2007 was unquestionably a significant year in the development of the Virtual Worlds industry. It went from a mocking human interest story at the end of the nightly news to the covers of prominent business magazines. As the proverb says however, 'Be careful what you wish for....'
There have been prior attempts at a 3D Internet, particularly around the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (or VRML). There were a number of market reasons that VRML never reached widespread adoption that were independent of VRMLs technical merits. In contrast 2007 featured the ramp of Second Life for public social collaboration and visibility for companies such as Forterra Systems for intraverse simulation and training.
The questions that we were asked during the 'New Ways of Working' panel at the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference last week in New York all seemed to be searching for the elusive initial proof-points to justify and quantify the benefit of virtual worlds in the enterprise. This is not unique to virtual worlds, and is a recurring theme in all of the emerging technology trends I have participated in. Early adopters attempting new projects within their organizations fortify themselves with metrics and other case-studies of successful deployments to demonstrate to their management the benefits of the technology in question, and virtual worlds are certainly no exception.
The current proof-pillars of this industry, however, are still scarce, with elaborate simulations being performed by the U.S. Government within Forterra Olive, as well as the Stanford SUMMIT medical simulations on the same platform. In the consumer area, there have been numerous examples of training and education within Second Life (including my employer) and isolated non-self-referential instances of collaborative design projects (most notably Wikitecture). What has not happened yet are the secondary ripples of these initial 'It can be done' proofs-of-concept, which will begin the snowball effect of more examples feeding more deployments which become examples for subsequent projects. It will take some sobriety on the part of marketing departments throughout industry, making sure to identify real value and not hand-waving, and it will take more time for the existing trials being conducted to bear fruit.
Two negative side effects of the excess of positive press in 2007 were that (1) each vendor in the 3D simulation area became an overnight sensation while many of their platforms were not ready for mainstream deployments, and (2) the peripheral/adjacent markets in this space (3D rendering engines, virtual economies, etc.) stampeded over to participate in the virtual gold rush, which made it harder for non-industry customers to get a bead on what this space actually is and how it benefits their organizations.
What this market pressure has exerted is a degree of speciation, in that companies are beginning to polarize into platform providers (intraverse or metaverse?), and component technology providers. An impacting externality to this is the emergence of the 'software as a service' business model within companies, who are evaluating these new virtual worlds not only from a 'should we/shouldn't we' decision, but also from a 'hosted/service' decision as well. One more barrier to adoption.
Speaking of barriers, if you ask most virtual world platform vendors what their top five barriers to adoption are, inevitably one of them will be the issue of 'corporate firewalls'. Given the immaturity of the technology, the non-standardization of ports and protocols used across vendors (which, admittedly, will be the case for some time as is the case in each new technology cycle), and the absence of overwhelming-demand on the part of major corporate clients, the corporate information-security technology departments will be in no hurry to poke holes in the corporate firewalls for a currently unproven application. It will happen over time, or the protocols used may render the discussion moot by leveraging lessons learned by companies like Skype in the VoIP space.
You see the initial furtive steps of companies to offer both a SaaS or Hosted model of their collaboration environments (such as the IBM/Linden Lab announcement) as well as overtures in that direction by companies like Qwaq. That will remove one barrier to adoption.
There have been the overtures towards data standardization with Multiverse and Google embracing COLLADA (and Intel hiring COLLADA people as part of their strategy) and the Virtual Worlds Interoperability Forum (of which I am a member). These efforts will initially focus on interoperability between virtual worlds and Internet data sources (like COLLADA files) rather than avatar portability. In contrast to my prior post about the future of virtual worlds, this degree of interoperability will be sufficient for some time as the broader Internet identity problem is resolved, as a choice of 'presentation layers' (in the form of virtual worlds) of a common dataset will be functional enough to limp along. The difficulty in that scenario will be in cross platform meetings.
The next post will posit some paths that the industry can take at this juncture, and if it will continue to be rather boutique, or will move into mainstream deployments.