Thursday, August 28, 2008

Second Life: Introduction to a Virtual World

I have been introduced to Second Life (SL) as an area of possible professional development. This post pulls together a number of links and basic bits of information about SL in somewhat haphazard fashion. SL is a creation of Linden Lab, a for-profit company. Revenue for Linden Labs comes from various sources, including the sale of memberships to users, fees charged to users for buying and selling Linden Dollars and for other transactions, sales of land "in world" to users, and land maintenance fees. There are free memberships, which I have, and there are also premium memberships, which cost US$6-10 per month. Land can also be purchased from other residents, at a cost of about L$2 per square meter. Linden Dollars are cheap; the exchange rate is about L$266 = US$1. SL was launched in June 2003. Its economic statistics now claim almost 15 million residents in total, of whom about 473,000 were logged in within the past week. Because a single human can create multiple memberships, and some have been known to create dozens of memberships, the ratio of human users to SL residents is unknown. It does appear, though, that there is substantial actual usage. For instance, over 400,000 residents spent money in SL during July 2008; and while the most common purchase size was less than L$500, there were also some 11,000 transactions involving purchases of L$100,000 or more, including about 600 of at least L$1,000,000. Purchases of that size suggest investments for the future -- which can make sense, in a company that has been estimated as producing profit of $40 million per year. Investment can mean risk, of course. If I read the statistics correctly, the price per square meter of land has dropped more than 10% from July to August 2008. Risks to SL's continued survival and growth include technical difficulties that can make the user's experience less worthwhile; deteriorating conditions in the general economy, or in users' free time, that may leave people unable to spend time or money on leisure pursuits (although conceivably an escapist pastime, which a virtual world could become, could actually benefit from hard times in the real world); and competition from other suppliers of virtual realities. One commentator describes Linden as "struggling in an increasingly competitive market." While I have not analyzed the statistics in detail, it appears that membership hit a plateau last year, after several years of sharp growth. This may have been responsible for the change to a new Linden CEO this past spring. SL's competitors include Google and Microsoft. The Google offering, called Lively, has been described, however, as being "not a contiguous, immersive, fully user-created metaverse like Second Life" -- as a tool that is presently not very threatening to SL, an instance in which "the 800 lb. gorilla is just saying, 'Me too.'" Microsoft, by contrast, is taking an OpenSim approach. OpenSim is short for OpenSimulator, i.e., currently available open-source virtual reality simulation software whose purpose is to create SL-type virtual environments. An important advantage of open-source software in general, and of OpenSim in particular, is its potentially lower cost. While its developers describe it as alpha-level software, a number of grids already use OpenSim. Microsoft has a concept for management of avatar identities that differs from Linden's. (An avatar is a cartoon-like character that stands for you in the virtual world. Basically, your avatar can walk around, buy things, talk to other people's avatars, and so forth.) To Microsoft, the virtual world is an extension or evolution of the user's already existing online presence; it "is not about having an alternate identity divorced from your real life self." Linden has also embraced interoperability and OpenSim in collaboration with IBM, to the extent that avatars from SL are now able to "teleport" from SL to a virtual reality grid created by IBM -- that is, an avatar can disappear from one position, in SL, and reappear in another place, in the IBM grid. What Linden hopes for, from this collaboration, is that, instead of selling virtual land that may be available more cheaply elsewhere, it can offer value-added services that will enable it to earn revenues from a larger pool of users. But there are some indications that Linden is facing a challenge in keeping up with OpenSim's rapid development. My impression, from this introductory scan of a few sources on Linden Lab and Second Life, is that SL is in a position like that of WordStar or Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s. It is the pioneering software that introduces a lot of concepts about its sphere to leading-edge users; but those concepts then become available to better-funded or -designed rivals who avoid your mistakes and improve upon your offering to take the product to the masses. In such spirit, as stated in an article in Computerworld,

It's time to get involved, to get used to the issues, the programming concerns . . . . [W]ithin the next year or two, "virtual world as management interface" should get closer to reality, as a) more APIs and virtual-world representations of are built, b) the client and server software gets more provably reliable, and c) client software that can provide scaled-down access for less powerful computers and for handhelds and smartphones, becomes available.
My own dabbling in SL thus far demonstrates that basic movement and communication seem possible and relatively stable. I have only begun to determine what particular kinds of uses people might make of it. Linden's own webpage seems oriented toward economic activities like those mentioned above. That page does also mention, however, that users can explore, meet people, own virtual land, create things, and have fun. The Explore webpage does not seem very oriented toward exploration per se, however; instead, it speaks of using the map "to find people socializing"; using the search menu to find events; and viewing people's profiles to learn more about them. That is, it is creations, people, and events that count. The Own Virtual Land webpage sends the same message: the purpose of your land is "to build, display, and store your virtual creations, as well as host events and businesses." What, then, are these creations, events, and people -- what is it, in other words, that lies behind the business transactions, that draws people to enter and spend money in the virtual world? The Creations webpage points toward several other pages, including a Building page that says you can build anything from a navel ring to a skyscraper, alone or as part of a team, and "Imbue all objects with Havok™-powered physics so they respond to gravity, inertia, propulsion, and wind from the in-world weather system." Here, too, though, the commercial interest seems essential: the Create Anything page says you can sell the things you build, and if you don't have time or know how to build something, you can buy it. So, for a more vivid grasp of what these things are all about, or a sense of why they are worth building or buying, one stop would be the SL Exchange (SLX), where (if you enable mature content) you can see (at this writing) thousands of items under these categories:
Animals (5196)
Animations (16109)
Apparel (177447)
Art (22294)
Audio and Video (2814)
Avatar Accessories (68786)
Avatar Appearance (39451)
Building Components (35458)
Business (10225)
Celebrations (12541)
Gadgets (9444)
Home and Garden (92843)
Miscellaneous (3791)
Recreation and Entertainment (15827)
Scripts (2220)
Services (197)
SL Exchange (33)
Used Items (1405)
Vehicles (5810)
Weapons (5750)
What seemed to be most popular, at this point, included textures, tools, and devices to equip your avatar or your virtual land, or otherwise to create an appropriately decked-out virtual life. People were also able to create pictures and postcards of scenes in SL. On the first of over 21,000 pages of SL merchandise at Onrez, lingerie and sexy clothing was the leading topic when sorting by "Top Matches," and jewelry was most prominently featured when sorting for the newest items to appear first. Turning to events, SL's Have Fun page says, ""The world is filled with hundreds of games" as well as "dance clubs, shopping malls, space stations, vampire castles and movie theatres." To see the listings, the user is advised to search, within SL, for Events, under these headings: Discussions, Sports, Commercial, Entertainment, Games, Pagaents, Education, Arts and Culture and Charity/Support Groups. Events thus seem to overlap with the concept of meeting people. The Meet People page speaks of a "vibrant society of people" in which it is "easy to find people with similar interests," and also that, at any time, there are dozens of events where you can party at nightclubs, attend fashion shows and art openings or just play games" as well as "form groups ranging from neighborhood associations to fans of Sci Fi Movies." Less prominently mentioned is griefing, in which a user deliberately breaks the rules to spoil someone else's online experience. Techniques for this purpose have apparently been sufficiently "common" as to provoke FBI investigation. Fiend Ludwig provides an example of one user's griefing experience, and SL offers a video tutorial. Pulling it together, SL's Showcase provides images and videos of various kinds of scenes and activities within the virtual world. There are, first, separate showcases for Arts & Culture and for Music. Looking at the latter for a few minutes, I observed the 3D home for the rock band Journey, and the Amsterdam Arena, described as one of SL's biggest techno dancehalls. There seemed to be about 25-30 clubs listed altogether. The occasional dancehall images that I saw, at this point and otherwise, never featured more than a few avatars. Another Showcase category, Hot Spots, listed a similar number of sites, some of which (e.g., H&R Block Island, Weather Channel Island) would not normally have qualified, in the vernacular, as "hot spots." The other two Showcase categories, Tutorials and Photos & Machinima, both seemed to be oriented toward the development of one's portion of the SL world. The latter featured videos, some of which were on YouTube, with music and somewhat interesting graphics. One of them comes, for example, from Princeton University in Second Life. There was, I could see, some potential for artistry and creativity in the SL realm. Certainly I did not come away, however, with a sense that SL provides a compelling sense of where virtual reality is going. It reminded me of my first experiences with CompuServe e-mail -- again, in the 1980s -- when I could feel the excitement of being in instant and yet safe contact with people far away -- in ways that did not and, to some extent, could not happen via telephone. The potential was there, but ultimately most people did not opt for e-mail until some years later, especially in a visually more appealing format. SL has, to me, that rough feeling of sometimes slow resolution, artificiality, and other restrictions upon what one could instead experience in real life. This seems to be the spirit behind e.g., the Get a First Life webpage, whose parody of SL includes such reminders as, "Go Outside -- Membership Is Free"; "First Life is a 3D analog world where server lag does not exist"; and "Find Out Where You Actually Live." So why do people do it? What are they looking for in SL simulated spaces (called "sims")? Wikipedia cites real-world applications in areas of education, religion, politics, and the arts. Yet that seems to be markedly different from another Wikipedia article, on emerging virtual institutions, that discusses participation within political, economic, social, and linguistic institutions that exist only in the virtual world. An audio clip that played while I was looking at one of SL's Showcase presentations mentioned the user's freedom to be whatever s/he wanted to be, there in the virtual world. Evidently it goes both ways: some people want to use SL to influence or enhance some kind of training or other interaction or behavior in the material world, while others want to use SL to create or participate in a world that is deliberately different from that world. Presumably people would not spend large amounts of time designing islands and jewelry for a virtual world unless they (or their customers) were intending to enjoy that place for its own sake, much as people have long enjoyed novels and dollhouses for the imaginary worlds they help to create -- quite unlike those who write textbooks and would use virtual reality (VR) to serve some other end. I, personally, am not too interested in devising a virtual world for its own sake. I may be, someday; I can imagine using it to illustrate, or to participate in, a hypothetical social arrangement -- to try out some sociopolitical ideas in the virtual world before suggesting their implementation in actual lives. As I say that, I guess I can also imagine lining up participants for a virtual therapy group characterized by anonymity and freedom to develop one's different personas in a group setting. Surely there is great potential, in the long run. My initial reaction to SL was on the negative side, I suspect, because I found the graphics somewhat clunky (although really not bad) and definitely unrealistic (e.g., I could walk through fire; I could fly); and for these reasons, I think, it was difficult for me to feel personally invested in the imaginary world. A default first-person perspective (i.e., seeing through my avatar's eyes, instead of seeing him as he got himself into various situations) might also have helped. These or similar possibilities will likely be explored by SL and/or by other participants in OpenSim eventually. Once again, the WordStar/Lotus/CompuServe examples come to mind. Unless you want to be expert at some program or capability for its own sake, or for some short-term need, the most sensible path would seem to be to keep abreast of developments, but focus on advancing your core skills and interests, and wait until the technology gets to a point where you can use it without investing tremendous amounts of time and money and possibly being on the wrong track or learning details you will have to unlearn later. From that perspective, the important question seems to be, not How can your clients or customers find some use for this technology now? but rather What could this technology (if properly developed) do for your clients or customers that nothing else can do -- what will they eventually see as the "killer" application of this technology? In an apparently notorious recent speech, Mitch Kapor (designer of Lotus 1-2-3) said,
The pioneer era in Second Life is beginning to draw to a close. It has been five years and we are at the beginning of a transition and I think it is an irrevocable transition. And I am hoping what you see now is a slide of a technology adoption curve, a classic bell curve that shows early adopters on the left and then a set of pragmatists as we move from left to right and so on all the way over to the right edge of the curve, we show the laggards. This technology adoption curve is well known for the way to characterize the adoption of these disruptive new innovations. Now, where are we on this? OK, could I have the next slide please. When you see this resin, you should be seeing a big red vertical arrow just at the margin between the early adopter phase and the pragmatist phase. That is really where we are today and I think that has some very important implications and I want to talk about that for a minute. So the first is, in the earliest wave of pioneers in any new disruptive platform, the marginal and the dispossessed are over represented, not the sole constituents by any means but people who feel they don't fit, who have nothing left to lose or who were impelled by some kind of dream, who may be outsiders to whatever mainstream they are coming from, all come and arrive early in disproportionate numbers.
There appears to be some anecdotal evidence supporting Kapor's hypothesis, at least to the extent that SL and Linden may be representative of only a first phase of a VR revolution. It seems timely, that is, to ask whether one should be in the business of promoting the fantasy or the reality in SL -- promoting, that is, the enjoyment of a virtual world in which one can be whatever one wants, or instead helping people to do better and be happier in the material world. That question goes beyond the scope of what I wanted to achieve in this introduction to SL, however, so I will stop here for now.