Sunday, 17 March 2013

Second Life Updates

Here's my March column for AVENUE magazine.  Photography this month is by Ziki Questi.

In the days when I was new to the metaverse, it was unusual for a week to go by without some sort of blog update from Linden on the Second Life® home page. In recent times, this frequency of communication seems to have dropped considerably. There were just nine posts made in the whole of 2012. Without wanting to sound like I’m jumping on the The End Is Nigh bandwagon, it is tempting to ascribe this to the general decay of SL commented on in so many places these days. It is, after all, a decay that can be seen in many places. Last week, I flew down from my skybox and took a look around some of the mainland sims surrounding the region I’ve lived in since 2007 and was staggered at the amount of abandoned land I found. It was like walking across a wasteland: parched, undulating ground stretching off in all directions, almost as far as I could see. All it needed was a piece of tumbleweed bouncing past or a post-apocalyptic, skeletal hand reaching out of the burned soil towards the scorched, tear-stained sky.

But wait. 2013 seems to have got off to a much more talkative start, with seven posts made in January alone. Does this denote a new direction for Linden’s communications policy? As we enter the final six months leading up to SL’s tenth birthday and the potential associated media attention, is Linden stepping up its Be Friendly Towards Residents campaign? My curiosity piqued, I decided to take a look at what topics our governors have deemed fit for discussion with us.

The first was the announcement that SL is now available to purchase as a product from Yes. It’s listed under the ‘Video Games’ section of the website, in fact (and let’s not get into the ‘it’s not a game’ debate right now; no matter how right you are, the people you’re making the point to will always regard anything that moves on a computer screen and isn’t a video of an amusing cat on YouTube as a game; in any case, there isn’t a section at Amazon for ‘Metaverses and Virtual Worlds’ so where do you suggest they put it? ‘Patio, Lawn & Garden’?). As well as the basic free download, you can also acquire various inventory ‘packs’ for sums of actual money. The ‘Premium Vehicle Pack’ bundles a sailing boat, a dune buggy and a hoverboard with L$4,000 for the real world price of $24.95, whilst the ‘Deluxe Vehicle Pack’, retailing at $14.95, contains only the hoverboard, sailing boat and L$2,000. I suppose the best way to think about these things is as SL gift vouchers, only ones which cost more than the value of the cash they come with and which have thrown in a couple of novelty items you might use if you’re a newbie for as long as it takes you to discover the experience of crossing a sim border.

Speaking as someone who’s neither seen nor stepped upon a hoverboard in SL, I’m struggling to accept this as the hitherto undiscovered hook that’s going to reel in metaverse newcomers by the million, yet the ‘Starter Vehicle Pack’ ($9.95) contains just this item and a mere L$1,000. Yes: out of all three vehicles created for this stunning new marketing tool, the one that Linden thinks people are most likely to buy by itself is the one that doesn’t actually exist in the real world, which can’t take any passengers, which is difficult to see and aesthetically appreciate when it’s being used and – let’s be honest – which is most likely to annoy other people. What’s more, the ‘Hoverboard Bonus Pack’ contains only hoverboard extras – no lindens whatsoever – and costs $12.95! I rarely use exclamation marks in non-fiction, but this surely merits a minimum of three (you should be respecting me for my restraint). But if you think I’m against the idea of Amazon SL packs then you’re wrong. In fact, I intend to dedicate next month’s column to an analysis of the virtual bundles we might actually find enticing.

Returning to the list of Linden January blog posts, two of these concern the all-new ‘Quicktips’ video tutorials prepared by Linden for newbies. The first is a one minute introduction to avatar appearance, the second a guide to buying and unpacking items. Naturally, the latter cannot possibly fit into a minute and spends instead a second under three trying to make the various caveats to SL shopping (items bought should appear in your received items folder… except they might come in a box… and boxes need to be rezzed on land to be unpacked… oh, but not all land can be rezzed on… you need a sandbox (no explanation is given as to what a sandbox is)… click on the box to unpack it… oh wait, some boxes don’t unpack automatically…) sound easy. All credit to the narrator – who sounds suspiciously like Torley Linden – for resisting the urge to scream hysterically, Why are sellers STILL packing items into boxes and not even providing land to unpack them on?  Then again, it does rather sound like he’s reading from a pre-prepared script, possibly with a gun to his head.

Another of the blog posts concerns interesting developments in the SL use of the Leap Motion controller, an as yet to be released controller device that reads real life movement in a manner presumably not all that different from Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect. A video clip embedded in the post demonstrates the use of the device to control with hand movements the movement of an avatar, the positioning and sizing of objects (because we’re all still building stuff out of prims), and the activation of gestures. Regular readers of my column will know I see a healthy future for real life movement metaverse interface; at the same time, anything which makes it any easier for people to unleash those twenty-something lines of ASCII spam across my screen or pre-recorded, not-even-funny-in-the-context-of-the-original-movie sound clips must carry with it the threat of the death penalty. So be warned, developers. Be warned.

Last of all, Linden’s started posting on its blog highlights from its Destination Guide – a handful of destinations per blog post with a picture and a paragraph each to whet your exploration appetite. The most recent of these was themed around new art installations. It’s been a while since I looked at some SL art and I was in the mood for something to cheer me up from the wastelands below my skybox, so I picked a couple of these – Citysphere and Bryn Oh’s sim-sized ‘Imogen and the Pigeons’ and jumped into the teleport.

Citysphere is a large sphere covered in skyscrapers that you can walk around as though it’s a small planet; sort of an SL ecumenopolis that – apparently – gets three times the land space of a sim onto its surface area, although the buildings have no actual function. Sticking to the ground as you walk around the miniature Trantor is achieved by means of a special sit script that enables you to walk normally whilst everything slowly turns upside down. It’s more than a little disorientating to see your avatar dangling from the ceiling – by which I mean ground – and I couldn’t decide whether a reorientation script hadn’t been included a) because the artist didn’t know how to write one or b) because however irritating, dizzying and nauseating it might have been, the effect is a powerful reminder that we’re all of us upside-down to somebody. I’m guessing now probably (b). It is art, after all.

And then there’s ‘Imogen and the Pigeons’, which deposits the arriving visitor in a wasteland not entirely dissimilar to my local SL neighbourhood, except with added cooling towers.  Wound around one of them, a thin spiral staircase (watch your step, there’s no railing) is one route up to the hundred metre high entrance to the main exhibit; a set of fallen blocks that arrange themselves into a staircase as you step on them (but turn the wrong way and they all fall back to the ground) is a second; a whirly chair for the can’t-be-arsed-with-precision-movement avatars like yours truly is a third and if you’re really lazy there’s a teleport ball in the middle cooling tower that’ll take you straight there. Thus, you arrive at the reception to the Therapist’s office, one of many narrative signs informing you: An unfortunate space / that the printers missed, / changed the psychologist’s plaque / to read “The rapist” / Sadly the mistake / was not far from true, / as the therapist had / destroyed a mind or two. That sort of therapist, then. In the office, we discover him examining his dead butterfly collection, each insect labelled with the name of one of his patients, except the butterfly for Imogen is missing. He was the type of man / who felt he saw much clearer / from the darkened side / of a one-way mirror. A few locations later, we find Imogen in bed in her room in the hospital and gazing out of the window at her free friends, the pigeons, gathered together on the telephone wire. On the sill, Imogen’s still alive butterfly flaps its wings in a glass jar and clicking this takes you to an online video clip of Bryn releasing a newly metamorphosed butterfly into the sky.  ‘Imogen and the Pigeons’ is absolutely packed with puzzles and detail that I couldn’t even begin to describe here. What began as an intended five minute excursion ended up as a full hour exploring the various nooks and crannies of this enormous exhibit, and even then I left feeling I’d only scratched the surface. You could very easily spend a whole day exploring it. It is immense.

I’m glad that Linden appear to have decided we’re worth talking to again. ‘Imogen and the Pigeons’ was also the perfect antidote to all that nothingness now surrounding my home and the vague worry that SL has lost its ability to move and inspire me. Of course, the plus side of being surrounded by wasteland where I live is I could have a lot of fun racing around down there in some sort of buggy. Aha. Suddenly, the Amazon Premium Vehicle pack makes sense…

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