Thursday, October 11, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo Christian Renaud Keynote: The Age of the Avatar

This was something of a two-part keynote -- a long scene-setting introduction by Reuben Steiger of Millions of Us, then the "official" keynote by Christian Renaud of Cisco.

First, Steiger:

Virtual worlds -- that term sounds isolated, niche-y, and doesn't do justice to the profound nature of what's going on...I believe it's a much larger societal movement that's very wedded to what's going on online.

Avatar = in Hindu lore, an early form of a, = an online persona you take. What I love is that it's sort of an inversion...traditionally meaning going from an ethereal place to a prosaic one, and today meaning going from a prosaic place to a more ethereal one. Avatars are about giving a face to an online identity and to facilitate face-to-face interactions in an online community.

Some numbers: Only 25% of US residents trust conventional advertising (Yankelovich 2007), while 31% of consumer internet usage is in online communities (Comscore, 2007). Second Life is the virtual world that's most talked about, but majority of the market is not SL only, it's web-based and youth-focused, about 100 million users.

Predictions: By the end of 2008, social networks will become avatarized; virtual worlds will become more like social networks; television tie-ins will increase for virtual worlds.

Philo Farnsworth invented the electronic TV in 1928, in a building that is across the street from where Linden Lab's offices are today.

Through the advent of TV our society transformed, and that informs the way virtual worlds may transform society. Autos changed the way we formed communities. Community has been embedded in our lives, but modern marvels have eroded the bonds of community. This makes people profoundly sad. Virtual worlds offer a way to get that back.

Aside from me: OK, while I don't disagree with much that he said, this guy is the poster child for virtual worlds koolaid drinkers!! There is still community out there in, well, real-life communities. He's overstating the problem that needs to be solved. And he also overstated the number of active virtual worlds users as well.

All of this was to introduce Christian Renaud, the official keynote speaker.

His topic: What's next?

Renaud: This is not the first attempt at making virtual worlds and virtual worlds communities a business tool or a mainstream user tool. Prior attempts have been made at virtual worlds communities, viritual worlds and avatars. Here's my perspective on what we need to do next, to go from a boutique, a few hundred people like in the 1988 meeting on interoperability, to thousands of people. I want to enjoy this time before hundreds of people we don't know enter this market.

What's different from times before is that we have all this creative energy. We have all the momentum from MMOGs, and all the production capability from unified communication tools, and slamming them together at a high rate of speed and getting all the energy we have in this industry. An "aha" moment for the industry is that you could take something like World of Warcraft and use it as an everyday business tool. This does fill a need in the technology toolbox. I would like to see this succeed this time around.

There are 6.6 billion people on the planet, of which 2.3 billion have mobile phones, about one-third. There are 1.2 billion with Internet connectivity -- mash those together and that's the addressable market for virtual worlds -- 465 million.

How effective are these virtual worlds? How commonly used is this tool? Take that number and divide by ten -- 40 or 50 million (in contrast to teh 100 million the first speaker mentioned). That's a very small percentage of mainstream adoption. We need to take it from what it is right now to a mainstream thing. Compare it to the 37 million people who in the early 90s were in online communities such as Compuserve, AOL, EWorld, The Well, etc.

We're at the inflection point where we can decide, are we going to go the IM we all want a piece of VHS or do we want to be IM with different platforms? We don't need one platform, we just need interoperability...a common identity so we don't have to have different avatars and stuff. There's too much switching cost, and companies right now have to bet on one of 36 numbers -- which world or worlds will succeed?

If we have to wait for companies to hang back we'll potentially die. We need hybrid vigor -- breed all the best aspects of these virtual worlds together and get the best experience. If we had had these conversations about standards instead of just developing HTML we would still be debating the standards and there wouldn't be a Web.

Commonness is the theme...not just one platform...there are different tools for different jobs. There should not be discrete silos, should not limit connectivtity to everyone I know and all of the resources available to me on the Internet.

The market will have a number of forms, and we need to be able to be multimodal, move between modalities. It's about not wanting to pave over the diverse culture of virtual worlds and make it a big-ass strip mall. I want to take the fun to work. If you can harness the attention and apply it to work, would be great. As IBM says, what if we could get people addicted to work as they are to these games. How about if we could go to a virtual worlds to get our work done instead of to this flat soulless spreadhseet, so I don't have to go from this engrossing experience to a non-engrossing experience.

Beware of the false dichotomy between work and fun. We can make work a lot more fun than it is, we have an opportunity here to change and update the current manner of work. It's incumbent upon us to do better and this is one of the ways we can.

It's almost a fallacy and doing the industry a disservice to say there are these discrete segments -- there's lots of overlap. Think about the good of the industry and everybody's slice of the pie will get larger.

In order to have the overlap between types of environments, you must have a strong concept of identity. When you step back it's about trust. People are looking at solutions like Open ID....I know we haven't solved this for the Internet yet, but maybe virtual worlds can help with that too. Then I can move the goodwill and the reputation I have established for myself across the board, without having to prove myself in each site/world. something else that's a facet of ID is presence (ID with tags) the sanity do you make presence an integral part of the experience and let it follow you do you make that more of an implicit rather than explicit (example: marking every email as urgent, devalues it)?

[Some examples of work being done to help develop virtual worlds along the lines he's talking about, all links that can be found on his blog:] Coventry University in the UK has a Serious Games Institute that is working on wifi triangulation....putting your avatar where you actually are, mapping the real and the virtual -- a way that you can be in two places at once.

Sensible Organizations from MIT MediaLab put "lojacks" on engineers, tracked them online, and got really good contextual interaction, though no one really wanted to be lojacked. Someone is working on making this a piece of bling in Second Life -- the opportunity to add that where-are-you kind of contextual information to the virtual worlds experience.

In virtual worlds, we don't have to be as good as a physical interaction. We often overlook the things we can do in virtual worlds interactions that are better than real-life interactions, such as, augment the meeting by bringing in relative data, have the metadata floating around...we can do better than real life meetings in many ways that more than make up for the ways we are less than real life. We can put people on a continuum according to their opinions, augment and instrument physical reality (MIT MediaLabs again).

And we need metrics -- if it's just amongst us, we can throw around any numbers we like for users...but we have to give those outside the industry numbers they can use. They want to know real metrics, facts and figures. As an industry we should step forward and start putting forward universal metrics that outsides can understand. I'm announcing here the Metaverse Market Index, spearheaded by Nick Wilson of Metaverse and Robert Bloomfield of Cornell...they are going to be building the same kind of info as you would get from the Wall Street Journal stock index.

To be able to go from 40 million true believer, early adopter numbers to something bigger, we wil need common platforms -- not the lowest common denominator, but interoperability between platforms, content when applicable...we all agree in principle to move this forward (do you want all of Beta or a piece of VHS?)...There is an announcement from IBM and Linden Labs about this that is a complement to this and will benefit all of us.

And finally, the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT....we got so tied up in if we could do this, we sometimes overlook "should we do this" (as in Jurassic Park)...Tom Malone founded the CCI to look at things like prediction markets, etc. They are going to look at how you have a "campfire" across these worlds, what do we gain in collective wisdom, collective intelligence. They will be doing a multi-year study to see how these environments are helping us and where they are deficient, understanding where virtual worlds will always be deficient to real-world interactions.

To sum up, we need these four things to grow virtual worlds: common identity (the Open ID project), common denominators (the Metaverse Market Index), common platforms (The Virtual Worlds Interoperability Forum), and common understanding (the Center for Collective Intelligence) to know, when is this the best tool for the job and when is it not? Where is the real societal impact?

To find out more about these, visit Christian Renaud's blogs at: or

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