Where Now, Portable Avatar?

By now I assume that those of you with an interest in the virtual world topics I cover here have read about the announcement made at the opening of last week’s Virtual World Conference and Expo; Fall 2007: Linden Lab and IBM have joined forces to push “avatar portability”. Those of you surprised by this move either haven’t generally been paying attention or haven’t been reading my posts (e.g. “Standards of Avatar Portability” – reLink). Shame on you.

More importantly, this news takes me back to an earlier post, “The Innovation of Insecurity” (reLink), where I suggested what level of interoperability we might see.

In effect, open source Second Life would morph into being a kind of plug-in platform. It could interface with any number of other platform technologies if that interface were kept relatively simple. For example, imagine hooking up Multiverse to Second Life. How might that work? Well, they’d have some kind of “portal” that allowed an avatar to faze out of one and into another, but beyond that I’d venture they’d mostly only need Profile information; the kind of Profile information being kept by Xfire and XBox Live perhaps. In some ways, it could be almost as seamless as jumping from one webpage to another. With Web2.0 functionality, the analogy would be more like me jumping from my Google homepage to GMail. That’s what a universal, standardized profile system could do (wonder if/when we’ll see that).

Somewhat surprisingly, people are talking about avatar portability as something far more extensive and far-reaching than what I was imagining; including avatar geometry, inventory items that move from world to world, seamless currency exchange standards and so on. Perhaps from some worlds to some other worlds, but it doesn’t make sense to me that so much information should follow an avatar everywhere. That seems like an unnecessary burden on world builders.

What if the world has no humanoid avatars? Does that mean “World of FishCraft” is out of luck? What if there are no wheeled vehicles? Is “Eve: Fluidic Space” going to have a floating automotive junkyard? It just doesn’t make sense to me to drag unnecessary data around. Instead, I tend to believe we’ll eventually see an extensible standard.

I still believe the foundation for an “OpenAV” standard will probably be fairly basic; perhaps even tied into OpenID since that’s mostly what would be required. After that, users/avatars could add portability support to their OpenAV profile by adding plug-ins provided by world builders. Those plug-ins would make whatever is associated with them accessible (or not) on login. Some worlds might be interoperable (allowing things like inventory items to move between worlds), some worlds might be partially interoperable (avatar geometry/shape only… but what a headache that might be) and some wouldn’t be interoperable at all (basic OpenAV information exchange only).

From a social networking and marketing perspective, it’s the basic OpenAV profile that’s probably of greatest interest. From my earlier post, “Marketing to Fragments While Everything Else Converges” (reLink):

Netizens are beginning to see both “persona convergence” and media convergence happening all around them. How is it that a corporate vice president is pushing the idea that companies need to market to different identities of the same person when everything is now converging? While he’s chasing fragments of Johnny, the real Johnny is assembling them into an increasingly cohesive online identity.

Marketing to and engaging in discourse with multi-channel influencers seems a much more sensible way to get a brand message to the consumer because they do much of the work for the company.

Assuming that the marketing world decides to do what I’m suggesting instead of chasing the “various personas of a consumer”, that means the corporate types will probably take an interest in that fundamental OpenAV profile. Now I don’t expect them to realize how important defining the basic profile will probably be to their future marketing efforts; instead, I have a feeling Linden Lab, IBM, and other involved parties are going to be going to them. After all, this is big business. And that gives one pause for thought, eh?

From the content perspective, I’ll only say this: I hope there’s someone involved in the effort that can propose a unified 3D format which bridges virtual worlds and manufacturing. If that portable inventory is going to include geometry that can move across virtual worlds, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t play nice with rapid manufacturing equipment.

Lastly, from an overall perspective, I have to say I’m hesitant to get too excited. The efforts of the last 3D consortium I recall didn’t pan out too well. Heaven forbid we should have another VRML97 on our hands (as in, watch the effort stagnate afterward). Let’s just see where this effort goes next.

Anyway, for more reading on this topic, here are some links on the Linden Lab/IBM announcement:

“IBM and Linden Lab Launch Collaboration to Further Advance the 3D Internet” (Link) – IBM Press Release

“The Next Step Toward Advancing 3D Virtual Worlds” (Link) – Linden Lab official blog entry

“Second Life, IBM in open borders for virtual worlds” (Link) – Reuters

“Tech titans seek virtual-world interoperability” (Link) – C|Net

“IBM Teams With Second Life To Build Portable Avatars” (Link) – Information Week

“Universal avatars bestride worlds” (Link) – BBC

“Free the Avatars” (Link)New York Times

“IBM and Linden Lab’s Official Announcement” (Link) – Virtual World News

“Virtual World Interoperability” (Link) – Julian Lombardi

“Open Avatar Announcement a Great Move” (Link) – Tim O’Reilly

“IBM, Virtual Worlds and Standards – a roundup” (Link) – IBM’s Roo Reynolds

“Interoperability” (Link) – Raph Koster

“Linden Lab and IBM Collaboration on Virtual Standards” (Link) – Second Life Insider