The future of virtual worlds

The concept of virtual worlds has long appealed to me, ever since I first read about them in elementary school, then proceeded to see them in popular media. The idea of a separate reality with its own set of rules fascinates me. And although we haven’t quite reached the farthest reaches of what we were promised with virtual worlds, they are, for the most part, here already.

Second Life (which I’ve written about a lot) is currently the best example of a general purpose virtual world. In it, one can interact with other people, play games, create things, participate in a full-fledged economy, find love, etc. — basically anything one can do in real life. Yet Second Life’s popularity pales in comparison to pure-gaming virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, RuneScape, Lineage II, etc., showing that we are still very much on the forefront of the field, and so far, it’s the gamers who are proving to be the bulk of the first adopters. But virtual worlds are inevitably on the way in and they should continue growing ever more popular over time, right?

Right?

Well, as it turns out with Second Life, this isn’t the case. Second Life’s player base peaked in July, 2007. Since then it’s been ever so slowly, yet inexorably, declining. What’s happening? Is this a problem with the entire virtual worlds concept? Maybe all that’s been holding it up is hype, and once people really start using one, they find it unnecessary? Or is it a problem with one particular virtual world?

My bet is on the latter. Second Life has significant problems that are directly harming it. It has many stability issues. Performance is inconsistent and prone to glitches and slowdowns in high traffic areas. The game is also nearly impenetrable to everyone but hardcore gamers (and despite having played games most of my life, it still took me a couple of hours after first playing around with Second Life to get the knack of things). And if you want to create some of the more advanced in-game objects (you know, the ones that actually do things), you’ll need to learn an entire programming language, complete with API.

In the end, I think Second Life’s interface is simply too idiosyncratic to appeal to the vast majority of the casual non-gamer types that it needs to truly burgeon. Compare that to the gaming-oriented virtual worlds like WoW which are doing just fine. The problem isn’t with the virtual worlds concept itself, it’s just that there hasn’t been a breakthrough general purpose virtual world like there have been breakthrough gaming ones. Yet. But that time will come. Who knows, maybe it will come in the form of an all new version of Second Life. But I kind of doubt it.

The same game-style interface that is so successful with WoW simply won’t work with something like Second Life. But it’s a deeper issue than interface design: the interface technology itself is there yet. Virtual worlds won’t be successful on a large scale until the interface itself evolves beyond the tired two-dimensional display, mouse, and keyboard. This interface is great for navigating the Internet (which will inevitably be the precursor to whatever virtual world ends up making it big). But it won’t see us through to the next revolution.

I cannot claim to know what specific future innovation in computer interfaces will allow the creation of the first breakthrough general purpose virtual world. I suspect anyone who knows would stand to be very successful off it. But I do have some guesses. Virtual worlds of the future will have to be more intuitive and accessible to the average person. Thus, they will need to map much more closely to the way we interact with the real world.

Rather than pressing a key to turn one’s view to the right, one should simply have to look to the right. This immediately suggests some kind of display set into glasses with motion sensors (or a full-fledged helmet if you want to be bulky about it) such that the view always tracks what you are looking at, and by turning once around you can see the whole world.

What I am describing is seemingly delving into the realm of science fiction. But it’s all completely possible with current technology. A decade ago at Disney World I played a virtual version of Pac-Man. They had me put on a helmet with two screens in it, one for each eye. To look around the virtual Pac-man maze, I simply turned my head to either side, and the view adjusted accordingly. The graphics weren’t so good, but that was a decade ago.

Technology has progressed very far since then, and is able to deliver a much closer simulacrum of reality. It’s now possible to get the feet into the action as well, using some sort of motion sensor or, even better, an omnidirectional treadmill, so you can actually walk rather than having to march in place. Imagine, a virtual world that you navigate through in exactly the same way as the real world. That’ll be much more easy for non-gamers than having to learn about WASD.

Looking farther down the line, I think eventually we’ll be able to interact with virtual worlds directly using thoughts, first with neural sensors worn on the head, and then later, using computers implanted directly in the brain. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s rapidly becoming science fact. Researchers have already developed brain implants that allow deaf people with defective ears to hear, or mute people with defective vocal cords to speak through computer speakers. For now this technology is limited to helping people with disabilities, but eventually it will be available to everyone, and not getting an implant will be as Luddite then as not using a telephone is now.

But I’m looking a bit too far into the future now. Virtual worlds don’t need brain implants to be as hugely successful as the world wide web is. They just need something along the lines of the non-invasive natural interface I first described. That will be good enough to put them over the edge and make them hugely successful. But until then, the way we interact with virtual worlds simply isn’t good enough, and Second Life is limited to being a fun novelty rather than the Next Big Thing.

One Response to “The future of virtual worlds”

  1. Gregory Maxwell Says:

    I don’t share your optimism on subject of Virtual World user interfaces: “First life” is amazingly complex. It is so complex that had we not evolved here we would probably have no chance of figuring darn near any of it out in our limited lifetimes. We evolved here and we spend our whole lives here, as a result we take the fact that we are able to handle its amazing complexity for granted.

    I think the problem of virtual worlds being very hard for the uninitiated may be unsolvable. After all.. anything simple enough that its trivial to use is likely not complex enough to deserve being called a “world”.

    It may even be impossible to make virtual worlds really fluid even for the most experienced human operators without evolving what they are or increasing their sophistication until they convincingly emulate “first life”, which we are already well adapted to handle. (Or, alternatively, advancing the ‘humans’)

    On this subject I’d recommend reading True Names by Vernor Vinge. It includes a virtual world which is mapped onto “first life”. I’ve always rejected the notion of mapping virtual worlds onto anything too much like “first life” because it’s unlikely that any reasonable virtual world would be sufficiently isomorphic, for example distance in computer networks is very different than distance on earth. When I finished True Names, I still felt like using an emulation “first life” as the user interface for virtual worlds was not a good idea however the novel contains an absolutely brilliant, and rather long, afterward by Marvin Minsky which I found to be quite convincing. I’d highly recommend reading the book (and the afterward!), as it’s not terribly long, I think it took me less than an hour to read it..