The Drax Files Radio Hour 21: the image of Second Life

radio-hourI missed reviewing The Drax Files Radio Hour #20 as real life has been keeping me rather busy of late. Hopefully, the transcript of the Creating the VR Metaverse panel at SVVR will go some way to making up for things (and even that was late in getting into print, courtesy of RL!).

Episode #21, the last of the “live” podcast for this series, continues in spirit with the last, the two major interviews – with Voidpointer and Catalyst Linden – having been recorded at the SVVR conference. As usual, and as well as being available on the show’s website and on Stitcher, episode #21 is also on YouTube, and it is to that recording (embedded at the end of this article) any timestamps given in the text refer.

The early part of the show re-visits SVVR and Leap Motion, who are in the process of adding on-screen rigged hands which move in accordance to the user’s hand movements / gestures, and have also creating a prototype cradle which allows the Leap unit to be attached to a Rift headset, allowing it to track hand movements, with the rigged hands appearing on the Rift’s screens.

The recent Designing Worlds show on the new user experience and user retention  – on which Jo appeared – is discussed. Time hasn’t allowed me to watch the show as yet, but it is on my “to-do” list. I confess that I’m always leery of suggestions from users on what “needs” to be done or “should” be done with the whole new user experience. Yes, the Lab hasn’t done particularly well over the last 11 years  – to a point – but that doesn’t actually mean that we, as users necessarily have any clearer idea of what needs to be done / should be done, simply because all too often our own views tend to be somewhat biased to some degree, or we simply fail to take into consideration was has actually been tried in the past and trot out ideas which have been shown to make very little difference in the scheme of things.

Which is not to say that ideas shouldn’t be discussed, but rather a broader forum should perhaps be established, where more in the manner of two-way discussions between Lab and users can take place, ideas more fully synthesised and options looked at.

The new mesh avatars also get a mention, and some of the problems of supplying mesh avatars to new users are highlighted. Leaving aside the valid problems mentioned in the show, What surprised me most about these avatars was that they appeared to have been released prematurely or at least without thorough testing. For example, they were promoted as using fitted mesh, yet the base shape was released as No  Modify, thus nullifying the ability to customise them using the sliders without swapping the shape (something new users are hardly likely to know how to do).

To his credit, Ebbe Altberg took it on the chin when I Tweeted him about this, indicating that it and a number of other issues would be fixed. But really, so basic a mistake shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

ebbe-avatars

This episode features two interviews with Linden staffers. The first is with Voidpointer Linden, who is well-known to attendees of the Server Beta meetings, which he attends from time-to-time. He has worked on a number of SL projects, including pathfinding, and more recently, the Oculus Rift. The interview commences at the 24:10 mark. Catalyst Linden, the senior director of development at the Lab is interviewed at 37:27 into the recording.

Voidpointer Linden in human form (stock)
Voidpointer Linden in human form (stock)

Both Voidpointer and Catalyst point to themselves as being “gamers”, and both indicate that on first encountering Second Life as gamers, they simply didn’t get it – although they do now.

A major part of them getting it is clearly to do with the fact that they have joined the Lab, and so SL has become their paid job. However, there is also the fact that as former gamers, they are perhaps both well-placed to understand why and how SL’s appeal needs to be broadened in order to attract more users to it.

During his chat, Voidpointer’s comments on the Lab needing to appeal to as broad a span of potential users as possible, even going so far as to acknowledge that the company needs to address those who, like Pamela from segment #8 of The Drax Files Radio Hour, simply do not see virtual worlds or VR as something they need to embrace, because it has no relevance to them.

Attracting a broader audience is also a theme in Catalyst Linden’s comments, and he goes some way further towards demonstrating why the perception that Linden staffers “don’t get” Second Life really is in error. Even as someone who has only been at the Lab for around 12-15 months, it’s clearly evident that Catalyst does get Second Life and its potential appeal as well as any user who has given serious thought on this subject.

It’s interesting to note that in discussing the issues facing Second Life in terms of image, Catalyst offers what amounts to something of an insider’s reprobation of what might be taken as the previous CEO’s approach to the platform

Ebbe’s approach in general, that I’ve seen so far, is exactly the kind of thing that we need … and the thing that’s impressed me most about him is, he’s really diving into Second Life. He’s not turning up and saying, “Well, it’s this old crappy thing. Let’s do some new stuff!” He’s taking it really seriously, and he’s seeing the value, and that’s a really intelligent thing to be doing.

Catalyst has some pretty clear views on how to better present Second Life. Without wishing to inappropriately blow my own trumpet, some of what he suggests steers pretty close to more of a narrative marketing approach, which I’ve tended to harp on about a fair few times, starting in 2011, and have referred to on a number of occasions since, as well as on Twitter. He also points to the idea of having a “best of Second Life”, highlighting users and activities etc.

Interestingly, and prior to his departure from the Lab, this is the directly Viale Linden had actually been moving in. In 2012, he oversaw a re-vamp of the Second Life WhatIs page, which he  asked me to preview,  and which included videos by SL users showcasing builds, activities, etc., and saw an initial attempt to target activities and opportunities for incoming users. The first cut was very rough-and-ready, and Viale was the first to admit that more work was due in order to really make it work, but it was a start.

The What Is Second Life page (WhatIs page) did start to get an overhaul and include user-made videos showcasing their own builds, etc. Sadly, it never progressed beyond a "first cut" idea
The What Is Second Life page (WhatIs page) did start to get an overhaul and include user-made videos showcasing their own builds, etc. Sadly, it never progressed beyond a “first cut” idea

Sadly, the initiative didn’t progress much further. Viale was let go, and not long after, WhatIs more-or-less reverted to what it had previously been. Perhaps, if there are more in the Lab thinking along the same lines as Catalyst, the day may yet come when WhatIs can really showcase SL, and help deliver incoming users to the experiences they see and are wowed by.

Some valid points on the state VR is in at present are also made. I confess to loving Catalyst’s analogy of it being the primordial soup stage of evolution, so that right now predictions are hard to make as to what will happen. Evolution inevitably means that what is emerging from that soup today could expire tomorrow or go on to evolve into something quite different.  Hence why Gartner (and others) consistently point to it being between 5-10 years before consumer-facing VR reaches a real form of maturity and adoption. The revolution isn’t here – but evolution has begun.

The point is also made that SL’s future success in some respects hinges on the platform overcoming its negative image, with Catalyst underscoring some of the problems in this area. The current image SL has – particularly among gamers – is why a part of me wonders if the Lab is perhaps in danger of looking desperate for relevance within the VR world.

Voidpointer’s interview, for example , focuses on the recently launched Oculus Rift project viewer. By the Lab’s own admission, this launch is aimed, in part, at trying to attract Oculus early adopters. but at the same time, they time emphasise the UI hasn’t been optimised for use with the Rift as yet. Voidpointer indicates why the latter is the case – the low-resolution of the DK1 (just 800×640 per eye) makes everything in the UI something of a compromise. There’s also the fact that while there may well be an Oculus Rift Destination guide category, it’s going to take time for experiences which truly leverage the headset to appear in-world.

Yet we know there is a much improved headset about to ship, and it seems likely that the Rift won’t be released as a consumer product until 2015. So why give the appearance of trying to push the viewer towards Oculus Rift users outside of SL? Were this to in fact happen at this point in time – a big if, I readily admit – then the chances are, given the overall state of things, there is a risk the current viewer will simply reinforce negative perceptions of SL.

Even if this doesn’t happen, there is still an underlying risk in pushing the SL / Oculus paradigm too far, too soon, one that Loki Eliot very accurately identifies in his comments on the podcast webpage:

It’s going to be a long, long while before Oculus experience in SL is good. So any championing of SL along side VR at this time will just be damaging … The potential of SL and VR is there, the reality though is that it’s not with the Oculus and if we are not careful, SL will end up being just a joke.

Once again, a lot of food for thought within the show, and plenty to discuss (including the seeds for several possible blog posts!).

While this is the last “live” podcast, the show will continue through the summer with a series of pre-recorded interviews, so the Radio hour won’t actually be going away. Those who wish to support the show can do so by donating L$100 a month. Simply IM Draxtor in-world for the “on air” donation box and microphone. When you have it, set it up in-world, make your donation, and the on air lit will turn on. At the end of a month, the light will go out, but will re-light on payment of a further L$100. nice one!