I went to a talk today on virtual worlds and it got me thinking a bit. I’ve always been somewhat of a virtual worlds skeptic. Virtual worlds is one of those things where the concept is so easy to understand that when you’re first exposed to it as a layman, immediately an infinite field of possibility stretches out before you. You end up envisioning something that could have come out of a William Gibson or Neal Stephenson novel where all our transactions would be conducted in a virtual 3D space. The problem is, as soon as you dig a bit below the surface, some real serious usability issues immediately pop up and I’m not convinced that virtual worlds provided a compelling solution.

The power of computer interfaces is precisely that it breaks away from the strict physical constraints of the real world. It is the types of non-physical abstractions that really leverage the full power of using a machine. Imagine if you tried to build Amazon in Second Life, it would be a disaster. The things which make Amazon so powerful is precisely the things which escape from the limitations of real life bookstores. It’s the ability to store millions of books and find books via search rather than navigation and the ability to slice and dice the book collection in all sorts of interesting ways while conventional bookstores are stuck with only a single sort order which make Amazon succeed. Virtual worlds always struck me as an idealistic but naive attempt to add back in the physical constraints that we worked so hard to get rid of.

However, as I was sitting and listening to the talk, it struck me that the real benefit of virtual worlds is to allow for shared virtual experiences. Our current technology really sucks at delivering a shared experience to people who are not in the same physical world as you.

Think of a group of teenage girls who go shopping together at a mall. They might start independently drifting and forming clusters around certain objects. They can gather around a particular item and point out areas of interest and physically manipulate the item. Conversation will be constant and only semi-directed and the entire social experience has a huge amount of depth and richness.

Now think about shopping online. While we do a good job of replicating the commerce aspects but the social experience is hugely impoverished. It basically amounts to sharing links with each other and then verbally describing what you see on the page that should interest them. Sure, you could imagine some fancy, heavyweight collaboration software that does some sort of shared screen and fancy mouse tracking but there is an inherent limitation of how well you can replicate a shared experience on a GUI platform because there’s so little presence information.

The lack of presence in traditional software is part of it’s power. The only way to create something as powerful as Amazon is to abandon the idea of presence. To abandon the concept of shared spaces and canonical representations. But this lack of presence also means that it’s impossible to deliver any meaningful shared experience.

Virtual worlds represent the other compromise. To accept everything that sucks and is limiting about a physical representation and to embrace those constraints rather than fighting against them. The up side of doing this is that you now can allow for the types of powerful shared experiences that we have in the real world.

It’s no coincidence that MMORPGs are the first real success we’ve had with virtual worlds. MMORPGs are founded on having shared experiences and they derive their power from making presence an integral part of the gameplay. However, I think this concept of shared experience allows us to take a much more nuanced view of what the impact of virtual worlds will be. It’ll allow us to gain a more sober insight of what virtual worlds can and cannot deliver which seems much more credible than the utopia that gets hyped in the mainstream press.