On Monday October 6th, Designing Worlds, hosted by Saffia Widdershins and Elrik Merlin, broadcast a special celebratory edition, marking the show’s 250th edition, and the show featured a very special guest: Linden Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg.
The interview covered a number of topics, and ou can watch the show via the links at the end of this article, or read the transcript. One of the items discussed was, inevitably, the Lab’s next generation virtual world platform.
The following is intended to provide a more direct look at some of what was said about the new platform, and to offer some speculation / thoughts on my part. Audio clips are provided, but please note they do not necessarily include everything said about the new platform; my aim in including them is to present what I feel is the core comments made about it, and offer some thoughts of my own. Should you wish to hear the comments in the context of the interview, time stamps are included with each audio extract for the point at which they occur in the original video.
What’s in a Name?
One of the points of interest / speculation in the new platform has been on the subject of its name. The Lab have simply referred to it as their “next generation platform”, and users have variously referred to it as “SL 2.0”, “The New Thing” (or TNT) or “SL: The Next Generation”, and so on. Ebbe explained why there isn’t a more formal name for the new platform at present.
The second point bears thinking about. Consider the term “SL 2.0”; while innocuous-sounding, its use could encourage us to consider the new platform purely in terms of how we see SL. For example, using the “SL 2.0” label might cause us to think of land in the new platform as being the same as in SL – defined region types providing specific capabilities – when there is no indication that this will in fact be the case. Thus preconceptions are established which can have unwanted repercussions down the road. So while it might be handy to have a label, keeping things to a very generic “next generation platform” or “new platform” offers the easiest way of avoiding this from the Lab’s perspective.
On the Question of Open-source
Much has been made of the initial decision to make the new platform closed-source, with some commenting on the decision going so far as to describe it as a “mistake”. However, Ebbe points-out during the programmed that “closed-source” doesn’t necessarily mean that there can be no involvement on the part of TPV developers, nor is the closed-source nature of the new platform set in stone.
[0:54:08 and 0:56:50]
Given that the new platform is intended to operate across different hardware environments and operating systems, there would appear to be a certain logic to the approach the Lab is taking in trying to make the client end extensible, rather than open-source right off the bat which might offer a way of achieving greater uniformity in how additional features are presented across these multiple devices.
Of course, a lot of the success of such an approach depends on the gateway the Lab put in place by which additional plug-ins (or whatever) are vetted and “allowed” where the client is concerned, their improved track-record with TPV and open-source developer contributions for SL notwithstanding.
Whether it might also mean that users get that Holy Grail long desired in SL – a client which is fully customisable by the user in terms of which features they “download” and use, or plug-in to their experience, remains to be seen. However, to lay eyes, it would appear that this approach might make it easier to achieve.
Compatibility and Portability
[0:57:39-0:59:03, 1:00:05-1:00:41, and 1:01:01-1:01:30]
When it comes to people’s inventory there are a couple of potential, but valid points that need to be made, both of which I hinted at in response to comments about the new platform on this blog back in June 2014.
The first is that while we may well have tens of thousands of items sitting in inventory representing a lot of expenditure, there’s a good chance that a fair percentage of those items are “dead weight”, having been long since superseded, replaced, gone out of fashion, etc. As such, any value in these items has already been written-off given we’ll likely never use them again. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on “losing” the investment they seem to represent as might be the case.
The second point is the not-so-small questions on whether we actually have the right to transfer items in our inventory elsewhere, be it another grid or the Lab’s new platform. The IP for the items in our inventories resides with the creators of those items – and if they do not wish their creations to be ported to the new platform, we should be prepared to respect that wish. Hopefully, this is also something the Lab will be considering as well.
Getting People Into the Platform
[0:17:18] (On-boarding users is also discussed alongside marketing the platform from the 0:47:48 mark in the video as well.)
Moving to a model of providing users with the means to attract people into the platform directly through their own experiences (or presence) in the platform is undoubtedly a good move. Allowing users to do this through their own websites, etc., has the advantage of allowing very specialised use cased to take advantage of the platform, as is touched upon in Ebbe’s comments.
Mark Kingdon actually hinted at this approach back in an interview with Dusan Writer in 2009, although his idea of “siloing” incoming users through to communities was perhaps more centralised than is envisioned here.
Does this mean the Lab won’t offer their own gateway(s) into the platform? I think that unlikely. The new platform will in all likelihood have its own web presence, a-la SL, etc. As such, it makes sense for the Lab to also offer their own gateways into the platform, or to perhaps offer the means for people discovering the platform through any official website or advertising to reach any more generic on-boarding processes which might be established by any mentor groups active within the new platform.
Marketing the Platform
The idea of looking to vertical markets tends to point towards the Lab looking more sharply at the potential for their new platform to have more clearly defined business uses. There’s nothing wrong with this, as virtual worlds clearly have some very strong practical educational, training, learning, commercial, etc., applications; one only has to look at the use of Second Life among a wide range of educational institutions and the adoption of OpenSimulator by a range of businesses.
However, it is likely that the idea of “big business” coming into the new platform is liable to have some SL users reacting negatively, if only because of the long shadow of history cast across Second Life from (again), the Mark Kingdon era. There there was an attempt then to pivot SL more closely towards being a business solutions application – to the point of what appeared to be openly hostile comments being directed towards the existing user base by the likes of Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Red.
On a speculative note, the manner in which the new platform is being discussed in terms of meeting the needs of vertical markets again has me wondering, as I’ve ruminated before when considering the new platform, if it not so much going to be a single “world” as we see SL, but as a platform on which multiple “worlds” can be established that encompass specific verticals, and in which organisations in that vertical (say, education) can establish their “experiences” (aka “presence”?). These “experiences” can then be interconnected with one another, if required, to allow for collaboration, shared resources, etc., all in the knowledge that there is a clear separation between their own environments and the “virtual world at large” (i.e. you and me, the more “SL-like” user community) unless they choose to bridge that gap (between experiences or worlds or whatever).
Progress, Alpha Access and Time Frames
[0:40:59-0:41:54 and 0:42:56-0:44:07]
(The first mile stone referred to in the audio clip is the Lab simply being able to import content, carry out some basic scripting, and move avatars around within the environment.)
Perhaps the biggest take away fro the discussion on the status of the new platform is that while the Lab may wish to be fast and agile, they are prepared to take a considered approach in terms of actually getting things done and when, and aren’t being unduly constrained by deadlines. This may sound like a contradiction, being “fast” and “in no hurry”, but I’m assuming the “fast and agile” aspect may be more to do with responding to emerging technologies which may benefit the platform, etc., rather than necessarily just the speed with which it is built.
A pragmatic view is also being taken with regards what form any initial alpha testing might occur users.
[0:44:06-0:45:45 and 46:30-46:46]
Within this as well, it is noted that the new platform is to be available across a range of hardware and capitalise on emerging software such as HMDs and 3D cameras and the means of reproducing (if not necessarily capturing) mouth movement through to registering facial expressions in real-time (much of which is also couched in terms of potentially entering into Second Life).
Much emphasis is also placed upon the fact that the growth of the new platform is going to be gradual. It won’t from the start cover every imaginable use case, and won’t necessarily cater to everything users of SL already enjoy. This, as much as anything else is why SL is liable to be around for a fair while to come. Given the apparent desire to try to attract use cases beyond those commonly seen within SL, and to perhaps reach into markets where SL has previously been seen to “fail”, it might even be to the Lab’s preference to try to establish the new platform such that it can stand on its own two feet without a heavy reliance on their current user base. Although actually achieving this without the leverage of an existing user base would clearly be a lot harder.
The interview really only scratches the surface of the new platform – but this is to be expected in some ways. The idea to move in this direction may have germinated during Rod Humble’s tenure at CEO, but the real work has only been going forward for the last few months; so in some respects the Lab are still feeling their way, and there will be much that is in a state of flux. This is likely why issues such as how the Lab will generate revenue from the new platform weren’t discussed; while there is a view within the Lab that Land should be “cheaper” and margins should be such that the Lab can do more in the way of volume business, the overall approach and business model still appears to be in as much a state of flux as anything else – and it is certainly not as straightforward as some might believe, having its own set of interdependencies.
That said, I would have liked to have seen more questions around some issues the new platform will have to tackle, in whatever form it takes. For example, how issues of identity will be handled. This is something I’ve touched upon myself in discussing the new platform’s ability to reach a mainstream market.
Simply put, there are two “opposing” views on the issue of identity. For those of us engaged in Second Life, the ability to define our identity howsoever we wish by virtue of the pseudonymity we enjoy, is intensely liberating. However, for many people out in the mainstream world / market the Lab would like to reach (and possibly thanks to policies employed by the likes of Facebook), it is downright creepy and off-putting. They are intensely uncomfortable around the notion that the people they may meet in a place like SL may not be entirely as they present themselves. so if the new platform is to satisfy the preferences of both groups, there needs to be some kind of balance struck, and I would have liked to have heard some of Ebbe’s thoughts on the matter.
That the Lab is working on a new virtual worlds platform have divided opinion since it was first announced – and this interview is unlikely to lessen the fact that opinions are divided. I’m frankly dubious as to whether there really is a huge mass market for virtual worlds of the kind being envisaged, for a number of reasons I’m not going to bore you with here. However, that doesn’t mean the Lab shouldn’t be endeavouring to position themselves such that they can try to better capture some of that market, should it appear, and offer the kind of services and accessibility people demand, and which cannot necessarily be achieved with SL.
When taken as a whole, this interview is, to me, a further indication that under Ebbe Altberg’s leadership, the Lab is attempting to be more transparent and open with its users as to what it is doing and where it is heading, and is continuing to make good on its promise to engage and communicate a lot more pro-actively than has been the case in the 3-4 years prior to his arrival. And that has to be for the betterment of Lab / user relations, whether or not we agree with the direction they’re taking vis any new product.