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On New World Notes today, Hamlet Au throws out this challenge: can anyone come up with a convincing reason that immersive virtual environments will replace the web? He said,

“Over the next few years, virtual worlds of all kinds will become an integral part of the Net; I have no doubt about that. User-created, realistic 3D worlds like Second Life will become an important niche platform; I have no doubt about that either. But where’s the evidence that they’re on track to become even more than that, eventually replacing the web itself? So far as I can tell, there is none.”

Well, I don’t think that virtual environments will replace the web, any more than the web has replaced books or television has replaced radio. I do think, though, that eventually virtual worlds will become very important in business, entertainment, and daily life – maybe more important than the web. And I can prove it! Sort of. Here I go:

We all know that virtual worlds are very young and rough right now. Second Life, the cream of the virtual world crop, is difficult to learn, confusing, often unrewarding (think of those ghost town malls scattered throughout the world), sometimes glitchy, and limited. But most people seem to agree that over time, virtual worlds will get better: it will be easier to use them, and they’ll be able to do more things. When someone can sit down at a computer, put on a helmet, and find themselves in the middle of a good historical recreation of the Battle of the Bulge or a live football game or an acting class, without spending hours upon hours or even days upon days learning the ropes and getting outfitted, then virtual worlds will have arrived, and their benefits will far outweigh their inconveniences. Not that we don’t have a long, long way to go!

But virtual worlds won’t replace the web. Why? Because some things are just as good – or better! – on a flat screen than in 3-D. For instance, let’s say you want to look at pictures of a friend’s vacation with your husband or wife. Is there any real advantage to doing that in a virtual world? Not really. If you do it in First Life, you can sit down together in front of a screen – or when electric paper comes along, just sit on your couch with that! – and look at it. The same goes for reading blogs, look up reference information, viewing calendars, composing letters, and anything else that works perfectly well in 2-D.

But some things are definitely better in 3-D! If you want to look at a hotel before you book a room, 3-D is much better. The same if you want to view a sports game or a dance performance, have a virtual meeting, recreate a historical event, socialize with friends, discuss a new design, act, explore…I won’t go on. These things are better in 3-D, just like movies, plays, documentaries, painting demonstrations, and those kinds of things are better on televisions than on the radio.

Which leads to the proving part. People don’t think of virtual worlds as having any precedent in history, but they do for *this* purpose, and that precedent is television. When television came on, it offered a more immersive form of broadcast sharing than radio. Radio offered just sound, television offered sight and sound. An immersive, virtual broadcast would offer sight and sound too, but in a 3-D environment where you could look around. People will adopt more immersive environments when they’re better suited to the task (like telling a story through a movie rather than a radio play) even if they’re more expensive (like television) and less convenient (like having to sit down in front of the television rather than move around freely while listening to the radio).

We’re not there yet, and I don’t know when we’ll get there, but sooner or later, the things that virtual environments are good at will start happening more and more on virtual environments. Like radio, books, and other simpler technologies, the web isn’t going anywhere, but it’s going to decline in importance compared to virtual worlds, just as radio did compared to television.

How’d I do, Hamlet?

^^^\ Kate /^^^