Monday, 26 March 2007

Where does my Avatar go when I am offline?

OK - before any helpful soul tells me that my avatar disappears when I go offline - I KNOW. The question is rhetorical... it is there to be slightly controversial, and to make a point.

Let me explain.

As I have already blogged, I am occasionally going into SL via the SLeek. This is a text-only interface; good for IM and Chat, but leaves the user completely in the dark when it comes to "seeing" where your avatar is standing. It is like being blind - but more-so as you don't have any other senses to work with either!

So, during a session with SLeek, you could arrive in-world with your avatar stood on someone's head. Equally, you could have a crowd of people stood on top of your avatar's head and you'd never know.

My answer to this is to find a "safe spot" to stand when I exit SL. Then, if I log in using SLeek, I know exactly where my avatar is standing, and am confident that there is no-one else stood on top of me.

Now, as I don't own any land of my own, I have been using a friend's property in SL as my "safe spot". I TP to their house, walk outside, and stand in a secluded spot in their back-yard. Every time I have done this, there has been no-one home, so I have not needed to mention to the owner that I've been passing through their house.

Here is Team, patiently standing in the back-yard, taking in the view

When I arrive in SL, my avatar is standing there, good as gold, staring into the woodland, behind the back of the house. Because I have been so conscious of where to leave my avatar, and where I find it on return to SL, I started to have the random thought of "where do avatars go when I am offline". I guess I've been watching too much Star Trek, with their pseudo-living holodeck characters! Either way, I decided to write this blog entry.... then I got to thinking further about the way I just TP into my friend's house, and wander out into the back yard..... really this is quite rude, and a potential invasion of privacy. I worried so much, that I have since e-mailed my friend to get explicit permission to leave my avatar in the back yard when I am off-line! (and yes, as I said at the start of this blog - I KNOW that the avatar is not there when I'm offline.... or is it.... a bit like the age old question of "when a tree falls in a deserted forest, does it make a sound?")

Which brings me to the serious point of this discussion.... even though logically I know my avatar is not really there (lurking in the bushes in my friend's back-yard), Emotionally, and irrationally, I still find it hard to accept. The immersive experience of the 3D world has left me feeling that my avatar is a real character, who is still there in SL when I log off.

Similarly, I know that my friend has no particular private "belongings" in her house.... I can't go reading correspondence, or even worse, rifling through her underwear drawer! ( and what does having these thoughts say about me!!) But it still feels strange - a bit like trespassing. (though I have since found that she has an automatic visitor log, so has "seen" me come and go via her security system)

I guess it is a bit like the feeling that people have about "being molested" whilst Camping.... (apparently there are some people who will animate their avatars to perform lewd acts with avatars that have been left "camping" in nightclubs). I mean, why get upset about an avatar.... it is just a computer generated image.... and if you are camping, you are not there to see what is going on!..... but equally, why get uneasy about standing in someone's back yard as you exit SL?????

Clearly there is more going on that meets the eye. People get attached to their avatars, and the avatars take on something of a life of their own... so, perhaps, the trick will be in tapping into this emotional bond with avatars in order to develop the "killer app" for 3D worlds.

Innovations in SL (in no particular order) 1 - Ramonia

My good friend Aleister Kronos asked in his blog the other day for suggestions as to the top 5 innovations in SL.

He came up with his top 5, & I came up with a few more. I've decided to write a series of blog articles on the various innovations. The challenge to fulfil is "Show me somewhere that represents the most innovative use of Second Life."

So, my first entry, and one which is always fun to visit, is Adam Ramon's sculpture park at Ramonia. I have already reviewed some of Adam's work in my previous blog entry... Art Installations

Adam has worked with Mashup Islander to produce an amazing number of sculptures.... or perhaps the correct word should be "installations" within SL. Each of the works involves an interaction space, and a set of sounds - be they musical notes, or spoken word. Interacting with the sculpture causes it to make new and interesting sounds.

Now some of these works could have been created in RL, but they would have been horrendously expensive, and actually quite dfficult to realise. Within SL, it is quite straightforward to script something that will drop balls when touched.... have the balls bounce off chimes on the sculpture, then have the balls disappear as they touch the ground. Falling balls can be achieved in RL, but not ones which disapear soon after use. Here's a picture I took of one of Adam's works on display in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in the Neufreistadt sim.

Another of Adam abd Mashup's works is the piece Cantata Park 1..... There is a good article about the artists at from which I have pinched this description....

Cantata Park 1 by Metamatic is an interactive, spatialised sound sculpture built in Second Life. The sculpture is made from 256 individual nodes in a 16 x 16 grid. Each node is embedded with a single word, triggered by a participant’s movement through the work. Each participant creates a random narrative, assembled on-the-fly, and in real-time. The work explores the possibilities of metaverse art, limitations of Second Life’s construction tools and scripting language, and the ability to appreciate conceptual art by proxy of an avatar. Cantata Park was produced in December 2006 Copyright 2006, Metamatic Collective

I had a rather excellent evening a while ago, visiting the sculpture park on Marni (Ramonia) with some friends. We were all able to fly through the work, triggering all sorts of interesting sounts....again, an act which would not be possible in RL.

So there's my first example of innovation in SL.... a set of sculptures that react to the user; that could possibly be realised in RL, but which are far more accessible, interesting an FUN for beng created in SL.

Friday, 23 March 2007

The Drive of Your Life

After a brief spell away from SL, I visited the new Mercedes island recently to "test drive" the new C-Class car.

The experience was far from good.

The new car arrived on time, and looked rather nice. Driving, on the other hand, was not very good. Steering was all over the place, with the car bouncing from one side of the test track to the other.

The next problem was that the car left the track.... not too much of a problem, but the barriers on the trackside meant that I couldn't get the car back on the road! Fortunately, I found a gap and was soon back on course.

The track is "interesting" with a section missing in the middle of a bridge.... this doesn't seem to be much of a problem, as the car flies over the gap with ease. What is more troubling is that the road was not resolving itself quickly enough, so I was driving over open countryside, only to have the tarmac appearing in front of me for the next 10 yards or so! It felt like the scene from "Wallace and Gromitt" when Gromitt is sat on a model railway train, dropping track in front of the engine as it whisks around the house!

Now, I don't know if these problems were all down to Lag, my PC, or the fact that my broadband connection is only 512Kb. Whatever the reason, I think it demonstrates that the Merc. demonstrator is not quite up to standard yet! I think that Aleister Kronos got it right when he asked Why are cars in SL always Crap?

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Web 2.0 and 3D

I've just been reading an interesting thread on Susan Wu's blog all about Web 2.0 to Web 3D. She's considering what the next generation of the consumer web will look like. There's a lot of discussion about the social networking facilities of Web 2.0 and a move from "web pages" to "web places".

Part of the discussion puts forward the view (which I agree with) that the development and adoption of 3D environments is closely mirroring the adoption of the WWW.

Something which is striking me from this discussion is that whilst Web 3D can be seen as the next step in web evolution, following Susan's curve of

Web 1.0 Information Sharing
Web 2.0 Interaction
Web 3.0 Immersion

Web 3.0 = 3D is not necessarily built upon the facilities and function of Web 2.0. It is a completely new paradigm.

So, environments such as Second Life are big on 3D functionality, but do not really have any of the features of Web 2.0 inbuilt. The developers at Linden Labs are still getting to grips with the wonders of managing avatars, simulating physics and gravity, getting voice working etc. Given time, I'm sure that the APIs and other interfaces will be in place to provide Web 2.0 functionality within a 3D environment. In fact, with SL, good old Web 1.0 functionality isn't really there yet, & there is still discussion about how an in-world web browser can be provided.

As has been stated, environments such as Second Life are currently a sandbox for evaluating the best ways to exploit 3D. If you look at the work that is being done in SL you will find some experiments which work really well (IBM's SOA Building as a sort of "permanent trade show"; PA's prototype banking hall etc.) and some which are pretty flat and boring, and could really be done better as a simple web page (e.g. IBM's SEARS building).

We are already finding that, for example, a 3D space works best if there is someone there to interact with, compared with a sterile, empty building full of static displays. Hence organisations are employing "greeters" on a 24x7 basis to add value to their buildings. As the use of the 3D space matures, so we will discover other changes needed to the way we work, and find new innovations and, perhaps, the illusive "killer app".

Given the way that SL engenders communication, chat and interaction, it will be interesting to see what happens when some of the Web 2.0 social networking tools are implemented within the 3D space.

The value of virtual money

Continuing the theme I developed a little while ago about the Virtual Economy, I noticed the other day that Linden Labs have a specific clause in their terms and conditions disclaiming any value (other than a license right) to the Linden Dollar:

Clause 4.1 states:
Regardless of terminology used, Linden Dollars represent a limited license right governed solely under the terms of this Agreement, and are not redeemable for any sum of money or monetary value from Linden Lab at any time

....Linden Lab may charge fees for the right to use Linden Dollars, or may distribute Linden Dollars without charge, in its sole discretion....

...You agree that Linden Lab has the absolute right to manage, regulate, control, modify and/or eliminate such Currency as it sees fit in its sole discretion, in any general or specific case, and that Linden Lab will have no liability to you based on its exercise of such right....

So the L$ does not actually have any value. In fact, Linden Labs have the right to flood the market with free L$ if they so wish; or to wipe out user's accounts (given that they see the L$ as having no monetary value).

Despite these assurances that the L$ has no value, it is interesting to note that the secondlife home page carries a display of the value of currency spent in the last 24 hours!

For me, it reinforces the idea that dealing in L$ is not something that RL organisations should be doing in anger, but is more a convenience for small transactions, or a novelty to be observed. In my travels around SL, I have been fascinated to see various financial products on offer, including currency exchange, stock exchange, banking and mortgages. I believe, thought, that we should not lose sight of the REAL value of the L$ - it is just like "Monopoly Money" - it has huge value with the GAME of Second Life, but has limited real value in the Real World.

Art Installations

A new site has recently opened up in SL, owned by an Australian media company Telstra. They have recreated a number of major landmarks, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. When I visited the site, I was interested to see that the basement to the Opera House contained an art installation by Adam Ramona.

The work is described as...

"A Rose Heard At Dusk
An immersive collaborative audiovisual environment for Second Life.
by Adam Ramona (real name Adam Nash)

Using many of the possibilities unique to the Second Life medium, A Rose Heard At Dusk is a participatory artwork that turns visitors into performers.

It was designed specifically for the cavern space under the Opera House on Big Pond Island. The work is designed to be "played" by visitors avatars.

Walking, flying and jumping through the space, avatars create a unique audiovisual composition, different every time. Colours and sounds combine to create a spatially immersive musical and visual experience.

The work can be played by single avatars, but it really comes alive when friends play it together.

It blends the different meanings of "play". By playing in the space, visitors are actually playing the space like an audiovisual instrument, creating endless variations of sound and vision.

It looks different at different times of day, the light reacting differently with all of the translucent colours. It sounds different from different positions - all sounds are attached to shapes in the space, so some sounds stay still while others move. Combined with the movements of visitors avatars, this creates an endlessly changing immersive audiovisual experience."

Here is a picture of Team flying through the space:

This really begins to exploit some of the unique characteristics of the SL environment. As the description says, flying through the work causes it to emit a range of wierd electronic sounds. It is an interesting experience, though to be fair it did remind me of a 1970's sci-fi programme!

What drew me to the work was a previous experience of Ramoa's work at the location "Ramonia" on the island of Marni. Here he created an installation comprising a 16x16 grid, with flexible blocks hanging in the sky above each square. Walk through the piece, and the flexible strips act like chimes as you move them. What makes the piece even more interestng is that each square has an associated word which is spoken as you pass over it. Start walking backwards and forwards in lines, and you can almost hear complete sentences. Here's a picture of Team Mascot, with the sculpture in the background.

I had a wonderful time a few weeks ago visiting this piece with a number of friends. Our avatars were running through the work, seting off words and chimes as they went.

It is hard to imagine just how such a piece could have been created in Real Life, and if it could, just how much it would cost. In SL, however, it is a simple (!) case of scripting and programming.

Heres a link to another review of Marni in "New World Notes", with more photos and a SLURL.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Social Networking in a 3D Universe

It sounds like there has been a lot going on at the Game Developer's conference in San Francisco this week, with a lot of talk about 3D worlds. . Apparently the rage is for Massive Multiuser Online games (such as World of Warcraft), with a number of large media companies trying to get in on the act.

In the meantime Second Life was predicted as being the prevalent "non-gaming" environment in the short-term.

The trend is for social networking to encompass 3D environments.... which is in line with my experience of Second Life being an environment that engenders communication; the experts at the conference expect there to be a lot of experments in convergence between social networking and MMOs. "Five years from now, as social networking site without a 3D universe will look like a dinosaur"..... so the experts in San Francisco see the ubiquitous 3D interface being no more than 5 years away.

Meanwhile Sony announced that they are to enter the 3D MMOG space in the autumn with a PS3 based game . I guess that they are trying to compete with the X-box live space of online gamers, who nummber several millions. I did wonder a while ago whether or not it would be viable for someone to develop an SL interface for the X-Box or PS3. I guess with this announcement, Sony are doing the whole thing themselves!

A video of the Sony announcement can be seen in the 3PontD blog.

Pipped to PA 2

You just can't beat some people can you? Having just nipped into SL for a look around, I recieved an invitation to the PA Consulting demo island. It seemed like a good place to visit, & I wondered if, for once, I could scoop Aleister Kronos at finding a new location. You've guessed it - no one can find a new island faster than Al - he's blogged it already :-(

Still, seing as I'd grabbed a few photos myself, here is my review of the PA Consulting Demo.....

My interest in the PA Demo is that it was billed as being "a demonstrator for business use of SL".... which just happens to be my raison d'etre for exploring... so definitely worth a visit.

The island is quite impressive, with great plumes of blue smoke and banners. Set the time to midnight for maximum effect. (I did have a photo to insert at this point, but Aleister has a far better image on his blog entry !)

There are 4 main demonstrators - a bank, a racecourse, a BP Filling station and an airport.

The bank has, apparently, been used by PA to gauge user reactions to a number of different RL bank layouts. This scenario was the sort of thing that first sprang to mind when I began to look at SL. Early experience "in world" had led me to believe that it was not such a good idea.... you just can't create a detailed enough space to be of real use. The PA example, however, has applied some neat scripting to allow the layouts to be quickly swapped around. The bank interiors were well presented, and the overall effect was good. They have also taken the opportunity to pepper the bank with a whole host of brand names... product placement or what!

A set of panels outside the bank showed the sort of feedback they'd been getting. There was also a video of one of the evaluation sessions..... so this was real use of SL, not just speculation about what could be achieved.

Next I visited the BP filling station. Apparently this was to demonstrate how the 3D simulation could be used to show where underground tanks and pipes run. Again, the representation was a good copy of the real thing. The shop had been set up with bitmaps of sweets and magazines - just enough to create the feeling of a real shop (but without the ability to mess with the goods on display).

Over the road was the racetrack. This was, apparently, a training facility to educate users into the ways of betting. I found it interesting the way that they had used cardboard cut-outs to fill the betting hall with people - simple but effective way of creating a crowd!

Finally there was the airport. After going through check-in (complete with magically appearing suitcase!) it was up the ramp and onto the airbus to try out the seats. There were a couple of other visitors there at the time, but they seemed far too interested in changing the colour of the lights, and chatting up the cardboard cut-out air stewardess to be interested in speaking to me.

As an aeroplane interior, I felt it left a bit to be desired.... but for an SL sim it was pretty good. (again, though, it does raise the question of how good is SL as a simulator for RL places??)

I only paid the island a flying visit, but what I saw was quite impressive. I felt that the demonstrators had a lot more "meat" to them than, say, the IBM Sears demonstrator The sims had just enough detail to provide some realism, without being overly complex builds, showing some innovation in their construction. In light of this island, I think I might have to think again about the viability of SL as a way of simulating RL environments - PA seem to have made it work..... though they have been thoughtful about what to try to emulate.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Water Water Everywhere!

I've come to the conclusion that a lot of the most interesting work (to date) in SL has come from the "not for profit" sector - libraries, educational establishments and charities. With this in mind, I was trawling through a series of podcasts by Wayne MacPhail on his rabble page Who's On Second - "A podcast about nonprofits and educators jacked into Second Life"

Wayne is currently (5th March 2007) up to podcast episode 15. Each one is generally an interview with someone from the educator or nonprofit sector who has been making good use of Second Life.

Having listened to a number of Wayne's podcasts, I was inspired to take a look at Better World (Better World 24, 51, 22) - an island full of exhibits to bring attention to world issues. Some of these were quite moving, and I really ought to write a blog entry about them. However, whilst on my travels, I bumped into Delia Lake (a.k.a. Linda Kelly in RL) who has created the Centre for Water Studies.

Delia has recreated a number of different water habitats, showing how important water is to our environment. She takes care to change the habitats with the seasons, and so the centre will always have something new to discover. It's actually a very relaxing place to visit, with the sound of breaking waves on the beach. Here's a photograph of Delia by the pond.

If you are particularly adventurous, you can take a ride on the back of an Orca (Killer Whale) whilst exploring the fish in a virtual reef. If you look carefully, you can see Team sitting sidesaddle on the Orca's back!

One of the great benefits of SL as an educational tool, is that you can get a feel for the size of something like a killer whale - by riding on its back, or swimming around it with your avatar.

Delia was inspired to create the Centre for Water Studies by memories of her grandmother taking her to see ponds and lakes when she was a child..... and now she is doing the same with her grandchildren... but this time in the virtual world of Second Life!

Sunday, 4 March 2007

What it feels like to be blind

Now that Linden have opened up the client, it is possible for third parties to provide new ways into Second Life. One such way has been developed by Paul Clement a.k.a. Delta Kzukor with SLeek . To quote the Sleek download site...
"SLeek is a mini-client that connects to the Second Life main grid. It’s useful for situations where you want to be in-world, but don’t want to have the huge overhead of the graphics engine"

The software works a treat! I have been able to connect to SL from my laptop (which does not have anything like the graphics capability to support SL client) and engage in IM and chat.

The only problem is that I am now "blind". I have an idea where I am "in world" because the client tells my my coordinates. I know who is stood nearby - because the chat list lets me know who is there, and I can hear them chatting. But I have no idea what my avatar is up to.... is it standing, sitting, dancing, flying ????

Am I stood on a table; up to my waist in water; sat on top of someone????

I'm going to have to learn a new set of communication skills to take account of my loss of "virual sight". As a start, I think I am going to have to find a nice quiet "home" location - so that when I arrive in-world via SLeek I know that I will be reasonably "safe" and not likely to make a fool of myself!

Having extolled the virtues of SL as a communications medium elsewhere in this blog, and commented on how communication is so much better because of the immersive 3D experience, I now find myself getting excited about a simple, no-graphics interface! How bizarre! But then it is a case of "horses for courses"..... the reason I am in raptures about SLeek is that I now have the capability of "low-tech" connectivity to SL. I just don't have the compute-power to carry around with me for connection to SL.

I guess this raises a further point about the viability of 3D immersive interfaces - you just can't hack it with low-power low-cost IT resources. But this has been the case for years..... as computing power increases, so the demands on the user interface grow to soak up the extra power. Going back over 35 years to when DEC first produced their VAX systems (late 1970's - sadly, I can go back that far!) we had a situation of 3 models of VAX - a 730 that supported about 4-5 users; a 750 that supported about 12 users and a 780 that supported about 20 users. A few years later, a new range of VAXes was introduced.... the 8600 and some other models which I can't remember just now... But either way, there were 3 models... all with about 4-5 or more times the compute power of the old 7xx range. And guess what - the rule of thumb was that the bottom of the range would support about 5 users, the middle box about 12 and the top of the range about 20-30. All because the Office software had bloated itself to be far more friendly and functional.... and soak up all that extra power!

So what has this got to do with SL and 3D interfaces? Well, I can see the same sort of thing happening here. We currently have a pretty neat 3D user interface that needs powerful graphics to make it work. So old laptops like the one I have at work just won't support it. But currently the users of SL are pioneers - working out how best to use the environment. In 2-3 years time, most of the world will have gone through a "technology refresh" & the more powerful graphics will be the norm (even in business desktops) so the power to run a 3D interface will be ubiquitous.

In the meantime, current SL users should think themselves lucky that they are in the forefront of technology, with the capacity to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and civilizations.... to boldly go....

Gaaaahhhhh where's the Teleport!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Myspace or MSN for execs

There's been a lot of talk about how SL has balooned recently, with the massive influx of new users & the huge numbers of major RL organisations setting up islands etc. For myself, it has been interesting to observe how the expectation of SL, and it's use has moved on in the last 5 months or so.

When I first arrived in SL around September last year, the expectation was all around collaborative working; meeting rooms; 3D representations and the like. I was keen to find the new "killer app" and "wow factor" of this new 3D environment.

On exporing SL a bit more, I found myself chatting to librarians and teachers; still searching for wasy to exploit the environment in a commercial sense.

Taking a critical look at commercial builds within SL has revealed that the marketeer's approach to SL has matured, in that it is now recognised that simply putting up a building in SL with static posters advertising the latest widgets is not actually very impressive, and in fact, reveals an ignorance of the techniques needed to fully exploit SL as a marketing meduim.

As a communications medium,. however, SL has continued to impress. I've already discussed how having a 3D world and an avatar lead to easier communications than simple instant messaging or chat rooms. Now that more major organisations are creating active presences in SL, the benefit of being able to speak directly to decision makers and influencers is becoming apparent. Perhaps it is because of the novelty of SL that it is attracting interest from senior figures within organisations. Or, perhaps it is just that the influencers are the ones pushing for a SL presence, and so are going in world to check on their investment. Either way, it is now commonplace to find oneself chatting to key figures from organisations within SL. This level of contact is not normally possible in RL - thanks to the protective ranks of PAs and secretaries which surround people of power and influence. The communication is down at the level ofsimple chat (for introductions) followed, perhaps, by instant messages (once an initial contact has been made) i.e. nothing complicated or exotic!

So, in fact, one key benefit from SL is that it has become a sort of "my space" or "MSN Chatroom" for establishing communications with senior executives and decision makers!

But then again, as noted above, there is something more in the way that communications work within SL. The benefits and issues are disucssed rather well in this article from the Busines Communicators of Second Life blog.