Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Web Secret #67: Everything Is Virtual

Question: What's the next step in the social media revolution?

Answer: An explosion in virtual activity in an increasingly sophisticated virtual world.

In its day, (the 90’s), the TV show Star Trek – Deep Space Nine featured what seemed like a very futuristic concept, that crew members on a spaceship would be able to enter a virtual recreation area where, (even though they were in a spaceship), they could play baseball on a virtual ball field, listen to jazz in a vintage nightclub, etc.

Fast forward 10 years or so, and today, we can go to Second Life, (an online virtual world), and have all kinds of experiences that would never be available to us in the “real world”. Granted Second Life does not have the sophistication (yet) of the Star Trek holosuite – but that’s just a matter of time. I just heard a prediction that by 2012, many of us will be watching the London Olympics on 3-D TV sets. Just imagine that Second Life becomes a 3-D environment which we can enter as ourselves, without an avatar, and the leap to recreation in a holosuite suddenly seems much smaller.

Some experts believe that the existing surging virtual goods market represents a profound economic revolution, on par with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

In a thought provoking article in The Guardian, Is virtual boom our industrial revolution? journalist Victor Keegan point out that people using Facebook or other social networks are already sending each other "virtual" gifts such as roses, birthday cakes or even stuffed animals. These gifts are often paid for with "virtual" currencies. Estimates put the value of virtual goods on Facebook at almost $100m.

A team, including the guru of virtual world economics Edward Castronova, has been poring over internal transactions for Sony's Everquest II online game. It found that income per capita in the game was between $130 and $164 a year, putting the average player on par with citizens in developing nations such as Congo.

The reason Keegan believes that virtual interactions represent a seismic economic change rather than a passing fad are numerous:
  1. The technologies behind virtual spaces are rapidly developing.
  2. Soon products will be constructed in a virtual world and then "printed" out in the real world as a tangible product.
  3. Social networks, virtual worlds and the three-dimensional web are getting more powerful every year.
  4. There is a growing awareness of the necessity to combat global warming, (and I would argue, to cope with pandemics), by limiting the use of transportation in favor of staying home, using virtual goods and traveling in virtual worlds. It is much more cost-effective - as increasing numbers of organizations have already found out - to meet or collaborate in a virtual world than to fly everyone to a destination.
Keegan closes his article by making the somewhat mind bending argument that everything can be seen as virtual. A piece of chocolate you eat becomes virtual in a matter of seconds; a virtual rose sent to your Facebook can last longer than a real rose. Many things we think of as real – such as "money" in the form of a dollar bill, or the value of a "brand" such as Nike – are already virtual.

Keegan concludes that if the move towards virtual doesn't become a revolution in its own right, it will only be because the virtual and real worlds will have merged to the point where it is difficult to distinguish them.

The implication for me is clear – there is a huge opportunity, (I would even say an imperative), for clinicians, companies, associations and organizations to establish their presence in a virtual world – be it an existing platform, or one yet to be created.

I will meet you there.

Thank you Online Therapy Institute Blog for your thought provoking "Is Face-to-Face Therapy Technically More Virtual Than Online Therapy?" which led me to Keegan's article and inspired this post.

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