About 10 minutes before I visited the Avatar Reality booth (#727), someone on the show floor told me “people have been talking about virtual reality forever, but we never really get there.” In many ways, of course, he’s right. That notion of giant goggles and wacky gloves, or entering the holographic cube, while all technically possible more or less right now, have largely failed to take off as a consumer entertainment industry thus far. More successful in luring real people into different planes of digital existance have been those online 3D virtual games and worlds that are all over the internet. Some are more focused on being multi-player, online games that take place in virtual environments, like “World of Warcraft,” while a few others are trying to create real socially-based online societies largely designed and built by its residents, like “Second Life.”
Today, I saw what could be the next generation of the concept at the Avatar Reality booth in the form of “Project Blue Mars”–a new online virtual world that purports to offer participants the opportunity to build an entire world out of a Terraformed Mars in the year 2177. The main difference from “Second Life” that I could see in the demo was superior, even stunning, graphics (built on the foundation of the CryTek game engine, which Avatar Reality has licensed), and a different business model that involves more controlled, professional content and environments than some of the others now online.
Set to launch officially in April of 2009, Blue Mars’ approach is to license to “content developers” the right to “build” cities and other pieces of infrastructure, and then within their “city,” sell virtual products and services to players (who can join and play for free) and revenue-share the profits with Avatar Reality, which will maintain the server and technically support the growing “world” as it spreads its tentacles.
One of the first developers to partner with the comany is Virtual Space Entertainment, which is builiding the first city on Blue Mars, and if it looks and acts half as good as the promo video at the booth, it will be quite impressive.
I don’t pretend to fully understand the how and why of living a virtual existance at my age, but it was clear that a high-end environment that has some controls and parameters and a certain ease of use and no cost up front for consumers might offer all sorts of business opportunities, not only in terms of virtual products interesting only to participants, but also for artists, designers, engineers who want to prove concepts of things they want to design or build in the real world before they, well, go to the time and expense of building those things in the real world.
The social implications of what might happen to those who prefer their virtual life to their real one are beyond my clear understanding, although someone I spoke to today claimed a group of online game players in a foreign country recently starved to death rather than quit playing (a tale I am really hoping is not true, for all sorts of reasons). But, in any case, these technologies and concepts and radical new forms of media are obviously here to stay, and whether Blue Mars succeeds or fails, I’m sure it won’t be the last attempt of this kind.