Googles just-debuted virtual world is clunky right now, but expect it to grow into a monster success and play a leading role in business as well as social networking.
Google launched a "beta" 3D virtual environment platform yesterday called Lively
. The product has been compared to the virtual world "Second Life," but with a difference: Lively isn't one giant world, but individual "rooms" or size-limited "spaces" that can be embedded into Web pages or even FaceBook profiles. (I created one and embedded it into my own blog, which you can try here
These Lively virtual worlds exist entirely within your Firefox or Internet Explorer browser on either Windows XP or Windows Vista after you've installed the free plug-in.
Unfortunately, Google's big foray into the virtual space space is being met by users with a resounding thud. The user experience is, well, let's just say that for some people Lively is virtually unusable.
The Lively plug-in doesn't support Macs. It takes way too long for rooms to load. Once they do, performance is slow, and your entire PC is bogged down.
Performance gets worse with more users. Rooms tend to look cluttered and ugly. Conversation is inane. Avatars don't function quite right -- for example, you can walk right through furniture. Avatars sitting down look depressed. The selection of avatars is lame -- male avatars range from a generic "dude" to waist-high cartoon characters and nothing in between.
Furnishing a room by browsing and selecting from the catalog of items is cumbersome and non-intuitive. Once selected, moving stuff is clumsy and difficult. If you have a split-screen, the function window for many actions always defaults to straddling the screens. Ultimately, Lively appears to be nothing more than chat with problems -- there's no apparent advantage to the 3D environment.
Despite all these flaws, problems and annoyances, I believe Lively will become a huge success and a major benefit not only for social media users, but businesses.
Yeah, I said it: Lively will become a major business tool.
Why Lively will succeed in social networking
If you look at what users do on MySpace and Facebook, it's all about self-expression, self promotion and socializing. All that visual junk teenagers upload to their pages has been described by social networking sociologists as serving the same psychological purpose as hanging posters in bedrooms.
With Lively, they can actually hang virtual posters in a virtual bedroom (can you actually do something virtually?). The posters can be pictures on Picasa or videos on YouTube. Like social networking pages, teens can play the music of their choice, add links to things and chat, but all in a 3D space rather than a flat page.
Most objects can be associated with hyperlinks to regular Web pages or other rooms. You can imagine one way teens will link to each other is with labeled doors. Psychologically, it will be as if friends' rooms exist within the same house.
Once a user creates an avatar, that same character and clothes represent that user in any room entered. It's possible to be in multiple rooms at once. Both characters and objects can have pre-fab animation sequences. This is the single most powerful aspect of Lively as a form of social networking. The user's "self expression" goes with them into other peoples' spaces.
As a replacement for, or additional feature of, a FaceBook page, Lively is a no brainer. I think this will catch fire immediately. And -- just like cell phone text messaging, PC instant messaging and social networking itself -- where the teens go, the rest of us will surely follow.
Why Lively will succeed in business
Look at what businesses do online. They promote their branding, engage with potential and existing customers, provide information and market and sell products. Lively is potentially ideal for all this.
A company called Rivers Run Red announced yesterday a service for custom-building Lively spaces for companies. There will be many other such services popping up over the coming months and years.
The creation of objects -- furniture, clothes, pachinko machines -- is currently open only to Google-approved developers, but (presumably) in the future it will be open to all. Rooms, avatars, furniture and clothing are all free, but it's likely that companies may be able to charge for them in the future, which could create am economy of virtual goods for real money.
The actual look and feel of rooms and other virtual spaces is a rich and powerful form of branding, where the creating company has full control. Any object can be associated with a link, so you could even built an entire virtual store filled with virtual products that look just like the real thing. By clicking on a product, customers could add them to a shopping cart or go to the product's information page.
You could also imagine a custom "break room" for employees, or a "lobby" for prospective customers visiting a company's Web site.
With an economic downturn and rising fuel prices, companies will be cutting way back on business travel (to, say, trade shows) and even increasingly asking employees to work from home. Lively could provide a space for online meetings, virtual trade shows or other spaces where real business could be conducted without significant cost.
(You can already choose a trade show booth in the catalog.) In the future, look for the creation of entire virtual trade show companies.
I believe Google will over time work out the performance and usability issues and turn Lively into a monster success. Unlike Second Life, which will always be a niche product, Lively will go mainstream very quickly because users will be exposed to it constantly. They'll see it on the Web sites they're already visiting. They'll be invited by friends and colleagues to join. And companies will actively market their virtual spaces.
Like Google Maps, Lively will spawn an ecosystem of add-on, mash-up and content-creation companies that will lead to applications and services nobody can imagine today.
You heard it here first, folks. Clunky, funky Lively is destined for greatness.