Last night, the Google blog announced the end of Google Lively. This may rank as the shortest lived 3D virtual world ever, less than 6 months.
The first sign of trouble was the sudden jump in popularity, followed by the fairly consistent drop in popularity within a couple of weeks after release. It never picked back up, and apparently there is a ton or never released content waiting in the wings. The second sign was Google shutting down its offices on the ASU campus that served as the primary development location of Lively.
So what happened? How did the internet’s biggest developer release a cool product like this and fail? And what does this say about the future of similar projects like 3dxplorer.com, vivaty.com, exitreality.com, justleapin.com, scenecaster.com, and any other 3D worlds designed to work in 2D browsers?
(And may I also note, this is not the only high profile closure I am aware of. Cyworld is closing its US operations to focus on its Asian business. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, but heard diddly squat about it since then.)
I posted earlier that I thought Google Lively had the potential to be the progenitor of a 3D internet. Guess I was wrong. In fact, this may require a rethink of the whole concept.
Here is my rethink: The idea of a 3D internet built to work in a 2D browser shall never succeed beyond the “novelty” phase. There will be the “ooh thats cool” exceptions that some advertising team does for some product, but the die has been cast. The concept is a failure. Lets move on.
Furthermore, and let me change to bold type, The failure of Google Lively puts the last nail in the coffin to the idea that any 3D virtual world can succeed under the same business model as 2D virtual worlds.
2D virtual worlds that run on 2D browsers are doing very well, but the additional overhead and useability of 3D kills much of what makes 2D virtual worlds successful. In 2D worlds you can buy a room and decorate it with purchaseable pre-designed items. The fact that is only 2D means that it is so simple a young kid can figure it out, and young kids love these 2D worlds.
The added dimension to 3D makes things harder. To build stuff in 3D requires understanding perspectives, camera controls vs avatar controls, size, yaw/pitch/roll, 3D texture mapping, etc. The people that cope best are experienced 3D gamers which instantly limits your audience. Then any useful 3D virtual world is going to require a seperate client download, which limits the audience further.
The successful 3D VWs (Second Life, There, and IMVU) allow users to create their own content and sell the content to others, something even 2D virtual worlds don’t do. This is the fundamental difference between 2D and 3D.
Google lively attempted to bridge the gap. They succeeded in creating a 3D web embeddable viewer, They made building and arranging your “room” amazingly simple and offered a large inventory of free stuff to put in the rooms. That, and the fact they are Google, offered the best hope of bridging the 2D and 3D gap. But, ultimately the useability wasn’t satisfying to the 2D crowd, and the lack of custom content wasn’t satisfying to the 3D crowd.
Hence the end of the experiment. The 2D and 3D virtual worlds are likely to evolve even further apart now that they have proven incompatible.
I have been keeping track and trying many of the 3D Virtual Worlds and even related 3D websites out there, and I have been noticing a trend: Most of the newest 3D web programs have focused primarily on creating what amounts to 3D web pages.
The list keeps growing: scenecaster.com, 3dxplorer.com, vivaty.com, lively.com, exitreality.com, and the latest is justleapin.com. They all take differing approaches, but their goal is the same, they want to be the “standard” 3D web page program.
What each is about is letting people build a customized 3D web page like a “room” that can be explored via a browser (and ultimately a browser plug-in since nothing is standard yet), and allowing others to visit as well. If two people are in the same 3D room at the same time, they will see each other and can chat with each other. Like 2D web pages there should be conventions for connecting and linking rooms together, embedding media, allowing comment posting, etc.
3D web pages have been a goal for a while now. VRML has been around for years, and was supposed to be the 3D equivalent to HTML. You could even create VRML using a simple text editor, if you knew what you were doing. Most tools to create VRML were hard to use, and VRML took forever to load, especially in the age of dialup that everyone had in the 90′s. The technology was never there to display properly either. VRML is still around: As mentioned in my review, Exit Reality is based on it.
After VRML failed to catch on widely, the trend moved towards “persistent” worlds, like Active Worlds, Second Life and There. These are separate programs designed to access a “grid” where players rent space to build what they want. You can travel between spaces if you want or teleport from place to place.
Maintaning the “persistence” turns out to be very complicated, and as players of these programs know, buggy as hell.
So the later 3D virtual worlds simplified things as much as possible. IMVU came out only to do 3D chatting, the most popular activity in these earlier worlds. But building and decorating was number two, and most of the latest 3D virtual world programs, like Kaneva and Twinity, provide a “house” you can decorate as you please. They just drop the complication of house to house travel, every player has their own space to use as they see fit.
The websites in the second paragraph attempt to offer something even less complicated. They allow you to build 3D “rooms”, often as many as you want, that can be viewed in a browser, embedded in a web page. They replace the separate executable download with a browser plug-in that is generally easier to get the viewing audience to accept.
For all intents and purposes, we have come full circle; these sites deliver the 3D web page experience that VRML promised only with better graphics, with rooms that are easy to build, easy to load, as customizable as possible, and accessible by all.
If the idea of a 3D web is to catch on, everything must be customizable, it must work like HTML, and must be as simple as HTML. You must be able to start with a blank slate, or a pre-built template, navigation must be intuitive, and interactive. Quality should vary from simplistic to photo realistic depending on the computer capabilities of the viewer. Special effects (weather, particle, lighting, animation, water, physics, reflection and refraction) should be optional to both the builder and the user.
Eventually, one of those websites listed above may become the new defacto standard for “3D web pages” which will eventually lead to a 3D internet. Lets face it, if any of them do, it will be decided by advertiser dollars more than users. That means it will be Google Lively.
Except that Google Lively fails in most of the criteria listed, especially in the customizable part.
The program that inspired me to write this post in the first place was justleapin.com, now in open beta. It is lacking somewhat in features at the moment, but shows great promise in doing exactly what a 3D website program should do. Currently instead of avatars, you can add, animated people. Room navigation is simple mouse view. I dont know if avatar support is forthcoming, but I like the idea of adding animated people the way you add an animated gif to a 2D web page. You can customize any texture in the room, or embed videos, music, sounds, etc. There is a small library of 3D objects you can add, which could grow in the future. It also displays the room in decent graphics quality without being a resource hog.
I think that the decoratable “room” or “house” may be a popular model right now, but I know from my SL explorations, that thinking in just room terms is too limiting. Ultimately creating a 3D “space” should not have form limitations.
I do not know when or even if 3D web pages/sites will catch on. I do believe that expressing ideas should not have to be limited to 2D text or pictures or video, and that sometimes 3D may be a more effective and desirable way to express them sometimes.
On Monday, Google released their much anticipated virtual world Lively. With a big company like Google behind it, thousands of people jumped in, which caused quite a few problems.
I downloaded it first day and could not get into any room, just a persistent “Joining Room…” message at the bottom. I redownloaded and reinstalled and was finally able to get in. This is an early beta program, so I wont rag on the many bugs, since they are likely to get fixed eventually. Let me just say that this program is not the “Second Life Killer” some bloggers have called it.
If you try the game yourself, I highly recommend going to the All rooms page, and select a vacant room. This will give you the ability to edit your avatar as you see fit.
Right now there is shopping in place but all items are free for now for testing purposes. Not sure if they will put an economy in place eventually.
The head designer of Lively is Mel Guymon, Google’s Head of 3D Operations — former There.com developer and IMVU Co-Founder. Playing in this virtual world has qualities of both There and IMVU, especially the cartoonish looking avatars.
One thing that Lively has that neither of its predecessors had is animations you can perform on others. Click on another avatar and you can hug, kiss, hi5, and a dozen other things. I have not seen this in a virtual world since The Sims Online. The only annoying thing is you can do this without the others avatars permission. So while wandering the halls of Lively High School, I got some random kisses.
Voice is also available through GTalk if you have that program.
If you are not into randomly cavorting with others, you can very easily create your own room, pick a setting, and add some furniture. There is a lot to play with here. and according to an interview, only 20% of what they will eventually have is in the game.
The downside is that there is no user created content. According to the Lively website:
Most of the avatars, clothing, and objects were created by vendors working for Google. We’re also working with a small number of trusted testers, vendors and creative agencies as part of a test for creating custom items.
We hope to enable user-generated content and even more ustomization soon, but until then we’ve given you tons of choices from the catalog to help personalize your Lively experience.
That in itself is a major negative, and why the program does not have a chance of becoming the “virtual world standard” despite the Google name. Without user created content, the program is destined to be stuck in the “novelty” category, although the Google name will assure it will be a popular novelty.
Another negative is the inability to customize avatars beyond the clothes and hair. I’m using the “Heather” avatar, and while I am able to pick my own hair style and hair color and eye color, my face looks like the thousands of other “Heathers” in the world.
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