Monday, July 02, 2007

Second Life evolves

Information Week reports: [edited]

Virtual worlds are driven by "crazy people" with a shared mystical vision, but - like the PC and Internet revolutions - they'll result in practical benefits for everyone, said PC pioneer Mitch Kapor.

Kapor, who is chairman of Linden Lab, which operates Second Life, said he realized the potential of Second Life at an in-world Suzanne Vega concert last year. Vega performed from a recording studio, and her audience were sitting at personal computers all around the world, and yet the concert brought them all together in the same virtual place.

The realization, he said, was like the drug experiences of the 1960s.

And Kapor is not alone. "A huge number of passionate early adopters had some kind of mystical experience," he said, delivering the keynote address at the Virtual Worlds conference sponsored by IBM and MIT, at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday. "What's driving virtual worlds is a shared sense, by a few hundred thousand crazy people, that this is important, and they're going to drop everything and go after this," he said.

Virtual worlds, like PCs, are disruptive technology, with unforeseen consequences, Kapor said. They will become mainstream quickly, but - like PCs in the very early years - they're now a very marginal phenomenon, Kapor said.

Like PCs, virtual worlds will enable people to do new things, and will create new economies of winners and losers. But virtual worlds are still in the early adopter stage. The next, larger stage of users - pragmatists looking for a payoff in usefulness - has yet to begin.

"Virtual worlds are now at a tipping point," he said. "There is a critical mass of early adoption."

Virtual worlds are succeeding now, where they've previously failed, because of faster PC hardware, global broadband, and an Internet culture which now accepts an 'ethic of participation' in areas such as open source, free culture, GNU/Linux and Wikipedia, Kapor said.

But virtual worlds have a long way to go until they become mainstream, Kapor said. They need the equivalent of the Web application server - building content in virtual worlds is still equivalent to hand-coding Web pages and code. They need an improved user interface; Second Life is difficult to use. They need to be decentralized, to permit creation of private spaces - the equivalents of intranets and extranets.

Linden Lab is taking steps to decentralize. It open-sourced the client in January, and plans to allow people to put up their own servers and attach them to the main Second Life grid. They're moving to eliminate proprietary protocols. The company is driven to do this by the conviction that its biggest threat is not an existing company, but rather a future virtual world that runs on those principles.

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