In the last few years, Virtual Worlds (VW) have become more common place. It all started with Massive Online Multi-Player Games (MOMPG) and to a large extent, the virtual worlds are extensions of them. Second Life, Club Penguin, Toon Town, to name just a few, are gathering a following. But the questions really revolve around the business model and usability of these tools. And of course, how these environments can be used in the future.
There were a few posts on TechCrunch referring to this very topic and my comments to the posts were that I very strongly feel that VW will constitute a very strong eCommerce force and platform in the future. But also my comments alluded to the fact that the interfaces to these tools must change. It is not just about making them more fun or interactive, but more intuitive and efficient.
A while back I signed-up at Second Life and spent a couple of days – on and off – trying to figure out the system. Now, I am a very savvy computer user and normally do not need to read a manual to figure out how to use software or electronic equipment in expert mode or close to it. But Second Life presented a problem and I was just not interested enough to solve it. It was kind of cool, but the usability barriers got in the way of my interest.
A few weeks later the iPhone was released to the market, and of course I bought one. I had an epiphany and realized that it was a revolution. You do not have to agree or see it, but there is a revolution underway. Maybe not overt and maybe not conscious, but there is one. The revolution is about user interfaces. How humans interact with computers. I actually wrote a post about it (click here for the post) where I began, very superficially, to explore why the iPhone and now iPod Touch are ushering a new era in UIs.
As user friendly and intuitive as the iPhone interface is, it still has a keyboard. It should not and I think that is what Apple and other companies are trying to figure out. How to write without a keyboard. Yes, you can say “voice recognition”, but it is not the most efficient interface either. In other words, how would I write this blog if there was no keyboard. Besides writing, on the other hand, there are other activities we conduct on a computer, so, even if we could not find a way to express the written word without a keyboard, there are plenty of things we can do that do not require a keyboard.
So, very much like hardware manufacturers are trying to crack the keyboard-less computer nut, software producers should focus some attention on the problem too — specially when it comes to VWs. Yes yes yes yes … the hardware guys are doing it through software but since they also control the hardware they have a slightly different tool and problem set.
During 1996 and 1997 I worked for Disney Online. I was responsible for the registration and security system for a very ambitious project, a distributed desktop environment for kids. The idea was to create a sort of virtual world where kids could interact with each other to create communities where they could help each other with homework, for example, through avatars. The project never really reached any momentum and was abandoned, but the idea remained with me. This was just too early an idea for the time, but was the beginning of VWs.
What can you do in VWs? The answer is simple, anything you want. For real, anything. Yes, that too!! If you look at the MOMPGs and how users behave you will have the proof to my answer and my assertions of eCommerce. These games also present alternative economies that transfer to the real world. Some of us have heard or read stories about a virtual property in some game being bought for 1000’s of Dollars. Stories about offline transactions for online goods abound. Why could it not be the other way?
One thing is true, eCommerce keeps on growing, and the challenge is presentation. How do you present the good so you entice the user to buy. VWs can resolve that problem easily; say that you are selling cloths, why not have a virtual store in Second Life where you have 3D representations of your wears. If I had a true 3D representation of myself, then I could try online a particular item and pay with a virtual credit card, connected to my bank or real work credit card, and the item could be shipped to me. Similarly, since the 3D representation of myself is accurate, if the item needs to be tailored, the measurements can be taken also online; the modifications executed and then shipped to me.
The scenario above is doable and probably the low hanging fruit in a series of ideas. A silly example to illustrate how it could work.
There was a movie a while back, Disclosure, with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. In the movie the interface to the VW was a visor, a globe and sort of multidirectional treadmill. The system showcased a virtual storage system where it was easy to find stored documents. In 1994, when the movie premiered, Yahoo!! and Google did not exist!! But the idea of search did. And why not a virtual search?
There are other applications beyond entertainment for VWs. The movie, or the online virtual store, or even doing homework, are short term ideas. But why not education, or medicine, or conferences, or even war? The sky is the limit, the real problem remains: What is the best interface?