Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Conflict Between Mesh and Co-creation in Virtual Worlds

A new building process was introduced in Second Life this week that has garnered much attention from the virtual world creative community. The official SL blog offered this description of the process and its intent, and other bloggers have commented here and here about it. Dusan Writer's take was particularly interesting to me, as he seemed to offer the clearest analysis of what mesh might mean for virtual worlds, and SL in particular.

Originally, I had thought I would be in complete favor of SL's move to external development involving mesh, which I had thought was one potential solution to the problem of intellectual property protection that had plagued many VWs, especially SL. Surprisingly, though, after listening to Dusan's excellent analysis and doing some additional research, I've developed some new concerns about the implications of mesh for in-world creation.

There is little doubt that external development can better protect intellectual property, given that imported items are not as prone to copying as are virtual goods built in-world. In the case of SL, they seem to have captured the best of both worlds: creatives can choose to either develop externally using 3D modeling programs, such as Maya or Sketchup, or they can build in-world using well established methods involving prims or sculpties. So, what's the problem?

As creatives gain experience working with mesh, and all the very exciting possibilities it holds, there will likely be declining interest in the use of in-world methods that won't match the quality of externally developed goods and won't have the types of copy protection possible with mesh construction. The problem becomes that as we lose the skill base to work with in-world building methods, we actually lose a key aspect of SL 's potential value.

This was one point Dusan made quite well in his discussion on Designing Worlds when he said that changing building methods would change the culture of SL.  I agree this is true, but the point goes even beyond how this might change SL culture to how it might effect the ultimate ability of virtual worlds to reach their full potential.  How so, you might ask.

I came across an advanced copy of a study conducted in SL by Thomas Kohler (In press) and colleagues regarding the co-creative possibilities that businesses and other groups can leverage as they attempt to develop new products or new processes in virtual worlds. The research team developed a five-stage co-creation process that was tested in-world by SL residents in 2008 and 2009 on three different projects.

One of the projects, a Green Ideation Quest, involved engaging residents in a development process using in-world building methods with prims to brainstorm, demonstrate, and otherwise evaluate ideas for green energy products. The researchers found that this type of engagement with residents was highly effective and lead to new insights and ideas as participants played and experimented with the prims in-world.

Their ultimate conclusion was that this type of resident interaction was a potentially effective way for individuals to come together collaboratively in an immersive environment that takes advantage of built-in, easily accessible ways of creating shared 3D models. This is very exciting work that points up the very real possibilities of virtual worlds for things other than dancing, chatting, sex, and shopping.

So, Dusan's point is well taken regarding the potential negative impact on SL culture, but are we also missing an important opportunity presented by virtual worlds as development platforms?  Will we look back at some point and lament the fact that we passed up what the simple prim had to offer in favor of external development methods? If we do ultimately trade in-world building for external development, we will likely have missed out on much more than we've gained.

I would argue that this is worth some thought and discussion before we jump fully on the mesh bandwagon and ride off into the virtual sunset, and I'm curious what others think about this.


Kohler, T., Fueller, J., Stieger, D., & Matlzer, K. (In press). Avatar-based innovation: Consequences of the virtual co-creation experience. Computers in Human Behavior.

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