As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

I can’t find the reality line

avatar.jpgI went to the super-well-done Cyberposium at Harvard Business School Saturday.  A highlight was having the founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, explain his virtual world vision.  Having long wanted to explore this “planet” but being chronically short of the three or four hours it would take me to learn it (many SL newbies get stuck at exactly that point, on “Orientation Island”), it was fantastic to have a demo from the master.  Here are my big take-away points:

  • The user interface to do meaningful things on SL, which is basically a complicated dashboard-like set of options, is still too much of a barrier for the average person, and even the technically inclined.  A more Wii like tool that allows three-dimensional manipulation of SL will push it over the tipping point.  Case in point; it took Rosedale two or three minutes to create a simple box form. 
  • Having said that, there are plenty of interesting one-off cases of unexpected people taking the time to master SL.  Rosedale showcased a user-created virtual shop of Halloween-like costumes a Second Lifer can buy to dress up their avatar.  The shop creator made $56,000 last year selling these elaborate creations.  But the biggest point was that the shop owner is an 86 year old woman.  (Whose avatar was a shapely redhead in a short green dress.)  Similarly, one Second Lifer is streaming real-time flight data from LAX into SL, and has minutely created the actual comings and goings of real planes at the airport.  This, and Rosedale’s showcasing of some pretty realistic tree/cloud/wind environmental upgrades, prompted one audience member to ask, “When I turn my computer off, do the trees keep swaying and the winds keep blowing on my property?”   Answer: yes.
  • Suprisingly, early studies show a huge uptick in usage for post age 30 users.  Rosedale’s speculation was that having the ability to do things you can’t do in real life (fly, run at lightening speed, dance like Janet Jackson, be buffed) gets all the more appealing with every passing year of life.
  • One of Rosedale’s biggest points was “give this time.”  He acknowledged the UI issues.  More than that, he explained that the more content that is created on SL (spaces, objects, avatars, activities), the more interesting it becomes.  He said that for the first couple of years “there was nothing there”.  Now there is a little something there, but there is an upcoming exponential growth of UGC on SL which will quick approach a tipping point of a  new user’s perception that “there is a lot there.”  Very similar to, a year ago, not finding any friends on Facebook (if you were over age 30) and now showing up and finding a sizeable number of people you know.
  • My favorite part of the demo was seeing a live music concert.  Really.  Users on SL have built entertainment venues, like “The Sunset Club” where real musicians can compete for bookings.  They really play a live concert, which is streamed to the venue, where real people show up from all over the world to listen.  (OK, so it is their avatars who show up, but avatars can’t dance, chat, and comment on the music without real life people directing them.)  This was mind blowing.  Rosedale contrasted it to the way a small band would promote themselves today…strictly local, hugely time consuming to build even a friends and family audience.  On SL one can really reach a global, border-less audience.  THAT was cool.

That example really blurred the reality line.  A line which is increasingly unimportant in today’s social-networked, virtual world enviroment.  To a SL-er or a Facebook-er, these actions (dancing with a stranger from Trinidad, giving a virtual gift on FB) are real.  A real person makes them happen.  A real person reacts.  Real emotions and intentions are demonstrated.  Really interesting.

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