4 Things that Need to Happen for the Web to Go 3D

Written by Paul Steinbrueck

second-lifeLast week I wrote about the growing trend of hosting virtual conferences in 3D virtual worlds like Second Life.  If you didn’t see it, check out the demo video of virtual conference embedded in that post.  It’s way cool.

Ultimately, I think whether virtual conferences go mainstream will depend on whether virtual worlds go mainstream.  Some people like Neal Locke, who sparked this conversation believe that in the next 10-20 years the entire web will go from the 2D space it is now to 3D and eventually everything online will be experienced as a 3D space.

That seem at least plausible.  After all 20 years ago nobody was on the web, and now just about every organization views a website as essential.

But in order for the web to transition from 2D to 3D, I think at least 4 things will need to happen.

1) Standards – There will need to be some standardization with 3D browsers/worlds/avatars.  Either that or Second Life will become to the 3D web what Facebook is to social networking, a proprietary platform that everyone has to submit to because everyone there.

2) A compelling case – The case still needs to be made that a 3D web is better than a 2D web.  What does a 3D version of this blog, or CNN, or my doctor’s website look like? And how is that better than the current 2D version?

3) Search – There needs to be a Google for the virtual world.  Google revolutionized the web by making it easy to find whatever we’re looking for.  I couldn’t find squat in Second Life with their search tool.

4) Better user interface – 3D worlds need to become more intuitive so people can become comfortable and competent more quickly and easily.  Improved tutorials would be helpful. A virtual training center would be ideal.

What do you think?  Have you spent time in virtual worlds like Second Life?  Is the web going to become entirely 3D within the next 20 years?  And what do you

About the author

Paul Steinbrueck

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.


  • See, I feel for some sites, having a virtual, 3D element could work, but for others not so much. For text based content, there is no reason to provide it in 3D, unless you are talking page-flips and the such. For media experiences, a claim could be made.’s Second Life campus is a great example, in the church world, of how to make a 3D internet experience. The video archives being accessible through the big screens all around the campus, the large main sanctuary for streaming services, and the real-world styled environment create an online campus experience like no other.

  • James, I agree. That’s the point I was making with #2. I am a newbe to virtual worlds, but maybe some veterans can make the case that every site would be better experienced in 3D. I don’t know. That’s why these conversations are good.

  • But one must realize that Second Life isn’t the first “big platform” for a 3D web. VRML has been around since 1995 (among other languages), but 3D in the browser has never taken off as anything more than a novelty, and I don’t feel we are going in that direction as a whole. The Web as a text/2D world is logical for almost anything. I could not see it as logical to have a full 3D experience for text-based content. If by 3D, however, you consider simple, layered content and more advanced interfaces for movement within the layered content (ala Minority Report interfaces), I could see us going that direction for sure.

  • Paul — the point I agree with you *very* strongly on your first point. Right now, Second Life is the “walled garden” that AOL and Compuserve were in the early days of web proliferation. For it to go mainstream, projects like OpenSim will need to take off (great concept, but not ready for prime time yet).

    Let me push back on the next few points, though:

    2. A compelling case must be made to whom? If it’s the current generation of power brokers, business and church leaders, you might be right. But thinking of the rise of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook — it’s always the young, fresh out of college fringe-geeks who have driven progress. In 10-20 years, we’re talking about people who are currently in elementary school, junior high, and high school. They are the Wii and Xbox and World of Warcraft video game generation. While they do use 2D apps like myspace and facebook, given the choice in their future workspaces, they will gravitate toward the 3D collaborative environments that video games raised them on.

    3. I think this is really a subset of #4, user interface.

    4. I disagree most with this one. In fact, I think the user interface will only get more complicated and foreign…to us. I’m reminded of my undergraduate college professor who, when given his first computer, tried to turn it on by holding the mouse like a microphone and saying “on” into it. I’m also thinking of how amazingly difficult it was to teach basic email software to many people over the age of 50 in the 1990’s (note: most of us will be over 50 in 10-20 years). Some caught on quickly, some took longer, and some still avoid it if possible.

    Those who learn new technologies often do so when it becomes a necessity. For example, if I told you that you need to figure out in the next month how to build a building in Second Life or risk losing your job to a 23-year-old who grew up building things on gaia online…I think by the end of the month you’d be very familiar with the interface.

    My own personal experience with Second Life bears this out: I was initially confused and frustrated, but I had a strong purpose (calling?) in being there — now that I’ve built a conference center and a monastery microbrewery there, however, I find the controls simple, and very liberating. In fact, without thinking of it, I sometimes try to “alt-click-zoom-and-rotate” things on 2D webpages and get frustrated when I can’t.

    Interfaces that seem “intuitive” to us now are only that way out of frequency of use and years of experience. When 3D web takes off, we’ll either adapt to it, or retire and let our children tell us all about it 🙂

    Thanks for continuing to think about all this — even if I think all this is “inevitable” my sincere hope is that a few of us in the church-tech sphere ( is a great example of this, btw) will be able to find the value in all of it, and the best ways to use the technology to further God’s purposes in *all* worlds.

  • Hmmm…reading over my long response, I think I need to qualify my point of view on #4:

    I agree with you entirely that “Improved tutorials would be helpful” and that “A virtual training center would be ideal.”

    I think I may have mis-understood the nature of your point here: While I don’t think that ease-of-use and interface will slow the adoption of the 3D web…when it comes to TODAY and ways in which business, schools, and churches can make use of *existing* 3D platforms (esp. Second Life, the defacto leader in the field), I think your last point perhaps becomes the strongest.

    Ironic to say this about a virtual world, but Second Life needs a more “human” touch — real video tutorials and “staffed” training centers would go a long way toward this.

    Also, I’m thinking that my response to your second point might have missed the boat, too (or at least it sort of bypassed the question).

    A lot of websites as they currently exist wouldn’t benefit directly from being in 3D…but there are already plenty of 2 dimensional things in 3 dimensional worlds (like the books and signs we read in real life). The true advantage is that 3D allows you to combine multiple 2D interfaces in creative ways, while opening up possibilities for new forms of communication and collaboration.

    So, in SecondLife, I can view your actual website (held in my hands encased in a virtual book) while walking through a virtual “display hallway” of websites you’ve designed, while a video hanging on the far wall is playing a recorded greeting. The interface allows me to zoom in to any part of the room I’m drawn to (aka much more *space* than 2d), and interact with other avatars who are present at the same time.

    All of this, of course, can be accomplished in 2D space, but the integration is much more fluid, and similar to the 3D interface that I use when walking into a real-life library or convenience store.

  • Neal, thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective.

    2) When I say “The case still needs to be made that a 3D web is better than a 2D web” I am referring to every organization and individual who has a website. We are only now getting to the point where every local church and local business realizes they need to have a 2D website. For the past 2 decades many of them just did not think a website would generate enough business to make it worth the time and money it takes to create and maintain one. But during those 2 decades the number of website users grew dramatically (producing more business opportunities online) while the cost of creating and maintaining a website has come down dramatically.

    For the web to go 3D, a critical mass of organizations need to believe that going from a 2D site to a 3D experience will be worth the time and money to make that transition. Right now the potential for new customers/users in the 3D world is relatively small for most organizations while the cost to go from a 2D site to 3D experience is relatively large. If 3D worlds like SL continue to grow in popularity while the cost of creating 3D experiences drops, then the case for organizations to go 3D will continue to grow.

    3) I’m going to refer back to the example of churches and local businesses. These were among the last to see the value of a website. That’s because through the early 2000s search engines like Google were terrible and helping people find a plumber or local restaurant. But now that the search engines have become proficient at generating local search results, the value for individuals to look for local things has exploded and thus the value of websites for local businesses has exploded as well.

    4) When it comes to any new technology, retention rate is huge.

    Neilsen has reported that 60% of Twitter users quit within the first month. If that retention rate continues Twitter will not be able to move beyond a reach of 10% and will not become truly mainstream.

    IMO, that’s a big issue with the 3D web. If 60% of people find 3D worlds too frustrating to use and bail, then it will never achieve the ubiquitous adoption that the 2D web, email, and search have achieved (and Facebook appears to be on its way towards)

    Ultimately, that’s where #1 comes in. If open standards for a 3D web were adopted, I believe competition would drive innovation in the development of more intuitive user interfaces.

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