There can be a broad gulf between niche and mainstream. Bridging it isn’t easy
One of the aims the Lab has in developing a new virtual world(s) platform is that they hope to lift it into mainstream adoption, with not hundreds of thousands, but potentially hundreds of millions of users.
It’s a lofty goal, to be sure; but the Lab isn’t alone in talking in these terms. Brendan Iribe over at Oculus recently talked in terms of a virtual world / MMO (he seemed to be using the terms interchangeably) with a billion users – although granted, he also couched this in terms of being a decade or more away.
But how realistic is it for a virtual world to achieve figures of hundreds (or even tens) of millions of users? The gap between niche and mainstream isn’t an easy one to bridge. It’s fair to say that the Lab hasn’t managed it so far, although they’ve certainly had both opportunities and attempts at broadening their mainstream appeal in the past – which is not to say they yet can’t.
Bridging the gap involves dealing with a number of key issues. Three of these might be said to be relevance, identity and ease-of-use.
Loki Eliot’s >stage desgin at the SL11B Community Celebration
If people don’t see a virtual world as having relevance in their lives and the things they do, then it’s going to be hard to persuaded them as to why they should consider using it. In this, it doesn’t matter how snazzy it looks or how clever the technology behind it.
This need for some real value proposition is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Pamela in the 8th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour. She dismisses any involvement in a virtual world because she sees no advantage in it compared to what she can already do in her day-to-day physical life. Her reaction may have caused some of the mirth seen at the SVVR Creating the Virtual Metaverse panel, but it is one that is unlikely to be in the minority. Laughing such opinions off doesn’t actually make them go away.
Pamela’s comments also touch on the issue of identity.
Handling issues of identity for groups of people with very different views on the subject may not be easy
For those of us engaged in Second Life, the ability to define our identity howsoever we wish by virtue of the anonymity we enjoy, is intensely liberating. We can be who we want to be and what we want to be; it gives us the willingness to express ourselves more openly and creatively.
However, as Roland Legrand points out when discussing the Lab’s new platform, for many people out in the mainstream world / market the Lab would like to reach, it is downright creepy and off-putting. They are intensely uncomfortable around the notion that the people they may meet in a place like SL may not be entirely as they present themselves.
How this might be dealt with in a manner which gives them the level of comfort they need while still allowing others complete freedom of anonymity, isn’t a straightforward matter. On the one hand, it must allow people to define themselves howsoever they wish; but on the other, it requires that the platform provide some form of assurance that the person with whom you’re interacting really is who they say they are.
And so to ease-of-use.
The new platform needs to provide an intuitive UI which presents itself as easy-to use and offers the greatest flexibility of use, be it with a keyboard and mouse, or an Oculus Rift and STEM system. It also needs convenience of use as well, if it’s going to be made available through mobile devices.
Allied to this is the need to ensure that incoming users are presented with compelling experiences which encourage their use of the platform, and increase their desire to explore it further. This includes ensuring those who come to it with an idea of what they want to do and what they are seeking can find it and similar-minded users quickly, while those who arrive out of curiosity are entertained and /or engaged.
Taken together, these three elements provide a substantial challenge to anyone attempting to drive a virtual world product into the mainstream market. So far, no-one has successfully managed to tackle all three with a single virtual world product and bridged the gap into mainstream acceptance, including Linden Lab. As such, it’ll be interesting to see if the Lab do indeed rise to the challenge, or whether they opt to channel their efforts in other ways, such as towards deeper penetration of vertical markets by offering multiple “worlds” via a single platform. That, however, may be the subject for another blog post.