2014: A look back – part 1

Isle of Mousai, January 2014Isle of Mousai, Ancient Alexandria, one of my first ports of call in 2014 for my Exploring Second Life series

Christmas is upon us, and following not far behind, the year’s end, which is often a time of reflection as we look back over the old before pausing to await the arrival of the new. It’s become something of a tradition in these pages to look back over the virtual year’s events as I’ve seen and reported them, and offer a chance to revisit the ups and downs and the good and the bad the last twelve months have brought us.

Once again, this has been an incredibly busy year for me, blog-wise – over 950 articles published so far (and counting!) since the start of the year. So I hope you’ll forgive that as I look back over the year as I’ve managed to report it through this blog, I’ve broken it down into three parts, which I’ll be publishing between now and the end of the year. Not everything that happened through the year may be here; there are some aspects of  SL in which I’m not active, and so may have missed some headlines. Nevertheless, I hope this review sparks a few memories and provides some interesting holiday reading.  Just to (hopefully) make the reading a little more interesting, I’ve tried to avoid just breaking things down entirely by month, in favour of offering what I hope is more of a narrative flow. Part two and part three are also available.

The Lab

The year gets off to something of a quiet start – literally. With communications from the Lab slowly drying-up throughout the period 2010-2013, There is an announcement (absent from any of the SL channels, due to the Lab’s approach of “siloing” what communications were forthcoming), that the still pre-release Patterns sandbox game / creation tool for Mac and PCs had been updated with materials processing and more, some of which gets a further tweak during the month. An update on the required documentation being sought from users meeting certain transaction thresholds is given, but doesn’t entirely enlighten, prompting me to seek further clarification from the Lab. Given the confusion evident, the Lab does issue a tax and account info FAQ to help people.

Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past, becomes an CEO of the past at Linden Lab
Rod Humble, with a little reminder from his past, becomes an CEO of the past at Linden Lab

However, the biggest news to start the year comes  via Facebook messages, Tweets and tech media reports, as it emerges that, after three years at the Lab, Rod Humble had departed for pastures new around the end of 2013.

As a result, I look back over his tenure, and decide that, allowing for the warts it brought with it (breakdown of communications, the ToS changes, etc), in terms of the technical aspects of SL, it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t a popular view.

However, the lack of anything from the Lab one the matter wasn’t encouraging at the time.

The first real confirmation of Mr. Humble’s departure from the Lab came with the announcement that Ebbe Altberg had been hired, and would join the company officially in February. This was met with statements of “Who he?” from many, so I dug around and put together a brief profile, which in turn prompted the man himself to drop by the blog – which is always welcome! Although admittedly, I couldn’t resist dropping him a letter on the subject of communications – not that I needed to have worried, as it turned out.

One of the first things undertaken as a result of Ebbe’s appointment is a review of the Lab’s attempts at diversification.This results in Creatorverse, dio and Versu being  axed, and I’m left wondering if Versu doesn’t deserve a future, particularly given a new title, Blood & Laurels, appeared ready to be launched; I’m not alone in this view. However, the Lab initially refuses the idea.

In the meantime, Patterns, having escaped the chopping block (or at least getting a stay of execution), gets its new UI. Positive moves continue elsewhere in the Lab as the door to improved communications is further pushed open, including a promise to re-open the SL JIRA  to public viewing and a promise to revisit the August 2013 changes to the Lab’s Terms of Service. The latter is made during an open Q&A session Ebbe takes  at the 2014 VWBPE; unfortunately, when it arrives, the update doesn’t, in the eyes of many (myself included), really seem to actually clarify anything – but more of that anon.

New man at the top, Ebbe Altberg (l), who quickly sets about reversing the Lab's policy on communications, opening things out and taking time to attend events such as the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education, where he appear via his alt-ego Ebbe Linden (r - image by Strawberry Singh)
New man at the top, Ebbe Altberg (l), who quickly sets about reversing the Lab’s policy on communications, opening things out and taking time to attend events such as the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education, where he appeared via his alter-ego Ebbe Linden (r – image by Strawberry Singh)

The re-engagement with the education sector continues later in the year with Ebbe meeting with representatives in-world, as he did with a number of other user communities, building bridges and seeking to understand needs and wants within SL as a whole – for which he should actually be congratulated. Also on the education front, the Lab  helps to promote education projects, such as the MOOC course for Spanish educators, which was to be repeated later in the year as well.

In April, the Heartbleed situation rears its head across the Internet, and the Lab offers advice to users, while I pick-up on a Tweet from Strawberry Singh concerning promotional videos and SL.

Second Life

The start of the year brings word from Tyche Shepherd’s Grid Survey that while region losses continued through 2013, the total loss is some 40% less than that experienced in 2013, although it still represents an 8.2% reduction in the overall number of regions. This does cause renewed demands for tier cuts from some quarters (although tier cuts are as best a very short-term answer, and could actually do more harm than good, as I explained back in January 2013).

Monty Linden: starts the year as he means to go on: overhauling the Lab's use of HTTP
Monty Linden: starts the year as he means to go on: overhauling the Lab’s use of HTTP

For me, my SL January starts with a number of questions from other users on the status of direct messaging on the SL feeds. Passing the enquiry on to the Lab, I receive confirmation that the option had been turned off, which surprises and disappoints some.

2014’s impressive list of updates and improvements to the platform takes off with the arrival of Monty Linden’s much anticipated HTTP project viewer, which he subsequently blogged about. As well as banging on all things HTTP, Monty also sets about cleaning-up the various third-party libraries used in the viewer build process, the first part of an on-going overhaul of that process that would continue through the year.

January also sees Andrew Linden’s last project for SL (completed prior to him departing for High Fidelity in December 2013), a capability to allow for the uniform scaling of linksets, arrive on the grid. Then, the end of January brings with it a surprise when there’s a change to the land bot policy, causing a few eyebrows to rise.

Among the Lab’s major projects, fitted mesh is impacted by AMD driver issues, one of several  AMD-related problems which will occur through the year, although they don’t prevent fitted mesh being officially launched in early February.

February also sees the first big step in the Lab’s AIS v3 project to improve inventory handling between the viewer and the simulators, with the release of the SSA / AIS v3 project viewer,

Photography in SL takes a couple of hits early in the year. January sees the issues that prevent snapshots being uploaded to the SL feeds continue, while in March, photo uploads to Facebook are disabled due to them violating FB’s policies by including SLurls.  This is finally rectified in April, with the formal release of SL Share 2, which allows photos (and messages) to be shared with Twitter and Flickr, and includes post-processing filter capabilities. I’m able to preview the capabilities ahead of the official announcement, which comes with a welcome video for Torley.

In March, the Lab asks for beta testers to help with their Oculus Rift project viewer. We also get an initial glimpse at Baker Linden’s group ban work, and Ebbe Altberg indicates that group chat is being poked at – a welcome move, which marks the start of efforts to improve things that continue right through the year – and yield benefits. March also sees the JIRA  re-open to viewing and comments, as promised, albeit it with a couple of limitations.

Perhaps the big news in March, SL-wise is the launch of SL Go, the streaming service for Second Life from OnLive Games. This gives rise to very mixed reactions, and potentially some confusion, as some seem to believe it is being run by Linden Lab, rather than being an entirely separate third-party service. I get to share in a special preview in time for the launch, and go on to look in more detail at using it with the Nexus 7 and to offer some thoughts on pricing, which is proving contentious with users. OnLive aren’t deaf to the feedback they’re getting pricing-wise,, and in April they announce a pricing restructure.

In March 2014, SL Go, a means to access SL on low-end systems and Android devices (and later iPads) is launched by OnLive
In March 2014, SL Go, a means to access SL on low-end systems and Android devices (and later iPads) is launched by OnLive

April also sees Firestorm offer another April Fool’s Day joke… which isn’t entirely intended as a joke, although there’s so much work involved in ever making it a reality (if, indeed, it can), it slips to one side.

2014 sees the SL Marketplace continue to experience mixed fortunes. Things start off well with the launch of the  Merchant Outbox RC viewer, which seems to work well and do what is promised on the tin. Not so good is the plan to make buying mesh clothes easier, which goes down with many like a lead balloon. There’s even more confusion and angst when a new Transaction History page is rolled-out without prior warning. The protests this understandably caused were sufficient for the Lab to roll-back the changes and then try to redress matters by seeking input from users on what changes should be made.

A new podcast series is launched in January, the Drax Files Radio Hour, intended to look at virtual environments in all their forms and featuring interviews, news, opinion, and more. I review the opening show, and those that follow. However, the monocular focus on a certain VR headset in the early weeks begins to give it something of a scratched record feel, which at times seems to push other news to one side. But when the focus does move elsewhere, the interviews at the heart of each show remain engaging, enlightening and entertaining.

Art and Events

The opening of the year is busy with all things art, with the UWA’s magnificent Freedom Project draws to a close, prior Project Homeless being launched. I get to chat with Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks about their eagerly-awaited production Paradise Lost: The Story of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin. March sees the spiritual home of storytelling in voice in SL, Seanchai Library, celebrate its sixth anniversary. While February marked the opening of Bryn Oh’s stunning The singularity of Kumiko

Events-wise, there’s initial news about the year’s Fantasy Faire, with more information rolling-out throughout April, and information starts to roll forth on the Relay for Life of SL 2014 season as a whole. One Billion Rising comes in with some late promotion, but the event goes off without a hitch, while in April the countdown to SL11B commences.

In March, the SLBA host a meeting to discuss copyright and fair use within and without virtual worlds.  While April brings forth VWBPE with Ebbe Altberg, as mentioned above, in a well-rounded programme which is kicked-off by a keynote from Philip Rosedale, although I find myself questioning some of his assertions that technology, in particular the mouse and keyboard, is the most significant barrier to mass adoption of VWs.

Other Worlds

As the year progresses, I find my ability to look at other virtual worlds increasingly narrowed due to time constraints, although I do cover the completion of Kitely’s pricing restructuring which sees me start to wind-down my direct involvement in that grid, but not before I cover the addition of hypergrid capabilities to the Kitely Market.

Elsewhere, High Fidelity, which does start to take up a portion of my time as the year progresses,announces a further inward investment of some 2.5 million, prompting me to wonder, following the Oculus Rift acquisition (below), if the the investment might put HiFi on the radar for some. Not long after the investment announcement, HiFi puts out a call for Alpha Testers.

In the realm of non-grid worlds (and universes), news breaks that Cloud Party has been sold to Yahoo, and will be shut down in February 2014, while Eve Online causes a bit of a stir of a different kind, thanks to an epic space battle. Sony Online Entertainment offers further information on Everquest Next Landmark and I draft a post on it, but never publish it; so instead, I’ll point to Ciaran Laval’s coverage.

VR and AR

The big news for the start of the year had to be that of the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR, in February. This caused a bit of a storm, some of which was, frankly over-wrought and silly (particularly ideas that those who participated in the Kickstarter were somehow “owed” something or that “fraud” had somehow been perpetuated). Elsewhere, the SVVR meet-up in March saw a couple of interesting presentations from both castAR and High Fidelity.

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