Virtual Worlds Real Choices

I have been thinking about this post for a while. But what it is actually about I am not sure. Call it a statement on 3 dimensional interactive online virtual worlds. I have been floating around in Second Life (SL) since the middle of 2006. Before that I have experienced both ActiveWorlds and the now discontinued Adobe Atmosphere. But 2007 seems to be the year that 3D online environments bloomed and spread in a way that reminds me of P2P file sharing around 2001-02.

Here in HUMlab we use 3D worlds for a number of applications; teaching, modeling, simulation, meetings, and representation (story telling) being a few. The more I have been thinking about the different platforms there are the less I believe we should commit to a single one. Second Life is very popular at the moment, but I have a feeling that it is the one that leads the charge in the ‘normal’, that is it is the one that establishes the medium as a mainstream web/social application. Starting about the middle of last year (roughly when I got into SL myself, although I had known about it from the middle of 2005 when Professor Mary Flanagan used it in teaching a course I attended at Södertörn college) the number of 3D alternatives to SL have exploded. Here are a few that are approaching on the horizon or are recently online:

Xivio: a community based 3D chat world.

Ogoglio: an interesting project that will cluster 3D worlds (not yet in beta), rather than have them on a single server system as is the case with SL. My world on my computer will co ordinate with other worlds on other computers. A good idea I think.

Outback Online: Some of the more radical elements in SL that I have been chatting to have been speaking about this yet-to-be 3D platform. It has been nominated for a NextWeb award, even thought they have yet to show anything to the public. Could be interesting.

Moove: 3D chat that works on clusters from downloading onto your own computer. Moove seems to be trying to pick up those who want a nice environment to chat with friends, rather than the massive and unpredictable environments of SL.

Forterra: This is from the simulation and education end of the 3D scene with an emphasis on “organizations to train, plan, rehearse, communicate and collaborate just as they would in the real world”.

Kaneva: Although I have not been in here it has real SL feel to it (“Social Entertainment Network”, sculptured avatars, hook up with friends, communities, cool places and entertainment). Done by registering with a server and it is free.

In following the debates going on about Virtual Worlds and everything from sexual predators to educational possibilities, one theme that emerges is their relationship to what we collectively term reality. Henry Jenkins has an interesting post discussing how;

[The] digital world teaches us that the digital world is never totally disconnected from the real world. Even when we go onto the digital world to “escape” reality, we end up engaging with symbolic representations which we read in relation to reality. We learn things about our first lives by stepping into a Second or parallel life which allows us to suspend certain rules, break out of certain roles, and see the world from a fresh perspective.

I agree with Henry’s position. The idea that we are somewhere else in a so called ‘virtual world’ needs to be reconsidered. Such an understanding limits the uses and applications of a 3D environment. The growing popularity of these platforms is perhaps the catalyst for a shift of popular intuition. With such a shift can come opportunities for innovative and creative applications of the tools and experiences 3D worlds provide.