The Shanghai World Expo is expected to draw 70 million visitors to Shanghai – a record high for an international event in China. But in yet another effort to make this the most popular expo ever, there are hopes that an additional 100 million people will also visit its virtual world version, the Expo Shanghai Online.
In this virtual park, online users can create their own avatars, tour a digital version of the 5.28 square-kilometer Shanghai Expo site, watch online broadcasts of the real event and interact with each other in a variety of online 3D activities. It’s the first time the technology has been deployed at a world expo, allowing people from all around the world to participate and interact with an online presence.
"Expo Shanghai Online is one of the most significant virtual reality technology activities in years," said Doug Thompson, CEO of Remedy Communications in Toronto and owner of Metanomics.net, a weekly online show that explores the use of virtual worlds.
"Shanghai is pushing the envelope for virtual worlds and if they pull it off… people will realize that it’s a real part of today’s media landscape."
While the real Shanghai World Expo is expected to change the face of the city, there’s hope that the virtual Expo Shanghai Online – the English version of which will launch this month – will also change the market for 3D web technology. Thanks to its connection to a high-profile international event, and by extension the volume and distribution of its potential user base, the Expo Shanghai Online may very well serve as a test for the potential of 3D virtual reality technology to change the rules of the online market.
In terms of entertainment and online gaming, virtual worlds like Second Life – developed by San Francisco-based Linden Labs – and China’s HiPiHi (still in its beta release) have gained both visitors and press in recent years. Much of the technology is not technically that new – after all, games like World of Warcraft have been deploying 3D environments for nearly a decade. What is new is the shift involved in connecting such environments more closely to reality and practical utility.
Platforms like Second Life and HiPiHi are not games, but rather online communities where people can socialize and make friends, buy property and build homes, and sell virtual products and services in a fully-functioning economy with an internal, usually convertible, currency. They move in a virtual land, doing everything they are used to in the physical world, while enjoying the selective implementation of certain physical laws, like gravity.
Thus airborne virtual sex, bizarre weaponry like cannons that fire exploding chickens, and absurd fashion statements involving extra appendages abound. Unfortunately, it may be this very social flexibility (combined with virtual currencies and financial institutions) that makes such environments much more difficult to monitor and control than a traditional chat room. This might be why Beijing’s support for this purported new "Web 2.0" has been tepid at best. It also may explain why Second Life has yet to create a Chinese-language version and why HiPiHi is still in a testing state.
In business and professional spheres, though, Remedy’s Thompson said virtual worlds are used in more practical ways – from creating a shared 3D virtual training session for US Navy submarine teams to a virtual world learning environment in which the University of Texas brings its 16 campuses together. Three-dimensional spaces can be used for evaluating simple design prototypes in a committee environment without flying attendees to a physical location. Clothing makers in particular like 3D environments where they can test the popularity of virtual versions of new designs.
In China, despite reservations, virtual reality technology is nevertheless gaining a degree of traction. Jason Lin is marketing director for Fairtheworld, a 3D media provider and virtual reality software developer based in Zhuhai. He said the company’s software is being used to build a 3D Shenzhen International Exhibition Center in which global exhibitors and visitors can create their own virtual profiles and exhibits, and then interact and even conduct business.
"Nowadays, it’s not enough that people just communicate with each other through websites," Lin said. "They need to communicate face-to-face more and more. We believe 3D virtual reality technology is a solution that allows people to touch and feel a company’s services."
It is these kinds of features that will be highlighted through Expo Shanghai Online. The beta version – which currently features a bird’s eye view of the Expo site and, as of mid-December allowed viewers to virtually tour about 50 pavilions – went live on November 12, while its official launch date is May 1, 2010. Other pavilions will be opened gradually on the website according to the real Expo site’s construction progress.
The French Pavilion was the first 3D virtual pavilion to be launched on Expo Shanghai Online. Visitors can walk freely both inside and outside the pavilion, and view the French-style rooftop garden and masterpieces of the Musée d’Orsay. Visitors can also enjoy 3D interactivity, including mini games where they can "enter" masterpiece artworks such as Gaugain’s "Le Repas" and wander around inside.
"The world is changing and 3D is becoming a universal language for people around the world to learn, discover and innovate," said Zhao Heng, Greater China vice president for Dassault Systèmes, maker of the popular CATIA product modeling tool, which is providing its 3DVIA Virtools software to the Expo Shanghai Online.
At the same time, even though virtual reality technology is being showcased in this event of widespread international business proportions, its future success and marketability still faces challenges, and not just for political reasons.
"We’ve seen growth for virtual reality technology in some areas, but it’s also been lackluster in other areas," said Chris Kahler, CEO and co-founder of Urbian, a Shanghai-based mobile technology start-up that specializes in building social-network based mobile solutions for enterprises.
Not there yet
Originally some 3D web developers believed that their new model was so superior in every way to the conventional "flat" browsing experience that it would entirely displace conventional browsers.
But three dimensions are not necessary for every task. Creating simple functions like search are complex (there is no such thing as a "page," and addresses involve three-dimensional coordinates as well as content tags), and basic text-centric productivity tasks are more painful in 3D. In addition, interactive 3D audio and video demand a massive amount of bandwidth and processing speed.
"There’s definitely a use for virtual reality technology, but it will not transform the web in as large of a way as many people think," said Kahler. "For a lot of things on the internet, you don’t need virtual world tech. Even plain text is more than enough sometimes."
Thompson, of Remedy Communications and Metanomics.net, agreed; three-dimensional virtual reality technology is just one element in the internet’s future, he said.
Still, the biggest problem for virtual reality technology’s mainstream adoption is that many users remain unclear on what it is for. Is it a game? A social network? Or a productivity tool?
"It’s a bit abstract and far-fetched, so there is a marketing hurdle. You have to find a way to communicate to people how and why they should use it," Kahler said. "And for online communities, you need to reach a critical mass, a certain volume of people, before it’s useful. Very few companies can attain that."
Which is not to say none can. IBM, for example, has invested significantly in virtual web technology, in both Second Life and China’s HiPiHi. However, while the dream of a universal 3D web interface is still far away, the near future of the 3D web will likely be smaller and more specialized in scope – much like the Shanghai Expo Online, in fact.