Communicators, prepare: 3D communication is coming

Posted on May 17, 2008 12:09 pm by | Research | Second Life | Web3D

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.

Shel HoltzSo 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.



  • 1.With the 3D web, the barriers to entry are quite high in comparison to text based S/Ns, for example, I can learn to use twitter in a few minutes and I can use it from almost any class of computer from a high end, high performance Vista based games machine to the old recycled Linux machine I'm writing this post on. Using 3D VRML clients will probably still require machines with considerable processing power and even though Moore's Law will continue to drive down the cost per MIP (or whatever the proper measure is) I suspect you'd not be able to get sufficient performance from entry level machines.

    To use environments like Second Life there looks to be quite a steep (and long) learning curve before you can make effective use of them, you have to become proficient in creating and managing avatars, mapping and navigating the environment, interacting with the environment and other avatars and also integrating the external (real world) environment if you're using real time data/information inputs (presentations, voice input, etc). This seems to me to be quite a high order change from the current 'norm' for the vast majority of SNS users who are using '2D' services like Facebook, Myspace, etc and that this will automatically restrict the pool of potential takeup.

    (I have to admit I've never used SL myself, as I don't have a PC suitable to run the client and limited bandwidth net access, so perhaps it just looks too unattainable and others may feel I'm being unduly pessimistic).

    I'd assume that users on corporate platforms will have a far better opportunity to take up the new ranges of services and applications that this new 3D environment will bring, but won't the primary revenue generators still be the home users who will be a far bigger proportion of the total net population?

    I'm currently reading Groundswell and using their definition of groundswell, it doesn't look like the 3D web will particularly be a technology that people will use to 'get the things they need from each other', though it probably will be useful for getting things from a business or for B2B interactions.

    For example, if I have a videophone/videoconference conversation with a friend, what would 3D bring to this other than them apparently looming out of the screen at me like when you use the 3D spectacles at the cinema? but if I'm shopping online then being able to view potential purchases from all angles and perspectives and perhaps in different settings could be very valuable. If I had an avatar that modelled me exactly then trying on clothes, etc could be revolutionised :-)

    Using their 'technology test';

    Q. Does it enable people to connect with each other in new ways?
    A. Yes.

    Q. Is it effortless to sign up for?
    A. No, probably not, unless a great deal of work is done

    Q. Does it shift power from institutions to people?
    A. Don't know, but it doesn't feel like it would.

    Q. Does the community generate enough content to sustain itself?
    A. Yes, I'd guess it probably would.

    Q. Is it an open platform that invites partnerships?
    A. Yes,it has to be.

    Their test proposes that unless the technology gets a yes on all questions it's unlikely to take off.

    The other area that comes to mind as being significantly impacted by the introduction of this technology is that of digital identity. We're all used to the login/password scenario, augmented with code tokens, photographs, fingerprints, retina scans, voice recognition, etc, etc. We're starting to take up propositions like OpenID, but what if I could have a secure avatar, with all my identity information embedded in it, which represented me in cyberspace? The possibilities there are endless, unless of course someone managed to hack it!

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post...

    Tony Molloy | May 2008 | Bolton

  • 2.Good post, Shel, and the closest I've come to being convinced. Definitely there are some applications for 3D that are better than 2D, just as video is better at some things than others. But I can't imagine replacing the current web with a 3D one.

    Right now I'm writing a piece about the problems with RSS feeds as implemented on the majority of corporate websites. These folks don't even get autodiscovery yet, so I'm skeptical of them getting the 3D web in my lifetime.

    Dominic | May 2008

  • 3.Tony, one of the key points Erica Driver made -- and which I tried to highlight in my post -- is that the ease-of-use issue needs to be addressed before this can happen. It's a big reason this is 5-7 years out.

    Shel Holtz | May 2008

  • 4.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.

    Jeremy Dawes | May 2008

  • 5.I go along with 3D web all human evolution, brain evolution and psychology says its going to happen. But what if we extend the idea to open social and semantic web too.... so that all manner of devices (basically any human interface that can pick up a digital signal) is aware of your presence and can (semantically) be aware of your interests and interact, then the whole deal becomes a mashup of the real and the virtual.

    Sounds far fetched until an experience I had yesterday is considered.

    I had parked my car, got out and then had to return to it. As I opened the door the TomTom said 'you have reached your destination'.

    TomTom had sensed my presence and gave me information about my circumstances. I had programmed TomTom from my cell phone. So there were three devices interoperating with me. My cell phone, my car and TomTom. All linked and all adding to another form of dimensional experience.

    Real 3D where the virtual and the real interact.

    David Phillips | May 2008

  • 6.Eh, Shel, 3D reconstructions of ancient cities and monuments have been around at least since the mid-1990s. I worked on one such project--that's how I met my fiance. I still think it's a great application of the technology, though one would hope to be able to use all the advances in 3D that have been made since then (everywhere but Second Life).

    But doing a walk-through or fly-through of such an environment and interacting in it are very different things. I imagine we can all, if sufficiently motivated, learn the conventions required to mimic the real-life gestures and expressions that 3D communication tools are approximating, but there has to be a really big payoff to make it worth going to that effort--or the expense currently required for the kind of sensor net that would automatically read our gestures and expressions, though I've got a sudden mental flash of the Nintendo Wii and a notion that it might be coming easier and sooner than I think.

    If you need to look at a physical object from all sides; to model sight-lines and shadows in a theater that no longer exists (my particular past project); to see the effect of a proposed new building on the skyline; to create an emotionally evocative environment--3D is unmatchable. There are any number of things it can help to illustrate and communicate.

    But if you want to be able to read expressions and gestures, the real ones a person is making rather than either clumsy approximations or pure bluffs--video is still easier and better, even leaving aside the fact that 10 years ago we thought the 3D web would be in full swing "in ten years" and the actual realization of such a thing might get pushed out a long way for reasons having very little to do with technology.

    Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with "sketch") | May 2008 | The Spectacular San Francisco Bay Area

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