What is Lively and why should I care? Both good questions. Lively is Google’s first shot at a virtual 3D community a la Second Life.
I first read the news on TechCrunch.com. The stats there tell the whole 4.5 month story from start to finish. Having recently finished teaching a class using Second Life, this news got me thinking about the use of virtual worlds in language learning. Is this the future of language teaching? Not yet.
In addition to the high price of admission (in terms of the performance of the computer required to access and the quality of the connection necessary,) there simply aren’t enough users for students to interact yet. When first released, early adopters tried out Second Life and built lots of neat things. But since then, many seem to have left. And, guess what? It turns out that if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. My experience, and that of my students, was that there was lots of interesting things to look at, but few interesting people to meet. I suspect Google found a similar patter in usership and pulled the plug before Lively hit its lull.
So, what’s next? The good news is, there currently seems to be a lot of academic interest in virtual worlds, which may help to populate, and thereby revive, worlds like Second Life. Google seems to be on to another approach which is to integrate Google Earth with a Second-Life-like user experience. Already, users are able to add 3D representations of buildings (Ancient Rome, for example). Google’s next step maybe be taking what they learned from Lively and making it a part of Google Earth as well. Will that eventually conquer Second Life? It won’t have the same fantasy-themed vibe of much of Second Life but (perhaps as a result of this) it probably already has more users. In the end, ESL students probably won’t care if they are in Ancient Rome or Renaissance Island, as long as there are people to talk to.