Primer: What The Future Holds

This Primer can’t encompass every bit of wild speculation about the future of virtual worlds, but we’ll lay out the trends that have moment.

One thing about the future of virtual worlds seems certain: The number of people using virtual worlds will continue expanding. Today we see that as one virtual world closes, another seems to take its place, setting new benchmarks in terms of size and revenue. And if we compare virtual worlds with social networking sites – as they have many fundamentals in common – it looks as if we will see yet more expansion in their adoption.

A lifetime of virtual world usage

For digital natives there are now clear paths for lifetime involvement in virtual worlds. Starting at 5 or 6 with Club Penguin or Webkinz, progressing through Habbo Hotel or Stardoll, through Teen Second Life and onto World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, HiPiHi, There or Second Life. Moreover, large virtual world publishers such as Blizzard look set to release a patch a year and Linden Lab, creators of Second Life, have what might be termed a lifestyle model such that in both cases one could see individuals using accounts for the majority of their lives. An emerging model my be ‘silver worlds’ that is worlds that a designed for 60+ users to cater for the gamer generation as it ages.

Virtual worlds everywhere

Virtual worlds are set to become ever more pervasive. Worlds such as Gaia blur the distinction between social network and virtual world. Projects such as Metaplace by Areae and Whirled by Three Rings Design (both in Beta at the time of writing) provide very ‘thin’ virtual spaces that, in the case of Metaplace, can easily be embedded in existing web sites. Both of these products also give users simple to use tools to create their own personal virtual spaces suggesting that we might see an expansion of the personal world as an extension of the personal web site and blog. Further, with mobile experiments such as Sulake’s First Friday and the promise of augmented reality applications such as those demonstrated by Intel and applications that mix Google Earth and SketchUp, completely pervasive virtual spaces may soon intertwine our online and off-line worlds.

Where next?

Virtual worlds have been with us for almost 30 years, though for many they still seem new. As with any emerging technology their development is hard to plot as it relies on a mixture of social, political and technical factors. The current trajectories suggest that like the web, virtual worlds are set to become an increasing part of people’s entertainment, social and civic lives in ways, both prosaic and astounding, that we cannot yet predict.

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