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.