E-Sheep's Verbeck: "Virtual worlds won't save humanity... at least on their own."

March 11 2008 / by Marisa Vitols / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Technology   Year: 2008   Rating: 11

As CEO and founder of the largest company in the world dedicated to “designing experiences and delivering add-on software for 3D virtual worlds”, The Electric Sheep Company (ESC), Sibley Verbeck has garnered big props for ground-breaking projects such as MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach and CSI: NY Virtual Experience.

This front-row seat to the early evolution and spread of virtual worlds has afforded Verbeck a unique perspective on what exactly is going on, how fast it’s happening, and how best to navigate the bubbles of economic disruption. Coupled with a matter-of-fact demeanor and willingness to share insights, that makes Verbeck a metaversal authority with no shortage of solid advice to impart to anyone interested in the space.

He’ll be voicing his thoughts on the topic during his April 3rd keynote address at the rapidly growing Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in NY, but if you can’t wait or make the trip, then you’ll be glad to know that Future Blogger has scored this full-length interview with the shepherd himself, which we’ve also condensed into the following Q&A most related to the future of virtual worlds.

M: How do you see immersive 3D environments evolving over the near-term?

SV: While much “virtual world” energy is being put into 2D (and so-called 2.5D) properties, 3D immersive environments are going to continue to gradually accelerate in their technological progress and breadth of applications. In particular, we’ll start seeing usable 3D spaces more commonly be embedded on the Web for easier access and significant usability improvements. Over the next two to three years, we’ll see open source technologies used much more frequently that allow anyone to host a compatible 3D environment on a server and control access thereto.

While corporate collaboration will continue to be explored as a use-case, the real drivers of adoption and technology development will be entertainment and consumer commerce. Also in that time frame we’ll see it just begin to become more common to use such virtual worlds through the living room / HDTV’s, either through consoles or otherwise.

M: Cory Ondrejka recently blogged that when considering the next 10 years, “Even the dreamers aren’t thinking big enough about virtual worlds.” Do you agree with this statement? Why, why not?

SV: Now, it is always the case that at this stage of a broadly applicable new technology, far from all of the valuable applications have been envisioned. Dreamers can sometimes be unrealistic, ungrounded in business principals, too focused on certain factors and negligent of others, but so is the nature of dreaming. I don’t think any lack of understanding is a case of not thinking big enough.

What IS the case is that current publishers of virtual worlds and most startups developing virtual world technologies are not thinking big enough in the short term, in my opinion.

M: How do you envision new interfaces, such as new controllers and brain-reactive devices, changing our relationship with virtual spaces?

SV: It typically takes years for people to adopt great new software. It takes even longer for new hardware paradigms to be adopted in most cases. 3D cameras and speech interfaces for navigating virtual worlds may finally start becoming common in 4-5 years, but I don’t see those happening sooner. Other than in constrained domains, like console or game specific controllers, brain-reactive devices will take longer to come about.

Given that length of time frame, it is even harder to predict what effect such input devices will have. Most importantly they will free VW interactions from the desk/computer/keyboard and put them more naturally in the living room and eventually in wearable devices. This will eventually eliminate the binary distinction between real and virtual spaces, creating a seamless spectrum of the degree to which a space is virtual.

M: Are you a futurist? Must you be a futurist to run a business like ESheep? Why, why not?

SV: Yes. No. It’s easy to cause a business to fail by being too much of a futurist, in my opinion. Businesses must pay their bills here and now, not in the future, to put it bluntly – at most maximizing the potential opportunity of a startup might be 1% futurist.

M: Given the growing number of virtual worlds, do you think one virtual world will rise to rule them all (like Google and the web)? If not, how do you expect the competitive VW landscape to evolve?

SV: Like the Web, I believe there will be protocols and some technology layers that are compatible and used to publish many virtual worlds or virtual spaces, with open-source and free closed source options for some of those technology layers. I think this question as a whole will be very hard to even understand let alone 10 years from now because “virtual worlds” will still encompass things like hardcore games/MMOs that make sense only to publish on their own specialized, differentiated technology, as well as virtual spaces for many purposes that adhere to content and identity compatibility.

One thing is certain – market forces will determine this, not engineering or idealism. There are many examples to look at of compatibility and non-compatibility, and none are a perfect analogy or predictor. There are considerable forces right now for non-compatibility in virtual worlds. That is unlikely to change as long as the main publishing of virtual worlds is large efforts by major entertainment companies.

M: What do you expect to be the deeper social impact of virtual worlds?

SV: Virtual worlds will not save humanity, stop global warming, help feed people, or change human nature, at least on their own. However, as with each major communication medium, they will “make the world smaller”. Mobile devices have reduced the ability of governments to control information flow; I believe that virtual worlds will have some of the same effect on commerce, employment, and personal relationships. While effects won’t all be positive, I believe it is likely that virtual worlds will be one factor in a continuing gradual and partial reduction in the power of nation states. Less certain but also possible is that they will be used to slightly diminish the power of large global corporations by enabling more international small business and individual direct commerce, collaboration, employment, and communication.

M: Any advice for creative young entrepreneurs looking to make a metaversal play?

SV: Starting a new business in a new and very rapidly changing industry is truly chaotic and unpredictable. An even higher percentage of virtual world companies started in 2008 will fail than is typically true of technology startups. I think the best vague advice is to study everything out there being done by others even more than usual, recognize that almost anything that is applicable to the next 18 months is being done by others who have a head start (not necessarily well, but still, it is being pursued in some form). Furthermore, realize that this industry is going to unfold in fits and starts, with major changes along the way, so having a plan that can absorb major competitive or enabling or market changes, with enough cash to survive crisis, will in most cases be necessary.

Click here to read the full length interview with Sibley Verbeck.

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