Communicators, prepare: 3D communication is coming2008-05-17
In Chicago a week or so ago I got together with a friend; we both live in the Bay Area, but it’s one of those quirks of travel that we could only get together when we were in another city at the same time). Gabe is working for a company that is developing a new virtual world. The company hasn’t announced the nature of its venture and I’m under what Scott Monty calls a “frieNDA,” so I can’t go into any details. But imagine using Second Life-like technology to build a replica of a city as it existed during, say, colonial American times, the reign of Elizabeth I, or ancient Rome. Some people could open shops in these cities, others could take up residence. Then, teachers could bring classes to the city to help them experience what life was like in pre-eruption Pompeii or imperial China.
It’s certainly a long distance traveled from early 3D experiments like VRML.
The uses to which virtual worlds are being put is impressive. The initial push to market products in Second Life were mostly ill-fated, but forward-thinking organizations have realized that there are other, better ways to tap into virtual worlds for business purposes. Some organizations, like Gabe’s, are thinking about commercial uses while other companies see the value of transfering some real-world activities to virtual worlds.
All this is happening relatively quietly, without the hoopla of those early marketing experiments. They’re based on the notion that virtual worlds are really nothing more than three-dimensional social networks. Think about it: If Facebook were 3D, you wouldn’t form groups on pages, but let everyone know that the group will be meeting at Pavilion B on Island X on Thursday at 2 p.m. And rather than post messages to forums and walls, people would engage in virtual face-to-face conversations.
So it’s no surprise to see Forrester Research proclaiming that virtual worlds will dominate the Web within the next five to seven years. That, at least, is the projection Erica Driver makes in the Forrester white paper, “Web3D: The Next Major Internet Wave (24 pages, $279):”
Web3D will deliver an interactive, immersive experience much richer than the static, text-oriented or even interactive graphical interfaces of today’s Web. In the new rold of work that Web3d will enable, people will be represented visually by avatars that can move in space, communicate with others, and interact with objects and information—making the digital world seem more like the real world. Yet Web3D won’t leave the old world behind; it will integrate with the Web technologies we use today as well as existing and not yet invented business applications. Workers will use Web3D to teach and learn, innovate collaboratively, communicate and network, interact with and present information, and manage real-world systems.
Driver and her team of co-authors are not alone; several business publications—BusinessWeek, the Financial Times, and others—have also foretold the inevitable integration of virtual worlds into the online experience. The Forrester report, though, offers plenty of evidence to back up the prediction. Driving the march toward the 3D experience, according to the report, are…
- A focus on innovation.
- The trend toward workers employing tools that work, whether they’re offered by the company or not. “A confluence of forces—including ubiquitous broadband, a growing technology-native workforce, wide availability of cheap or even free Social Computing tools, and increased mobility—drives this trend.”
- The evolving nature of the workforce.
- Activity among investors, vendors, and early adopters, with some $1.5 billion invested in virtual world companies between Q3 2006 and Q4 2007. Since then, hundreds of millions have been invested in startups and companies that support virtual worlds.
Much has to happen between now and the Web3D world Forrester and others envision. The standards need to evolve that will let you move your avatar from one 3D world to another—from Second Life, for example, to a private, secure company environment and then from there to a historical city before winding up in a shopping mall. The ability to create objects and other content must be easier than it is today. But these are initiatives that are underway. The only question really is which developer will create the standards that gain widespread adoption.
Ultimately, though, the engagement that a 3D web will produce is the next logical step beyond the social networks that are set to become an integral part of the web thanks to initiatives like data portability and Google’s recently announced Friend Connect. Rather than simply interact with someone’s profile on a site, you’ll be able to interact with that individual directly; you’ll see other people visiting the site the same time you’re there, and interaction will be more natural and intuitive.
The Forrester report outlines the business potential for a 3D web:
- Training and education will be more effective.
- Business process rehearsal will be cheaper and more realistic. The report points to BP, which is already experimenting with virtual worlds and sees the value of “practicing the management of events that can’t easily be practiced in real life…from practicing hands-on personal skills in standalone learning environments to group interactive teaming skills in unstructured scenarios.”
- Meetings in virtual workspaces.
- Virtual conferences and trade shows.
- Face-to-face customer service and support.
- The use of digital 3D models, not unlike Boeing’s use of a 3D virtual environment in the design and manufacturing of its new 787 Dreamliner.
- A replacement for PowerPoint, as 3D tours do a better job of grabbing attention.
Driver’s report isn’t all optimistic. She and her team present a detailed timeline, identifying the “gating factors,” the issues that must be overcome in order to arrive at a fully integrated 3D environment. They identify the technology advances that are required (such as a next-generation browser, which Forrester has dubbed an “engager” because it’s not passive like a web browser). They even explore alternative scenarios should certain milestones not be met.
Under any scenario, though, the 3D online experience is coming. Its inevitability is the reason I encourage people to try out Second Life now: Learn the ins and outs of 3D social networks while most people aren’t watching. It’s far better to have developed your 3D chops now than to wait until it has become the de facto nature of the Web and everybody can see you make your organization make its newbie mistakes.
Communicators shouldn’t sit on the sidelines and wait for the fulfillment of the prediction, either. As Driver notes in the report, Web3D will lead to new ways to representat and communicate of information. “In Web3D, people will create avatars and build objects and worlds that inform, persuade, explain, and represent important concepts in highly visual and interactive ways.” You can chuckle and chortle all you like at the idea that the company’s media center might someday exist in a highly stylized 3D room in a virtual environment. But trust me: If you’re not ready to create that virtual media center when the time comes, your company will find someone who can.