Second Life 2022/23: the Lab’s review & preview (with my own notes!)

Stock image

On Friday, December 23rd, Linden Lab published their review of 2022, which also included a quick look ahead to 2023. As this time of year when, in the past, I’ve offered a (sometimes multi-part) personal look both back and forward, I this that this year, as with 2022, I’d take a look at the Lab’s look back / look forward and add some of my own thoughts as well.

Linden Lab: People and the Media

2022 got off to something of a bang when on Thursday, January 13th, 2022 Linden Lab officially announced that High Fidelity Incorporated was now an official investor in the company.

This news was significant on a number of levels; most particularly the fact that the arrangement meant that Philip Rosedale, one of the original co-founders of Linden Research (aka Linden Lab), would be supporting the company’s development and direction as a special Strategic Advisor role whilst maintaining his role as CEO and co-founder of High Fidelity Inc.

Philip Rosedale: inwards investment to LL and a role as Strategic Advisor

At the time the new was made public, I speculated whether – given the deal involved the transfer of patents from High Fidelity, a company specialising in spatial audio in virtual spaces – this might see a re-vamp of Second Life’s voice / audio capabilities to encompass the full spatial audio offered by Hi Fi. Well, as it turned out that was a case of barking up the wrong (Linden) tree!

One of the immediate outcomes of this announcement was a renewal of interest in Second Life on the part of tech media, was assorted interviews with Philip Rosedale and also Executive Chair Brad Oberwager; in this, Philip Rosedale’s influence cannot be underestimated.

As the co-founder of Second Life, one of the longest-running immersive virtual worlds, and one of the first  to try to recapture the genie with the founding of High Fidelity of 2013, he has remained true to the ideals of establishing “the metaverse”, and very vocal in his views on privacy, user security and rights, opposition to the idea of ad-driven platforms and approaches wherein the user is the product, whilst also offering clear-sighted views on virtual currencies and the UGC market – as a look through his Twitter profile will reveal. This makes him well-placed to discuss “the metaverse” as a would with reporters and columnist – and in doing to, to place Second Life front-and-centre in their minds.

Second Life users got to hear from Philip directly after the announcement, when he was a guest with Brad Oberwager (with whom he is good friends) on Lab Gab (video and summary here), and also via a Twitter Space event he hosted (summary and audio extracts here – sadly the original event is no longer available via Twitter). More widely, he was a key voice in a four-part podcast series by the Wall Street Journal: How to Build a Metaverse,

User Benefits

2022 saw some interesting user benefits popping out across the months. The arrival of both the Premium Plus and Plus subscription plans, bracketing the original Premium, are both well-known, and both have proven popular. While there are no active plans to do so at present, it has been indicated that other subscription package options might be considered, with some within the Lab somewhat keen on an a-la carte approach: you pay for the options you select from a list. IF this were to come to be at some point in the future, it could prove interesting (just please do not expect anything like it in 2023!).

Other subscription-based “benefits” made available in 2022 were the removal of VAT surcharges on Monthly and Quarterly (where applicable) payment options, levelling the cost of subscriptions for those in VAT-paying countries (VAT was removed from annual payment some time ago); and the reduction in tier fees payable on Mainland parcels of 8192 sq m and above, up to a full region. In terms of payments, the cost of Name Changes for Premium members was reduced to US $34.99 (+VAT), whilst the capability was made available to Plus and Basic account holders at the original US $49.99 (+ VAT).

Technical Front

Unlike 2021, 2022 saw the Lab working a lot more on user-facing updates and capabilities (2021 being devoted to optimising SL server and simulator performance on AWS). Much of this is is recorded in the Lab’s review, but I’d venture to suggest the most impactful aspect of this work has been the release of the Performance Improvements, and the adoption of these updates by the majority of TPVs, bringing significant boost to viewer frame rates as a result of a lot of code and thread refactoring. This work in turn has paved the way for more improvements, supported by work by Beq Janus of the Firestorm team, in the upcoming Performance Floater / Auto-FPS RC viewer, which should be promoted to release status early in 2023.

This work also cleared the way for a significant project which did not quite make it to release status in 2022: the PBR Materials / Reflection Probes project, which will see Second Life move to utilising the glTF 2.0 specification for runtime asset delivery format, intended to bridge the gap between 3D content creation tools and modern graphics applications. This is important because the specification provides a more fluid and predictable workflow from tools like Substance Painter, Blender, et al, into Second Life than can be achieved through the current mixed-format approach to content creation and import.

The initial element of the project focuses materials use (together with the implementation of Reflection Probes) provides a recognised approach to supporting physically-based rendering (PBR) in SL, whilst the glTF specification as a whole from content creation in external tools right the way through to importing that content (including replacing the Collada .DAE model format with glTF as some point down the road.

Sample of PBR materials and detail (r), compared to SL’s “legacy” materials (l). Image courtesy of Runitai Linden’s PBR work 

This work could revolutionise how Second Life looks indoors and out going forward; in addition, it pushes the platform to a position where it is potentially, much easier for content creators familiar with other platforms to dip their toes into a possible (for them) new market in which to sell their creations.

A key thing with the glTF / PBR work is the manner in which the Lab has engaged with the community: the viewer development work has been relatively open for creators to join-in with, see and test; feedback and suggestions have been actively sought, and the work has very much had a element of users and the Lab working together to bring about a capability that is not only needed, but which will be welcomed and used.

Reflection probes are invisible objects which produce a cubemap of a defined area to generate “reflections” of that environment on suitable, local surfaces (in this case, the two spheres). Image courtesy of Runitai Linden’s PBR work

This collaborative approach has also been evident in the other major technical project for 2022: Puppetry. Originally called “avatar expressiveness”, this started as a means of capturing head and arm movement via webcam and having the avatar mimic them. However, thanks to user involvement and testing, the project has been revised and improved, allowing the support of multiple hardware devices for capture, and extending the range of capture close to full-body.

Puppetry is a project championed by Philip Rosedale, and could well leverage knowledge and experience gained by High Fidelity, several of who transferred into Linden Lab as a part of Hi-Fi’s start-of-year investment, including Leviathan Linden (who was also once Andrew Linden, one of the original LL employees) who was working on the concept as far back as 2014, as the video below demonstrates – with Andrew providing backing vocals. Within it, it’s not the quality of the avatars that is important, it is the way the guitar strumming matches the music, and the facial expression match Emily’s as she sings (although capturing facial isn’t currently part of the SL puppetry project).

Another project imitated in 2022 – or at least previewed – is all-mesh Starter Avatars. First revealed at SL19B the intent is for this avatars is to ease the pain-points new users face in trying to get their heads around selecting, and customising existing avatar bodies and heads. Given the Lab hopes this project will both encourage a new ecosystem on clothing and accessories created by the community for use with the new avatars but also see these avatars as being a stepping-stone to help new users get settled and then move on to more commercial offerings, it is going to have to step a fine line.

Also, taking their all-in-one nature as seen at SL19B, I’m admittedly curious how these new avatars will make converting from them to use “commercial” mesh bodies / heads any less confusing than it is at present for people shifting from system / starter avatars to commercial offerings.

A preview version of the new, single mesh (head-to-toe) avatar, revealed at SL19B and a part of the new user experience work underway at Linden Lab

Looking Ahead

In looking ahead to 2023, LL pointed to a number of project / initiatives, some of which were anticipated (new user experience et al); further performance improvements (including those noted above) and further scripting improvements.

A couple of surprises with the list, however, were mention of:

  • New centralised “hubs” to better connect residents to the communities that match their passions and interests.
  • First peek at a world and avatar centred mobile-first Second Life experience.

The second of these is intriguing, given the start-stop-push-to-the-side nature of the iOS “SL Mobile” app project. Whether this hint means LL a have been back working on this and expanding its capabilities on the QT, or whether it might mean they’ve opted to buy-in a solution or turn to a streaming solution (which in turn potentially offers the highest fidelity with the viewer in terms of rendering), isn’t clear. All three have been hinted at as possible directions at various points in 2022, and – assuming an equitable price plan could be developed – it’s not as if LL doesn’t have exposure to viewer streaming options, thanks to the Pelican project of around 12 years ago, or (more particularly) the short-lived SL Go solution provided by OnLive.

The centralised hubs is an interesting in terms of its implementation; LL is already revamping the entire “land journey” for users – how to obtain mainland, lease a region from LL directly through to how to find and rent late from private estates – so there is a question here as to whether this new hubs will be hooked into this work, providing a means for users to more easily obtain land and become a part of a community. Or, might it be a means to offer added value to Community Gateways – or even a revamp of Place Pages (which never really took off) to make them more responsive to communities and groups – thus offering both the means to access these new hubs from without SL as well as from within.

Not mentioned in the official blog post are the plans for the Marketplace. With MP Search updated, the road is apparently clear for the 2023 deployment of Marketplace Styles: allowing multiple versions of an object (e.g. different colours of the same jacket or dress) to appear in a single listing. There is also the mention that 2023 might also see the start of work to build a completely new Marketplace and (eventually) migrate users to it. Just don’t expect the work to be completed in 2023 (if it does get started).

Continue reading “Second Life 2022/23: the Lab’s review & preview (with my own notes!)”