The Sky is Falling!
Why Are Virtual Worlds So Desolate?

by Mary Flannagan

If you have ever met a friendly avatar on the way to chat with a friend, you have probably experienced virtual worlds. Touted by writers such as Bruce Damer and Sandy Stone, these 3D social spaces promise rich interactive experiences and compelling social interaction. They have also been geared to corporate entities and targeted as the next boardroom, where CEOs and staff meet disguised as their favorite avatar representation. But are virtual worlds successful at building communities?
    Currently there are two major models for VRML worlds on the internet: Sony's Community Place and Blaxxun Interactive's Blaxxun worlds. Although there are others such as Active Worlds, the previous two have set the standard for the technological development of multi-user worlds. The standard model is that the worlds are for the most part static (except for minor animations or quick loops such as a spinning advertisement). Aside from moving their avatar around and attempting to find inoffensive chat, there is little to do in these worlds. There is a clear separation from the technological design on up between avatars and the world objects around them. Interaction between the two images or objects, then, is discouraged. Very little physical interaction is possible between users' avatars, or even between avatars and objects.

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    A typical site at Sony's Community Place is Circus Park. This world features tents, sounds, moving signs, and even clickable sideshow actors (watch out for the bear riding the unicycle). After 5 minutes, the limited, staggered verbal (typed) interaction with other visitors, coupled with the growing annoyance of the "children's circus laughter" in the looped soundtrack almost encourages users to leave.

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    Some environments are better; sites such as the non-VRML space in the ActiveWorlds area called AlphaWorld. Users perhaps are involved the most in this area as they create their own communities and social rules. Oddly, while cyberspace allows users to create almost anything that can be imagined, we design societies and environments that mirror what already exist.
    Just when virtual worlds are diminishing in vogue, 3D games have never been more popular. From single player experiences like Tomb Raider to online, multiplayer games such as Ultima, we show a love for 3D spaces through our dollars and hours of time devoted to gaming. But if 3D games work, why not 3D worlds?

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    Theorists like Celia Pearce suggest that the reason virtual worlds are failing is because while a user is inside a virtual world, they do not experience time. "At a talk I gave in January of 1997, I suggested that part of what is missing is the fourth dimension. Most of these online worlds seems frozen in time." (Pearce, 148) However, there are numerous places that are enjoyable precisely because one loses track of time. In realspace, Las Vegas is one of those notorious spots. Day or night, casinos separate visitors from references to time. The absence of clocks and windows help give the feeling of perpetual decadence or pleasure.
    Ideas about time transcend in the world of digital experiences. Digital characters exist not as identities but instead, constitute a stateómoving, showing, acting, standing, waiting, winning or losing the game, adventuring, pleasuring, calculating, and fighting. The characters, landscape, and worlds are one continuous event. Players drop into the world during gameplay, project, control, experience, and exit while the game world remains constantly forthcoming. When playing interactive adventure, users can save "progress" and return later to pick up gameplay--the timelessness of the game is an ally and enables users to have experiences at their fingertips. To escape time, it seems, is a thing to be treasured, not avoided.
    Part of the issue is the common interfaces to VRML online worlds. The most common way to experience a world is through either a proprietary browser or something like Cosmo Player. In VRML, a browser significantly defines what is possible in the environment as the interface represents the only manner of navigating these spaces. Some interfaces have turn, tilt, and zoom controls--the ability to move objects (look at this!) or gesture (look over there!) is impossible. People enjoy having something in their hands and manipulating the objects around them. If most users do not experience physicality, they may at least imagine one. I would argue that it is the lack of palpable types of interaction--manipulating an object virtually, effecting the objects around them, "touching" another avatar, gesturing, making, taking action--that is lacking in virtual worlds and is ultimately responsible for their poor realization.
    These ideas may push the limits of what is technically possible; for example, researchers are only now trying to understand issues such as the body awareness of avatars. Yet many human activities, such as collaboration, rely on the ability to express more than they can through the typed word sent real time to a cartoon figure.
    Possibilities? We must be able to effect our environments, the objects, and each other. That is the key to collaborative world building. Virtual worlds still have the feeling of the cocktail party that repeats itself nightly: one wants to grow from that experience and do something, create something, have mutual experiences with another being. Until that happens, we are destined for mediocre experiences in online worlds.

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