June 30, 2008

“First life” versus “fake life”— When realism is important in the Immersive Internet

At Dassault Systemes’ (DS) DevCon 2008 conference and industry analyst event in Paris on June 17th-18th one of the key themes was “life-like” or “first life” (which was a bit of a friendly dig against Linden Lab’s Second Life®) experiences in virtual environments – these are terms DS executives use to refer to hyper-realistic interactive experiences. DS is taking the concept of realism in virtual environments to a whole new level – to the point, in fact, where digital representations of real-world objects can actually work in virtual environments!

During one of the keynote sessions at DevCon, Dassault Systemes senior VP and general manager Lynne Wilson showed a demo of a digital camera being used in a virtual environment to snap pictures within that environment. Here’s a snapshot of the camera, with a few instructions embedded, and you can play with the interactive demo yourself by following this link to DS’s 3DVIA.com site. (You will have to download and install a media player plug-in to be able to experience it.)

It is not surprising that as DS develops new tools for creating virtual environments the company places a heavy emphasis on realism. After all, this is what DS as a computer-aided design (CAD) and product life-cycle management (PLM)vendor has been doing for many years – helping its customers create realistic digital models of products and parts. Realism is Dassault Systemes’ bailiwick. And it’s not surprising given the company’s background that DS executives today attach a greater value to virtual objects that could someday be manufactured in the physical world than to 3D objects that will never be more than digital or virtual. But as virtual environments become more common in the workplace, DS may find that its focus grows to include rich 3D digital models of products that are never intended to be manufactured into a physical product – their sole purpose is to function in virtual worlds, immersive learning simulations, etc.

Also, many virtual worlds today lack realism (not including mirror worlds like Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth). A typical experience in a virtual world today is much more like attending a haute couture runway show than hitting a suburban shopping mall. High fashion clothing is (in my view, anyway) pretty much non-functional, fits only a select (skinny) few, and is terribly impractical. It is measured on style, not utility. In contrast, clothes you can buy in most real-world shopping malls are not nearly as radical (luckily for my conservative dress style), generally hold together and stay put (luckily for anyone who may see me in public), and have a broader appeal to the average Joe. In virtual worlds you can find lots of stuff that looks incredibly cool but is no more functional than wallpaper.

All this talk about “first life” and life-like experiences in virtual environments really got me thinking. Life-like virtual environments have their place, to be sure, but are not inherently superior to less realistic virtual environments. My recommendations:

  • Focus on realism when . . .  You work for a product company or retailer and want to get customer input and feedback before you ever build the first physical prototype. Or you want to create and use or sell virtual items for use in virtual worlds, immersive workspaces, and serious games — items that increase users’ sense of immersion in the environment through a high degree of realism. Or you want to use highly realistic 3D digital models in interactive advertising – for example, to allow customers to race a model of your new hybrid vehicle against your competitor’s digital model of its hybrid in a virtual world or video game.
  • Realism is not so necessary when . . .Making a virtual environment or object realistic means you’re not taking advantage of the qualities of virtual worlds, where anything is possible. Why walk down virtual city streets or drive in a virtual car to go shopping in a virtual mall, when you can just teleport there? Why replicate in a virtual world product or environmental qualities that came to be not because of good design or ergonomics but because it was the cheapest way to go? You don’t want the Immersive Internet equivalent of using workflow technology to automate a poorly designed business process. Another reason to focus less on realism is when you are creating a virtual environment that is focused on the social aspects of virtual worlds – such as enabling people to find each other and engage with each other, or express themselves through the appearance of their avatars.

The bottom line: don’t stick to common perceptions of reality just because it’s what you know or it’s easier or you’re afraid of what people might think. The Immersive Internet lets us actually improve on reality in some ways. (Hey, who hasn’t dreamed of flying  . . . in a virtual world, you can!)

Sam Driver

Sam Driver was a co-founder and principal at ThinkBalm. He is an inventor and entrepreneur whose take on the Immersive Internet is heavily influenced by science, game theory, and science fiction. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Sam was part of a team that discovered RNA interference (RNAi) which was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. He founded Qik Technology to develop intellectual property (IP) holdings in functional genomics and co-founded a small Rhode Island-based residential real estate investment partnership. He also founded and operates Evil Minions Games, an IP and product development company, and established and runs a regional gaming organization. He's also an instrument-rated private pilot. Sam earned his BS at Ohio Wesleyan University and a masters in genetics from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.