The Impact of Google's Virtual World

Google's just-debuted virtual world is clunky right now, but expect it to grow into a monster success – and play a leading role in business as well a social networking.

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Google launched a "beta" 3D virtual environment platform yesterday called Lively. The product has been compared to the virtual world "Second Life," but with a difference: Lively isn't one giant world, but individual "rooms" or size-limited "spaces" that can be embedded into Web pages or even FaceBook profiles. (I created one and embedded it into my own blog, which you can try here.)

These Lively virtual worlds exist entirely within your Firefox or Internet Explorer browser on either Windows XP or Windows Vista after you've installed the free plug-in.

Unfortunately, Google's big foray into the virtual space space is being met by users with a resounding thud. The user experience is, well, let's just say that for some people Lively is virtually unusable.

The Lively plug-in doesn't support Macs. It takes way too long for rooms to load. Once they do, performance is slow, and your entire PC is bogged down.

Performance gets worse with more users. Rooms tend to look cluttered and ugly. Conversation is inane. Avatars don't function quite right -- for example, you can walk right through furniture. Avatars sitting down look depressed. The selection of avatars is lame -- male avatars range from a generic "dude" to waist-high cartoon characters and nothing in between.

Furnishing a room by browsing and selecting from the catalog of items is cumbersome and non-intuitive. Once selected, moving stuff is clumsy and difficult. If you have a split-screen, the function window for many actions always defaults to straddling the screens. Ultimately, Lively appears to be nothing more than chat with problems -- there's no apparent advantage to the 3D environment.

Despite all these flaws, problems and annoyances, I believe Lively will become a huge success and a major benefit not only for social media users, but businesses.

Yeah, I said it: Lively will become a major business tool.

Why Lively will succeed in social networking

If you look at what users do on MySpace and Facebook, it's all about self-expression, self promotion and socializing. All that visual junk teenagers upload to their pages has been described by social networking sociologists as serving the same psychological purpose as hanging posters in bedrooms.

With Lively, they can actually hang virtual posters in a virtual bedroom (can you actually do something virtually?). The posters can be pictures on Picasa or videos on YouTube. Like social networking pages, teens can play the music of their choice, add links to things and chat, but all in a 3D space rather than a flat page.

Most objects can be associated with hyperlinks to regular Web pages or other rooms. You can imagine one way teens will link to each other is with labeled doors. Psychologically, it will be as if friends' rooms exist within the same house.

Once a user creates an avatar, that same character and clothes represent that user in any room entered. It's possible to be in multiple rooms at once. Both characters and objects can have pre-fab animation sequences. This is the single most powerful aspect of Lively as a form of social networking. The user's "self expression" goes with them into other people's spaces.

In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

TAGS: Facebook,Firefox,Google,Vista,Internet Explorer

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