Friday, January 05, 2007

(Not a) Game Friday: Virtual Worlds 101

Today, an interview with Sibley Verbeck (Hathor's his virtual name), founder/CEO of the Electric Sheep Company, which does experience design for real-world companies in virtual worlds including Second Life. It’s a little disjointed, but the key points are: 1. Virtual worlds provide an opportunity for social engagement with content, and 2. Virtual worlds allow designers (and evaluators, and educators) to explore new modes of content delivery that are physically impossible in the real world, but may provide rich and new ways for visitors to learn.

Let’s start with the basics. How would you define virtual worlds?

Virtual worlds are a communication medium in which people use avatars (animated characters) to interact and have shared experiences in a 3D environment. Second Life is the virtual world to take off as an open platform where anyone can create content and own intellectual property for what they create. It’s not a game—there’s no goal or restrictions on how you use it—instead, it’s a technology platform for immersion and interaction, like the web.

Most museums already have websites. Why would they want a Second Life presence?

Well, they already have telephones as well. The point is that this is a very different kind of communication medium, and it’s good for different things. Virtual worlds are the first communication medium where people can remotely have shared experiences—not just communicating in real time, but interacting with each other and with content. That is its primary strength, whereas the web’s is efficiently communicating information.

I’m not an expert on museums who can comment on why museums have websites and what they use that platform for. It seems that the primary reasons museums have websites are to convey basic information about the museum and as a marketing mechanism for content. And while a website can increase interest in the museum, it’s not a way for people to have a museum experience. It’s not a way to do it socially. Websites are more like picture books about the museum—in virtual worlds, you can have a social, real-time, interactive experience. The browsability is much greater—you can walk into a room, turn your head—there’s no clicking through content. Content that’s inherently 3D can be shared more naturally in this way.

It seems like the real world museums that are starting to work in Second Life are pursuing the social interaction element of the platform through events. The Exploratorium did the solar eclipse, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is doing all kinds of programs around Darfur.

I think that’s partly because they are dipping their toe in the water—individual events are a less expensive way to try it out than having a sustained presence. But if a museum really committed to developing a space in a virtual world, there are so many other physical things to explore. Exhibits that can’t be built in real life because of any number of prohibitions could exist in the virtual world. You could also pursue iterations of objects and experiences from the real museum—in the museum, you only have one version. But on this platform, you could go in lots of different directions. You can also create a highly themed, immersive, living museum experience quite inexpensively and safely—no one’s going to break things. It’s not like being there in real life, but it has other strengths with regard to the extent of interactivity and immersion possible.

If a museum were to go beyond dipping a toe in the water to create something bigger…

Doing a really great project in Second Life is more substantial—and expensive—than just putting some pictures up on a virtual wall. Even if you rely on volunteers and users to help create and assemble the content, you have to manage that process. It seems similar to me to what would be involved in developing a temporary exhibit or set of programs.

How do you measure success of a project like this in Second Life?

There are some obvious metrics—how much time to people spend coming there, can you convert those people to visitors to the real museum—but I assume you’d look larger than that. What’s the mission of the museum? You would measure it in the same way you measure the success of an exhibit or a museum. What do people learn? How do they feel when they leave?

There are some philosophical barriers to extending the museum mission. For example, Richard commented that most people in the museum (and funding) world think of games as for kids.

The median age for time spent in SL is early 30s, so you have an adult audience. Those people are not confused about whether this is a game—so you can start by reaching out to them.

Is now the time for museums to get into Second Life? There are still a lot of problems and it’s not exactly user-friendly yet…

Some other people on your blog raised some issues also about the experience and features—like the communication features—which are going to significantly change this year. Linden Labs has expressed they are well along with audio integration into Second Life, and I think there will be many other features around communication and social networking and ease of use that will come along soon. I think we’re right on the cusp of a lot of that happening. And the usage of SL is continuing to increase exponentially.

So given the time it takes to plan and test something, I think now is the time for museums to go in and figure things out and those institutions that do so will become a leader in this area as this technology is exploding and those features emerge. I know this is a tough sell for grant-funded institutions, but there can be opportunities if the funding is to figure out what is this medium and how can it be used for our mission? Go and do some studies and publish them.

There are probably a lot of museum folks out there with expertise in exhibit design, experience design, and evaluation of museum experiences who could translate their skills directly to those kinds of questions.

I think that’s absolutely true. Whenever a new technology comes along, people talk about the evolution of use: people port their expertise in other platforms into the new one until they figure out how to use the new medium. But another reality is that a lot of people working in virtual worlds don’t have the experience design background, and they think of this as “totally new”—but there are lots of translatable experiences out there, and the museum platform is a huge example of that. Museum people could be the leaders in creating superlative learning experiences of all kinds in the virtual platform.

To me, one of the most exciting possibilities in virtual worlds is to be able to throw off all the barriers of real world physics, etc. and design something fantastical. The Sheep built something for Nature that I love—a bubble gum machine that spits out models of chemical compounds. Then again, there are some fun things you can do in the virtual world—step into a 3D rendering of a painting, ride a dinosaur—that some museum people would hate because they seem disrespectful to objects or antithetical to an educational mission.

This technology is only relevant for those who are comfortable with and want to pursue some of those more playful and creative opportunities. But there are “safe” ways to deepen people’s engagement with content, too. If you go on an audio tour in a museum—well, you could really do it in 3D and bring it to life—show the sculpture taking form, how it was built. And a lot of this you could do on the web in 2D—but how can you present in 3D in a way that’s better than 2D? That question is wide open, and I don’t think anyone’s addressing that really well yet in Second Life.

And exhibit designers, who are used to building in physical spaces, could do that—forget the restrictions and create something really hot.

Exactly. You could deconstruct objects. You could reorganize the museum, move things around, create new structures for content flow, in a way you can’t do in physical space.

I think this goes back to the strong reasons for museums to go into virtual worlds. There are basic rules of exhibition design that are mostly a good thing, but can also be limiting in terms of creativity. In the virtual world, there are opportunities to explore building things in whole different ways, which may, in turn, affect how we think about what we can design in real museums.

And it’s worth pointing out that while Second Life can be used in an escapist way as a fantasy land, it’s also a communication tool. Are we escaping reality when we use the web? Use the phone? And it’s a more advanced tool because it accommodates a more social, human experience.

This is already a much more human environment than the web, even though it’s clunky. For example, when we put on the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby in Second Life (in which people could cheer, wave foam hands, and chat in the stadium as avatars reenacted the actual hits), we had huge buy-in. People who watched the Derby on the web stayed for 23 minutes on average. In Second Life, they stayed for the whole thing. They were doing it socially. Here’s another example—the average unique person who logs in to SL in a given day uses it for four hours.

Couldn’t they be dormant for some of that time?

Well, you automatically get logged out if you do that for too long. The point is, if you pop to a website and browse around, maybe you stay 7-8 minutes and then you move on. If you pop into Second Life, you see something, you touch it, you build something, you talk to someone, and it’s been an hour and a half. So for museums who use Second Life instead of or in addition to the web, people will interact with the content more, talk about it more, engage more deeply in Second Life than they will on a website.

There are many more conversations and debates to have and things to think about museums in virtual worlds. Personally, I am not someone with strong interest in designing or engaging in virtual experiences, but I appreciate that this is a technology that is growing, and while I--and many museums--may not be an early adopter, I think it's useful to be aware of what's going on. And I think there are other uses--networking, prototyping, distance learning--worth exploring that we didn't get to touch on here.

If you want to pursue more, here are some good links:
--There is a Museums in Second Life group led by Richard Urban that hosts meet-ups, tours, and discussions in Second Life.
--“We the Sheeple,” the Electric Sheep blog, which covers everything from the thousand-foot level to the nuts and bolts of virtual world projects.
--Metaverse Messenger, the premier newspaper of Second Life, is of mixed quality but can give you some sense of what's going on in-world.

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