May 7, 2006

Deja Vu – The 3D Web

I just got back from attending the bulk of the Metaverse Roadmap: Pathways to the 3D Web conference which was an attempt to bring the minds of various disciplines together to figure out how the Metaverse (3D Web) will come about over the next ten years. Since my online community development experience stretches back three decades and includes the creation of a half dozen avatar-world platforms and dozens of virtual worlds, they thought I might have something to contribute. I don’t know if they expected that I would join such notables as Raph Koster, Daniel James, Ethan Zuckerman in forming a sort of Skeptics Posse which spent a lot of energy trying to help direct some of the inexperienced techno-optimism into more useful/helpful channels. This rant is a continuation of that process.

Turned out that I was the only one attending that was a part of the last 3D Web techno-idealist wave (and colossal marketing mistake): VRML. And a lot of what I heard reminded me the writings, creations and speeches created 10 years ago by the the most influential people in VRML. The hype back then about the imminent “3D Web” was distracting a lot of companies, people, and money with promises of a much more accessible Internet through so-called natural metaphors and intuitive geographic (and stereographic) displays. At the time, Chip Morningstar, Doug Crockford a I wrote several articles and papers and made speeches critical of the Portable Avatars and 3D Is Always Better memes. More recently, this blog contains postings digging into the social, user-interface, and commercial challenges for multi-user 3D experiences.

When VRML 3.0 proposed a standard for a fundamentally broken distributed object computation model (tying behavior to polygons), we’d had enough and prepared a paper in response: Living Worlds Considered Harmful. About the time we finished it, VRML collapsed under its own weight, so we didn’t publish it – thinking, “Why whip the 3D Web dead horse?” Well, the Metaverse Roadmap conference taught my why you should always publish: You never know if that dead horse will rise again as some sort of zombie or phoenix. So, as of today, we’ve published the paper above for the next wave of application developers to consider. It’s never too late to learn from your elders. :-)

Below I am republishing my Wired rant from January 1996, which seems to be just as relevant today:

Now in 3-D!

3-D isn’t an interface paradigm. 3-D isn’t a world model. 3-D isn’t the missing ingredient. 3-D isn’t an inherently better representation for every purpose. 3-D is an attribute, like the color blue.

Any time you read or hear about how great 3-D is and how it’s going to change everything about computers and services, substitute the word blue for 3-D.

Don’t get me wrong; there are great applications for 3D. That’s not the point.

The point is that idealistic assumptions and techno-optimism are no substitute for understanding what people actually want and do when they interact with each other, whether via computers or in the physical world.

Let’s not repeat the path VRML took – that’d be a double waste and I won’t do it. Let’s figure out the problem first, and then look to see if a global-shared-3d-standard-UI-identity-object-system is the solution. So far, I haven’t found a single one.

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