Want Virtual Worlds to Take Off? Simplify the Controls.


Is that a Wiimote?

We just got finished reading a
well-researched and optimistic piece of Metaverse research by Shellie Karabell of the INSEAD Business School.

In his study, Karaball notes half a dozen reasons to be optimistic about the Metaverse over the next few years. But he also makes note of a major stumbling block to the wide adoption of virtual worlds without fully appreciating its importance:

For many curious potential users, logging in is easy. It's getting around that drives them away.

Operating Heavy Machinery

Second Life's multiple avatar movement buttons are notoriously user unfriendly, especially if the potential player has a limited time frame to learn controls. Perhaps the user procrastinated in setting up an account until two days before her business conference at IBM's virtual headquarters. Now the potential player is confronted with a control panel that resembles a Mars Rover.

Karabell notes that the confusing controls have already stalled faculty adoption of INSEAD's virtual classroom initiative:

“This is the biggest hurdle for the adoption of the virtual world,”
claims [Program Dean Miklos] Sarvary. “It takes much more effort, it takes some time before
you can really become familiar with the technology.

You need training.
The students are a little more eager to participate, but the professors
are not exactly willing to take risks

We've seen that age plays a significant role in the ease with which a consumer adopts technology, meaning the complex avatar design and movement systems of Second Life may ultimately prove too complicated for older adopters, at least in the short term. Learning the ropes of movement and character creation needn't be so complicated.

A Tale of Two Viewers

Tracy Tuten, author of Advertising 2.0, argues that Second Life must become much simpler for casual, first-time users to operate if it is to have wide-scale business potential. Fortunately, all this would require is creating a new viewer with vastly streamlined features and a more comprehensive, easier-to-understand instruction manual.

It may seem like a step backward from the perspective of tech-savvy content creators, but this hypothetical "Second Life Business Edition" would ease entry into the virtual experience by holding the hand of a confused executive until they meet a series of benchmarks, at which point the training wheels slowly detach from the game.

Companies should be able to set "permission levels" for employees using the new software, since it isn't likely every employee will need full content creation skills. At any rate, if they're interested in designing things, they can sign up for a personal account. The move towards virtual company dress codes also makes a case for limiting the clothing options of a company-funded avatar.

By creating a viewer aimed at involving a large number of new users without overwhelming their tech receptors, Second Life could open itself up to millions of new, high-profit customers.

8 thoughts on “Want Virtual Worlds to Take Off? Simplify the Controls.”

  1. Maybe, maybe not. Could it be that people are just too lazy to learn how to read help now? Think about the computer keyboard. 95% of people don’t use hotkeys, but they could if they knew how to set em up. And what about those 12 function buttons… when was the last time you pressed F11? I do agree virtual world controls can be clunky…. but, maybe it’s that ALL things take getting used to.
    Think about video games and the evolution of the controller.
    Did the nintendo gaming consoles fail simply because of their controller? N64 had Mario 64 and Zelda Ocarina of Time… two of the best video games ever made… and with one of the worst controllers ever made.

  2. What’s so difficult about using the arrow keys to walk/run/fly horizontally, and Page Up/Page Down to move vertically while flying?
    Oh, wait… I get it: I’m left-handed. Mouse to the left of the keyboard to work the camera control HUD (parked for convenience at the left edge of my screen); right hand free to use the above-mentioned keys for movement.
    Hmmm… Could it be that Second Life is designed (whether intentionally or not) for the approximate 10% of people who are more creative, and more spatially imaginative, than the average righty? Ironic, considering that the free ability to create one’s own stuff is the salient feature of worlds like SL.
    Instead of “dumbing down” the interface, the Metaverse needs a “smartening up” of its potential inhabitants. Learning curves exist for good reasons.

  3. Unfortunately
    Lalo, thats a bad idea from a business perspective, and it
    artificially limits how many people can use Second Life. If people come
    to SL looking to use it for work but see an intimidating control
    scheme, theyre just going to find another place to work – telling them
    Youre just not smart enough is not a path Id advise.

  4. Children can teach us quite a bit regarding user interface, especially with regard to 3D virtual worlds. I have been researching and prototyping direct manipulation (coined “immersive touch”) 3D virtual environments for many years now & direct manipulation certainly proves to be more intuitive for kids.
    Quick demo is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVFsxev-2sk

  5. Interesting point here is that if a platform wants to be used, it MUST meet some criteria. Ease of use and quality of content. Factor that in with being friendly to your computer (ie: you don’t have to have a ‘gamer level’ machine to enjoy it), and you might just have a winner. The trouble is that there is no standard being used. Prototerra and Virtual Vancouver have one way of navigating, SL has another, Blue Mars has another, etc. It makes it tedious to have to remember that you can’t ‘right mouse click’ to scan around in SL, but you can in Prototerra or V-Side. And in those where you can, some ‘look around’ without turning your avatar and some don’t. It does get confusing. There is an ISO standard out there for web 3D by the way, it is called x3D and it does have a standard for navigation in worlds. You can’t approach these ideas as ‘dumbing down’ the software for the users, you must approach the problem as if the user will not understand it at all to begin with. Therefore it has to be simple to do. It is easy to assume at the developer level that all will understand, but in real practice, as with normal computer use, it isn’t necessarily true. Ask any help desk or IT about that. 🙂

  6. Well said Bruce — but who is going to lead the charge for standardization of controls, given how standardizing the avatar has failed? Though I suppose they serve different ends…

  7. Depends, Google is trying with O3D, SL apparently doesn’t care about it because they are a closed system. It would be interesting if some platforms got together and set a ‘standard’ and waited to see if others would follow. As long as they’re all chasing dollars and branding, etc., I doubt if it will happen. The problem with X3D as a standard is lack of interest from developers and even the Web3D Consortium itself.

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