The Drum speaks to digital practitioners about the use of virtual worlds such as Second Life in marketing and whether they are still relevant.
With Avatar becoming the most commercially successful movie in history, it seems odd that the platform which would have inspired much of the film seems to have had its day with the online user. Then again, the Lawnmower man was no advert for virtual reality which did okay for a while.
In terms of it as a social media platform, it was always going to be far more complicated to create and maintain a virtual avatar than updating and maintaining a Facebook or Twitter account.
Second Life apologists have highlighted the Linden Dollar, the economy created for the 3D world, which was actually strong in cyberspace last year, increasing by 65%, as a measurement of growth.
It was meant for escapism, but somehow developed to become a tool which would mainly make mainstream headlines such as ‘I married my avatar’ and launched a whole spate on virtual marital affairs.
Talk of virtual worlds taking over from reality was always going to be just hype, and their usage seemed recently to only ever be mentioned as an aspect of a brand marketing campaign in the hope of reaching online consumers.
Dom Raban from Corporation Pop explains that when the hype died down in 2007, many seemed to believe the platform did too, but defends its use within brand engagement.
“We have continued to be strong advocates of the technology, investing both money and resource in developing our offering to businesses. What we have found is that if they take a step into virtual worlds they quickly see the benefits of the technology, particularly those that effect the bottom line such as time and cost-effectiveness and return on investment. Just a few of the businesses actively engaged include IBM, Intel, the NHS, BP, Dell, Diageo, Nokia, Unilever and Philips."
Raban said that he was already beginning to see lower barriers to entry, blurring of the line between 2D web content and 3D virtual worlds and game quality graphics delivered through a browser.
“Also bear in mind that of the estimated 800 million virtual world accounts today nearly two thirds belong to those aged under 16 years. For these Generation Zs, or digital natives, virtual worlds blend seamlessly into the rest of their online experience. These are the business people of tomorrow,” he added.
“The premise of pretending to be someone else and then hooking up with a load of other people pretending to be somebody else is both creepy and fundamentally not how human beings – and therefore not how social networks - ‘work’,” adds Darren Navier, creative director for Numiko in Leeds, who does, however, concede that virtual worlds do have a place for blue chips brands to exploit.
“Big brands are now building their own virtual spaces that they have more control over (Disney's Virtual Interactive Kingdom) Habbo Hotel has always been huge. This growing crop of Second Life alternatives is diverse and highly specialized but shares a common focus on security, customisation, and control—three qualities that are business and brand friendly.”
David Burden from Virtual World specialist company, Daden adds that Virtual Worlds are still in their infancy and have yet to come-of-age, but agrees that large-scale companies, and indeed, The US Government have already discovered the potential they offer.
“We are still waiting for our HTML and Apache and Mosiac that will unify virtual worlds and make them really easy to use,” Burden explained. “But people are working on those, and once we have them then we will see serious consumer and even faster business growth in virtual worlds - and they will potentially become more important over the next 10 - 20 years than the 2D web.”
Greig Tosh, managing director of Civic believes that the anonymity offered by virtual worlds was both a comfort to some people, and off putting for others, but that the platform will remain and develop in the long-term.
“It's perhaps just reached a plateau of users who like to shake off their first life and enjoy a virtual parallel universe. It's probably dead from the point of view of a lot of people tried it, didn't like it and never went back. A bit like sushi.”
So it would seem we’re over the introduction of virtual worlds to the online world, and that common consensus is that the mainstream has yet to be lured in by the potential offered of a second life for all.