Immersion, virtual environments, Facebook, and the conceptual hump

[From the Massively blog (“Daily News about MMOs”)]

The Virtual Whirl: Immersion, virtual environments, Facebook, and the conceptual hump

by Tateru Nino
May 15th 2010

Second Life is an immersive virtual environment. That is, it fosters attention and a quality of focus. You might subscribe to alternative definitions of the word “immersion”, but focus and attention are the sense being used when developer/operators talk about an “immersive environment”. They might intend one of the other meanings at other times – the word is a pretty slippery one.

The problem is that for most general-purpose virtual environments (eg: Second Life), that immersivity – that quality of attention and focus – kicks in pretty late. Only after you understand the basics of the context in which your actions, activities and experiences are taking place, do you have the satisfying sort of immersion that comes so easily to flat spaces like the Web and Facebook.

Facebook’s got early-immersion going on, “up the wazoo” (as the cool kids say), whereas general-purpose virtual environments (GPVEs) have delayed immersion. Significantly delayed. Potentially catastrophically delayed, at least insofar as user-retention is concerned. Immersion’s great for business cases and great for role-players and for social users, but you’ve got to get to it first.

Immersion doesn’t generally leap out at you. First you have to overcome the conceptual hump.

You see, in my personal experience (your own may differ, of course), few people actually understand even the very basics of copyright, economy, or taxation. Throw them down into a virtual environment with a user-driven and –created economy and it doesn’t really matter how similar the operation of the world is to the world-of-flesh.

The user has to learn something about these mechanisms in order to achieve satisfying levels of participation, and that’s not counting learning to deal with a world through a mouse, keyboard and on-screen user-interface, rather than the tried-and-true arms, legs, and mouth.

New users aren’t naive or stupid, but in practical terms many of them are like blind tourists in a country where they don’t speak the language. There are barriers of understanding that need to be overcome before anything has accessible meaning.

All that important stuff? That’s stuff that pretty much no virtual environment conveys to new users effectively. Users eventually figure it out on their own (if they’re super-patient) or other users help them (if they’re super-lucky). Most folks are neither.

By the figures recently quoted by Linden Lab CEO, Mark Kingdon, 95.3% of users wound up in the latter category for Second Life, December through March. That’s 95.3% of prospective Second Life users that never had a chance.

Kingdon didn’t give that exact figure, in so many words. He said that “more than 50,000” users spent more than one hour per month, during that period. I grabbed the back of a handy envelope and did the arithmetic against user-registrations for the same period. Yes, “more than 50,0000” means “more than 50,000”, but it probably doesn’t mean “more than 55,000” otherwise he’d have said that, because it would have sounded better.

Approximately 50,000 then, represents just 4.7% of user registrations for January, February and March this year. These are the folks who were super-patient or super-lucky. Most of the remaining 95.3% probably never really figured out what they were looking at.

Contrast what I’ve just talked about with Facebook. Facebook’s simple and can exhibit rapid immersion, because it’s so limited. It doesn’t really simulate anything or model anything. It doesn’t really let the users drive, content instead to feed on them. The concepts behind profiles, status updates, friends, fan-pages and the various apps and diversions are relatively trivial. It’s a dynamic so simple that few people don’t grasp it within the first few minutes.

After that, it’s up to the user to decide whether that interests them or not. For many it does, for many others it does not. The key here is that they got past the conceptual stage to see the service as it is, and then decide if that’s something they want to get some of. Facebook is a pony with effectively one trick.

For GPVEs, users are lost hours, days, weeks or months before they ever get to that point. The pony’s got too many tricks. So many, it’s hard to tell if it is actually a pony or not.

In a sense, it’s that range that forms the bulk of the appeal of GPVEs. You can do science in them, set up art museums, buy funny tee-shirts to put on your avatar, hang out and chat, make pornography, collaborate with your co-workers or take classes in everything from Chinese folklore to Italian-as-a-second-language.

And that’s awesome. Seriously, that’s really very cool stuff. Three decades ago, when virtual environments were only really starting to get off the ground, that sort of thing was beyond what almost anyone imagined would be achieved in their lifetimes.

And if you don’t or can’t get past the conceptual hump, you’re going to miss out on all the good stuff, and become one of the 95% plus who (as my father used to say) “Tried it once … didn’t like it.”

Because you never really got to see it in a way that you could appreciate the awesome.

That’s not your fault. Odds are if you didn’t make the right connections in the first few hours, you didn’t make it. Probably most of you didn’t last through the first ten minutes. A GPVE without that sort of context is just a clunky avatar in a laggy scene; nothing really to grab you.

What I really want to know is why the folks who should be doing the most work on overcoming this very fundamental problem (ie: the developer/operators) seem to be spreading their energies on … well, anything and everything but that.

Sure, the conceptual hump isn’t an easy problem to solve, otherwise one operator would have long since done it and everyone else would have stolen their solution five minutes later.

You’d think that someone would at least try, but there’s no sign that that has been happening.

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