At the 2007 Virtual Worlds Conference, Christian Renaud, chief architect of Networked Virtual Environments at Cisco's technology center, gave the Thursday keynote to address a big question: What's next for virtual worlds?
"It'd be easy for people from the outside to come in [to this industry] and say, 'okay we got it figured out...' but this is not the first attempt at making virtual worlds, virtual communities, a business tool or a mainstream tool," Renaud cautioned.
Renaud wants to focus on the industry's next step. "We’re at the beginning of something that could be really great -- and I say could
not will." After all, Renaud noted, quoting Mark Twain: "History may repeat itself, but it sure doesn’t rhyme."
Virtual worlds are good business tools, Renaud said, citing the example of a friend who would play World of Warcraft
with coworkers across six different time zones, and yet struggle to coordinate a conference among them. According to Renaud, networked virtual environments are the "age of the avatar,"and Cisco is the "incubator group" that takes potential and turns it into profit.
Renaud says that of about 6.6 people on the planet Earth, 2.3 billion have mobile versions of themselves -- there are about 3 million SIM cards out there, he adds, and about 1.2 billion with internet connectivity. "That's great penetration," he says. Of some 50 virtual worlds, he estimates that there are about 465 million clients, or the population of North America. Essentially, he says, a boutique number, relative to what it could be. "My personal goal is to make this mainstream enough that I don’t have to explain what I do to the guy next to me on the plane," he says.
He likens it to the early days of ISPs like CompuServe, AOL, The Well, e-World, Prodigy and others -- the ones that survived are the ones that adopted e-mail over proprietary instant messaging. "We're at that inflection point where we decide, are we going the IM route? Do we want to be the Beta of the industry, or the VHS? The e-mail?
Moreover, Renaud stressed, that decision time is now. "If we wait for market rationalization, starvation will set in, and worse -- cannibalism.” It needs to be about the content, not the platform. Secondly, users of virtual worlds must not feel disconnected from the rest of the internet while using them. "If you could only get e-mail while sitting at your desk, it would not have such widespread usage," he pointed out.
Lest the audience get the impression that Renaud is going for "the strip mall of virtual worlds," he clarified. "I want to take all the fun stuff, and bring it to work... it commands your attention. Attention is really the only currency that is left." Renaud remembers a colleague from IBM telling him, "What if we could get people as addicted to work as they are to these games?" The current formats associated with work are not as much fun, Renaud says. "Spreadsheets are visually-induced narcolepsy," he adds. "There's no reason that has to happen. We can mark work a lot more fun that it currently is... it doesn’t have to be this big Jonathan Swift drudgery factory.”
Renaud also advised against stereotyping virtual worlds and their users. "There is no common measurement of success," he said. "The market tends to make these magical distinctions between groups of people that really have a lot of overlap... There are people who are hardcore and casual, or just hardcore... there is to much overlap to say ‘it’s only this and this’. My recommendation as an industry? Think about the good of the industry and everyone’s slice of pie will be bigger.”
Another important step in the future, according to Renaud, is open ID for the Internet. "So I don't have to have an ID for Amazon, an ID for eBay..." He also says that interoperable IDs will make it possible to conduct job interviews in virtual worlds, because a person's identity can be accurately and easily verified. There are times, however, when you want separate IDs -- Renaud foresees a situation where a new eBay user can establish trust with his customers by letting them reference the good feedback already on his long-standing Amazon account.
"We don’t have to be as good as a physical interaction... but we often look past what we can do better than." Rather than using virtual worlds to replicate business meetings as they are in the real world, for example, Renaud advises using the possibilities of virtual worlds to actually enhance them.
Another issue Renaud says the industry needs to examine moving forward is metrics. "Advertisers are sticklers for numbers," he points out. "Outside business wants to know real metrics. As an industry, we should step forward and put forth unified metrics." Doing so, Renaud insists, would decrease the perception of risk inherent in virtual worlds.
So, the main things? Interoperability among diverse platforms, a common and portable identity, and really examining steps taken to ensure they move the industry forward are key, Renaud concluded.