millay Freschi: studying our relationship with our digital selves

millay Freschi – studying the relationship between our physical and avatar selves

At the end of September, Gentle Heron sent me a note card concerning a study being carried out by millay Freschi focused on our relationships with our avatar, other SL users, the group we belong to, and so on. The survey is still open, and millay is still seeking people willing to participate (a link to the survey is at the end of this article). Also included in the note card was feedback from millay on her initial findings from the survey, which also offered me the chance to chat in more detail with millay about her work and plans for the study.

In the physical world, millay is Amy E. Cross, a PhD candidate in an Interdisciplinary Programme at the University of Maine, and the study forms a core part of her dissertation. “I’m compiling information and research on the components of the avatar and how they affect our lives,” she told me earlier in November. “Specifically, I’m looking at social movements as that’s been my experience in SL; but the avatar components are the brunt of the research.

“I believe that I had 500 or so respondents when I talked about my initial findings in September. That number has now risen to over 900, and my dream is to have 3,000 respondents by the time I close the survey. I would like to get an honest look at how we view ourselves, our interactions and the place itself. As a part of this, I’m also conducting interviews with people willing to talk about themselves.”

Amy E. Cross, millay’s alter ego

millay’s research is being overseen by Dr. Kristina Nielson of the University of Maine, and those participating in the study must be at least 18 years of age, and able to answer 47 questions on a range of subjects relation to their physical and digital selves. It should take around 30 minutes to complete.

“It really is an exploratory study,” millay says of it. “I want to use the information to provide a solid foundation – a baseline of experiences and responses – for researchers Second Life, so I tried to  create a survey that would convey a lot of information without overwhelming the respondents. I’ll be expanding on it through the interviews I mentioned, together with observations and my own experience within SL.”

And millay does have considerable Second Life experience herself. “I didn’t actually just come here as a researcher,” she says. “I first arrived in 2007 as a physics major with an eye on maybe becoming an astronaut, drawn to Second Life simply out of curiosity, but once in-world, I was hooked!

“In 2008, I started the Four Bridges Project after working with Amnesty USA, which convinced me that peace and reconciliation studies were more in line with what I want to do.” She chuckles and adds, “I realised as well that my chances of becoming an astronaut were pretty slim!”

She continues, “As I was deciding on my graduate studies focus, I thought about who we are in this community and how what we do here, in Second Life, matter out there. So my Masters focused on virtual technology in education with a slant towards civic engagement and peace studies. My dissertation focuses on how our avatar components might play a role in virtual social activism.”

Turning to her preliminary findings, millay said, “Even in September the results were interesting, and educational for me! For example, most of the respondents at that time said they came to Second Life out of curiosity; I actually wish I had worded that response differently, as I’d like to know what gave rise to that curiosity. I’ll be so much better at the next survey! Of the 500+ responses I’d had at that time, 25% said that they came in to meet people, and 70% said they had met an SL contact in the physical world.”

Given the number of avatar profiles which carry statements like “SL is SL and RL is RL, I don’t mix the two”, this latter statistic might seem surprising; but it also might indicate an interesting bias in the nature of those taking the survey. While entirely anonymous, the questions do delve into our physical world lives; this could make it more appealing to those willing to be more open about their off-line selves than those who see a clear demarcation between “real life” and Second Life. By extension, those completing the survey may be far more comfortable with physical world meetings than might otherwise be the case.

It is because of the risk of bias within the results that millay would like to a broader cross-section of Second Life residents participate in her research. “For example,” She says, “Around 80% of the respondents up to the end of September 2017, have been in-world for six years or longer, with 40% over 10 years. While I know this is meaningful because it gives the survey a picture of a history in a way,  I would dearly like to see more people who have been in-world for less than five years take the survey.”

She adds, “One of the more surprising results for me was on the subject of alts. I have several alts, probably seven or eight, which I use for money management, privacy, inventory management, and so on. But 44% of those responding up to the end of September say only have ONE avatar, I can’t even imagine! In fact, 88% are between 1 and 3. Of those with alts, 95% have a “main” avatar, and 55%, use their alt for privacy.

The survey is yielding a lot of information about people’s on-line and off-line selves and how they may (or may not) mutually inform one another, that it could lead to several additional investigations. “For example,” millay notes. “75% of respondents said that their avatars are helpful to others. That number went down to 60% with regard to their off-line personalities. I wonder why that is, and if this shouldn’t be examined more closely – The peaceful warrior in me says ‘yes!'”

Once she has completed her dissertation, millay plans to publicly share it and her findings. All things being equal I’ll be discussing her findings in a lot more details once she has published, and also exploring more about the Four Bridges Project in more detail.

Four Bridges Logo

“In short, Four Bridges is a virtual sustainable global community model founded on the four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace,” millay told me as we briefly discussed the project. “Members, who include fifteen organisations from sectors such as education and non-profits as well as individuals, share resources: space, venues, media, technology, as well as knowledge and skills.

“We had two regions in-world, but I actually closed them so that I could focus on my dissertation,” millay notes. “But we’ll be reopening in 2018, probably February.”

millay is looking to close her survey on or around December 15th, although it will remain available through until the end of the year. So, I’d encourage anyone interested in helping millay in her research to hop over to the Four Bridges website sooner rather than later. There is a comprehensive lead-in providing additional information, together with a link to the survey itself – and remember, it is completely anonymous.


With thanks to millay Freschi for her time, and Gentle Heron for the heads-up, and apologies to both for the delay in getting this article to print.

Lab issues 2017 snowball fight challenge

Winter Wonderland – the Snowball Arena

After a brief stint as a ghostly setting for Halloween and a pumpkin smash fight, the Winter Wonderland is back to its former snowy glory, and the Lab has announced a date for one of the Second Life winter traditions: the Lindens vs. residents snowball challenge:

Holidays have traditions – the gathering of families, the giving of gifts, the food and merriment, and – in our case – the Linden/Resident Snowball Showdown! This is your chance to arm yourself with some sweet snow-slinging artilleri [sic], take to the sparkling ice, and attack your friends, fellow Residents, and some Lindens with snowballs galore! But, you had better be prepared to get pummeled in return, because much of the joy of the holidays is giving – even if that means giving someone a snowball sandwich when they are least expecting it. Join us at the Snowball Fight Arena on Friday – December 15th from 11 am to 1 pm (SLT) and prepare to get pummelled!

As with previous years, Winter Wonderland is a 5-region experience which, for those who haven’t visited, includes the 2-region snowball fight arena, a winter snow track for snowboard and snow mobile racing, a skating ring, a Ferris wheel, and spaces to walk. The best place to start explorations is the Village of Light, where the Lindens tend to place a seasonal gift.

Winter Wonderland

This year does bring some changes to the Winter Wonderland. The race track has been revised, and a smaller version of the Village of Light can be found on the far side of the track to the main village. So, even if you’re previously visited Winter Wonderland, a repeat visit may well be worthwhile.

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Sansar and Second Life in the cloud: LL speaks at AWS Re:Invent

It’s been a busy time at Amazon’s AWS Re:Invent conference, which closes in Las Vegas USA on December 1st. At the start of the event, Amazon announced the launch of their VR / AR development / publishing platform Sumerian (see: Sumerian: Amazon’s VR / AR app building platform for more).

Meanwhile, on November 28th, and potential of more interest to Second Life and Sansar users, the event saw Tara Hernandez, Senior Director of Systems and Build Engineering at Linden Lab, give a presentation covering Sansar and touching on plans for Second Life, entitled How Linden Lab Built a Virtual World on the AWS Cloud.

Most of the video delves into the intricacies of building a complex platform like Sansar and how Amazon’s products have empowered the Lab. As such, it does come across as quite a dry listen; however, within it there are some useful areas of focus which are worth noting.

For example, the early part of Tara’s presentation touches on some core truths about Second Life. Such as the fact it is a platform now 14+ years old, which started as an environment engineered almost down to the bare metal, taking advantage of what were, at the time, deep-seated optimisations in graphics and networking capabilities.

Over time, these have not only been layered upon almost organically over the years, but have also become – in Tara’s own words – “kinda ugly” in terms of trying to maintain and enhance. This monolithic, deeply rooted approach to the core elements of the platform is – along with the user-driven expectation than the user-generated content within the platform will not break as a result of changes to the platform – one of the major reasons  why “updating” Second Life isn’t simply a matter of JFDI, as might be thought.

Aspects such as compliance – another issue which is perhaps a lot more complicated than many might appreciate, given the complexities involved in running services like Second Life and Sansar, where the ability to cash out money adds a lot of additional regulatory overheads (visible and invisible from a user’s perspective) over platforms which only allow users to pay-in.

The video also reveals the depth of the relationship between Linden Lab and Amazon, which in the case of Second Life, stretches back to 2008, and which has encompassed the Lab’s other product, Blocksworld. In particular, it touches on Linden Lab using (and sometimes breaking!) Amazon’s more recent offerings, such as their ECS services, as a beta customer. This is something that Amazon has itself highlighted, featuring Linden Lab and Sansar in one of their own ECS use-case studies (see my article “Project Sansar”: an Amazon ECS case study, from January 2016).

ECS in fact drives almost all of the Sansar back-end, from the Atlas through to the store. In particular, the way in which the ECS application layer is used to present the Sansar Atlas, and manage the entire management of the experiences offered by the Atlas and their instancing, utilising Amazon containers (see 27:40-30:58).

How Sansar uses the Amazon ECA application layer to drive the Atlas & managing experience instancing (screen capture). Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

What’s interesting here is not only the way in which Amazon’s services are being used, but in understanding what is going on from the moment a Sansar user clicks the Visit button in the Atlas, and the lessons the Lab are learning even now, as people use Sansar.

This latter point is itself of interest, as it helps to explain why Linden Lab opened Sansar up to wider audience in what seemed to many of us familiar with virtual space – myself included – to be a premature move. Simply put, they needed more of a flow of people moving through experiences to better judge how experiences can be more efficiently / effectively managed within the Amazon environment – spinning them up / down, instancing, optimising server use, etc.

In terms of Second Life, perhaps the most interesting part of the video can be found at 32:14-34:36, with a look at the recently announced attempts to move all of the Second Life service – including (eventually) the simulators, if possible – the cloud. Officially announced as a project in August 2017, but has been discussed at various in-world meetings such as the TPV Developer meetings.

Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

In particular, the presentation touches on one of the major reasons for attempting the move: costs. Right now, Second Life is dependent upon hardware the Lab has to source and operate through a data centre. Updating this hardware, and the underpinning infrastructure  – network, fibre, rack space, etc., – requires continuous and high levels of expenditure (even allowing for re-purposing / write-down of old equipment).

There are also limits, as touched upon in the earlier part of the video, on what can be done within specific areas of Second Life support and maintenance. For example, Tara specifically mentions the core database services (which have been subject to numerous issues over the last year plus). While recovery times for these services has been halved – from three hours to 45 minutes – it is still a considerable outage period from the users’ perspective, and one difficult to bring down further.

Second Life in the cloud – challenges. Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

Thus, an attempt to move Second Life to AWS could resolve a lot of issues for the Lab, and potentially allow them to leverage lessons learned with Sansar together with the capabilities of newer services – like ProxySQL – to further update and improve SL. It might also allow the Lab to move their database operations away from MySQL to more robust products, again following Sansar’s lead.

The shift of a platform from being data centre centric to cloud based is obviously non-trivial, and involves considerable challenges, some of which are outlined by Tara (above). However, from the comments she makes, she is anticipating possibly a dramatic level of progress over the next year. If so, it could be an interesting twelve months.

With thanks to Dassni – The Mesh Cloud for the Twitter pointer to the video.

SL project updates week #48/1: server, e-mail verification, viewer

Malal's Autumn; Inara Pey, November 2017, on FlickrMalal’s Autumnblog post

Server Deployments Week #48

  • There was no deployment on the Main (SLS) channel on Tuesday, November 28th, leaving servers running simulator version 17#
  • On Wednesday, November 29th, the three RC channels should be updated with a new server maintenance package 17#, comprising:
    • IMs sent to an off-line resident will only be sent to verified email addresses.
    • Internal Changes to Outgoing Emails.

E-mail Verification

The RC server deployment sees a further step in the Lab’s plan to reduce the volume of e-mail traffic it generates by only sending e-mails to those addresses Second Life users have actually verified as being valid with Linden Lab (see Making Email From Second Life (More) Reliable).

With this deployment, and if you have not verified your preferred SL-related e-mail address with Linden Lab, you will no longer receive off-line IMs as e-mails sent from users on any regions using the RC channels. Further, once this change is deployed to the Main (SLS) channel, you will no longer receive off-line IMs as e-mails at all until such time as you have verified your SL-related e-mail address with the Lab.

So, if you haven’t already done so, ad wish to continue receiving off-line IMs as e-mails from wherever they originate in-world, make sure you have verified the e-mail address recorded in your viewer  with Linden Lab. Should you require detailed instructions on how to do this, please refer to my blog post Important: verifying your e-mail address with Second life.

SL Viewer

There have been no SL viewer updates thus far, leaving the current viewer pipelines as follows:

  • Current Release version, dated September 22, promoted October 13 – formerly the “Moonshine” Maintenance RC.
  • Release channel cohorts:
    • Martini Maintenance RC viewer, version November 17th.
    • Alex Ivy 64-bit viewer, version, November 2nd (still dated Sept 5th on the wiki page).
    • Voice RC viewer, version, October 20 (still dated Sept 1 on the wiki page).
  • Project viewers:
  • Obsolete platform viewer version, dated May 8th, 2015 – provided for users on Windows XP and OS X versions below 10.7.


Sumerian: Amazon’s VR / AR app building platform

Creating a Sumerian AI character. Credit: Amazon

On Monday, November 27th, Amazon announced the preview of a new cloud-based AR / VR content creation / hosting platform called Amazon Sumerian, which is being pitched as a way to build 3D-powered applications to run on a range of hardware environments including high-end VR headsets, as well mobile products like the iPhone or iPad. It supports WebGL 2 and WebVR, and Amazon plans to make its tools compatible with Google’s AR software tools for Android-powered devices soon. ARKit is supported for AR development, with support for ARCore also promised.

In essence, Sumerian is geared towards those companies that are using gaming engines like Unity and Unreal to build virtual reality apps for corporate training, product development, employee education, etc., with them aim of providing them with a platform that can achieve the same while avoiding the overheads of requiring specific Unity / Unreal in-house skills or having to manage the systems require for such environments internally.  In addition, Amazon see the platform as providing a means for businesses to provide things like concierge services, virtual house or land tours, and enhanced on-line shopping experiences.

Like Sansar, Sumerian uses one cloud-based environment in which to publish scenes (the Host), where users can access it, and a separate building / editing environment for actually constructing scenes. It also has an asset management system that allows customers to upload 3D objects in .FBX and .OBJ format, either as original content or from third-party sites such as TurboSquid (Sumerian also supports import from SketchFab), and which includes a library of pre-built Sumerian objects and scenes.

Scenes within the platform can be scripted using a dedicated visual workflow or JavaScript editors to provide comprehensive control over objects, including trigger mechanisms (allowing those accessing a Sumerian scene to interact with objects). Scripting support extends to working with web APIs to retrieve external data. The system uses a drag-and-drop interface to construct scenes, with everything from the user’s perspective being browser-based.

It’s not entirely clear how users interact with Sumerian scenes; no mention is made of avatars being used – and they probaly wouldn’t even be needed for AR environments. However, there is a concept of scene “hosts”, which should not be confused with avatars. Hosts are AI-drive characters  capable of guiding users through scenes, respond to spoken-word questions, narrating a prepared script, use multiple languages, can be integrated with Amazon Lex and Amazon Polly, and so on.

For the preview period, use of Sumerian is free. there is no charge to design and edit your augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications. There will be no upfront costs or minimum fees for customers, instead charges are based on the amount of storage used for the 3D assets stored in Sumerian, and the volume of traffic generated by a scene, and for the use of any other AWS services, like Amazon Lex and Amazon Polly, used by a Sumerian Host. Those with Amazon AWS Free Tier, get access to Sumerian and can create a 50MB published scene that receives 100 views per month for free, for the first 12 months.

Again, in difference to those making Sumerian  / Sansar / High Fidelity comparisons, Sumerian is less about making game-style or social environments, and far more about making the VR / AR application creation and hosting process a lot easier for companies that don’t necessarily have the expertise and resources of a dedicated software developer. They can whip up a training space or a VR shopping helper without having to worry about code. Of course, Sansar has also been promoted as an environment which could be used for training, simulation, education, and possibly other business uses; but it is not unfair to say that right now, it needs to mature somewhat before it is likely to be widely accepted in these environments. As such, it’ll be interesting to see how Sumerian fairs, and whether it might influence Linden Lab’s thinking around Sansar, perhaps pushing them even further towards the more social  / games-led opportunities Sansar could encompass.

Sample Sumerian room scene in 360-viewing – click to view. Credit: Amazon

In the meantime, those wishing to take a closer look at Sumerian – and bearing in mind this does seem to be geared towards business use – can try the preview sign-up.

The Argument in Second Life

The Argument: Liquid, Sommer, Tim Timaru, Anke Zamani and Mistero Hifeng

Opening on Tuesday, November 28th 2017 is The Argument, a collaborative exhibition featuring eighteen artists, taking place at Serena Imagine Arts Centre (the exhibition space is south of the landing point across the water).

“It is the second competition I have run,” the centre’s curator, Vita Theas, informed me. “Its a way for me to give a little prize to the artists, to thank them for letting me share their art with visitors here. The theme is about how many unjust things are in the world today, and how many feelings of hostility are festering among our global neighbours.”

The Argument: Nino Vichan

The eighteen participating artists are Aldiladeisogni, Aniwitt, Birdguru, Dilligaf, Lilarya, Maura77, o0Crystal0o, Lin Carlucci, Mistero Hifeng,  Scotsgraymouser Janus, Daco Monday, Blip Mumfizz, Liquid Sommer, Theda Tammas, Otekah Timaru, Tim Timaru, Nino Vichan, and Anke Zamani. Each presents a single piece on the subject, either as 2D or 3D art.

Given this, the pieces on offer take the core subject from a wide variety of angles and offer a broad range of interpretations. There is a focus on the complexities of personal relationships  – the most direct form of argument – are represented through portrayals of domestic disagreements, the consequences of a rushed marriage, the question of who we really are within a relationship and the masks we wear. But broader “arguments”, those brought about by racial discrimination / genocide, and war are also tackled.

It’s an eclectic, diverse collection of images and pieces, each one offering a unique perspective on the subject matter, making this an interesting exhibition.

The Argument: Otekah Timaru, Dilligraf and Lin Carlucci

As well as participating in The Argument, Italian artist Aldiladeisogni – a favourite of mine, to be honest – is the subject of a second exhibition at Serena Imagine, located just across the water from the group display (take the covered wooden bridge and cross the island between the two display areas). Six of his extraordinary avatar studies are on display, one offering a direct link to The Argument, being a sister piece to his submission in that exhibit.

The island between the two exhibition offer a route to a reproduction of the French Château de Chenonceau, built by Louis-Jean-Marie de Bourbon (Cedric Hansome) and donated to Vita so it could live on in Second Life following his departure. This is a marvellous period build, and one not to be missed.

Serena Imagine Arts: Aldiladeisogni

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