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Thoughts on Second Life April 9, 2007

Posted by ficial in web 2.0.
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I tried Second Life about a year ago, and was unimpressed. However, at that time I was in a place with a not-great network connection and I really had no idea what I was doing. A bit more than a week ago Ruben Puentadura came to Williams to run a full day workshop on Second Life. I’d been looking forward to this for a while. The idea of Second Life is very appealing to me – I really want to like it. My experience with it up to that point had been disappointing, but I hoped an introduction to the world by someone already involved and interested (not to mention 12 months worth of tech improvement) would get past my initial reaction.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day that Friday I left with an even worse impression than I’d started. It’s not that there aren’t some good points to the system, but I found that the negative far outweighed the positive. Since then I’ve been trying to articulate why exactly I don’t like Second Life. In part for my own benefit, but also because most of the other people that took the workshop came away with a very positive feeling about the system and I’d like to be able to discuss at least semi-rationally why I don’t like the system and why they do. So, here’s my beef:

* The UI was terrible. The movement controls were pretty poor (offering very limited control and with very coarse * granularity), but the real problem was the modal look, move, and communicate system. I will happily admit both that this is a hard problem in general and that the IO options (mouse, keyboard, screen) are limited. But even given that the experience was bad.

* Stability was terrible. In a single day of very lightweight, introductory use of the system the client lost connectivity six times and complete-crashed twice. That’s not even getting into the lag issues and basic un-responsiveness issues. On top of these seemingly arbitrary problems the world kind of ground to a halt when a sizeable group (50+?) of people were in the same area.

* System architecture is monolithic and hegemonic – the whole virtual world exists on Linden Labs servers and there’s no way for anyone to set up their own world. This means they dictate the rules, and users are completely beholden to them. Objects in the world are useless outside the world. The corporate life of Linden Labs is a serious single point of failure for the long-term viability of the world. On the technology side, I think that also means their scalability issues are nigh insurmountable.

* The economy feels artificial. It is in many ways reminiscent of the currently struggling data-object economy in the rest of the internet, where object creation, duplication, and distribution is governed by rulings (laws in the real world, LL decisions in 2L) rather than capabilities. That is, technically speaking there’s no reason a person could not copy any object in the world, except that some objects are flagged as cannot be copied and so the 2L system won’t duplicate them. They can get away with it because they control everything, but on the flip side it only works because they control everything. It’s like a world where when a law was passed it would actually become impossible to copy certain MP3s. It’s desperately hanging on to an economic system that’s grounded in the limitations of physical production. I think the really successful virtual world will have to figure out how to avoid that artificial restriction. It’s either doomed, or it reinforces a system I wish were doomed. In either case, I don’t like it.

* The flavor / theme impositions are weird and unnecessary. For all that it’s an extremely free form world there are some very strange basic rules. All avatars must have a last name and always are referred to by their first and last name. Avatars can be killed (from which they recover, but why bother in the first place?). There’s gravity. Very strange.

Other objections have more to do with me than with the 2L itself – I react badly to a hard sell, I’m an introvert so the idea of wandering around and striking up conversations with strangers is no more appealing virtually than it is in real life, and finally, it takes a really significant commitment of time, much more, apparently, than I’m willing to give it. It’s possible that 2L will eventually evolve into the sort of virtual world system I’d like, but to me it feels more like early AOL than early WWW.

Some things that I think Second Life needs:

  • much better UI – the really good stuff will probably have to wait for new peripherals, but there’s serious room for improvement even with existing technology. At a very basic level even allowing configuration of key-bindings in the client would be a huge leap forward (bringing it up to the standards of mid-90’s software).
  • strong ties to the rest of the internet – built in browsers, gateways to established commerce systems, ability to handle all major media formats. In addition to making the system more generally useful and appealing, it would likely assuae much of my dislike of the economy as it stands.
  • voice communication – either an independent system or tying into one of the various VOIP systems out there. Ideally letting users select their own voice support system and just providing a way for them all to hook in.
  • better software – simply put, less buggy and deals with edge conditions more gracefully. It should degrade fluidly with varying connectivity, scale well to many, many users, and generally crash and lock up much less often.
  • distributed system – it’s vital to the robustness and longevity (technologically, economically, and politically) of a virtual world that it not be hosted and controlled by a single entity.
  • finer control – this is related to the UI issue, but a bit different. LL talks about their virtual land and items in terms of meters, but they’re not really meters in the sense that they are proportional to the real world distance. A meter might in game be represented by a distance about 1/2 as long as a tall humanoid avatar, but the effect of that distance is much different. It’s difficult to manipulate effectively anything much below a couple 10s of centimeters, and the resolution limits of both monitors and human vision end up making even small signs multiple meters long. The sorts of things humans regularly interact with – books, utensils, keyboards, steering wheels, buttons on TV remotes, cell phones, etc. – are all at a scale well below the threshold of effective use in 2L.
  • permeability – need to be able to get things very easily into and out of the virtual world, whether it’s text in a virtual book, CAD created objects, images, software written in languages other than 2L script, or whatever.
  • adaptability – it should be able to work with a wide variety of IO devices, and it should be easy to add more as they’re invented / available (e.g. projection glasses with momentum sensors). Open-sourcing the client software is a good step towards this.

Second Life definitely has good points as well, but I’m not really going to get into that since you can read all about it pretty much anywhere 2L is discussed and I have nothing new to add in that realm. In the end, I think Second Life is good enough for many people who want something like it, but not good enough for me to want to use it and not good enough for me to recommend it to anyone else. I don’t yet know if there are currently any viable alternatives to 2L, and if not then I’ll wait.

Here are a few other places to read some less-than-wholly-positive writing about Second Life and other software of that ilk:

http://ilamont.blogspot.com/2006/11/problems-and-promise-in-second-life.html

http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/journal/journal.php?user=toothpaste&id=573&readcomment=1

http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11685.phtml

http://slgames.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/alternatives-to-second-life/

http://www.secondlifeherald.com/slh/2007/03/alternatives_to.html (same article, different discussion)

http://editthis.info/sl_wiki/Alternatives_to_Second_Life

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Comments»

1. Trevor - April 10, 2007

You could have called this post “second thoughts on second life.”
I see a great deal of potential in SL for language. I like Virtual Morocco. In my experience, more than half the visitors there are non English speakers. There are many conversations in French and Arabic. The Arabic discussions use transliteration in English for Arabic words with some character substitution like 3 for the letter “ayn.” If SL could accommodate some other character sets easily, SL would be fantastic for language instruction.

2. Morgan - September 27, 2007

I recently found http://www.forterrainc.com/ , which offers an alternative to second life that is perhaps more appropriate for academia. It allows you to host the world yourself, has less socially aggressive content, and a much more scalable architecture.


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