Monday, July 21, 2008

New "Browser-Based" Virtual Worlds

There has recently been an outcropping of virtual world platforms that run in your browser. Some seem to hold some promise and others seem a bit lackluster. Only time will tell what survives.

Small Worlds - PC & Mac
A Flash based virtual world with minimal camera movement, API for widgets, and the possibility of opening the world to allow Flash game developers to create content.

Happy Features:
  • Easy widget interface to stream/showcase YouTube videos, Flickr pictures, and music.
  • Avatars are a bit cartoony, although they are LESS cartoony than the current champ of browser based virtual worlds: Gaia Online (the less cartoony feature is the happy part)¹
  • Easy to use and well designed interface (however, within a browser there is only so much screen real estate - unless you have a large monitor)
  • No download required (unless you don' t have Flash player installed for your browser, in which case you have your own issues).
  • Limited camera movement: Constant 45 degree angle with rotations at 90, 180, 270, & 360.
  • Avatar options are limited, very similar to the Wii's Mii creations.
  • Economy based on XP and gold gained from missions, not from user created interplay
  • Missions are not nearly as fun as the children's vw Build-A-Bearville (seriously)
  • Using Amazon S3 and therefore susceptible to outages... I experienced this yesterday actually.

¹ Gaia Online is ranked 6th according to GigaOM among MMOs, but seemingly #1 among 3d social spaces for adults. It doesn't look like its for adults but there are plenty there. I blogged about their YouTube and Sony Pictures features way back in January.

Lively by Google
- PC only
A recent contender by a big name. I really have no idea what they are thinking.

Happy Features:
  • Embeddable 3d room onto your website (I don't think it works in a blog, at least not yet - I tried to post it here).
  • Facebook plugin
  • Meet people in your private or public rooms, animations allow you to body slam them silly
  • Widgets for YouTube, Flickr photos (no longer working), and soon to be more.
  • Pop-out window with full controls
  • Easily search for other people/spaces (come on... it's Google)
  • Horrid interface:
  • - camera jerks around, , looses the viewer in the environment, clunky to use
  • - even placing furniture is a drag for a more experienced SL user, jumping from wall to wall not exactly ending up where you want it.
  • Limited character creation options. Although there is enough diversity to recreate an episode of Drawn Together
  • Not available for Mac. What?
  • Download required (plugin). Creates a desktop icon that does NOT launch Lively
  • Free objects/economy (at this moment in Beta)
  • Facebook plugin takes you through set-up everytime (a bug, I hope)
  • Animations promote griefing (as if the interface wasn't bad enough, sometimes all you can do is watch yourself get pummeled by other users)
  • No integration with anything Google except GTalk (which I can't even get to work)
**Update: Even Gartner thinks Lively isn't that exciting. Their advice: wait and watch. Read here:**

Just Leap In
- PC & (supposedly) Mac
The newest of the new - built by digital artists and promising better graphic quality for 3D worlds (if your computer can hack it...)

Happy Features:
  • Interface is slightly above average. Better than Lively worse than Small Worlds
  • Upload your own videos or pictures (music coming soon) to share with friends
  • Embeddable 3d room onto your website OR blog (check it out below)
  • Pop out to larger window (see downside for the same)
  • Excellent graphics! Again, only if your computer can handle them. My PC at home needs a new graphics card but I was able to boost the graphics to check out the lighting features and water in an outdoor environment. To move around without much lag I had to push the graphic quality down to the 1st setting.
  • Portals connect you to friends rooms


  • Could not get it to run on my MacBook Pro. The people at JLI told me it was due to:
We suspect that your MacBook Pro with the 8600M GT @ 128 MB VRAM is running into a recently announced NVIDIA graphics board fault ( and We understand that new drivers will be released shortly by OEMs that would minimize the problem. We're also working on some workarounds for our next Player update in a week's time so that we can keep the issue - and full utilization of the card - from affecting our users.
  • Using Amazon S3 and therefore susceptible to outages
  • No economy. No stores, no gold, no xp. Everything is in your inventory and everything is free.
  • Popout window controls are limited to camera movement. This is bad because you have to work in an even smaller window (again with the screen real estate issues) when decorating.
  • NO AVATARS! Ok, I know it's beta but really? It is on the list for upcoming additions. For now however, you can put one of the avatars in your 3d space so they can stand their and scratch their heads (they do!).
  • System to search for other spaces/people is quite ugly.

Final Notes:
There was a really great rant by __ the other day I picked off Twitter. He complained that all of these companies were promoting 3d vw's that claimed to allow you to really be you... but that the simplicity of the graphics for each character were unable to really capture you. Studying what a virtual self really is through art is one thing I've been working on for the last year. How much farther from the self you believe yourself to be will these worlds take us? Will we find immersion in ways we find it in SL?

Also, the development of these economies will be of key interest. Some of them have no economy and some have game like ones. Where SL seems to stive is in its user created content and the economy that it creates. Will the economy for these worlds become one only for the widget, flash, plug-in developers? And how will the economy of space work out? If these worlds are giving everyone a 3d space and Linden Labs wants to continue making money on selling space how will this affect the user base? I think it's great everyone can have/share a room on a website, but if the diversity of those spaces is limited because of the content 'given' vs. content created then there really won't be much out there as far as interesting environments.

One more thing. Here's a ss of me imaginining a day when I'm in SL with several browsers in front of me jumping between several other browser based virtual worlds:

1 comment:

Linda Higbee Mandlebaum said...

Anthony, I appreciate the way you explain some of the other virtual worlds and their pros and cons. This is really useful information that can help people pick the one that is right for them and the purposes they have in mind. After reading it, I think I'll stick with Second Life.