Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Top Five (Non)Complaints About Second Life

Complaining about Second Life seems to be a pervasive virtual past time, but are any of these complaints valid, or are they just distractions or complete nonsense?

A quick disclaimer about what follows: none of this is scientific or particularly precise. I've been reading blog posts and comments for a while now, and I've noticed some patterns of complaints about SL that are reflected below. These are just my thoughts on the subject, and I welcome other's opinions.

Lag

Lag, or the slow response of the system to user inputs, has been a chief complaint of SL residents for a long time now. It's a valid complaint, but also one that can be partially addressed by users. There are lots of resources out there that describe how to reduce lag by limiting the number of scripts running on an avatar, reducing graphics and other settings in the preferences menu, and by upgrading video or memory cards.

So, while this is a valid complaint, enough already. Client-side rendering is slow, and it will probably always be so. Adjust your settings, upgrade your PC, and let's all move on.

Griefers

Griefers, avatars that exist primarily to irritate or antagonize other residents in SL, are another valid complaint. Griefers are a nuisance and a problem, but they are also easily dealt with. Instead of trying to reason with jerks like this, which is something I see people doing all too frequently, just mute them, report them, and most importantly, ignore them.

These are often just troubled people trying to express their pain or dysfunction through inappropriate behavior. Trying to correct them just feeds their need for negative attention. Consider muting them as simply a way to customize your Second Life experience. They're no longer your problem, so no more complaining about them.

Viewers

Viewers, the software applications that allow users to visit Second Life, are yet another source of irritation for many users. Every time a blog post goes up on the Second Life blog on this topic, the whole issue of viewers gets rehashed, ad nauseum.

There's nothing wrong with expressing a constructive opinion about viewer shortcomings, but many of the comments are just over the top. If you hate the viewer you're using, try another. There are lots of them out there. I use a variety of them myself, depending on what I'm working on.

Insisting that Linden Labs is stupid/irresponsible/obtuse/or out to get you just because of viewer problems smacks of conspiracy-theory thinking, and is irritating in its own right.

Sexual Behavior

For a number of reasons, sexual behavior is a popular past time in Second Life. Sex is a part of life, of course, so it's not too surprising that it shows up in an environment where people can hide their identities and engage in anonymous activities. Acting out sexually in ways that have only limited, if any, consequences for others is generally not problematic. But, many people complain about sexuality in Second Life as if it was occurring in their living rooms in front of grandma and the kids.

If women want to role play as slaves, I can't imagine why that's anyone else's concern. If people want to go to an adult sim and engage in anonymous sex, so what? Mute anyone whose behavior offends you, sexual or otherwise. If it appears to be illegal behavior (age play, for example), report it. Otherwise, let it go.

TOS Violations

This is probably the most complicated of the complaints I've seen. Forum posters and commenters often report abuses by Linden Labs regarding violations that result in a suspension or a ban. It's hard for me to know the truth about any of these, and I'm probably generalizing here, but I have yet to read an account by a person who was suspended or banned that doesn't have a ring of falsehood to it.

Too often, the complainer writes of not having done anything to warrant a ban, or having made extraordinary efforts to correct the situation, only to have Linden Labs, in its imminent awfulness, take action against them anyway.

It's hard to know if any of these complaints are true or not, but I've been involved with Second Life for a little over 3 years now and have never experienced one negative interaction with LL. In fact, when I've contacted the support line for help, I've always received excellent service.

I guess my feeling is that LL doesn't have the resources to pursue a campaign of intimidation or harassment against any particular person. So, if you follow the TOS, I can't imagine you'll have too many problems.

Conclusion

I'm no apologist for Second Life or Linden Labs, but I also don't think that the most common complaints I've seen have much merit. Most of them have more to do with skewed perceptions and overblown expectations than they do with the reality of participating in a virtual world.

Multi-user Virtual Environments in general are in their infancy, and problems are to be expected. Constructive, solution-oriented feedback is warranted, but most of the griping and complaining I've seen has simply been counterproductive.

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Virtual Worlds as Media Marketing Vehicles

Christina Warren over at Mashable recently put together a nice article describing how social media has become an important aspect of marketing strategies in the film industry. Viral campaigns, mobile apps, and staggered film releases all play a role in generating buzz about a film and driving viewers into theaters.  

It also seems that virtual worlds are becoming part of this marketing cycle as well. 

KZero Worldswide, a marketing and consulting company, has developed a strategy for the upcoming film, Dorothy of Oz, that begins with some fairly standard social media connections to Facebook and Twitter to build interest in the film. But, they're also integrating a virtual world based on the movie into their marketing plan as well.

An article in the KZero blog describes this as a "closed loop for marketing and user engagement," with each element of the marketing strategy potentially feeding fans into the next. This makes a great deal of sense. 

Initially engage users in spaces with no costs and low barriers to access (social media) to generate word-of-mouth advertising, collect revenue from film distribution, and then extend that into an ongoing revenue stream through the sale of virtual goods in the dedicated virtual world.  

The Dorothy of Oz Facebook fan page has 2,895 Likes, and on the Discussion page, fans are already volunteering to participate in street teams to promote the film. The Twitter page has 973 followers and is also doing some cross promotion to the Facebook page. Not huge numbers, but the film is still almost 2 years away. 

All of this makes me wonder if the reverse strategy would work. Will we eventually see films based on virtual world storylines, such as "Second Life - The Movie" (that actually makes me cringe a bit for some reason)? 

Or, will "films," as we know them now, someday become integrated social experiences in which people simultaneously view, participate in creating, and socially interact about a storyline in real time virtual environments?






Saturday, December 11, 2010

Meeting the Virtual Santa Claus

This time of year always reminds me of stress-filled childhood meetings with Santa: the nervous stomach, the sweaty palms, the self-doubt as I stood in line waiting my turn.

Would I leave my senses and forget to tell him what I wanted for Christmas? How would I respond when asked if I'd been good this year (lie and say I had, or be honest and risk the consequences)? And, would I make a fool of myself if asked a question I wasn't prepared to answer?

Thanks to the virtual world, all of that would seem to be a problem of the past. The web-based game, polarheroes.com, developed by Fantastec, is in beta testing currently and allows the little ones to meet Santa in relative emotional safety. There's also a bit about some missing magic crystals (the secret of Christmas is in danger, of course), and caring for animals somehow becomes part of the Christmas story line.

But, hey, if polar heroes can save just one child the trauma of a face-to-face with Saint Nick, isn't it worth it? 







Monday, December 6, 2010

Anti-Social App for Virtual Worlds?

I ran across this blog entry regarding a new app for Mac users, called Anti-Social, that blocks access to the social web for up to 8 hours at a time. The idea being, of course, that everyone needs a little externally imposed discipline from time to time in order to focus on the non-virtual.

The brief documentation doesn't mention Second Life or any other MMO or MUVE, but it does claim to keep users from accessing Twitter, Facebook, and other such web sites.

So, I'm not sure that it would block virtual world access (I'm not a Mac user and can't test it out), but for those Apple owners who need a little tough love from your machine, it might be worth a look.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Depth of Field Feature in the Second Life Mesh Viewer

I'm not really sure what to make of the depth of field feature in the mesh viewer displayed below, but it looks pretty interesting. I think it makes more sense in terms of in-world photography, as opposed to just normal viewing while exploring, but take a look for yourself.



According to the Second Life Wiki, the viewer only works on the Aditi test grid, but the submitter of the vid wrote that it also works on the main grid as well. I tried it, and it does work on the main grid, but the sims I was able to teleport to was limited.

The creator of the vid also provided some details as to graphics and debug settings. I made most of the changes, but still didn't get the dramatic effects seen in the video.
"Depth of Field is active by default if Shadows are enabled. Global Illumination must be disabled.
Three debug settings affect how Depth of Field feature works. In this video, I set CameraCoC to 0.010 while I let CameraFNumber and CameraFocalLength to their default values.
I also changed another already-existing debug setting, CameraPositionSmoothing, setting it to 32 (that makes the bouncing camera effect). I usually make my videos with a SpaceNavigator but I didn't use it here."
So, I'm not sure if this is just an interesting diversion or something more significant, but it's definitely a different view of Second Life that I haven't experienced before.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Is Universal Studios Missing the Mark in Asserting Copyright Infringement in Second Life?

This past week, Second Life began shutting down Battlestar Galactica (BSG) themed sites due to alleged copyright infringement of Universal Studio's intellectual property interests. Tateru Nino has written two excellent blog posts on this turn of events, here and here, that raise some intriguing questions about intellectual property in virtual environments and why roleplayers develop sims based on existing content.

I think her point about the difficulties of building roleplay environments from scratch were right on the mark. As someone who's created content for a roleplay sim, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to develop and communicate completely unique story structures. Most of what I created was a mashup of dungeons and dragons, historical fiction about medieval battles and political intrigues, mixed with various European folklore and original story lines built upon active characters in the sim. Most players didn't get it, especially new players, and others didn't want to expend the time to figure out the details of what was going on anyway.

So, Tateru Nino's point is well taken: the allure of an established storyline, and an existing fan base for it, are certainly compelling reasons for developers to build upon a franchised idea, like Battlestar Galatica. And, on it's face that would indeed appear to be a clear violation of copyright, but are corporate copyright holders myopic in their approach to closing down themed sims in virtual worlds that act mainly as fan sites for their content?

In a 2000 article by Lauren Yamamoto about copyright protection and fan sites in general, she writes about the tension that exists between corporate copyright holders, who want to protect their intellectual property, and fans, who feel they have the right to spread the word about their favorite actors, films, or other media they consume. Yamamoto's article predates large-scale virtual worlds, like Second Life, but the basic point she makes is that traditional copyright laws do provide protection for intellectual property in online environments.

So, Universal is well within its rights to assert its claim and demand that offending content be destroyed. But, does that really accomplish what they're seeking? Tateru Nino connects Universal's decision to the opening of a BSG themed online game, which certainly would seem a logical move if, in fact, Second Life sims were actually in direct competition with other online games. I don't think that's the case, though.

I seriously doubt if the medieval sim where I created content took even one player away from Ultima Online, Warhammer, LOTR, or any of the plethora of medieval- or fantasy-themed MMORPGs out there. Our bastardized, and somewhat chaotic version of medieval-ness, was hardly a coherent "game" in any sense of the word. It was more about dressing up in period clothing, speaking as you think people might have during medieval times, and engaging in some clunkily scripted competitions.

The main attraction of the sim was social interaction, not gaming. Those who want to engage in gaming seek out structured environments at sanctioned MMOs.

I realize the BSG issue is a bit different, in that sims using BSG-related content more likely fit the definition of a derivative work than does a medieval sim that simply borrows from what is really just a thematic time period. My point, however, is not whether BSG sims violate copyright, they likely do, the point is that they don't actually threaten the financial bottom line of the rights holders and, in fact, may enhance it.

While that's clearly not a recognized exception to Fair Use doctrine under copyright law, I would argue that Universal is missing an opportunity to engage their fan base in Second Life and perhaps build upon the work others have done to attract new fans to Battlestar Galactica, much like internet-based fan pages do for actors, musicians, movies, books, and other content.

What do you think? Is Universal Studios cutting its nose off to spite its corporate face? Or, should Linden Labs be more diligent in weeding out any and all types of infringement whenever they find it?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Second Life Whiteboard Application

I ran across this vid on youtube.com this evening and wanted to share it here. This seems like a great tool for teams that collaborate in Second Life, but I'm not well versed in virtual collaboration tools. Take a look and see what you think.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Disappearing Virtual World

It's an unfortunate fact that nothing comprehensively captures the constant process of change, either in real or virtual worlds. In the real world we do manage to capture some aspects of ongoing change through museum exhibits and various artistic mediums, such as Jules Aarons' street photography or the San Francisco street car video.

There is too often no systematic way this occurs, though, and what survives to future generations is unfortunately left to chance in many cases.

Cataloging some aspects of virtuality is a little easier in some respects, especially for the standard internet, which is captured by features such as Google Cache and the Wayback Machine, systems that create a repository of web pages and provide a way to observe and measure change in that medium.

Virtual worlds, though, defy easy documentation and seem to function more like the real world in that respect. We do document some images of the ever changing virtual landscape through blogs, Flickr pages, and machinima, but many sims and their attendant builds come and go with little attention ever being paid. Just like the real world, memorializing the virtual world is too often a hit or miss proposition.

One example that my good friend, Freckle Heron, pointed out to me this weekend was the upcoming remodel of the Empress and Hierophant sim (SLurl here) that, as far as we can tell, is scheduled for a complete makeover in the coming days.

The Empress and Hierophant Sim - Image by Freckle Heron
We visited the sim this weekend, and it is quite a beautiful build that looks, according to Freckle, very much like Wales. I've never been to Wales, but I can tell you that the design was very captivating and did give the sense of visiting a quaint English village in the British countryside, complete with fog and rain.

What the remodeled sim will look like is anyone's guess, but what we can know is that this image, or other ones like it scattered in various places across the web, are all that will remain to document it's passing. The beauty that was this place will never exist again, and 100 years from now, no one will have any way of experiencing its details in any meaningful way.

And, for every sim that is captured through such imagery, who knows how many others wink out of existence without any documentation at all.

While some might argue that this is of little consequence, I would argue the exact opposite. The virtual world is an important aspect of our technological and social development, and thoroughly and systematically documenting it will be a boon to future generations.

And, if the virtual realm is of no consequence, what are we doing in it and should we be there at all? If you believe that virtual worlds are worthwhile, then perhaps it's time for an organized effort to document them.

Virtual Smithsonian, anyone?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Poor Choices for Second Life Web Viewer Destinations

Like many of you, I was curious to test drive the web-based Second Life viewer made available through Gaikai recently. I tried to view the sample through the eyes of someone with no virtual world experience, or at least someone who had never visited Second Life before.

While the viewer itself worked fine, and likely provided potential new users a sense of life in the virtual world, I was pretty surprised at the sim choices offered as destinations. I don't think the viewer made the type of impression Linden Labs intended.

At one infohub I visited, for example, the voice conversation consisted primarily of racial slurs, sexual conversation, and other such drivel, and the text chat was only slightly less off-putting. I was largely ignored as I moved about the group there, and so quickly left to explore other sims that were beautiful to look at, but largely empty of avatars.

Infohubs are notoriously odd places that appeal to a narrow audience, but why Linden Labs decided to expose potential new customers to such places is hard to understand. Imagine a parent, a potential business user, or a potential builder/creative visiting Second Life for the first time and immediately hearing the "N" word tossed about and people describing their sexual prowess. What a ridiculous first impression.

If anything, such an experience feeds directly into negative stereotypes of virtual worlds as populated by a fringe element of society that lacks the social skills to function in the real world. I personally disagree with the stereotype, but I can see where others would form the opinion, at least based on my experience with the web viewer.

As for the empty sims, that's only slightly better than listening to people engage in inane and insulting conversation. I was bored by it and left the viewer altogether after hopping to only a handful of sims. There was little or nothing to engage me, nothing to "do," nothing to experience. There were pretty things to look at, but no context, no guidance, and nothing that made me feel that I wanted to see more.

As I consider this experience from a beginner's viewpoint, I'm actually not surprised that Second Life's growth has gone flat. If I was truly new to virtual worlds, what I experienced through the viewer sample last night would have done nothing more than confirm all of the negatives I'd heard.

Maybe I'm off base here, and I'm curious what others thought about the experience.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Salute to Medal of Honor Recipient, Sal Giunta

I want to take a break from the discussion of virtual worlds to pay attention to the real one for a moment. I'm not sure if you watched it this weekend, but 60 Minutes put together an excellent piece about Salvatore Giunta, a brave young soldier who will be awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House by President Obama tomorrow.

SSgt Salvatore Giunta
SSgt Giunta is the first military member since the Vietnam War to receive the military's highest honor after having survived the event that won him that award, and according to the 60 Minutes piece:

"Staff Sgt. Giunta earned this honor for his actions on a remote hilltop in eastern Afghanistan on the night of Oct. 25, 2007, for repeatedly running into enemy fire to save American lives and rescue a fellow soldier from the hands of the Taliban."

Regardless of your politics, your feelings about the military, or your take on war and violence in general; SSgt Giunta is deserving of our collective respect for his bravery, his courage under fire, his inspiring commitment to his fellow soldiers, and the sacrifices he has made for all of us.

So, I ask you to take a break and appreciate this young man for a moment. And, while you're hanging out in Second Life or wherever you enjoy playing and gaming, just pause a few minutes to remember the brave men and women who are - right now - fighting and dying so that we can all enjoy the peace and privilege of a safe and secure homeland.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Enjoying Cao Fei's Artistic Vision in Second Life

I came across an article this weekend by RM Vaughan about Cao Fei, a Chinese artist whose work in Second Life is now on display at A Space gallery in Toronto. Two of her 2009 machinimas, People's Limbo in RMB City and Live in RMB City, will be shown at the exhibit, which is being co-presented by A Space and the Reel Asian International Film Festival.

I'm likely one of the last Second Life residents to hear about Fei, as she is one of the original creators of the RMB City sim (SLurl here), and previously produced a three-part machinima there in 2008, entitled i.Mirror, that's available on Youtube (links here: Part IPart II, and Part III). The New York Times has also reported on her work as well.

My curiosity piqued, I watched i.Mirror this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it as a deeply reflective and exquisitely sensitive exploration of the virtual/human connection. The film not only presents familiar (the more cynical may say, trite) real-life dystopian themes of over-commercialization, hyper-sexualization, and angst about the future of humankind that seem to permeate modern thought, it also deftly explores post-modern themes of virtual identity, virtual relationships, and human connection within newly emerging realities.

Its most endearing quality, though, as Vaughn also pointed out, was that it unapologetically embraces the Second Life platform, warts and all. Avatars movements are stiff and clunky, panning is jerky and uneven, spaces within SL are presented as sometimes cluttered and unappealing, and moving structures and animations within SL don't necessarily function as designed.

In discussing this with a friend, she thought Linden Labs could increase their truth in advertising by adding a tag line to their brand, which might say something like "Second Life...It Doesn't Always Function as Designed." A funny and fundamentally true understatement; Second Life is a tempermental, frustrating, and often cumbersome environment.

Fei manages to transcend this quite beautifully, however. And, as Vaughn wrote, Fei uses the the obvious flaws of Second Life to create a "bold and obvious" difference between the real and the virtual. To me it's akin to water painting; the free flowing paint creating serendipitous moments of beauty that represent, but don't necessarily reproduce, the vision being explored.

After watching the film, I also spent some time exploring the RMB City sim itself. I actually found it disorienting to move through the places shown in the film, to occupy the space virtually, and to consider the bewildering array of choices Fei faced in constructing her vision. But, doing so after having experienced Fei's film gave me a new appreciation for Second Life as a creative medium, and for its potential as a mirror for the self, be it virtual or reality based.

"People's Limbo" statue in the heart of RMB City



Others can probably expound upon this more eloquently than I have, and I'd be interested to hear other's experiences of machinima generally, and your specific reactions to Fei's film, the sim, or both.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Virtual Pets as a Social Experience


From standalone platforms, like Nintendo's Wii and the new Xbox Kinect, to general use web sites, social media sites, and of course MMOs, pets of the virtual variety are everywhere these days.

Wikipedia contributors have put together this brief article outlining the history and growth of the virtual pet industry, including its reported origins in 1986. Virtual creatures are as popular as ever over 25 years later, and, like much of the content created in the digital age, they appear to be increasingly used to enhance social engagement.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Hard Day's Night at the Second Life Opera


I spent an interesting afternoon attending the first performance of the opera, "Rita," streamed into Second Life by a group, known as Opera bis, that is bringing French cultural activities to the virtual world. While technological problems ruled the day, the experience was a positive one overall.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Virtual World Survey

I've been talking to people lately about why they participate in virtual worlds, what keeps them participating, and how it affects real life. Their answers have been interesting, and have varied quite a bit, but there are some common features. Before I reveal what I've heard through anecdotes, though, I'd like to hear from you.

To that end, I've put together a brief survey (only 10 questions) that should take you less than 5 minutes to complete. Your responses are completely anonymous, and I plan to share the results only as aggregates. If you have a few minutes, please consider taking the survey. The survey will be available until at least 12/15/10, and when I receive enough responses, I'll report the results here.

Here's the link:

Click here to take survey

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Medical Training Using the ClinicSpace Virtual Simulation

Several weeks ago, I wrote about some recent research regarding the use of Second Life as a platform for nurse's training at Glasgow Caledonian University in the UK. This week, I ran across the video below of a medical virtual world simulation operated by ClinicSpace that would seem to be leaps and bound ahead of anything Second Life, or any other virtual world I'm familiar with, can provide currently.

The video was uploaded by shamblesguru, who isn't exactly expert at navigating the simulation. Nevertheless, the detail and features of the software are obvious. The simulation operates in a web browser and, according to ClinicSpace, doesn't even require a graphics card be available on the computer running the simulation.



In the second installment, you can hear the patient coughing and making other noises, and you can see the various tests the medical student could choose to evaluate and treat the patient.



The ClinicSpace web site has slightly more information, but requires a subscription to access, which is unfortunate. I couldn't find much more information via Google about it, but it would appear to be a versatile way to provide virtual simulation for a variety of disciplines via a platform that doesn't require the end user have a powerful PC.

Many of us who are familiar with virtual worlds tend to think that the type of immersive platforms we enjoy on a daily basis are the standard for all things virtual. Certainly ClinicSpace is an example of the versatility of this medium and the limitless potential of virtual worlds for professional training.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Non-profits Using Second Life to Overcome Disabilities

In a previous post, I lamented the seeming lack of support in virtual worlds for those individuals dealing with disabilities. Despite the fact virtual worlds hold much promise for such users, limitations of the interface can be a real barrier to access.


Thanks to some reader feedback, and LordGregGreg's blog, I located more information and resources about this issue. In one of his posts, LordGregGreg wrote about his future plans to work with Virtual Ability, Inc., which, as their web site describes, "is a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA, [whose] mission it is to enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds like Second Life®."


As it turns out, Virtual Ability has been an active participant with the Snowstorm project to address access issues for Second Life users with disabilities, which I find to be very a exciting and promising development. Even more exciting to me personally as a military veteran, is the Amputee Virtual Environment Support Space (AVESS), which is a collaboration between Virtual Ability and the U.S. Army, as explained in this video:






This is an excellent example of the potential of virtual worlds to provide unique assistance to a very specific group of users, and also to demonstrate the versatility of virtual platforms to address a wide variety of  individuals and problems. Hats off to Virtual Ability and U.S. military for this important work.

I also wanted to check out their virtual presence, so I made a visit to Virtual Ability Island (see the SLurl here) this weekend and did a bit of exploring. Not only is their sim an excellent primer for their intended users, it's great for anyone who's new to Second Life. I ran into 3 people there during my brief stay who were all going through the island's tutorial.


It starts with basic navigation and features, before moving on to...


Sitting...


Dancing...


And, flying lessons.

The sim also offers new users the chance to try out some other features found around Second Life, like...


Balloon rides and...


Boating

Finally, I also visited their auditorium, which is reportedly sound isolated for privacy. 


Overall, I was very impressed both with Virtual Ability's mission in the real world and their presence in Second Life. The virtual world, and those who advocate for its users, need more examples like this one to share with the broader community of users who might benefit. 

The possibilities of the virtual realm are just barely being tapped at this point, and I'd like to hear from you about other such creative collaborations in Second Life or other virtual platforms.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Blue Mars Beta Client Update

Blue Mars announced the latest release of their client today, so I spent a while this afternoon test driving it. Some of the additions or changes are small, such as the ability to adjust the color of your chat bubbles, but other changes represent pretty significant improvements.

For example, navigation is very much improved. You can still use the rather clunky method of clicking the ground where you want to go and then following the blue inverted cone, but now you also have the option to hold both mouse buttons down simultaneously, which will cause the avatar to walk forward, and then simply move the mouse to change direction. The camera now follows as well, so when you turn it does too.

Using my trackball, I was able to move very smoothly and precisely, and I dare say it was one of the best methods I've experienced for navigating on foot.

The new "Blinks" option, which is similar to a teleport from one city to another, was a different matter, though. I couldn't get it to work, despite several attempts, several re-logs, and a re-download of the client. One other resident was having the same problem trying to move from the Welcome Area to OnLand, so it wasn't just my system or software that was the problem. Others were able to use Blinks, though, so a bit of a mystery.

For the stalkers amongst us, the new client now has profiles that you can access by right clicking on an avatar. Unlike Second Life's static images, the profile includes an animated image of the avatar alongside some basic identifying information, including marital status, and a listing of other virtual worlds the individual plays. You can even spin the avatar image around 360 degrees by using the improved camera functionality.

Speaking of the new camera functionality, that's another very welcome improvement. It works by holding down the alt key while moving your mouse. The avatar remains stationary while the camera pans around. This is a good addition for shopping, exploring, etc.

One other issue I noticed today was the lag, yes lag, in the Welcome Area. I'd never experienced any lag In Blue Mars before at all, but noticed it today, especially when I was moving in close proximity to objects. There was what appeared to be a fog flowing across the ground at the time, and some were speculating as to whether that was causing the lag problem. In general, there was a fair amount of screen jitter at certain points, and even some screen lockups.

Some others in the Welcome Area recommended reducing the graphics output to Low, which did make a difference. The fog disappeared, and the frame rate seemed to increase (although I didn't actually measure it).

While I didn't try out every aspect of the new client, overall it seemed to be a definite improvement. If you haven't visited Blue Mars yet, and would like to see it for yourself, you can download the new client here.

I'd be interested to hear other's thoughts on it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How is the Virtual World Redefining the Real?

The news this week that Italian police were investigating a virtual "burglary" started me thinking about all the ways that virtual reality, and virtual worlds specifically, are redefining and reshaping the boundaries of the real world.

For example, the "burglary" in Italy didn't involve anyone breaking into an actual place, as we traditionally define it. No building or dwelling was actually entered, but a representation of a place certainly was invaded. Real property, at least as we've always known it, wasn't taken either, but a representation of that property was, and the loss had real consequences.

So, we're moving toward a time when reality, as we've typically defined it, is taking on new definitions. The boundaries are expanding to include places and things that exist only in software, but that nevertheless hold importance for us.

Equally as interesting, though, is the use of virtual reality to treat medical conditions, as described in this vid.



And, to treat addictions.



Or, to teach students in a "classroom."



In each case, representations of reality takes on convincing aspects of actual reality that engage users in novel ways. What was previously just an animated version of the real has become an actual place where interaction can occur and meaning can be made.

Virtual places can now be burglarized, patients can overcome pain by viewing an imaginary scenario, alcoholics can explore triggers for drinking in an imagined universe, and students can interact and learn without entering a classroom.

The face of work is potentially changing, too. Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read discuss the convergence of games and work in their book, Total Engagement, and suggest that, in the future, businesses will cater to "gamers" who will work and play in virtual worlds. They believe the line between the two will be blurred, and that business will be "rewired" to provide an engaging and entertaining work environment where individuals and teams will do "serious work" through game-like interfaces.

While none of these ideas are necessarily new, it is striking how far we've come in this process of virtual creation without any significant social discourse. We have yet to define what a virtual place actually is, or what rights individuals have to such places. We don't have a handle on virtual goods, what defines them, what legal rights people have to them, or how our infrastructure can be redesigned to account for them.

As the virtual continues to redefine the real, we need to become active participants in that process. We're not just "playing" in virtual worlds, we're actually on the cutting edge of a new way of engaging with reality. I'd argue that we need to take the lead in defining what that means before others do that for us.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Virtual Cities



Here's a video of the new OnLand build in Blue Mars posted on Youtube.com by philipjamesbryan. Given that OnLand was the subject of my most recent post, and that it may be difficult for some to directly experience Blue Mars, I thought it would be interesting for you to view it this way and then make some comparisons to Second Life.

The video appears to be largely unedited, but it still gives you a good sense not only of OnLand, but also the Blue Mars interface, its features, navigation, etc. You can also see how deserted Blue Mars is at this point, but as others have said, Second Life was pretty quiet too, initially.

Contrast this view of OnLand, which seems like an image from an ultra-clean, super orderly version of Singapore, with the video segment below from Second Life (NSFW), which is quite the opposite. And, before you jump up and down about unfair comparisons based on the stage of development of each world or other factors, I know and understand that.



I'm offering this up as a sharp contrast between a system, such as Blue Mars, that is apparently catering to enterprise users, and Second Life that supports a diversity of social activity, including the hot mess represented by this specific encounter in SL.

My ultimate question is whether this is where we're heading; toward a segregation of virtual worlds between the clean, orderly vision of Blue Mars for power users, and a messy, distracting, and ultimately dysfunctional vision of SL as a second class virtual world for everyone else.

Judge for yourself and comment if you like.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ghettoizing of Second Life?



This past Thursday, Avatar Reality, the developers of Blue Mars, and  DLAB, a UK design and research firm, formally announced the choice of Blue Mars as the platform for a virtual business initiative called OnLand. 

Amongst the various news releasesarticles, and blog posts about the decision, it was clear that Blue Mars was perceived as a better choice for business and other enterprise users due, as one article noted, to its:

"...unparalleled interaction, fidelity, scalability, security and connectivity.  Blue Mars enables artists, game, and application developers to create and distribute amazing interactive 3D experiences for a global audience."

Another article praised Blue Mars as "representing [a] generational shift in technology," although it didn't specify exactly to what elements of Blue Mars it was referring.

As might be expected, the general tone of the media coverage was upbeat and positive, but there was some criticism as well, including from one commenter at Dwell on It who noted that:

"If the hardware requirements of SL are a barrier to entry for business, then CryENGINE2 is more like the mariana trench. Bluemars is getting the nice press at the moment as a good clean wholesome virtual world sporting graphics to send journo’s gaga. But that the problem It’s also a dead, empty, baron, boring world thats right slap bang in the middle of uncanny valley."
Others responded to this that Blue Mars is a new environment, and that Second Life was empty and barren at first as well. But, the commenter has a point about the hardware barriers of Blue Mars. 
Over at Hypergrid, they noticed these problems too while exploring OnLand:
"Trying out the system today with my brand new Toshiba Satellite laptop, with Vista and a 2Ghz processor, I found moving around in OnLand to be extremely slow and unpleasant. That was probably because my laptop only had 2GB of RAM instead of the recommended 4GB."
I visited OnLand this weekend, and it was rendered beautifully and performed well, in contrast to the laptop above. Of course, I was using a gaming machine, which has a mammoth Nvidia card, tons of memory, a fast processor, and a high-speed internet connection. 
It's easy to see advantages in Blue Mars with the right hardware, but not all non-enterprise users have access to that.
While server-side rendering and cloud computing are offered as ways to potentially overcome these types of hardware barriers, the fact is that there are many who lack the horsepower to operate Blue Mars to best effect, which raises the question as to who this world is intended to serve.
Will enterprise users, who can easily meet or exceed the hardware requirements, flock to Blue Mars while leaving Second Life and other similar worlds to what might be termed "less serious uses?"
Beginning with edu's and nonprofits, who are fleeing to OpenSim for financial reasons, and now enterprise users who may potentially move away from Second Life for the benefits of Blue Mars, will we see the ghettoizing of older virtual worlds? 
I don't know if there is a clear precedent for this or not. Software and hardware have always been evolving, of course, but usually without the social issues involved here. When a user-created social world that fosters a number of social processes is outmoded by new technologies, what are the consequences? 
When a new version of a Word Processor or Spreadsheet program is introduced, the change may make for a learning curve, and some frustration as the new software is mastered. But, if a virtual world the scale of Second Life becomes second class, what then?
It may simply close, as has been the case with other virtual worlds, but again, at what cost? If virtual worlds are indeed the future of socializing, education, business, and other collaborations,  can we afford to throw over one world for another as casually as we throw over one version of Microsoft Word for another?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Disabilities and the Interface Between the Real and the Virtual

I bought the trackball pictured above today after my mouse bit the dust this weekend. I'm not sure what I was thinking exactly, but I had thought that a trackball would work just fine for gaming, including SL and Blue Mars. I was wrong.

Unfortunately, this particular trackball doesn't have the same type of scroll features as a typical mouse. Rotating the trackball moves the cursor around quickly, but there's no roller button to move the camera into tighter or more distant focus, which is a problem if one is trying to build, shop, or do other common activities in a virtual world.

So, bad move on my part, and I'll end up having to buy a gaming mouse for virtual world activities after all. But, this whole thing started me thinking about the accessibility of virtual worlds more generally. It raises a more significant point about the interface between real and virtual worlds for those with physical disabilities.

My minor frustrations with a trackball interface pale in comparison to the issues those with visual, aural, or mobility issues in the real world face as they attempt to interact in the virtual realm.

Some might argue that there are devices, software, or other technological approaches that can assist those who are disabled interact in the virtual world. But, as Peter Abrahams noted in his white paper about accessibility issues in interactive online environments, "assistive technologies are rarely a complete solution" for those dealing with physical limitations.

This is certainly true of Second Life, which is not fully accessible to those with visual impairments, or those with significant mobility issues.

According to an article in the Second Life Wiki, assistive technologies, such as Dragon Speak, that rely on voice recognition technology to facilitate computer interaction by those with limitations of physical movement, don't work well in Second Life at all. Other technologies, such as gaze interaction, haven't been found to work well either.

Given all this, I was curious as to whether the Americans with Disabilities Act might apply to virtual worlds, and if so, whether the availability of assistive technologies could be required under the ADA. Joshua Newton recently completed an excellent review of the ADA's applicability to virtual worlds and found that not all courts even agree on some very fundamental issues about the virtual realm.

First, as to whether a virtual world is a "place" or not is an open question. Some courts have held that "places of public accommodation [do] not need to be brick and mortar buildings." Other courts have held the opposite, that physical structures are indeed required in order for the ADA to apply. Depending on what part of the country you live in then (and which court jurisdiction would thus apply) requirements for access accommodations to virtual worlds may or may not be required.

So, even though virtual worlds may potentially offer people with disabilities a place where they can run, dance, and otherwise interact in ways they can't in the real world, that actually depends on the disability and the availability of technologies that can overcome the limitations of virtual world viewers. The legal system doesn't seem able or willing to wade in effectively at this point either.

All of which makes my earlier ramblings about trackballs less than trivial.

References

Newton, J. (2010). Virtually enabled: How Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act might be applied to online virtual worlds. Federal Communications Law Journal, 62, p. 183-204.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Training Nurses Using Second Life

In my wanderings this weekend, I explored a Second Life sim operated by Glasgow Caledonian University (Glasgow Caledonian 103, 108, 23) after reading an academic article late last week about nursing simulation training conducted there. The study was a great example of the potential for virtual worlds to extend teaching beyond the boundaries of the real world, even involving complex medical training.

Exploring Glasgow Caledonian University's Sim in Second Life

This particular study was undertaken due to the lack of opportunities for nurses in training to experience decision-making exercises about patient care in real-life settings, due mainly to a lack of supervisory nurses to oversee students and keep patients safe.

The Caledonian study included 5 nurses who were exposed to a nursing simulation environment involving 6 virtual patients with a variety of ills.

The simulated patients ranged from May, an 88 year old woman with a urinary infection and senile dementia, to Colin, a 22 year old athlete who was in recovery after having just undergone knee surgery. Other virtual patients were suffering from acute pain, awaiting medical procedures, or awaiting the results of tests.

Once in-world, each nursing student was provided with a scenario before completing the simulation independently. Each was asked to assess the patients, prioritize their care, and discuss the basis for care decisions. To keep things interesting--and as realistic as possible--the simulated patients engaged in a variety of behaviors intended to test the student's skills, including May, the dementia patient, wandering away from the ward at one point without being detected.

Some students reported that the scenarios tested their knowledge and skills the same as if they were in a real-world environment. One student said that "even though it's a computer programme...the decisions I made are still the decisions I would have made if I was out on the ward." The students also made some critical errors during the simulation and were later able to reflect on their mistakes and what they would have done differently.

Not all of the participants agreed that the scenario was realistic enough to test their skills, though. Some said that the lack of audio cues and other information they would have had in a real setting would have lead them to make different decisions. Communication was also a barrier, in that students had to type to communicate, an obvious difference from real-world communication.

Nevertheless, this study pointed up a couple of important points. First, was that Second Life can offer institutions cost-effective ways to carry out virtual learning, even about a very complex practice such as nursing. The costs and complexities of carrying out this type of simulation training in real life (hiring actors, directing them, managing the logistics, etc.) was eliminated by using a virtual platform to conduct the training.

More importantly, the students' thinking was tested, which lead to some reflection and discussion about how they might have acted differently. Whether or not the simulation was a perfect recreation of a real world nursing ward seems to be less important than whether it's "good enough" to stimulate students to connect theory to practice, and then learn from any mistakes that result.

Another important point is that universities are still willing to experiment with Second Life as both a platform for virtual training and as an academic research environment. Second Life has taken some PR hits over the years, as I've noted in previous posts, and SL's reputation among the academic community is far from stellar, especially after the problems with Woodbury U. Studies like the one reviewed here, however, can go a long way toward correcting the negative impressions of virtual worlds as simply playgrounds for overgrown adolescents.

In reality, virtual worlds are a new frontier with almost limitless potential, but that also require patient, careful, and thorough exploration to realize the true benefits.

References

McCallum, J., Ness, V., & Price, T. (In press) Exploring nursing students' decision-making skills whilst in a Second Life clinical simulation laboratory. Nurse Education Today.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Conflict Between Mesh and Co-creation in Virtual Worlds

A new building process was introduced in Second Life this week that has garnered much attention from the virtual world creative community. The official SL blog offered this description of the process and its intent, and other bloggers have commented here and here about it. Dusan Writer's take was particularly interesting to me, as he seemed to offer the clearest analysis of what mesh might mean for virtual worlds, and SL in particular.

Originally, I had thought I would be in complete favor of SL's move to external development involving mesh, which I had thought was one potential solution to the problem of intellectual property protection that had plagued many VWs, especially SL. Surprisingly, though, after listening to Dusan's excellent analysis and doing some additional research, I've developed some new concerns about the implications of mesh for in-world creation.

There is little doubt that external development can better protect intellectual property, given that imported items are not as prone to copying as are virtual goods built in-world. In the case of SL, they seem to have captured the best of both worlds: creatives can choose to either develop externally using 3D modeling programs, such as Maya or Sketchup, or they can build in-world using well established methods involving prims or sculpties. So, what's the problem?

As creatives gain experience working with mesh, and all the very exciting possibilities it holds, there will likely be declining interest in the use of in-world methods that won't match the quality of externally developed goods and won't have the types of copy protection possible with mesh construction. The problem becomes that as we lose the skill base to work with in-world building methods, we actually lose a key aspect of SL 's potential value.

This was one point Dusan made quite well in his discussion on Designing Worlds when he said that changing building methods would change the culture of SL.  I agree this is true, but the point goes even beyond how this might change SL culture to how it might effect the ultimate ability of virtual worlds to reach their full potential.  How so, you might ask.

I came across an advanced copy of a study conducted in SL by Thomas Kohler (In press) and colleagues regarding the co-creative possibilities that businesses and other groups can leverage as they attempt to develop new products or new processes in virtual worlds. The research team developed a five-stage co-creation process that was tested in-world by SL residents in 2008 and 2009 on three different projects.

One of the projects, a Green Ideation Quest, involved engaging residents in a development process using in-world building methods with prims to brainstorm, demonstrate, and otherwise evaluate ideas for green energy products. The researchers found that this type of engagement with residents was highly effective and lead to new insights and ideas as participants played and experimented with the prims in-world.

Their ultimate conclusion was that this type of resident interaction was a potentially effective way for individuals to come together collaboratively in an immersive environment that takes advantage of built-in, easily accessible ways of creating shared 3D models. This is very exciting work that points up the very real possibilities of virtual worlds for things other than dancing, chatting, sex, and shopping.

So, Dusan's point is well taken regarding the potential negative impact on SL culture, but are we also missing an important opportunity presented by virtual worlds as development platforms?  Will we look back at some point and lament the fact that we passed up what the simple prim had to offer in favor of external development methods? If we do ultimately trade in-world building for external development, we will likely have missed out on much more than we've gained.

I would argue that this is worth some thought and discussion before we jump fully on the mesh bandwagon and ride off into the virtual sunset, and I'm curious what others think about this.

References

Kohler, T., Fueller, J., Stieger, D., & Matlzer, K. (In press). Avatar-based innovation: Consequences of the virtual co-creation experience. Computers in Human Behavior.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What Motivates Users of Second Life?

Over the weekend, I read an advanced copy of an interesting study by a group of Chinese researchers who examined the motivations of individuals who use SL. I was, frankly, quite surprised that no one had yet studied the motivations of SL users from this particular perspective, and was also surprised at the results.

The researchers applied what's termed the Uses and Gratification (U&G) theory of internet use to investigate what motivates SLer's to do the things they do in-world. In a nutshell, U&G theory says that individuals use the internet for one of three primary reasons: to perform some type of function (get information, solve a problem, etc.), to have an experience (surf the web, listen to music, etc.), or to socialize (meet new people, have an online romance, etc.).

This theory hasn't been applied to VWs before , and the results were surprising. I had expected that socializing would be, far and away, the most likely reason for people to use SL, but actually, of the group surveyed, it was nearly a three-way tie between functional, experiential, or social uses. Actually, most users surveyed said they used SL for functional reasons, which in SL equated to learning, shopping, making money, or conducting research.

The study also examined differences based on gender, age, education, and level of in-world experience across the three stated uses for VWs. They found that men and women differed in terms of their interest in making money from SL, with men more likely to view SL as a platform for doing that. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to see shopping as an important use.

Older users were more likely to seek out learning opportunities on SL, while younger users more often sought out entertainment opportunities. Not too surprisingly, more educated users tended to seek out education and research opportunities from their SL experience. More experienced SL users sought out ways to create value and exploit commercial opportunities than did inexperienced users (those with less than 6 months in world).

The authors noted several limitations of their study, including the small sample size (only 192 SL users), the use of purposive sampling that limited the sample only to current SL users, and the limitations of the U&G theory to fully account for the responses of those surveyed.

One issue not addressed in the study, and one that I've been writing about here lately, was the protection of content created by users. While some users described building as their primary reason for using SL, and the authors acknowledged that the SL platform should encourage this by providing more opportunities to build and create, they did not acknowledge the issue of intellectual property protection as a motivating or demotivating factor for creatives.

This may have been due in part to the narrow focus of the study, but it seems reasonable to consider such protections as an important factor in user's decisions to create virtual goods, potentially even more important than opportunities to learn about and actually create in-world products.

More significant, though, are the implications of the study in terms of effectively marketing VWs externally to attract new users, as well as targeting in-world advertising to increase the reach of such messages. One example provided by the authors of the study was that educational opportunities should be targeted toward older, more highly educated users by placing them on SL sims that already incorporate an educational theme.

Other examples might include placing business startup advertising on sims frequented by more experienced users, such as those that cater to builders, scripters, or similar niche groups. Likewise, entertainment venues might best target their audience by marketing at infohubs, or other welcoming areas, where less experienced, and potentially younger, users might be found.

In any event, more research is necessary to build up a clearer picture of user motivations. Nevertheless, this study is a good start. Here's the citation for the article, which should be going to press in the near future:

Zhongyun, Z., Xiao-Ling, J., Douglas V., Yulin, F., & Xiaojian, C. (In press) Individual motivations and demographic differences in social virtual world uses: An exploratory investigation in Second Life. International Journal of Information Management.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review of Decunha's Article on Virtual Property

I spent some time this week reading Nelson Decunha's excellent 2009 article, "Virtual Propery, Real Concerns," and found it shed quite a bit of light on the otherwise murky world of virtual property rights. Bottom line, if you are a VW content creator or a member of a corporate entity that operates or does business in a VW, this article is a must read.

In addition to providing a concise history of virtual world development, beginning with ADVENT, the text-based virtual world of the 1970s, all the way up to modern MMORPGs, the article also deftly covers a variety of legal theories related to virtual property.

The gist of the article, however, is that real-world theories of property ownership are difficult to apply to VWs for a variety of reasons, and, ultimately, a combination of game design, in-world rules, and external legal structures are all necessary to protect the interests of content creators.

Game design is a moving target, but many of a VW's features are determined, and set, at the initial design phases and are difficult to change down the road. One obvious example is the difference between SL and Blue Mars in terms of content creation. Blue Mars has designed a much more controlled process that lends itself more to protecting creator's intellectual property than is the case in SL.

In terms of in-world rules, Decunha provides a cogent analysis of several different TOSs and EULAs, specifically those found in SL and WOW. Neither of these sets of in-world rules provides much protection for content creators, and in the case of WOW's EULA, none at all. Blue Mars has taken a different direction on this as well, as was laid out quite nicely here by Dusan Writer late last year.  In Blue Mars, creators retain the rights to their creations, which is exactly how it should be.

Of course, external structures for protecting intellectual property have been available since VWs first came into existence, but the specific laws have been evolving to keep pace with new issues presented by virtual property. Decunha points out that such external protections are actually a last line of defense.

Game design is the first, and broadest, method for protecting creator's rights, while TOS or EULAs provide a second line of defense if or when design fails to protect content sufficiently. Copyright, and other external laws, provide the last form of protection if or when the prior two methods fail.

In the final analysis, protection of intellectual property in VWs, according to Decunha's legal perspective, is a multi-tiered process that requires cooperation between game designers, administrators, and real-world authorities to be effective. And, as VWs gain traction as platforms for a variety of mainstream commercial, educational, and personal interactions, it becomes increasingly important to develop effective systems to protect virtual property and those who create it.

What the article does not account for, however, are the practical considerations of content creators who likely make choices about where to develop and market content based on factors other than those described by Decunha. For example, the ease of building in SL, or simple familiarity with SL's building systems, may trump considerations of risks related to game design or TOS features that don't provide protections for original content.

As long as creatives continue to create, market, and sell their wares in SL, and as long as they pay tier and other fees for their shops, LL has little incentive to change design features, or TOS elements, to better protect intellectual property. Builder's decisions to move to different platforms, such as Blue Mars, that offer what appear to be greater protections for virtual property, may be limited by the steep learning curve involved in mastering the 3D modeling programs and other processes required.

I've had some informal conversations with builders in SL, and while there's definitely angst about copyright infringement and outright theft of intellectual property, there's also a sense of resignation about how to address it. The solution for some seems to be simply to develop new creations in hopes that those won't be stolen. Structured protections of intellectual property seem to be the furthest thing from the minds of many creatives I've spoken to so far.

I'd be very interested to hear your views on this topic.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In VW Governance, Does Design Trump All?

I enjoyed a very interesting discussion at Edutopia (http://slurl.com/secondlife/Muk/44/152/62/) in Second Life on Saturday about regulation of virtual worlds, specifically the (now defunct) banking industry and why it failed. Eventually, the conversation turned to content creation, problems with copybots in SL, and the general governance of intellectual property in virtual worlds.

Several in the group called for more regulation by the owners of SL, Linden Labs, while others stressed the need to apply real-world laws and regulations to VWs more consistently. The point I tried to make was that a governance structure is critical to moving VWs forward as viable platforms for business, content production, education, and all of the other uses VWs have been touted as potentially providing.

How to do this effectively is the obvious question, however, and one that was put to me at one point during the discussion. I noted the obvious problems with LL providing governance, and said I believe the solution goes beyond corporate oversight or real-world intervention. VWs should be designed from the ground up to provide protection for the intellectual property of those who create the world's content.

Real-world laws already apply to VWs, specifically relating to digital rights, but but this is still a developing area of the law with many complications, as seen in this example. A clearer and probably more effective way of managing such issues rests on the design of the VW. I think this is where Blue Mars has it right so far. Concerns about censorship aside, creating content outside of the VW and importing it in-world as an object provides a high standard of protection for creatives and their creations.

I'm currently reviewing a recent article in the Akron Intellectual Property Journal, which should shed more light on the topic, and I'll have more to say about it later this week.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Billie Jean's Not My Virtual Lover


Under the "Now-I've-Seen-It-All" category, I've spent a little time this weekend reading about the new Michael Jackson themed MMO, “Planet Michael” scheduled to open sometime in 2011. Josh Gordon, VP of Development for SEE Virtual Worlds, described Planet Jackson as something of a cross between WOW and SL, including opportunities to battle evil "tractors" and other characters that are trying to destroy the Earth. 

Your Weapons? Dance moves and other "magical behaviours," of course!

See the YouTube video here.

I'll likely visit, mainly out out of curiosity, but I'm even more intensely curious as to SEE's next venture.

Michel Foucault World anyone?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Content Control: A Key Issue for Virtual World Success

Or, The Life and Death of the Flying Penis

I recently came across an article in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that, while slightly dated (2008), raised some pretty intriguing questions about VWs, including how they can and should be designed, used, monetized, and governed.  

Nothing really new there, as these kinds of issues and questions have been floating around the web since VWs came into existence. But, this was the first time I’d seen them discussed in a systematic way.

The authors extended a typology to virtual worlds that had previously been applied to categorizing more general virtual communities, like Facebook or MySpace. The result was a framework that can help educational institutions, businesses, and individuals think about, and talk about, VWs more clearly.

The typology focuses on five elements of VWs:

  • Purpose: Are specific themes or goals present in the VW, or are users left to their own devices?

  • Physical location: Are users spread out across the globe, or are they sitting across from each other at the kitchen table?

  • Platform: What are the capabilities and limitations of the virtual environment?

  • Population: How many users is the VW intended to involve, and what are the connections between them?

  • Profit model: How is the VW monetized? Are users charged an access fee, or does the VW rely on in-world advertising or the purchase of in-world products?

These help structure important questions about VWs, such as how businesses should engage their customers there, how schools should design instructional environments, and how an individual’s concept of self is affected by participating (which are all topics for future articles).  

One important issue the Virtual Worlds article touched on only indirectly, however, was content creation and control. While this is arguably a function of the platform and its abilities, it’s also a governance issue that potentially cuts across many key dynamics of VWs generally.

Users of Second Life, for example, take for granted the ability to create virtual objects, scripts, and clothing they can sell, give away, or destroy at will. This is an important part of the user experience that has generated considerable freedom of expression and a vast array of incredibly rich content.

Such unmediated and direct access to building and sharing virtual goods has become central to SL culture and has provided a key purpose for participating. Building and sharing also facilitates monetization through the selling of virtual goods themselves, and through the secondary markets created by texture vendors and other in-world products that support the creative process.

This flexibility has its downside, of course. The ability to build anything, anywhere, at anytime leads to the types of embarrassing debacles that taint public opinion toward VWs. Professional and educational events have been marred by the ill intentions of griefers and their ilk whose phallocentric obsessions have become legendary in some circles.

But, not all VWs allow this type of flexibility, including the new kid on the block, Blue Mars. 

Blue Mars relies on a top-down approval process that controls what products are made available to users. This eliminates the possibility of a flying penis drifting through the boardroom during an important in-world meeting, but does it also stifle creativity as well? Does controlling content put creative decisions in too few hands and lead to censoring the creative process? And, if so, what are the consequences of that?

Whether content control will be a boon or a boondoggle for Blue Mars is an open question, but it will almost certainly affect who does and does not participate. Businesses and schools will likely see content control as a positive feature that attracts them to the environment, while creatives may view it as a stifling form of censorship that keeps them away in droves.

The participation of both professional and creative groups is necessary to move VWs from being perceived as a silly waste of time to being viewed as useful environments where groups and individuals can both work and play creatively.

What’s your opinion about content control and how it affects the user experience in general? Does content control factor into your decision to use a particular VW?