Diagnosing Wonderland & The Future of Virtual Reality
The question was posed to me recently as part of the panel for Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education about what I feel the future of virtual worlds would be, and to define better what the next 18-24 months should focus on for companies like Linden Lab with Second Life. These are questions being bounced back and forth between the moderator and the panelists to sort things out prior to the panel this weekend.
My explanation for what I saw as the history and future of virtual worlds as a whole was a bit out of the ordinary in that I likened it to being a psychiatrist trying to diagnose Arkham Asylum. With the popular definition of insanity being “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” it is a perfect explanation and analogy.
What I’ve seen over the past twenty years is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance and quite possibly insanity, and so (even humorously) I relate to the Arkham Asylum analogy in that the only real explanation for the situation today and in the past has been a combination of cognitive dissonance and self-imposed insanity.
Nearly every case in virtual worlds up until today (not surprisingly) has a doppelganger in the past. There are a few very distinct phases that the industry goes through with each iteration, which makes it dead simple to predict where it will go and for what reasons.
But despite knowing this, it is much harder to convey this information appropriately in order to break that cycle. It isn’t because the information is wrong, nor is it because that information does not have enough evidence to support it. What it boils down to is flat rejection of new information due to strongly held belief to core ideals.
In this manner, the inmates are running the asylum.
If I were to define those phases, it would look something like this:
- Phase One – Introduction of a new client based system.
- Phase Two – Introduction of the VR in Browser system.
- Phase Three – Introduction of HMD & Related Hardware.
Each distinct phase leads to the next upon the trial and error of the prior. For instance, in the early 1990s there was Worlds Inc and their methodology of client as virtual world. You would download the entire world up front before you could enter and each space was a predefined area. After that was ActiveWorlds which was actually a technology spawned by Worlds Inc but rejected in favor of their other in-house client. ActiveWorlds had a dynamically downloaded environment and user-generated space in-client with the tools built in as a sandbox.
This was about the time that VR in a Web Browser arose with standards such as VRML/X3D and plugins to view those worlds emerged. VR on the Web, had an offshoot as Blaxxun 3D (B3D Today) and Cybertown was one of the VRML multi-user environments on the web that utilized this.
Later in the 1990s, we saw the popularization of virtual reality really take off, and HMDs and hardware became more mainstream. Companies such as Vuzix (1997/98) and VFX had headsets back then, in combination with peripherals and devices which today are the genesis of modern peripherals and devices.
Gaming companies during the Phase Three timeline also began introducing their own peripherals. You are most likely aware of Nintendo’s Power Glove, which was a stripped down version of a VR Data Glove from VPL. Jaron Lanier was actually the guy that was called in to consult Nintendo on making it. Sega and Atari also were slated to make VR Headsets for their consoles at the time, but obviously failed in more ways than one.
Jaron was actually pretty popular back then as he also consulted on stuff like Minority Report, Johnny Pneumonic and Lawnmower Man. However, this is really the tip of the iceberg for what his man is responsible for in the industry. For a more in-depth biography – check here.
The point of this observation being that when somebody says Jaron Lanier almost definitely knows more than you about the past, present and future of virtual reality, only a fool would challenge that. So in a recent WIRED magazine article when he stated it was like a weird time-warp listening to Zuckerberg explain what he thought the future of Oculus VR was going to be, we are really in no position to try to go in there and correct the man.
After all, Jaron is also one of the founding editors of WIRED magazine itself. This guy is like one of the godfathers of virtual reality, with an academic and accomplishments list that may as well be untouchable.
Interestingly enough, that doesn’t seem to stop virtual worlds enthusiasts from thinking they are going to do just that – once again showing the irrational decision making aspect of cognitive dissonance, and the blind adherence to the idealized future of virtual reality and Second Life. Cognitive dissonance makes you do really stupid things.
Seeing other analysts in that article also echo the same sentiments isn’t surprising, and it’s not because they’re just trying to be Debbie Downers or just suck up to Jaron Lanier... it’s because they have a long history in the industry and remember when it last repeated.
What you have to remember is that people have been making the same pitch as Zuckerberg for a good thirty years, and it has never come to fruition.
I didn’t hear anything that Zuckerberg said that hasn’t been talked about before in the VR community for a very long time,” says Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner was part of hard-core virtual reality community in the ’80s and ’90s. “It has always been billed as a next-gen communication technology — something that can provide a more immersive and deeper connection to somebody else.”
The truth, as Blau points out, is that most VR technology creates a very solitary experience. It’s something you do alone, not with others.
Recent history has shown that if you try to make it more than that, it struggles to find an audience. Second Life — the virtual world that received such hype at the turn of the millennium before falling into obscurity — is the big cautionary tale. And that’s what Zuckerberg and Facebook are eying: A new Second Life. They even talk of selling virtual goods in this world, painting this as a potentially significant source of revenue for the company.
If you think it’s just WIRED, Jaron Lanier, and an analyst from Gartner making these assertions, you’d also be wrong. Even UbiSoft and gaming companies are luke-warm to the virtual reality hype.
Might we one day see a new Assassin's Creed or Far Cry game that uses virtual reality technology? According to Ubisoft Vice President of Creative Lionel Raynaud, it's possible, but technology like Oculus Rift or Sony's just-announced Project Morpheus need to put up big numbers first.
"VR would need to sell at least 1 million units to be viable for development," Raynaud said tonight in San Francisco during a roundtable interview attended by GameSpot.
Of course, that was amended shortly afterward because making a statement like that in public would cause a shit-storm in PR to HMD makers who desperately need the big support. Having people not drinking the kool-aid and saying how great it is will hinder their adoption, and so everyone needs to get on board. But you get the real thinking in the first quote before they got that call from Sony ripping UbiSoft’s president a new one, who in turn had a pleasant talk with Lionel the next morning.
But it doesn’t stop there... even Business Insider is making similar calls about virtual reality, albeit a little less direct. Just saying that Facebook buying Oculus was just a throw-away at worst because it doesn’t matter if it fails.
Well, it matters to me and probably you if Oculus tanks because the wide reaching implication is that the industry falls back into obscurity and relegated as a fad once again, as we rinse and repeat back to Phase One. But that’s pretty much what is awaiting Oculus VR going forward...
This time it’s actually a little easier to see that coming, because Phase One is already tipping it’s hand prematurely in the form of hifidelity from Philip Rosedale. There’s your next Phase One “VR as Client” kickoff.
It’s starting to blur together at this point, as the industry is just throwing everything together in a pot and hoping something makes a recipe.
So the take-away here is that when Phase Three runs its course, it is usually about this time that we cycle to Phase One again, to repeat the history.
Looking at this logically, we can see the correlations quite clearly and unmistakably. It’s a matter of historical comprehension and not speculation, which is what analysts are citing when they are making their assertions about the current situation.
When we find historical doppelgangers to modern day industry, we can therefore trace the historical context and outcome to the modern attempts as well. Looking into the future involves looking into our past, so long as that present and future insists on borrowing from it heavily.
Take into consideration Avatar Reality/Blue Mars. An updated carbon copy of Worlds Inc as a model and software. It followed the same premise and operation, and therefore was subject to the same outcome. When this was explained to them, there was cognitive dissonance as described above – and so it was impossible to avoid that outcome.
Both models existed based on downloading pre-made worlds prior to entry, and as a matter of course, both existed on the premise of content creation fees for creating and storing those worlds.
But what of ActiveWorlds and Second Life as doppelgangers?
They both exist as dynamic user-generated virtual worlds, they both thrived on a simulator business model, both had a hard time justifying their Premium accounts, both offered personal houses/spaces as a benefit, both famously spent much of their time saying that updating their software was impossible or not feasible, and both suffered from not investing in that re-write to update their systems properly.
Both ActiveWorlds and SecondLife surround themselves with favorable opinions, pass the buck or make decisions not based on feasibility but on unwillingness to do so. Both are notorious for implementing things only after users find a way to hack the functionality into their viewer or repurpose existing methods for new methods, and both are notorious for dragging their feet or trying to bury dissenting opinions while rewarding only favorable opinions (cognitive dissonance).
I could go on all day about the similarities of practice and outcome between the two, and even the community itself shadowing the past, and how ActiveWorlds is the doppelganger of SecondLife, but the only thing that ultimately matters is that the outcome is the same if you are mimicking a past iteration.
So if we want to know what will happen to Second Life and ultimately Linden Lab, we merely have to ask what happened to ActiveWorlds as a result of this sequence of events.
When the Phase Three of the 1990s failed, it recycled back around to Phase One again, and so we saw another round of VR as Client initiatives which again borrowed heavily from the prior generation. There.com, Second Life, etc all found their roots historically and had no problem copying it with a little more polish this time. But each one of those iterations succumbed to the same outcomes as the generation they were mimicking.
Again, we’re talking about blatant examples of cognitive dissonance and popularized definition of insanity.
So, too, it wasn’t a surprise to see Phase Two arise again a few years ago with the re-popularization of VR in a Web Browser, since the introduction of WebGL standards. But again, if you’re going to follow the historical route, you are already doomed to conclude the same way. It was no different than the rise and irrelevance of VRML/X3D and the companies that had a vested interest in VR on the Web in the 1990s versus the rise of WebGL and VR on the Web again a few years back.
In this generation, the version of Worlds Inc methodologies were mimicked with BlueMars, and the methodologies of ActiveWorlds have been mimicked by Linden Lab with Second Life.
It is actually eerily uncanny how this is repeating itself. Even the discontent with Second Life leading to reverse engineering it to make independent versions under OpenSim mimics what happened in ActiveWorlds with third parties rushing to make their own virtual world system altogether or via purchasing a white label version of ActiveWorlds license and them differentiating themselves as their own independent universe/galaxy.
The latter isn’t surprising to me in the least because a certain Adam Frisby (SineWave), who you might recall is one of the people responsible for OpenSim was also known as Gwala in ActiveWorlds at the same time as that independent universe/3rd party offering rush came to pass. So when the same discontent happened in Second Life, or maybe that virtual worlds frustration carried over from ActiveWorlds, it’s no surprise that Adam was on the forefront of OpenSim in the beginnings.
This is why knowing your virtual world history means so much.
The take-away from all of this is the answer to the original question posed at the beginning. What do I think the future of virtual worlds will be, and what can be done in the next 18-24 months to put a company like Linden Lab on the right course?
Well, the answer to that question is a quantum answer. It exists as a failure and success simultaneously depending on what choices are made going forward. It’s not something that can be reduced to a sound bite or explained in a few minutes, because the answer to that question is a monumental amount of reorganization, education, and execution across the board – not to mention it is entirely at the mercy of people who experience insanity and cognitive dissonance to enact, which is a nice way of saying it more than likely will be ignored or completely half-assed if considered.
But here’s some initial thoughts on what to focus on in the next 18-24 months, and by no means is it all-inclusive. That’s what having an advisory board is supposed to do for you over the course of long-term engagement versus trying to sum it up in a power point in ten minutes.
Because let’s be honest... if anyone could have fixed the virtual world industry in ten minutes, they would have by now. And if anyone could have fixed Linden Lab in ten minutes the CEO roster wouldn’t look like a revolving door, nor the company a graveyard of half-assed ideas, unfinished work and mid-life crisis.
So let’s start simply:
If the industry continues mimicking the past, it is doomed to repeat it. That means if we’re unable to truly re-imagine and evolve virtual reality into something new and exciting, something relevant to the real world on a broader scale, it is going to be relegated to repeating the same mistakes and we’ll have the same outcomes.
So the first order of business is to actually learn the history of virtual worlds/pop culture, and much of those outcomes, in order to avoid the same mistakes.
I’ve provided a link to a comprehensive paper on this exact subject that covers the entirety in detail. Subsequently, it’s my own paper from Association for Computing Machinery published last summer. I’m just nice enough not to make you pay for it. That being said, I can’t read and understand it for you on your behalf...
The second order of business is to get your own business in order. Figure out what actually is a Premium benefit and what you were bullshitting about (read: poaching the community). If you’re ripping off the community with it, you need to stop that and learn what the term “Added value” actually means.
The third order of business would be to resolve the company identity crisis. Realize that Second Life is a virtual environment platform in which all manner of things can be created for countless use-cases. Then realize that you’re not a video game company. Also learn the difference between virtual environment and video game.
If the platform itself were made more robust to cater to that content creation, Linden Lab wouldn’t need to make games independently as stand-alone products or purchase a content distribution platform. They already had both in Second Life if they chose to support it.
Instead of chasing their tails and playing “me too”, had they understood that Second Life is a universal platform that empowers creation in countless use case scenarios – they would have realized a few years ago that it would also be an excellent platform to empower an Augmented Reality future where Virtual Reality merges with Reality.
Some kid in Japan got bored and made this in his spare time. It makes what Linden Lab and the rest of the industry has been up to and trumping as the next big thing look like a monumental joke.
As an aside... I know how this is actually done in real time, and I also know how to build a better version of it that makes this one look like a toy. But it’s a sound concept nonetheless considering that there really is nothing else like it – unless you want to count Meta Spaceglasses... which are like... half as capable as this video demonstration.
The most obvious evolution of virtual reality in the future looks nothing like the past but redefines the future.
When you no longer can find a doppelganger in the past for what you’re doing today, you are now making your own future instead of reliving history.
That’s my answer for the future of virtual worlds.
Repeat History or Make History.