I’m not saying Kaneva is the future; I’m just saying it could well capture a lot of little clicking fingers. [Now with further details.] I met with Kaneva CEO Christopher Klaus, COO Rob Frasca and marketing director Michelle Norwood yesterday at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side to hear what they’re up to, and I was surprised to find a lot of it dovetailed with some of the things I like to blah on about here on 3pointD. They won’t let me into the beta until next week because they’re moving some servers around at the moment — as well as barnstorming various bloggers and media outlets — but the demo reel I saw showed a system that seemed to combine the expressive power of MySpace with the social power of There.com, and which was a nice way to bridge the 2D and 3D online worlds without worrying too much about things like “immersion.” If it turns out people are starting to push the limits of what they can do on MySpace, this could be the natural next step for a lot of them. What it allows you to do, which MySpace doesn’t, is to engage in the kind of “social media consumption” (I just made that term up — I think) that has been one of the more powerful features of existing 3D social worlds, and which will increasingly come to mark our media habits in the future, if you ask me.
So, what is Kaneva? It’s essentially a 3D online world where your 2D Web presence is as important as your 3D avatar and crib. (I’ve added more details further down in an update to this post.) If you go create an account on the site, you will immediately be spammed by users wanting to trade “raves” (thumbs up) and be your friend. Like immediately. Friend them or not, as you like, but keep in mind that this is because of Kaneva’s unique closed beta that’s been running since January: at the moment, you can’t get into the 3D world until you earn enough points on the 2D site by getting raves and adding content, in the form of pictures, videos, blog posts, etc. This system is set to go away by the end of April or early May, by which time you should be able to hop right into the 3D world, so I’ll ignore that aspect of things and just take it for a closed beta that I haven’t been let into yet (and which I’ll have more to say about once I do get in).
That said, the idea of contributing media to the 2D site is key. Dig the 2D profile of The One and Only Drunk Rocker, who has raved me and would like a rave in return. Pretty MySpace, huh? But what good is all that flat media if there’s a 3D world to be explored?
The way it works is this: Anything you upload to your 2D Kaneva site can then be easily displayed in the 3D world. When you join the 3D world you automatically get a small apartment (which can be upgraded, if you like). You can kit it out with furniture and things like picture frames and televisions, and can easily link 2D media content in the 3D world. Mount a television on your wall, right-click it, choose one of the videos you’ve uploaded to your 2D site, and presto, it’s playing in your apartment.
What I like about this is that it harnesses the expressive power of MySpace to the social power of a virtual world. MySpace is referred to as a social networking site, but its trump card is the ease with which you can create a rich online identity there (whether it’s a mess of ugly blink tags or not). The opportunity to express yourself and see what other people are sharing is what draws people.
What MySpace is missing is a rich way for its members to interact with each other. Which is where Kaneva comes in. The 3D world becomes a place where you get to experience those 2D Web profiles come to life, with all the fun of customizable avatars, texturable furniture, emoticons, chat, etc. This is the stuff people love about MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach. Combined with the power to share the videos you’ve found or made, your photos or other content, it starts to look to me like an experience that could be compelling to a lot of people.
One interesting thing Klaus told me is that their vision for how people will use Kaneva does not include the kind of total immersion most virtual worlds are shooting for. Klaus sees people keeping Kaneva open in a small window on the desktop, much like an IM client, and tabbing over and expanding it when someone drops by their apartment. I love this fluid transition between 2D and 3D worlds. The thing the Kanevans have realized is that it’s not really that hard to create what people call “immersion,” and that immersion doesn’t have to mean “complete engagement in a virtual world, to the exclusion of other media.” This is immersion like we experience being “immersed” in the Web. Technically, it’s not immersion at all, of course. In fact, it’s the opposite. Instead of “going in” to a virtual world, Kaneva pulls the virtual world “out” and makes it part of the world we’re all comfortable with already, the world of browsers and desktops. The 3D world becomes just another window you use to communicate with people, just an extension of your experience online — which is simply an extension of your offline life. It’s not a substitute for anything at all, it’s an enhancement, an augmentation, an addition, an extension. It would be nice, if Kaneva catches on, to see this paradigm blot out the avoidance-of-reality stigma that’s so often attached to virtual worlds.
But will it catch on? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Klaus says about 110,000 people have registered at the site so far, but this of course is a meaningless number. It’s a closed beta, so in-world figures don’t mean much at the moment. I would like to know what the daily traffic to the Web site is, though, since the 2D experience is such a large part of the product. We’ll have to wait for the summer to get a better idea of how powerful a concept Kaneva actually is. But I see a lot of potential here.
A caveat: Friend and fellow podcaster Lordfly Digeridoo points out that “online communities are being eaten up by high schoolers as if they’re locusts eating crops. They land, consume, and move on.” That’s definitely a possibility for Kaneva. MySpace is said to be going through a certain amount of attrition, although Fred Stutzman and danah boyd have some close analysis that shows the situation is perhaps not as alarming as some would think. It will be interesting to see how sustainable Kaneva’s model is, but I think it will be an important experiment nonetheless.
Klaus and Frasca described Kaneva to me in some detail, and also outlined some longer-range plans and hopes. Some of this was in response to questions I hade about whether various things were being contemplated, so we’ll see if they actually pan out.
The fluidity of the 2D-to-3D experience and their equal weight are important to Klaus. “I’d be surprised if the next generation of games four years from now didn’t have it built in,” he told me. Klaus claims Kaneva’s 3D users generate even more content than people on MySpace. He said users who have made it into Kaneva’s 3D world upload something like ten times as many pictures as the average MySpace user. That’s a hard number of verify, and it’s a small sample, but it’s an interesting claim.
To Klaus, Kaneva has the potential to “redefine who we socialize and extend who we are online.” It sounded to me as if he had a good grasp about what’s special about 3D worlds: the fact that communication can be so much richer there than in other online media. “Browsers and email have been the predominant way we communicate online,” he said. “But in a virtual world, the fact that I can wave to you, there’s something emotional in that, there’s something you don’t get in email.”
Groups: One interesting aspect of Kaneva is that any group that is formed on the 2D Web site automatically has a 3D space generated for it. That space is “owned” by the creator of the group, but members can manipulate its content, to a certain extent. Owners can also nominate “moderators” to manage the 3D content as well. Apartments have owners, but not yet moderators. Kaneva is considering an interesting system for people who want to share apartments, in which both residents could get equal management rights — like roommates or a married couple. Some interesting considerations that have grown out of that are things like whether a pre-nup would be required. Love it. But that program is not a high priority, Klaus says.
Format: Kaneva currently runs on DirectX, and supports (or will support) importing from Blender, 3DSMax and Maya. The long-term plan is eventually to move to OpenGL support. It’s only on PC at the moment; long-term plans include a Mac version, and perhaps even console support. Menus and UI elements are “user-side configurable” as they are in World of Warcraft. Media players in the 3D world stream to all avatars at the same time, rather than each individual having to click play on their own, as in Second Life.
Interoperability: Klaus and Frasca say that they’ll eventually move to a model in which you won’t have to first put your flat media on your Kaneva profile before having it available in the 3D world. In other words, you’ll be able to right-click the TV in your apartment and make it play a video you’ve uploaded to YouTube. This seems like a key feature that would drive adoption, if you ask me. “We really want to be the super aggregator, we don’t care where the content comes from,” Klaus says. They also envision an API that would let you bring whatever media or information you want into the world — although this was something I asked about and they agreed with, so we’ll see if it’s actually on the drawing board.
Revenue model: Although you’ll come into the world with a variety of clothing, furniture and toys, you’ll need to spend money to really trick out your 3D experience. Kaneva’s virtual currency will be known simply as “credits.” These will be purchasable with real money, which seems to describe the bulk of the revenue stream Kaneva foresees. Other revenue could come from advertising deals and other partnerships, or even licensing of Kaneva’s proprietary world engine for the creation of separate commercial worlds. (“This is our flagship world, but our long-term goal is to allow other to create their own worlds,” Klaus said. “It doesn’t make sense to always connect all worlds.”) Kaneva does not charge monthly fees for membership or to own 3D spaces. It’s hard to say there’s a really promising revenue model here, but micropayments like this have been very successful elsewhere, so it could go either way. Kanevans will have the ability to give each other objects and credits (which will be available at a fixed rate, though with a discount for buying in bulk). “It’s not our policy to allow the sale of credits on eBay,” Klaus said. But he didn’t sound too vehement about it. One interesting aspect of object pricing is that you might be able to purchase customizable objects for higher prices than non-customizable ones.
Partners: Kaneva says they are talking to consumer products and media companies about integrating advertising into the world, but “we have not announced anything yet.” There is an Elite Developers Program, but I don’t have all the details on what this involves. Klaus says that anyone can develop for the platform, but we didn’t talk specifically about commercial entities coming in to do promotional builds: Will they also get to hang out in Kaneva for free?
Server structure and geography: While Kaneva will be a single world, some areas will be instanced. Apartments will be load-balanced among the servers. To keep bandwidth requirements down, avatar rendering will degrade with distance (somewhat like the blockheads in There.com). One interesting aspect of Kaneva’s load management is its Fire Codes, which will set a soft limit on the number of avatars that can occupy a space. People wandering into an apartment or a commons like a mall will be capped at the soft limit (something like 20 for a small apartment). But if you’re teleporting directly to a friend, you’ll be able to break that limit, if necessary. Klaus claims to have gotten 100 avatars in an apartment, and up to 500 in a larger space like a mall. Other common areas include beaches and clubs.
The launch of Kaneva comes at an interesting time. Five years ago, no one would have paid the slightest bit of attention to this thing. Now here I am getting all excited over it before I’ve even been inside. But we have enough experience of virtual worlds now to be able to judge not the reality but at least the potential of a place like this, which seems to me to be signficant. It could come out of the gate puttering and then grind to a halt like so many places before it, but it seems like there’s at least a little something more there. I look forward to seeing what the summer brings.