Over the last couple of years there has been a significant rise in the adoption of web-based NVEs (Network Virtual Environments) like Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com). These virtual worlds provide a 3D environment in which residents (represented as human-like avatars) can explore and interact with other residents they meet. Interactions can include "private chats" (that can still be overheard by other residents near you), instant messaging and even voice.
Many organizations have a presence in Second Life, from IBM who has created their own islands where they can communicate to each other and to their customers to clothing retailers who sell their goods from virtual shops using the local currency (the Linden Dollar).
Given that NVEs offers the ability for web-users to communicate in a graphically rich environment with 3D models of imaginary or real-world structures government organizations are also considering adoption of this technology for collaboration.
Should your next public meeting be in a Second Life council chamber?
Before you move your consultation into a Second Life it is worth considering the following points:
- People are not who they seem to be. If you are interested in identifying responses by age, gender or ethnic origin, don't trust in appearances. The 18 year-old Californian skater girl who gives you feedback may be a 55 year old accountant from Huddersfield (or even vice versa).
- Don't expect to control the conversation. Free speech reigns and the avatar you meet may say anything to you or about you. Therefore if you are concerned about the tone/language of a conversation that can be overheard this may not be for you. There is a "policing" mechanism where discretions are totalled-up and action taken but this does not stop the initial indiscretion. It may also be difficult to stick to any sort of agenda at a public meeting.
- You need to be there. As interactions are in real-time, to interact properly you need to be in the world when your users are. As many organizations block Second Life this means that both you and the people you are trying to reach can only get online at home.
- User expectations. To encourage people to interact with you, you will need to create and maintain a 3D virtual presence. Therefore you may need to "build" the virtual housing estate that you want to discuss.
- Security. Conversations are not secure in this environment and it is difficult to maintain any sort of audit trail of all conversations based around a particular subject.
- Copyright, ownership and your identity. While it is not allowed to copy objects marked as copyright there are programs (e.g. CopyBot) which can export then re-import objects. This means that your virtual housing estate could be copied, modified then re-imported to a different location with new "owners" who may then misrepresent your views.
These issues are not bugs or limitations of NVEs but are part of their nature - innovative and exciting yes but also chaotic, unrestricted and, by definition, "not real".
Trends and Predictions
There will be no stopping the increased virtualisation of the web. Users will demand ever more interactive and interesting ways to access your information and interact with you. This is clearly demonstrated by the rise of web-based mapping. The GIS system that you thought was leading-edge a few years ago is now compared by your citizens with applications like Google maps (complete with route finder and multimedia information points) and Microsoft Virtual Earth.
Many industry analysts have predicted that government organizations will slowly start to investigate and experiment with public, on-line NVEs during the next 5 years but that ultimately other solutions will be sought and adopted. It is clear that more controlled virtual experiences will be created for adoption within an organization or between an organization and its stakeholders. These corporate NVEs will provide the advantages of the virtual world but with the required level of security, "auditability" and control.
Until then, perhaps you should go home, swap your body for your chosen avatar and have fun.