Not So Lively: Chronicles of Day One on Google’s Virtual World

So by now it’s not news any more, but a fact: Google has entered the profitable (?) world of virtual worlds (pun obviously intended). A much awaited development, at least by the faithful believers that Google will save the world.

I don’t think there are coincidences. In about 24 hours (not in the same day for the timezone-impaired), Sun’s Wonderland gets slashdotted, Linden Lab announces the massive growth of Second Life and demonstrates the interoperability between their main grid and IBM’s OpenSim-based grid, and Google launches their own virtual world, Lively. July 8th was definitely the Day of the Metaverse!

Simultaneously, Metaverse Development Companies like Millions of Us and Rivers Run Red announce that they have developed virtual presences for their companies on Google’s brand new virtual world, so it’s clear that this wasn’t a surprise to either of them — both have “rooms” in Lively, and MoU even has already placed one of their clients, National Geographic.

So, like probably billions of people around the world, I tried to join in to Lively and see what’s all about. Not to be turned down by the lack of Mac support (no new virtual world supports the Mac these days, in spite of the “promises” done to “support it soon” — with “only” 8% of market share and growing, the Mac is simply not interesting for developers to focus on), I launched Parallels and hoped to get in that way.

First steps

The initial experience looks just like IMVU or Meez: you get to design your avatar even before you download the client application, which works inside your browser. Allegedly Firefox is supported too; I’ve tried it with IE7, and the download doesn’t take long. In the mean time, I had the opportunity to browse through all the options to create my avatar. Being — like all Google products! — a Beta version, there are perhaps 40 or 50 available options (not the “millions” announced by Google reps) and they can be somewhat configured, but the choices are confusing and very, very limited. Nothing like the creative fun I had with Meez, some time ago (and which also have a virtual-world-based-on-web-embeddable-rooms, of course).

Then it was time to pick a room to visit (unlike Meez, there is no way you can obviously create your own room, although it’s clear it should be possible somehow). There is a list to pick from. Surprise, surprise: on the top five “Most visited” rooms, a club (what else?) was at the top, with Pathfinder Linden’s own “Linden Lab” room a close second. Figuring out that here I would already find a few familiar faces from Second Life®, I went for that one.

The choice was certainly correct — Dusan Writer, Grace McDunnough, Jurin Juran, and likely a few others (sometimes it’s not easy to figure out who’s who!) were around in the room, testing the cumbersome interface. And cumbersome it is! Or perhaps it was just me, fighting to get a few frame rates per second (and not a frame every two or three seconds!) out of Lively. The room was, of course, crowded… with about a dozen avatars (20 is the hard-coded limit). I’m sure, however, that someone with a good PC (and not using Parallels) might have had a much better experience than me. Then again, it looked like most of the crowd was complaining about the excruciatingly painful lag.

Is it fun?

Combine that with a confusing little interface and it was clearly anything but a “fun” experience. And remember that we were all cheating. Everybody on the “Linden Lab” room at that time was a veteran Second Life resident; we’re not exactly newbies with virtual worlds. We have tried several, and in some cases, use different VWs regularly and every day. We’re used to lag, to semi-functional software, to application crashes (several people crashed during the few hours I was online), to things not loading, to silly mistakes that everybody does. We’re also used to the insanely complex (but virtually rich) interface of Second Life, and use computers and their complex applications to accomplish tasks every day. And, of course, we all are very open minded and eager to try new things out.

Lively was anything but Lively — except for the fact that you were in a visually unappealing chatroom with a lot of friends or at least acquaintances from one’s journey across the Metaverse. Like I usually say, most virtual worlds I’ve tried only capture my attention for about 15 minutes, and it’s up to the developers to make sure that I enjoy the first 15 minutes (Meez, for instance, in 15 minutes let me choose an avatar, personalise it quite a lot, create a room, make small changes, log in, take snapshots, make a movie… and well, that was basically it, but at least I had fun in those 15 minutes! With IMVU I had very similar experiences). Lively was only lively because there were people there I know — people whose opinions I respect — and that made me stay about 2 hours in it. The old rule applies: if there is nothing else to do in a virtual world, it’s the people you meet that will make you decide to stay, not the interface.

Unless, of course, that there is a lot to do. My first experience in Second Life was getting the idea that there simply was too much to do, and I’d take hours and hours to learn it all (I since then realised that the most correct time estimate is “several centuries”, but I had no idea of knowing that…). On Lively, the attraction seems to be to figure out how to embed Lively rooms on web pages (easy), how to create new rooms (no clue; I’m looking for pointers and welcome them) or new items (also no clue, but it’s clear that some items have descriptions like “curvy-body-shape-25” done by Google’s developers, so there has to be a way to import the meshes). You can just drag and drop items around the place and add comments to it.

Who’s the target audience for this product?

The “cartoonish” look (which is so great for rendering things quickly) is also something that baffles me. I can’t believe that Google is targeting the teen population. After all, Mike Elgan from ComputerWorld claims:

What that means is that companies will be able to re-create their office and meeting space, and events companies can create or re-create entire conferencing facilities. Your avatar can wander around, see the “booths,” check out the conferences or interface with other “attendees” — all in virtual space. 

Really, Mike?… They might do that, but definitely not on Lively. Even a MoU representative (who, as said, did create a room for a client in Lively already) considers that opinion an “interesting hypothesis”. Put into other words, not even MoU seriously believes that article, and it’s just one of a series — which, if I didn’t know the reputation of the magazines writing them, I’d just believe they were infodumps straight out of Google’s marketing department. The claims are just ludicrous. It’s like claiming that Orkut (another failed project from Google) would become the basis of social networking between businesses and corporations and replace LinkedIn or Plaxo. Fortunately Google never claimed that. But it’s very likely that Orkut profiles will shortly feature Lively rooms. A rumour was spread that there was already a Facebook application available for Lively (I couldn’t find it).

What Google Lively looks to be targeting is really at social sites with embedded 3D chatrooms. Meez is the leading player in this market: popular sites like PhotoBucket already allow you to create your own Meez avatar (and it’s not an exception; there are already many; Meez is rather good on their sales/marketing department and has totally surpassed both Microsoft and even Yahoo on 3D cute-y avatar personalisation integrated into third-party websites). Meez has launched their own room-based “virtual world” quite recently. It works on any platform and any browser (no silly limitations like Google’s), it’s interactive, has billions of options to choose from, and, well, frankly, it works. It has worked for years. Whirled has it working for months. Vivaty has launched it yesterday. So perhaps Google was afraid that all of the above would dominate that market and wants to push them out of business. Also, Raph Koster’s own Metaplace — which uses a similar concept of rooms-embedded-on-web-pages — is a potential target for Google. Raph, of course, disagrees — and this time I find no faults on his reasoning. If Google has more plans for Lively, they’re not telling — and instead are offering a terrible product, way below their usual offerings.

Definitely not a way to impress the Google fandom.

As for the “corporate use of Lively” — so much enthusiastically defended on Computerworld — their assumptions are preposterous. Unless they’re hinting at where Lively will be heading in five or ten years. I could not find any “corporate” example on Lively on the launch day, except for a room for Proximity Worldwide — which they don’t even seem to be announcing on their own website. National Geographic, allegedly a client of Million of Us in Lively, is not searchable, so one has to admit it might come out later. One wonders what they’ll be showing: YouTube videos of their most popular shows? 

So why are people so enthusiastic about Google Lively?

I have only one explanation: it has the brand “Google” behind it.

As a 3D-chatroom-embedded-on-the-web, it falls behind almost every other product and application I have tried in the past 4 years, no matter where you wish to find something good. The animations are goofy and cartoonish, to the point of extreme irritability. The interface is not obvious, but then again, SL suffers from the same problem, and it’s just a question of getting used to it. There is no content creation at all; no way to integrate it with anything; no programming/scripting; no chat tools (even GTalk, known to have the least features just after SL’s chat system, has far more!). And, more important: no support, a terrible forum system (I can’t answer on half the threads), no helpful people around… if you bump into a Google Developer, they’re very likely very friendly (or so everybody who met them claims), but that’s all you get. Google’s webpage for Lively is even more minimalistic than anything else they’ve launched before. And there is nothing on the Google developers’ sites either.

You can show YouTube videos inside Lively, as well as stream music, and grab the code to embed a room into any webpage. That’s the degree of “interaction” with the outside world that is provided by Google. Beyond that, there is nothing.

Searching for the “most popular” rooms leads to the inevitable: the most rated one was a dance club (since you can stream music) and on the top ten list you had a lot of sex-related rooms as well. Since animations are fixed and you cannot import content, I wonder what the fun is supposed to be on those (I didn’t bother to check them out). 

This was a terrible disappointment. I admit to being very naive. I was expecting something with at least the quality of Vivaty which at least has pretty decent avatars (nobody seems to wish to create a social world with the high detail of Second Life’s own avatars; photorealism is left to games on consoles and high-end hardware; we regular users of social environments are left with low-polygon cartoons and anime characters), but using SketchUp to import at least crude models. Even importing plywood cubes would be nice! Instead, we have to rely on the “Catalog”, created by a limited group of Google developers. There is no “click here to add content” button, like you’ve got in, say, IMVU or There.com. There is no information whatsoever on how to add it, although, as said, both Millions of Us and Rivers Run Red have a “special” contract with a “limited” number of developers that Google allowed to participate in the creation of a few personalised rooms.

No content, no fun, just chat and embed rooms on webpages

So this seems to be Google’s recipe for success. Their virtual world, like Second Life®, is supposed to be about “people doing their own rooms”. In a way, a 3D Orkut: let people socialise on each other’s rooms by doing live (text) chat, listen to music, have fun together, arrange a day to download the 10 MBytes Lively client and chat, chat, chat. Visit each other’s rooms to see the cool arrangement of sofas that your friend has managed to glue on the wall. View YouTube videos and comment on them while you watch together. Go to a club and dance. That’s all. Oh, and for corporations, instead of chatting on GTalk, go to a corporate room and watch a slideshow presentation on YouTube.

Some SL residents managed to talk to the Google Developers, and these said that there was a 3D Max plugin to allow the creation of content into Lively. The plugin works 90% of the time but it can only improve. There is no idea or plan or announcement on if that plugin will be released to the public. People speculate that if Lively had three years of development (and not 2 months, as it looks like…), we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, and that we should soon expect integration with all major Google applications and APIs. It seems to be clear that they won’t integrate with anything which is not “Google”, although some creative people will probably be able to use Lively-to-GTalk gateways to at least get access to external content. SL programmers are used to all sorts of tricks to get access to external content in Second Life in ways that Linden Lab never predicted, so they might be able to do the same with Lively, too.

So the marketing strategy seemed to be simple: leverage on the Google brand to get the media hyped about something new. Exclude companies like Meez, Vivaty, Whirled, or ultimately even Metaplace to forge strong ties with the Big Social Sites out there, and have them adopt Lively avatars and embedded rooms instead. Turn Orkut into 3D. And when Lively reaches a few hundreds of millions of users in a year or so, start adding interesting features to it. By then, everybody will use “Google” as a word synonymous to virtual worlds (like we use “to google” as a verb to describe using a web search engine) and they can do whatever they please with Lively.

Google is known to be “the company that does no evil”. But looking from my point of view — an enthusiast of the 3D Social Web — I feel cheated. We were doing great in opening the minds to millions of users to look at the Metaverse as Second Life defines it as the next human-machine interface for all our tasks. Granted, we all know it’ll take ages — another decade at least — but we all are here for the long term.

Instead, what we get from one of the industry giants is that “3D is bad, embedding cartoons on Web pages is good”. Why? Well, it should be obvious. Google is the market leader in (2D) web search content — both text and images (and soon video). While there is an HTML-based World-Wide Web, Google will be a major player in it — always. Not unlike Microsoft in the 1990s — who cleverly figured out that while there was a PC architecture, no matter how flawed it was, Windows would be running over it and give Microsoft a de facto monopoly on it — Google is reading Bill Gates’ book and doing the same. The preservation of an HTML-based, 2D-Web is what Google needs to do at all costs, since their core business comes from indexing it. As Second Life shows so well, it’s incredibly hard to create 3D search engines. A 3D desktop replacement makes no sense for Google. To be the “King of the Web” you need to make sure the “Web” (as we know it today) doesn’t go away.

So effectively what Google managed to do is to lower expectations world-wide. CEOs around the world will be reading the billions of articles written about Lively in just 24 hours and say: “oh, so, that’s what the 3D web is supposed to be — embedding chatrooms in my web site. Ok, I can manage that, it sounds reasonable. Where do I sign?”
Gwyn’s now got a “virtual world presence” in Lively, too.

Abruptly, since yesterday, a huge fracture was opened (we had signs that it would be coming) between what a “virtual world” ought to be (a fully immersive 3D environment where the desktop is replaced by a 3D viewer) and what Google now defines it to be (disconnected rooms, associated with websites, where a small amount of people come to visit what’s going on in it and interact by chatting). The lower the quality of Lively, the better for Google. If you read the comments on many blogs and comments you’ll see how everybody is over-emphasising the ability to put a Lively room on a social website’s profile, and how little importance is being given to usability, user-generated content, a contiguous landscape, programmability, or even mashups with other technologies. As long as you can embed a 3D room inside a blog post with the same ease you can place an YouTube video in it, people are happy.

And I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Google intends.

So starting today I expect my Gmail box to be flooded with requests from clients suddenly demanding that they get their “virtual presence” on Lively, too, and, of course, embedded on their own webpage. I will have to sigh and explain that there is no way to create content in Lively, not now at least, and that Google has not released any information on how and when that will be possible. On the other hand, a small amount of companies, heavily NDA’d, have been secretly signing agreements with Google to become content creators and thus give them an edge on any possible competition. It seems terribly unfair — specially because none of the Google sites (at least the ones that are publicly available!… and I’m technically a registered developer too, and have not received any information from Google about Lively) tell us what to do in order to be “allowed” to create content for Lively. What a strange turn of events for the “company that does no evil”.

Unless, of course, Google is trying to redefine “evil” as they’re now redefining what a virtual world should look like.

Update: Lively runs on an iMac with 2 GBytes of RAM, Parallels, the “experimental DirectX drivers” provided by Parallels, and IE on Windows, quite well. You can get something close to 5 to 15 FPS that way, which is reasonable to chat and move around. My experience yesterday seemed to be limited to a low-powered Mac and an extremely high number of users logged in to Lively.

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