Are Virtual Worlds the Next Big Thing?

The Internet, at least as experienced by most users, feels as if it has at last plateaued. This is an illusion. Forces are coalescing that will produce a shift comparable at least to the spread of broadband. This change will have enormous financial, cultural and political repercussions”.

This is the view of TCS Daily columnist Patrick Cox in a fascinating article published earlier this week. The “change” that Mr. Cox envisions will be the transition to, and large-scale participation in Virtual Worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. He sets the stage for his argument against those who would dismiss the idea through a detailed description of the early days of the Internet. For those who are not aware of the ancient history of the mid-1990’s, Netscape Communication’s Navigator browser was the disruption that would open up the Internet for John Q. Public:

For the first time, especially when Netscape added the ability to easily put content on the Web, anybody could publish and anybody could access. The metaphorical walls fell and the Web was truly born. For the first time, the Internet was one place, accessible to anybody, and the astonishing transformation began.

Cox goes on to describe the vectors that are converging which he believes will take Virtual Worlds into the mainstream. Specifically, he cites:

  1. The benefits of 3D space over 2D space
  2. The world of gaming as the frontier of 3D Virtual Worlds. Cox points out that the social interaction aspects of today’s VR environments are more appealing to younger game players who have grown up in an IM, MySpace world.
  3. The profit potential for companies who are early to market with 3D Virtual Worlds (World of Warcraft figures are cited).
  4. The early adoption by Koreans who are always way out in front in terms of technology adoption.
  5. The entry of Hollywood into MMOs based on movie titles. Cox cites a nearly one-to-one correlation between the dropoff in young male movie attendance and the gains in MMO participation.

None of these things are disruptive, but they do prime the pump for something that is. That something is a company called Multiverse and, not coincidentally, it’s made up of a team of core developers from Netscape’s early days. What they are developing is equivalent of a virtual world browser for MMOs.

Their plan is to provide virtual world creators the client, server, and development tools to create an MMO world. The entire technology platform is free for non-commercial use, so academics are paying nothing to create economic, architectural, sociological and other simulations. For-profit enterprises would pay royalties, but only when their games or other applications collect money from consumers, not before.

This is significant because, until now, creating a complex virtual world required tens of millions of dollars in initial development costs alone. The Multiverse technology, currently in beta-testing, claims to lower the cost of virtual world production to a fraction of its current stratospheric level. For many purposes, such as personal online spaces, there would be no cost at all.

Most importantly, however, all these Multiverse-based worlds, and many are already in development, would be compatible. With the Multiverse client software, users will be able to access any virtual world built using the company’s technology. Virtual worlds will become, in effect, ubiquitous. The Metaverse.

The company is headed by same entrepreneur responsible for Netscape’s Navigator: Bill Turpin. His team includes Netscape veterans Rafhael Cedeno and Robin McCollum, who built critical Netscape server technology still in use today, and co-creators of RSS; Jeff Weinstein, who coded the world-changing SSL; and Corey Bridges, Navigator product manager who then went on to launch companies like Netflix and Zone Labs. On the entertainment side, film director/producer James Cameron, of Terminator and Titanic fame, has thrown his lot in with Multiverse, joining its board of advisors.

Some folks commenting on Cox’s story have pointed out errors and omissions in the historical overview, but that doesn’t change the overall hypothesis. I personally think he has it right. What do you think??

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