All entries for March 2007

March 05, 2007

Second Life is wierd. And sad, but not in the way you'd expect.

A couple of weeks ago my then boss at work mentioned in passing that as a company we were looking at establishing a presence on Second Life, but that the IT guys seemed to be far to busy to ever get round to it. Seeing the chance to waste some company time building virtual buildings, I volunteered to have a look at it.

Second Life, for those of you who better things to do than concern yourself with what is essentially an internet ghetto, is a virtual 3D world created by the company Linden Labs. It differs from most 3D online worlds in that it isn’t part of a game, as such, with no clearly defined goals or rules. Instead, it provides an environment to create and trade virtual objects, leading to a virtual continent, with virtual cities, composed of individually realised buildings, inhabited by virtual “avatars” of real people.

Now, I’ll state early on that I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and happen to think personally that a 3D object based “Metaverse”, in one form or other, will replace the text-page-based internet as we know it in the not too distant future. So my experience of Second Life was very much coloured by my disappointment that the Meterverse, it ain’t.

Leaving aside the people for a moment, there seem to be two sides to what I saw in Second Life, on the one side, the large corporate-created virtual office buildings, and on the other personal houses. The first is what my boss wanted for our company. So I went and had a look at the Bloomberg HQ. Big, fairly dull building, with lots of interactive Bloomberg screens showing various content. Ditto in most of the other corporate warehouses, overall the kind of dull design only a committee could achieve, coupled with occasional surreal flashes. One of the IBM buildings an office space complete not just with virtual cubicles and virtual houseplants, but also a virtual vending machine selling a virtual Snickers bar. The design of this totally unused and unusable workspace probably took more time than the virtual architecture of the building.

Personal “homes” reflect a much wider range of skill level, and are much harder to describe in a few lines, so I shan’t bother. Other than the purely artistic houses, you also see shops and such like, reflecting the real function of second life – buying and selling.

Commerce in Second Life uses the Linden dollar, tradeable against the US dollar at roughly 250 to one. Yep, you spend “real life” money to get “virtual reality” money, which you can then spend in-world. You can, theoretically, make enough VR money in-world and trade back into RL money to support your RL lifestyle, although in practice very, very, very, few people manage to do this.

The money to be made seems to be in VR property development and product design. Property development is just buying up land as it’s released by Linden Labs (who’ve been criticised for holding the supply of land down, although this probably reflects their lack of RL infrastructure to support it, rather than any arch-capitalist goals) and selling it on. Product design is a bit more interesting.

On the one hand object design. Now a cubic meter of gold is relatively easy to design in VR, a half eaten chicken leg almost impossible, so the economics can be very different from RL. Good, or realistic, objects can be worth quite a lot in world. Good hair, for example, is harder to create than you’d first think.

Because land costs (quite a lot of) money, most people concentrate first and foremost on their personal appearance, buying clothes, jewelary, and so on, so the market is quite active. Incidentally, it doesn’t come as much surprise to see almost no fat or short avatars, but it’s slightly more interesting to see almost no non-white avatars.

On the other hand, script design – creating objects that do stuff. Hence the vending machine mentioned above needed to be set up with a script that created an object (the virtual snickers bar) when it was touched by an avatar, and so on. The scripting language is unique to Linden Labs, but didn’t seem ridiculously hard to learn. Also in this category fall avatar scripts, things that make your avatar dance, jump, etc. realistically.

So what’s the point of all this, anyway? Well, I’m not quite sure. Now our company wants to have a presence in SL simply because, well, other companies do. Now in RL we’re obviously nowhere near competing with Cognos or IBM, but in SL we could have a private island three times the size of theirs with even better virtual vending machines. Which is a boost to someone’s ego, I guess. It’s also, I have to admit, conducive to meetings and conferences between people in geographically dispersed offices, and could potentially tie in quite nicely with our line of work in ways I can’t go into here.

But companies are very much the exception. Most of the stuff in second life is generated by private individuals for, well, fun. Now, I can’t really criticise obsessive interests in internet pursuits per se, I can’t help feeling that much of the stuff people do in second life is pretty small minded. There’s SL sex, but I don’t really care to investigate that. For one thing it takes quite a lot of avatar customisation. Instead, take for example, SL discos. (Somehow the word “disco”, which ordinarily I’d never use, strikes me as appropriate. I’m not quite sure why.)

Now, you take your heavily customised avatar, dress it up in carefully crafted virtual clothes and jewellery, take it along to a virtual dancefloor and make it execute carefully crafted dancemoves in sync with streamed music. Since all but the very very best avatars dance rather like the German entry for the Eurovision song contest the result is unlikely to impress the casual viewer. (In case you’re wondering, no I didn’t try myself. I certainly wasn’t going to buy dance scripts, and anyway, I don’t need a virtual world to dance badly.)

Second Life seems very much to be trying too hard to mimic the real world. It’s as if when the internet came out the greatest focus had been on trying to mimic the look and feel of the printed word. Am I the only one who finds sites that put text online in the form of virtual book with pages that have to be read and turned one by one incredibly irritating? The whole advantage of having computerised text is that it doesn’t have to be treated like a book. That’s why internet sites are moving further and further away from being simple “pages” with text and pictures. Likewise, the whole point of having a virtual world is that it doesn’t have to conform to real life rules. Automatic doors are an interesting case. Now to have an automatic door, you have to script an object that reacts in a certain when an avatar approaches within a certain distance from a certain direction. But what’s the point of a door, anyway? In RL it’s to keep the weather out. In SL, if you don’t want people coming in, have a wall, if you do, don’t have a wall. Doors, particularly doors that reflect a certain design based on current economics and technology, are completely pointless in SL, and they’re not even there by default. You have to design them specifically.

Avatars are an even more interesting case. Now, as I’m sure you know, an “avatar” is a mortal incarnation of a (Hindu) god. If I might be permitted to speak for a god, it seems the whole point of the exercise is to take on the attributes of the mortal plane, take on the limitations of the human body. If you wanted to be a god, you’d stay a god, only if you wanted to be human would you limit yourself to the human body. Now, the word avatar derives from the Sanskrit for “descend”, more or less, reflecting the metaphysical “step down”. What we have with a computer “avatar” is a more of a step up in nature: the possibilities are much greater without the physical limitations imposed on us by the material plane we inhabit. So, why oh why do we spend hours carefully attempting to mimic the limitations of the physical reality we’re forsaking?

How long has the internet been around? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m really not sure. 15 years? Thereabouts. It’s only now we’re getting websites that are more than just re-hashings of material formerly held elsewhere. Company websites are really just brochures in flashy formats; wikipedia, for all it’s collaborative content, isn’t really much more than a fancy reference book. The difference lies in things like blogs “transcending the public / private boundary”, and myspace/facebook/WAYN/bebo/insert-flavour-of-month-here “creating a new paradigm of social relationships”. It’s very difficult to imagine a pre-internet equivalent. (This is, incidentally, my personal working definition of Web 2.0.)

So maybe it’ll take a decade or so for us to concieve of ways to use SL / the 3D metaverse for something truly original. The problem is that, if I might be permitted a sweeping generalisation on the forces behind technological change, new inventions achieve widespread adoption if they help people do old stuff better, only later being used to do new stuff. And right now, SL doesn’t really seem to help anyone do anything better.

Why not? Well, first off, it’s expensive. Leaving aside the investment in terms of technology and time, which cut the market down to rich western kids, stuff in second life costs money. Although many things are cheap, land isn’t. To buy a private island costs about 1600 dollars. (This revelation shelved our company’s exploration into SL, at least for now.) Without land to build your own environment, you are pretty much confined to interacting in someone else’s. This is, I suspect, an inherent confine to innovation. It’s also impossible (I believe) to design physical objects outside the world. So you can’t, for example, play around with 3D design then import the chosen version into Second Life. So there are no third party design tools. This limits innovation within the boundaries defined by the Linden Labs tools provided.

(An exception is avatars. You can work with Poser, a piece of software use to model human movements. If you want a non human avatar you have to work a bit harder, but it can be done.)

I’m left with the curious sensation that Second Life is to the Metaverse what the Compuserve “walled garden” was to the Internet. You can do a lot of stuff that’s pretty cool, if you like that sort of thing, but only what the designers were already thinking of when they originally set up the project. And the whole point of great technology is that it allows people to do a whole lot of stuff that they’d never have originally thought of.


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