June 17, 2010

Challenges of Immersion

Posted in Musings, SecondLife, social at 10:33 am by zhaewry

Challenges of Immersion

A major part of Second Life’s value is immersion.  Second Life is at its most compelling when users fully enter the virtual world as participants engaging the space, not observers visiting it. This is not to revisit the false dichotomy of augmentation and immersion. It is almost impossible to log on to Second Life and not immerse to some degree. The fundamental metaphor is that you are experiencing a place – that you are acting within a world. Rather the point is that, Virtual Worlds are fundamentally different from the “web” and this poses a deep challenge when you want to drive adoption of virtual spaces.

Immersion consists of several facets. Each facet poses challenges for wide scale adoption of the technology. This post is an attempt to explore several facets of the immersive online experience, contrast it with the existing web, and examine the implications for broader adoption of virtual worlds. This post focuses on Second Life, but I think the arguments apply more generally.

Traditional web experiences

The traditional web experience is different from the experience of visiting a virtual world.  The experience is singular, asynchronous and interstitial.  Briefly:


Reading a web page, including most social media web pages is a singular experience. A user reads the page, possibly posts comments on some of its content and moves on. Videos and Songs are equally experienced without reference to other users. It is uncommon for most web sites to expose awareness of other people who are looking at the same web page, let alone provide a way to speak to them directly. A user may be directed to a song, or video from a social media tool, they may comment on it, and they may read their friend’s comments, but they do so in isolation.


Facebook, Twitter, blog comments. Even in purely social media web sites, the pattern of interaction is largely asynchronous. Joe posts a picture on his Facebook wall. Two of his friends comment. A third leaves a link to a funny blog post related to the picture. There is genuine interaction, but it is very asynchronous.  It does not depend on two or more people being logged on at the same time.

Interstitial Experiences
The singular, asynchronous nature of many web interactions makes them perfect interstitial activities.  You have a moment, you peek at Facebook. You stand in line waiting to order coffee, you update twitter. You take a pause on vacation and upload a photograph. Your friends come along, add comments and feedback, and you reply when you have a moment.
Most web pages and applications require little context, little planning and little time. You hop on when you have a moment, and spend it on facebook. You plant a row of crops on FarmVillle, spend energy in Mafia wars, or reply to a clever comment.
Click and Type

The most common things one does on the web is click or type. Facebook, Twitter, a blog comment, a moment of casual play in Mafia Wars. All of these require little more than clicking on links, colorful icons, or entering simple text into a text field. Adding a picture requires slightly more savvy, although built in apps on smart phones are quickly turning this into a click and tap operation.

The Challenges of Immersion

Contrast the web page based experience with a virtual world interaction. You can simply log on and wander around Second Life on your own, admiring the impressive builds. You can explore in solitary splendor, shop happily. You can (and many do) build quietly on their own. But all of these miss much of the true power of the space. Second Life comes alive when multiple people interact in the immersed space.

The challenge of Synchrony

If you wish to share an event with someone in Second Life, you both need to logon at the same time. If you wish to attend a live music event, you need to log on when the musician is streaming. This is intrinsic to the shared experience. It is at once one of the greatest powers of Second Life, and one of its greatest limitations. Virtual worlds allow people scattered across the globe to share an event. Sharing both an and the other peoeple’s presence is one of the fundamental things Second Life does. The singular, and synchronous nature inherent in such an experience is one of the major challenges for Second Life’s broader adoption.

The challenge of contiguous time

Synchrony not only imposes the requirement of scheduling your time, it imposes the challenge of sharing blocks of time. Live music doesn’t pause when the phone rings. A conversation with several other residents doesn’t sit, frozen in time, while you put the kids to bed. Many immersive experiences require relatively focused, uninterrupted time in order to enjoy them.

Contagious time is a challenge in common with most immersive experiences. World or Warcraft is hard to play in 5 minute bites. You can watch a movie in smaller chunks than its full length, but fragmenting the viewing experience weakens the power of the medium.

Non Interstitial Use

The Synchronous and contagious nature of shared interaction are antithetical to interstitial interaction. This is Second Life’s biggest strength and largest challenge. Popping in to the world for five minutes is not an attractive model when events run an hour or more. Popping in when you happen to have free time, you’re dependent on an interesting thing happening at the time you pop in, and for a period of time roughly in line with your casual availability

The challenge of Richness

While strictly speaking, Second Life is click and type, the complexity of installing the client, and managing dressing, puppeteering and navigating an avatar is substantially higher than that of merely clicking a link and adding a 10 word status or sharing a funny youtube video.

Second life asks users to install a complex client which works best if the users both update their graphics drivers, and often tweak their settings. Once they have installed the client, they are confronted with an array of tasks, from dressing, to pupeterring an avatar, to teleporting around the grid. While the second life client (In all of its manifestations) is not a paragon of good user interface design, the major challenge is at least as much the set of tasks rather than any specific user interface issues. When you look at comparable game and virtual world viewers from equally rich environments, similar amounts of complexity are thrown at users.

Managing the challenges of immersion

Engaging in an immersive shared experience is fundamentally different than interacting with the web. Linden Lab needs to understand this, and account for it when looking at how to grow beyond early adopters. You can’t turn your back on immersion.  Immersion is a key part of the experience. You can’t remove the challenges by eliminating the core features of the experience. I think you instead must look at each challenge and ask, how can I build a bridge between mainstream experience today, and the immersive world.

You cannot remove the set of tasks required to navigate a rich experience. You can let the tools and capabilities unfold in a way which eases the user’s entry into the space.

You cannot remove the synchronous nature of the immersive experience, but you have to make it easy for people to find things that are interesting when they enter the space. The first hour, needs to connect potential users to what is happening in Second Life right then. The user experience needs to make it trivial for people to find events, needs to make it easy for them to go to those events, and needs to help them share the excitement of events with thier friends.

You cannot eliminate the challenge of contiguous time. Indeed, the fact that five minutes doesn’t let you do much *in* second life is a basic fact of immersion. As a world, a place, five minutes just isn’t time enough to engage in much activity. This, is, I think, a hint. What *could* you do with five minutes? What interstitial things could people do, possibly with ever appearing as an avatar which would help them connect more deeply to the space.

Food for thought. Answer some of these challenges, in ways which do not reject the core value of a shared, immersive experience and you may drive mainstream adoption. Ignore them at your peril. Ignore the connection between your unique value and these challenges and risk destroying that value in the attempt to reach for more users.

May 21, 2009

What’s real…

Posted in Musings, social at 4:42 pm by zhaewry

There has been a whole bunch of additional posting about pseudonymous identity and the limits (and implicit) benefits of keeping your real life separate from your virtual persona.  What follows are some additional thoughts based on the ongoing discussion.

Real and Trustworthy are not direct synonyms

Its easy to get carried away with notions that “real world” identity is inherently more trustworthy than a well established digital persona.  I see people say words like “in order to do business in virtual worlds, you must use your real life identity.”   A  real life name, phone number and picture don’t create trust on their own.

Trust has several parts.   Reputation, the “affirmative” or “positive” aspects of trust, requires a stable identity.  It does not, however, require that identity be tied to the real world.  Recourse, or what happens when trust is broken, a “negative” aspect of trust is more problematic.  Slightly ironically,  having recourse enhances trust.  A pseudonymous identity can limit or even totally prevent recourse. To the extent that this occurs, it clearly limits trust.

Informally agreements, and more formally contracts, are part of how we encode trust.  Agreements include notions of recourse while contracts often include specific penalty clauses for non performance.  Avatars,  not having a will or existence of their own, can’t sign a contract or make an agreement.  An avatar can be the agency of making the agreement, just as a phone can aid negotiation or a pen can be used to sign a contract.  Anyone who says “Oh, no, the phone agreed to that not me” would be reasonably laughed at, as would someone who claimed that their pen signed the contract and therefore should be sued.  An opaque pseudonymous identity gets in the way of a formal agreement or contract because it breaks the the tie to the actual person undertaking the agreement.

Its less the real life name that provides the trust and more the possibility of  recourse that matters.  Recourse ties to roles. You don’t sue people personally when they fail to deliver as an agent of a company.  Indeed, one of the major purposes of the corporation is to make it the legal separation between the individuals and the corporate entity clear. The recourse  is generally proportional to the harm done.  This offers possible avenues for pseudonymous people who wish to engage in business where recourse would be of value: interpose an agent who can sign a contract and manage recourse.

Virtual Worlds create magic effects, not actual magic

This is where I get blunt. There is tremendous power in the immersive effects of a virtual world. This immersive effect is not magic and doesn’t create digital people or disembodied moral actors. Very cool and powerful effects happen when we immerse in a virtual space. We can chose our appearance. We can role play, we can explore lots of facets of our life.  We do not, however, either create a separate unique person or disconnect our personal responsibility from our avatar(s).  You are welcome to be totally private and create a rich fantasy back-story for your avatar.  It does not change the fact that the human being is the actual motive power behind the avatar and remains responsible for the avatar’s actions.  I will happily accept your choice of avatar and behavior at face value.  I would hope you would reciprocate.  None of this creates a separate person.

Connecting people via computers doesn’t introduce anything that isn’t present when two people interact. Putting aside fundamental debates about the nature of self awareness and consciousness, avatars are projections of people. Excepting explicit role play, an avatar acts and speaks as an extension of the person controlling it.  Second Life isn’t a game, it’s a medium through which people interact. Calling avatars “characters” “playing” a “game” may sound cute but its a corner case.

Pseudonomity doesn’t change this fact.  For most people their avatar is not a “role” they take on, it is an expression of themselves.  I don’t think of myself as talking to a “role” or a “character.”  I am talking to a person.   I don’t think that “whizbang avatarname” is a role who could be “played” by someone.  I think it is an expression of what the real person behind the avatar is thinking.

I might be able to guess what some person might say in a certain situation. This doesn’t make me that person.  When the person who uses an avatar dies, the avatar dies.  Sure, someone could use it, possibly even act a lot like the original avatar.  It wouldn’t make them the person behind the avatar nor would it make a discussion with them the same as a discussion would have been, had the original person still been alive.

In closing

To recapitulate the point I made in my previous post — there is nothing wrong with pseudonomous identities, but they do impose limitations.  To make a new point — there is nothing within our experience of virtual worlds which introduces a magical new actor.  There are people and avatars and interactions. Thinking the magical power of the experience creates a new moral actor or person seems perilously close to delusional. Virtual worlds are magical, not magic.

May 15, 2009

Honesty, Trust and Privacy

Posted in social at 2:29 pm by zhaewry

There has been a lot of recent discussion about honesty, privacy, and pseudonymous people in virtual worlds. This is very well captured in Botgirl’s blog and many other blogs and comments.  I have a few thoughts I would like to add to this discussion.

The strongest thought is, that there is no single answer to how to manage your identity in the digital world.  For some people complete transparency works. For other people, a total seperation between identities meets their needs. Most people probably end up somewhere in between.  What matters is candor, honesty and clarity.  This is separate from choosing how to manage ones identity. A totally pseudonymous person can be deeply honest, or totally deceitful. Someone who is transparently linked to their real life self can still lie.  We chose in real life how much to share, this is no different on line or in a virtual world.

What does honesty and clarity mean? It does not require transparency of identity.  It does, I think, require honestly letting people know what you are doing. There is a right for each person to chose what they want to expose. Nobody has a right to demand real life facts that you don’t care to disclose.  I have friends in Second Life and on line where I know *nothing* about their off line life.  I have friends where I know a great deal. Those choices to share are personal and often evolve over time.

What I think is foundational is that there are real people behind each avatar. The keys are pressed by flesh and blood humans. The thoughts, the ideas, the emotions belong to the humans not to the avatars, not to the digital persona but to the human being. The clarity desired is not clarity from the avatar, but from the human being.  Be clear. If you are role playing, tell people. If you chose to separate your real life from your virtual persona, make that clear.  If you have multiple personas in the virtual world, I prefer to know when I am interacting with a single person behind the avatar. It is not my right, you may chose otherwise, but I think it common courtesy. No semantic games here.  The onus lies on the human, not the avatar. There is nobody else there.

Equally foundational is respecting people’s choices.  Respect people’s choice to be private. Respect people’s choice to be more open. Respect people’s chosen persona. The ability to chose one’s appearance and persona is one of the powers of virtual worlds, and of the Internet. When people chose to share their chosen persona they are sharing part of themselves. When we disrespect that, we disrespect the person, not some avatar, not some digital person, but a real human being.  Equally, when someone uses their digital persona as an excuse for bad behavior, that is disrespectful of everyone who does not.  Honestly saying “I have changed my mind” or “I am no longer comfortable with how I am managing my identity” is far more respectful than various forms of deceitful behavior, justified by pseudonimity.

I personally feel that, as botgirl has expressed, pseudonymous behavior impose limits in inter personal relationships.  Everyone has the right to make that choice and they have the right for it to be respected.  Choices have consequences, and one of the very real choices of deep pseudonomy may be being taken less seriously by some people and finding some people emotionally guarded.