A call for a new viewer

Second Life has rolled out some great features recently, such as media-on-a-prim, which are great for business. And chief product officer  Tom Hale’s promise of mesh imports in the second quarter of this year is also great news.

As a business user, both of these features promise to be very useful, and I look forward to their implementation in OpenSim as well.

However, the new features demonstrate a common problem demonstrated by technology companies: they try to overcome bad interface design with additional functionality, hoping that the features will bring in new users despite the other problems.

There were a few cosmetic changes to the latest viewer release, but none addressed the core problems with the Second Life browser, and most of the alternative browsers.

They are simply too hard to use. Even for an experienced user, launching the browser, logging in, teleporting to a region, and finding the people you are trying to meet can be a lot of work. I’m finding myself turning to online video streams of important meetings instead of attending the event in person, or simply just reading the transcript later.

I’m not alone.

“If there are 100 people starting in Second Life, at the end of one year there will be one left,” Hale told artists and builders at a meeting last week. “That’s not a great experience.”

And the concurrency statistics back him up. According to data from Tateru Nino, the number of users online at any given time has been sliding for the past year.

Second Life Median Concurrency
Second Life Median Concurrency

In fact, concurrency seems to have peaked in January 2009 and has been on an almost continual decline ever since.

Why are people dropping out — and not, say, dragging their friends into Second Life instead?

The first reason Hale gave was “the complexity of the experience.”

This has certainly been true in my case. I have employees who pretty much have to do whatever I tell them, and I don’t look forward to ask them to attend meetings in Second Life or on our private OpenSim grid. Crashes, failed teleports and lost attachments don’t help, of course, but the main obstacle is the browser download and the steep learning curve.

The new SL Viewer 2 doesn’t address these concerns, and the OpenSim-friendly alternatives only load more features into the viewer — wind and light settings, multi-grid account management, hypergrid teleports. These are all great features for power users, builders, and designers. Not great features for the average employee who needs to attend a team meeting.

Other than the added functionality of media-on-a-prim, the new viewer only makes minor cosmetic changes.

New users still have to download a large piece of software and run it. Many of my employees refused to do that. Installing new software seems easy to those of us who download stuff daily. But it’s not a normal event for the average person.

Installing Second Life software in particular poses particular challenges. It uses non-standard ports. It requires a high-end graphics card. Most employees aren’t even aware of what ports are available, or what graphics cards their company-provided computers have.

SL Viewer 2 did not address this issue.

Next, users have to learn how to use the software. Putting on and taking off clothes and hair is not an obvious process. Camera movements are tricky for first-time users. After a few weeks of using a Second Life viewer, it’s easy to forget how hard the camera controls were at the start. And after a few weeks away, it can be hard to remember the difference between “drop” and “detach” or whether the camera is control-alt-click-pan or shift-control-pan-click.

Conference planners warn that new users will need an average of two hours of training before they use Second Life. I would add another hour of training for OpenSim users, because of the fact that technology lags a bit behind, and also to learn how to use hypergrid teleports to get to meetings on other grids — and to get rid of that ugly default “Ruth” avatar that most grids still start new users with.

This is not practical. It makes no sense to conduct two or three hours of training for a one-hour meeting — and then to repeat the same process two months later for the follow-up meeting, since everyone would have forgotten how to use the viewer.

Immersive worlds do offer a compelling environment for delivering certain kinds of content, however. Video game players are already voting with their wallets and opting for “first person shooters,” massively-multiplayer online role playing games, and similar 3D immersive experiences. Educational games and simulations are rapidly moving into 3D. The business workplace won’t be far behind.

The graphical user interface underwent a similar transformation. Back when office drones were still using MS-DOS, video game players had already abandoned their text-adventure games in favor of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Instead, traditional video games are now available for free on ad-supported websites, bundled into “nostalgia” packs. You can even play Pac-Man in Flash. But I digress.

The rise of the graphical user interface paralleled the rise of the Internet, also a point-and-click graphical system.

The business world first began switching over to a graphical user interface in 1990 with the advent of Windows 3, while Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, and the first website went live in 1991.  Netscape came out in 1994, Windows 95 came out in 1995, the same year that Yahoo was incorporated.

Last year, the hypergrid was invented. University of California at Irvine professor Crista Lopes invented the system, with which different grids can be connected and allow avatars to teleport freely.

Today, the hypergrid is tiny. We’re currently tracking  just under 200 destinations in our directory — while about half of all grids are now hypergrid-enabled, not every region on every grid is set up to handle incoming and outgoing hypergrid jumps, though some grids, like Cyberlandia, are starting to move towards full hypergrid.

When it comes to user interfaces, though, we’re still in the pre-Netscape phase.

Yes, OpenSim and Second Life servers will have to support more people if everyone is able to quickly log in using an HTML 5 Web-based or iPad-based interface. Intel and IBM are working on this for OpenSim, and are promising significant progress this year.

Connectivity speeds will have to go up, as will computer processing speeds. But this is happening naturally, anyway, with increased Internet broadband penetration, and the demands that Internet video is putting on networks. By scaling up to deal with video, Internet service providers will also be able to meet the needs of virtual world users.  And as existing computers fall off of desks, run over by lawnmowers, or simply suffer devastating hard drive failure, users are continually upgrading to faster processors and better graphics cards.

So, as a business user, this is what I would like to see in a viewer for OpenSim:

  • No downloads. None. Click on a Web link and the world comes up. Or embed it in a small window, like a YouTube video, that you can then expand to the full screen.
  • One-click virtual world login using a default avatar. Or an easy avatar name and password login if I already have an account somewhere.
  • Allow me to log into any hypergrid-enabled world using login credentials from any other hypergrid-enabled world. If the viewer has to do an extra hypergrid jump for me quietly in the background, that’s fine, as long as it happens quickly and I don’t have to worry about it.
  • It has to be quick. Did I mention that?
  • If I’m attending a meeting, I want to be able to look around, move, chat, listen to presentations, sit, and click on objects. Being able to talk — a nice plus. I want the controls to be intuitive. I hardly ever use the menus when I surf the Web. I don’t want to have to use any menus when I’m in a virtual world. I’m no interface designer but how about — arrows for moving and mouse for looking? Click to focus, move the mouse to pan, scroll to zoom in and out. Double-click on objects to activate them. Please don’t make me memorize control-key combinations. Really, please, I’m begging you.
  • Changing clothes also a nice plus, but I don’t mind if it happens through the use of scripted objects — say, a changing room —  rather than through the user interface. Also, if someone comes out with a better changing room or virtual closet, I switch over — easier than upgrading to a whole
  • new viewer. Scripted changing rooms are slower and less efficient than putting this functionality in a viewer. I know this. But I’m willing to make the trade-off. I’d rather have simplicity and ease-of-use. Besides, have you seen my inventory? I can never find anything in there. A nice virtual closet would be just the ticket for me.
  • Teleporting would be nice. I want to be able to enter my destination into an address bar and jump to it, regardless of grid or distance. And I want to be able to bookmark my favorite locations, regardless of what grid they’re on.
  • No building tools. No appearance editors. I’d rather use an in-world service or tool to create a new skin or outfit — or just buy one. On the Web, browsers typically don’t include HTML editors. We use content management systems, or go out and buy Dreamweaver or download an HTML editor and FTP software.
  • No map. If a region or grid owner wants me to see a map, they can put it in the world.
  • No friends or groups. I’d rather have third-party tools and devices to keep track of my relationships. After all, my friends aren’t built into Firefox or Explorer — no, I hop over to Facebook or Gmail to see who’s around.
  • No light settings. Let the region owner decide if it’s going to be day, or night, or natural light cycles. One less menu item to worry about.

Without all that excess functionality, the viewer should be light enough to load in a reasonable amount of time. People who want all the bells and whistles can still use the fully-functional standalone viewers — just as multiple Internet browsers coexist today, more or less happily.

Today, many virtual worlds are designed and operated by technologists. Technologists often seem to think that the best technology should win.

But the best, most wonderful feature set in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use in the time you’ve got.

Sure, people can learn how to do anything. With enough patience, any of us can learn how to use the standard Second Life browsers.

But we don’t have the time. We have businesses to run. Books to balance. Customers to satisfy. We have to do our jobs, and we have to take care of our families, and of our friends. We need time to exercise, and time to relax. We need time to catch up, and we need time to plan ahead. Given all these demands on our time, it’s no wonder that learning to use a new technology — one that might not be all that crucial right now  — is far, far down on the to-do list.

The reason I’m not using Second Life and OpenSim for all my meetings isn’t because they don’t have enough functionality. There’s plenty of functionality, and stability will come with time as the bugs get worked out.

The main reason I’m turning to the telephone, Skype, or even the local coffee shop for many meetings is because they are easier and quicker.

I know I’m not speaking for the powerusers of Second Life and OpenSim here. They’ve invested in learning the technology, and can use it well. A Web viewer would be a simplistic toy at best, and a distraction for developers at worst.

I know I’m not speaking for developers. They love the the power that technology offers, and the more functional a tool, the more power it bestows. A Web viewer would be a crippled, neutered beast.

I’m speaking for the people who could benefit from immersive virtual worlds — but are kept out as a result of accessibility barriers and time constraints.

That includes most of my staff, the members of various networking groups I belong to, and non-profit organizations I support.

Linden Lab, if you are serious about improving the user experience and expanding your reach, release an HTML 5 viewer. Include built-in support for OpenSim and hypergrid teleports for those grids that have it enabled. Allow us to embed it in our web pages, Facebook discussions and LinkedIn groups. And let us run it on our iPads.

That will be a game changer that I’d like to see.