2014: A look back – part 2

atoluta Sanctuary, Sartre; Inara Pey, July 2014, on FlickrMatoluta Sanctuary, Sartre, July 2014 (Flickr) – blog post

It’s once again that annual time of reflection. The winter is with us, the old year is slowing dying, the new year awaits, and it is time to look back across the highs and lows of the virtual year as seen through the pages of this blog.

This year has been even busier for me than previous years, 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, this being the second, and you can catch-up with part one or jump ahead to part three, if you so wish. 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. As with the first part, rather than just offer a month-by month account, I’ve tried to group things together by topic to hopefully give more of a narrative flow.

The Lab

The promised new Patterns UI is launched, and things continue to look rosy for the PC / Mac sandbox game.

In a surprising (and welcome) U-turn, the Lab agree to allow Emily Short and Richard Evans to carry the Versu product and it titles forward as an independent entity. The news is followed shortly afterwards by the launch of Versu’s first title under its own name and Emily Short is interviewed by Drax about Versu, the Lab and interactive fiction as a whole, and Blood & Laurels receives New York Times approbation.

The Lab agrees to allow Emily Short and Richard Evans, together with  are joined by Graham Nelson to take Versu forward
The Lab agrees to allow Emily Short and Richard Evans, together with are joined by Graham Nelson to take Versu forward

However, the big news of the quarter is Ebbe Alltberg’s confirmation (with audio) that the Lab is working on a “next generation” platform. The news first came during a TPV meeting. This was perhaps not the best way for the news to break, as within minutes there were Tweets and feed comments flying around, most of which tended to overstate some of what he actually said, and others really did misrepresent (albeit it accidentally, rather than maliciously) what was said – something that did a lot to further the anger and outcry that followed.

While it might have been better for a more prepared statement on the new being made, particularly given the hoo-haw that followed, my personal take on the news was, and remains positive. As much as we love SL, the fact is that it is getting long in the tooth, it is gradually getting harder to make sizeable improvements without considerable effort (2+ years of the Shining Project, 10 months to tweak around the edges of group chat, etc), and it is hamstrung by its revenue model. Ergo, the Lab do need to move with the times.

Fact is, for all the hard-edged protestations from some quarters, we’re all a fickle bunch, and there’s a good chance that when something bigger, better and shinier than SL comes along, it will wean us away, whether it’s because of broader creativity options, lower fees, greater market potential, more innovative technical capabilities / challenges – or all the aforementioned; and worries about inventory “investment”, etc., be damned. And it really is a mistake to think that just because it hasn’t happened so far, it by definition, won’t happen. At last this way we know who is developing a new alternative, and it is in their own best interest to keep SL going as strongly as they can, just in case the new shiny doesn’t work out.

Where might the Lab’s new platform take us? What form will it take? These have been two (of many) questions people have been pondering since it was confirmed the Lab were actively developing a “next generation” platform

Anyway, following the meeting, the Lab confirms it’ll be hiring-in around 40-50 additional staff to work on the new platform. And as the news on the new platform overshadows other statement made by Ebbe, I offer a piece on his comments on user retention. Official confirmation of the new platform’s development is finally given in a late July press release.

Mid-July finally brings word that the controversial Section 2.3 of the Lab’s Terms of Service has been updated. Sort-of. I’m initially sceptical that the change really amounts to anything, due to the way the wording is arranged, and go into greater depth a little later. I’m not alone in feeling the re-wording isn’t up to the desired snuff, as Agenda Faromet offers a similar perspective, and in August hosts an SLBA presentation on both the changes and the Skill Gaming policy, for which I put together a transcript.

Second Life

The Lab launches a new range of mesh starter avatars designed to make use of fitted mesh – except the base shapes for most of them are issued No Mod. Oopsie. While an update is quickly promised, it doesn’t appear until mid-June. We also get the Interest List viewer reach release status, while the initial release of the Oculus Rift project viewer arrives and Loki Eliot offers guidance on using it with the Xbox controller, mirroring work by Strachan Ofarrel with his CtrlAltStudio viewer.

In a continuance of opening the doors on communications, Landon McDowell (Landon Linden in SL), the Lab’s VP of Operations and Platform Engineering offers up and informative blog post on recent issues with Second Life which I can’t help but praise. The Secondlife.com splash / log-in home page gets a revamp and meets with a positive response.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK carries an on-line article about virtual cities, and aspects people to contribute images of their favourite virtual places, and a fair few from SL show up. June also sees the Lab indicate that, but for a small subset of updates, the major work on Project Shining, after more than two years, is complete. This has been a large-scale undertaking to work across a lot of aspects of the SL service – HTTP delivery for textures and mesh, improvement to avatar baking, updates to object rendering and caching, all designed to improve the overall performance of the platform and to make better use of the data shared between simulators and the viewer, etc.

The group ban functionality, introduced in 2014, is intended to give group owners more say in who can join their groups, and to ensure trouble-makers can be removed without risk of return.
The group ban functionality, introduced in 2014, is intended to give group owners more say in who can join their groups, and to ensure trouble-makers can be removed without risk of return.

Baker Linden’s group bans work also gets a project viewer release, so I provide an overview of this much anticipated functionality.

In what proves to be an interesting year for healthcare and virtual worlds, I pick-up on an interesting story of how the US Army is using SL and OpenSim to help service personnel and veterans to deal with PTSD, in a programme jointly developed with Jacquelyn Ford Morie’s All These Worlds company.

In July, the Lab announces changes to the SL Skill Gaming policy to meet legal requirements. As the moths unfold, this gets to be as confusing as the requirements for tax documentation, etc., at the start of the year. Indeed, such is the state of things that the Lab quickly has to revise its plans on introducing the policy changes. One of the first responses to the announcement is Karsten Rutledge, who indicates that rather than having to jump through the legal hoops required to satisfy lawmakers, his games would all switch to being free-to-play.

Oz Linden takes audience questions on the future of SL during a Firestom special event
Oz Linden takes audience questions on the future of SL during a Firestorm special event – read the transcript

In the wake of the news breaking about the Lab’s next generation VW (see above), Oz Linden – who has taken the lead in maintaining and enhancing SL – accepts an invitation from the Firestorm team to discuss the future of SL in an open forum held in July, and I put together the transcript. July also sees the Lab ask for interested parties to help test their upcoming Experience Tools / Keys project for building “experiences” in SL. The request is followed a short time later by a new Lab-built Experience Keys game, The Cornfield, opening as the Experience Keys project viewer arrives. August sees the SL viewer’s log-in screen revised in response to a series of A/B tests which had been carried out over several months with new users.

SL is back in the media eye once more towards the end of July, in Australia at least, with the news on how the platform is being used to help educate sugar cane farmers about sustainable farming. In August, a proposal is put to the Lab to get the on-the-fly avatar height offset adjustment returned. It is accepted.

OnLive continue to listen to user feedback, and extend the SL Go free trial period to 7 days to allow people more of an opportunity to evaluate the product. I’m also approached to help put out the word that they are looking to work with – and pay – TPV developers. In August, they catch-up with Lab viewer releases with an update to overcome fitted mesh rendering issues, which also brings Flickr and Twitter sharing to their service.

Art and Events

Fantasy Faire announces a photo competition which will see thirteen images of this year’s event appear in a 2015 calendar you can buy, the event open its gates. Following this in June Fashion for Life hits the catwalk. Meanwhile, the UWA provides insight into how Second Life machinima has been used in a law degree class. SL11B issues a call for participants and interest in the year’s SL anniversary celebrations mount.

Loki Eliot's Main Stage, SL11B Community Celebration, June 2014
Loki Eliot’s Main Stage, SL11B Community Celebration, June 2014

SL11B duly arrives in June, and circumstances mean I only get as far as previewing the event. In July, the RFL of SL mid-point weekend arrives.

In July, UWA is back in the news as four of the finalists in the Project Homeless challenge (which features films from the physical worlds as well as machinima) has no fewer than four SL-based finalists, with Rysan Falls’ remarkable mixed reality piece, Invisible City achieving the status of both best machinima and first runner-up in the overall prizes. Tutsy Navarathna’s Homeless is named first runner-up in the machinima section behind Invisible City, with Vilvi Rae’s Sun Dog coming in as second runner-up in the machinima class.

UWA remains in the headlines with the launch of a superb new resource for educators, students and new users, and in July launch the Transcending Borders joint 3D art and MachinimUWA VII challenge.

Other Worlds

High Fidelity provide an overview of their service architecture in May, and a little (unofficial) insight is given into running the client. In August, animation takes front-and-centre, and a virtual singing star is born, and later, a group formed. Tony Parisi also joins the team.

Seanchai Library arrive in Kitely, who open their gates to the hypergrid in May and then in June announce the restructuring of their “metered worlds” to “premium worlds”. This more-or-less brings an end to my direct involvement in Kitely, and results in my Fallingwater build there being donated to the folk at Seanchai Library. following an overhaul of the entire build, including a re-vamp of the grounds and the inclusions of additional features at Seanchai’s request, it is ready for action in July.

AvaCon and the Overte Foundation announce the 2014 OpenSimulator Community Conference, which will be held in November. First confirmed guest speaker is Dr. Steve LaValle, Principal Scientist with Oculus VR. Philip Rosedale is also announced as a keynote speaker.

VR and AR

In May, Brendan Iribe, Oculus VR CEO, talks in terms of a billion-strong MMO / VW in around 5-10 years, then Oculus VR faces a lawsuit over “misappropriated trade secrets”, and also a possible competitor. In California, Drax gets to moderate a panel on Creating the VR metaverse at SVVR, which features Philip Rosedale, Ebbe Altberg, Tony Parisi, Josh Carpenter and Stefano Corazza. In June, Google launch their VR headset (albeit with tongues slightly in cheeks): Cardboard.

Away from the big news, I contemplate some of the reasons why VR will go with us to other planets and destinations in the solar system. with the Commonwealth Games being held in the UK, our very own BBC achieves a world’s VR first: live streaming events at the games for people using the Oculus Rift headset, a part of the Beeb’s investigations into the future of broadcasting. Rounding-out the quarter, the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies provides information on how virtual humans may well help doctors in matters of healthcare.

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