The Three-Dimensional Internet


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I have been on the road for much of the last few months, and I have begun to dream of the day when I could appear virtually for some of my workshops and presentations. I have also been spending more time in virtual communities and networks, and I finally broke down and joined Second Life. I’m MaryEllen Triellis; do look me up.

While it doesn’t yet engage me enough for me to consider it my second life, I think of Second Life as a crude example of what the internet will soon become. Remember back in 1991, when telnet and gopher were supplanted by the World Wide Web? We had no idea where this idea of "webpages" would go; it felt very unlike anything else online. What was so revolutionary about the web was the ability to publish content in a permanent place; information wasn’t buried in a BBS system or an FTP site.

Fast-forward to 2005 and the dawn of Web 2.0, with its collaborative and participatory nature. There is much more of a sense of real-time interaction in Web 2.0 content, as opposed to traditional, read-only webpages. What draws us to them is the ability to form communities, where much of the value of the site is not in its content as much as the network of other people who congregate at that site. But interactive Web 2.0 content is still text-based and asynchronous—very much one-dimensional.

We’re going through another of those quantum leaps to an entirely new way to use the internet. With the early success of Second Life, the rules have all changed. Goodbye web, hello metaverse.

For starters, virtual worlds only "work" when you are interacting with others nearby. This implies that we have now moved into three-dimensional cyberspace; a virtual conversation only takes place when both people are online and in a shared space where they interact. Clearly, if a virtual community is not designed around how people engage with each other, it won’t succeed.

The U.S. military has already created its own virtual worlds, used to train soldiers how to react in dynamic and ambiguous conditions, such as those occurring in Iraq. By using real people to animate the avatars of Iraqi civilians, soldiers now have a chance to practice how to behave in a surprisingly realistic virtual environment.

Just as with webpages and podcasts, once the business world enters the metaverse, to use Neal Stephenson’s coinage, we will see a virtual explosion of tools and technologies. A simple example is the ability to have virtual meetings; with VoIP phones and a shared whiteboard, attendees can confer among themselves, show the other attendees a presentation or demonstration, and even invite someone else to join the meeting, all in a much richer environment than an audio- or videoconference. In fact, participants in virtual meetings tend to hang around after the formal part of the meeting is over, to continue a conversation or to brainstorm a solution to a problem—something that is usually not seen in traditional remote conferences. Best of all, the participants can be wearing their pajamas as their avatars are walking around in business attire.

IBM has been aggressively exploring the potential of virtual community, having launched its internal metaverse and deployed its Metaverse Evangelists both inside and outside IBM to share their vision of virtuality. At least one company—ArcelorMittal—is holding its annual meeting simultaneously in what used to be called the real world, and in Second Life. Employers conduct job interviews in Second Life (there are now articles on how to dress for a virtual interview). Companies use virtual worlds to train factory workers.

Interestingly, a number of companies have tried setting up a presence on Second Life only to shutter the virtual doors within months. What they don’t get is that the metaverse doesn’t do static, and most corporations’ SL shops have been little more than a website—nothing live to draw people in. Clearly, the success of the metaverse depends on it attaining a critical mass of participants. Given the fact that more than 4 million kids have joined the Webkinz virtual world and more than half of U.S. children will be members of a virtual world within the next 4 years, I know that I need to hone my skills in Second Life. Tell me, does this outfit make my avatar’s butt look fat?