Influential research firm Gartner recently posted its 2012 "hype cycle" chart of emerging technologies, and there's a small but significant change: Virtual worlds, which were at the very bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner's 2011 report, are now positioned at the start to the Slope of Enlightenment, and designated as being 5 to 10 years from reaching the Plateau of Productivity (i.e. when they become mainstream). At first I suspected this was just an anomaly in the infographic, but the Gartner report name checks virtual worlds as part of tech's coming trends:
This scenario describes a world in which people interact a lot more naturally with technology. The technologies on the Hype Cycle that make this possible include human augmentation, volumetric and holographic displays, automatic content recognition, natural-language question answering, speech-to-speech translation, big data, gamification, augmented reality, cloud computing, NFC, gesture control, virtual worlds, biometric authentication methods and speech recognition.
This sounds right to me. Without knowing their specific reasoning, I'd say the rise of WebGL (a la Cloud Party) and the improvement of 3D graphics in tablets (a la Myst for iPad) are two important vectors that will help this adoption (among others). However, it's also likely, I think, that what we mean by "virtual worlds" will be very different in coming years. In China, for instance, the market for MMOs is moving to mobile, and I think we're going to see a similar trend in the West -- this suggests "lightly immersive" virtual worlds that are semi-3D, 2.5D, or designed for short play sessions. Just as likely we'll see augmented reality virtual worlds, where the virtual experience is incorporated into and displayed with aspects of the real world around us.
Back in 2007, by the way, Gartner predicted that 50 million people would use virtual worlds in 2011. If you count MMOs and web-based 2.5D virtual worlds in that category, the number was actually far more than that -- closer to 100 million.
Hat tip: The excellent 3D printing blog Fabaloo.Tweet