I've had a few minutes to try the new public beta of Sony HOME, the virtual world for the PS3 that is free to all broadband-connected PS3 owners. Actually it had to be more than a few minutes since with repeated connection errors it took at least 10 minutes to get in. That was after downloading two huge updates to the PS3. Once in, there is a simple tutorial which leads you through the fairly intuitive avatar customisation, then you are dropped into your sparsely furnished apartment. The views are fabulous but purely for show - you can't get over the balcony to actually explore any of it. You are encouraged to head for the hub area, which can be reached either from the lift in the apartment or from the 'world map' which isn't a map at all, but a stack of tiles that spread out with locations on. This reveals that underneath HOME is not so much a world as a a set of separate virtual rooms that you can travel between. Heading for the hub you are faced with a 47Mb download, and similar large downloads will occur when you head to any new area. The advantage of course is that once that's done, the graphics are on the hard drive for good, and since there's no user generated content, you get a more or less lagless experience after the download. What does take a while to appear though are the other characters. HOME has it's own version of the much missed SecondLife 'Ruth' - a translucent glassy AV that you see before the actual shape and clothes download. Once all the other characters had appeared, I was struck by how little variation there were between them. This is partly down to the limited clothes and hair styles available at the start, but even within this it was disturbingly uniform and male - I don't remember seeing a single woman at the time I explored.
The graphic environment is almost garishly bright and sharp with super-saturated colours and lighting effects, but overall it looks pretty good. The hub had several media screens, none of which were showing anything initially - it seems that these don't show streaming video, but instead have to download the full clip and then show that clip over and over. I presume therefore that there is no way of knowing if you are seeing the same thing as your colleagues at the same time. There were also one or two poster boards - everything was of course an advert of some kind. The presence of a locked gate through which an escalator can be seen was interesting - maybe it will be a transport system?
I walked round the hub to the bowling alley and tried to walk in. Unfortunately it is a separate virtual environment, so there was the obligatory tens of Mb download first, then I was able to wander round with around 50 other AVs and play pool, bowling or one of the arcade games machines.
There were numerous huddles of people chatting and when I got close enough I could overhear the odd conversation that was clearly happening using voice - the way the sound falls off with distance seems to work well to keep groups isolated from one another. I don't know if there is a way to have private conversations, I presume so.
On trying to leave the bowling alley I was disappointed to find that despite now having both the hub and the bowling alley on my hard drive there was still a substantial pause going between the two. And there my exploration ended.
So my immediate impression is that it looks pretty good, the current population all look the same and they are nearly all male, and there's not a lot to do. As a way to introduce casual users to the ideas of avatar customisation and moving around in a virtual world it could be valuable. But more importantly I wonder where it's going to go. Who is going to really use it? It is fundamentally a social platform. There are some 18m PS3s in the world. How many of those have keyboards attached, or users willing to pay for and use a bluetooth headset? Without one or other of these there's no social aspect - the onscreen keyboard is basically pointless. So I'll be interested to see what developments Sony roll out, but I don't see this being the next big thing in virtual worlds.