Mapping the future

I’m a bit of a fan of maps, even strange ones, and I’ve been wondering lately about a world of virtual worlds and how that might look on a globe, with each virtual world represented by countries, with continents of related worlds. So a continent with countries for the Second Life grid, corporate grids and Open Sim grids for example. Beyond just looking cool, I think mapping out our virtual world – be that social networks, information/tags, 3d environments – in a visual way will make it more accessible. Still checking to see if someone has done it already but if they haven’t I’m thinking FreeEarth might work for a little experiment…

Just thinking out loud.


Recipe for a Virtual World 3: places

Virtual Worlds need people and people need places. For collaboration or socialising, a sense of place sets virtual worlds apart from alternatives like instant messaging and conference calls. As in the real world, meeting to play games or do business (or both) in a virtual world needs a place to do it. Unlike the real world, there are few constraints to limit these places. It doesn’t rain if you don’t want it to, and you don’t need shade from the sun, so a roof becomes an aesthetic choice rather than a necessity. Physics; what goes up, might come down if you want it to. Yet the possibilities are not endless if you want a virtual space to be successful: the remaining constraints, other than any technical limitations, are formed by people’s expectations. And discovering what those are, and how they vary, is going to be interesting. (I’m going to predict that 3d blinking text won’t be popular!)

With all these virtual places, navigating virtual worlds has startling (to me at least!) similarities to navigating the real world. To make things interesting, some of the problems navigating the real world are magnified. My first experience of Second Life was teleporting to a totally random set of locations and some subsequent aimless wandering/flying. I have absolutely no idea where any of those places are! I did try and go back to one of them later but without any GPS I didn’t stand a chance. To start with teleporting reminded me of stepping out of tube stations in London- I gradually get to know the area round stations I visit frequently, without realising that they are in fact practically next to each other! To make matters worse, navigating by landmarks can be unreliable when the landmarks can change so quickly and completely. It’s like going back to a home town after moving away for years, when new roads and buildings have replaced old familiar landmarks. Except that change happens much faster in a virtual world, and even mountains can move!

I quickly learnt to save landmarks of places I might want to return to in Second Life, which leads to the next tiny problem. Places change. In the real world, people and businesses move. In the virtual world they seem to do it a lot! I might go back to a cake shop I visited a month or two ago in the real world to discover that it now sells clothes. In the virtual world, I might go back to a shop to discover that the shop has gone, along with the town it was in! I might teleport in to the middle of a battlefield! It will get even more interesting when places move from one virtual world to another- my Second Life landmark is not going to do much good in Kaneva!

The DNS system already provides a way to look up the address of a computer based on a name. So the computer this weblog is hosted on could move from one country to another and the name you use to view it would stay the same. Instead of a post code (isn’t a zip what you use on clothes?!) system, maybe a Place Name Service (PNS) would help. No need to restrict this one to virtual worlds either. Register your place name and when someone uses it, they could end up with a real world address, a Second Life landmark, etc. etc.

That doesn’t solve the problem of finding places in the first place. This is a bigger problem on a general purpose virtual world, since not finding a place you think is interesting or useful is likely to mean you leave thinking that the whole virtual world is not interesting or useful. There could have been the most amazing place just round the corner and you would never know. (You’ll live without it but thats a big problem for a virtual world that wants more active users.) In the real world, you might use a guide book or go on a tour to find interesting places. Why not do the same in a virtual world? Or, as with anything on the internet, look out for where other people are going. Tom Werner’s blog might be a good place to look, although I must admit I am slightly biased!

So what are your top 5 virtual places (Second Life or anywhere else)?

Recipe for a Virtual World 2: people

While the rest won’t be in any specific order, the second in the series is for what I think is the most important ingredient: people. In fact, if there is a killer application for virtual worlds, it’s people. (Well, obviously that sentence doesn’t quite work but people are the key ingredient in meetings and education, the two killer apps which Irving Wladawsky-Berger talked about when he visited Hursley recently.)

Without people, you’re left with 3d graphics, or not even that for some virtual worlds. If you want to show off some 3d design on a web page, there would certainly be better ways to do it if slick graphics, simplicity or speed were you primary concern. You could mash up 3d content and social software in some sort of google CAD application so people can collaborate on garden layouts/kitchen designs/pimping their ride, and there are already instant messaging tools, voice over IP and web cams, so who needs a virtual world? There’s no one thing that you can do in a virtual world that you can’t do another way but virtual worlds tie it all together in a natural way. (Well, I’m sure there’s room for improvement but the potential is definitely there.)

If you just try out your first virtual world without anyone else, you’re unlikely to see them at their best. It’s a lot like arriving in a big city- there must be things to do and people to talk to, but where do you start? Exploring with someone you already know can help a lot. That’s certainly my experience with Second Life; the first time I logged in was very nearly my last. It was only after being shown round a few places and meeting up with people in-world that I began to see the potential. I think linking up virtual worlds with social networks is a great idea in this respect, which I think Kaneva does, and you can now do with the Second Life Link on Facebook.

Trying out virtual worlds with a specific purpose in mind also seems like a good way to experience the people power early on, whether they’re people you already know, or just other people with a common interest. The I am Legend Second Life game is a fun example, but I recently heard about talkademy which just sounds fantastic. One of my excuses for being so bad at languages is just not having the chance to practice. I rarely go to Spain or Germany, and when I do, everyone is far too kind and happily talks in English before I’ve barely struggled through my first sentence! Using virtual worlds to practice sounds like a great use of virtual worlds. Another killer app?

Recipe for a Virtual World 1: preheat oven

I’ve been procrastinating over posting a list of virtual world ingredients for a while so, instead of one big post, this is the first in a series (a.k.a. plan B).

Before getting started, Roo Reynolds very eloquently explains why you might want a virtual world in the first place.

There are quite a variety of virtual worlds out there, so some of the ingredients will only need to be added to taste. I have an idea of where I’m going to start but if there are any suggestions that would be great too; just bring your own ingredients a la Ready Steady Cook!