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.

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

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.