Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Metaverse Museum? Guest Post on Second Life and Museums by Sibley Verbeck

Today, a guest post by the wise and attractive Sibley Verbeck, CEO/founder of the Electric Sheep Company. In January, I interviewed Sibley about the potential use of virtual worlds and Second Life by museums, but in the four months since then, the virtual world platform--and the hype around it--has exploded. People used to clip articles for us about Second Life every couple of weeks--now, it seems that hardly a day goes by without news about the use and abuse of Second Life. It seems that Second Life is both the closest and farthest thing from many museum professionals' minds. I hear everything from "I don't get it," to "I don't believe it," to "Well, how the heck would we do it if we get it and believe it?" Sibley's company has developed virtual world projects for CBS, AOL, the NBA, Reuters, and many others. Here's his take from the thousand foot level. -------------------------

Strictly speaking, Second Life isn’t Web 2.0. In fact, at this point it isn’t even on the Web at all. But it represents technology that has the potential to be a bigger part of Museum 2.0 than anything – maybe even than reality itself.

But that’s already sounding like the grandiose hype you read about Second Life or virtual worlds. And if you’ve ever logged into this brutally confusing new technology, you’ve probably been literally confronted the sense that your avatar, let alone the emperor, has no clothes.

So what does it all mean, and where’s the reality within the virtual reality hype?

Fundamentally, virtual worlds are a new communication medium. Just as with the telephone, television, the Web, mobile phones, e-mail, etc., this new medium doesn’t replace all that came before it, but allows humans to connect in new ways.

  1. Eliminating Geographic Separation. Most importantly, virtual worlds are the first technology that really make people who are anywhere feel like they are in a place together. With a visual representation of people around you, voice communication (coming soon to SL, already present in some other virtual worlds), and most importantly a fully navigable and interactive 3D environment, everyone – whether gamer or not, technophile or phobe - has the clear feeling that they are in a place with other people.

  1. Collaborative Experience. The primary value of virtual worlds is not only being in a place but acting freely within that space in social collaboration with other people. Hmm, interacting with other people you may or may not know within an interactive environment – that’s starting to sound very Museum 2.0…

  1. Design. The environment of Second Life is the canvass on which it is 10 times more efficient than any other to (collaboratively) design interactive 3D experiences and share them with other people who can explore together in real-time. The wysiwyg tools in Second Life for making interactive content, while crude by the standards of the video game, animation, or industrial design industries, allow for a much more efficient and social design process.

So what does this mean for museums?

  1. The Globally Accessible Museum. While the Web allows for information and communication about museums and exhibits, the virtual world could actually contain museums themselves. Very different ones than would exist in the real world, with different value propositions. This will never come close to replacing “bricks and mortar” museums, but is a first scalable opportunity to extend the museum itself – not just its literature or materials - into the home, classroom, or office. People will come back to the virtual museum more frequently than they will transport themselves to the physical one, and in turn make the museum more a part of their regular lives.

  1. Events. One of the best uses of Second Life today is virtual events that reach people around the world. “Mixed reality events” can allow different people to attend the same event in-person and virtually. This suddenly makes museum-hosted events have the potential reach of a television broadcast while maintaining more of the intimacy and interactivity.

  1. Museum 2.0. While you may hesitate to fully allow visitors to be the curators of your museum, why not let them curate your virtual museum? Or one copy thereof? The virtual can be more experimental, more user generated, more 2.0 in a way that can be used both within the real museum and at home – both synchronously and asynchronously. Undoubtedly this will lead to innovation that you extend into your physical space

“Sure, that all sounds great, but I can’t get my avatar off of orientation island!”

The fact is that we are in an early stage of development with virtual worlds. Most of the content you see in Second Life is poorly made, and the software was created for content creators, not a broader user base. Most of the commentary you read about Second Life ranges from shallow to completely incorrect.

Just because most of what you see on this radical new platform is not compelling or even understandable doesn’t mean that the platform isn’t ready to add a lot of value to your museum. For example, if you go into Second Life via a portal for Showtime’s TV show, The L-Word (here for US, here for international), you’ll see a better introductory experience for starting to use the virtual world. Still not ideal, but getting closer to usable by mainstream audiences.

New interface elements can be created today to make the Second Life software customized for a certain audience or application.

So if done correctly, a virtual world presence today can be user friendly, social, and highly entertaining and/or educational. A well done virtual world project today could not only make a museum more 2.0, but increase its geographic reach, and over time increase visitorship and revenue. But landing on the “right” project is not simple on a new technology with many limitations and few experts who know it well. While the answer would be different for each institution, here are some general tips:

  1. Target Audience. Design the experience not for the current user base of Second Life, but for the target audience of your museum who is not yet in the virtual world. It’s the people interested in your content who will be interested in your virtual content. There may be some of those in the virtual world already, but the bigger potential lies with bringing your potential visitors in. They may not care about the virtual world, but they are interested in your content, so design the experience with that in mind.
  2. It’s not about the “build”. Remember, Second Life is not first about 3D rendering, but rather about social interaction. You will likely want to create a place in Second Life, but more important than that place is the effort you put into building a community there. The people are more than half the content, so the experience you design should be fundamentally 2.0.
  3. Marketing Plan. Just like opening a real-world location, you need to have a plan for how to get people there. People won’t just stumble onto it. Driving in people from your Web site, marketing within Second Life, viral promotions, focusing on scheduled events are all useful components.
  4. Staffing. Just like a real museum, a virtual one takes staffing. Perhaps not as much or as costly, but just as in the real world, it is not most effective to just create a museum and leave it standing there unguided, unmanaged.
  5. Effort. As the points above clearly illustrate, a virtual museum is not a matter of just putting up a Web page. It takes a lot of effort to achieve its potentially large reward.
  6. Goals. The first step is certainly to understand what you hope to achieve. It is not worth a foray into the virtual world just to be cool. This new medium has the potential for ROI in revenue, visitorship, increase in brand awareness, and achieving an educational mission statement. But whatever goals are most important, they should fundamentally drive the experience design process.

Whether you dive into a virtual museum project soon or wait for this technology to develop, it is certainly the case that this medium is not going away. Whether Second Life or something that replaces it, the world will be using a Metaverse that allows us, in many ways, to go places and meet people while in our living rooms.

As with any major new medium there are opportunities to move in early and be a part of the re-alignment of how people communicate, are entertained, and are educated. If museums want to achieve a greater role in our social structure, whatever that role is, beginning to play that role early in the development of a major new medium is the best opportunity to succeed.

3 comments, add yours!:

James Massender said...

This is definitely an interesting area for museum web teams and others to watch. You're absolutely right to point out that a venture like this needs to be right for the organisation and its goals, needs to be carefully thought through, and needs to be properly resourced and promoted.

I worked on a secure virtual world project for children in care from 2003-06, and that experience certainly underscores the issues raised here. The infrastructure and development costs can be significant, and this may prove a barrier to some. I've recently spotted the Croquet project though, which is an open source-based endeavour designed to move the development of this sort of collaborative platform to the next level. It'll be interesting to see how that develops.

Sibley said...

There are actually at least 50 "virtual world platforms" out there or under development, all claiming to be better in some way and be going to "the next level", including Second Life. Croquet has been progressing slowly for a few years now. It is positive that it is open source, but I suspect it will not get widespread adoption on any major projects. But it's hard to know which platforms will still be around 2,3,or 5 years from now.

rea said...

It is a very interesting post and in fact in a few days I'm presenting a paper in a conference about museums and second life (in Greece). Thus, I would like to ask you what makes you say that Second Life isn't Web 2.0 yet? It is designed based on Web 2.0 Characteristics, social interaction, participation, usability etc. What do you think makes it still "poor" in Web 2.0 technologies? I would like to discuss it with you.