What happens to synthetic worlds, or virtual worlds, or massively multiplayer online environments, or multiuser virtual environments, after Second Life? That field has changed steadily, from the days of MUDs and MOOs through the ActiveWorlds years. Now projects and businesses are emerging almost as rapidly as Second Life issues client updates. As interest mounts and buzz grows, where does this field go next?
We can think of the next virtual world design as Third Life.*
Third Life could be a new project or platform, such as what Multiverse, Ogoglio. Outback Online, or Croquet grow into. Third Life might in fact be in pre-alpha existence now, under construction in a San Francisco or Moscow garage, or under wraps in some corporation (Adobe, who tried once before; Google; Microsoft Research; Electronic Arts). Or it's in the process of being bought by said corporation (Yahoo).
On the other hand, Third Life could be the next stage of Second Life's development, if SL succeeds, i.e., gets adopted broadly. Imagine that the active user population grows dramatically, if the tremendous marketing buzz and extensive creativity goes viral, and SL gets past the numbers problems, and that the platform survives long enough so that more users have better hardware and connectivity. SL could survive for years in that case, becoming a truly popular service, like the world of platforms supporting the blogosphere, ultimately becoming Third Life. Or SL could fail, like Atmosphere (Adobe's, mentioned above, d. 2004). Or SL might simply be one of a series of platforms constituting Third Life, perhaps outnumbered in content and users as TL project proliferate.
Third Life might be not one application but a group of multiple programs and services, existing in the intersection of different projects. Third Life could take the form of a collaborative, perhaps held together by a W3C-like umbrella organization, connected by interoperability and standards. In this form of Third Life we can move our created avatars and objects from one service provider to the next. Whatever the inter-application mechanism is, it gets used widely enough to avoid the fate of VRML, and is more widely adopted than FOAF. Second Life could be part of this Third Life constellation, once it evolves. Or Second Life might continue more or less as it is, and coexist alongside Third Life, like a garden separated from other gardens and the commons by a low, sometimes thick wall.
Third Life is not a walled garden, but a series of linked spaces and tools. It's open to services, easy to get objects into and out of. Third Life, or part of the TL group, could sell us the tools to make things, but we can then take those things we've made to other worlds. People, groups, and firms compete to offer the most exciting worlds, the most supportive ones, worlds providing certain market niches of interest. These worlds and tools can be radically different, too - think, for example, of Eric Rice's argument that some people will demand top-down, non-We-Media-created content sometimes. Competition to offer the best tools, the best places to hold content, the best venues for community should take off - that's essential, if we're going to talk about virtual environments as "Web 3.0" with any seriousness.
Third Life stretches across the virtual world-MMOG continuum, because it is open to crossings between worlds. You might take your avatar from a superhero game into a Second Life-like social environment, then cross over into a fantasy game. Perhaps some translation of appearance is available (t-shirt becomes mail shirt, coffee mug becomes hollowed-out skull for holding wine), but consistency could be valuable, fun, and useful for persistence i.d. You can migrate from a science fiction MMOG into a non-game social space, where your avatar's features, customized for one world, become personality traits in the next. There should be a great deal of productive friction between worlds.
Third Life will be playful, yet playful in many ways. This means welcoming diverse audiences in different ways (and doing a better job of avoiding heinous greetings, which drive people away). There should be different entrance points for new people with varying backgrounds and interests: the educators' gate, the gamer portal, the adult club entrance. Some Third Life zones will meet non-cutting-edge users where they are, letting them use some comfortable tools while they learn and grow (cf. Peter Ludlow's observation about pdfs not hyperlinking in SL). And, as noted above, some play depends on content created by others, even professionals; other forms of play are DIY. Third Life has both.
Third Life uses Web 2.0 features. For instance, we should be able to add, see, and aggregate folksonomic tags for buildings, objects, and avatars in TL. We'll display tag clouds in gamespace. We should have the ability to put wikis on walls, and check RSS feeds from the objects we've built (and own). We can plan a spime in one world, build or model it in a second, then track it across other worlds. For that matter, we should be able to engage or play TL from within a browser (another way virtual worlds as "Web 3.0" can make sense).
Web 2.0 business models should apply to some of Third Life, and we can say that without laughing out loud. One model is to get bought, of course, but Third Life designers would aim for virtual world giants, like NASA, or new companies, old companies returning to virtual worlds (Adobe), or buying cooperatives (higher education). Another model is advertising, which we've already seen, and will see more of. Still another Web 2.0 TL model is the enter for free, full features for pay one, which could easily be tried here: low-feature 3d authoring tools leading to powerful pro tools, basic free worlds as gateways to richer subscription ones.
Third Life connects with the great 2d and 3d mapping projects of our time. Our avatars start from their made-up home meditation castle, then teleport to Manhattan, before zooming up to start the aerial flight into Queens. We import chunks of Paris or Hue into our created islands. TL might be built on top of Google Earth (which means connections to other parts of the Google empire), so that I can join a crowd of avatars checking out a Tudor mansion temporarily built in/on today's London.
We can play Third Life on mobile devices, online and offline. I should be able to edit some of my Third Life avatar on my American cell phone, not connected to the world, but using downloaded content, which I'll synch up to the big worlds later. I should read a bunch of notecards on my PDA, and scroll through images on my PSP, while listening to an island's environmental soundtrack on my MP3 player. There's an online version of Third Life for mobile devices, too. Perhaps it's stripped down for capacity reasons, with limited graphics and sound, cartoonish, even.
Offline Third Life is important. A significant chunk of even the digeratis' lives is spent offline (think air travel, non-wifi-cloud-covered outdoors, no coverage zones for US phones). This is more true across the digital divide (think class, or urban versus rural, or education levels, not to mention global north and south). Currently I can experience much of the Web (1.0 and 2.0) offline, once I download content (pages, podcasts, videos) to my laptop, or ported to other devices. I can perform some interactivity offline, too, such as writing up blog posts and comments in text readers, to post when I get back online. How does Third Life do this? TL states could be viewable, so that I can move through a frozen island, exploring the space as last glimpsed in connectivity. There might be an offline TL viewer, like ARTstor's offline image viewer. Again, as with mobile devices, and given greater porosity between world and world, I can play more content offline: reading texts, listening to sound, watching video.
We can do some of these Third Life functions now, kludging together different tools and services, shoving stuff in and out of Second Life, making up social practices. People blog using Photoshopped screen grabs, SLURLs, and prose. At the very least making these functions easier to do should be a market opportunity, and point the way towards Third Life.
*Sure, the title is silly, cheesy, utopian. Whatever. But it's useful for provoking thought experiments. I mentioned it here a few weeks ago. "Third Life" as a term is pretty rarely used, apart from one NWN blog entry from a few days ago.
This post is a sort of manifesto, not an essay. That means this is provocative, I hope, telegraphic and sketchy, probing rather than descriptive. Think "manifesto" as in a ship's manifest, listing what the contents of a journey are, rather than being the contents themselves. Or in the sense of pointing towards future work.