Building the Metaverse – Connecting it to the Real World

After reading several white papers on online economy, browsing around the forums, and having discussions with people inworld, as well as checking up on what Philip Rosedale (CEO of Linden Lab?) says about it, I finally did it: I started to pull in the real world economy into Second Life®. 🙂

So far, what we have seen is, residents are pushing the virtual frontier beyond the game. The best example is GOM, of course, but every time a blog goes up talking about SL, we are actually crossing into RL, and tell people “out there” how important this “game” is to us. GOM is perhaps the “bridge” we needed – a connection between economies. And economy is what SL is all about.

Statistics are harsh. We are just 15,000, and only 0.5% are really interested in what goes on beyond our cozy place in the virtual frontier (wow, I’m really getting into buzzwords again!). The rest is just having too much fun right now to give it a second thought. What they want is entertainment, and that’s what SL provides for them (yes, scripting and doing “hard work” in SL is entertainment, too!!).

I’m already 10 years in the future, and this is why I think I sound so strange to most of my fellow residents. You see, I was a skeptic when Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the World-Wide Web. We would gather around our USENET newsgroups (the “forums” at that time) and discuss if we really needed a new protocol, there were already so many around. And we made fun about the tag. That’s what people in late 1992 were discussing.

Some “visionaries” just said, “hey, but the cool idea about WWW is that you can interconnect sites using hypertext”. So what? We had dozens of alternatives. There was no centralized searching, for instance (Gopher had it). So who would care about it?

A group of people developed a new type of browser which displayed images and not only content (i.e. text). This was called Mosaic (much later the code was “absorbed” by Microsoft into IE) and it was a revolution. Other technologies were “pure text”. Now suddenly you could get designers to play around with pages. And if you have designers, you are able to do fancy sites, reflecting corporate images. And suddenly this was not a “cool technology” any more. Web sites popped up around the world pretty quickly. What later became the W3G used to have a list of “new sites today” – that’s how I was able to “prove” for a long while that I did with a friend the first site in my country back in 1993 (yes, the list has disappeared from the Web ages ago). After a few months, you simply couldn’t click on all “new sites” any more, and simple search tools were added to find the page you wanted. That’s how it all started.

By late 1994, silly companies – small, understaffed, with a handful of techies and with luck a crazed-out marketeer – sstarted convincing other companies that “the Web would be the major platform for business in the world”. You can’t even imagine how people looked at us that time. If they laughed, that meant that at least they listened. Most couldn’t care less for that “major business platform”. It was academic stuff, or stuff for kiddies. Later on, the excuse was that the Web just had too much sex, and no “decent company” would really want to associate with that.

I don’t know when suddenly critical mass started to leverage things out, but I would guess it was at the time Microsoft launched Windows 95 and said that the Internet thingie was silly, and they would give the world a new and amazing technology, called Microsoft Network. Just by despising the Internet, Microsoft shook and rattled the world – people started to talk about it, even if only to spite us poor Internet “oldies”, who were placing our bets on the wrong horse.

Well, we all know what happened. Microsoft ate its hat, and “fully supported” the Internet after a few months. As we all know, Bill Gates is amazingly clever. He made a mistake, admitted it publicly, and went back to business as usual, launching IE and killing Netscape. Still, the world was out. Microsoft believes in the Internet (after a hiccup and a false start). So everybody started connecting like crazy and put web sites up at a much faster pace!

About that time, a young visionary thought that “the Internet would be the communication network of the future”, probably reading articles on how people wouldn’t be needing to pay their phone companies for calls over the Internet. And he did some amazing videoconferencing stuff at a time where people were marvelling at the brand new 28800 bps modems. When videoconferencing started to become “commonplace”, this guy just about “invented” audio and video streaming. Now let’s appeal to the media – newspapers were covered with the graphical web browser, but what about TV and radio stations? You know all about this guy. He made SL.

Being able to predict correctly what will happen in 10 years is a very difficult task for a “visionary”. Steve Jobs had it, and he was kicked out of Apple for a while, until they brought him back. Larry at Oracle thought it would be cool if his database server worked over all operating systems, instead of just a selected few. And the guys at Sun really believe that the computer is the network. They were the only ones at that time, of course.

The technology behind Second Life? is the “next generation web”. It’s the metaverse. It’s version 0.01 of the Matrix – still crude, still with many bugs and glitches. Just like that first version of Mosaic who gave the world the wonders of WWW, but was still in its infancy and gave the “visionaries” room to dream about the future. And IE or Netscape or Mozilla or Safari are not so different from Mosaic, after all. All the basic stuff – navigation across pages, bookmarks, the way pages are rendered – was invented back then in 1993. We just made it better, we improved the technology, we expanded the feature list, we interconnected more stuff. But it’s basically the same technology.

So that’s what will happen in 10 years with LL’s “technology”. It will have a few hundred million users. They will have faster computers, and perhaps millions of prims per sim. Users at home will buy cheap VR goggles (they are already very cheap today) and do on the “next generation of SL” what we currently do on the Internet – business and entertainment. Companies will set up virtual franchises on SL and sell virtual items there, and ship real items to the avatar owners. We’ll browse the Web inworld, and send IMs or inworld email to colleagues and customers. We will do technical support on our products, like Liaisons and Live Help do support on SL right now. We will set up virtual meetings with our colleagues and customers in SL, and use XyText or similar stuff instead of blackboards and video projectors. We will do e-learning in SL – currently, classes by the several universities in SL already provide much better education and training than any other commercially available tool for e-learning.

You’re laughing right now? Yes, I thought as much. I suggested yesterday to one of my colleagues at work that we should do the meeting in SL instead. He laughed, too.

But people also laughed at Amazon when they started. They said that a “Web shop” selling books online would never catch, people need to get in touch with bookshop owners and get recommendations. They were probably right, but Amazon is still here. The same, people said, would apply to clothes – you need to feel the textures, see how they fit you, nobody would sell clothes over the Internet. And how about supermarket shopping? How would you know if the products were fresh by seeing pictures on a browser?

We all laughed at those “visionaries”, but the truth is, you do it all right now – even after the burnout. Now we’re used to the technology.

SL is just another technology – far better. It’s not because of the nice computer graphics. It’s because, unlike web pages, you get a human touch. So you can put Amazon inside SL right now, and have the friendly bookshop owner there to recommend books. You can have clothes shops with their online catalogues on SL – but you’ll be able to see how the clothes fit your avatar, and talk to the shop owners and ask for recommendations. And you can even have a virtual supermarket where suppliers also pay more for shelf space in a virtual world. Suddenly, everything which applies to the “real world” can be done in SL, and it’s far better than using the Web.

Because we humans adapt easily, we thwarted our minds to deal with the unhuman Web, and in ten years we pushed it to the limits. But we’re still much more familiar with “natural” and “humane” things. If I want to buy a new Mercedes, I would much prefer talk to William Beckett in SL and see his latest recreation of the “new Mercedes”, drive it around for a while, instead of just seeing pictures online.

All of this – getting the RL economy to take an interest into SL – is what makes me shiver. Philip is right. The Web is dead, we can’t go much farther with that in the next years. We need the metaverse.

So I did it. I started to send emails to RL companies to take an interest in SL and set up “virtual shops” there. I’ll be glad to help them out 🙂 It just feels like 1994 back again. The good thing about it is that I’ve learned quite a lot since then, and while I had serious problems to convince people that the Web was here to stay and that it was the best thing invented after sliced bread (because I wasn’t so sure of it at that time), now I know all the skeptics’ arguments by heart 🙂

This time, I will be laughing 🙂

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