Web 2.0 Expo: All these virtual worlds

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One of the most interesting talks at the Web 2.0 Expo came late on the last day, and it was clear from the people occupying the back wall and the floors that the title, “Reality Bites: The Future of Gaming + Virtual Worlds 2.0” had caught a lot of eyes. Susan Wu oversaw a panel of enthusiastic men who were each very compelling when they spoke about their creations.

Lane Merrifield of Club Penguin showed off a kid-safe Antarctic wonderland for young children to make friends and socialize. The entire team behind this world consists of parents who couldn’t find an age-appropriate place for their kids online, therefore compelling them to build one. This fact, combined with their sole priority of security, makes Club Penguin a great example of a well-executed small idea.

Ginsu Yoon from Linden Labs made a short presentation about the state of adoption of virtual worlds. According to the team behind Second Life, only in the past couple of years has the concept of virtual worlds reached the Gutenberg Press moment on the timeline. There are miles and miles of uncharted territory and development left, and the definition of a virtual world is still very much hot liquid sand at this point.

Craig Sherman of Gaia Online gave an energetic talk about his project, which allegedly made its rookie conference appearance at Web 2.0 Expo. The tried and true method of using Anime-style illustration to create Gaia to appeal to American teens has proved extremely successful, with on average 50,000 users online at once. The most interesting part of Gaia was certainly the creativity shown by its users, who have created towns, banks, shoppes, and even live theaters all on their own. These destinations and activities all make Gaia more than an augmented 3-D chat room.

Joi Ito of Creative Commons and Neoteny gave the talk that contained more, “Ah-HA!” moments for the audience than anyone else. If you subscribe to the belief that, ‘Japan is the future,’ then what Joi delivered is right up your street. In a few early slides he illustrated the difference between content and context; music is content that is valuable to a large number of people but offers very little interaction, whereas text messages are highly contextual and demand interaction, but are essentially valuable only to the recipient. Ito spent the back half of his talk discussing World of Warcraft and the real world skills that can be learned while playing. Pointing to John Seely Brown’s digital learning concepts, specifically on the important differences between simulation and metaphor, Ito stated that character traits that are developed and displayed in-game fully translate into the real world.

To close the talk, Susan asked the panel a handful of questions, the most interesting of which was focused around how the market of virtual worlds will mature (the ‘who will win’ question). The panel all seemed to agree that the market is so very young that there’s nothing but growth ahead for the next few years. Beyond that, the obvious analog, at least for us, is virtual worlds are the television channels of the new generation. There will be numerous worlds that don’t necessarily have to connect or interoperate, so long as they have sufficient followings.

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