Is there really enough interest to drive Avatarland?
When the likes of IBM, Playboy and Hearst show a serious interest in a new digital media platform, does it mean it has arrived? Ordinarily, the answer would be ‘yes’ but in the case of virtual social worlds I have to argue that the jury remains out. IBM announced today it was partnering with Second Life maker LindenLabs to work on "universal avatars," which would let users move their 3D personae to the several existing virtual worlds online. IBM is no newcomer to this technology. It has had an enterprise-facing "island" in SLfor a while, where it conducts international business meetings with avatars from around the world. The company is investing million in the technology as a next step in business communication.
IBM is smart enough to know that the model only takes off when people can maintain a peristent online avatar (as they do an email address) that is not tied to any world. Then avatars become an interface, not just a game playing environment.
Media companies have been jumping into virtual worlds, like CosmoGirl announcing that it would become present in There.com. Playboy has an SL island and a club where it sells both virtual and real world merchandise. MTV, of course, has had both Laguna Beach and The Hills turned into 3D playgrounds in which anyone can take part.
But is virtual worlding an emerging platform and interface with the Web or a niche curio? SL was the hot property only five or six months ago, but I hear more doubt and boredom with the idea than anything else from media analysts and advertisers. Clearly the buzz around virtual worlds has subsided, and you have to wonder whether IBM, cosmoGirl and Playboy are cutting edge or late to the party.
It remains an open question whether any but the geekiest among us has the patience and dedication to build and maintain an avatar day to day. When I last covered this market six months ago, I heard many media soothsayers predict that 3D avatars would be as common as a mouse cursor, just a common way to interact with the digital world of content and e-commerce. I don’t hear as much talk about that anymore, and I have to wonder if the platform just hasn’t gotten the momentum it once seemed to have.