Virtual Worlds and the Internet of Things

Early FitBit Prototype? Meet The UI for the Internet of Things

We’re wiring the world and connecting it to the Net on our way to an Internet of Things (IoT) – or, if you prefer: the Internet of Everything.

It’s an industry that will top $1.2 trillion in global revenue by 2020. It’s a world with sensors and transmitters, chips and devices, signals and relays, all of it creating a kind of invisible mesh through the physical world.

Your flavor of IOT might be Ubicomp or the quantified self, presence-based networks or iBeacons, but regardless of where your interests lie there will be 50 billion devices connected to the ‘Net in the next 8 years and there’s room for everyone.

The world, in other words, is rapidly becoming virtualized.

And while at first glance it’s a stretch to connect this virtualization to virtual worlds, there’s some intriguing inspiration we might draw from the Orcs and maidens and prim shoes that have come before.

Virtual Worlds Are…Well, Worlds
It might seem obvious now, but it was a conceptual breakthrough at the time to claim that virtual worlds are actually worlds. Or, if you prefer, “their own worlds”.

Writers like Edward Castranova, in his seminal work¬†Synthetic Worlds, pointed out that virtual worlds contain real value that shouldn’t be differentiated from “real world” value.

The time I spend collecting gold in World of Warcraft isn’t less valuable just because it’s virtual. If I can trade it, if it has value, it’s real. This value is so real, in fact, that Castranova later wondered whether the ‘exodus to virtual worlds’ might in fact be a contributing factor in the global recession.

Acknowledging virtual worlds have real economic value embedded in them also went a long way to differentiating them from ‘pure’ games.

World of Warcraft might be deeply driven by game/play elements, but it also had its own economy with inputs and outputs, its own social structures (guilds), its own politics (the usually benign dictators at Blizzard) and its own distinct culture.

Virtual worlds, in other words, might be places to play a game, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worlds.

The bible of virtual world design
The bible of virtual world design

Virtual Worlds Have Their Own Designs
So we start from the premise that these truly are worlds. They might LOOK quite a bit different from our own. After all, it’s not often you see Elves running around the streets unless there’s a ComicCon convention nearby.

But being worlds they have very similar issues of governance, culture, politics and economics to the ‘real’ one.

Because of this, the development of virtual worlds are a combination of technology and policy, business and culture. In other words, you don’t just design a game or deploy a set of technologies, you design the framework within which world-like things can happen.

Richard Bartle wrote the de facto textbook for virtual world development. What was so revolutionary about his work was that it read more like an extended treatise on culture and society than a guidebook to technology or how to reduce rendering times for 3D objects.

He articulated what wasn’t always an obvious premise: that if you’re designing an online world-like environment, you’d better actually think like a world-builder.

What kind of economy do you want to have? What kind of politics? Will you hold elections or be a dictator? How will you handle social issues? How will you police your users? What will the relationship be between your virtual world and the real one? Will you let people take virtual money out and trade it for the real thing? Or will the economy be self-contained?

The Physical World Has A Limited Feature Set

Yet in spite all the crossover between the virtual and the physical, the parallels, there isn’t a direct equivalence. Not because virtual worlds can’t have most of the characteristics of the physical world.

Instead, the comparisons between the virtual and physical end because of the limitations of the physical world.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that the physical world is limited. It isn’t missing anything truly important.

But virtual worlds have ‘affordances’ that the real world hasn’t. Virtual worlds are underpinned by technologies that let you do things that you can’t in the physical world because there’s little of the same technology underpinning ‘reality’.

Through one lens (and again, I realize this isn’t the only one), you could say that the physical world has a more limited feature set than the virtual one.

But that’s about to change.

The Affordances of the Internet of Things

Context Aware GPS
Context Aware GPS

When it comes to the consumer-facing side of the Internet of Things, most people think about thermostats and fitness apps, shoes with sensors or sprinklers that know when to water the lawn.

The technology behind these things¬†is often, rightly, invisible to the consumer: devices have become smarter…it doesn’t matter why, it just matters that your room is the right temperature and you don’t need to get up from the couch to change it.

The fact that these things are connected to the Internet doesn’t much matter either. It makes things a bit easier to configure because using a website is a heck of a lot easier than trying to program a VCR.

But the value of the Internet of Things lies in its connectedness. In the ability for hardware to become nodes in a network just like your home PC is a node on the Web. It isn’t the hardware, in other words, it’s the software that matters.

So if we focus on these early use cases that value smart hardware more than their place in a larger networked context, we miss the bigger picture: just like the first virtual worlds may have had crude affordances (text chat in the early MUDs and MOOs), they hinted at what was to come….something that would emerge as the technology, the software and the users grew more mature and started to expect more.

But the Internet of Things has a head start on the early days of the Web or the early days of synthetic worlds. It can leverage the collective network of the Internet and bolt on existing technologies and affordances.

Whether you want your toaster to tweet might be up for debate. But turning your shoes into a larger collaborative quest for fitness, using sensors to crowd-source solutions to traffic jams, or scanning soil and water readings to help a group of like-minded people turn our cities more green are another thing entirely.

The Internet of Things might look like it’s about smarter things – but the Internet of Everything turns the world into a responsive backdrop to our individual and social actions – we become ‘characters’ in this virtualized world.

In fact, if you were to list out the affordances (the tools and plug-ins and features and capabilities) of IoT and stack them up against those of virtual worlds, the list might look pretty similar.

At its highest level, both can accomplish very similar tasks:

  • Provide an interface to place
  • Facilitate social and other transactions that are context sensitive
  • Create digital forms of commerce and transaction
  • Create environments where “place” can actually change based on the users/consumers who are in it and what they’re doing
  • Create a clear framework for setting, monitoring and achieving goals
  • Allow for forms of user generated content – from simple chat to hacks, mods and content

But just because they both share the same feature sets doesn’t mean they have lessons to learn from each other. The above might equally be said about phones or youTube videos.

Where the comparison really starts to uncover some interesting questions is when we get to the “world” part of worlds: in how we facilitate commerce, culture and governance.

Right now the Internet of Things is extremely task-oriented…it’s about making objects smarter to the benefit of the people who come in touch with them.

But I’d propose that very quickly, IoT will face many of the same challenges as virtual worlds have: as the world becomes virtualized we’ll discover that the culture it creates means we’re doing more than deploying technology, we’re deploying a whole world.

wow-accounts-mobileLessons from the Elves
Designers and ‘world-builders’ on the Internet of Things are mostly focused on the mechanics. The plumbing, the protocols, getting the tech to work, and hacking the first experiences around smarter ‘things’.

We’re drawing inspiration from mobile apps and social media, industrial design and design thinking. My proposal isn’t to end this cross-disciplinary work – but to consider adding a moment or two of cross-over into the history and lessons from virtual worlds.

We only repeat the mistakes of a history we do not learn from – and why sweat success when there are examples already of what works in a world that’s digital and connected?

Even just glancing at some of the problems virtual worlds have solved leads to some rich insights – and perhaps some innovations that can be applied to IoT.

Who’s Your User?
One of the best known of Bartle’s insights on designing virtual worlds was his identification of different player types and his mapping of the dynamics between them.

Maybe you’ve heard of the theory, or a variant: that there are four main player types which comprise Explorers, Achievers, Killers and Socializers.

Now, you don’t want to build a system for ‘killers’, but what he meant by that was players motivated by virtual worlds as sport.

How rich are the experiences for each of these ‘types’ within IoT experiences? Are fitness apps all designed for achievers and ‘killers’? How can you build the desire for exploration into your interfaces?

Bartle also mapped out the influence and dynamics of these groups on each other, and spent a lot of time thinking about the ‘newbie’ experience and how to design it to underpin different motivation sets. With so many newbies to the Internet of Things, what are the lessons we can draw from what has worked?

Mods and UGC, Oh My!
There are probably as many variations of user-generated content as there are virtual worlds. From the mods to the World of Warcraft interface to entire worlds built by users like in Second Life, virtual worlds have often struggled with the challenges of balancing control with user agency.

Do you let users mod your interface? Do you create marketplaces for those mods? Or do you maintain a tighter rein on the user experience?

Innovation Through Commerce
Often hand-in-hand with UGC, how you let users make money inside your ‘app’ or app ecosystem can either unlock incredible innovation, or can leave you holding the bag on an economy that’s run out of whack.

Blizzard’s recent decisions around commerce in Diablo is a decent example of how on its face “in-world commerce” can seem like a good idea but can upset the gameplay or social experience.

Are there opportunities to create markets in IoT applications? Do the markets always need to trade in “real” goods? Can the sharing economy be underpinned by the equivalent of virtual currency? Can sensor data become a tradable commodity?

Innovation Through Content Control
Second Life might have, in the end, been a non-scalable technology. But it had one innovation that I’ve always thought was world-changing: adding copy/mod/transfer permissions to virtual objects….allowing users to embed permissions into the things they created, sort of like a more workable Creative Commons.

Do you always have to follow the conventions of ‘physical world’ commerce and value in IoT? Can we adopt new ways of tagging content and value so that user intent can be embedded in the permissions that data and objects have? If we move beyond copy/left or Creative Commons, how innovative can we get in how ownership is tagged and traded?

Innovation Through Collaboration
Virtual worlds (and their game companions) mastered the art of making collaboration fun. Think guilds and quests.

But how good is collaborative goal-setting in IoT apps? How do you replicate the success of ‘guilds’ in the physical world? What is it about guilds that creates mini sub-cultures that signal social vs questing, “killing” vs entertainment?

How can we use new models for collaborative work based on old lessons about how to create social cohesion and competition?

Emergent Gameplay
It’s what people do that you don’t expect that truly matters if you want to build a lasting world. No matter how much you try to prevent things from happening that you can’t control, there will always be ways that users hack the system or append their own experiences and expectations on your tightly controlled platform.

Virtual worlds have mastered the art of managing and allowing emergent gameplay. But how many IoT experiences facilitate serendipity or the unexpected? How much do we learn from emergent patterns and the things we didn’t think our users would want to do?

Innovation Through Storytelling
Whether people skip through it as background or immerse themselves in the history of a ‘world’, storytelling can be the most powerful tool to create ‘stickiness’ and culture in virtual worlds.

But how well do your devices tell stories? Are you just presenting stats or badges, or are you helping people to create their own narratives? What’s your storytelling architecture, what are the conflicts, who are the heroes?

Even something as banal as a thermostat can tell a story – one that you can ignore or immerse yourself in. These things don’t ALWAYS need to be dashboards – they can be engines for narrative.

Look Past The Things
I’m not proposing that IoT is creating a massive game that we’re all becoming characters in.

A lot of the promise of IoT is that it will be invisible: our phone will sense where we are, will pull in humidity and traffic data from a local sensor and then recommend we bring an umbrella or wear a sweater.

But I do think that because of IoT the real world is about to have a lot more affordances and that because of this the opportunities will include pretty radical new ways to collaborate, explore and socialize.

I can picture ecowarriors building guilds and quests that are facilitated by environmental sensors and I picture the stories and narratives that will emerge from that: stories that aren’t about Elves or Dragons but their real-world equivalents.

I can picture communities who re-imagine their cities by viewing it through a new HUD that helps us visualize patterns that we haven’t seen before, and I imagine markets in which money isn’t the only value of exchange.

The stories and experiences that are designed because of the Internet of Everything might, one day, have us looking back at where we are right now much like we look back on those very early MUDS and MOOs:

You are standing on a path which leads off a road to the north, to a cottage south of you.

Where do you go next?

2 Responses to “Virtual Worlds and the Internet of Things”

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>