Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ghettoizing of Second Life?

This past Thursday, Avatar Reality, the developers of Blue Mars, and  DLAB, a UK design and research firm, formally announced the choice of Blue Mars as the platform for a virtual business initiative called OnLand. 

Amongst the various news releasesarticles, and blog posts about the decision, it was clear that Blue Mars was perceived as a better choice for business and other enterprise users due, as one article noted, to its:

"...unparalleled interaction, fidelity, scalability, security and connectivity.  Blue Mars enables artists, game, and application developers to create and distribute amazing interactive 3D experiences for a global audience."

Another article praised Blue Mars as "representing [a] generational shift in technology," although it didn't specify exactly to what elements of Blue Mars it was referring.

As might be expected, the general tone of the media coverage was upbeat and positive, but there was some criticism as well, including from one commenter at Dwell on It who noted that:

"If the hardware requirements of SL are a barrier to entry for business, then CryENGINE2 is more like the mariana trench. Bluemars is getting the nice press at the moment as a good clean wholesome virtual world sporting graphics to send journo’s gaga. But that the problem It’s also a dead, empty, baron, boring world thats right slap bang in the middle of uncanny valley."
Others responded to this that Blue Mars is a new environment, and that Second Life was empty and barren at first as well. But, the commenter has a point about the hardware barriers of Blue Mars. 
Over at Hypergrid, they noticed these problems too while exploring OnLand:
"Trying out the system today with my brand new Toshiba Satellite laptop, with Vista and a 2Ghz processor, I found moving around in OnLand to be extremely slow and unpleasant. That was probably because my laptop only had 2GB of RAM instead of the recommended 4GB."
I visited OnLand this weekend, and it was rendered beautifully and performed well, in contrast to the laptop above. Of course, I was using a gaming machine, which has a mammoth Nvidia card, tons of memory, a fast processor, and a high-speed internet connection. 
It's easy to see advantages in Blue Mars with the right hardware, but not all non-enterprise users have access to that.
While server-side rendering and cloud computing are offered as ways to potentially overcome these types of hardware barriers, the fact is that there are many who lack the horsepower to operate Blue Mars to best effect, which raises the question as to who this world is intended to serve.
Will enterprise users, who can easily meet or exceed the hardware requirements, flock to Blue Mars while leaving Second Life and other similar worlds to what might be termed "less serious uses?"
Beginning with edu's and nonprofits, who are fleeing to OpenSim for financial reasons, and now enterprise users who may potentially move away from Second Life for the benefits of Blue Mars, will we see the ghettoizing of older virtual worlds? 
I don't know if there is a clear precedent for this or not. Software and hardware have always been evolving, of course, but usually without the social issues involved here. When a user-created social world that fosters a number of social processes is outmoded by new technologies, what are the consequences? 
When a new version of a Word Processor or Spreadsheet program is introduced, the change may make for a learning curve, and some frustration as the new software is mastered. But, if a virtual world the scale of Second Life becomes second class, what then?
It may simply close, as has been the case with other virtual worlds, but again, at what cost? If virtual worlds are indeed the future of socializing, education, business, and other collaborations,  can we afford to throw over one world for another as casually as we throw over one version of Microsoft Word for another?


Maria Korolov said...

Most corporations -- and many regular Joe users -- are running older, slower computers. And when they buy a new computer, they buy a machine capable of handling word processing and Internet browsing, and not necessarily a high-powered gaming machine like yours.

This is an obstacle even for older-generation worlds like OpenSim and Second Life -- and is doubly so for Blue Mars.

If you've got a critical mass of users, then content creators will be attracted to the platform. If you've got high-end content, then users might be inspired to upgrade their machines to use the platform.

But right now, Blue Mars has neither a user base nor compelling content (like, for example, a World of Warcraft-caliber game).

The other alternative is to have mediocre content, but a whole lot of it. If there's enough stuff, some of it will be appealing to some people, somewhere. For example, Second Life's easy in-world content creator tools offered everyone the chance to make stuff -- interactive builds, casinos, porn palaces, furry communities, whatever weird stuff they wanted.

Blue Mars, however, requires content creators to use professional design tools to make things. This isn't a major obstacle, of course -- anyone can learn how to use Blender, say, with a little time and patience -- but enough of an obstacle to discourage a large category of people from bothering with it.

Possible ways out: Blue Mars could strike a deal with a highly creative, but cash-poor, game development company to create truly compelling content for the platform. Maybe bribe developers with startup funds to keep them from going to other platforms, instead (the alternatives are getting better and cheaper every day).

Blue Mars could roll out Web-based streaming of its world and subsidize the cost of it. This would allow people with cheap computers, even iPads, to log in and enjoy the world -- but at huge expense to Blue Mars.

Or Blue Mars could develop in-world creation tools and offer cheap land or other incentives for creators to come in. This may not be possible given the way their world is architected -- it's not designed for real-time collaboration or content creation the way that Second Life and OpenSim are. But they might be clever and invent a way around it.

-- Maria Korolov
Editor, Hypergrid Business

Anonymous said...

I'm not a professional builder or a business woman, I have tried Blue Mars and , frankly , my laptop failed miserably. I did manage to listen in to some conversations , most of which were from people struggling in the same way I was , that is barely able to move, let alone explore with any sense of enjoyment.
Therefore , until I get to upgrade my technology , Blue Mars is beyond my reach. I can't imagine I'm in a minority.Though it is reassuring that these 'worlds' keep developing , I look forward to the day I can afford to upgrade to a high enough spec to enjoy them.Till then , I remain in Second Life.

Second Life Resident since 2007