Why the iPad is a game-changer for virtual environments

In the past couple of hours, the official announcement of the Apple iPad has finally been made. As with all these announcements, the rumors have been partly right, but there’s still been a fair share of surprises.

I won’t go into the technical specifics of the iPad here: publications like Australian Macworld * have all that. What I do want to discuss, with as little fanboyishness as possible, is how I see the iPad being a real landmark in the ongoing growth of virtual words:

1. The App Store and Social Worlds = Gold

In the less than 18 months of the App Store’s existence, more than three billion applications have been downloaded. Expect that to continue to grow exponentially on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Add the iPad to the mix and there’s even more fuel in the fire. The real success of the Apple App Store has been its simplicity in installing applications – that’s now migrated to a larger form-factor, with applications developed to make the best of it.

Apple know the appeal of social gaming and games like Zynga’s Farmville and Cafe World are some of the leaders. Facebook and embedded games like Farmville are ideally suited to a tablet-sized screen. As are the thousands of alternatives that’ll follow suit over the coming year. The ones that make good money will need to ensure a satisfying experience for users in the longer term, which means more engaging environments in order to maintain market leadership. With Zynga’s titles being Flash-based, there may actually be some serious challenges for them on the iPad given the lack of Flash support to date on the iPhone. Some will say that’s far from a bad thing.

2. The iPad as Virtual Trojan Horse

Arguably one of the key barriers to widespread adoption of virtual worlds has been their perception as niche, with significant technical and bandwidth requirements. The niche aspect is slowly being broken down, mostly thanks to the ‘Facebook’ games discussed above. What the iPad will do over time is overcome the technical issues for a new user. It’s hard to imagine it’ll be too many months before someone develops effective iPad applications for Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars, Frenzoo and so on. When you have those applications able to be downloaded as easy as Farmville, then the iPad has truly become the Trojan Horse that’s smuggled in the heavy hitters in virtual environments.

On the cautionary side, tablet PCs are a very small proportion of the market at present – this announcement might change that but it’ll take more than a few months to do so. The announced prices aren’t exorbitant for the feature set (starting at US $499 for the Wi-Fi Only version), so although there’s not likely to be a stampede, the price is cheap enough to ensure some big sales numbers over coming months.

3. It’s about relaxation

For those of us that spend a lot of time online, sitting at a computer or juggling a laptop is second nature. For the vast majority that spend time online, it’s a necessary evil> The ability to have a portable device that’s large enough to view comfortably but small enough to accommodate most people’s sitting (or lying) poses has got to increase its likelihood of use. Where a casual user may have previously checked their email, read their Facebook timeline and perhaps browsed a website or two, with devices like the iPad they may spend an extra ten minutes chatting in IMVU or grinding through Cafe World.

It’s far from certain, but if a Second Life or OpenSim application is developed that has a feature-set close to as good as the current viewers, then there may also be a spike in use of those more complex environments. For those who use voice in Second Life, a iPad application will be of particular value as the need to type is so much less, although the decision by Apple to offer a physical keyboard as an iPad accessory is a sensible one. Hell, I’ll put my neck on the line and say that a near full-featured Second Life or OpenSim viewer will have been announced and maybe even delivered by the end of this year.

The Sum Up

Today’s announcement isn’t earth-shattering in the scheme of things, but it’s certainly a significant event in a virtual worlds context. The landscape isn’t going to change immediately and perhaps not radically. What is going to happen over time, is an even greater level of growth of virtual worlds users / players / residents as it becomes a less time consuming and technical task to interact with your avatar and the people you enjoy spending time with online. The potential growth may be somewhat under the radar initially, as people focus on the iPad’s abilities as a media reader and ultra-portable ‘productivity enhancer’.

Those potential new virtual world inhabitants won’t necessarily be using a iPad – you can stake your life on clones surfacing in coming months, but like the iPod and iPhone before it, this is a device that has broken some new ground.

For those wanting to discuss the announcement further, Mitch Wagner is holding a discussion this weekend in Second Life – all the details here.

Now over to you: do you see the iPad as a game-changer of just more Apple-driven hype?

* Disclosure: I’m a paid contributing writer for Australian Macworld

Photo courtesy of Gizmodo


  1. IPad will change the metaverse in as it relates to education significantly over the coming years – http://roots.greenbush.us/?p=898

  2. I want one fwor mwy bwirfday. I yam hwoping mwy fwiends will bwuy mwe it fwor mwe.

  3. Baloo Uriza says

    This changes nothing. If gaming laptops weren't the “killer app” for Second Life mobility in the first world, nothing is.

  4. Lowell Cremorne says

    Hi Baloo – hard to disagree in regard to SL specifically, but I see the iPad as doing more in bridging the gap between the dinky things like Farmville and the high-end worlds like SL. The availability of good apps will be the make or break.

  5. iPad looks amazing. If you want to build an iPad application, try http://seattleclouds.com – an online app builder that is really easy to use, no programming skills needed.

  6. Baloo Uriza says

    Good luck navigating, looking around or even communicating without audio, a microphone, keyboard and mouse. Even mice are poorly suited to the task compared to devices like the SpaceNavigator

  7. The only thing game changing about Apple products is that they finish them before releasing them. Sure they may have rough edges or missing features on release; cut and paste on the iPhone was a prime example, but whilst they delayed till they got it right their competitors rushed to market with very clunky implementations they're now stuck with. I think the iPad is another case like this, where most products that beat them to market now look like cobbled together tech demos in comparison.

    It's so friendly that consumers will happily drag their 9.7 inches of DRM wrapper to bed with them for a read, or lie on the couch with it and potter with a game or two. This is uncomfortable laptop teritory, and the iPhone – a psp for adults – which currently owns that territory is uncomfortably small for constant use. Though we're buying more laptops than desktops these days, we're also plugging more into them – tying laptops to the desk so to speak; they're not nearly as freely mobile as we imagine.

    I see a lot of traction for online communities and virtual worlds that develop for the platform. It's squarely aimed at being a highly portable entertainment/media/relaxation appliance. That makes it the perfect home for social, and other media consumption (though even mass media is becoming quite social and bi-directional in nature.) Virtual worlds and MMOs should slot into this mix quite comfortably.

  8. Except that it has audio and microphone input. Personally, I foresee zero difficulties in navigating via a touchscreen.

  9. Nice article, I think your point about relaxation and fun is right. I could easily see iPad being used for a casual chat or attending a live concert in a virtual world in front of the sofa, in a way iPhone never really made sense. (and yes, has great promise for us down the track, Unity3d already being supported on the platform 🙂

  10. Baloo Uriza says

    Have you tried Second Life or OpenSimulator? That's really the only virtual reality technology that matters at this point, and I'm really not sure how you're going to pull that off without a keyboard and mouse/spacenavigator.

  11. Baloo Uriza says

    They do? You must not remember the Newton, which seemed to have handwriting recognition (the main selling point of the device) not fully implemented.

  12. I haven't tried OpenSimulator, but I have tried Second Life, and I have spent many years using other virtual reality technologies that matter just as much: EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

    Anyway, to the point… gestures. For World of Warcraft, there exists the add-on MouseGestures. Anything that can be accomplished via the normal control system can be accomplished via gestures, and I'm sure you can see how easily gestures could be accomplished with a fingertip instead of a mouse pointer.

  13. Baloo Uriza says

    WoW and EverQuest aren't virtual realities, they're games. There's a significant difference.

  14. I'll assume for the purposes of this disagreement that you are correct — that WoW and EverQuest aren't virtual realities. However, navigation is the real subject.

    Are you honestly telling me that you can't conceive of gestures being used effectively in Second life or OpenSimulator?

  15. Farmville and Cafe World aren't virtual worlds. They're video games with a social component. Heck, they're not even MMOGs. I don't see the iPad as being a game changer for virtual environments, but I also think your scope is too limited. Second Life isn't the measuring stick for virtual environments. Let's look at World of Warcraft or even Webkinz for benchmarks. What's going to change the game this year in that genre? The introduction of MMOGs for Star Wars, LEGO and, possibly, the Disney Cars franchise.

  16. Baloo Uriza says

    I'm not convinced WoW and other MMOs are virtual worlds, given the limited interaction possible, and the predefined goals.

  17. Lowell Cremorne says

    Hi Christy,

    I'd beg to differ on the idea that Farmville etc aren't virtual environments – they may be dinky and have more limited avatar-to-avatar interaction options, but they still certainly fit the bill. Also, I didn't say Second Life was the measuring stick but it's hard to refute the fact it offers the most comprehensive content creation options around, with OpenSim and others catching up pretty damn quick. Finally, no argument that there's a bunch of great MMOs on the way, though Star Wars: The Old Republic isn't slated for release until April 2011 at the earliest.


  18. Lowell Cremorne says

    Hi Baloo,

    Have you played WoW at all? Not many would argue that interaction is “limited”. The chat functionality is quite extensive (some aspects are vastly superior to say Second Life) and there are constant ad-hoc social gatherings, particularly in the main cities. Sure, there are predefined goals, but that's only one aspect of the game.

  19. Baloo Uriza says

    I have dinked around with WoW a bit. I'm curious what you consider superior about WoW's communications features compared to SL's. And I would consider the interaction with the world itself to be extremely limited given that it's 100% prepackaged content, you're not exactly able to go out and arbitrarily build.

  20. Lowell Cremorne says

    For me the superior aspects of WoW fall around text chat i.e. the ability to have multiple customised channels (without relying on group structures etc). You're exactly right on building – if you consider that a key part of interaction then yes WoW is inferior. I was meaning interaction of the person-to-person kind 😉

  21. Baloo Uriza says

    You can have customized channels in SL as well; highlight a few people in your contact list or a few calling cards in your inventory, right click, start IM. And yes, rich interaction with the environment is part of a virtual world and what seperates virtual worlds like SL from games like WoW.


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