Reuters has a story today about IBM and Linden Lab’s announcement that they are working together on creating interoperability standards so that avatars can cross from one virtual world to another. This is welcome and important news, given the likely enormous proliferation of virtual worlds in the coming 12 months.
But the Reuter’s piece doesn’t completely capture why this is so important, explaining that "designing a detailed avatar can take well
over an hour, so a closed system discourages customers from abandoning
that investment. But it is also a barrier to growth since few people
bother to start the process anew in multiple virtual worlds." That is true, but it really doesn’t explain why this interoperability is important for virtual worlders.
Studies have shown that people feel
personally invested in their online avatar personas as digital
extensions of themselves. The name and appearance of an avatar has strong
personal significance to the user, more than say, playing as Master
Chief in "Halo" or Carl Johnson in "Grand Theft Auto."
But beyond just the appearance of an avatar is the often dense layers
of social relationships and structures that the avatar is embedded
within. If your avatar is the head of a clan, owner of a famous
dance club, or a popular dominatrix, you aren’t likely to relish the
idea of recreating these social relationships and status in another
virtual world. Instead you will stay "home" where "everyone knows your
It’s analogous to moving from MySpace to Facebook, which presents all
sorts of difficulties recreating the appearance of your page, your
friend’s lists, image galleries, music preferences, ad infinitum. For
some it’s an opportunity to start afresh, perhaps after graduation from
college or the end of a relationship. But for most it’s a major pain
in the ass.
How to transport these embedded social structures and relationships
over to another platform is an immense scaling problem. But it will be
an important one to surmount if people are going to feel like "their
avatar" has successfully traveled from virtual world to another. I do
hope that IBM and Linden Lab’s plans include significant resources
engaged in addressing these kinds of issues.