These days I have been mostly building some robots. To be precise, I am making a few Victorians, some roman slaves, and a roman tour guide and host. They will be there to welcome visitors, and to provide entertaining commentaries as a backdrop to a historical reconstruction. But these are not your "ordinary" robots, made of metal and silicon: they will live their slightly repetitive existences only within the confines of the Second Life virtual world.
The project I'm working on uses this 3d environment to recreate a Victorian model of an earlier Roman building - the Pompeii Court, which was in turn, reconstructed as part of the original Sydenham Crystal Palace exhibition in the 1850s.
Many academic institutions have used Second Life for similar purposes - to bring to life lost buildings in architectural or design projects, as a way to show these places and buildings to students and visitors.
So what is Second Life again?
Second Life, like many other MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games or Environments), is a direct descendant of the text based "Dungeon" software that became popular in the late 80s and 90s, around the time when the Internet first came into popular use. These were primarily games, but also allowed users to socialise and sometimes even to build new aspects of this textual environment.
Second life, first published by Linden Labs in 2002, offers similar functionality: you can send messages, chat, or send instant messages to other players, as you would in a social network environment such as Facebook, but with the difference that this would take place in a rich 3d world, complete with sounds, animations, video and sometimes even the real voices of the other users. The vast majority of what you can find inside Second Life has been built by the same users who frequent it.
To have a first look, just go to https://join.secondlife.com/ and follow the instructions you will find there.
A useful tip is to remember to capitalise the first letter of your new avatar's name, as the automatically generated second name will also be automatically capitalised. Once you have selected a pre-built avatar and filled in some details, you will be able to download the client software and get inside second life's "grid" (the collection of computers running second life's server software, which combine to produce second life's "world").
Why would I want to use it?
Linden Labs' business oriented web site lists the main ways companies are working in Second Life today. Above all, it is used as a virtual meeting place, allowing shared virtual spaces, where employees can discuss issues within a traditional meeting or conference framework, or in small groups anonymously or informally. Because Second Life provides powerful and easy to use 3d building tools, it is also employed in the field of design and architecture for collaborative building, or to simulate dangerous or far away environments for training purposes, as well as to view 3d prototypes that might otherwise take days to produce off-line.
There are many ways of creating game areas, or so-called "Interative advertising" so that concepts can become immersive for users or more entertaining to learn about, Technology moves quickly however, and some companies initially doing this in Second Life have since found it easier to use bespoke virtual environments, and some have been recently developing their own solutions.
Here are some examples of how different types of company might use Second Life:
A health company recently used Second Life for informal workplace talks on health. One organiser was quoted as saying "“Normally you would rarely tell your colleagues about your health concerns, but here with some level of anonymity, people open up”.
Late last year, IBM held a Conference using various teleconferencing technologies, including use of Second Life for 200 people, involving three keynote speeches and 37 breakout sessions.
- Imperial College London are building a "Virtual Hospital" within a private area of a virtual postgraduate medical school in SciLands, a dedicated science and technology Second Life continent populated by universities, government agencies and museums.
A company named Encitra is using Second Life as a platform to do real life urban planning.
The Virtual Economy
One major aspect across many online virtual worlds, is the fact that these worlds have their own currencies and economies that interact with the real world. As players of virtual games increase their abilities, complete quests and acquire items, they are able to trade these in various currencies. Recently, the Chinese government limited the practice of "Gold Farming" where players of the more game oriented virtual worlds would pay low-skilled game characters to gain points or items for them. In many cases these tasks were carried out in sweatshop-like working conditions.
In the online space trading world of Eve Online however, an economist has been hired to oversee the in-world currency, so as to keep it interesting and balanced. Quarterly blog reports are highly awaited by players, as accountants might await the reading of the UK budget. There are a number of differences from real world economics, mostly due to the speed at which transactions occur, and to the fact that they can all be recorded by the underlying software, but this only makes it easier to construct and run economics simulations.
A lot of the most interesting functionality of virtual worlds is still to come. As major Virtual World proponent, Dr Crista Lopes, Associate Professor in the School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, remarked, "My attraction to SL in particular, in contrast to my relative indifference to MMORPGs in general, was its potential to become more like the web; to mature and become a platform for business and life in general". So a good reason to be aware of these environments is that they stand a good chance of becoming a lot more widespread.
Within the mobile software market for example, as GPS, fast internet and tilt sensors reach wider audiences, there is a big pull towards so called Augmented Reality software - where you can hold a device up in a city centre or library for example, and see data about that place - bus times, friends in the area or books about a certain subject. Software such as Google Earth has frequently been seen as a type of virtual world, and Second Life itself has been a source of experimentation in "Civic Mirror worlds": environments that map or mimic real world areas, allowing users to visit places that would be difficult or impossible to do in real life.
In this way, today's 3d environments are the first step towards a convergence of real and data-augmented environments, with the benefit of being easy to get involved in, especially for younger or less technically oriented users.
An alternate pull is away from reality, and I've mentioned the use of these worlds as a way for people to express themselves informally and anonymously or in role play. For the majority of users of Second Life today, their avatars - virtual personae - do not seek to represent their real life selves. Instead they use the environment as a vehicle to free themselves from their physical limitations, to fly, dance, fit into all kinds of clothes or appearances and in this way to socialise with people they wouldn't otherwise be able to.
A case looked at in detail in the book "Second Lives" by Tim Guest is a workshop consisting of physically and mentally disabled patients, who choose one of several identities, and together with a carer on a computer console, all participate in a shared identity, making decisions as a group as to what that character will do in any particular session.
Problems and alternatives
There are many competitors to Second Life currently under development. An important counterpart is Open Simulator, an open source world that is fully compatible with Second Life. It allows would be world builders to download and host a world of their making from their own computers or hosting providers, in the same way that a modern website is served to users. This gets past a lot of Second Life's drawbacks, such as those evidenced by Dr Nic Earle of the Sydenham Crystal Palace project:
- Second Life servers may be closed for maintenance when their US based audience is sleeping - which in the UK may be right in the middle of a session or in class!
- The Second Life client software may require an update at any time (also chosen by Linden Labs), and won't allow access to the world until this is done. Again, this can be a huge problem if there is limited time in which to show a simulation to a group.
- Due to issues with content restrictions, there are actually two Second Life grids: a "teen grid" which is PG only and for users aged 13-17, and a separate adult grid. This can create lots of problems in undergraduate classes, where some students will still be too young to enter the adult version.
- Price: The rental costs of an island or parcel of Second Life with content editing permission is on the increase. Open Simulator on the other hand can be run on most computers, and hosting can be very cheap.
Open Simulator is not without it's problems: long term Second Life users will find it's functionality lacking, but other virtual environments are quickly stepping up to offer alternatives. It is now possible to use flash based software such as Paper Vision to provide a 3d environment accessible directly via a browser and without requiring software downloads.
Virtual worlds and their underlying technologies are always advancing. With the advent of controller-less devices, we will see - at first in gaming, but ultimately across many aspects of computer use - much simpler, more interactive and immersive ways of communicating and of representing real or imagined environments, and at a far lower cost to the pocket and to the world than both physical travel, and video based teleconferencing.
Here is a promotional video for the next version of Microsoft's X-Box 360 game console - showing many of these possibilities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oACt9R9z37U
ILRT offers Open Simulator hosting and a selection of Second Life based services.