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A real yardstick for virtual worlds?

It's no easy feat tracking the social and economic data on all those furries, spacemen and Goths. Two men believe they may have an answer.

Let's say you're thinking about doing business in a virtual world. Before you dive in, you want numbers: how many users, how much money, just how much is this thing worth?

There's currently nowhere to turn to get such reliable data--and Robert Bloomfield, an accounting professor at Cornell University, views that as a problem worth solving.

Bloomfield and Nick Wilson, editor of the blog Metaversed.com, have gotten together to start the Metaverse Market Index (MMI), the first system of its kind that would offer such data.

"The goal of the Metaverse Market Index is to create the data and the community to help the metaverse as a whole move forward," Bloomfield said. "Because without the data, no one knows anything, and without the community and the conversation, it's impossible to come to meaningful consensus."

Over the last year, makers of virtual worlds such as Second Life have been criticized for overly optimistic user statistics. And for major companies spending significant dollars on in-world offices, knowing whether that money is well spent is important. Already, there's been a backlash, as some companies have announced that they're scaling down or shuttering their Second Life projects.

"All these little worlds are growing up like the CompuServes and Prodigies, and the way you have a breakout industry is if you can break down the barriers."
--Robert Bloomfield, accounting professor, Cornell University

For companies considering placing ads in virtual worlds, metrics aren't just useful, they're a prerequisite.

To the uninitiated, the "metaverse" is a catch-all term for 3D social virtual worlds such as Second Life or There, massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and any one of hundreds of other similar online environments. And the idea that big businesses might desire hard data on what's going on in these spaces is not as absurd as some might think: companies like IBM, Cisco, Intel and many others have staked out significant territory in these worlds and show signs of wanting to do even more.

One sign of that desire is the interest by some of the biggest corporate names in technology in making the many different virtual worlds interoperable, as opposed to the walled gardens they are today.

For now, the MMI is little more than a concept, and Bloomfield and Wilson don't even have much of a team helping them out. In fact, Bloomfield said his first priority is putting together an advisory board that can help move the project forward with time, money and influence.

A goal of the MMI is to make it possible for those who want to understand the metaverse--and how to use it as a tool--to do so. Absent that understanding, and the kind of interoperability that Cisco, IBM and others are searching for, virtual worlds risk ending up as irrelevant mid-'90s-style networks, Bloomfield said.

"All these little worlds are growing up like the CompuServes and Prodigies," Bloomfield said, "and the way you have a breakout industry is if you can break down the barriers."

With that in mind, Bloomfield and Wilson expect to focus the MMI--once the advisory board and funding are in place--on three distinct areas.

First, he said, is user data. Essentially, that means studying the various virtual worlds and online games and determining individual and aggregate numbers for factors like total population and how much time people spend in-world.

Next, the MMI would look at economic data, Bloomfield said.

"You can't just look at clicks," he said. "I want to know the GNP of every world out there. We're not going to do that because it takes an army of civil servants. But there are some metrics we can use that would tell the investment community about the economic vibrancy and trends of the worlds. So even if we track (an economic) number, we can track it for a year and see how quickly it's growing."

Finally, the MMI is expected to concentrate on technical data, including the potential for interoperability between worlds.

Bloomfield seeks a balance between what might be considered a traditional, heavy-handed corporate approach, which would be to impose standards, and an academic tack in which everyone involved talks over the issue, possibly ad infinitum.

"My plan is that you get the data out there on what technologies are being used," he said, "how successfully they are, and how quickly they're growing. It's a very light-handed, market-based way of getting to the standards. If you give people the data, they'll sort it out."

To some, measuring what goes on in virtual worlds is complex enough to require analytic software.

"There is so much activity that goes on inside a virtual world to consider," Jared Freeman, a creator of Code4 Software's V-Tracker package, wrote in the comments section of a TechCrunch article about the MMI. And "then there are the after-effects of virtual worlds that end up as YouTube videos, media write-ups or blog posts."

As a result, Freeman explained, he built a system for "visitor tracking" into V-Tracker with the idea that it might be possible to measure where people go. But he acknowledged in his posting that the issues involved in tracking users' behavior is complex and includes many minute considerations.

For his part, TechCrunch writer Duncan Riley suggested that the goals of the MMI bear similarities to attempts to track the business end of the film industry.

"It's an interesting setup, and an inclusive way of building a solid foundation of usable data for businesses currently dealing with/in virtual worlds, (or) those looking to do so," Riley wrote. "The setup is not unlike the Motion Picture Association of America, in that the enabling body is virtual-world and corporate-agnostic, and in theory will undertake its activities for the good of all involved. I'll be watching with interest the data they start publishing next year."

Indeed, Bloomfield and Wilson are hoping that the MMI will begin putting out measurements next year.

The question is how effective such metrics can be. It's no simple matter to keep track of the personal, social, economic and technical behavior of millions of users role-playing furries, dragons, elves, spacemen and Goths.

But there seems to be momentum toward standardizing virtual worlds, especially considering the interoperability initiative, and the involvement of Christian Renaud, Cisco chief architect of networked virtual environments, in both that effort and the MMI.

Of course, those interested in standardization will have to make such efforts attractive to users. Because without their buy-in, any metrics gathered will be meaningless.