Austin360.com has an article up about comments made at last week’s virtual worlds conference in San Jose, California:
The article quotes Daniel Schiappa, General Manager of strategy for Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division as saying:
“By next year, you’ll probably know more about why I’m up here,”
A quote from the article sheds a little more light on the comment:
“In an interview later, Schiappa expounded a little. He hinted that Microsoft is considering launching some sort of virtual world offering that would span across its gaming, PC and mobile device offerings. Most likely, any foray by Microsoft into the world of avatars or social networking would begin with PCs, then move across its Xbox gaming business and finally into its mobile phone business, Schiappa said.”
Microsoft definitely has an established user base with Xbox live and their Windows Games division to enter this space. A virtual world platform that crosses all of their gaming platforms would likely be a lot more open and compatible than other platforms that are currently available or in development. I’ve always had reservations with Second Life being dependent on OpenGL for its graphics engine. Anyone who follows this blog, or has been around the SLED Listserv knows of the problems people have had with Vista compatibility and Second Life.
The educational possibilities are wide open on this one. Schools could set up entire labs using Xbox 360’s, getting around the issues they have now with PC computer labs running Second Life. The patch process would hopefully be more network aware. The learning curve would be much flatter if students could have the option of controlling their avatar with a controller, and then move up to a PC and keyboard when developing content. The voice chat feature already exists with Xbox Live, so this would not be an issue.
Since this platform is going to be developed from the ground up, learning from the experiences of other virtual worlds that have come before, it would make a lot of sense for Microsoft to distribute the platform. And out of the emerging group of companies looking to enter this space, who has the deepest experience with server technology? The article hints at Microsoft blending their virtual world technology with their Virtual Earth mapping platform (not unlike what Google is rumored to be working on with Google Earth). This could serve as the center of the Microsoft virtual world universe. Users could then run their own MicrosoftVW servers/clients to link back into this service.
These private servers could allow educational institutions to host their own campus servers. The entry to these servers would be through virtual 3D representations on the MS Virtual Earth service. Once you enter the campus from the Microsoft globe you would be on the institution’s servers. They could conceivably host public areas for students doing research on the college or university. The institution could also have private areas for students, faculty, parents, researchers, etc. This model could extend down into most any area of K-20 education. The same could be true for other organizations wanting to have a virtual presence on this service (even State and Local government could play in this space). Microsoft’s SharePoint services could really back this virtual space up for flat 2D information providing comprehensive search features (another feature that still needs a lot of improvement in SL).
When this model is extended into the private space things get a little trickier. I don’t think it would be wise to have teenagers hosting personal spaces that are linked to their home address. There are some major privacy issues with that model. But there are many that might want to host a home business through these types of virtual places linked to their home address. With strong enough security, families could host their pictures, videos, and other family related information in this way for relatives and close family friends that they grant access.
An alternative for teens would be orbital platforms, or settlements on other planets. Teens could set up personal pods in orbit around the virtual Earth to avoid the real world location issues. They could cluster up these pods into established space stations built around cities, states, or areas of interest. These personal pods could be accessed via PC, Xbox or cell phone. The pods would simply be run from clients hosted on their PC or Xbox, and would only be online when the client was running. Teens could stream their music collections into these spaces to share with their friends, they could post their high scores from various gaming platforms, display and sell content they develop, and do other social networking like activities.
It’s good to see players like Microsoft and Google exploring virtual world platforms. The 2D web has become stale and stagnant. Only so much can be layered onto existing web pages to enhance their graphical depth. At the end of the day you still have a 2D flat experience. We are all ready for the next evolution of the web. Gartner’s recent study stated that by 2011 80% of all active Internet users (and Fortune 500 companies) will have a second life (not necessarily in Second Life). With all these latest announcements and rumors, the Gartner prediction is looking a lot more on target than I had expected.
Depending on how far along Microsoft is with this project, it is definitely a market that is new and one that they could take a big bite out of if done right. With the rumors of university students signing NDA’s to test Google’s virtual world platform, it looks like some new players are going to be moving into the neighborhood in 2008. I think we can safely say that Virtual Worlds are here to stay, and the competition is about to really heat up for residents for these new worlds.