Has the shine left Second Life?

The L.A. Times ran an interesting story this week, 'Virtual marketers have second thoughts about Second Life'. The article covers the issues Second Life is experiencing when it comes to maintaining the initial flurry of 'virtual' commercial participation within the online world. This news is troubling because it was this same commercial interest that led many to declare Second Life to be the 'next big thing' which would one day surpass the 2-dimensional World Wide Web. Unfortunately such claims seem to have been all but put to rest with the rise of competing virtual worlds and slowing economic and social growth in Second Life.

News that commercial marketing interest is waning comes as no surprise when one takes into account the actual number of Second Life users active at one time.

Even at peak times, only about 30,000 to 40,000 users are logged on, said Brian Haven, an analyst with Forrester Research.

This low active user count just does not provide the marketing economies of scale available when compared to the traditional Web. Once this low population is distributed across a relatively large virtual environment and the cost of participation is factored in (land and development time) involvement by a commercial entity becomes difficult to economically justify. As Duncan Rilely of TechCrunch describes:

If we apportion the upfront costs of design (say $5,000 although it’s probably higher) and setup ($1675) over 12 months the CPM rates become $21.20 (top) and approx $180 (bottom of the top 5). The CTR rate is irrelevant: the CPM cost for businesses on Second Life is insane: simply even for the very best, the figures don’t add up.

Note: CPM is marketing speak for Cost per thousand impressions whilst CTR is an acronym for Click-through Rate.

Second Life, AEC collaboration and Ryan Schultz

Last week I had a pretty interesting email conversation with Ryan Schultz about Second Life (not to be confused with First Life) and its potential for architectural collaboration. In a nutshell I am not a fan of Second Life. Certainlly one day 3D will play a much stronger role in our experience of the Web but I don't believe Second Life is 'it'. If you are interested in reading our conversation then Ryan has done a pretty good job of presenting it on his Studio Wikitecture site. I come off sounding reasonably intelligent which I guess means those long hours of watching Discovery Channel are beginning to pay off.

I can’t help but feel the online 3D market is at the same place as the 2D online world was between 1990 and 1995. Back then we had walled gardens like Compuserve, AOL and even Microsoft Network (which originally shipped with Windows 95). Whilst these communities had a lot of money behind them the rapid adoption of open HTML and HTTP concepts quickly usurped them.

When it comes to 3D architectural collaboration I really do not see much of a role for entirely immersive worlds like Second Life in a business context. Immersive worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft have a tonne of conceptual baggage that is part and parcel with the whole experience. Your average business person, be it client or architect, just wants to focus on the job and hand which is interogating and understanding the building design in a clear and comprehensive manner. 3D is just one avenue for this exploration, conventional 2D architecture drawings and conversation is no less important. Because of these demands architectural collaboration will continue to trend towards standalone and portable 2D/3D media such as DWF and PDF rather than moving into online worlds. These are relatively lightweight and immediately accessible mediums compared to Second Life, where just finding the architecture could prove problematic for unaccustomed users.

Another undiscussed factor which is just impossible to shake off is the stigma associated with any entertainment-centric technology when applied to a business problem. For ten years I have been watching demonstrations of how architecture can be 'experienced' within a 3D game engine yet nothing has really come out of it apart from a lot of promising demos and the odd chuckle when a reviewer gets bored and decides to virtually shoot the other attendees. Whilst it may seem a little silly I think deep down many people just cannot take these derived tools seriously (although they would never admit it). This may change over time, especially as the generations who have grown up with Doom and Quake begin to ascend corporate ladders. However until such a time I think any architectural visualisation experience centered around entertainment or gaming technology is going to struggle for credibility in what is in general a fairly conservative AEC market.