Awareness is Everything: October 2007

Monday, October 15, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo: Wrap-Up

Back home now, with the luxury of a little time to think about it, these are my main takeaways from Virtual Worlds Expo:

Interoperability/open standards: Everyone was talking about this, in all it's iterations:

* A shift from "walled gardens" to interoperability, which could mean the ability to move your avatar and/or identity from one world to another, from a virtual world to a traditional website and back again, from virtual world to mobile phone and back

* Making virtual worlds work like the Web

* Having a common client for virtual worlds

* Having greater accessibility to your online and in-world friends from any world, site, or phone

Measurement and research:

Who's there? What drives them? What keeps them coming back? There was a lot of discussion about the "early adopters" in virtual worlds, although to mind this is wrong -- the early adopter are just *now* getting there. According to the original Everett Rogers adoption curve, it's the Innovators who are currently best represented in virtual worlds populations.

Some thought-provoking numbers were put forward by those on the Demographics panel:

* Michael Cai from Parks Research had numbers (from a 9,500 user study) on what people do less of in the real world while they participate in virtual worlds. The runaway winner was "don't watch as much TV" with 60% -- implications for advertising and brands are very clear there. The number I found thought-provoking as well as amusing was "16% don't know what they do less of" which seems to indicate that a pretty large percentage of people just don't really know how they spend their time!

* Mary Ellen Gordon of Market Truths had some interesting research results (though from a small sample) that indicate Second Life is a good place for a brand, if done right: 57% of respondents considered buying a real-life product as a result of a recommendation they received from someone in Second Life (which actually speaks as much to the power of word of mouth as it does to the value of using Second Life as a marketing and branding platform). Additionally, her research showed that:

55% recommended a real-life product to someone they were chatting to in Second Life.
25% have gone to look at a product in real life after seeing it in Second Life.
9% have purchased a product in real life after seeing it in Second Life.
8% have bought a real-life product in Second Life.

Segmentation (or not) between entertainment and "serious" purposes

Across a number of different panels, but particularly in the Community and Customer Service panel, there was discussion of just what it is that "drives" virtual worlds, that makes them so compelling. The aggregate answer seems to be that virtual worlds' growth is fueled by community and narrative (or story). This would seem to suggest what at least panelist Raph Koster of Areae said out loud, which is that there is no real differentiation in virtual worlds between entertainment and "serious purposes". This is actually also true in the non-virtual world as well, but the virtual world, like gaming, is perhaps the first platform that started out that way.

To read all Awareness Is Everything posts on the Virtual World Expo, go here.

This link goes to a Virtual Worlds News wrap-up post that links out to a ton of conference coverage, including ours.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo: Visionary Panel, Where the platforms are going next

This was, quite fittingly, the last thing I did at the Virtual Worlds Expo, due to travel arrangements, though there were three more sessions after this. This one was in the Business Strategy and Investment track.

This was a full panel moderated by Mark Wallace, a blogger at 3pointd.com and featuring Corey Bridges, co-founder of Multiverse; Chris Klaus, founder and CEO of Kaneva; Stephen Lawler, general manager of Microsoft's Virtual Earth; Mike Wilson of Makena, Hui Xu, founder and CEO of HiPiHi (speaking through an interpreter); and Raph Koster, president of Areae.

The moderator began with a question: What needs are not being filled by the virtual worlds platforms today?

Corey: Web integration....integration with Flash, streaming media, the sort of thing we take for granted on the Web....having the same kind of connectivity and functionality in virtual worlds that we would expect on any website. We will see a lot of integration with social networks...social networking integration over the next year will propel virtual worlds into the mainstream, when until it's been video games that have propelled virtual worlds adoption.

Raph: Virtual worlds today work like Prodigy or AOL in the early 90s....we are seeing the biggest shift in the virtual worlds technology architecture that we've seen in the last 30 years...peer-to-peer growth, seeing stuff living straight on the Web...we're seeing a whole bunch of exploration...we're out to do something really radical and make it work like the Web top to bottom. It will be interesting to see what approaches shake out over the next few years. I don't think there's one approach.

Mark: What's interesting to think about is what is it going to take before we see some of these things converge, before we see interoperability?

Corey: A common client, accessibility from one client on the users machine. Consumers are going to demand that more and more.

Chris: For virtual worlds we are experimenting very heavily with social networking as a key component. There's the story of someone who goes into Everquest every night but hates the game. She's there because that's where her friends are. Virtual worlds are the content of connecting with your friends and doing things together. We can learn a lot from the social networks. The closer you bring your real friends in, the better. Two areas for improvement are usability and the mobile space. Think about when do you access the Internet -- my phone's always with me, but I don't take my laptop when I go out. Mobile longterm is a core component of these virtual worlds.

Mike: Looking at gaming...there's compelling content in MMOGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft....if you want to look for a compelling model to follow for getting people into virtual worlds and using them, look at games....also in terms of platforms, with games we started with PCs and moved to Flash and mobile....virtual worlds will move the same.

Mark: How open will your social network be? Will Google kill everything? Do you see virtual worlds running into this same debate?

Mike: We should find ways to expose your virtual identity to virtual worlds and we are doing that with there.com. I think people are overestimating -- I may not want to share everything, to let everyone know that I am a girl, etc. It's fine to talk about shared ID, bit when it's your ID, it's different.

Corey: It's about control, you control how you share your identity, what you give out. There will always be some worlds where you role-play and want to be someone else. People are going to end up having multiple avatars.

Raph: Mainstream is comfortable with multiple IDs -- they think it's fun, especially younger people. It's not a question of openness....identity is a closing kind of word and not an opening kind of word....it's a Prodigy kind of question, not a Web kind of question...on the Web we see many IDs, some federated on keychain systems.

Stephen: Not specifically coming from gaming and entertainment, for something to go broadly mainstream is relative to the number your looking at...280 million people are using IM, 400 million people are using Live ID...even the numbers that we think are large as very small. In order to bring this out to the masses we think about the Web going 3D, like going from ASCII to DOS to Windows...going to a familiar 3D world on a human scale that we use every day. It's important for advertising, 3D search, where you can explore and you have the context...social search. It's going to be an exciting transition.

Raph: 3D is a red herring.

Corey: I agree with you but there's a part you're missing.

Mark: Let's save that path...broaden the perspective...when talking about making virtual worlds more like the Web, we talk about it from a very Western-centric point of view -- the ID Federation is illegal in Europe. How do users in the East consider these issues of identity management?

Hui Xu (through interpreter): This is the first time I come to this conference and I see very few Chinese or people from other races. It's my wish to see greater representation of cultures and people from all over the world. We should let people from everywhere come together in the space. The greatest excitement comes from users interacting with small proportions of foreign users....15% of HiPiHi traffic is coming from overseas...we've created a rich experience for all users. About ID and interoperability: He believes in human rights, the rights of users within virtual worlds...commonness should be left to user communities. It extends to the content issue... how we should manage content is up in the air, the management structures and frameworks should engage in open dialogue with users in virtual worlds, not just developers. An inclination toward interoperability is more toward having a 3rd-party exchange, a platform for virtual worlds in existence today...there needs to be a common standard, a dedicated provider that looks at each virtual world and specializes in making sure these virtual worlds should start talking. The guiding philosophy is returning power and convenience to the users so they can manage their content and lifestyles across virtual worlds. Broadband penetration is increasing in many countries around the world, in South American and the Middle East...I don't know whether browser-based worlds or clients will be the future in these areas.

Mark: What about the evolution of the business model...we've recently seen business models that began in the East gain traction in the US and Europe. Will we converge on one business model or remain fractured?

Corey: Everyone thought the Time Warner sub-based model would be the model for the Web, but it's ad and web-based. We will see a lot of ad-subsidized worlds.

Chris: Virtual worlds offer a unique opportunity, we will see more and more of the worlds being opened up in a free trial or free overall, and to upgrade you have to buy things....virtual worlds offer the opportunity to buy real estate, clothes, etc...we are seeing worlds with subscription models for those who want to have a VIP level...there's growing demand for people to buy something tangible. Like gift cards -- kids are now handing out gift cards to each other at birthday parties. A huge percentage of iTunes revenue comes from gift cards that you see in retail outlets. So I see huge tie-in with retail....look at a blended model, retail, subscription, combined models.

Stephen: Local search advertising model -- $15 billion moving into digital community over 5 years....offering in-game advertising. A transactional model.

Mike: I see four rivers of revenue -- subscription, in-game currency micropayments, sponsorships, and links to e-commerce or white labeling. We do not yet understand how to charge for advertising in virtual worlds. And the world can trigger advertising based on what's said and done. How do i charge for that ad impression? How do you study it and tell advertisers how to use it the best?

Chris: It's CPA, cost per action....

Stephen: CPA is what we are looking at....if there's multiple advertising value-add, how do you value that once they click? how does it build up to action?

Hui Xu (through interpreter): We see real a mirror between virtual worlds economics and real world economics...the first wave in virtual worlds economics has been about sales....land sales, etc. The 2nd and 3rd waves are coming -- 2nd wave is about production in the real world, and in virtual worlds. The 2nd wave is also about goods creation, how can we go about providing an infrastructure for virtual goods.The 3rd wave about services. New sevice models in the real world have reached mature stage, but services are very nascent in virtual economies. In China, a big market in 2nd wave -- trading of emoticons, wallpapers, etc in qq IM services. We are seeing innovation in Japan in the services industry, banking in mobile phones, CyWorld in korea .... in Asia users are used to purchasing goods over the Internet and digital platforms like mobile phone.

Mark: My cousins from Queens fly around in Microsoft's Virtual Earth for fun in the evenings. What do you think about mirror worlds and their role in entertainment?

Stephen: MS Virtual Earth is ranked in top 10 websites to waste your time on, a nice backwards compliment, along with MySpace and Facebook....what kind of utility do they provide? The media has gone from newspapers, to radio, to tv...and we wanted all the same things, sports, what happened, local news, international news. We took a huge step back to the newspaper when we went to the Internet so now we can move back up when you take a combination of video-rich real-world interactivity.

Mike: It's interesting, I can imagine watching on the evening news, a bank robbery occurring...and we can get reenactments now from bloggers, but what is the authoritative version.

Raph: These are blind spots -- the assumption that this may not be the same industry. There is no segmentation between entertainment and serious purposes. We are in the bookstore business, not the fiction aisle or non-fiction aisle business. Media accrete, they do not replace. The idea that the entire Web will be stuffed into 3D is ridiculous. What's going to happen is a diversity of interfaces and using the appropriate interface for what needs/wants to be done. Blogging in 3D is dumb. The place we're going to move to will be representation-agnostic, will show up in different ways depending on the user need. The value in virtual worlds resides in servers....the clients are windows and we will have a lot of windows, including running around slaying dagons in downtown Palo Alto using your cell phone....3D as the holy grail is a red herring. Right now even today when we look at the largest user environment in user numbers and concurrency, 2D websites are on the list... 3D is hard for kids, hard for older people.

Stephen: 3D going to scale out way beyond gaming, but won't replace every UI out there. The point is it's going to be big. All the studies we have seen is that the reason people like 3D shopipng is people can visually make correlations. 3D is difficult to navigate, but yet more intuitive. People have investment in real world 3D, while they don't in forms like spreadsheets. Interiors are best represented in 3D, so are urban corridors. There's no 2D representation of this room than would represent it. Yet the brain can parse 3D in a very intelligent manner. When you scale in to 2half-D, bird's eye view, it gets easier.

Raph: It's about what the user wants and needs. There are a ton of useful apps in 3D, but let's not forget all the other devices and mechanisms out there.

Audience question: The Wii brought a new kind of controller that expanded the game audience to more casual users....do you foresee any similar type of new interface for virtual worlds?

Stephen: Microsoft is constantly looking at different mechanisms.

Chris: Some of our designers use a 3D mouse to develop some of the content....we are a software creator....so until a Wii for the PC becomes more prominent we won't be able to drive it....it needs to be hardware and software working together. We will see more integration between more natural human movement...the Wii is a precursor to what's coming. If you could buy a mocap for $200 and run around in the worlds I think we'd have a big hit tomorrow.

Corey: Multiverse is built to take into account different input devices. I've seen prototypes using Wii interfaces in Multiverse, and different output devices as well, like heads-up rigs. If a platform is built well it will take these things into account so it will be ready when the application is appropriate for it.

Chris: You'll get a more human connection when you are able to use a mocap.

Audience: How rich an experience does the mobile user want?

Raph: It's application dependent. There are virtual worlds apps where someone just wants an auction update, not necessarily to see the avatars. Mobile is a bit of a tangled mess, different standards, a huge variety of handsets. It will take awhile to sort that stuff out, and you have to structure your platform to be as agnostic as possible.

Chris: We will see mobile evolve. The market share is not there for a lot of the really high-end apps, but there are a lot of low-end apps that would be valuable for our community, and should make those available first.

Stephen: We're not trying to reproduce 3D on the small screen at all....we need things like, how can I help myself navigate where I'm going, is there anything available at a better price nearby, etc.

Audience question: Is it like the Las Vegas monorail story -- for virtual worlds that have a lot of users, open standards will be like an exit, while for smaller ones it will be like an entrance. So bigger ones will not adopt open standards.

Mike: If open standards succeed....if someone tries to jail their users, they'll get out anyway and may not come back. There's never really a barrier for anyone to leave a world.

Corey: This is a growing new medium, and there's room for everyone to move around....everyone should embrace those open standards. That's what the users are going to want, that's what we've seen on the Web....walled gardens are not tenable, consumers are smart enough and know they can put pressure. Anyone who's smart is building that in right from the beginning. People who are not are cutting themselves off from growth.

Mike: It worked pretty well for eBay.

Chris: Standards is a pretty broad term....there's a lot of great languages and standards out there (python, etc). Being able to move avatar from one world to another is not a big Kaneva user request. If it becomes one, we will need to do it. You have to recreate your account on eBay, Amazon, etc., and I don't see a lot of demand for that to be different.

Audience question: How do virtual worlds overcome human language differences?

Raph: The first world to do that was in 1998 through machine translation)...there wasn't a lot of demand for it. Reducing the balkanization of virtual worlds and bringing cultures together are one of the things that viritual worlds can accomplish. But people pull apart. International warfare happens a lot in virtual worlds.

Hui Xu (through interpreter): HiPiHi is currently in Mandarin Chinese...when foreigners enter the world, there is a volunteer team that's self-organizing, that welcome foreigners into the world and provides translation. There's no quick fix. Big companies like Google are trying to fix that problem. The focus now is on what we can do, which is to enable the user communities to be welcoming to people from different cultures. Chinese HiPiHi users are beginning to learn English and vice versa, which we think is of value.

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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 god.....today, = 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 route....do 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 function....how do you make presence an integral part of the experience and let it follow you around....how 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:

http://blogs.cisco.com/virtualworlds or http://xianrenaud.typepad.com

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo: Togetherness--What Drives the Human Connection

Giff Constable, Electric Sheep Company; Beth Coleman, MIT; Betsy Book, Makena (producers of There.com); Robin Harper, Second Life; Ron Meiners, Multiverse

Giff (moderator): Where are we falling down, where is human togetherness not working in virtual worlds right now?

Beth: Persistence of your network identity and a porousness .... on various levels I can carry my avatar in my pocket, it's not limited to a PC interaction....in terms of scale of use, I think the player experience needs to be designed for various levels of engagement....not everyone will end up building things or running a store or business. The different platforms address this in different ways, but all need to have better design for different levels of engagement.

Ron: We're taking interactions that happen in a solid space and transferring them into 2D and digital spaces where there are differentne space and moving them to another. Technology that we have available to us and that's being developed affords new possibilities for interaction....people can experiment with social identity, with a "lower cost of failure" because there are possibilities that are not available in the real world.

Betsy: Virtual worlds are incredibly good at fostering deep human social connections because they are filled with a sense of presence. In a 2D or 3D space where you can see an avatar, there's synchronicity. You can connect in real-time, a level of engagement you can't get in email. The trade-off is that virtual worlds are incredibly cumbersome, it's a full process to log in, etc. We have to work to do to make our spaces user-friendly and make people comfortable. Virtual worlds today are too insular -- they are a deep meaningful experience, but how do you extend that experience out to other parts of your life? Facebook and MySpace are doing this so much better than we are right now. That privacy and insularity works for togetherness, but you need to be able to take it outside the virtual world.

Robin: Downside to being in an online community is the anonymity. There's some value to anonymity -- by pretending to be someone else you can be more of who you really are. But what that means is that the person who doesn't know me in real life doesn't know that aspect of me and that can lead to trust issues. The challenge is to help people who are in this pseudonymous space take advantage of those issues. Portable ID is probably where we are going with this, the ability to reveal parts of your identity in a contextual way. It's the ability to reveal parts of your real life and yet keep parts of your life hidden until you trust the other person.

Beth: We do this anyway....within each context (youtube, myspace, etc.), we reveal parts of our personalities that are appropriate for that place.

Robin: I'm not saying we don't do it, I'm saying that technology could help us do it better.

Beth: We are becoming more compassionate with each other because we know so much about each other.

People find it very frightening because they see it as a privacy issue....not knowing what to expect from other people because you don't really know who they are, these are big issues.

Those have always been problems. Some aspects are new, but we have another set of tools for creating the preferred presentation of ourselves. These tools give us more flexibility in how we present ourselves.

What does togetherness mean? In earlier communities there was a reason why people got together, and now people don't know what to expect. Historically, online communities were together for a reason. Now we have spaces and people just come there.

Giff: What are the key things that are working to bring people together on your platform?

Betsy: Technical and social things....socially, communications form around common interests. One of the most powerful is fandom, sports, entertainment, whatever. That is a common interest that brings people together. wWhat creates the community isn't the topic itself but the everyday sharing of your life. That forms the everyday social glue. Virtual worlds are spaces that really easily enable people to come together around a common interest and then stay together. It's fairly easy in virtual worlds to find your interest group, and people are finding them...features such as voice chat gives you that sense of presence.

Robin: When we introduced voice in Second LIfe, there was a tremendous unhappiness, we were surprised at the pushback. People felt that by using voice, it would interfere with the exploration. Another issue was the language issue, as we are increasingly international. Where we've seen it adopted initially has been with corporations, with educators, the places where you would expect voice to be beneficial.

Betsy: In there.com, avatars create idealized versions of themselves and anonymity isn't such a touchy issue as it might be in Second Life...you're expected to move up the social ladder and use voice. I see people moving back and forth with chat and voice.

Robin: Chat is often being used as a visible backchannel in conversations where voice is used as well.

Ron: Multiverse is primarily a community of developers...most of our community dynamics is among developers, who are a worldwide bunch. In our world, people in voice rooms created songfests, prayers, a 24-hour AA meeting. Voice was a really powerful way for people to connect.

Beth: Does it matter what the tools are? In the different worlds, you get the world that you design. The tools have to be the ones you want. The virtual experience has to be meaningful for individuals, cater to their interests.

Tools that create a richer information stream can potentially create a more involving and presence-based experience. In the real world, we live in this information soup and that's not been translated online yet.

Communication enables socialization -- text, chat, im, voice -- the more options you can give users to communicate, that's what's going to sponsor that sense of togetherness. You have to pay attention to the style and the culture of the community you're working with...the set of tools for one group might not be styled correctly for another.

Also important are the kind of tools you provide users to manage their connections. The nature of the communities that formed in Second Life made us retool and give people a different set of tools, so they could manage things at a far more granular level.

Giff: What about globalization

Robin: One of the best tools in Second Life is a translator that the residents created, that you could type in English and it would come out in Japanese if that's who you were talking to. Overall, there are lots of opportunities for public diplomacy, for sharing your culture.

Questions from audience:

Facebook and MySpace are good at keeping casual connections alive -- how? It's the asynchronous aspect, looking for ways for people to let other people know what they're doing when they are not in-world.

Robin: What happens when a community goes from 75% US participants to 30% US participants in just a few months, as we did on Second Life....there's an opportunity there to bridge misunderstandings about culture, to share experiences.

What design choices has your world made to support togetherness? Robin: We're not interested in trying to micromanage different types of togetherness. We're trying to offer tools for collaborative creativity, allow people to come together in real time and create together.

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Virtual Worlds Expo: Narrative in Virtual Worlds

First up: Eric Rice of Slackstreet Entertainment: The video game industry has narrative figured out -- $350 million in sales in one week of Halo. Second Life is too big -- the narrative there is, what do the people of Earth do every day? Gaming is a top down narrative, virtual worlds are wide open -- would love to have the middle ground. His biggest concern -- How does story scale? How do you tell it across franchises?

Mike Monello, of Campfire (who was also one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project): We stumbled on to [collaborative narrative] by throwing a bunch of material we had used to make the movie online. People came and started engaging in the story, and started extending the story...we were not concerned about intellectual property, we were focused on the movie, and people were extending the story in ways that were not in the movie. We ran with it. By the time we sold the movie, that community was there.

People will engage for the sheer entertainment value of it....publishers don't give you a prize for reading a book, and you don't get a prize for watching a movie. Stories are how we engage in the world, and at the end of the day that's what we're all doing with our avatars. Sometimes it intersects with who you are and what you are doing and sometimes it goes way off.

Panel moderator Chris Carella of Electric Sheep quoted Richard Bartle, "godfather of virtual worlds" -- virtual worlds are about place, not story. He put that question to the panel.

Mike: They're both. I just moved to NY, and to me, NY is a big story. I came from Orlando, where everything is new and fabricated to give you a story. The difference is it's a distributed story, a personal story but not singular like someone making a movie or writing a book.

Eric: What is YouTube used for? To collect media, copyrighted content, or put up videos of people in their underwear singing...there's so much experience-driven. So many virtual worlds I am in, I only hang out with about 5 people.

Someone from the audience: Virtual worlds are a thing, as textured as life itself.

Examples of narrative environment in vitual worlds: Virtual MTV, Virtual Laguna Beach, Gaia Online, Saijo City, Motorati, CSI:NY, I Am Legend

CSI:NY is trans-media storytelling (Anthony Zuiker, creator of CSI:NY, gave the conference keynote this morning, talking about CSI:NY's cross-media storytelling project that will sart with the Oct. 24 issue of CSI:NY).

Mike: Virtual worlds are less about the story that you yourself are telling and more about the stage you are building for people to tell the story and extend the story. Example: Motorati, which gave people land and told them they could build anything they wanted, as long as their story was somehow about cars. When people start telling stories they become invested.

Eric: Gaming is work, and virtual worlds are social. If you golf in real life, I'm probably not hanging with you in virtual worlds. In that way virtual worlds are also anti-social. Do you trust your peers to build something as awesome as Halo?

Audience: Virtual worlds provide the oportunity to explore what is interactive fiction. Games are straight narrative, while virtual worlds are interactive

Mike: When you are designing a narrative for these worlds you have to trust the audience to take you to places you can't anticipate. If you do something that's really interesting and attractive to a lot of people and give them avenues to push and change and adjust, they will. 99% of the time where they push you is better than where you'd go by yourself.

Eric: Success means attracting people to participate. I got one story from American Apparel, but dozens of stories from Motorati. I like to put out what I call an FDK -- a fiction development kit -- which is a story fragment that you can let people run with. Yet I hate being virtual sometimes....can't we just get a bunch of us in a room sometime and look each other in the eye?

Mike: We allowed derivative works of Blair Witch, but we didn't allow anyone to put the real film online. This was part of the success of Blair Witch. Why would you penalize your fans, your customers, by not allowing them to participate by making derivative versions?

Chris -- Everyone should read Henry Jenkins' work on fan cultures.

Mike: Our campaigns are often trojan horses....the client is getting layer A but there's layer B for people, which you can't directly sell. When you don't have layer B it feels hollow, like it's just marketing...

How important is the narrative vs the functionality vs who's there? Do you weigh one over the other?

Mike -- We will use the narrative to attract the people we want....we'll start with who the client wants to attract, then we write a narrative that we believe wil appeal to those people, and leave it open-ended so those people will come in and change the direction so you get to the end game a different way.

Research and strategy -- a lot of people in advertising are frustrated movie makers, and they want to tell stories. To me it's if you want to make a movie, go make one....these campaigns are, someone had an idea for a story and a brand name and they sold them on it....and that's just wrong. The strategy has to come first. Brands should be wary. You have to start with what's the problem that you're trying to solve.

Ars Technica is a site that talks a lot about technology and narrative. They say we need more narrative in games, though gamers are a tough crowd who often say, who cares? I just want to shoot you. So it depends on the genre -- for first-person shooters, the narrative doesn't matter so much.

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Notes from Advertising in Virtual Worlds session, Virtual Worlds Expo

Notes from my colleague Eric Brunker on the Advertising in virtual worlds session; panelists Joel Greenberg, Joe Hyrkin, Ben Richardson, Mike Dowdle Art Sindlinger

Present proposals in ways metrics can make sense - research? (Joe)

Capital music content - 2600 hours, 42,000 interactions with kiosks (Ben)

Reach and frequency do not always give impact

Captive audience, gauge attitude and opinions, how does a brand in the world impact the experience (Mike)

Question - Have the media answer so what? (Joel) or is is the marketers or the worlds to answer
⁃ Marketplace will solve (Art)
⁃ 700,000 in community, still in environment (Mike). Announced Turner Broadcasting, way to expand brand in a new TV experience
⁃ Helping consumers understand products (Mike)
⁃ There.com just announced partnership with Cosmo, bring editors into world to connect with the editor

Question - typical metrics? (Joel)
- number of steps, time spent (Art)
- impressions, measuring number of times wearing branded shirts, how many times people have embedded Scion products (Joe)
- interaction, exposure, adoption, momentum (Art)
- Mike - so early in this industry, one metric is what brands can learn.

Question - Nielsen comes knocking and saying they need a new metric? (Joe)
- Mike - tough because each brand is going to have a different goal
- Ben - Toyota tracks chatter, number of logins in the blogosphere
- Joe - number of branded impressions with an avatar
- Mike - attitudes or opinions
- Joel - can do that from surveys
- Ben - demographics different, research which is best

Question from audience - contextual ad serving
- Joe - target by interest area, age, located
- Ben - there.com via groups and affinity
- Mike - attaching brands to experience or interests

Question from audience - reaching through ad agencies or directly with brands
- Ben - both
- Joe - both
- Mike - a lot of traditional agencies talking to brands and a lot of virtual agencies talking. Brands not sure who to deal with and traditional struggling with this as well

Question from audience - do you sell CPM?
- Joe - sell CPM and projects
- Ben - most of the cost is in the production
- MIke - very similar

Question from Joel - should we be selling audience like TV?
- Art - TRP's still matter, but not all created equally, mixed modeling

Question from audience - how profitable is it for you to make branded experiences?
- MIke - focus 95% of the efforts on own world and partner with agencies and brands to create the experiences
- Joe - about user (deflecting question)

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Demographics in virtual worlds: Numbers and charts and predictions, oh my!

I've stayed with the Community track at the Virtual Worlds Expo. The featured morning panel on that track was "Demographics and Numbers: Where Things Are Heading".

First up was Nic Mitham, managing director of K-Zero. He forecasts growth for virtual worlds. One big reason -- the number of kid-based groups. Pretty soon children will be outgrowing the kids' worlds, and they will look for new worlds to get into. There's a huge marketplace already of children using virtual worlds who will migrate up the food chain as they grow older.

Said Mitham, growth in virtual worlds will come from Western Europe, from Russia, Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia. He said he doesn't yet see much virtual worlds activity for and from "silver surfers" or Baby Boomers. He said he also feels that corporate communities are prime for growth in virtual worlds, as is the educational space.

Mitham said the most exciting area for him was product development -- new virtual worlds, and new interfaces, that he feels will help grow the overall virtual worlds space. He says the typical profile of today's virtual worlds user is an early adopter (though I actually think this is wrong -- we're just now getting early adopters in virtual worlds. According to the original Everett Rogers adoption curve, it's the Innovators who are currently best represented in virtual worlds populations).

Mitham said easier interfaces will trigger growth for early adopters, and serve as a bridge to get new people into virtual worlds. One thing that will engage people is to make the overall experience easier. Also helping will be Web-based remote viewers, using a browser to access virtual worlds, including mobile devices. New worlds will help growth as well. A Google My World would be a huge source of growth.

Mitham also sai that diversification would be helpful in growing overall vw user numbers. He cited the rise of category-centric vertical worlds such as Football Superstars (currently in development). There's potential for growth in community-based worlds where the draw is the content, not just "early adopters" (or Innovators!) looking for the next new thing. Finally he cited cross-world avatars as having the potential to grow the total population, though not the number of unique users. But cross-world avatars could help more people get engaged in vws.

Mitham put forward some growth projections for the period Q407 to Q408 in selected virtual worlds. These are increases in the numbers of registered accounts, where the first number is the Q407 number of registered accounts and the second number is Mitham's prediction of the number of registered accounts for Q408:

Second Life 10m to 20m; There.com 1 m to 7 m, Kaneva 0.6m to 3m, HiPiHi 0m to 10m, Whyville 3m to 10m, Club Penguin 15m to 30m, Football Superstars 0m to 3m

Next up was Parks Associates' Michael Cai, who put forward numbers form a recent Parks survey:

6% of US broadband users visit virtual worlds on a weekly basis.
18% have tried a virtual world at least once.
Second Life is the number 1 virtual worlds, followed by teen worlds and kid worlds. Most regular virtual worlds users visit more than virtual world.

He also had numbers on virtual worlds vs social networks -- he reported huge gaps betwen social network and virtual worlds usage among various demographics. Such as -- 40% of 25- to 34-year-olds participate in social networks, vs 12% of that age group participating in virtual worlds; 71% of 18- to 24-year-olds participate in social networks, vs 10% of hat age group participating in virtual worlds; 35% of females participate in social networks vs 5% females participating in virtual worlds; and 29% of males participate in social networks vs 7% of males participating in virtual worlds.

Cai also had numbers (from a 9,500 user study) on what people do less of in the real world while they participate in virtual worlds:

60% don't watch as much TV
22% don't sleep as much
18% don't read as much
16% don't know what they do less of (I found that illuminating -- people just don't really know how they spend their time!)
15% work less
15% spend less time with friends and family
12% don't do sports as much
11% don't shop as much
7% other

Finally, Cai said the majority of users think Second Life is a good medium to promote a brand or product

Last up was Market Truths' Mary Ellen Gordon, who presented an update of research whose first wave was done in the first quarter of this year (n=201 Second Life users in Q! and 190 SL users in Q3, after excluding questionable respondents)

60% of respondents have positive perceptions of real-life brands in Second Life, which is an improvement over the Q1 numbers.

Between quarters, the perceptions of brand effects and consequences hasn't changed. Brands bringing in new resources to virtual worlds are considered a good thing, and people are not as afraid that real-life brands will damage small content creators in Second Life.

Gordon said that as the Second Life population has grown, some concerns abotu brands "taking over" Second Life are still there, but the new people coming in too SL now are more mainstream and don't have as many concerns.

Here are the tactics Gordon's research says work best for brands in Second Life:

Give away SL versions of real-life products; co-create real-life products; sponsor brand-related events; customize real-life products for SL use. People tend to like things that link Second Life and real life, that offer two-way interactions.

What doesn't work: advertising via IM in-world; advertising using notecards for neutrally perceived brands (brands that are not already high-profile in Second Life). Most tactics are perceived more positively when undertaken by brands for which pre-existing attitudes are positive.

Gordon also presented numbers on consumer behavior in and out of Second Life:

57% considered buying a real-life product as a result of a recommendation they received from someone in Second Life.
55% recommended a real-life product to someone they were chatting to in Second Life.
25% have gone to look at a product in real life after seeing it in Second Life.
9% have purchased a product in real life after seeing it in Second Life.
8% have bought a real-life product in Second Life.

Gordon's research on brand types: High-awareness brands in Second Life are currently concentrated in five categories: Of 24 brands meantioned unaided, they were concentrated in information technology, athletic shoes, soft drinks, cars, and media

Gordon said that given the word-of-mouth numbers form her research, it's important for brands to start looking at soft measures as well as metrics -- measures such as word of mouth, engaging with the brand/product in real life, in-world effects vs real world effects vs cross-channel effects, and buying process.

Both active and passive measures have issues in terms of user acceptability. People in focus groups have said they value their privacy and don't really want to be tracked in Second Life as closely as is now possible, let alone will be possible in future.

Finally, Gordon said that some of the brands with the highest awareness do not have an official presence, but their awareness is the result of people making unofficial versions of their products available in Second Life. There's a concern among brand people about whether or not these products represent their brands as they would like. Brands need to work with small content creators in a way that works for the brand yet doesn't cause a backlash.

Questions from the floor:

What's the most underserved demographic in virtual worlds? Mid-40s and up, said KZero's Mitham, although he doesn't know whether the demand is there yet. He said, we know these people are active web and email users. Cai from Parks said the social networking crowd isn't well-served yet, and he doesn't understand why match.com and such sites haven't been in virtual worlds yet. He also said females are underserved.

How many virtual world users are there today worldwide, and projections through 2011? If someone knows the answer to that, I'd ask them to buy my lottery ticket, said Mitham.

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Virtual World Guide white paper available for free download

We've compiled a guide to existing virtual worlds that's available for free download. This guide offers info and screen shots on dozens of worlds from Second Life to Habbo Hotel. There's also more information in the paper about our Virtual Awareness research offering, designed to help companies understand more about how, when, and where to take their brand into virtual worlds.

To get a free copy of Sentient's Guide to Virtual Worlds, go here..

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Virtual Worlds Expo: State of Virtual Worlds Keynote

I'm going to be doing some live blogging from the Virtual Worlds Expo, going on today and tomorrow in San Jose. First up: keynote speech by Sibley Verbeck, Electric Sheep Company. His speech offered a "state of the virtual world" overview. I found it The tinteresting that he broke down the virtual-world world into age groups: kids, teens, adults.

Kids, he said, have the first virtual worlds market to become established and successful, with vws such as Webkinz, Club Penguin, etc. Large companies and major brands are marketing there, as well as sponsoring their own virtual worlds (Nicktropolis, Barbie, etc). Clearly those are here to stay. The users are spending money (or their parents' money), and there have been acquisitions, such as Club Penguin which was bought by Disney. Virtual Worlds have definitely been a breakthrough success as a entertainment medium for kids.

The next stage is the "multiply like rabbits" stage -- I predict a year from now we'll be looking at 40 virtual worlds for kids, all heavily marketed. This is great and sobering too because a lot of them won't be successful. We're beginning to see brutal competition as the early success attracts a lot of people coming in. Everything but the Keebler elf world, and maybe that.

Most interesting for the audience here is that it would be a mistake not to pay close attention to this even if you are not involved in kid stuff....this is where innovation is happening, and competition will focus on how do you make the user exprience work for users with short attention spans, which is everyone except early adopters who are already in virtual worlds. The kids' virtual worlds are also pushing the envelope to get a good user experience on machines that are not high-end.

Teen space is interesting, and perhaps only a step behind the kids' space....I would summarize the teen space as platforms that have taken communications that teens are already doing and then adding some virtual worlds components. Those are the platforms that are getting huge user numbers, such as Gaia and IMVU. These are taking things kids are already doing and adding value....we also see coming from virtual world side lots of other platforms taking the very deep 3D experience, such as MTV, whyville.com. and applying it to things that people are already doing and gradually adding on more virtual-world to it. One thing I'm not seeing there yet is a virtual world that does both of those things, that has all of the advantages that can be brought by a deep virtual world experience, along with self-expression and communication tools, such as profile pages and asynchronous communication. There are a lot of new platforms focusing on that as well. Clearly there are possibilities for a virtual world in the teen and youth space that could be a better acquisition candidate than MySpace.

The adult space is quite a bit further behind...I don't mean adult content, of course that's out there. But for an adult audience, a lot of experimentation hasn't even started yet. Adult users are *not* those with short attention spans -- the users that are there now are interested in investing a lot of time there. The long-term biz models aren't there yet, e-commerce and retail aren't there yet. In virtual worlds, every type of consumer shopping experience can be better than the web, though not better than in the real world. I'm not sure how long it will take but the time will come when there's more e-commerce done in virtual worlds than on the web. There's a lot of experimentation yet to be done.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

User research for Second Life, virtual worlds in general

As of yet there's not a whole lot of research available publicly on the user experience in Second Life and virtual worlds overall. That's starting to change. Just this week a couple of reports have crossed my desk, one free and the other relatively inexpensive. Both are thought-provoking.

User Acceptance of Virtual Worlds bills itself as an "exploratory report" and with 250 respondents, that seems right. It's also fairly timely, having been fielded last spring. The authors, academics at Rollins College and Potsdam University, present this summary of their findings, a sort of snapshot of their respondents:
· 90% of respondents have less than a year experience on Second Life.
· 70% access Second Life from home.
· 67% of respondents are not afraid of giving personal information.
· Almost 60% are very likely to buy virtual goods from Second Life, and 42% are willing to use their credit card.
· 70% perceive Second Life to improve collaboration, 69% say it improves communication, and 61% say it improves cooperation between people.
· 56% of respondents perceive Second Life as easy to use.
· Finally, people are using Second Life not to change their identity, but rather to explore and visit new places and meet people.
The authors also asked their respondents what other social networks they are on, and got this response: 72% also use YouTube, 47% use Flickr, 40% use MySpace, 39% use FaceBook and 33% use LinkedIn.

The reason I found this interesting was that I read this report just after I read Social Technographics, a Forrester report from last spring that attempt to segment consumers of all kinds of social media, describing them by their placement on the "participation ladder" (see image here, in a thoughtful blog post on the Business Communicators of Second Life blog that discusses the Social Technographics report in detail).

According to report author Charlene Li, the ladder represents "six increasing levels of a participation in social technologies. Participation at one level may or may not overlap with participation at other levels." The six rungs are (in descending order of intensity of participation):
· Creators. Online consumers who publish blogs, maintain Web pages, or upload videos to sites like YouTube at least once per month. Creators, an elite group, include just 13% of the adult online population. Creators are generally young — the average age of adult users is 39 — but are evenly split between men and women.

· Critics. These online consumers participate by commenting on blogs or posting ratings and reviews on sites like Amazon.com. Critics represent 19% of all adult online consumers and on average are several years older than Creators.

· Collectors. Users who save URLs on a social bookmarking service like del.icio.us or use RSS feeds on Bloglines, thus creating metadata that’s shared with the entire community. Collectors represent 15% of the adult online population and are the most male-dominated of all the Social Technographics groups.

· Joiners. This unique group has just one defining behavior — using a social networking site like MySpace.com or Facebook. They represent only 19% of the adult online population and are the youngest of the Social Technographics groups. They are highly likely to engage in other Social Computing activities — 56% also read blogs, while 30% publish blogs.

· Spectators. This group of blog readers, video viewers, and podcast listeners, which represents 33% of the adult online population, is important as the audience for the social content made by everyone else. The most common activity for Spectators is reading blogs.

· Inactives. Today, 52% of online adults do not participate at all in social computing activities. These Inactives have an average age of 50, are more likely to be women, and are much less likely to consider themselves leaders or tell their friends about products that interest them.
The way I am reading the results from these studies, Second Life is full of Creators and Joiners. The Social Technographics report also offers profile information on users with different kinds of motivations. Social media users who are entertainment-motivated (which would be many Second Life users) tend to "participate in greater numbers," says the report (as opposed to those whose use of social media is motivated by career or family). As more job fairs and other recruiting activities start to take place in Second Life, we may see greater numbers of career-motivated people there.

These studies are interesting for the snapshots they offer, but overall there is a dearth of research available on virtual worlds users -- what motivates them, what interests them, who they are, what their real-life and virtual-worlds habits are, how those are different and how those are similar.

There's a move afoot to start a Metaverse Market Index, which will offer an independent, welcome source for tracking data and for virtual worlds user research. Once the MMI gets started, the virtual worlds world will be less like the Wild West and more like....the Wild West with a couple of badged sheriffs, maybe . Data should begin to come from that effort by mid-2008.

Meanwhile, companies that would like to explore the possibilities of virtual worlds for their brands would be advised to do primary research specifically tailored to their brand (both in-world and real-life). Call us if you need help with that. That we can do!

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