Of all of the emerging Internet media that are discussed in the tech press, social virtual worlds have made one of the more notable splashes in the past year. Second Life has been alternately celebrated and slammed. There was a big hoo-haa over Sony Home when it was first announced, as well.
Second Life and Home aren't the only players in town, however. At the State of Play V conference this month, several other social virtual worlds were on display. They provided an interesting contrast to Second Life, in terms of the interfaces, environments, and growth plans. I am going to describe one of them here: Makena Technologies' There.com.
There.com has an interesting history and experienced development team -- these are the same folks who have worked with the U.S. Army on military simulators and Virtual Laguna Beach for MTV. Nevertheless, There.com has had a constant struggle to get more recognition, and has lived in the shadow of Second Life. At State of Play, this was demonstrated during the opening night's entertainment, which featured a documentary ostensibly about virtual worlds, yet was almost entirely about one virtual world -- Second Life.
At first glance, There.com and Second Life seem similar. They share the basic concept of people designing and operating their own avatar in a shared, persistent 3D space. Movement and social interaction follow the same model (i.e., walking, flying, chatting, making friends, etc.), and the software clients work on standard PC systems.
But the differences soon become apparent. The UI is the most obvious. Forget Second Life's poorly designed tabs, palettes, and drop-down menus. The default There.com interface has a row of a dozen or so buttons at the bottom of the screen which bring up more options, thereby leaving the playing field easy to see. Additionally, while Second Life search is an utter disaster, There.com sends users out to a browser window to search for items or places, and then links them back into in-world locations. It's a kludge, but it seems to work.
The other big difference is the apparent widespread use of voice over IP, which is an added feature for $10/month premium accounts. A There.com employee took me to some sort of beginner's area, and almost everone else in it -- about 10 avatars -- were using voice. This was surprising to me, but she explained many experienced users with voice capabilities hang out in these areas to help newcomers, and voice is also seen as a status symbol for some users. Whatever -- it was certainly interesting to see, but clearly adds some additional ramifications for users, in terms of figuring out when to speak in large groups, communicating in mixed groups of texters and voice-enabled users, and hiding one's anonymity -- if that's your thing.
Digging deeper into the world, it seems pretty clear that There.com aims at a younger demographic. The demos emphazed the fun things you can do -- romance, racing around on flying cars, and romping with a cleverly programmed pet dog. Users can even get a paintball gun, which can be used to play spontaneous games of paintball tag with online friends (or play manhunt with innocent strangers, as the case may be). The corporate presence that I was shown consisted entirely of youth-oriented brands -- major-label rappers holding live, in-world fan events, and a giant Scion sim. This is a far cry from the still-active multinational marketing activities in Second Life, which include everything from IBM to Playboy.
But that may not be a bad thing. Second Life has suffered mightily in the business and mainstream press after the marketing hype surrounding several corporate experiments failed to generate much genuine interest. A targeted approach to the youth market may work better for certain brands in There.com.