The Future of the Virtual World

by francine Hardaway on May 2, 2007

What am I doing sitting in a panel on the future of the virtual world? Have I lost my mind?

But the gaming industry has come to view itself as part of the social media movement; it is looking at applications that have to do with connecting people. And that’s a segment I am truly interested in.

The CEO of Digital Chocolate makes games for the mobile phone in which you get to go to a virtual cafe and play a bunch of games with your friends — like Starbucks for the virtual world. He wants people to look forward to his virtual cafe for the mobile market. The first generation of mobile content was prefabricated, like ringtones, he says, but the 2.0 includes interactive features.

Millions of Us connects companies in the real world to customers in the virtual world. Its CEO used to work for Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life. He thinks Second Life’s community is the virtual equivalent to “Bowling Alone.” The primary urges that drive people to spend time in virtual spaces are those that have to do with community.

Doppelganger is a virtual world on the PC and Mac. Very immersive, rich, city environment. They have taken a lot of the ideas of social interaction and brought them into architecture of the virtual world. Virtual worlds allow segmented communities of people to come closer together. Their twist is on social entertainment: movies, TV, music and fashion. Teenagers get a chance on Doppelganger to live a virtual lifestyle.

And IGA Worldwide provides in-game advertising networks now. Ads are dynamically delivered at the side of the page as if they were billboards at a football game. There are also virtual worlds of advertising in the games.

While the press wrings its hands at the amount of time people are spending alone at the computer, the makers of these virtual worlds believe this time is spent in authentic social interaction — not alone. The users form friendships that go beyond geographical distance to true commonality of interests. Friendships and bonds formed in the virtual world are every bit as emotional as those in the real world.

People who are having a difficult time making their real social life work have these worlds to fall back on to practice their social skills. They actually look for love and find it in the virtual world, and some can extend it to the real world.

Data from the early days of Second Life indicates that the average age of a registrant is higher than you would think (33) and pretty gender-balanced (60%men-40%women). However, when it comes to usage, the balance is reversed; women actually use Second Life more than men.

Because the early users of Second Life were escapists, the bulk of the early growth in real estate was in rural areas, not city environments. Second Life was the place where you could afford to buy your own desert island. But increasingly the population has been tending toward “augmentists” – people who use Second Life as an extension of their first lives. They make their avatars look like themselves. They originate friendships in the virtual world and then start having physical meetups and conventions.

The CEOs of these games know that people in these online environments get bored quickly unless they develop friends. 3D content is very expensive to author, but users burn through it very fast. Users have to generate the content, build the community, in order to find it interesting — even though what they build is not as attractive as a community built for them, like Sony Home.

The CEOs of these gaming companies-cum-social networks of course see their segments as growing huge. The mobile guy sees mobile gaming growing like SMS did. SMS wasn’t even developed as a product for consumers originally, but just as a test to see if the telephone network was there. And the ad network guy sees wonderful new platforms to serve ads. And the Millions of US CEO will connect the advertisers to the virual environments.

Be careful, reality: these guys view real life as virtual and themselves as avatars.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: