My Problem with Putting Second Life to the Milkshake Test

Tiny Dragon Milkshake by ShardsOfBlueI recently came across an excerpt on Slate.com from The Myth of the Garage and Other Minor Surprises, a new book by Dan and Chip Heath that just launched, titled “Why Second Life Failed,” that proposed the way to make better predictions and avoid fads is to use Clay Christensen’s “milkshake test.”

This premise hinges on an imagined fast-food scenario where marketers dig into customer data to learn that milkshakes are being purchased by morning commuters. Why? Because they are “hiring” the milkshake to perform the “job” of supplying them with a cupholder-compatible breakfast option.

Following this train of thought, the iPod succeeded because we all wanted to hire someone to give us access to our own music on-the-go, but the Segway failed because “No one was interested in employing a $5,000 walk-accelerator.”

As many of you who’ve read this blog or known me for long know, I was the one who led Dell into the virtual world of Second Life (SL), so I have a very personal interest in this theory applied to SL.

What the Slate story’s author proposes is that the reason SL didn’t usher in the age of the avatar that Gartner predicted (and then cautioned against a year later) is that it didn’t have a job to do. They feel it was a job candidate “with a fascinating resume…but no actual labor skills.”

And it is here, that I beg to differ. Second Life and virtual worlds do have labor skills – perhaps too many even. If I want to shop with my friend, but she’s in another country, I could hire a virtual world mall to bring us together to look at this season’s fashion trends, try them on and ask her if they make me look good. If I need to have a meeting with coworkers spread around the globe and I don’t want them reading email and ignoring me on the phone, I could hire a virtual world to provide an immersive meeting space that brings everyone’s focus on the topic at hand. If I need to show a customer how to insert a replacement part I sent them, but can’t incur the expense to fly a technician there, I could walk them through it in 3D via a virtual world.

The list really does go on and on, and maybe that’s part of the problem. An iPod is a specialist in music delivery. You may say, but an iPhone does a wide variety of things from games to banking, and it succeeded. But, I say even it is a specialist — in delivering mobile access to applications (the phone portion is really just a fringe benefit, right?).

Virtual worlds are generalists. They can do so many things only limited by their users’ imagination, that they still aren’t simple enough for mass acceptance. Second Life is the wide open frontier and that limits its avid users to the rugged pioneer types.

I don’t think the quandary of why Second Life or OpenSim or other virtual worlds did not become as widely adopted as we thought they would can be solved by simply saying they didn’t build a better milkshake – or as Henry Ford would put it, a faster horse.

No, if I had to come up with just one reason why I think experiments such as the ones we tried at Dell did not take off like I’d hoped, I would have to say it was lack of simplicity. Until the technology can be as intuitive as, say, sliding our fingers across a screen to move objects, then the barriers are just too high for those who prefer creature comforts to frontier creatures.

Image via Creative Commons courtesy of ShardsOfBlue

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The 3D Web Is Still Coming. Don’t Be Caught Catching Up.

I’ve had two tabs open in my browser for a while now with two very interesting articles both related to virtual worlds. I wanted to do more than just tweet a link to them. I thought I’d Amplify them, but the topics are so similar they didn’t really make sense to do as two and there’s no way to combine them there. So, instead, I’m relying on that old technology of blogging <wink> to let me share these interesting articles. 

Time to put together a well-educated opinion on either has not materialized, however. So, I’ll just share a few highlights that really caught my interest.

Business on OpenSim

The killer app for OpenSim is as a platform for virtual meetings. Virtual meetings are somewhere between face-to-face meetings and Web conferences, and allow for more interaction and immersion for the attendees.

Virtual meetings also allow for complete creativity with regard to the setting. Meetings can be held in copies of traditional conference rooms or offices, or on a beach on a tropical island, or a virtual museum, or inside a giant human cell. Attendees can sit on a chair and listen to a presentation, or walk around through exhibits or presentation panels, or interact with the virtual environment.

OpenSim can be an effective replacement for Second Life or other virtual worlds when the potential attendees are  new to virtual worlds. After all, if they have to learn how to use a platform from scratch, they might as well start out on OpenSim and allow the enterprise running the meeting to enjoy greater control at a lower cost than other virtual world platforms.

The author then looks at how OpenSim might work for marketing, as many of us have experimented with in SecondLife:

The population of individual OpenSim grids is even smaller. Ony 4,550 people logged into the largest OpenSim-based grid, OSGrid, over the past 30 days. By comparison, more than a million logged into Second Life in the same time period.  Even with the population of all the hypergrid-enabled grids is taken into account, the OpenSim user base is still tiny compared to Second Life.

This may change as a Web-based viewer for OpenSim is developed, and more schools, enterprises, gaming companies and social groups move to OpenSim.

I think the marketing opportunity will change, but probably not based on sheer numbers on the grid. More likely, the marketing opportunity is more targeted at niche audiences that the brands bring onto their own sims for specific purposes. I can imagine a community built up through a social networking site that is then brought in-world for special events.

So, the question remains posed in this other article:
How much life is there in Second Life?

More and more people around the world are committing to the obvious. The population in virtual worlds such as Second Life has grown to tens of millions in the past decade, which should come as no surprise to those 35 or younger, technology nerds of all ages and anybody who can no longer imagine making a living without the Internet.

Virtual worlds are the product of the same advances in computer technology that brought us Google, eBay and Craigslist. They offer similar benefits: Fast and convenient access to ever more sophisticated information. They come with similar, built-in hurdles: You have to have a computer powerful enough to run the software and you need to adapt to new rules. And they raise similar questions: What should be public and free? What is proprietary and needs to be private and secured behind a firewall?

What’s different about virtual worlds is the out-of-body experience that defies the laws of nature.

So while there are niche possibilities in OpenSim, there also remain opportunities in SecondLife to create online experiences that capture the attention of random mass markets. And something bigger could be coming.

At least one person at Intel is predicting that “the internet will look significantly different in five to 10 years, when much of it will be three dimensional, or 3D.

And, hence my title of this post. Yes, we’ve been hearing about the 3D web for several years, and it’s easy to dismiss it as hype, or grow disappointed that it’s not here yet. But, I do think it’s a more likely part of our future than floating Jetson-style cars. Ignore it and find yourself catching up later.

Life After the Hype Cycle for Second Life

HypeOn the first day of SXSWi, I almost missed a Core Conversation (what SXSW describes as less formal hour-long sessions where a single moderator will introduce the topic to be discussed and then facilitate the conversation) titled “Second Life: Where Are They Now?” hosted by Mark Wallace and John Swords.

Luckily, I checked Twitter and saw Goldie Katsu mention that she was in the session. Then Ren Reynolds tweeted that the session was starting out like group therapy for SLers; so, I dashed from one end of the Austin Convention Center to the other to join in the conversation.

Some of the random things I heard included:

  • the big brands coming in were good for bringing more people in world, but not much else
  • educational use of the platform is hampered by ease of use
  • Linden Lab (the creator of Second Life) was not interesting in helping with large projects that could benefit the community
  • PC system requirements still restricted much use of the platform

I raised my hand several times, but didn’t interject myself into the conversation very boldly. After all, I was one of those responsible for bringing a big brand in-world, and the acknowledgement that those additions might have been not so bad was delivered very grudgingly.

And, in the end, I realized that all my various comments on the random bits of discussion could come back to one thing.

To answer the question raised by our moderators as to whether the hype cycle was good for Second Life or not, and could it be overcome, I kept coming back to how it all needs to become so much easier.

From the guy in education, to the composer trying to stage a large opera project, to the evangelists in large corporate organizations – all of our hopes and plans for the virtual world depend on how easy it is to use.  There was some discussion in the session of Sony Home and whether or not such console worlds were really a competitor to virtual worlds like SL. In the end, I think most agreed that they are because they’re so much easier for someone to drop into for a few hours when they have that rare bit of free time.

I think Linden is somewhat aware of the fact that things need to get easier, since their latest beta viewer is supposed to be designed to be more similar to web interfaces that appeal to average users. But, I wonder if they’re aware that it impacts even more than just the raw number of residents they can bring in-world.

When you’re pitching a project in Second Life and the person you’re explaining it to can’t figure out how to get in world and what to do there, but can easily watch the television commercial or web site or video that is competing for the same budget dollars, you’re immediately handicapped.

I totally understand that Linden wants to simply be the platform provider, or to borrow the analogy Mark used in the conversation – they want to be the television, not the creators of the shows you watch on television. But, until their platform is as easy to turn on and engage with as the television (or the console game) is, they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. And, so will those of us to see the opportunity and want others to share in our enthusiasm.

(image courtesy of funkandjazz via Creative Commons)

Yes Travis, Virtual Worlds Are Still Relevant

This question from Travis Hines (designer of our This Mommy Gig blog) recently caught my eye in my twitterstream:
Twitter Question
I was too busy to respond at that moment, but retweeted it in the hopes it would spark a discussion. Only Pam Broviak responded directly, but with an excellent point:
Twitter Response
Game consoles such as Xbox360 and Playstation3 are indeed getting more social and creative with their use of immersive environments. In news coverage of the recent E3 conference it was noted that “videogames once designed as solo experiences are increasingly using Internet connections to link players and immerse them together in virtual worlds where multiple players can be allies or enemies.” So, they’re becomming MMOs; but, the debate on whether an MMOG is a virtual world is for another time.
The announcement of Project Natal at E3 had everyone talking, too. Including comments from Raph Koster and Philip Rosedale in the New World Notes blog post about this new technology that promises to let player control game play with their body movements.
An image from the Offworld blog’s post about the Microsoft press conference for Project Natal and other coming enhancements for Xbox360 certainly looks like something you would see in Second Life or OpenSim – a group of friends watching sports or movies together:
xbox image with opensim image
But, if attending the event in a console world’s space, can you walk away from that screen and go hear your friend playing live music or attend a political rally? Or, more importantly, could you be the one playing the music, organizing the rally, or building out the theatre where people gather? I think not. Yet, those are all things that happen today in virtual worlds.
As Ian Hughes/epredator pointed out on the EightBar blog back in 2007 when Sony was talking about creating a virtual world for Playstation3, that would be too much of a challenge to the game makers themselves. Their business is content creation. If they allow the users to not only create, but also own the rights to their creations within those environments, then they hurt their own business.
And that, Travis, is why I believe that independent virtual worlds such as Second Life or OpenSim are still relevant.

Future Machinimists in SecretBuilders

Just before the new year started, I posted my 6th review of kid-targeted virtual worlds over on the This Mommy Gig blog. A reader comment led us to check out SecretBuilders, which just officially launched a month ago.

Well, the team at SecretBuilders read the review and noticed that I mentioned my daughter’s infatuation with The Jonas Brothers (especially Joe). So, today they sent me a link to the following mashup created by one of their builders. If you also have a JoBro fan in your house, you’ll get a kick out of it. If not, it still gives you a peek inside of the SecretBuilders world. Enjoy!


Since it’s really a 2D or maybe 2.5D virtual world, this probably doesn’t qualify as machinima, but it does show that some pretty creative, young builders are getting involved in this one!


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Lost Potenial in Early Farewell to Lively

Sad Lively Room

While I, like many others, was a bit disappointed when Google launched Lively this summer, now that Goog is pulling the plug I think I’m even more disappointed. Feeling a bit like my first Lively avatar looks above.

Six months is hardly enough time to determine the true potential, and it’s rather sad to think that economic conditions might keep an organization like Google from giving new ideas adequate time to grow.

While the limit on developers and isolationism of rooms was off-putting to those who like to build, and brand opportunities had not materialized, and Google has had other “flops,” I agree with Christian Renaud that the closure is unfortunate.

I had come to see it as sort of a “gateway” virtual world – something with the Google name that ran in a browser might be more palatable to many users who were not quite ready for a fully immersive 3D experience. But, once they became a bit more accustomed to communicating in 3D, they might start to crave the higher benefits of a world with presence.

That is why I was actively pitching ideas for its use on DellLounge and even recently talking to some in Dell’s eSupport team about leveraging it for customer service. Not as a replacement to existing methods for assisting customers, but as a less-stodgy option for a demographic that hates to pick up the phone yet still wants to connect with a real person.

Alas, it takes time to convince large organizations to try new things – more time than Lively was given. Sure there are other options like IMVU, who many noted was doing what Lively was trying to do way before them, and Vivaty which works in Facebook and AIM. But, neither can easily be dropped into place on your corporate web site, and quite frankly, don’t have the trusted name that Google has with mainstream Internet users.

So, an idea that maybe wasn’t fully researched and “overlapped the turf of too many existing competitors without delivering on a compelling experience of its own“, won’t derail the entire virtual world industry.

But it still leaves a bit of taint and another hurdle to be faced by those of us who call ourselves metaverse evangelists.

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[UPDATE: I was contacted by Keith McCurdy, CEO, and Mark Hull, VP Product Management at Vivaty, to let me know that I was mistaken about the ability to drop one of their rooms onto a web page.  Here’s the note from Keith:

Hi Laura

I am the CEO of Vivaty, and I wanted to reach out and contact you to clarify something in your recent blog post on Lively closing.

You said “Sure there are other options……and Vivaty which works in Facebook and AIM. But, neither can easily be dropped into place on your corporate web site”

Vivaty can be put on any web page, and works at AIM, Facebook, Vivaty.com , and any embedded web page. We recently, about a month or two ago, added an embedding option that enables any Vivaty scene to be embedded on any web page that supports iframes. Let me know if you want to learn more about that feature, how Dell could use Vivaty, or anything going on at Vivaty.

Best
/keith
Keith McCurdy
CEO Vivaty

Expedition Through Kid Virtual Worlds Continues

In case you missed previous posts about it or the little badge down there on the bottom right of this site, I also contribute to the This Mommy Gig blog. I connected with the site’s founder on Twitter and found that I shared similar attitudes about motherhood with her and the other founding contributors; so, was happy to take them up on an invitation to join.

Lately, I’ve been working on a series of posts there reviewing kid-targeted virtual worlds. The latest one comes after my girl and I spent a few hours this weekend exploring Disney’s new Pixie Hollow. Here’s an excerpt:

“…And if all that cross-promotion wasn’t enough, the real jewels in the crown in my opinion are the toys. Sure there have been Disney Fairies toys for a while, but the dolls my girl had already collected are nothing like these new Fairies toys. I’d heard Steve Parkis mention them at his Virtual Worlds Expo keynote and was most amazed at the scenario he painted where two girls could meet on the playground, touch their bracelets together and then go home to find their virtual Fairies already connected in-world…”

You can read the full story at ThisMommyGig.org.


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Conversations & Connections – Day 2 of VW08

Due to a need to get back home at a somewhat reasonable hour, I was unable to stay past lunch today; but, there was still a lot of great content delivered and connections made at VW08.

I ducked into the speakers’ lounge to grab a bagel and some fruit for breakfast and found myself at a table chatting with virtual world thought leaders Christian Renaud, Steve Prentice and Tish Shute discussing the challenges for wider virtual world adoption. At the meetup the night before, I’d also gotten to chat with another thought leader, Eric Rice, aka Spin. I knew Eric first by reputation and then through our mutual following on Twitter, but this was the first opportunity to sit across from him and talk. He introduced me to EyePet and I introduced him to Handipoints – not a bad exchange.

Such real world connections are something Reuben Steiger mentioned as part of his pre-keynote opening remarks this morning. An early virtual world evangelist and employee at Linden Lab who now leads Millions of Us and their Virtual Greats program, Reuben spoke of the very first Second Life Community Convention in 2005. At the time, many wondered if all of these virtual personalities would really want their real life personas to meet. Not only did they want to then, but they’re doing it right now in Tampa at the fourth such gathering!

The morning kicked into gear with a keynote “interview” of Colin J. Pharris, Phd, of IBM Research conducted by Erica Driver formerly an analyst at Forrester now with her own company, ThinkBalm. This sort of presentation is a comfortable format to watch, even if you know all the questions will be softballs and many are set up specifically to provide a segue for the speaker to make planned announcements or plug certain products. There were no Sara Lacy-style incidents, but still a lot of background twittering encouraged by the use of the VWExpoQandA Twitter account to solicit questions from the audience.

Next I stopped by the Enterprise track room to meet Anders Gronstedt who was part of a panel on how companies are using virtual worlds for sales training and onboarding. While we’d exchanged e-mails and spoken on the phone before, I’d never actually had the chance to shake his hand – another proof-point that no matter how much we embrace virtual platforms and social media, we will always continue to desire real human interaction.

That interaction may become even further and further integrated with new technologies, though, as discussed in the Augmented Reality panel I attended next. While the gargoyles of Snow Crash and the talking billboards of Minority Report instill a certain uneasiness about augmentation, the panelists point out that any one of us who owns a cell phone these days – especially if it’s a smart phone – already live with augmented reality. We walk down the street sending text messages to friends and pulling up Google maps to see where we’re going. And luckily it doesn’t require weird headgear such as this. Panelist Blair MacIntyre, who I had the good fortune to meet yesterday at lunch along with his fellow panelist
Marc Goodman, joked that he was probably the only one in the group that really could be found in such photos somewhere on the Internet. His team is forging new ground, however, including such feats as bringing a Second Life avatar into a Real Life office space.

At lunch today, I happened to sit with Doug Maxwell from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division of the Navy. Not only a fellow Second Life resident, he also happens to be a fellow Louisiana native. It was interesting to hear about the unique and not-so-unique challenges his team has faced as they launched into Second Life and expanded into OpenSim. As a Dell customer, it would be interesting to see how the Navy and Dell might find ways to work together in virtual environments, so Doug and I will definitely be keeping in touch post-conference.

After that conversation, I did a quick run through the Expo floor on a photo safari. Similar to how I did it at SXSWi, I went around capturing “Dells in the Wild”. You can check them here, and I’ll probably throw a few into the Digital Nomads group on Flickr.

Now I’m flying home with a “City of Angels” snow globe in my bag to add to my girl’s growing collection!

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How Was Your Day? Report from Virtual Worlds 08

I flew to Los Angeles yesterday to speak at and attend the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo – finally. This is the fourth such conference and I’ve never quite been able to swing it to get here. So, I sprang at a chance to fill Roo Reynolds’ spot on a panel talking about enterprise use of virtual worlds after he moved from IBM to the BBC – thank you Peter Haik for asking me!

Day 1 has just wrapped up. I called home to tell my girl goodnight and hubby asked the “how was your day?” question, so I thought I’d share a bit of that here before I forget.

I suppose it actually started yesterday when I attended the VIP reception for speakers and other such important folks. (I almost typed that without laughing – seems strange to be in the same “VIP” designation as some of the other folks here) It was a great opportunity to meet some of the people I know through Second Life and Twitter, such as Ian Hughes, in real life. Congrats on your award for virtual world innovation in the enterprise, Ian!

This morning started off with a keynote from director John Landau. I’m looking forward to seeing how his movie Avatar turns out. Sounds like they’re blazing new territory to create it. He also talked about a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer virtual world.

Next up was my panel, Virtual Worlds in the Workplace, where I was joined on stage by two CEOs and a PhD. The crowd looked a little sparse to me at first, but it filled in a bit more. And, as I looked around at the rooms of other panels later in the day, it seemed to be pretty well-attended in comparison. I think I managed to sound reasonably intelligent, and heard some good feedback from audience members after we were done. There was a reporter from Cox Newspapers there who asked me some follow-up questions, so maybe we’ll all read about it in their Sunday papers this weekend. [Update: the article ran in my local paper today – check it out here.]

Next, I went to the session titled “How to Convince The Boss You’re Not Off Your Rocker:
Getting Buy-In For Enterprise Immersive Internet Initiative” by Erica Driver. No big takeaways for me, but she did have a good point about focusing on one business problem/one audience at a time. What I remember most was that she quoted me from my panel session before when answering a question from the audience!

After that I thought there were no more sessions that interested me, but decided to stop by the one about bringing celebrity brands to virtual worlds. It turned out to be rather good, with several big names in the entertainment industry such as MTV and the William Morris agency represented.

Then, I went to make the rounds of the exhibitor booths and must say I was rather disappointed in the lack of promotional giveaways. Not to sound greedy, but it just makes these things fun to get t-shirts, notepads, pens, or other nifty new knickknacks. There was still plenty of conversation and lots of demonstrations going on, however, which made this a rather odd choice of venue for the last keynote of the day.

I felt so sorry for Steve Parkis, Senior Vice President, Disney Online when he started trying to speak with all of that going on behind his audience/in front of him. But, I must say (and told him so) that I was very impressed with how well he pulled it off. He was engaging and entertaining. It’s all that much easier to do when you’re talking about things like a new virtual world for the Cars movie characters coming next year, but still no mean feat.

After that, I grabbed another free beer – something else that Steve had competing for his audience’s attention, but he worked nicely into the presentation – and thanked many of the exhibitors I saw using Dell products in the booths. Hey, it keeps me employed! And now, after finishing this recap, I’m heading over to the Metaverse Meetup a couple of blocks away. More to come after tomorrow!

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Back Into the Swing of Social Media, Virtual Worlds and the Web

Got back home from vacation at 2am this morning and saw that there was an Austin Tweet-up tonight. Since my girl is still at “Camp Grandma”, and I still had not started back to work yet, it was easy to pop over and catch up with several of my local Twitter buddies. I also got to meet several new twitterers; and after giving them my Moo cards that have in image of Pyrrha Dell on them, the conversation turned to Second Life and virtual worlds in general.

Then, I came home and found a message over on Facebook from Annie Ok, Metaverse Meetup assistant organizer, pointing me toward this cool new timeline of virtual worlds.

I checked it out while I was uploading vacation pictures to Flickr. Finally broke down and got a pro (paid vs. free) account there because there were just too many cool trip pics that I wanted to share! You can see some over in my sidebar here. I need to finish tagging and organizing them, but I’m too tired tonight.

I’ve still got to go through all the video, too, but here’s one snippet I shot with my still camera in the piano bar of our hotel in Rome. No idea what the song was, but the audience sure seemed to like it!

After so much time recently away from a computer, it’s pretty amazing how fast I can get back into the swing of using one so much. Tomorrow, it’s back to the office for me where I’ll probably spend most of the day digging through e-mail.

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