It's certainly "interesting times" in the Metaverse. As the anti-hype (mostly against Second Life) ends, a flood of tools is appearing on the market, most of them trying to "avoid the mistakes Second Life made" in the opinion of their developers. Three or four weeks ago, with only a few days between the announcements, Vivaty, Lively and WebFlock hit the market, for example, three platforms which all try to integrate a virtual 3D environment into web pages.
Maybe the most interesting of the three newcomers is WebFlock. (More about the reasons below. ) But WebFlock isn't openly available. So I pestered an old friend at the Electric Sheep from SL days long enough, that he felt obliged to give me a short test drive. After that session, I have to say: yes, WebFlock actually is a very interesting competitor in this market.
First, because it was developed by the Electric Sheep, the largest virtual worlds agency of them all. Second, because WebFlock promises to create 3D rooms into web pages without an (additional) plugin. WebFlock is based on Flash, which comes pre-installed with most web browsers these days, while Vivaty and Lively (as well as most other competitors) need an additional PlugIn, which must be installed - something that many users are very reluctant to do. Using Flash places some severe limits on what can be achieved in a 3D world, though. Thats, why I was so eager to explore WebFlock myself.
WebFlock basically places a window with a 3D scene into a web page. This scene is limited in size. It usually comprises one or two "rooms", through which an avatar can walk. The scene is rendered in what I would call 2.75D. WebFlock utilizes Papervision 3D to enable 3D rendering with Flash. This opens up more possibilities than with the 2.5D isometric worlds (like Habbo or sMeet) but less than ivaty and Lively or other "big" virtual worlds. Camera movement is severely limited (controlled automatically), though, which prohibits a full threedimensional feeling.
Avatars are 2D "sprites', flat, pre-rendered images of a 3D model, depicting the avatar from 4 or 8 different viewpoints. A WebFlock developer can create these sprites in any tool available. They can be designed with a cartoony or realistic look. Actually, one could probably copy avatars from every other virtual world and use them in a WebFlock room rather easily. Avatars "come with clothing". They can't be modified currently (Thats promised for future versions). Walls and the objects in a room are built with PaperVision, mostly textures placed upon some simple geometric base forms. It is possible, to make objects interactive - of course, we are in Flash and ActiveScript is always available - and to use video, by placing a kind of screen on the walls.
As already mentioned, camera movement is automatic. The camera simple follows the avatar, avoiding walls and other obstacles. This is great for beginners, I guess. Actually, from all the 3D Environments I got to know so far, WebFlock seemed like the platform, which is most easiest to learn. The only drawback of the automatic camera: You can not zoom in/focus onto something that you want to see in more detail (a movie, for example or a specific object). Scenes can be programmed in a way, that avatars get teleported into other rooms when they enter certain regions in a scene. They communicate with each other over chat or IM and can build friends lists, of course :) Future versions will include the ability to "mute" other users, a functionality, which seems to be more important, then I would have thought before starting to use online environments like Second Life.
There is no way for the common avatar, to add content (or to change anything in a room). WebFlock is a developers tool. Everything, that avatars can do is walk around, chat and interact with the objects in a pre-programmed way. There is a lot of interaction possible, of course - the full Flash 9 capabilities are available and interactions can use and influence content on the surrounding web site, of course. The back end functionality (avatar communication andinteraction mostly) is handled by a virtual worlds server software that was developed inhouse with the Electric Sheep. Actually, they started out with the Ogoglio open source platform but later rewrote most of it.
The Electric Sheep will be using WebFlock for their own projects, of course. An updated version of their The L-Word community, based on WebFlock, is already under development. WebFlock is offered as a service to other agencies (or inhouse development by clients), too, though. Such projects are still a while away, though, as the software is still in early alpha and documentation seems to be sparse.
And the verdict?
While it is still a bit early for a final verdict, WebFlock made a much better impression than I had expected. Moving around in the rooms is very easy and intuitive. Avatars are not "realistic" like in Second Life (or Vivaty for example). They don't move with the freedom of Lively or IMVU avatars. They are much more realistic than I would have expected with a Flash based tool (real 3D avatars are impossible with Flash), though and the environment felt quite "immersive" all in all.
WebFlock should not be compared to Vivaty or Lively (or IMVU, sMeet, Kaneva, There, Second Life, Twinity etc. ), directly. It is certainly not a consumer-oriented product but a developers platform - and a rather limited one currently. Vivaty and Lively are both consumer oriented (already have a lot of users) and offer a richer 3D environment, more "lively" avatars. WebFlock's main USP is, that it offers virtual worlds functionalities (lets say ... virtual worldlets) without additional plugins. The Electric Sheeps management is certain, that this (no additional software) will be a decisive factor for the success of any solution or project that utilizes virtual worlds technology and wants to target the mainstream audience. To learn more about this assumption read Sibley Verbeck's latest blog posts here, here and here.
I am not sold on this assumption 100% but I have to admit that this line of reasoning HAS its merits. As Sibley says: the barriers between the web and virtual worlds might be much more important to tear down, than the walls between the different virtual worlds platform. And for customers coming from the web, WebFlock certainly lowers the barriers for entering a virtual world significantly. That is extremely important for nearly all marketing-oriented projects where you usually want to reach an audience as large as possible. The visual fidelity - and the "immersiveness" - that can be achieved with WebFlock is limited, though. This will limit its appeal in some other markets (corporate and adult education for example). But only time will tell, how important this really is in the market. There is not much The Electric sheep can do to improve their product here.
The most decisive factor for WebFlock's success will be its developer's next step, though. They need to get this tool out on the market and they need to transform it into a licensable product/service with support and excellent documentation. The Electric Sheep alone will never be able, to make this a leading platform. That's always the challenge with tools developed inhouse at an agency. And they have to act quick, too. I am fairly certain, that this won't be the last tool which offers web-embeddable virtual wordlets based on Flash technology. The idea is just too appealing.