Thanks to a new documentary about his work which just came out on DVD, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has been in the news a lot lately. Here he is on Colbert, confidently predicting that by 2045, we'll start uploading our consciousnesses into online worlds like Second Life, when they'll be even more realistic:
Now Kurzweil has made many predictions about technology that have turned out right (he tells Colbert about several of them, such as how fax machines would undermine the Soviet Union), and he deserves a lot of credit for his vision and innovations. But ironically, I think his prophecies which invoke Second Life undermine his bolder predictions. Maybe he's right that a singularity of technological progress will make us want to upload our consciousness to virtual reality.
But here's the problem: Immersive virtual worlds like Second Life are not gaining more users, and the generation that will come of age in 2045 are showing little or no interest in them now.
Watch this video interview with Kurzweil talking about Second Life, to see how wrong-headed he seems:
Again, he confidently predicts that we'll spend more and more time in virtual worlds like Second Life, especially as they become more realistic. However, the hard reality tells a very different story: While Second Life has become more immersive in terms of high-end 3D graphics, its user numbers have plateaued. What's more, demographically Second Life skews heavily towards users in their 30s and 40s and even older, with no evidence of strong adoption by older teens and early twenty-somethings. And while Second Life has a lot of 30 and 40-somethings, the overwhelming majority of that demographic are far more likely to play a social game on Facebook, than they are to be in SL.
In fact, to the extent they do enjoy virtual world experiences now, young people prefer less realistic, less immersive platforms like IMVU, which is many times larger than Second Life. And while it's true that many kids in their teens and younger enjoy cartoonish virtual worlds like Habbo and Club Penguin, their usage of them seems to drop offs in their 20s, as they move away from the virtual to embrace Facebook and other social networks. By Kurzweil's target date of 2045, a kid who's 10 now will be in her early 40s. So why isn't she already running to embrace immersive 3D? Instead of, say, playing web-based games with limited graphics, or simple 2D games on her family's iPhone?
It's still possible Kurzweil may turn out to be right. As I mentioned earlier this year, Avatar Kinect could be a virtual world game changer. But right now, it's very difficult to see any solid market trends that would bear out Kurzweil's prophecy. While tens of thousands of people are eager to "upload" their personalities into a Second Life avatar, tens of millions are busy uploading a new town hall in CityVille. I'll share Kurzweil's enthusiasm for the singularity when those numbers start to flip. (If they ever do.)