An average virtual world for average people on Facebook | #SecondLife
Last night was pretty quiet for me as I enjoyed some downtime playing Minecraft, but all that came to an abrupt halt when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was Kevin Simkins who is currently out in California addressing some details for a project in conjunction with NASA. What he had to say peaked my interest only marginally, the gist was that a new virtual world named Cloud Party had gone into open beta only a few minutes prior and he wanted my analysis of it.
Clearly Kevin was excited, so I didn’t want to essentially rain on his parade – not that particle weather exists in virtual worlds yet. When it comes to these virtual worlds in a browser implementations, I always have a moment of immediate ennui that hits me. I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and my first thought whenever somebody tells me about a new browser based virtual environment is “This will be underwhelming at best.”
So, let’s get this review over with before I yawn so hard my jaw dislocates.
A familiar logo graces the party. Clearly Mesh Import is an option.
Cloud Party, for those who don’t know, is a virtual world built as an app in Facebook. From what I can discern, the name of the app itself gives an indication of the technical things happening in that I would believe this is a cloud based server system running what I can only assume is something similar to Kitely which (I believe) is an Opensim implementation on cloud architecture. The front-end looks to be a slightly more polished version of the web embed system I saw in alpha a year or so ago for OpenSim, or maybe it’s an iteration of what Jibe has done in their camp. I know Jibe uses Unity and is done by ReactionGrid, which for all intents and purposes has little in common with OpenSim implementations, but it’s undeniable that this is very likely a flavor of Second Life.
I’ve always had this bias against virtual worlds implemented inside a web browser, and I have a very good reason. In all the years I’ve been in the virtual worlds industry, I have yet to see a virtual world in a web browser that isn’t stripped to bare bones in order to compensate for the fact that it’s not using a native client. There’s always a trade off when you do this, and usually it’s in the usability and features section.
A screenshot of ExitReality, another virtual world in web browser implementation.
Immediately upon entering the party, which is a term I’m going to use ironically, I was slapped in the face with just how limited this is in comparison to a full viewer/native client implementation. The premise of Cloud Party being that each “area” is a floating island and each of those islands are interconnected spaces via bubbles you see in the sky. You can click those bubbles in the sky with other floating islands to “teleport” to them, so at least this is a half decent method to address tablet use and make the spaces easy to access for people who aren’t accustomed to something more robust.
Building is something I didn’t really tackle, but from what I can tell it works very differently than something like Second Life.
I dropped about 3 safes on the ground before I gave up.
I’m a bit torn on the preset objects library. Seems like a very basic Inventory.
I didn’t see anything familiar for moving items around, in so much as the X,Y,Z axis arrows like in Second Life. The Building Palette is comprised of premade objects and the ability to upload your own objects from a local source, though I have to admit there was no immediate indication of what formats in mesh this handles for upload.
I’m sure the upload of objects in conjunction with a marketplace is something Cloud Party will be implementing later on, because they have to pay the bills somehow.
The basics for the interface seem to be tied to a PDA in the upper right corner, though somebody told me it’s actually a Smart Phone icon. I suppose we’d be arguing semantics at that point since a smart phone essentially is a PDA these days, the digital swiss-army knife.
But I digress, as usual.
When you think about it, a Tablet in your Metaverse in your Web Browser is pretty Meta.
Being in Beta, there really isn’t much in the way of content. This goes for the Outfits section and avatar customization options which are nowhere near as comprehensive as a seasoned user would expect. Essentially it boils down to a short list of preselected clothing (couple of tshirts, few pairs of jeans, same style of hair in a few different colors) but nothing to get excited about. The experience in this section is pretty homogenized with nothing to really differentiate your avatar or make it personalized. Everyone more or less looks the same at this point, which you could chalk up to this being an early beta. That being said, I’m disturbed by this trend of companies to launch stuff to the public half finished and work on it further in a live state… this really should have been more polished in a closed beta with tiered integration of more users over time in order to make this far more polished before a total opening of the floodgates.
I’d like to see the shape abilities in this to really be able to make your avatar look like you want instead of the equivalent of the newbie Ruth in Second Life.
I mean, while I really do understand they are in early beta, being forced to look like this on opening day seems a bit dated at best. Not exactly the technology launch I was expecting. If anything, Cloud Party seems more like a technology preview than a finished application.
I would have hoped that a serious virtual world offering on Facebook would have been more polished. I’m already biased against these things because I always seem to see these virtual worlds in browser and they end up lackluster in seriously released form, but being lackluster out of the gate is just an insult to me. The entire point of trying to get people to be excited about a product is to put your best foot forward on a public launch. In the world of social media, especially in Facebook, you are now in a world of hurt as hundreds of millions of potential people check out your launch and say “What the hell is this?” and move on to something like Castleville or Angry Birds.
Considerably, that’s the audience you’re playing to at this point if you’re trying to get into social media implementation, and Zynga will bitch slap you if you don’t bring your A-Game to the table from the beginning. One of the comments I’ve heard over and again while using Cloud Party is that it’s like Second Life circa 2004, which to me isn’t a good thing. I mean, I find it hard to justify that this is a leap forward when technologically speaking it’s being openly compared to technology from 8 years ago.
However there is some good…
Far be it for me to be completely negative here, because I really do think there is a bit of good to be had from this. What is lacking in presentation and technical prowess I’d state is made up in the sociological indoctrination aspect. At the very least, this is a very lightweight virtual world implementation stripped down for the Facebook short attention span crowd. Being in a web browser is good for people who can’t be bothered to have a full fledged client, so you can’t exactly expect this to be Crysis level graphics. That being said, I’m still not impressed by Cloud Party. We could very well say that avayal.live does a far better job of virtual world in a browser, and if it wasn’t for the sandbox ability of Cloud Party, then it wouldn’t really have anything to add merit to its existence. Essentially, the sandbox ability is really the only saving grace here against many other virtual worlds in a web browser.
An early version of web.alive (avayalive) shows a much more polished interface.
Not to disappoint Kevin, who for all intents and purposes is the resident virtual worlds bad-ass, there are a number of sociological merits for implementing a virtual environment in a web browser, however such comes at the expense of lowest common denominator graphics and/or functionality to compensate (at least with current generation technology). In the long haul, it still offers something compelling for the light usage aspect but I wouldn’t go so far to say they’ve “done the impossible” as I read on their forums from another user.
The underlying question for me has always been that fine line of metaphor interaction, where we have to ask whether a stripped down virtual world in a web browser is really the future or whether we should instead be focusing on integrating the web into a native virtual world client. I clearly fall on the latter opinion in that a web browser is the lowest hanging fruit of complexity to incorporate into a virtual world client while in order to incorporate a virtual world into a web browser it will clearly have to suffer along a lot of lines to make this happen. Why take something that by all means should be graphically pleasing (a metaverse client) and deliberately bastardize it to work in a constraint that it is arbitrary?
HTML 5 be damned, it’s still not powerful enough to compete against a native client for virtual worlds.
What this boils down to is the “separate but equal” mentality for virtual worlds. Making a stripped down version of a more powerful system to embed in a web page while taking away a lot of the interface expectations and abilities in the process creates a fractured ecosystem. What you come to expect in something like Cloud Party isn’t what you get when you log into OpenSim, ReactionGrid or Second Life using a native client. This only compounds the problem already in progress with a plethora of virtual worlds all doing their own thing and nobody can agree to work together.
From a virtual worlds standard perspective, this just adds more fuel to the fire. Essentially, I may as well state that Cloud Party is about as innovative as the age old industry dream to cram a virtual world into a web browser from the mid-1990’s. I really have no idea what the obsession with this idea is, as if the web itself is the appropriate container for a full fledged virtual environment.
My understanding of the Metaverse is the following analogy:
The Metaverse is like the real world you walk around and interact with. The World Wide Web is the newspaper you read in the morning while you’re drinking your coffee in that Metaverse.
Therefore, the newspaper exists inside the Metaverse but the Metaverse doesn’t exist inside your newspaper.
This is Kevin Simkins, known in the virtual worlds industry by some as “Commander Bad-Ass”
The Bottom Line
Here’s a quick checklist of things that would have to happen before I ever accept the validity of a virtual environment in a web browser:
1. The end-user experience isn’t different between the web version and full client.
2. Both web client and native client are sandbox virtual environments.
3. Graphically, both instances should be on par with modern 3D Engine graphics.
4. Both the web client and the fully native client should access the exact same service.
5. Both are massive multi-user environments, sharing the same perceptual space.
6. If Google Plus and Facebook can have Voice and Video chat, a virtual world should as well.
7. High level of avatar customization is a must.
8. If I can log into the web version with a social media account, so should the native client.
9. User generated content and marketplace is a must.
10. Be bold and actually do something worth getting excited about.
So who is Cloud Party good for?
Bottom line, it’s good for people who have never seen an advanced virtual environment like Second Life before. It’s geared toward the casual user, so in the grand scheme of things it’s good for an entry level indoctrination to the ecosystem. For the average user of Facebook, it’ll provide that quick-fix social environment of attention deficit they expect, but I’m loathe to say it’ll be anything deeper.
I can see this being used for low-impact spaces in regard to maybe meetings, some basic games, or collaboration, but again I have to state that if you’ve become accustomed to more robust virtual environments, then Cloud Party will likely not be as appealing since you’re being stripped considerably. Maybe in a few more years this will finally mature, but right now it’s a blast from the past. Who am I kidding… we’ve been saying that virtual worlds in a web browser will be the future since the 1990s. As far as I’m concerned, it’ll always be “just a few more years to mature”.
It’ll fill a niche, but I’m not expecting a revolution.