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

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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