architecture in virtual worlds predictions

This is the first time I’ve made New Year’s predictions, but I so enjoy reading what others predict that I couldn’t resist jotting down a few of my own.

In general, I think 2011 is going to be of vital importance to virtual world growth and development, but it won’t be outward-facing.  I think it will be a ‘behind the scenes’ year, with most of the important work happening in the background.  I believe 2012 will be the year of virtual worlds, gaining massive, mainstream adoption.  It will grow much faster than anyone in the existing virtual world echo chamber ever anticipated.  It won’t look the way we thought it would, and it won’t work the way we thought it would, but we will be glad to finally see virtual worlds grabbing the spotlight and finally being able to enjoy our collective ‘told you so’ moment to all the naysayers who finally drop their guard and start wandering the virtual frontier! =)  Anyway – here are my predictions:

1.) With the exception of mesh imports, not much will change in Second Life. Linden Lab won’t be acquired, and they won’t go out of business.  For all outward appearances, they’ll quietly idle in neutral throughout 2011.   I think they’ve already had enough shake-ups, layoffs and disruptive change to last them a year or two.  This isn’t to say that the Lab won’t be quietly making improvements, trying to attract new users, and working on new features, but I think they’ll stay in the background throughout 2011, and I think that’s a good thing.  I’m really excited about the new CEO pick, and I think he’ll do great things for the Lab and for SL, but he won’t make a big noise about it.

2.)  OpenSim will continue to steadily improve, but will also remain relatively quiet. I don’t think there will be any big, sweeping changes with OpenSim either, and the perceived education exodus from SL due to price hikes will quickly plateau if it hasn’t already.  Most of the content those migrants create, initially, will be ‘tandem’ builds that simply mirror what they developed in SL, and for the most part, they won’t have huge budgets to spend on content.  As a result, the vast majority of new OpenSim regions will continue to be homemade creations built by the earliest adopters and pioneers.  This work will be special and incredibly important in its own way, but I really don’t expect to see any major new projects with serious development budgets happening with OpenSim next year.   The biggest benefit from all of the attention they enjoyed lately will be the addition of several new core contributors to the OpenSim code.  This will be vital to the ongoing improvement of OpenSim throughout 2011, but their work will be mostly behind-the-scenes stuff.

3.) Unity will be acquired by Autodesk, and will become the foundation of a whole new wave of ‘realtime’ integration with their existing products. They won’t change anything about Unity in 2011, but will start working on ways to integrate their existing products with Unity.  Products with Unity integration won’t ship until late in 2012.  Sadly, innovation will slow to a crawl, making room for Unreal to start tapping into the indie, DIY game development market.

4.) The U.S. economy will slowly start to show signs of recovery, but the number of unemployed architects will decrease only slightly. As business picks up, the older, bigger firms will make vain attempts to regain their footing with a ‘business as usual’ approach, but a rash of new, young, technology-focused architecture firms that embrace a new paradigm in architectural practice will run circles around them.

5.) A third party, working directly with Google, will develop a powerful new multi-user, virtual world application for Google Earth using WebGL, and it will form the underpinnings of a much larger, more comprehensive metaverse built on and around the SketchUp, Google Earth duo.  It will be mostly experimental in 2011, and become a really big deal in 2012.

6.) The popularity of WebGL will grow exponentially, but 2011 will be a tinkering year for it. Lots of attention from developers, and lots of big-budget projects in the works behind the scenes (including prediction #5).  The rest of the world won’t be aware of it until late in 2012, at which point it will become all the rage.

7.) Avatar-less access to virtual worlds will gain traction. Instead of using avatars, visitors will log in with existing accounts  (mostly Facebook and LinkedIn), and they will have a simple, generic 3D shape, optionally displaying  their profile picture or other 2D image, rather than an animated, humanoid avatar.  By finally realizing that humanoid avatars give lots of people the willies, we will be able to open the doors to a much wider audience of users.

8.) Mobile device access to virtual worlds won’t be as huge as everyone thinks it will be. Obviously mobile devices themselves, and gazillions of new apps will undoubtedly flood the market, but multi-user, virtual worlds as we know them won’t be able to find a place – yet.  Not in 2011 anyway.

9.) Augmented reality isn’t going to be as huge as everyone thinks it will be. Not in 2011 anyway.

10.) A new class of head-mounted displays will FINALLY start to gain some mainstream attraction – late in 2011.   Plug me in!

11.) At least one multi-user, virtual world accessed via game console (not Playstation ‘Home’) will start to gain real momentum by the end of 2011. It might even be Second Life itself (which would render prediction #1 innacurate).  The combined effort of game consoles, 3D TV’s, 3D movies and media development focused on the topic of virtual environments (Tron, Avatar, etc.) will drive mainstream appetite for virtual worlds, and game consoles will become a major gateway to the virtual frontier.


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