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Five Critical Success Factors For Mainstream 3D Virtual World Projects

November 20th, 2009

Virtual world imageThe New Mainstream 3D Virtual World Project

Today’s mainstream users of 3D virtual worlds have expectations and needs that do not match those of pioneering explorers of these platforms. New projects are measured in different ways, and expecting a mainstream project to be successful using an explorer’s strategy is like expecting that you can win a road race riding a tricycle.

Early 3D virtual world experiments were driven by explorers trying to push the boundaries of possibility. These projects tested the feasibility of ways that a 3D virtual world could be used, and focused on trial scenarios to prove or disprove a particular usage theory. Success was often measured on technical terms, with users whose involvement was project focused and short term.

Mainstream projects take feasibility as a given, and create an environment to support day to day use by the regular members of an organization — as an educational platform, a place to enable distributed teamwork for global companies and academic institutions, as a virtual classroom environment, or a “better conference call”.

Mainstream projects have user-driven success metrics. Merely passing the “it works” test does not mean automatic project success. Successful mainstream projects result in “normal users” who are happy with the environment, find it to be compelling, continue to use it willingly and recommend its use to others. They judge the environment on how it improves their day to day experience while doing their real work, not based on whether it is a cool technology or has promising possibilities. They also have limited motivation to learn a new environment as an exploratory exercise, and must find value in the experience quickly in order to justify additional effort.

Mainstream 3D Virtual World Project Success Factors

A key point in this list is that the first three success factors are human factors. The success or failure of mainstream virtual world projects are often based much more strongly on human factors and personal reactions than anything else (with the exception of blatant hardware or network incompatibility), yet it is these human factors that are often marginalized in favor of a focus on spectacular visual artistry or technical complexity. “It’s not all about the prims, textures and notecards!”

1)  Positive User Sentiment – First Encounter: Did the orientation experience leave users feeling that they could succeed in the environment, or leave them feeling frustrated, confused, incapable and embarrassed (a surprising number of orientation approaches generate these feelings as their primary output, making this factor the hidden destroyer of many otherwise potentially successful projects).

2)  Users Believe That The 3D Virtual World Option Is A Better Solution: Do the participants think that using the platform is better than the other alternatives for the tasks they have at hand? Has the ongoing user experience been crafted in a way that supports users’ goals, and in such a way that they see specific value in using the 3D environment, as compared to “the world they know”?

3)  Social And Dynamic Engagement Are Centerpoints Of The Experience: 3D Virtual Worlds are fundamentally social spaces, capable of generating moving, socially and programmatically interactive environments. Projects that generate glorious looking spaces with no engagement and “nothing to do” often fail spectacularly, as compared to those that create social spaces with regular events and dynamic activities. A corollary to this is education spaces that are not dynamically engaging, requiring the user to wander through large amounts of static content. Some users will be willing to explore in a static, motionless environment without social interaction, but this is the minority. Many people dropped into such a situation will report boredom, irritation and confusion.

Construction of spectacular professionally developed environments, while visually amazing, may in some cases have little influence on the ongoing success of a project. A simple, almost spartan, starting environment that users develop themselves to suit their needs can create higher engagement and user satisfaction than a scenario in which users are presented with a completed environment over which they have no control.

4)  Infrastructure – Network Connectivity: Will the networks used to connect users and servers allow required traffic, and do they support the bandwidth required for acceptable performance.  Some virtual worlds, in particular Second Life and OpenSimulator, require many TCP/IP network ports to be open between the viewer (client) and servers.

Some organizations will open ports to allow this traffic on their corporate firewalls to enable pilot projects to expand, and others will resist or refuse this on security policy grounds.  If a behind the firewall architecture is chosen to circumvent this issue, and there is a need to access the system from the web (from home, for instance), does the network infrastructure support this type of connection, and is the bandwidth high enough to support the projected user base.

5)  Infrastructure – User Hardware: Do typical users have computers of sufficient processor speed with graphics cards of acceptable performance levels for the types of usage envisioned?  The advent of inexpensive netbook-style computers, and even corporate notebooks that have low prices due to limited graphics hardware, have made computer capability an on-going issue for 3D applications. Many systems provide fine performance, but this is not a given on inexpensive hardware, even purchased recently.

There is some good news about low performance hardware. If accommodating low performance hardware is part of the design process, the 3D environment can be created to reduce graphics stress, resulting in much higher user satisfaction.  Unfortunately many project designs and builders fail to take into account the reality of the hardware that will be used to access the 3D environment, resulting in failure when real users start to be involved.

This project design problem is directly akin to web site design issues in the era before widespread broadband connections. Design of a site that required high bandwidth, with no accommodation for dial-up users, would be unusable for most users lacking high end connectivity. On a related note, even today presuming broadband access is not a given, based on a report today discussing FCC comments on barriers to broadband adoption in the U.S.

There are a variety of techniques that can help with optimizing for low performance hardware, both from a 3D scene design perspective and client hardware optimization.  Watch for an upcoming blog post with Second Life and OpenSimulator specific optimizations for the new netbook-class computers.

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