By Karl Emmerick
One of the frontiers of interactive online experiences, virtual worlds, had a very real presence in San Jose, California last week. On October 10-11, representatives from a broad spectrum of interests in entertainment and technology converged upon the San Jose Convention Center for the arrival of the first Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo on the West Coast.
Virtual worlds are sometimes confused with massively multiplayer online games, as being synonymous entities. In fact, even though virtual worlds are frequently gaming or entertainment experiences, they can be described as interactive social environments. Second Life, for example, is a blank slate slate, which allows players to create their own content and experiences in-game, while games like World of WarCraft are scripted, which encourage following a path or series of paths within a defined game world. In other words, virtual worlds are like having the ability to write your own book, while playing in an MMO game is like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book. How players differentiate these forms of interactive entertainment is one thing, but how business perceives them is entirely another: For them virtual worlds are heavily user-defined online spaces with plenty of empty virtual billboard space, which makes them highly desirable targets of interest for advertisers and investors.
It was for that reason that Internet-savvy mass media companies Disney Online, Cartoon Network, MTV and other enterprises made a showing in support of interactive social networking ventures. By the same token, it was the same reason why Anthony Zuiker, creator of the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation dramatic television series, was a keynote speaker, discussing an episode related to Second Life that will air on October 24th in specific while also discussing the power of media convergence (between the Internet, music, Hollywood and new social networking portals).
Sessions and panels addressed thorny questions, such as those of how to bring virtual worlds to a complex Asian market that is ethnically diverse, and in many ways more experienced and sophisticated than the North American market in the field of multiplayer online games. Since it's unfair to pose a question with any tip of the hat to the answers -- essentially partnering with regional companies, innovating products for the specific markets and knowing how to pitch and present them is critical for success, according to the panelists.
Not surprising, considering the many questions about the future of virtual worlds, the "Visionary Panel - Where the Platforms are Going Next" session was filled to capacity - and spilling out into the hallway. Among the speakers at this panel was veteran MMO developer Raph Koster, President and Founder of Areae, who's been working on a mysterious but buzz-heavy virtual worlds project that's drawn the interest and curiosity of quite a few industry insiders. The project, Metaplace, is an open source development platform that allows end users and not just hard-boiled coders to create games, virtual spaces and more through a user-friendly scripting language. Plus, a host of tools planned out of the gate will add to the planned customization capabilities of Metaplace.
While visionary, lofty, if not always concrete, thinking was definitely on display at the Virtual Worlds show, there were more grounded technologies being shown off in executable form. One such presentation was Movable Life at the 3Di booth, a technology that allows players to log into, and play to a limited extent, within Second Life on a web browser. Currently, the light version allows players text communication, inventory management, and Google Maps-style navigation through the Second Life world.
In a similar vein, inDuality, created by Pelican Crossing and IBM, was showing off an alpha version of a slick 3D standalone client designed to allow subscribers seamless browser-based access with full functionality to numerous virtual worlds through a Microsoft XP or Vista operating system and Internet Explorer.
Speaking of IBM, in addition to the Pelican Crossing project, they made the most of the show in announcing new technological initiatives and partnerships in virtual worlds. IBM formally announced they're partnering with Linden Labs and other companies to create a common set of standards for a 3D Internet, "to drive open standards and interoperability to enable avatars -- the online persona of visitors to these online worlds -- to move from one virtual world to another with ease, much like you can move from one website to another on the Internet today," as announced in their press release.
Virtual worlds are a newly recognized branch of the online gaming family tree, and so far, mass media, advertisers, game developers, technology giants, social networking websites are all frantically trying to stake their claim and figure out how to build the ideal experience for consumers and mark up a hefty bottom line doing it. So far in virtual worlds there isn't the sizzle of Halo 3 to share with an audience, the mind-blowing poly-count of a new PlayStation 3 game to show, or any of that classic gaming sexiness. --just the promise of a new Internet that marries classic and new media in a way that may eventually rethink how we see television, moves, music, the Internet and online games. One thing is for sure, right now given the interest, collaborations in the works, and the almost visceral smell of money in the air, that many attendees feel there is gold in them thar virtual hills.