The outlook for virtual worlds has brightened with the announcement on July 8 of two new virtual worlds: Vivaty Scenes (www.vivaty.com) and Lively (www.lively.com). Google released Lively, a public beta version of its much-anticipated three-dimensional virtual world. While many people had speculated that Google would use Google Earth as a basis for its virtual world offering, Google took a different approach. Just having Google enter the virtual world fray speaks volumes and strengthens virtual world credibility in the eyes of naysayers. People who previously had dismissed virtual worlds, such as Second Life (SL), as some minor cult phenomenon are giving Lively a look. Mel Guymon, the director of 3D operations at Google, was quoted in a Virtual World News article (www.virtualworldsnews.com) as saying, "Google making a play validates the space like no one else. We’re basically saying this is a real space and everyone is doing this." The entrance of Google into the virtual world market makes a strong statement about the next generation of the internet and the 3D web.
Google seems to have aimed for a rather cartoonish look, rather than verisimilitude with its real world. It wants to blend virtual worlds into existing web-based social spaces. Lively can be integrated into a blog or webpage, making it easily accessible from a browser. Within 10 to15 minutes, an individual can create an avatar and a "room" and begin chatting with someone. The learning curve is not as steep as in some other worlds. Drawbacks of Lively at this point include the lack of business tools, Voice over IP, and user-created content.
Avatars in Lively can communicate via chat, which by default hovers overhead with a pointed balloon, like in a comic strip; but it is also possible to view all the text chat in a room in a chat box, which includes not only the typed chat but also indicators of animated actions, of which "puke" is our current favorite. One of the real drags of virtual space has been that only a small number of avatars can occupy a virtual room at a given time. Lively rooms can hold up to 20 avatars, but it is also possible to "lurk" in a Lively room—being able to see what is going on without really being there. Not surprisingly, some of the Lively rooms with "sex" in the title already are attracting lots of lurkers. It’s a lively peep show!
"Lively appears to be positioned to compete with IMVU. It will be interesting to watch how it develops. I look forward to applications like this as a sort of bridge between traditional text instant messaging and immersive 3D virtual worlds like Second Life," says Kim Rufer-Bach, owner, designer, and producer of the Magicians, a virtual world development company. "Perhaps they want to test their system and be sure it is stable and bug-free before adding user-created content, which complicates things very much."
Another virtual world developer, Daniel Smith, says, "The important thing about Lively and Vivaty is that they provide a great beginner experience for someone that has not been in a Virtual World. I personally worked on Vivaty, and point to how easy it is to get photos, music, and videos into a scene. They don’t replace SL (content creation and avatar customization can’t compare to SL), but what they do is raise the bar of what we expect. We want an SL with easier means for including media (such as YouTube), and we want a user interface that is easier for beginners."
During the first couple of days in Lively, many of the newly created avatars acted as reticent or as outlandish as kids at a middle school dance.
There’s no monetary system yet in Lively and no ability for the Average Joe avatar to build anything. Google’s legal beagles are still working out the intellectual property issues. Reuben Steiger, the CEO of Millions of Us, which is working with Google to launch the National Geographic Channel in Lively, was quoted in a Virtual World News article, "With respect to the particular flavor that they’re serving up first, I think you’re going to see a lot of blowback at first from people that don’t matter. The Second Life cognoscenti. They’ll be pissed because they can’t build stuff and blah, blah, blah. The real test is whether other people like it. If they do, that’s when it gets interesting."
Virtual worlds are big business. According to a TechCrunch post by Erick Schonfeld (www.techcrunch.com/2008/07/08/virtual-worlds-are-so-hot-right-now-345-million-invested-so-far-this-year), "If it seems like everybody is starting their own virtual world, it is because they are." In the first quarter of 2008, $184 million was put into 23 virtual worlds and supporting technology companies. The total for this year to date is $345 million across 37 deals.
July 8, 2008, may go down in the annals of virtual worlds development. (Will it be celebrated years hence as Dependence Day? Schonfeld proposes the much more bland "Virtual World Day" but the Association of Virtual Worlds has already applied to Chase’s to have Aug. 21 be that day.) July 8 also marked the public beta release of Vivaty Scenes, another browser-based virtual world that is trying to flesh out existing web-based social spaces, such as Facebook and AOL Instant Messenger. Before July 8, virtual worlds were rapidly increasing in terms of popularity and use in all age groups. With its entrance into the virtual world market, Google makes July 8 a D-Day for virtual worlds.
The big question for our space is this: Will libraries be able to survive and thrive in Lively and Vivaty? Once the in-world populations settle into a groove, will they want libraries and library services? Within 24 hours, more than a dozen rooms with "library" in the title had been created in Lively. By the next day there were 28, but, alas, all were empty. No one was visiting any of these libraries. The Arizona State University Noble Library, created on March 8, is the oldest library in Lively. ASU got the jump because it served as the private beta test site (http://beta.asu.edu/myworld/). However, Noble Library has had no visitors to date. As an act of professional kindness, we went into that room just to remove that goose egg from the stats sheet.