7 Criteria Defining Virtual Worlds

My first exposure to a virtual world was through reading about Second Life from the official guide that I found in the Harvard Coop bookstore.  The guide was packed with technical detail, but had a glossy cover and an “easy-breezy” feel like a magazine so I flipped through.  Having arrived at a plateau in my life, I was looking for a new challenge, something creative, where I’d make some new friends.  I bought the book.

There are many different kinds of virtual worlds and I’ve experienced more than a few. Having gotten to know a fair number of participants, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that people relate to their avatars and experience virtual environments in very different ways. This subjectivity doesn’t facilitate description or classification let alone definition.  None-the-less, the general consensus among professionals is that in order to qualify as a virtual world, a social network must be:

  1. Immersive
  2. Three Dimensional
  3. Avatar Interfaced
  4. Internet-based
  5. Persistent
  6. Interactive
  7. Synchronous

Following is a more detailed consideration of each:

Immersive 

For me immersion is experienced in two different ways.  The first involves a connection with my senses and the second involves psychology.  With the understanding that we perceive reality through our senses one would naturally conclude that we would perceive virtual reality the same way.  This could entail hard wiring your senses into electrical signal generators ala “The Matrix”, however an external retrofit like gloves, goggles etc is far less invasive, more practical and less expensive.

With virtual worlds, the connection is made with your computer via the Internet and most commonly only two senses are engaged: sight and sound.  Your sense of sight is engaged through the graphical user interface provided by your computer display.  The audio output from your speakers enables you to hear sound effects with remarkable clarity.  There have been times when I couldn’t readily differentiate between birdsong a in simulated garden and melodies outside my real world window without lowering the volume.

The effect immersion has on my senses is one thing but the effect that it has on my mind is something entirely different.  Although losing awareness of physical surroundings when immersed is more subtle, loosing track of time is not.  I think we’re all familiar with that strange sensation of looking at the clock and wondering where the time went.  For me, immersion is when I’m completely engaged and usually when I’m at my best.  I might be doing something that utilizes favorite skills and operating at peak performance or seemingly doing nothing at all but somehow feeling centered and at peace.  Whichever the case may be, I’m in my element.  I’m immersed in an powerful experience, it feels good, and nothing else seems to matter.

Immersion enables a plethora of experiences in a virtual world.  The deeper the immersion, the more powerful the experience.  Standing on the ocean floor while whales are breaching overhead is not something you readily forget.  If you find automotive racing more interesting than whales, you can drift at the track against others or the clock.  For some the virtual lifestyle involves getting married and having kids while for others it means leading a playboy lifestyle and enjoying the nightclub scene.  For a more varied experience you can express yourself as a dragon, a Clydesdale or a transformer robot. There really aren’t a lot of limitations and if you find something’s missing, you can create it.  Furthermore, if you’ve created something that meets the needs of others, then you can sell it at a profit or give it away as a gift.

Sometimes I enjoy activities that are very social like pool parties.  At other times I’d rather go to a hockey game.  There is an official league and you can either play or be a spectator watching from the stands.  If you prefer, you can watch it on TV via the web or an in-world display.  There are times that I’d rather be alone and go surfing- the waves have an equivalent height of 80 ft.  I’ve been to numerous professional conferences in-world and I’ve also enjoyed watching political debates in a university amphitheatre.  Base jumping can be fun, with or without a parachute- avatars are more resilient than there human counterparts- they collect themselves with charming alacrity even after falling thousands of feet.  Some activities are very real and others are more fantasy based- your choice.

Three Dimensional 

When inside a virtual world I feel like I’m really there.  It’s that simple.  The world is all around me and I’m viewing it through the 13” laptop computer display.  That being said it’s important to point out that the technology is still evolving and you have to be prepared to suspend your disbelief to some extent.  Virtual worlds don’t entirely replace reality so much as flirt with it.  They present an alternative reality that raises doubts about your perceptions.  Even if it were practical to create a more realistic synthetic experience there are physiological limits and if virtual reality were too real your body wouldn’t tolerate it. As exciting as it is to consider extreme levels of realism, it’s critical that your mind and body maintain some level of awareness of the real world otherwise the experience becomes unmanageable.  None-the-less, the level of detail in-world is astounding and it thrills me to share my experiences with friends in the real world as well as the virtual.

Avatar Interfaced

Outside of virtual worlds, the formal definition of an avatar is something like, “an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea”.  But inside a virtual world, an avatar can be thought of as you or a representative of your self in a three dimensional form.  An avatar can have a variety of different shapes but more peculiarly it can also wear a multiplicity of different skins.  Accidently stumbling into a skin store early in my avatar life was a little unnerving but since then I’ve learned to adjust to this sort of anomaly as well as many others.  Your form, shape and skin can be created to accurately resemble your real life self but many people use the default form or some variant.  Your avatar can walk, run, talk, etc and perform most of the same functions you’re accustomed to in real life with the added bonus of flight capability.

All of your movements are effected using a standard keyboard and mouse.  Walking for example is achieved by using the keyboard arrow keys while flying first involves a press of the, “page up” button.  By default your point of view is via camera that’s located above and behind your avatar.  You also have the option to see the world as if you were looking through your avatar’s eyes but it’s nice to be able to be yourself and see yourself from a distance at the same time.  Communication in the immediate surroundings is achieved by typing or you can converse via private message if you’d like to speak with just one other person located anywhere.  60% of Second Life inhabitants use voice audio communication as an alternative to typing.  The many-to-many form of real-time simultaneous interactions makes this form of communication comparable to a cocktail party or conference.

Internet-based

Just as a website is hosted on a remote server and accessed on your computer with a browser, a virtual world is also hosted on a server and accessed with a browser more commonly called a viewer.  Participation in virtual worlds is getting easier and easier but the opportunity still exists to leverage some unbelievably sophisticated technological features.  If you need help, you don’t need to go too far.  I’ve found that most residents are happy to share their knowledge or can refer me to any one of numerous sources of assistance be it technical or otherwise.  Personally, I enjoy problem solving as well as the opportunity to help others and virtual worlds are well suited for a variety of different forms of collaboration.

Persistent

Often times when people discover a virtual world and log on for the first time, they are so enthralled that they don’t want to log off- ever.  However, they can take solace in knowing that the virtual world community is persistent- it continues to pulse with activity 24/7. Your friends will miss you when you’re not logged in but life goes on even when you’re not there.

In Second Life the day cycle in different regions varies and is often shorter than 24 hour intervals.  Alternatively you can manually change the time of day you personally are experiencing.  If for example you’d like to create a romantic ambience, you can set the time of day to sunset and sit on a beach watching as the light slowly fades.  Sunrises at the beach can also be spectacular as golden rays sparkle across iridescent blue waves.  Some places such as Inspire Space Park, which offers a magnificent simulation of an asteroid belt illuminated by the stars, are best viewed with the time set to midnight.

Interactive

In a virtual world you are never alone unless if by choice.  In Second Life, at any given time you are experiencing virtual reality with approximately 60,000 other inhabitants scattered across the metaverse.  Compared to other social networks either on the Internet or in real life, I’ve found that people are generally more approachable and friendly, and conversations offer greater depth.  The avatar representation of the self seems to have certain advantages not found in other social networks.  You can retain your privacy as you’re building trust in the process of getting to know someone.  Identity is expressed through the avatar’s physical appearance, gestures, body language as well as by a profile that describes in-world activities and preferences without including a photograph of the person it represents.  Instead of presenting a personal data list, you can tell people about your real world self through conversation that evolves naturally, just like in the real world. As you build trust, you can reveal more, but there is no policy, status quo or social pressure pushing you to reveal personal details that might compromise your safety.

Synchronous

According to the constructs of physics, we exist in four dimensions: three in space and one in time.  The dimension of time is more abstract but none-the-less integral to our understanding of reality.  Synchrony in a virtual world means activities and events of every size and scale happen in real time and in a rhythm that feels natural.  A powerful sense of presence, shared space and connection are achieved as a result of this rhythm.

Conclusion 

There are 27 million inhabitants in Second Life occupying approximately 750 square miles which is ¾ the size of Rhode Island.  In the first quarter of 2010, 160 million US dollars were transacted between users.  In the virtual good industry, a renaissance is underway as support for more realistic, higher quality artifacts and clothing began in August.  In the virtual service industry, support for games is being instituted as the game model for virtual worlds has been shown to be increasingly profitable.  There are 1.4 billion registered users of virtual worlds world-wide that form communities spanning countries, cultures, economies and generations.

-Anastasios Aurotharius

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