Dancing with the Ghosts in the Machine
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2009)

Dancing with the Ghosts in the Machine

Virtual worlds are coming of age, and they’re getting real...more real than ever.

During the past five years, there has been an explosion of sites that offer visitors to persistent worlds a wide range of activities, including playing games, having adventures, and meeting people. In almost all cases, the real attraction of 3D worlds is community—the chance to meet and interact with people in a virtual space. And, for many who visit 3D virtual communities such as Second Life, There.com, Entropia Universe, Active Worlds, and others, playing in virtual worlds is creatively fulfilling. People in virtual worlds can create an identity, clothing, buildings, and landscapes (see Editor’s Note, pg. 2). As it turns out, the drive to create is every bit as compelling as the drive to blow things up—the standard fare in most computer games.

What’s especially intriguing about this new wave of interest in virtual worlds is that 3D has the potential to become a mainstream capability—finally.

Obviously, 3D worlds are not new. They arrived with browsers and the Internet, and interest reached near-hysterical levels in the early 1990s, during which time enthusiasts asked, why have 2D browsers that mimicked printed pages when we could have 3D browsers to wander around in? As so often happens, the answer has been a long time in coming, and it’s short and sweet: Why not?

LucasFilm’s Habitat is often considered the first virtual world to use avatars, though they were 2D. The site gave people “an apartment” and served primarily as an animated chat. Habitat started in 1985 at a time when most people didn’t have computers that could even run it, or Internet connections fast enough to make the process anything less than painful. The spirit of Habitat lives on in Habbo Hotel, which also offers denizens their own living space to use as a base. 

One of the longest running 3D environments is Active Worlds, started by Ron Britvich as WebWorld in 1994, which he ran on the Peregrine Systems servers “after hours.” The project flew under various company flags, and the site was renamed AlphaWorld and, eventually, Active Worlds, its current moniker. It was kept alive by the stubborn persistence of developers who built and maintained a variety of worlds. By the late-1990s, several other companies emerged and got a running start in this arena, including There, founded by Will Harvey and Jeffrey Ventrella.

The path to these online virtual communities was paved in large part by the efforts of early 3D online content developers, such as Tony Parisi of Vivacity. Parisi has been a fighter on the front lines of the VRML wars, the attempt to develop a standard format for 3D online, and his company is continuing work on the concept of 3D browsers. Agreeing that virtual worlds have matured in the 10-plus years he’s been working in the field, Parisi says, “They are becoming more diverse and cater to more types of users and more mainstream users. As technologies emerge that allow con­sumer-­friendly virtual worlds running inside a Web browser, the barriers to entry are disappearing.” Also, notes Parisi, “the barriers to content creation are eroding.”

Today, 3D virtual communities are home to millions of people—a rough, seat-of-the-pants estimate based on published figures from the largest sites puts the number at approximately five million. Second Life mogul Philip Rosedale, chairman of parent company Linden Labs, claims Second Life is growing as much as 10 percent every year. Other analysts put the overall growth of virtual worlds, including gaming sites, at 15 percent per year. Meanwhile, market research company NPD puts the total number of US subscriptions to online worlds at $1 billion.

Every virtual world has a slightly different focus, and the worlds within these worlds are often very different as well. The three worlds we examined closely for this story—Second Life, There.com, and Entropia Universe—all place a very strong focus on creativity, all three have virtual economies that the companies work hard to protect and present as secure, and all three are evolving rapidly as a result of resident participation.

Follow the Money
In the case of Second Life, by far the largest and fastest growing of the sites, the company has struggled with change on almost every front, and not all of it is positive. The firm has had to ramp up its servers, it has to constantly convince the outside world of its security for young visitors (and, at the same time, it flaunts the raunchier aspects of the world for adult visitors), and it has to contend with a massive redistribution of wealth.

As a result of a federal investigation, Second Life was forced to close down its casinos. Moreover, the universe tightened up its banking system, thus causing a contraction of Linden Dollars, which are potentially vulnerable: The Web is alive with anecdotes about denizens being robbed of their accounts. Last, Rosedale has retreated from the CEO post to become chairman. The company isn’t talking about why Rosedale is out as CEO, but officials said they were looking for a new CEO with more operational and management experience, though the money issue could not have helped the situation. Recently, Mark Kingdom assumed that role.

Many of the virtual worlds focus on creativity, starting with the construction of a unique avatar.
Most chats with virtual world moguls generally turn back to the money. They’re under pressure to demonstrate the success of their brave, new businesses by making lots of money, and they’re also constantly challenged by residents and outsiders to account for where the money goes. If the money isn’t controlled, there’s the potential for inflation, and if residents are afraid their money will disappear, they won’t invest.

Entropia’s director of business development, David Simmonds, is proud of the banking system within the Entropia Universe, wherein users can cash out if they want (however, there is no interest earned).  According to Simmonds, the Entropia Universe brought in $3.6 billion PED (Project Entropia Dollars), or $360 million in US dollars, in 2006. Sales of Linden Dollars in Second Life, one form of revenue for the company, is about $720,000 a month, or about $8.6 million a year.

Marketing and sponsorships represent another major source of money for the virtual communities. Companies like Sun, Intel, IBM, and Cisco use Second Life for information hubs as well as meeting sites. The companies claim that their employees get more out of meetings held in Second Life compared to meetings on the phone because they are “more engaged,” and no doubt the novelty is an attraction.

However, it’s also worth noting that these companies are also selling a bunch of servers and networking equipment to firms building virtual worlds, so they have a vested interest in making the business model for virtual worlds pay off and grow. This is a role these companies have long played in the economy of virtual communities, and it’s a valuable one because they help provide an economic underpinning to support other uses of virtual communities. Increasingly, these technology companies are being joined by retailers, universities, and media companies, as well as individual entrepreneurs.

Entropia Universe is ramping up to accommodate specialized areas within the site. For instance, the Chinese government has been developing its own planet in Entropia. Its own Cyber Recreation Development Corp. has planned a planet containing education, gaming, and entertainment areas that, when fully realized, will support up to a million users. This addition is expected to add more than a million new residents to Entropia. Considering that Entropia currently supports about 10,000 concurrent users, this is a very ambitious project.

In addition, the Creative Kingdom, Inc. (CKI), a thematic architectural firm, is branching out and addressing the virtual world. CKI is building a new studio complex in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the first project for the new studio is a new planet for MindArk. Other projects from CKI include the Palm Island, World Island, and Madinat Jumeirah Resort in Dubai, UAE. Though the MindArk job is the first virtual project for the company, CKI and the government of Thailand are focusing on the development of jobs in online creation for the people in that country. MindArk hopes the project will encourage other companies, or countries, to form their own planet.

Meanwhile, MTV is building a world in the online space There.com, where it can appeal to its natural demographic: teens.
Here, virtual visitors participate in a party, held within the Entropia Universe.

Additionally, the participation of universities is helping to grow the diversity in virtual communities. Furthermore, universities are experimenting with holding classes in 3D worlds. The Los Angeles Art Institute uses Second Life as a training tool for students in Interactive Design as well as a forum for online classes. This makes a lot of sense in Second Life, where an aptitude for graphics can generate revenue. It’s also a place for the university and its students to show off their work. For example, scientists and colleges are using 3D worlds to demonstrate augmented reality techniques that combine real-world objects with virtual objects. Yes, dear friends, the head-mounted display is back. And Georgia Tech is only one of several universities that have a site on Second Life’s Augmented Reality Island to show off its experiments.

Creating a New Reality
Arguably the real source of income in 3D virtual worlds stems from people’s urge to create. After all, standing around and chatting tends to get old after a while—it’s kind of like a long, awkward cocktail party unless you have something to do and to talk about. You can even turn yourself into a more interesting person. You can become a real estate mogul who buys land, improves it, builds on it, and sells it. If that doesn’t work, dance. In Second Life, dance is an art form. Acquiring dance moves is an important pastime for some, and supposedly there is work available as dancers in the various clubs to give the illusion that there really is a party going on. It’s not the kind of work your mother would approve of—but you are a different person in Second Life, and so is she. For all you know, she’s the fairy dancing next to you.

Specific tools have been created for content creation in Second Life and There.com, but users can also use third-party tools. Active Worlds offers free access to Caligari TrueSpace, an easy-to-use 3D modeler. In contrast, Entropia Universe offers its users in-house creation tools, and that fits into the world’s philosophy, which is based on its own conservation-of-energy theory: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed…except by MindArk, Entropia’s parent company. 

MindArk has two goals in tightly controlling objects within the Entropia Universe. First, the company wants to be sure that creations complement the look of Entropia Universe. However, it also wants to limit the number of objects that are sold or bartered in Entropia so that they maintain their value. In contrast, Second Life residents often take pleasure in making gifts of clothing and other objects rather than selling them. It’s the happy newbie who runs across these types.

With its philosophy of tightly controlling goods, Entropia Universe more closely resembles the controlled worlds of online games rather than 3D communities. Simmonds explains how he sees the mantra that governs online economies: “There are people with lots of time and no money, and people with lots of money and no time.” In Entropia, you can’t make something from nothing, he points out, “so people can go in and work with stuff, very much like in the real world.” For instance, they can take lowly jobs, like gathering dung for fertilizer, to earn money. People with property can improve their land and allow hunting or host other activities on it.

“If you’re a successful businessman, there’s a very good chance you’ll be a good businessman in Entropia,” says Simmonds.

Most often, MindArk handles the work of creating sites for advertisers in Entropia. The company uses Autodesk’s 3ds Max primarily to build content for the company’s advertisers and clients. However, according to Marco Behrman, Entropia’s CTO, companies can build their own content and import it into Entropia if it meets MindArk’s specifications.
There.com is not as restrictive as Entropia nor as lenient as Second Life in terms of its virtual activities, which include (from left to right) a fashion show, game show, and amusement park.

Despite its strict rules governing content, Entropia continues to evolve. In addition to the new planets from China and Creative Kingdom, MindArk is incorporating the CryEngine 2 from Crytek, which will enable more advanced graphics (and raise the level of computer needed to run Entropia). Behrman insists that Entropia is interested in creating areas where users might have more freedom to create and share their own content “as long as the overall quality and feel of Entropia is not diluted.”

In comparison to Entropia, Second Life is the Wild West. In general, if you can figure out how to do it, you can do it in Second Life, and that extends to skin texture, dance moves, wardrobe, and sex (which involves, presumably, plenty of imagination, if not technical knowledge).

So, it should not be surprising, then, that Second Life leads the pack in available tools and tutorials. Taking advantage of  YouTube, Linden Labs offers tutorials by the ever-enthusiastic character named Turley, who takes everyone from the hapless Noob to the Adept through a series of easy-to-follow steps to create custom avatars and clothes, homes, and furniture. Users pay to upload content into Second Life, but the cost is minimal, and the average visitor can get pretty far without spending a dime. In Second Life, the economies of scale are at work, and the number of visitors to Second Life contributes to the availability of free stuff and things to do at the site.

Content can be created in Second Life using basic tools that generate “prims,” or primitives. This can be a fairly unrewarding process for those who have not spent enough time with Turley and his tutorials. There is also a free tool called Sculpty Paint, which gives users the ability create 3D models with textures and import them into Second Life. It’s tricky and not exactly intuitive—users save sculpture maps and texture maps, import them, and apply them to prims in Second Life. The approach can be used with other 3D modeling tools as well, but Sculpty was designed to make content creation easy for Second Lifers.

There.com exists somewhere between the tight control of Entropia and the more freewheeling Second Life. Kids, it should be noted, are often just as happy to be protected, and that’s the philosophy of There.com. Michael Wilson, president of Makena, There.com’s parent company, says there are well over a million subscribers to the community, which offers a PG-13 environment that’s evident as soon as one sets a digital foot into the realm. Avatars are not quite as well endowed as those in Entropia and Second Life. They wear slightly less revealing clothing, and—perhaps as a result—the interaction is quite open and friendly. An early visit to There.com resulted in an interesting chat with a young man (one presumes) who mentioned that he was from Jordan.

In regard to content creation, There.com requires people who want to build things inside the world to sign up for its developer program. The site offers users an easy-to-use tool called Style Maker for generating content, though content created in other 3D modeling software also can be imported. Independent of the DCC software used, the model’s polygons and vertices are limited because it will affect performance within the world. Other DCC tools are available as well, including a vehicle painter that enables folks to paint objects from a car to a surfboard.

However, anything created for There.com must first be approved by the company before it can be imported into the There.com world. Content is monitored to be sure it’s appropriate and for trademark protection. Furthermore, There.com is adding support for Collada, an open exchange approach developed by the standards body Khronos, which will allow easier integration of outside-created content.

Not surprisingly, notes Wilson, the largest sub-economy of There.com is the market for women’s clothes: “There are about 20,000 different women’s clothing items,” he says, “and they all fit.” The next largest market is for houses. There.com is also building up its store of tutorials to help keep users engaged, and the site fosters creativity in its users by sponsoring contests and showcases for art and creations. It, too, has its share of machinima tutorials and authors.

The Why
All of this brings us to this question: Why? Why spend good money on stuff that’s not real? Why spend time searching out strangers when it seems there’s never enough time to spend with RL (that would be “real life” to you and me) friends and family?

The answer: Because it’s fun. Playing in virtual worlds offers people the same kind of escape that others get from first-person shooters or from a romance novel. People are more engaged, they meet people, and they get to reinvent themselves. Studies have found that some people self-actualize through their avatars. People who create thin avatars for themselves may start a weight-loss program. Shy people can create more outgoing alter egos in the virtual world. Second Life’s Rosedale is convinced that all online transactions will be carried out through avatars in the future. There.com’s Wilson sees virtual worlds as an adjunct to other forms of communication, but he, too, expects to see more and more people communicating through avatars.

There is a virtuous circle forming around content creation on the Web, particularly when it comes to 3D. There has always been a lot of interest around 3D modeling and animation, but it is a hard craft to learn, even with the arrival of low-cost tools, such as TrueSpace, which has been acquired by Microsoft, interestingly enough; SketchUp from @Last Software, acquired by Google (ditto intriguing); and the open-source tool Blender from Ton Roosendahl. But what good is all the effort to learn 3D if no one ever gets to see and appreciate your work? Online worlds change all that, and not only do they provide a showcase, but they also provide a marketplace. The same is true of video, machinima, and graphic images.

Among the fairly recent creations is a new film being presented through Cinemax. Told in short installments, Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey tells the story of Alva, an accepting soul who has abandoned real life to take up permanent residence in Second Life. Alva ponders the age-old question of existence, with a Pirandellian twist: How do I define myself in this virtual world, and what about the filmmaker, Douglas Gayeton?

What is the story of Molotov Alva? Is it really a documentary? Not in the sense we are used to, but filmmaker Gayeton opens the question. If Gayeton tracks the process and interactions of his fictional character, why isn’t it a documentary in the same way that Borat is a documentary? The digital revolution means that all forms of media are being fundamentally redefined. The participants and creators in 3D virtual communities are in the vanguard of those who are doing the redefining.

The early pioneers who built Habitat, Active Worlds and the myriad universes out there didn’t really expect the evolution of machinima. They didn’t an­tic­ipate TV series combining real-life instant messaging, videos, and virtual worlds, like the hit The Truth About Marika, a self-reflexive thriller/puzzle presented by Swedish television that promised to get to the bottom of mysterious disappearances of young people in Sweden.

The show used realistic newscasts, and included a sub-plot in which characters accused Swedish TV of being in on the conspiracy. Clues were presented on the Internet and in the TV show, and it included characters living in Entropia. The series was addictive for many viewers who eagerly worked through the clues.

The early pioneers certainly did anticipate visitors negotiating virtual worlds with the help of 3D glasses and controls, and they’re going to see more of that sort of thing for industry as well as entertainment. In essence, virtual online communities provide an architectural platform for scientists, creative people, and hobbyists alike. There really are worlds within worlds, and they’re all evolving according to the whims and desires of the people who live in them.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.