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Today’s 3-D Browser Wars – The Battle For Control of the New Internet and Much, Much More
It’s 1994 again, but the stakes are even higher this time around. A new battle for the development, acceptance and control of information dissemination is underway in Silicon Valley and around the world. Many companies, most of which you’ve never heard of, are rushing to develop and deploy the next-gen UI. Which company will win? What business models do they use? What will the future look like? Technological evolution will be so significant that it will affect the way you use the Internet, the way you communicate and even change the equipment you use to access the Internet.
It’s not Netscape and Microsoft this time. Facebook and MySpace have already lost. The new guard is Second Life, Active Worlds, World of Warcaft, IMVU, Shanda, Red 5 Studios and others. Their new landscape isn’t the quaint two-dimensional reproductions we’ve grown accustomed to in Explorer, FireFox, and Safari. It’s a rich and robust three-dimensional world that can convey information and culture in an effective and engaging way. In these robust virtual worlds, the only limit is our own imagination. Virtual technologies are in their nascent stage of development, but they are developing faster than anyone ever predicted. The confluence of infrastructure, computer technology, and social behavior theory offers powerful new ways to interact and socialize on the Internet. The idea of ”jumping into the metaverse with your personalized avatar for a meet and greet” as predicted in the futuristic vision of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” novel really isn’t far off from today’s reality. .
Second Life, World of Warcraft (WoW), and IMVU offer a fabulous view into the future of immersive communications and next-gen browser development. Watching how people come together to overcome game challenges in WoW has sparked interest in social interaction for leadership development scholars, as well as the military. The application of immersive environments on learning and education is limitless. In the future, teamwork and leadership may no longer be an educational exercise confined to sterile classrooms; it will be a fully immersive hands-on learning experience where students learn skills in various virtual environments and scenarios. The US Army believes in this vision so much that it has spent six million dollars on research and development and sponsored the “America’s Army” video game to train our young people before they even enter basic training. Ubisoft, the game’s developer, wrote that “America’s Army” was “the deepest and most realistic military game ever released on consoles”. A small audience by WoW and Shanda standards, the game has over 30,000 players every day and is available on Xbox, PlayStation, mobile phones and Game Boy. Another and perhaps better use of technology is education. Hiring newly created MBAs with little real-world experience has always been a pain point for employers, especially with today’s education and talent challenges. What would companies pay to hire an MBA graduate who had spent a few hundred real-life hours in Jack Welsh’s simulated shoes? And we thought EA’s Madden Football was great. In the near future, we will be able to teach, test and hone key skills to produce better knowledge workers and leaders through advances in new immersive browser technologies.
Today, virtual world business models are developing. WoW has a subscription service where it charges around twenty dollars a month to connect to the virtual fantasy world. Shanda in China, with its legend of Mir and other virtual properties, offers pay-as-you-go and subscription models. IMVU has a new model. Its chat environment is so rich and realistic that users pay for virtual clothes for their avatar and virtual gifts for others. Active Worlds took a more platform-centric approach by charging for the base application so others could develop it. Second Life has virtual money called Linden dollars which is used to pay for goods and services in the virtual world. Linden dollars can be purchased with real currency. Walking around Second Life and seeing all the billboard type ads reminds me of the early days of the internet where ads popped up out of nowhere and there were no usage guidelines or design best practices . But which model will win? There’s room for multiple models, but it’s too early to tell which browser will win out.
I bought my last desktop computer seven years ago and I don’t plan on buying another. Being tied down is no longer an option. Surfing by walking between rooms, starting at the coffee shop, and connecting at the airport is normal behavior for most of us. However, with new technologies emerging, our computing habits may still change. myvu and iTheater make glasses that project information right in front of your eyes. It’s primarily aimed at today’s game consoles and iPod movies, but it has potential. In the near future, you might have a pair of glasses that have higher resolution and are lighter than your laptop’s LCD screen, while providing much more privacy on the plane. Celluon has technology that laser projects a keyboard onto any flat surface, eliminating the need for a physical keyboard. With such advancements, will our future computers look more like a soda can connected to glasses than today’s rectangular paperweight? Hardware advances along with interactive virtual software development will merge to give us a new, fully immersive user experience.
A downside is that most virtual worlds require a large download and installation of apps. Each virtual world requires its own app, so if you’re developing for Second Life, you’re limited to residents of Second Life and don’t have access to other audiences. Application diversity is a big negative for scaling revenue. This is reminiscent of browser interoperability in the 90s, where companies had three versions of their websites to accommodate browser differences. But eventually there will be a de facto standard and the winning application will be preloaded on your computer. I’m interested to see if this deconfinement also produces anti-trust litigation.
The new battle of 3D browsers is being fought today and the future of interactive communications is up for grabs. Will Silicon Valley produce the next 3D interactive browser standard or China? Only time will tell. However, the impact of immersive 3D virtual worlds on communications, social interaction and education will change our lives as much as the microwave and the remote control…and maybe TiVo.
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