Virtual reality began, like anything else, as a concept. It started appearing in science fiction decades ago. A short story by Ray Bradbury published in 1950 entitled “The Veldt” imagined parents installing their children in a nursery that utilized new technology to stimulate all senses in response to thought, functioning as a virtual world.
As the 20th century passed, actual virtual worlds developed in the form of video games, training software and equipment. Virtual reality began being manufactured and marketed as ensembles incorporating electronic gloves and a helmet covering the user’s eyes, enveloping his or her senses in order to manipulate them. In 1993, the popular, now defunct, comedy show “The Kids In the Hall” aired a sketch called “Virtual Reality” in which one of the troupe’s actors, Scott Thompson, tested such an ensemble and remarked: “The technology is still very crude. You can basically get the same effects from sitting too close to the TV. But then there’s no hat!”
Now virtual reality has moved over to the Internet. Virtual worlds such as Second Life allow users to interact in a 3-D environment where they can create goods and services, even buy and sell land. Although on a certain level, virtual worlds are self-sustaining environments run by fully empowered end users, they still require individuals to operate and maintain the technology behind them and govern the communities that populate them. This has given rise to a relatively new type of IT professional: the virtual world administrator.
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Steve Sima is the founder of OpenlifeGrid, a virtual world based on open source technology operating out of Australia. On the day we spoke with him, Second Life had gone down, so OpenlifeGrid was hit with a huge influx of new users. “When Second Life is down, people look for alternatives,” Sima said. “It stress-tested our equipment this morning.”
Asked what soft skill is most required of a virtual world administrator, he said, “Learn how to make coffee really fast so you can get back and fix something, because the moment you want to get up and have a coffee, that’s the moment something’s probably going to fall apart.”
Monitoring is the key element of a virtual world administrator’s function. “We tend to be able to cover it about 20 hours a day at the moment, then after that we use some remote monitoring,” Sima said.
Although Sima and his co-workers are firmly situated in front of a computer screen all day, they still need good people skills in order to handle tech support requests. “We’re not talking about conversations via e-mail anymore,” Sima said. “Support requests are going to be in-world requests, [such as], ‘I’ve got something in-world and I don’t want it to be there.’ You’re probably going to have to meet them in-world to see what it is they’re talking about. If you’re not polite, courteous and flexible to meet them, they’re not going to get a great impression of the grid, or that you care.”
This produces an interesting disconnect for the virtual world administrator, as it’s easier to be polite and customer facing when doing so virtually. “Nothing against IT technical staff, but we’re not always the fittest, most pretty looking people,” Sima said. “[So by doing] customer service on an in-world basis, you can present a good face.”
But presenting a good face doesn’t help when you don’t speak the same language as an end user. OpenlifeGrid has users all over the globe. “We don’t even have an individual country that has more than a 20 percent share in the registered user base, so it would be wonderful to speak 100 languages,” Sima said. “I only speak a few languages, and even those come in handy. I don’t know that anybody’s got a grid that only has one culture of users in it, just one language. Those kinds of grids are meeting their end now as everybody becomes more global on grids.”
According to Sima, the virtual world market has clear indicators of where there are strong users of virtual worlds: the U.S., U.K., Germany and the Netherlands. Virtual worlds may, at present, be limited in where they expand from there, due to language barriers.
“Obviously, penetration into Asian markets seems to be quite an issue, and it’s probably mostly around language,” Sima said. “European users are fairly comfortable with saying things in English. Asians users are not so comfortable navigating English sites.”
The interesting thing about administrating a virtual world is that while it may involve many of the same technical skill sets as administering a system or a network, what you’re really administering is human beings presented in virtual form.
“A lot of people believe that the most important part of virtual worlds is the graphics, the engine – the pure IT stuff,” said James Bower, a professor of computational biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and founder of Whyville, a virtual world with more than 3 million users. “The truth is, the most important thing about making a virtual world work is the human management, and you need to have the technology and software to do it, but you also need to have people who are trained in how to manage virtual worlds.”
But whether or not someone is trained in how to manage virtual worlds is a sticky issue, as no broadly applicable formal training for this skill exists at present. Sima and his staff are certified in A+ and MCSE, but not in any virtual world administrator certs because, of course, none exist.
“I’d be really curious how [a virtual world administrator certification] could be done, considering that there isn’t a single prominent platform for virtual worlds,” Sima said. “It would be difficult to have specific application knowledge around that. However, there are some common concepts between different worlds.”
Asked whether he believes a virtual world administrator certification could come into being, Bower answered, “I could certainly design one, but the other people in my domain wouldn’t agree with mine. Things are still in the early stages of shakeout in terms of how virtual worlds operate and what managers are responsible for and not responsible for.”
Whyville applies a certification process for each job its administrators perform, and Bower realized these tests could coalesce into a process by which an individual could certify as a virtual world administrator.
“It never occurred to me before, but you could half imagine that a way [we] would certify somebody as being sophisticated with respect to the management and operation of virtual worlds would be to challenge them to go in and pass certification for each of the five or six different jobs that you can do as an avatar in Whyville,” Bower said. “That would give you pretty broad exposure to the issues of managing virtual worlds.”
But there also are issues presented in managing virtual worlds that are more complex than general operation. The civil, judicial and property rights of users within virtual worlds have only come to be loosely defined, if they’re defined at all. “There are a whole bunch of issues at work in a virtual world of adults in which almost no investment has been made in any form of control or enforcing community standards,” Bower said. “Virtual worlds like Second Life are a cross between Orange County, where the developers run mad, and Baghdad, where the terrorists run mad.”
Regardless, virtual worlds will likely grow into a more prominent presence in our lives. “With any new technology, initially humans use it in an old way,” Bower said. “So, 99 percent of the Web sites out there are basically flat 2-D books or magazines. Computers are not limited to that.” According to Bower, a growing contingent believes that within 10 years, the entirety of the Internet will consist of virtual worlds. Bower holds this prediction to two-thirds of the Internet.
“There are kinds of information that it just makes sense to get in flat form, for example if you’re doing a known item search,” Bower said.
But he believes large stores such as Home Depot will move over to being represented online by virtual worlds. “All their stores are the same; there’s no reason why their Web site shouldn’t be a virtual version of their store,” he said.
According to Bower, migration to virtual worlds has the potential to change not just e-commerce, but advertising as well. “What virtual worlds provide, and not very many of them understand this yet, is a way to engage users more deeply than any other form of media,” Bower said. “As we become aware of that, advertising should no longer be ‘How many eyeballs watched a 30-second slot,’ it should be ‘How many brains are involved in an activity’ at the level of hours, days and months. Then, because that’s driving advertising and marketing, it’s going to drive the growth of virtual worlds.
“For that reason, it’s a growth industry for people who know how to build and manage these things.”
– Daniel Margolis, firstname.lastname@example.org