, Nictropolis or Webkinz. Incidentally Raph Koster’s Metaplace went public a few days ago.

So it is going to be interesting how the beta Mirror World will fare given it is very focused on being a precise duplicate of key icons, cities, tourist and business hubs from our physical real world. I can see the attraction of this environment running on top of say Google maps and Google are pushing into this area too, but I wonder if this may be yet another proprietary virtual dead end. To make it really attractive to tourist and business, like any social network, it’s going to need the social part – lots ofpeople and as we know the likes of Habbo and SL (which has itself lots of real world locations within it) have a heck of a start over these, well, start-ups. Of course I will be beta testing this and many others! Some press release blurb…

Mirror World

“From key tourism destinations, places of interest , historical sites to realistic full scale 3-Dimensional replicas of entire cities. This mirror world of our existing planet – âÄúMirror WorldâÄù allows end users to journey through âÄúvirtual wordsâÄù in the comfort of their homes âÄ“ creating a brand new exciting marketing tool for tourism industry players like tourism destination operators, Hoteliers, Shopping Malls, Retail Outlets and more to showcase and sell their destinations and facilities to key markets around the world.”

Feb 132008
 

…or so it seems by the constant line of broadcasters (ABC, SBS, CBC, C4 and endless news reports) who deliver so called ‘insights’ into the growing phenomenon of Social Virtual Worlds. The new BBC doco aired a couple of nights ago (YouTube segments embedded below) brought to mind reasons why traditional media companies may want to negatively ‘colour’ people’s views about the metaverse – but I see a more positive spin.

Many of the LAMP folk here are old enough to remember the sorts of programmes that appeared on TV around the dawn of the internet – “the web is about child porn, sex, deceit, corruption, unregulated, poor experience, obese people, bad dates, breeds killers, broken families” and so on. In fact one or two people quite close still have some of those views! Ten years on, the web is now the young adult on the block that has to be taken seriously and more importantly befriended by the older traditional media areas – it has become mass media and vast swathes of the audience have shifted as it gives them more control if nothing else.

So I feel (and have said in many keynotes over the past years) that 3D Social Virtual Worlds are about at the same point as the web was 10 years ago. Traditional media companies find it hard to stomach large groups of children spending 2-5 hours a day in worlds like Webkinz, Nictropolis, Neopets when they should be watching their daily dose of kids tele. Or worried that larger numbers of women (around 42% of online gamers are women average age 29) are not watching their passive magazine or cooking shows. So what should the response be. To create programmes that show the wonderful educational activity in these spaces, the amazing amount of creativity by new artists, the societies that are working out new ways of living together in simulated towns and cities, the new form of filmmaking, how people are making money from their new found talents, the new friends made etc: no…exactly like 10 years ago they send their reporters along (who generally have spent minimal time getting to know the inworld culture) and focus on how this new form is about adultery, dubious sexual relationships and how it breaks up society and is generally evil 😉 So the positive spin – traditional broadcasters are taking this movement seriously enough to feel the need to put it down. Or am I being paranoid and this is just ‘bottom of the barrel’ sensationalist journalism. Over to you!

The well made, in that it does sensitively show distressed relationships, but ultimately mis-guided programme from the BBC called “Wonderland: Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love ” below is in 4 parts on YouTube