Power users holding back Second Life?

Second Life is being held back by an “elite group” of users, according to Forrester Research, Inc. analyst Tom Grant.

There is an ” Iron Law of Oligarchy,” Grant wrote this week. “Over time, a subset of customers emerge who participate regularly in user group meetings, discussion forums, the comments sections of blogs, groups in social media channels, and other channels of face-to-face and electronic communication.”

These customers, having the most experience with Second Life, are most interested in issues that might not be relevant for new users — like the ability to join more than 20 groups, or to import mesh objects from 3D design programs.

(Photo courtesy totalAldo via Flickr.)
(Photo courtesy totalAldo via Flickr.)

In fact, much of the recent development efforts in Second Life, and in the third-party viewers, seem aimed at meeting the needs of the most advanced users. What is “windlight,” anyway? Second Life isn’t unique, of course. OpenSim development has been focused on adding technical functionality that might not be of interest to newcomers — megaprims and megaregions, server-side programming, alternate scripting languages, vehicle physics. These are all sexy topics for folks who have been around virtual worlds for a few years.

“Unless the company takes deliberate steps to mitigate the Iron Law of Oligarchy, a small and often unrepresentative sample of users will wield disproportionate influence over the vendor’s thinking about products and services,” Grant said.

But I think he missed a couple of key issues.

TECH BEFORE PEOPLE

Second Life is a techie’s dream, an incarnation of themes that have been bouncing around books and movies for years — Snowcrash, The Matrix, and many others.  The platform — despite its many technical flaws — is a wonder in execution, where users can not only create their own content and design their own environments, but also program behaviors for that content with a compact and easy-to-learn language. Well, easy to learn for those who are already technically inclined.

The focus on technology is apparent in the viewer. The menus are complex and difficult to navigate, with buttons in non-traditional locations.

OpenSim is even more a techie’s dream. The open source server software is modular, meaning that users can swap key functionality in and out. Need a new physics engine? No problem, just slide it in. Installing the software requires being able to use a command-line interface, and to configure a MySQL database.

It is ironic that software designed to create a rich visual environment has no graphical user interface for the management console.

Current OpenSim efforts are focused on improving stability and removing bugs — very laudable goals — and on improving vehicle physics, scalability, and the number of objects and avatars that can be in a single location.

These are important goals, but it doesn’t leave much time for improving the management interface, or making the viewers more user-friendly.

Virtual reality has been ruled by the technologists for long enough, said Warren Haskin, founder of training company Help People, Inc. which runs the popular Help People Island in Second Life. Haskin also recently launched Immercio, a company which rents virtual offices and event facilities in Second Life and OpenSim to small and medium-sized businesses.

It’s time for a new focus, he said, a focus on customer service and usability.

“I truly believe with all my heart, that 3D virtual reality will change the way we do business,” he said.

Nowhere is this more clear than what’s been happening with the Web-based viewer for Second Life and OpenSim.

Last March, Kevin Tweedy, founder and head of Philadelphia-based Extreme Reality, a virtual reality technology company, took over work on the Xenki viewer project. In July, he told me that a working viewer was “six months away.”

Last month, Tweedy told me that he “hasn’t been active on it.”

Instead, the action has shifted to the Unity3D viewer, which has drawn attention from the folks at Reaction Grid, and the 3Di OpenViewer.

Creating a new viewer is not a significant technical challenge. After all, the source code for the Second Life viewer is available for anyone to look at, and both Xenki and the 3Di OpenViewer are open source as well. But getting the viewer to work right, to install easily, to be friendly and usable — that takes a different kind of skill. It doesn’t help that there’s no user interface model to copy. Windows copied the Mac interface, the folks working on the various Linux interfaces have both the Mac and Windows to look to for inspiration.

But there is currently no good immersive interface for virtual worlds. Creating one will be a job for designers more than developers, and will require a focus on ease and simplicity rather than cramming the most functionality into the smallest space.

Another challenge for Web-based viewer is a legal one.

Existing Second Life-compatible browsers “use Linden Labs’ copyrighted meshes, that you might or might not be able to use for commercial purposes outside SecondLife,” said 3Di senior engineer Zoltan Dezso. “There is a lot of ambiguity about those copyrights.”

The commercial version of the 3Di platform uses full mesh objects and the realXtend offshoot of OpenSim, which supports full meshes.This avoids the entire avatar problem altogether, Dezso said. However, the public version of the 3Di OpenViewer, which is already available for use to access OpenSim grids, does not correctly display avatars. All avatars look like men in business suits to users using the Web-based viewer. To others in the virtual world, accessing it via the standard downloadable browsers, the Web-based visitors look like twisted-up aliens.

Dezso said that he expects to have a fully functioning version of the 3Di OpenViewer, able to correctly display avatars, available sometime in early 2010.

IN-WORLD ECONOMICS

In Second Life, the virtual world is run on the backs of two kinds of users — users who rent land, and users who buy content. Their money helps keep the servers running.

Users who rent land need to be able to manage that land, to set access permissions, to rearrange the landscape, to put up buildings. They need a fully-featured browser that gives them all these tools. A flimsy Web-baser viewer would be of no use to these folks.

Users who buy stuff in-world need to be able to access their virtual wallets, to browse through their virtual closets, and to try on the clothes and objects that they buy.

Again, a stripped-down Web-based viewer isn’t much use.

Yes, e-commerce functionality can be incorporated into a Web-based viewer, as can the building and design tools. However, at that point, downloading the Web plugin will take as long as downloading the full browser to the desktop.

So is there any money to be made from a stripped-down Web-based virtual worlds viewer?

The 3Di approach is to integrate the viewer more closely with the server software, and sell the combo to business customers looking to put up virtual showrooms and meeting spaces that customers and partners can easily access over the Web.

A few other companies are doing something similar, with other back-end systems. For example, 3DXplorer from Altadyn has a Web-based viewer for their proprietary virtual world platform, which they’re also pitching to business customers.

However, neither of these approaches is likely to help the large mass of small businesses and groups using virtual worlds — these products are expensive, and require end users to download separate plugins which are not compatible with the products from other vendors.

A general-purpose Web-based plugin, by contract, could be used to access any Second Life or OpenSim-based world.

FUTURE PATHS

So where will a viewer come from? One possibility is that a business-focused grid, like Reaction Grid, will build a viewer as a service to its clients. And, in fact, Reaction Grid seems to be starting to do just that, with its experimentation with the Unity3D technology.

Another possibility is that the folks at 3Di will finish off their viewer and make it available to the public for free as a way to promote their other commercial alternatives.

Or a group of volunteers might take on the Xenki project, or build a new viewer from scratch — say, by using Google’s o3D standard. Or IBM or Intel might throw some weight behind a Web-based viewer project in order to move adoption along.

Finally, a small startup might raise some money in order to build a viewer and host it on their own Website, making money from advertising revenues. Businesses, groups, and individuals could then embed a viewer window on their own Websites — YouTube-style. Adoption would grow virally.

The biggest downside to such a viewer? The limits on how many people can access a single location at the same time. Small companies and groups not expecting more than 20 people to show up would do well with the technology in its current states, but larger companies and organizations, expecting hundreds or thousands of simultaneous visitors, would need to wait for the technology to improve — or use load-balancing on the back end to distribute visitors across multiple locations.

Another challenge that needs to be overcome is the login account issue. Today, anyone entering a virtual world needs to have their own user account. This means that a Web-based viewer can’t simply just start up and show a 3D scene — the user needs to either login to an existing account in that location, create a new account, select a guest account, or teleport in with an account from a different grid.

All of these options are possible with today’s technology, but require some additional steps on the part of the user before they’re able to enter the virtual world. For example, if they were to create a new account, they would need to confirm their email address. And if they login with an account from a different grid, they would need to be redirected back to the service home page, so that they’re not giving up their personal account information to a third party. And if they use a guest account, the business would need to ensure that there are enough guest accounts to go around — and that they are maintained in good form, dressed appropriately, and clean of any spam attachments.

USE CASES

There are already a variety of businesses and organizations using virtual worlds for real work. Many of these groups could benefit from a simple Web-based viewer.

Education: If I’m running a class or seminar in a virtual world today, I need to allow at least a couple of hours for my students to get familiar with the platform. With Web-based access, I would set up their accounts ahead of time (under their real names, with an OpenSim platform) using standard default avatars, then email the link to the login screen for the classroom and their user names and passwords to the students. They would click on the link, login, and they’re in the classroom. As the teacher, I would be using a fully-functional browser to access the world, letting me put up slides, run videos, move furniture around, and do any other necessary housekeeping tasks. I would also have access to a microphone, allowing me to transmit my voice to all the students. The students would type their questions back to me.

Customer Service: A potential client wants to know more about my company’s services — or needs a problem resolved right away. They go to my Web site, and see that there’s a customer service rep sitting at a desk in the virtual location — they click and they’re in the world, talking to the rep.  When a customer logs in, my rep is alerted by a sound, or by the in-world browser popping up on their monitor. If there was a lot of traffic, I would need to use load-balancing to route customers an available representative, or to put them in the shortest customer service line.  While they wait in line, I can have a display screen inside the world playing customer service videos, or answering the most common questions.

Meetings: I’m a member of a large number of professional and networking organizations, who typically meet in person. That’s a lot of driving. I’d love to see them meet in a virtual world, but the platform is currently too difficult for the average person to use. It makes no practical sense to spend two hours learning to navigate a world just to attend a one-hour meeting.  With a Web-based meeting, the moderator would create accounts for attendees ahead of time and send out a link to the meeting site. If the meeting is focused around a presentation, the presenter can log in with a full browser in order to speak, or to share slides or videos, or the moderator can take care of these functions for them.

FEATURE CREEP

Much of the virtual world development today is focused on adding new features to the virtual world browser. As a business user, I prefer to see features added to objects, instead.

For example, I can use the built-in editing tools to put a photograph on a poster in a virtual world. But what if the poster frame was a programmed object that would prompt me to upload a file or enter the URL of the photo I wanted? Adding functionality to the poster frame would allow me to avoid having to learn how to use the virtual world editing tools. Instead, I would shop for the most user-friendly frame, and buy as many as I needed to decorate my environment, or, depending on my budget, opt for a free low-end version.

Instead of using the browser’s built-in inventory menus, I could walk into a virtual closet that would organize my clothes and belongings for me.

The same thing happened with the Web. At the beginning, Web site designers used programs like Dreamweaver to lay out Webpages and hand-code HTML. Today, many Websites run on content management systems that don’t require any editing software at all — instead, pages are updated using simple Web interfaces. High-end Web design work still requires some hand coding and template customization, but the average user no longer needs to learn HTML or how to nest  tables.

With a slim, stripped-down Web viewer, more features will move away from the browser-based menu interface into an in-world object interface.

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is a science fiction writer who covers cybersecurity, AI and extended reality as a tech journalist at her day job.
Check out her author page on Amazon or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Her first virtual world novella, Krim Times, made the Amazon best-seller list in its category. Her second novella, The Lost King of Krim, is out now.

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