Location: Blue Mars Web Site
With the launch of Sony's Playstation Home, we have a viable alternative in terms of graphics, if not community, to SL. I do not know anything about content creation in Home, however; to this academic it's the defining characteristic of a richly textured virtual world. Blue Mars, a yet-to-be-released virtual world (that coy woman is a Blue Mars avatar) promises unparalleled graphics but, and this is key, no user-created content.
I enjoy Dusan Writer's posts a lot, and from Dusan's old site, I ran across a post on "Leaving Second Life" from February. It would be good reading for a future class, when we study the psychology of virtual worlds. It's also influencing my thinking for an ongoing project, an academic article with the working title "The Holodeck Paradox."
A few call-out claims of Dusan Writer's:
- "persistent 3D social spaces are at their most basic level experiences"
- "at their most complex level, they’re new ways of creating, interacting with, and sharing concepts"
- "virtual worlds have the power to be so compelling that we, consciously or not, decide that these worlds have more appeal than the real world" (this echos philosopher Jean Baudrillard's point about any "hyperreal" environment)
- "The feeling of presence and the ability to share documents, pictures, and objects in a 'space' brings a deeper and more intuitive engagement" [than, say, teleconferencing]
Yet of course such projects always show us only the finest images captured on high-end computers. In fact, I'd argue that Linden Lab's splash photos on their Web pages are often delightfully dowdy--rather like snaps in a crazy family's album.
If Blue Mars' makers are not merely blowing steam at us, " A 3D casual game in Blue Mars can be developed for the same cost as a 2D Flash-based game." That would be a powerful incentive for residents and developers in SL to give it a try.
But it's not enough for academic users who are not in SL or other virtual worlds to play games. That's not why I came. Other than my fetish for virtual racing in SL, I'm drawn to builds like the virtual Globe Theatre, House of Seven Gables, or Dante's Inferno.
As for Blue Mars, its launch has been repeatedly delayed. The company's site shows no updates past August of this year, and a few scatter-shot Google News searches show a spring 2009 roll out. Whatever the real-life economy does to new ventures such as Blue Mars or Home, the points Writer makes remain valid for those seeking entertainment in a virtual world. In time, the exodus to virtual worlds that Edward Castronova describes will reach the tipping point...whether that helps or hurts SL remains to be seen.
Here's a sign that some pioneers are already setting up camp elsewhere and plan to make virtual life easier "on the other side" for their fellow refugees.
But will they really leave? And what will academic residents and (more importantly for Linden Lab) inventors need?
The operative issues for this academic, and others I've spoken to at and beyond our weekly Roundtable, remain:
- User-generated content must be present to attract the educational community (Blue Mars' approach is to work with professional content developers)
- Free or very cheap accounts must be available for student users
- Hardware and software requirments must be relatively low and cross-platform (I won't join a virtual world without Mac OS support; others will feel differently). SL is mixed in this regard, because it does not support laptops well, and most of my students now use PC and Mac laptops. A few have been stranded by LL upgrades mid-term
- The world must be stable enough to let projects thrive (Second Life has a mixed record here, though it's still better than OpenLife, the alternative I know best)
- A world must enable gateways to non-vw content. That would mean being able to share Office documents and non-SL files within SL. I hear rumblings that Linden Lab is working on a solution to this. It would be a boon to academics in-world
- The interface must be intuitive for new users (Home and Blue Mars promise this; SL-based virtual worlds fail pretty badly).
I must part company with Writer on a key point about social users; while I agree broadly with this statement, as Linden Lab tries to lure more governmental and academic residents who will pay tier for their own islands, this point will matter less and less:
Is there a role for a virtual world platform that goes in the opposite direction of cartoon rooms and game-derived avatars? It’s all about the shopping and socializing. They may suck up the early adoption curve because of the technology requirements, but if they can keep people for the shopping and the socializing they may be on to something.Writer is talking about Blue Mars, but for most educators, shopping is not why we come in world with students, except perhaps to study marketing by content-creators. Socializing is essential to engagement in and beyond class.
But buying hair and chatting are not what this technology is all about: our universities are not going to exploit the rich potential of virtual worlds until more is done to assure stability, interoperability, and security of any content we create.