From a certain perspective, neither virtual worlds nor social networking sites are quite as “social” as they could be. Most social networking sites, for example, are distinctly two-dimensional experiences. You have a profile page; friends can leave you email; you can chat if you both happen to be online at the same time (though your chat may be limited to just the two of you, and you might or might not be able to use a microphone or web cam); you might be able to post images and at least links to audio or video. It’s nice, but it doesn’t give you the social experience of being at a party and mixing with a lot of people.
Virtual worlds give you at least a simulated experience of going to different “locations,” meeting people, shopping, and doing things. These can be as bare bones as Kingdom of Loathing, renowned for its stick figure art and truly horrible puns (you are usually sent on your first adventures by someone called the Toot Oriole) through Linden Lab’s well-known Second Life. One of the most popular, of course, is World of Warcraft.
Many of these virtual worlds exist to allow their players to complete quests and grow more powerful, while others are more free form. They can be great fun, but how well do you really get to know that 20th-level warrior in your guild? Strangely, this kind of “face to face” interaction makes it easier to put on a mask. Perhaps most damning, though, is the fact that you must download unwieldy software onto your computer before you can participate in the virtual world, and pay a subscription fee.
Vivaty is taking a different approach that combines both of these ideas. According to Eric Eldon, writing for Venture Beat, “It wants to be the first to offer sophisticated features – including 3D life such as you’d find in Second Life, but also chat, and the ability to post video and link with rooms elsewhere on the Web – all within a browser. And also accessible on any web page.” This aspect, at least, is fairly unusual, if not unique, and deserves a second look.
As I mentioned, Vivaty is currently in private beta. Its first product, Vivaty Scenes, is available to Facebook users, who need to request an invitation. If you want to sign up for the beta, you’ll need to fill out a form. It’s a little more comprehensive than beta forms I’ve seen before, though still limited to one page. They ask for your first and last names, email address, and age group (seven choices between 13 and 65+). They also ask you what you do, with some interesting options from the drop-down menu: Artist/content creator, Business Type, IT/Technical, Press/Blogger, Virtual world lover, Student, and Other. They also want to know what country you’re from, how you heard about Vivaty, and why you want to join the beta.
But to me, the most interesting part was the question that asked “Which of these services do you use at least twice a week?” (italics in original). The form provides a list of 17 options, including Facebook, MySpace, Second Life, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, and – strangely – None and Other. I was disappointed not to see a couple of my favorites; though I am on LinkedIn, I don’t use it that often (once a week at most).
I can only wonder what their plan is for those who click none. Looking at the form, I realize I won’t be able to join their private beta in time for this article, but perhaps I’ll be able to peruse the scenes of some of their members; Vivaty’s home page seems to imply as much, which should not be surprising since it’s supposed to be entirely contained within the browser with nothing to download.
Before perusing the scenes, though, I decide to take a quick look at the FAQ. In addition to the standard list of questions on the left side of the page, they show a table of contents on the right that covers the player, avatars, communications, customizing scenes, navigating scenes, and tools and interface. Clicking on a question takes the user to the appropriate section within that part of the table of contents. I was mildly surprised to see that Vivaty isn’t using AJAX for this; you actually go to a new page. I suppose my reaction is just a sign of how common that technology has become.
I learned there were certain “minimum” and “recommended” levels of technology to use Vivaty’s service. Dial-ups need not apply; the minimum speed connection you’ll need is a cable or DSL connection at 768kbps, and 1.5Mbps is recommended. You’ll need Vista or XP for your operating system; I guess Apple and *nix users are out of luck, though Mac support is supposed to be coming soon. Currently, the only browser supported is IE 7, though again, “additional support” is coming soon.
While you don’t have to download the cumbersome software that’s normally part and parcel of participating in a virtual world, you will have to download a browser plug-in. Once you’ve downloaded the plug-in and Vivaty Scenes, you’ll be prompted to choose an avatar. Unlike Second Life, it’s only one avatar to a person, though you can change your avatar any time.
Movement is handled with the mouse and the directional keys. You can use your mouse wheel to pan in and out; there are also several ways to adjust your viewpoint (effectively, the “camera position” through which you see the scene). Additionally, there are eight “hot keys” that let your avatar take certain actions (like wave) or show certain emotions (like embarrassment).
In addition to gestures, you can communicate with other avatars through chat, which sounds similar to all the other text-based IM programs out there. You can also leave them a message. Functionally, this is the same as email, but it works a little differently: “Visit a friend’s scene, find their corkboard, and leave a note. Your friend will get the note the next time they visit their scene, and also through a Facebook notification.” Vivaty plans to make more messaging options available. If their chat function can handle audio, perhaps users may someday be able to leave voicemail. On the other hand, is this an improvement over what you can do in real life?
Choosing and changing scenes – your virtual room – looks to be as easy as point and click. You can add all sorts of custom items. You can also add photos and videos, including any YouTube video. Oh, and like any room in real life, Vivaty’s scenes are in the round. Here’s an example:
Okay, so I can’t say much for the captioning of this example (“Rollover an thumbnail for a larger view”), but then again I’m not their editor.
Vivaty is so new that the company’s first blog posts were in late March. Its first substantial post was in April. In that post Heidi Perry, the company’s VP of Marketing, talked about some of the things that Vivaty employees have liked on the web, both in the past and now. “When you mash all of these things – 3D, photos, music, user creativity, user opinions, live communication, and video – we hope to get some magic in what we’re building. Send us ideas on what you like, maybe we can throw it into the mix. Stay tuned.”
And Vivaty seems to be encouraging input from users. Not only do they want to hear what users think of various scenes, but they’re trying to come up with ways “to involve a wider community of creators to participate on the Vivaty platform.” Indeed, they’d like to see beta testers create stuff in Vivaty. Whether it will resemble the process of creating something from “prims” as is done in Second Life or some other process remains to be seen; as I mentioned, this company is very new. And of course, from the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
On the other hand, this technology has a lot of potential. Imagine a business using it on their web site to give their company a little more personality and to accept feedback from customers. They could create several scenes, attached to their web site or profile on a social site, and have an avatar that interacts with customers. This could also have applications in customer support.
A smaller business could use scenes and avatars to meet with clients who can’t be there in person. This could be particularly useful if audio were enabled. As a way to straddle the line between the Internet and the real world, without requiring users to download a large application, Vivaty could carve out an interesting niche for itself.
But it’s way too early to tell at this point. And there are plenty of skeptics. Those who posted comments to a New Scientist item on the topic, for example, could see little use for the interface. “Why do people insist on trying to impose 3D over what is fundamentally best presented as a 2D medium?” one wondered. Another felt that Vivaty was missing the attraction of today’s social networks. “People are not looking for a face-to-face interaction with other people…[they like] the ease [with] which people can informally leave comments or messages on people’s sites.” The poster felt that such an informal way of keeping in touch would be lost in a 3D world, though it looks as if Vivaty has allowed for that as well.
Judging from the beta form, Vivaty plans for its service to be highly portable. That would give it a huge advantage over both social networks and virtual worlds. Even with that, however, much will depend on factors such as ease of use and how quickly it catches on. In any case, Vivaty’s Scenes might be worth watching.