Virtual Worlds

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About This Technology

August 2012

Virtual worlds are 3D software environments that users can "walk through" and explore. These environments utilize server-side software, internet communications, and either client software or web browsers. Users access virtual worlds from desktop computers, consoles, or (potentially) handheld devices. Typical features of virtual worlds include avatars, real-time interaction among a large number of users, in-world social activities, and tools for users to create in-world objects. Virtual worlds serve a wide variety of purposes, from entertaining children to training military personnel in battlefield operations.

Children dominate the market for consumer virtual worlds: Consultancy firm KZero estimates that 63% of all consumer virtual-worlds accounts are registered to users younger than age 16. Social virtual worlds for adults such as Second Life have stagnated, but massively multiplayer online games, played by users of all ages, are still popular. For example, Blizzard's World of Warcraft has more than 10 million paying customers. Virtual worlds are also an important tool for enterprise collaboration and learning. For example, BP has trained new graduates with a virtual world from ProtonMedia, IBM has held major internal meetings and conferences in Second Life, and Thomson Reuters used a virtual-worlds solution to assist in a change-management program. However, because of corporate budget cuts, enterprise virtual worlds have not developed as quickly as some providers hoped. Linden Lab shut down its Second Life Enterprise business, Teleplace folded, and Forterra ran into financial difficulties and had to sell its assets to defense contractor SAIC.

Children's virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games are now established markets, but other forms of virtual worlds are in transition. Client-server worlds that are difficult for the average user to operate and stand separate from the web have a limited future. But the elements of virtual worlds—shared 3D environments, avatars, real-time conversations, 3D-object creation, communication through gestures, and other features—could become increasingly common features of consumer websites and mobile-gaming, social-networking, and enterprise-collaboration applications. What may eventually disappear is the term virtual world and notions of very immersive but closed-off environments. On the web and in enterprise collaboration, connectivity with other systems is more important than immersion, and the new generation of virtual worlds is likely to reflect this orientation. Another change is the move toward augmented-reality-based virtual worlds. In the future, perhaps, viewing a coffee store through a smartphone's camera will reveal a variety of virtual characters and objects superimposed onto the real store—potentially an entire virtual world overlaid onto the real world and navigated by a smartphone. Finally, mirror worlds may combine virtual worlds and mapping technologies to create immersive, data-rich replicas of the real world. Already, in Washington, DC, the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center uses Google Earth to integrate and visualize data from disparate sources such as the District's 911 Call Center, automated systems such as license-plate readers, and the ShotSpotter gunshot-detection system and traffic information such as road closures during public events.