A Second Chance for a 3-D Virtual Reality?

Neal Stephensen’s 1992 book, “Snow Crash,” details, among other things, the author’s vision of the “Metaverse” — a 3-D virtual reality version of the Internet where people can interact, form relationships, create objects, and have jobs. The Metaverse has its own economy that ties into the real-world economy. It’s a scale model of the entire Earth. Virtual residents own “land,” create objects, do business, and have fun, depending on their needs and moods.

Everyone thought the next big thing was going to be 3-D. Stephensen’s work was so compelling, many of us thought we were only a few years away from it.

Around this time, I went to graduate school to study this stuff. The projects I worked on were amazing. They cost millions to build and were tied to the global consciousness. I studied interactive art with Benjamin Britton and worked on his seminal Caves of Lascaux Virtual Reality Project. My graduate thesis, a 3-D virtual reality world, required a $70,000 computer to run on.

The Internet was Gopher, news groups, Lynx, and Mosaic. With 3-D, though, the Internet got interesting. Despite pitifully slow connection speeds, an installed 3-D application could connect through the Internet to offer high-quality graphics, great responsiveness, and a fantastic user experience. A slow connection wasn’t an issue: interacting with others only took a tiny connection speed to transmit the 3-D coordinates of the two users and maybe some text messaging.

SGI launched Cosmo around this time, with the goal of creating a 3-D interface to the Internet. VRML (define) was all the rage. It was set to be the step beyond the clunky Web pages typified by Mosaic and Netscape 1.0.

What happened next really did change the course of the world: Netscape 2.0 was launched. The 3-D paradigm was pushed aside. Netscape 2.0 changed the way everyone thought about the Web and, ultimately, publishing. When I saw a site created by a graphic designer that took advantage of Netscape 2.0’s innovations, notably frames, I knew 3-D wasn’t where things were headed. Now, a non-technical designer could put together a Web site that (while a bare shadow of a typical CD-ROM) could be accessed in seconds from anywhere in the world.

It’s taken more than a decade to get to the point where 3-D is again poised to interface with the Web. I can run the VR simulation I built in grad school on my $1,500 home PC. I’m very excited.

For about a one-time $10 fee, Second Life will grant you access to the most compelling Metaverse vision I’ve found since “Snow Crash.” The similarities between Second Life and Stephensen’s vision are amazing. The Internet will again change the way humans interact.

Second Life creator Linden Labs describes it:

Second Life is a virtual world — a 3D online persistent space totally created and evolved by its users. Within this vast and rapidly expanding place, you can do, create or become just about anything you can imagine. Built-in content creation tools let you make almost anything you can imagine, in real time and in collaboration with others. An incredibly detailed digital body (‘Avatar’) allows a rich and customizable identity. A powerful physics simulation running on a backbone of hundreds of connected computers and growing with the population allows you to be immersed in a visceral, interactive world that as of April 2005 covers more than 12,000 acres and 20,000 owned plots of land. The ability to design and resell 3D content, combined with the ability to own and develop land and a microcurrency, which can be exchanged to real money means that you can build a real business entirely within Second Life.

More than 40,000 people have joined Second Life since it launched last year. And the buzz is growing fast: the number of new users joining per day is increasing steadily. What’s so compelling about Second Life as opposed to some of the other virtual communities, such as There, or the many massively multiplayer online games, such as Ultima Online, Worlds of Warcraft, or City of Heroes?

First, all the stuff within Second Life is created by the users. They use the tools provided within the Metaverse or outside tools to create 3-D objects. And users control every object they create with Digital rights management (define).

Second, there’s no game associated with Second Life. This world is about creativity and letting users express themselves in how they modify their world and their avatars

Third, like many other massively multiplayer universes, an entire economy has grown within Second Life and is central to that universe. Tens of thousands of U.S. dollars change hands every day among 40,000-plus community members. From what I’ve seen, a few thousand people are always active.

People make livings within this virtual world. Some create objects (avatars, clothing, vehicles, buildings, etc.). Others buy land, develop it, and sell it at a higher price. This isn’t a video game. It’s a simulation, and it changes things. The currency (Lindens, named after Linden Labs) has a cash value in U.S. dollars. And doing almost anything costs Lindens.

What does this mean to marketers? In the Metaverse of “Snow Crash,” corporations quickly realized they could use the unique opportunity offered there for marketing and advertising. Huge swaths of Stephensen’s Metaverse were gobbled up by corporations that built all kinds of stuff and which capitalized on the opportunity to interact with the virtual community in new ways. I predict we’re close to that right now.

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