Saturday, 1 February 2014

The second life of Second Life

Virtual Reality might be both the saviour and the slayer of our metaverse.

Depending on who you listen to, Second Life is either taking its last few gasps – hence the departure (voluntary or otherwise) of CEO Rod Humble – or is getting ready for new life to be breathed into it via a renewed interest in virtual reality (VR). The commercial release of the Oculus Rift headset is potentially less than a year away and VR is starting to become a hot topic once again in the industry. In the last couple of weeks alone there has been the news that Steam owners Valve are putting their weight behind the Rift and foresee VR becoming a consumer reality by 2015; meanwhile, Yahoo! have bought out and closed down virtual world Cloud Party and lit the fuse on rumours that a Yahoo! metaverse is in the pipeline.

The edge that SL is likely to have when the Rift launches is that it’s already compatible with the headset and could presumably be accessed through it just as soon as it’s out of the box. If you’re lucky enough to be unwrapping a Rift on Christmas morning 2014, therefore, but don’t have any compatible games to use it with, you’ll be able to plug it into a free SL account right there and then. Indeed, if the Rift does make it to the Christmas 2014 market then 25 December this year could just be the laggiest day in SL history. But don’t worry – I’m sure Linden has a plan for that...

Of course it all depends on how big the take-up for the Rift actually is and who the buyers are (let’s not forget there are age restrictions for accessing SL). But let’s assume for the moment that the rumblings of VR being the Next Big Thing are correct and SL sees a surge of new users keen to try out their new hardware on what, to some extent, could be considered the freebie game included in the box (the VR equivalent, if you like, of ‘Wii Sports’ only without your grandmother playing bowling). Whilst most of us would welcome new interest in SL (for two reasons: 1) a bigger user base might stimulate greater investment in SL, both from Linden and from third parties, and 2) more people using SL might mean that the rest of us don’t need to feel quite so socially outcast in admitting our residency and trying to make it sound better by using such phrases as, “I belong to an online community”), would this actually constitute the holy grail of mainstream involvement that’s so far eluded our aging virtual world?

It’s been argued that SL’s long-term problem has been less about attracting new users and more about keeping them. The resulting focus on user retention led to a new viewer design intended to be easier for the newbie to use (and which you’d be forgiven for thinking was the coming of the anti-Christ from the reaction it got from long-term residents), some noncommittal talk about making the grid accessible via a web browser and a number of attempts at making the first half hour as straightforward and as interesting as possible. None of this addressed the issue of lag, which became the big, grey, unrezzed elephant stuck in the corner of the room that we were encouraged not to talk about since there was very little that could be done about it in the era of ADSL connections. For me, however, this was always the biggest barrier. The one RL friend I managed to coax into SL lasted no more than forty-five minutes because he could only see puffs of floating smoke for avatars and couldn’t move an inch from the spot he landed in; the interface he had no problem with at all.

But the ADSL era is now starting to come to an end.  Whilst SL on a fibre-optic connection doesn’t cure lag completely, it’s undeniably a better experience. During the very long wait for this we’ve had all manner of graphical improvements added, and the metaverse now looks a great deal more beautiful than it did back in the day when SL was last a topic in mainstream discussion. But will all these improvements be enough to retain the hypothetical virtual reality newcomers?

If the Rift does take off, there will be plenty of other companies keen to grab for themselves a slice of this virtual, cash-filled pie. The games market, of course, will be a big part of this and whilst initial titles – if history is anything to go by – will probably be Rift-enabled versions of existing games, any momentum built from this could stimulate big players into hunting down the ‘killer-app’ of VR. We already know of Philip Rosedale’s ‘High Fidelity’ project, and the Yahoo! Acquisition of Cloud Party just might be the beginnings of an exploration of social media in a metaverse. But these things are potentially pebbles: if VR really does become the Next Big Thing then it will be less a question of who is developing for this new media than who isn’t.

What, then, will keep Rift-enabled newbies in SL if the IT world starts throwing its weight seriously upon new VR projects? There have been many graphical improvements made to our world – yes – but a lot of these have that screwed-on feel of medium density fibreboard and require a lot of work – not to mention an advanced SL skillset – to achieve. I’m aware of such things as mesh heads and mesh hands and mesh feet as the new must-haves for fashion-conscious avatars, for example, but which newbie is seriously going to spend time on lining all these things up precisely and getting the colour matching right? Which newbie is even going to know about stuff like that? Whilst SL is capable of more stunning avatars than it used to be, then, Rift-enabled newcomers are likely to look decidedly more blotchy and lumpy, and probably even more so when viewed up close and in three dimensions through a virtual reality headset. Yuck.  

Iris Ophelia wrote recently on New World Notes ( about how World of Warcraft has updated its avatars, and very succinctly summarised the problem that Linden would have in doing a similar thing: whilst higher definition avies in SL would undoubtedly look much better, they’d break a huge percentage of existing SL wardrobe and cause outrage amongst residents. Perhaps, then, the only way forward is through all-mesh avatars, and from the moment that the new user signs up. But, rather than making SL a more attractive place for recently arrived residents, such strategies are really only considering how to reduce its ugliness; more a thinking about fixing the things that might turn people off SL rather than creating the things that might turn them on to it.

Alongside trying to figure why it is that many people leave the metaverse quickly, then, it might just be worth spending a little time considering why it is that some don’t. Speaking personally, whilst SL was just ‘an online game’ to me I felt no sense of attachment to it whatsoever; it was only when it started feeling like a collection of actual places that the addiction began to set in, and the time leading up to that point I spent achieving very little and wondering what on Earth the point was in it all. For those of us who stick with it, our ultimate sense of immersion in SL comes not from the graphics environment as much as it does the sense of connection to the places and people we find. Second Life is entirely the wrong name for this package: it’s a second world we discover, in which our one and only life gets itself a little bit more space to exist in than we previously thought possible. When it does capture us, it’s because SL has taken us by surprise.

The things that build this sense of connection to virtual places include the events that take place in them. I’ve visited countless art galleries in my time in SL and open mic venues and bars and clubs and theatres and learning spaces and role play regions; what’s made them most real are the exhibition openings and readings and concerts and performances and award ceremonies (yes, really) and meetings and classes that have happened in them. The more I think about it, however, the more I become convinced that the single biggest thing that keeps me most rooted in the metaverse is having a home there. If only SL were like Facebook or Twitter or Blogger or any of the other social networking phenomena where it’s been worked out that giving folk a free little bit of it to decorate and call their own is one of the key ingredients to making it sticky. What’s needed in SL, I think, is a free basic home for all users.

I know this will likely never happen, but it won’t not happen for technical reasons when a physical place in the metaverse is only storage space and processor time on a server somewhere; it will likely not happen because of the politics of it all, and the outrage and the vitriol which will probably make going peacefully into liquidation appear a much more attractive and dignified option. Which is a shame, because the free home wouldn’t have to be big: with today’s low impact mesh, it should be perfectly possible to furnish a basic skybox for what we old timers would call 50 prims and people who wanted more than that could buy or rent the extra space the old fashioned way.

For years now, wannabe commentators like me have been making such pie-in-the-sky claims with the freedom to make them as unrealistic as we please. Like the UK Liberal Democrat Party, you can visualise all you want when you’re not ever going to be in a position to have to make any of it actually happen. Where things are different now, however, is that we’re approaching a possible threshold point where that dreamed of mainstream metaverse might actually be lurking round the corner; if there is serious money to be made from virtual reality, people will be looking for the model which resonates most with what people want. Competitors bringing new products to the market really won’t give a damn about doing in their world the things that in SL would incur the wrath of land owners or content sellers or any other resident who thinks maintaining the status quo of their business model is more important than preventing their whole world from going bankrupt.

If SL can’t adapt then the likelihood is it will be overtaken. The coming of the Oculus Rift, then, might well usher in Second Life’s greatest ever moment in the light; it might also, however, herald the beginning of its end.
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