Saturday, 4 October 2008

WebFlock or WebFlop?

Do you remember the Electric Sheep Company? Since you are one the small band of blogonauts who have washed up on the shores of Slambling, it is quite likely that you do. But if not, let me fill you in. In their own words: "The Electric Sheep Company creates Web-enabled social and virtual world experiences through strategy, design, production, and technology. Since 2005, ESC has worked with the world’s largest brands, media companies, and agencies to design and implement great consumer virtual experiences." And for Second Life that has meant that ESC has been responsible for some of the more interesting commercial builds. However, those days seem long ago as ESC, along with many other virtual world "experience designers", have branched out and moved on. I will leave you to discover for yourself what industry insiders may be saying about ESC, their Second Life experiences and their current prospects - you might find it an interesting exercise. As for me, I'm going to tell you about my experiences in WebFlock.

WebFlock, a Flash-based product announced earlier this year, is described by ESC as “an application for private-labeled, Web-based virtual experiences. It provides a visually immersive environment for social interaction, media consumption and game play." The first of these branded virtual experiences has been rolled out for the Showtime show, The L Word. Showtime is a subsidiary of CBS, who also have a substantial stake in ESC - and it was ESC who built The L Word's substantial and generally well-received presence in Second Life. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the show has become the first customer for an alternative virtual experience, based on WebFlock. I thought I would pop along to see what it was like.

It is simplicity itself to get into WebFlock, chat and move about – and it is this simplicity that, in my view, makes it so disappointing. But more of this anon. Getting into The L Word environment is easy. Having navigated to the webpage, you are invited to select an avatar from a choice of six, give her a name and, well, that’s it – no customisation, not even a change of clothing. I say “her” because there are no gender options here. Am I also supposed to assume that all these avatars are gay? It seems a reasonable inference – and even if this is incorrect, if I infer it, then plenty of other people will too. And that may not sit comfortably with some would-be visitors, who may opt to pass this one by. I don’t believe it is compulsory to be a lesbian to enjoy watching the show.

The first time I attempted to load the environment it took an age. In fact, I ended up terminating my browser session and trying again. The retry, I have to say, was then very quick to load. And what did I find? I found my avatar standing in someone’s open plan breakfast room. The graphics were generally good quality. Moving my avatar, I could walk forwards, I could walk backwards and I could walk from side to side. That might seem OK, but as there are no transitions when switching from one direction to the other, the effect looks basic and amateurish in comparison with the movement available in other Flash-based environments, such as Google’s Lively. Another aspect of movement that I had expected was “camera controls.” Widely used in Second Life, controls that let you pan and tilt your view are also common in less powerful environments – again, I would cite Lively as an example here, but it is one of many. In WebFlock you are left with a single view, like static CCTV, over which you have no control. Sure, this makes the system easy to use – but that is because fundamentally there are so few functions that you can use. It was simple, but I simply did not get any sense of immersion.

What about chat? One of WebFlock’s main objectives is “social interaction” – and it certainly offers text-based chat. My friends had repeated problems with stability of the “chat” function, re-logging several times to reset it. I had no issues with it. You can also “emote” – selecting from a small menu of animated effects that you can give to your friends. These were nicely done, but not terribly expressive. The avatars themselves seem to remain aloof from the fun – having no animation effects other than “walking” and “standing still”. There is no Instant Messaging – or non-public communication.

I tried to get out of the room, which had rapidly started to get claustrophobic and which would fill to bursting point very quickly if more than perhaps 10 people wanted to use it. But there is no way out. What you see is what you get. You see that door behind you? In effect, it is just painted on.

What about the rest of the WebFlock experience? It describes itself, as you may recall, as designed for “media consumption and game play.” There is a TV screen in the room on which you can view episodes of the show, though without a zoom facility you will need a very large monitor to get the most from the experience. And clicking on various objects presented me with opportunities to buy DVDs. So that’s a tick in the box for “media consumption.”

I don’t know how much “game play” has been put into this particular environment, but it does have one really irritating feature. Periodically, like every 2 or 3 minutes, it asks you for your opinion about some aspect of the show, offering multiple choice answers. While it would be possible to use such a feature to obtain useful marketing data, these questions seem more like the puerile enquiries to be found in teen magazines aimed at the post-Barbie set. And the question will not go away, consuming a fair slice of your “screen real estate” until you answer it.

And that’s it. In summary, I found the experience far too lightweight to rate as a virtual environment. I didn’t feel immersed in the experience - it was more like chatting while looking at a picture of some women standing in a kitchen. While I understand why companies leave Second Life, I find it hard to understand why The L Word would bail out of Second Life to go with this instead. Future implementations of WebFlock may end up offering far more than this. I can only hope so, because if this is all there is, then it is a dull future indeed.


giulio said...

Don't be so elitist! The ease of use of WebFlock is precisely what many users need. Not everyone has the inclination and the time to become proficient in Second Life to the point of actually enjoying it.

Web 2.0 means making advanced interactive Web features very easy to use for end users who are not IT geeks like us and want a quick, casual and easy web experience. This is not the case in SL, and is the reason why many of our clients are not interested in SL and require Flash based solutions like WebFlock. Which is much easier to use and much less resource intensive than Lively (btw Lively is not entirely Flash based, as it requires a separate plugin).

Many companies know that asking to their audience to download and install applications, or to take time to learn how to use a complex application, is too much. This is the WebFlock niche.

Of cours, I am sure the platform will evolve with voice and webcam chat etc., and other features that will make it a useful light communication tool.


Aleister Kronos said...

Thanks Giulio.
I must say, in this case I don't think I am being elitist. I completely get the need for simplicity in the user interface. However, one needs to know where to draw the line. Beyond a certain point the simplicity can become too simplistic, effectively removing any unique selling proposition the product may have.

While I have yet to be bowled over by any of the small footprint virtual environments, I thought this one was particularly disappointing - at least, at this point in its evolution.

Do keep me posted of any WebFLock deployments you may make, though.

Giff Constable said...

Thanks for your thoughts Aleister. It is good to hear your perspective.

It's true things have been quiet from ESC because we've been primarily working on larger, longer-dev-cycle worlds. We created WebFlock to be an inexpensive and lightweight application on top of our back-end platform. It's not really targeting your typical virtual world user at all, but rather a more mainstream audience that wants something richer, more interactive and more fun than text chat, but isn't ready for a fully immersive "world" experience.

Every WebFlock environment will be different. It is meant to be white-labelled, and the content and interactivity you find inside will depend on the goals and budget of the customer.

This one was extremely lightweight, targeting a particular community who watches the show, and giving them a place to interact. The new season doesn't start until January but we wanted to let the community start playing with the application and learn from what we saw.

There are a million ways to improve it, on that we definitely agree.

The first thing I will note is that we turned off camera controls for a reason - in my opinion mainstream audiences find cameras way too hard to use whether you are talking Second Life, Lively (that's a separate full-3D plugin, not Flash) or Vivaty. You might debate our concerns over this usability hangup but it's been something we have observed over and over.

TrevorFSmith said...

I like a good headline as much as the next guy, but saying that WebFlock is a flop because of a single build is like saying that HTML is bad because someone made a bad site.

Don't confuse the technology with the content or the design.

Aleister Kronos said...

I was going to point out: you have made the inference from the title - I don't think I actually say that anywhere. However, you are free to view such an argument as sophistry on my part.

I think your "like HTML" argument is not quite correct. HTML is an open standard, available to all to do with as they see fit. WebFlock - at least as I understood it when reading about its launch - was an ESC product that they would deploy in building user experiences, hand-holding the client through all aspects from conception thru to delivery (and I assume, beyond).

Consiliera said...

Aleister, imo you nailed it. There are a few basic components that even the simplest graphical chat room in the nineties offered: custom avatars, because communication is all about identity, whispering, blocking, interacting with objects in the room etc.
I was in the room just now with 3 other gal's like me and another bunch of quadruplets. Nobody but me was moving and two of them tried to send each other pictures via Yahoo messenger (!), downloading it that minute. Although I respect what ESC is trying to do (actually I am a fan) I think that this is not a good way to advertise their product and honestly I expected more (WebFlock is supposed to be costly, too). I created a cross-platform online 2.5D chat software (room-based and web-embedded) in 1995 with a tiny team, and you could interact much more there than in this L-Word room. Hopefully soon somebody will do a multi-user project with the AlternativaPlatform (Flash), to date they are lacking avatars.