I’m currently researching some of the recent developments in Virtual Reality for work. One of the hot new VR sites as called SecondLife. There have been numerous articles written about it over the last few months. I thought you might be interested in my findings.
I took the plunge into SecondLife this weekend. It’s a very interesting experience. It is familiar and foreign at the same time. It manages to be most of what the real world is: boring, quirky, titillating, disturbing, etc. Although in fairness, I have to confess up front that these sorts of online destinations don’t hold great appeal for me. Still, there’s no denying that it is popular, and that a stupid amount of business goes on there. On an average day, over $500,000 USD are traded there. It’s no wonder the government is wondering if it can tax virtual commerce. It should also be noted that there are real people and real world businesses out there making substantial real world money by doing business in the SecondLife virtual world.
It works like this. Signing up is free, and if you attach your PayPal account (or a credit card) to your SecondLife account, then you get $250 Linden Dollars to start out. Note that there isn’t a charge, this just sets up the possibility for being charged. Keep in mind that $250 LD is worth about $1 in real money. And there is a currency exchange within the game where you can trade Linden Dollars for USD and vice versa. There is, of course, a premium service which involves a monthly fee and entitles you to own virtual land and do more than casual business there. Once you have your account set up, you get to choose a name and an avatar (your virtual self). Then you have to download and install the SecondLife client software. This was a pretty easy and benign install under Windows.
So now you’re ready to start. Initially you are sent to a brief training camp where you learn how to select/configure your appearance and wardrobe. There’s a fair amount of flexibility here. You can choose everything from the width of the bridge of your nose to how high the heels on your shoes are. You can give yourself a receding hairline and a beer gut if you choose, although from my brief experience there so far, no one seems to opt for that. The population of SecondLife is considerably thinner than the population of First Life. Still, the end result is very cartoon-ish.
Once you are primped and dressed, you move on to learn how to walk, run, fly (yes, you can fly!), pick up objects, etc. Object manipulation is primarily through virtual telekinesis. You shoot these “thought rays” from your hand and move the virtual thing. I assume this was mainly to keep the graphics fairly simple. Finally, you are sent to an initial “island” in SecondLife where you can meet other clueless new avatars and figure out how to actually use the skills you just learned. Just to set expectations, it probably took me a good couple of hours to get this far. It’s clear to me that you could inadvertently spend a stupid amount of time in these places. Some of that may be because I’m still a newbie and I’m not too good at doing too much.
While on the initial island, I was able to get someone to tell me how to use the map to get to other islands. This is crucial, because aside from a patio sporting a couple of benches and an albino hippo who dispenses free beer, there ain’t much here. Although I suppose one shouldn’t underestimate the value of a beer dispensing hippo.
Islands are self-contained communities. You travel between islands via teleportation by choosing islands on a map. Some islands are private although most are public. Some islands are also rated “mature”, and these are off limits to the under 18 crowd. According to the Second Life rules, explicit sexual behavior is only allowed on mature islands. And violation of the rules may get you censored, suspended, or even expelled from the SecondLife world. There’s even a police blotter where you can see recent offenders’ crimes and punishments. I know about this because in my first attempt to teleport to a new island, I simply picked one off the map that appeared to have a lot of people in it. I was a bit shocked when I got there to discover that I had teleported into a virtual brothel. I’m honestly still a little perplexed by this. There were actually “services” for sale there. This means that there are people paying actual money to purchase virtual prostitutes to engage in cartoon sex acts. I’m sure there’s a sociological conclusion to draw from this, but I’ll leave that analysis to Dr. Phil. Returning to the map, I quickly discovered how to identify the “mature” islands, and not surprisingly, there are lots of them.
So next I picked a non-mature island with a bunch of people. It turned out to be a casino / dance club. Are you beginning to sense a theme here? It turns out my avatar does not know how to dance, which is consistent with my real self, so we’re okay. In addition to the slot machines and lotto-type games, there were also things for sale here. You could buy t-shirts, drinks, food, and even virtual cigarettes. It’s not clear if you can get virtual cancer.
This inspired a little more research. I discovered that there are real-world products leveraging SecondLife content. For example, there’s a company that actually replicates the real world equivalent of SecondLife clothes and will sell them to you to wear. I also began wondering how one would go about creating items to sell in this world. It turns out that there is a toolkit available which allows you to create a visual representation of a thing for sale. However, to be useful, you need to create a behavior script to attach to the object. This behavior defines everything from the cost, any animation or manipulation possible with the object, and even whether the purchaser is able to modify the object. The script is written in Linden Script which appears to be just Java with some SecondLife specific class libraries. Not surprisingly, businesses have formed offering scripting services. For a fee, they will build an object to your specifications.
Teleporting to groups of people again, I wound up in a shopping mall. This was a little disconcerting because due to a server lag, I showed up naked. After 10 seconds or so, my clothes materialized. I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek, and this never happened to them. But no one seemed to pay any attention to my lack of attire, so I’m assuming this isn’t all that unusual. Pretty much anything you’d find in a real mall, you could find here. Clothes, a food court, trinket kiosks, delinquent teenagers hanging about, the whole experience. In addition, there was also a car dealership. I also noticed here that some of the backgrounds and displays employed still photos from the real world. This photoreal touch was nice for objects which are hard to depict in the low-res cartoon graphics of most of the world, but because of that contrast, they also stood out as out of place.
I also wound up engaged in a conversation with a small group here. There is a standard chat interface built in, but much like a chat room, it can be a little disconcerting. All conversations within earshot appear in the same window, and threads can be very difficult to follow, especially in a crowded mall. The combination of visual and textual input makes the experience that much harder to keep up with. I’m assuming this is why there is also an IM interface so you can have a private conversation with a restricted group.
According to several articles real companies are beginning to hold real employee and even client meetings in SecondLife. I can see how this could create a better conference sort of experience as there would be a visual representation of all the meeting attendees in the virtual room. The avatars are capable of gestures and expressions, so it could add another dimension to the experience. The ability to project 2D photoreal content on virtual surfaces also allows for real presentation materials to be shared. However, in most cases, the norm seems to be to hold a separate and simultaneous voice conference call which makes great sense as chat based meetings would be insufferable.
In summary, the experience was fascinating. I interacted very little, preferring a take a more Cain-like experiential approach to walking the virtual Earth (sans the Kung-fu skills). But the behavioral similarities between First Life and Second Life are nothing short of enigmatic. This may well be one of the great sociology experiments of our time. It provides both the ability to be who you wished you were in reality as well as the ability to be who you are, but to a wider audience and in more and different places. However, clearly the primitive nature of the graphics is going to limit the experience for the time being. But this will change. Photorealism is the obvious next step here. The virtual world will become more real. People could take or share vacations here, interact with distant friends and co-workers, and go shopping. That last one, shopping, may be the next big development here. You wouldn’t require a complete photo-real experience to create a virtual store. Just the items for sale need to be photoreal, and that seems pretty do-able. So I would venture to guess that virtual conferences and virtual shopping will be the big near term drivers in this space. Photoreal environments and photoreal avatars will likely follow, although I expect they’ll first need to resolve that teleporting server lag issue so that photoreal avatars are not popping up naked.