OVer the past few years, I’ve been keeping tabs on emerging virtual environments (Multi-User Virtual Environments or MUVES). Second Life has been my main interest, but I am also curious about the new Google Labs project called Lively. When I first heard of this project (October 2007 post here,) I was hopeful that it would correct some of the main problems of Second Life. I wanted Google to:

  • Make the technology more accessible to average users who don’t have high-end graphics cards.
  • At the same time, make the virtual world more attractive and immersive with better quality graphics that are closer to gaming industry standards. This sounds like a contradiction with my first request, but I believe Google can do it.
  • Don’t require users to download updates every week, one of Second Life’s real liabilities.
  • Be more supportive of educational uses of the platform, perhaps by giving educators free, permanent space.
  • Make it easier for groups of mixed ages (e.g., high school students and college students) to meet in a safe environment instead of separating into the “teen” (up to 17) and the “adult” (18 and over) grid.
  • Integrate the Web into the virtual space more completely than Second Life. There is really no reason for me to go into Second Life to check out resources which are more readily accessible on the Web at large. Google might change this by brining in Web content in fluid and uniquely three-dimensional ways.
  • Make it possible for hundreds of avatars to meet in the same space without crashing the system. Again, this is one of the real limitations of Second Life.

That’s quite a request list, but Google has done pretty well. First, you don’t need a high-end graphics card to use Lively. It also does not require continual downloads to keep the software updated. Embedded a Lively space into a Web site is really simple–you just embed the code as you would a YouTube video. This makes it easy to integrate three-dimensional content into the two-dimensional Web. Finally, Lively is free and theoretically open to everyone, with no age restrictions or prohibitive costs.

Now for the down side: the graphics are still well below gaming industry standards and even worse than Second Life. As of now, you can only create single discrete rooms, not multiple, interconnected rooms needed to constitute an entire world. Room templates make it fun and easy to design your own space, but a limited number of templates really restricts your design choices.

Still, I had fun setting up my own virtual office space (a desert island), where I could potentially meet with students or other faculty members. Check it out: you’ll need to install the software and have a Google account. Both are free.

For a good review of Lively, see this CNET article or this helpful FAQ.