It is not really a surprise, but the official announcement came earlier than I expected. Over the last year a group of coders had been reverse engineering the Second Life client software with the approval of Linden Labs. I assumed an open source client would become available in this year, but had not expected it as early as January: Linden Labs is releasing the client software for Linden Labs as open source.
I think it is a good move for Linden Labs, as it allows them to start focussing more on the server side of things and try to solve their scaling problems as well as the long overdue capacity for voice, while they open up the client for the users’ creativity. Opening up is the only way to help Second Life move more towards becoming an infrastructure. It might not be enough, but it is an unavoidable step, given their current state. Next step is hopefully creating a path to more open server software as well.

Earlier this week in Second Life I acquired an avatar shape in the form of a glowing, flying orb. One of the intrigueing things I find myself doing when I am in a 3D environment with avatars is look them in the eye, to feel more connected to the interaction going on.

In DigitalSpace Traveler avatars are heads only, but I look them in the eye and accept them as beings

So I wanted to check out what happens when I leave the humanoid form, and turned myself into an orb.
I met up with a creative designer from New York yesterday evening who did not seem to care much about my shape, to be able to communicatie. But he treated the text window as a stand alone chat application, and the 3D backdrop as wall paper in a sense.

Me as an Orb in Second Life

It did change the dynamics though of having a discussion with people who actually know me. In a conversation with Elmine Wijnia and Gerrit Eicker I changed into my fiery flying orb-self and continued to take part in the conversation. Both Elmine and Gerrit remarked that they treated the orb as an object in the room, not a living entity, and that my chat contributions seemed to come out of thin air.

For me it felt a bit strange as well, looking at the orb as ‘me’ but it did not change the experience of interaction. The form of avatar does change the way I navigate though. With a humanoid shape I tend to fly and walk in SL, but as an orb I only fly.

Yesterday was a Webmontag (Web Monday), a German series of events started by Tim Bonnemann. In different German cities webdesigners, coders and others gathered to discuss different internet related issues and topics. One of the meetings this time took place in Second Life.

The venue was the Corecon Convention Center (SLURL), newly built in Second Life by Sebastian Küpers in the past week. Corecon intends to schedule regular events there, starting with a number of basic SL courses. The Webmonday was a good experiment to see if the space worked well.

The ambiance was certainly good, and the number of people wanting to attend exceeded the number of avatars the sim could handle. However the meeting itself went pretty poorly, because of failing technology and the audience knowing too little about basic functionality in SL to handle themselves with confidence. Nonetheless we all had good fun, and the conversations afterwards were interesting and useful. And even the fact that the meeting did not go as planned is a very good source of lessons learned. This is what I took away from the meeting:

  • Expect different levels of maneuvering/camera skills by participants. Some will be completely new to the environment
  • Expect yourself to be less proficient in the environment than you think
  • Check what the limits on the number of avatars are for the location you will use
  • Check whether that number will have an impact on the live streaming server you use for presentations/video
  • Make sure that displays in-world can only be manipulated by people doing the event, not by participants
  • Create different channels for different types of communication (general chatter in chatmode, group IM channel for questions, not discussion)
  • Second Life puts both the IM window and general chat in the same corner of your screen, making it impossible to follow and contribute to both at the same time

  • Group photo by Pixelsebi
  • For each channel have somebody moderate (and make clear up front what each channel is for, as well as making sure that people understand that)
  • IRL roles like facilitator, moderator, mediator and supportcrew for tech apply in SL as well. Don’t think you’ll be able to handle all on your own. You cannot moderate while you’re busy fixing the video stream
  • Being able to automatically log IM and other chat channels in SL would be very useful
  • Have different rooms available, and designate them as such for the event, for different modes of interaction. Main room: broadcasting, side rooms: 1 on 1 and group conversation, or poster presentations, general conversations and displays that can be manipulated by participants
  • Do not underestimate the effort it takes to create an event, just like IRL
  • Even if you are aiming for a low key event geared towards conversation mostly do not underestimate the effort. Because the audience will not immediately ‘get’ what is going on, as we do in more usual surroundings. The SL environment triggers culture shock like responses. So script much more ‘accepted and expected’ behaviour into the event location.

In conversation with Sebastian Küpers and Tim Bonnemann

One of the things I think are missing in Second Life is voice communication (like Digitalspace Traveler has had for 10 years already).

When I saw all the recent announcements of yet another group of companies moving into Second Life, such as Reuters and Pontiac, and the previous entrance of media and music companies, I wondered why they are so interested.
Maybe it is precisely because of that absence of voice communication. You can stream music, video and presentations, no problem. The audience just cannot really talk back except through the clumsy chat function, resembling basic Q&A after a session. So all in all it looks a lot like the broadcasting situations companies are mostly used to.
Would that be the reason that companies like Second Life? Because it fits the traditional communication model for companies? Just a thought.

Yesterday Björn Kolbeek pointed me to Photosynth of Microsoft Live Labs. It is a technology that stitches photo’s from different sources together to create 3D representations of actual locations. You would be able to fly through a 3D world, entering through a photo on any website and flying out to another website through any of the other photo’s that constitute the 3D rendering.

It was presented at the SIGGRAPH 2006 conference, which is being held this week in Boston, USA. Techcrunch also has an article.

The cool part of this app is not that the idea to create a 3D representation of something is new or unique. We’ve had panoramic virtual tours for quite some time already. What is unique though is that it builds on the multitude of contributions of internet users all over the world. Imagine it not only using all photo sites like Flickr, 23, and the like, but also each and every photo that is used on any site somewhere.

This kind of visual representation would also be another great and important building block in combining the geographic landscape with the information landscape that is the internet. In the video on the Photosynth website one of the suggestions of use, next to virtual tourism or checking out venues beforehand, is to be able to find out the exact location of a building you photographed but don’t remember where. Simply by ‘diving into’ your own photo published on Flickr, you would find yourself ‘inside’ the panorama stitched together from everybody’s photo’s of that spot. Step through the looking glass, if you dare. It also reminds me of the mirrors in the Mordant’s Need SF books by Stephen Donaldson.

And what if we take our imagination one step further? What if we use these 3D rendered locations as ‘wall paper’ for virtual worlds such as Second Life, or the VRML based Traveler. I would really enjoy being able to invite Jon Husband to the virtual version of my favourite local restaurant La Cuisine where we dined together in 2004, or to Elmine’s and my coffee and cake hang-out SamSam, or for beers at my preferred watering hole De Boemel, to have our Skype conversation, or my home office even. It allows me to share imagery and atmosphere from my daily surroundings, reinforcing our mutual perception and understanding. I can imagine Jon returning that favour by inviting me into his kitchen in Vancouver (where Earl stayed once too) for the next chat. See how extremely poor this paragraph is without the visuals that come with all these links? Imagine. Combine this all with presence indicators for people, such as used in Plazes, or bluetooth data as in Imity, and RFID tags for physical objects… It would certainly blur the demarcation of on- and off-line.