Last december I was interviewed for Elseviers weekly, sort of the Dutch version of Time Magazine, regarding Second Life. In the past week the resulting cover story was published, which prompted me to write a miniseries about Second Life on our company blog. The previous, this and the coming posting are translations of those postings.
If we try to look behind the hype, where can we see the signs of real value in Second Life? I would say value resides in immersion, the fact that the entire environment can be built and manipulated at will, the unique forms of expression SL makes possible, the real growth behind the hype, and the development we may expect in the near future. Of course there are also aspects keeping value back, and those with no value at all.
Immersion and full manipulability: 3D is here to stay
Second Life is the first 3D environment that is both not meant as a game as well as drawing in significant numbers of people. That it’s not a game means there are no up front goals, rules, and that the environment is not meant to have a certain form. Residents create the landscape themselves, and after creation can keep on altering it. Their own appearance, and each and every object. The internal economy is based on that ability to manipulate everything. This makes SL much more into a platform.
Immersion is a powerfull feature of 3D worlds, where attention and engagement are concerned. Not just for marketing purposes but for regular conversations and group events as well. Whether Second Life itself will survive or not, a fully adaptable 3D environment will become part of our standard media mix that we have at our disposal on the internet.
Heart Murmur simulation for educational purposes
Worthwile forms of use
Most of Second Life seems to be replicated from our regular surroundings, but then in a well kempt and suburban form. The really interesting uses I’ve encountered however are those that try to build on the unique possibilities a virtual world provides. Only then does SL realize its possibility as a new medium.
Those interesting uses can be categorized roughly along the following lines:
- Simulation and virtual action learning, like the Heart Murmur Sim, or the tsunami-simulation by NOAA.
- Prototyping, like quickly creating sketches for 3D animation, or having customers judge form and color of different products (Philips), or even put their own products together (Nike), or as an architect guide your clients through the first designs of their new home.
- Visualization of complex data structures for third parties (like the NOAA weathermaps)
- New experiences, like 2nDisability which allows users to really experience different disabilities. (different visual impairments and neurological afflictions available at the moment), or roleplaying games in a fitting environment (recreating historical situation, or for training purposes)
- Immersion in encounters. A funny thing I notice is that I look avatars in the eye during conversations. Even though the other will not notice that at all, it does change my involvement in the moment. I am more involved, less easily distracted as with regular IM or phone conferences. In certain situations that can be very helpful, like at the island for cancer patient support groups, or when trying to involve more people in the on-line version of a conference.
- The possibility to build things that are not possible in the real world. For instance as an expression of art (like the Arts Department of Texas University presence in SL)
Positive developments in SL
Behind the hype real growth is hidden. The number of people on-line at any given moment has doubled in the past few months. The daily turnover in in-world transactions quadrupled since August. So growth is there. (Have a look at the Second Life statistics)
By opening up the client software it is now possible for third parties to create their own Second Life ‘browser’. I expect the availability of much less demanding client software (the current client takes a lot of resources on your system) that will integrate other functionalities at the same time. Obvious candidates for integration are voice applications with API’s, and easy publishing options for weblogs and Flickr etc. Another candidate is importing designs from more user friendly graphic design applications as objects into Second Life. At the same time opening up the client means more time and energy for Linden Labs to fix their creaking and groaning server infrastructure.
Where not to expect value (yet)?
Second Life is suffering under the influx of new users. The infrastructure is barely coping, the rendering of graphics is very slow, and the system demands of the client software are way too high. These however are likely to be temporary problems.
Using Second Life to reintroduce spatial constraints we got rid of with the webbrowser is without value and merit. I have seen suggestions that Amazon should open up shop in SL. Bad idea. Amazon’s succes builds on the fact that they can over millions of titles, much more than any bookstore could ever hope to have shelf space for. Opening a bookstore in SL reintroduces the problem of limited shelf space in a virtual environment. Hyperlinking (jumping without loss of time from destination, and the ability to browse and quickly flick back and forth) is another browser affordance you do not want to sacrifice while moving into 3D.
Finally the number of people in SL can hardly be construed as mainstream adoption yet. Newly registered users are confronted with a confusing learning path, and the hurdles of quickly integrating into SL society as a resident are big. People dipping in their toes just to see what the fuss is all about are easily deterred, never to return.
This does not bode well for the potential of really tieing in a massive user base. Entering SL is to a large extent still too much of a culture shock.
But at the same time there is plenty of reason to explore as an individual and as a company to see what’s up. If you decide to stay away for now, make it a conscious and informed decision at least.