Is Second Life Able to Cross the Chasm?

Second Life is an idea I want to like. It’s not a game, and it’s not just for playing around either (despite the slightly frivolous avatars and other trivialities imported from actual games). Some of my colleagues from IBM in various R&D; labs around the world - such as the Emerging Technologies Lab here in Hursley - have been doing an admirable job of promoting Second Life as a genuine business tool (articles on Slashdot, the BBC), and I think it’s great that IBM is looking at using something so bright and fresh.

Nevertheless, Second Life is in a dangerous period. The early adopters are familiar with it now, and there some important challenges to be overcome if it is to break into the mainstream:

Many folks propose that Second Life is merely a ‘taster’ - the Yahoo of virtual worlds - and that the Google is still to arrive. Others foresee a gloomier future. I hope that isn’t the case - I want to like virtual universes, I really do. But like most people, I want to use it for something constructive - a half-way house between a communication tool and a game is no fun. Please, Second Lifers, invent a value proposition.

Update 2006-12-13: Clay Shirky’s analysis of Second Life is spot on.


dps, no I can't :) I'm not 100% convinced myself either. As I say, I think the best use for it I've seen so far is in arranging virtual meetings / conferences / etc. I suspect it succeeds so well here because other technological solutions so far available for virtual meetings fall below adequate. I still think something cool could come of it, but I'm just not imaginative enough to see it myself yet. Richard, agreed. Working in that mode (non-interruptible) is normally the most pleasant too. I can't see SL gaining the productivity of existing tools any time soon. Unless it enables new types of application? But again, my unimaginative mind struggles to think what... :) Nevertheless, folks, give it a try! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Good points, Andrew. When I think more about how I work, I realise I use a cooperative multi-tasking approach (rather than pre-emptive.) That is: I'll work on something until I can proceed no further (or get bored) and then start working on something else. And keep on going until it's time for a coffee, beer, chat with a colleague or home time. I guess phone calls would break that model but my phone is usually on "forward to voicemail" :-) It's not clear how a solution that requires me to associate activities with places and compels me to be in only one place at a time would help my productivity. But, like dps, I realise I'm speaking without experience.
So... I've studiously avoided responding to anything related to SL so far since I haven't tried it (*is* there a Mac client?) and quite frankly don't begin to understand what the point is - surely the whole point of this new technology is to find faster/cleaner/more accessible interfaces rather than map those same interfaces back to the clunky old real world? Can you say anything to convince this non-believer?
Richard, it's interesting that you mention the tabbed browsing - that gives me some more thoughts about the interface. Purists might say that you couldn't really have tabbed browsing for such a client - after all, the aim is to moderately accurate model a person in a world, and people can't be in two places at the same time. Of course, people can't fly either, but... It is worth bearing in mind that a 3D interface isn't suited for everything - or even a lot of things. There probably isn't a Second Life method to read my email that's quicker than my email client. Or a way to pay my bills - I don't want to travel to a virtual bank and stand in a virtual queue. The coolest thing I've seen in Second Life so far is a table that always has a spare chair: when people sit on or leave chairs round this table, they spontaneously appear or disappear as appropriate. This breaks any pretence of modelling the real world, but is genuinely useful and is something the real world can't do. In other words, when folks are designing for Second Life, they should try to avoid getting constrained by real 3D. This is a new interface; not just a copy of what we already have in First Life. Failure to do that will mean failure to make anything much more useful than what we can already do.
Excellent post, Andrew. I *still* haven't played with Second Life so I know I'm not qualified to comment. But when has that ever stopped me? One potentially compelling use for SL that was suggested to me was to make online shopping better. The example given was grocery shopping. I tend to use Tesco online but find the interface limiting and I find it encourages me to shop in a way I don't like. When going to a store, walking around means I get to spot any new stuff they're selling, spot the "offers" and see cues that remind me to buy stuff I'd forgotten. You just don't get that in a catalogue-based web site. So, perhaps a virtual Tesco store would be valuable. But... here's the rub..... if the execution is anything less than perfect then there's no point trying: I get furious when Tesco don't have a photo of the product they're selling, I dislike the way that errors and typos in their catalogue haven't been caught. If they still haven't got basic things like this sorted for browser-based commerce in 2006, what hope is there for anything else? But I do have some optimism - it would be nice if there were some compelling value propositions for this technology. (Of course, until they invent tabbed "browsing" for SL, there's probably not much point. One of the main productivity drivers of current browser-based technology is that you can do more than one thing at once :-) )