augmented reality, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Web, Meet World: Second Life As Augmented Reality

So I’ve joined the east coast liberal elite. Or at least I think I have.

I’m shuttered up in a little country home in the Hudson Valley where I thought I’d be wearing flannel and chopping wood, but being Canadian I have a limited sense of geography, and it turns out I should have headed to, um, Vermont or somewhere instead.

So instead, I find myself headed to town in the morning to eat 20-grain bread, drink free trade organic coffee, and read the New York Times along with people who look like they’re just as happy that New York City is a quick train ride away. So I guess I’m temporarily part of the east coast liberal elite, although I wonder whether being geo-located with them makes me one of the tribe.

The saving grace is that there’s a big sign in the coffee shop saying: “For the Love of God, No Cell Phones”….although the plea only works insofar as people whisper on their phones (while glancing up to see if they’re getting disapproving shakes of the head by the waitress) rather than talking as if they’re in a busy, noisy market.

Being part of the liberal east coast la-di-das, I need to be careful not to use words like culture or discourse or to use phrases like “the market isn’t reacting to fundamentals”.

It’s kind of like visiting San Francisco – you can love it, but you’re not sure you want to be mistaken for a native. (The main difference between Silicon and Hudson Valley seems to be the brand of coffee and a 15 year difference in the median age, although so far I haven’t heard anyone talk about the Singularity).

Now, just because I’m, um, taking in the fresh air and spending half the day worrying about what to cook for dinner, and the other watching my 2-year old nephew (oops, 2 and a HALF-year old) take his cars out of a box and put them on the floor, and then take them from the floor to put them in a box, I still had half an eye on reports from Ireland, where MetaMeets was happening and the metaverse glitterati were drinking ale while Tweeting late into the night.

And what’s clear is that there’s pretty much a consensus in the air: virtual worlds need to merge with the Web, Second Life needs to connect with social media, it’s all becoming one blurry mess of technologies and places and worlds and the end game is for it become one big THING.

Robin Harper on Social Media
Robin was one of the original Lindens and with the benefit of time, she’s come to realize that what virtual worlds NEED in order to achieve scale is social media (or at least, the characteristics that social media offers).

Roland Legrand provided great summaries of MetaMeets, and reported that the much-loved Robin thinks that the lessons for how to grow worlds like Second Life are in Facebook.

Now, Robin did some work with Raph Koster at Metaplace. And what Raph discovered was that the ‘mini worlds’ and user-generated content of Metaplace just didn’t get traction – but put a world up on Facebook and the flood gates opened (following excerpted from Robin’s post of her talk):

Raph Koster said… “The innovation lies in making something that matters to ordinary people.” And Raph speaks from experience. Metaplace the virtual world had roughly 19,000 active users when it closed early in 2010.

Metaplace then introduced “Island Life” on the Facebook platform, and eclipsed that number in the first week. ” Island Life” now boasts over seven hundred thousand users. Same art, similar perspective, tried and true game format.

So I think the next question we need to ask is what can we learn from Facebook?

First, real life connections matter, and are the starting point for the growth of community. And it’s not just about reconnecting with old friends or remote relatives. Facebook, along with other social networks, has changed “the evolution of first impressions”. It’s possible now to ease into a new relationship – to find common ground and manage the pace of the experience. In fact, to begin to develop a relationship online, before taking it offline.

In a virtual world, on the other hand, the cover is deeper, the immersion sometimes frightens, fantasy often obscures the reality, and it takes a long time to build enough trust for virtual relationships to spill over into real life.

Second, Facebook does a good job of discoverability, and being able to find people and come together around common interests is a primary driver of engagement in the social network.

We all know it can be a challenge to find people of like mind, or places of interest, in a virtual space. It takes perseverance and a willingness to explore in an unfamiliar environment. Early adopters by nature are far more willing to do this type of exploring than the pragmatic mainstream user.

Third, Facebook requires a minimal time commitment. Even if you log in daily, 10 minutes lets you catch up with friends and family, comment or just indicate some shared understanding with “Like”. The fact that the connection is asynchronous doesn’t matter. Asynchronicity facilitates the connection — a meaningful way to stay in touch or reconnect.

Virtual worlds are compelling, fully realized environmental experiences. It’s pretty hard to have any sort of meaningful experience in 10 minutes.

Finally, Facebook is about sharing, especially images, music, events, and games. Everything in Facebook is designed with sharing in mind.

Robin’s conclusion from these observations is that against the backdrop of social media, virtual worlds offer benefits that go beyond. As she says, they can:

- Redefine the Great Good Place – the special gathering place outside of work and home where people can come to relax and share
- Expand boundaries, allowing for experiences generally unavailable within the real world
- Enable cultural sharing
- Create new ways to think about oneself in the context of ‘community’.

She concludes that virtual worlds need to do a few things in order to cast a net in which their benefits reach that ‘wider Web’:

1. Acknowledge the importance of real names and make them easy to use and search
2. Set expectations among new users for understanding immersion. It’s kind of like a space lock – slow adaptation to a new environment.
3. Use education, art and work as drivers. Although there are extraordinary educational projects in place, beautiful artworks and some corporate use, supporting the expansion of these use cases to legitimatize virtual worlds should be a high priority.
4. And finally, help people find purpose – through communities of interest, connections to real world friends and families, and the ability to share lives.

Intriguingly, a similar conclusion was arrived at by John Lester (formerly Pathfinder Linden) in what amounted to an exit interview with MHT:

“I think the challenge Linden Lab faces is the challenge that any online platform faces at this point, which is how to integrate with the constellation of social networking environments that are out there — things like Facebook and Twitter. Linden Lab has been and is continuing to work on that right now. People use more than one platform. I think the path to success is figuring out how to get everything to work together — not be an island.”

A Linked World
With the ex-Lindens calling for integration with our “real lives”, M Linden (Mark Kingdon) takes an approach that feels a little more like an architecture for how to arrive at those connections. Now, I haven’t listened to M’s keynote, so I’ll rely on Roland’s summary of his speaking points:

For Kingdon, the Internet is:

- Characterized by links
- Following from the link-aspect is the social dimension, these days more prominent than ever
- The internet will be light and mobile
- The internet needs a third dimension, the dimension also of immersiveness.

This has some logical consequences for his vision on the future of Second Life:

- Performance and stability is needed
- It needs to become accessible on many devices
- Second Life must feel natural (ease of use)
- Second Life needs social tools so as to enable the residents to build rich and engaging profiles
- The viewer needs tools to make sharing easy (referring to the numerous web 2.0 sharing services).

Combined with previous discussions of the use of ‘real life names’ in Second Life, and T Linden’s (Tom Hale) announcement that a relaunch of Avatars United is in the works, one of the first things on this road map of linky-ness will clearly be the connection of Second Life avatar identities with other identity systems, possibly using Avatars United as the sort of proxy clearing house. Hale hinted as much in his post:

Our ultimate goal is for Avatars United to function as a set of social tools for Residents, including Web-based profiles for Second Life avatars and Second Life groups, and tighter integration between the site and the Viewer, and between the site and Because the social experience is so critical to Second Life, we plan to launch a new, beta version of Avatars United, and ask for your feedback as we evolve that part of the service over the following quarters. We would like to see the site become a social hub for Second Life users, but we want to know your thoughts about lots of topics: what information you want to share (and not share), features you’d like to see (and wouldn’t), and concerns you might have about privacy or the promotional tools of Avatars United. We hope to launch this new beta test of Avatars United by the summer.

This is no surprise. M announced as much when the Lab first purchased Avatars United:

We aren’t going to take away any privacy or anonymity for those that want it. We are not going to “out” people. We are not going to force anyone to reveal any private or personal information. But for those who want to connect their various online identities, we do want to offer that option. Second Life has always been inclusive, and although there are many Residents who keep a strict separation between SL and the rest of the Web, others wish there was a better way to actively link their SL account to other Web services, and do things like share screenshots, locations, wish-lists, experiences and stories more easily. Our proprietary stance on naming and social networking hasn’t served that second set of Residents as well as we would like, and that’s one of the things we’ll change and improve. But for those who don’t want to opt in to an arrangement like that, nothing at all will change.

M placed this need to connect to other Web services within the context of sharing – much as Robin did in her talk. M explained:

“…part of the “social glue” of any community is the concept of sharing. Inworld, it’s easy to share and we’ll make it even easier. But sharing between Second Life and the larger social Web is not as easy. As an avid photographer (well, aspiring to be avid), I’d love to be able to easily share my snapshots from Second Life with my friends on other Web services, and be able to watch a feed of the people I’m interested in. It’s a great way to meet new people, find cool things and interesting places to visit. Sure, I have my own work-arounds for those capabilities, but it’s standard practice to build easy sharing into experiences today and that’s what we’re going to do. More people will share in more places, and through that more people will discover the wonders of Second Life.”

Adding, Not Taking Away
The Lindens believe that they are ADDING to Second Life and that nothing gets lost in doing so. This is seen in the discussion around Second Life culture, and I need to take a quick detour here to summarize.

My personal concept of Second Life culture was made primarily to argue that there are certain qualities inherent in the virtual world which become common to its users, which result in behaviors and a sense of belonging. My argument FOR a Second Life culture is based on the belief that these common qualities are things that the wider Web could learn from. I also argue that by viewing Second Life through the lens of ‘culture’ (and I’m really not particularly attached to the word itself) we can discover certain foundational beliefs, technologies, policies and approaches to governance that help to drive this sense of commonality.

Much as Facebook facilitates a certain stance towards community, transparency and sharing, Second Life facilitates a certain stance towards identity, expression, community and creativity.

But I need to avoid the ‘culture wars’. Being amongst the liberal east coast elite I don’t want to get labeled again as one of the Cultural Establishment. Suffice to say that Tom Hale and I seem to circle around the language on this one as in his comment on a previous post:

Cultures (in SL and otherwhere) live, breathe, evolve, morph, adapt, die and are born anew. Cultures coexist, conflict and influence each other. And what Linden Lab does plays a role in that patchwork. What I found specious was that there was some kind of overarching culture, some single set of values, that Linden was working night and day to overturn.

The tools / creator culture is one side of the SL experience. And it’s economically bound with the consumer/fashion culture of Second Life. But not all creators are fashionistas, and not all fashionistas are creators. They are different cultures, and they want different things, value different things. Even with in a culture (of creators, for whom the creation tools are the dominant value and feature of the SL experience) there are distinctions – the creator of a beautiful art installation in SL has a different goal and values than the person who crafts exquisite shoes with an eye to cornering a market.

My mental model (and for some others at the Lab) for SL is an ecosystem – burgeoning with life, rapidly evolving, and with a great diversity of organisms, and a changing environment. We all have an important role to play in the ecosystem. Culture is far too limiting a concept.

T later added:

“Culture, community, whatever – choose your word – is created by shared, common experience. And so in that sense, we are making changes that will ripple across that shared experience. But on the whole – a) we believe in choice and b) we are adding, not removing.”

Now, it’s not that I disagree with Tom’s wider point. And yet there are two errors in his logic: adding does not equate with “positive”, and adding does not equate to not overturning values.

It’s disingenuous of Hale to make the claim that all of this ‘adding’ that the Lab is doing is somehow benign or doesn’t influence the values which are recognized by many members of the Second Life user base – what Tom calls the “ripple across that shared experience”.

Those additions include:

- A new Viewer, which the Lab positioned as targeted to new users, but which is being pushed upon the wider community on every log-in. While the viewer has benefits, it also has massive problems, and includes the ‘addition’ of de-prioritizing content creation, search that doesn’t work, new modalities for advertising, a Web-like link system, and other elements all of which might be additive in his mind, but which change the experience of Second Life. (That “ripple” that he talks about).
- A new TOS which is, well, sure, VERY VERY VERY additive. As in additional text books of content you need to read and digest and consult a lawyer about before you click “accept”.
- Linden Homes, which shifts the balance of land purchase, rentals, and commerce from the in-world landlords and estate managers towards Linden-controlled tract homes, all in the name of an improved user experience.

I mean, we can keep spinning these changes as not having an impact on Second Life “culture” by pretending that the culture doesn’t exist, (or by forcing us into endless arguments about what the word culture means in the first place), or we can just call it like it is: the Lab is making massive changes to the shared experience which are ‘rippling’, and we can pretend that the only measurement for whether these changes are working is in the numbers.

But living in that illusion is a lot like Mark Zuckerberg saying that Facebook’s constant changes to its privacy policies and controls are ALSO benign because the number of users are growing, the advertising dollars are flowing in, and the press or governments that are whining about the issue just don’t GET that privacy is dead, privacy is OLD SCHOOL, and these little tweaks and changes are merely “ripples across the user experience”.

Lindens as Augmentationists
See, the Lindens are augmentationists. Even immersion is something that can augment our real lives by being something which we “add” to our daily experience. A place we can go, escape, dress up as Steampunks or Goths.

Now, to an outsider this may sound a little odd. But at one point Linden Lab viewed the ‘users’ of Second Life as Residents in a way quite different from how they use the term now. Because they used to view Residents as avatars. WHO the person was behind the avatar didn’t really matter to the Lab. Their language, the idea of land and rights and community and tools were solely focused on the experience that Residents (meaning the avatars who were in the world) had – and the ‘typist’ was sort of this entity who paid the bills.

We can see this to a degree still in how Philip views things, now that he’s off creating a Love Machine. As Roland reported:

Are we sure that our current company structures are that well suited for a rapidly and dramatically changing world? Philip suggested a thought experiment: suppose Earth would have to deal with a asteroid about to hit the planet and humankind could avoid it by developing some nifty software… wouldn’t we work together in a way never seen before?

For Philip technology is about inclusion, enabling people who come from a variety of backgrounds, technology is not an elitist phenomenon.

But there is more. Second Life now handles about as much data as a single human brain. This could be a tipping point, the founder of this virtual world said. A tipping point for what? Maybe for 10,0000 computers becoming a person, as suggested on the site of the LoveMachine?

For Philip, there are certainly “users”, but only insofar as those individuals contribute to the network of 10,000 computers (if a tree falls in the forest, if a user falls off the network kind of thing). It just HAPPENS that there are typists controlling some of those computers. It’s the network, not the individual, that is the source of value. What matters is how the computer behaves within the bigger system, within the hive mind.

It’s not an elitist phenomenon because in Philip’s world view (and the world view of many who believe in the Singularity) anyone can join the network. It’s the information and interactions that flow from the computer itself that matters, with the user sort of melded into that networked geekiness (getting love, I guess, is the gesture that is meant to retain humanity – while we all work FOR the network, we still need some love, otherwise we might start to feel like, well, a cog, a robot, an interface).

But in the Linden’s NEW world view, your actions as a user are YOUR actions, not your avatar’s. And this fundamental shift in worldview is the bet they’re making towards mass adoption.

The Lab doesn’t want you to treat your activities in virtual worlds in a particularly different way than your “real life” activities. You should treat what you do in a virtual world as having an equivalence to what you do in the real world.

You should share photos with friends, invite people into your Linden Home for coffee, go dancing, create wish lists like on Amazon, Tweet about an event or performance, form interest groups and sub-communities. The only difference is that the space in which you do these things has unique qualities compared to the physical world, but is there really that big a difference?

Now, if we take this view of Second Life, we can still embed choice – we can still CHOOSE to connect our avatar name to our Facebook profile or LinkedIn account. But the core concept here is that regardless of how we connect identity systems, our activities in a virtual world should offer us the same capacity to “live and share” those experiences as their physical counterparts.

In other words, there is no longer a difference between time in a virtual world and the physical one, not insofar as how we connect and share – the only difference, really, is the places in which our experiences occur can look a lot different.

The World As One
Now, I suppose I’m projecting that the Lab has a particular vision. But if I’m right, the Lab is making a gamble which will either look like genius in hindsight or a massive failure to leverage the assets that it already had.

If, a year or two from now, we’re hailing the Lab as genius, it will be because it has made a shift from Second Life being a world, to Second Life being an integrated part of, well, life.

- You go on vacation and you snap photos which you post to Flickr. Those photos are picked up by a feed via Avatars United and appear in your Second Life Home, are cross-posted to your Facebook account. You send out a quick note to your family inviting them to meet you in-world for, um, a slide show. Maybe you rez a few prims because you want to recreate the cafe you ate at in Paris. Maybe you discover an interest in medieval art while visiting a monastery in Germany. By tagging your photos, Second Life suggests places and groups on related topics. You follow that up by joining an in-world discussion group or art class, or visit a sim that recreates Medieval Europe. Your attendance at these classes and events is added to your interest list, and you start a friendship up with someone who joins you for a sim tour.

- You’re a fan of chamber music and you run across a Web site in which an ‘event widget’ is embedded leading to an announcement of a performance in Second Life. You attend the event, and subscribe to a recording of the performance, and discover video clips embedded in a Facebook fan page. During the performance, you snap some photos which are auto-posted via Twitter. During the event, attendees are both in-world and on the Web. You subscribe to future notices which are delivered to a Second Life iPhone application which flags you on upcoming events where you can accept and which are integrated with your Outlook or Google calendar.

- You’re part of a Steampunk community. You don’t link your avatar identity to your real life name, but you do link it to a Steampunk forum built on WordPress/Budypress which has the “Second Life plug-in” enabled. This plug-in allows any social media Web site to enable avatar linking, auto-posting of SLURLs, blogging and photo capture from in-world, and event management.

- Your office is “Second Life enabled”. With the advent of surface computing and the mobile sales force, different interfaces are used to record group brainstorming sessions, sales results, and project data. You’re able to quickly pop “in-world” where a virtual office excludes conference tables and chairs but is, instead, a ‘living landscape’ of data.

- Web-based content is increasingly driven by interfaces from within virtual worlds. You’re able to visit the latest sketch of a new product design and tag it with comments. Those comments are displayed via a Web interface in which the model can also be manipulated (models are increasingly ported across platforms, from in-world to HTML-5).

Widgets and Platforms
Whether the world needs a “place” to contain our experiences will be for history to decide. Already, augmented reality is adding information to the real world, and it’s unclear whether we’ll need a ‘Second Life Layer” as well. But the concept, as outlined by Robin for example, is to add a space for context or, as she says, to “redefine the great good place”.

Farmville isn’t it. In the long run of history, Farmville will get lost in one wave rolling over the next – a game where you fertilize crops or hunt for treasure is hardly going to become an integrated part of our lives. It’s a diversion, and it will last so long as there isn’t another diversion that comes along to replace it.

The bet that the Lab seems to be making is that their success will be based on augmenting reality, not replacing it. To provide that “Great Good Place” from which we can report, share, invite, collaborate – and TO which we can bring our interests, sub-cultures, friends and family.

Mesh import isn’t just about giving content creators new tools for creation – it’s about linking Second Life to standards for 3D content creation which will eventually allow, say, a furniture store to scan its merchandise and have those 3D models displayed on a Web site or posted on the Second Life market.

Shared Media isn’t just about displaying youTube videos, it’s about opening the gateway to the porting back-and-forth of content and shared artefacts from our ‘physical lives’ into the virtual, and back again.

Avatars United won’t just be a way to link to your Facebook profiles, but will be a proxy through which we open or close data streams from other places on the Web – from our RSS feeds or Twitter streams, our Flickr accounts or LinkedIn groups.

What will remain is to widgetize some of the controls which are currently closed to users: to enable users to link in-world groups to a fan page or group on Facebook or a “list” on Twitter; to open up access to profile data so that it can be cross-shared with other platforms, a sort of social API for Second Life.

A Million Channels
This vision isn’t incompatible with the ability of Second Life (or lack of ability) to scale.

One of the challenges with Second Life are limits because of rendering. Only so many avatars can fit on a sim. Therefore only so many people can attend a concert or “large event”. But through a vision in which the Second Life user experience is connected to the ways in which we typically participate in online experiences, the issue of scale is less important (pending, of course, the ability to manage concurrent users, at which the Lab has been making progress).

How often in a week do we find ourselves participating in an activity with more than a handful of people, other than to watch television (and who watches THAT anymore?) The issue of scale is less monumental when you consider that most Facebook groups have fairly small numbers of members, and most Twitter users have very few people whom they closely follow.

The challenge isn’t to accommodate thousands of users for ‘events’, which is what a brand might like. The challenge is to accommodate thousands of groups (friends, families, interest groups) of small numbers of users.

In this context, you can still manage large events by partitioning off segments of the Second Life Grid – think event sims which you can access using something like OnLive streaming, a topic about which I wrote yesterday. But this doesn’t imply that the ENTIRE Grid needs to be streamed that way, just portions of it for larger groups of people.

A world with a million channels isn’t dissimilar to youTube or other sites – and will continue to present the same challenges to those brands looking for the mass audiences of yesteryear.

Is There Any There There?
Against this context the question becomes whether Second Life can be a Great Good Place. And this is preconditioned on content.

But the definition of content changes, and theoretically opens up new channels of opportunity in which what Second Life has ‘traditionally’ thought of as content: 3D objects, buildings, textures, and scripts.

The goal instead would be to stabilize the marketplaces for ‘older’ forms of content (still important items of expression), while facilitating deeper development in world/Web integration, and standardized content via mesh import. Shifting the coding language from LSL (the current way to script objects) to a standard language, while maintaining HTTP-IN would theoretically open up Second Life to developers familiar with Web development, while leaving the door open as well to Second Life/WebGL integration for those folks fiddling around with HTML-5 and other emerging technologies.

But what makes Second Life a fertile platform for content development is its economy, which I still consider to be one of the central planks in the genius that is Second Life. Copy/Mod/Transfer remains a breakthrough in how IP and commerce can be managed in a digital space, in spite the ‘analog hole’ that people always argue about – digital domains may have the vulnerability of easy copying, but almost all systems do.

(Lawrence Lessig argues that putting protection on content turns kids into criminals, which is somehow bad. He argues that kids WILL copy, and that putting in barriers to that copying is the equivalent of criminalizing childhood. By the same argument, I suppose, those security scanners at the exits of a retail store should be removed as well, based on the same conceit).

If, in all of this opening up to the wider Web, the Lab can also maintain the sanctity of C/M/T and a robust in-world economy, it’s possible to start porting in other forms of commerce and transaction into the “IP Regime” of Second Life other than 3D content.

But the gamble becomes whether the Lab can both provide a robust market for current content creators and attract new ones: the 3D designers working in Maya (or Google Sketch-Up for that matter) and the Web developers who are spending their efforts elsewhere, but might be convinced to give Second Life a try if the tools were ones they knew already.

But it strikes me that none of this will matter if there’s “no there there”.

And so we’re left with the creators. Because no matter how linked or ‘real’ Second Life becomes, the need for creators who don’t feel disenfranchised will continue – because although we might be able to paper our walls with our Flickr streams, a world solely built on the basis of what we port in from elsewhere is hardly a Great Good Place – it’s just a Web site with lag.

If we choose to ride these wild waters, the delivery of the vision for a world in which our virtuality is as real as the rest of our lives (and how those lives are expressed online) we’ll still be looking for those experiences and environments and prims that remind us that no matter how much we link out to the wider world, it’s still that which is not possible in real life that will speak to the compelling virtues of virtuality.


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