Bookmarked Second Life was ahead of its time (by Neville Hobson)

I’ve thought regularly about Second Life in the past months with all the hyped up Metaverse talk. In a Dutch post last November (machine translated link) I wrote:

Sitting around a virtual table with Zuck’s avatar to have the same video call conversation on a virtual laptop as behind my real laptop? No thanks. Where are the new affordances? Not in recreating your office or gym I think. The arguments are the same this time, the visual and audio effects 15 years more advanced, the mentioned use cases just as unsatisfactory as they were in 1993 when the still-existing Digital Space Traveler started. In my opinion, replicating what was already possible is not enough, new affordances and agency are needed to convince. And yes, that’s what it always starts with, with replicating, but starting with that we already did 20 years ago, so let’s not do it again and build on it.

We see companies enter Roblox the way we saw before in Second Life (a profitable business all these years). But what has really changed in the mean time, except the computing power of our graphic cards and our gigabit internet links?

It feels to me that in all the metaverse discussion this time around, as Neville also notes, there is very little awareness of what went before. I’ve walked virtual worlds for well over 2 decades, but it seems none of that existing experience feeds the current discussions much.

Much of this past action isn’t in the mainstream memory today when people talk about ‘the metaverse’ and make comparisons with Second Life those years ago.

Neville Hobson

In reply to Nike in Roblox by Frank Meeuwsen

Bij al die metaverse berichtgeving van de laatste maanden moet ik telkens terugdenken aan Second Life (uit 2003, nog altijd bestaand én winstgevend, Roblox is zelf ook van 2005), waar ik toentertijd flink in ben gedoken. Ook daar zag je bedrijven (zoals Nike ook toen) er in springen. Voor persaandacht met name m.i.

Deze ronde ben ik extra sceptisch. Ruim twintig jaren rondwandelen in VR werelden heeft me weinig zicht gegeven op overtuigende use cases voor ‘full-immersion’ die nog altijd géén full-immersion is. Ondanks dat ik ook in VR met een headset op hoogtevrees krijg. Met Zuck’s avatar om een virtuele tafel zitten om op een virtuele laptop hetzelfde videocall gesprek te houden als achter mijn echte werkplek? Nein Danke. Waar zitten de nieuwe handelingsmogelijkheden? Niet in het nabouwen van je kantoor of sportschool denk ik. De argumenten zijn hetzelfde dit keer, de visuele en audio effecten 15 jaar geavanceerder, de genoemde use cases net zo onbevredigend als in 1993 toen het nog altijd bestaande Digital Space Traveler begon.

Repliceren wat al kan is m.i. niet voldoende, nieuwe handelingsmacht is nodig om te overtuigen. En ja daar begint het altijd mee, met repliceren, maar dat er mee beginnen hebben we 20 jaar geleden al gedaan, dus laten we het niet nog een keer doen en voortbouwen. Een bril die me afsluit van de wereld ten gunste van een gebrekkige replica is het niet.

AR lijkt me persoonlijk nog altijd veel krachtiger, met informatie-overlays over je omgeving in plaats van in een app in mijn broekzak, liefst aangestuurd door mijn eigen software agents. Dat voegt handelingsvermogen en informatie toe aan mijn fysieke omgeving terwijl ik daarin opereer. Ondanks de ongemakkelijk voyeuristische effecten die dat snel kan opleveren (kijk die gast daar aan de overkant is een wappie op Twitter!), daarom ook met eigen software agents, niet gecentraliseerde.

Nike heeft haar eigen wereld in Roblox. Dit populaire spelplatform krijgt meer en meer aandacht van merken. Opvallend is wat Nike doet om virtueel aan real life te verbinden.

Frank Meeuwsen

Visited the photo exhibit by Eddo Hartmann on North Korea in the Huis Marseille museum in Amsterdam last week.

What struck me was the similarity with the Eastern block countries in the 1980’s in terms of design looking like it got frozen from the moment that outside influences were banned or blocked. It seems that the price for removing outside influences is reduction of inspiration or creative friction resulting in stagnation of artistic expression (other than those sanctioned)

Friedrichstrasse, East-Berlin in 1987, at least it was busy, even if the design was like the 50’s

Also the contrast between the often inhuman scale of monuments, buildings and roads and the general absence of traffic or crowds. Except maybe for rush-hour on the metro (the exhibit contained some 360 degrees VR videos of that). The emptiness of the photos looks to be confirmed by aerial footage in Google maps, that also shows an absence of traffic and passers-by that doesn’t rhyme with Pyongyang having 3 million or more inhabitants. It reminds me of the emptiness of Second Life a few years back, where the entire environment was built up but no-one was ever there, except during events. Of cities we expect a certain activity level at all times. The whole ‘the city that never sleeps‘ mythology.

Google maps aerial photo of Pyongyang showing mostly empty streets

E exploring some video footage of Pyongyang in VR. Image Ton Zijlstra. license CC BY NC SA

In private conversations in the Brainstorms community we regularly comment on the emptiness of Second Life you usually experience when walking through that virtual world.
For a workshop today I tried to pinpoint where that feeling of emptiness comes from a bit better.

First the numbers. Linden Lab currently reports that SL is about 700 million square meters big.
With a number of 30-40 thousand concurrent users that translates to about 50 residents per square kilometer (at 35.000 concurrent users).
If you compare that to the population density on earth which is 48 ppl/sq. km. (UN 2004 data, just land mass taken into account) this means that the SL population density is about the same as Mexico, White Russia, or Ireland. It is actually denser populated than the US, all of South America, and South Africa.

On the real earth we know where the population centers are and where the vast empty spaces of sparsely populated areas are, like the US Mid-West or the Brazilian rainforest.
In SL however all areas are built up, there are no rainforests, no Great Plains, no mountain ranges.
And we associate built up areas with population centers.

So when we end-up in a more or less randomly chosen location and see it is structured and built up we expect to meet people. When we don’t, it immediately feels like a ghost town. If you enter a village and see no signs of occupation it gives you the creeps, and rightly so. But in Second Life that is the norm, because the population centers are indistinguishable from the ‘nature preserves’.
When we think we are teleporting into inhabitated areas in Second Life we are actually doing something akin to diving into earth’s atmosphere at a random point above the non-blue areas. We would not expect to hit a major crossroads or city then, but do expect so when teleporting in SL.

At those moments when we know exactly where the populated areas in SL are, we don’t feel like we’re lost. Except those population centres are not only points in space, but also points in time. I think population centres in SL are events (like conferences, meetings, concerts etc).

Empty and populated places in SL: points in space as well as time

Also I think people simply have no idea how big SL really is. We are so used to limited expanses of virtual land in games and simulations. (where you literally walk into the horizon, like in the Truman Show)
Although I believe SL is too empty to be able to provide enough random rewarding meetings and experiences, I also think our perception is skewed because of the fact that our usual clues and indicators for population centres don’t hold true in SL.

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)

NOAA live weather simulation
Live projection of rain showers on the US east coast

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.