When hi5 acquired PixVerse this summer I was surprised to hear talk of Pixverse as a virtual worlds company since its main application available on social networks was PixChat, a 2D chat widget that sat on top of the social network and enabled media sharing. Apparently, PixChat began as just a proof of concept for PixVerse’s technology, but it took off so quickly that the company was almost forced to support it.
"It’s basically a photo-sharing, video-sharing app for folks in the 2D rendering paradigm, but it uses all the technology on the backend of our virtual world platform. It tests all different parts of the system and our virtual world client platform," explained Charles Ying, a PixVerse founder now a software architect for hi5. "Even though you see a 2D chatroom environment that’s accessible to folks, that’s just the application that took off. The engine, the client, is capable of rendering a lot richer experiences, in 2D and 3D, but that’s not publicly available now."
The goal, Ying explained, is to focus on user experiences over technology. So far PixChat is a hit on hi5, with some users staying logged in and chatting throughout the entire day. Ying couldn’t dive into specifics of where PixVerse is going, but he did say that expects to eventually see more features of traditional virtual worlds, like avatars and games, and that PixChat is just the tip of the iceberg.
"I can say that we’re taking the virtual worlds platform even further. There are a lot of things in PixChat that we did not show that are coming even later," he explained. "I’ll say that our virtual worlds platform is capable of 2D and 3D experiences, but most of the innovation is going to come on the interactions that people can have. We’re trying to make sure virtual worlds are fun to use. One of the impetuses for starting PixVerse is that we saw how boring virtual worlds had been in the past. We’re really focused on making it fun."
The big push at first is simply to create a more engaging experience for hi5 users right now. There have been virtual world integrations with other social network along with simpler synchronous interactions. They haven’t, for the most part, taken off. Part of that, says Ying, is cultural. Even within hi5, which is targeting international audiences, he’s seen much higher levels of adoption outside the U.S.
"I think what we’ve found is that in our audience, users really appreciate the synchronous experience. It’s something they haven’t touched outside of IM, and we provide a much richer experience than that," said Ying. "We did tests on other social networks, and we found the synchronous experience to more rapidly adopted, and I would say violently adopted, outside of the U.S., even on Hi5."
hi5 has already said that it plans to integrate more of PixVerse’s technology by the end of the year, but it’s not clear what exactly that will involve. The richer features are a large part of the overall roadmap, explained a company spokesperson, and, while it may not include launching a full virtual world "all of what ‘virtual worlds’ encompasses is what we’re looking at for Hi5 and the iteration of the company."
That initial integration will, apparently, only be the first step.
"What’s coming out at the end of the year is really just part of the transition step of a really large strategy for Hi5," explained Ying. "We’re taking just a few steps at a time to really attune to what our customers want. We’re releasing pieces and a taste of what’s coming."
The vision, though, is to focus on social connections over technology–creating an experience for the hi5 users that may not involve a virtual world in the traditional sense. With the hi5 acquisition, Ying says there are fewer artificial barriers to integration and even bigger goals for the PixVerse team.
"Ultimately I think social networks and virtual worlds converge," said Ying. "But ‘social networks’ is where the experience lies, and ‘virtual worlds’ are the technology. A lot of people like to think of virtual worlds just in more fun contexts, with 3D and gaming, but I think those worlds will converge."
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