Online spaces: The new frontier

Big names from virtual worlds meet up to envision future of online environments from "WoW" to MySpace.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--As users of Web 2.0 communications and game tools go, Joi Ito is the power user's power user.

Take the incredibly complex environment that's on-screen on his MacBook Pro. Ito--a tech investor who has put money into well-known outfits such as Technorati--constantly has his instant-message software open, with hundreds of friends available to chat, along with nearly 100 people live on IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. And he and his friends spend a good deal of time in the virtual world "Second Life."

But where Ito's heart truly lies, it seemed obvious from his keynote address at SDForum's "Virtual Worlds--The Rules of Engagement" conference here Thursday, is with his "World of Warcraft" guild, a group that includes several tech industry executives and venture capitalists and that numbers more than 250 people, dozens of whom are always available to play and communicate with.

"I think MySpace is definitely a virtual world. Things like MySpace, which are big flourishing communities--what they lose in 3D experience, they make up in high degree of interoperability."
--Reuben Steiger, CEO,
Millions of Us

Because "WoW" doesn't have its own built-in voice software, Ito's guild uses a third-party application called TeamSpeak, which allows members to talk to each other live, regardless of whether they're playing the game.

"The thing about TeamSpeak is it's always on," Ito told the audience at the Computer History Museum. "I have it on in the background at home when I'm cooking. I can hear people talking in the background. It's like being in a big room in an office together where you stand up and ask someone a question."

Ito's point, made during a talk titled "The Future of the Metaverse," was that the future of connected communications goes far beyond any one or two applications. Instead, Ito suggested, people may well find themselves moving back and forth between many different applications, often with the same people, having ongoing conversations as they move.

To the uninitiated, online games and virtual worlds may seem to be child's play, or at least little more than entertainment. The attendees here would beg to differ.

That's because "WoW" has grown to 6 million subscribers worldwide and "Second Life" to nearly 200,000 users trading more than $5 million a month in virtual goods. Fortune 500 companies, meanwhile, are lining up to create branded environments in the spaces.

Then there's the social-networking service, MySpace, and its 70 million users. It's clear that the virtual world community covets such a committed user base.

Many of the 95 attendees at Thursday's conference are highly influential in the virtual-worlds community. They included Philip Rosedale, CEO of "Second Life" publisher Linden Lab; Daniel James, CEO of "Puzzle Pirates" publisher Three Rings; the CEO of 3D instant-message application publisher IMVU; former Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster; and There.com founder Will Harvey.

And befitting a conference about virtual worlds, at least 80 more people joined the event--which included panels titled "The Virtual World Value Chain," "Navigating the Road Ahead" and "In-World Culture" (disclosure: this reporter moderated this panel)--from inside "Second Life," where it was being simulcast.

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