PC Gamer unboxes Second Life

Strawberry Singh, 2014, on FlickrOne of my favourite self-portraits by Berry, from 2014 (Flickr)

Second Life is a virtual world with an infamous reputation. If you’ve never played, you may only be familiar with the tales of kinky sex rooms and the YouTubers who troll the locals for a cheap laugh. But Second Life is so much more than that—a point driven home after I spent a whole evening reading a Second Life beauty blog.

So opens Second Life’s makeup unboxing videos are surreal and wonderful, by Steven Messner, writing for PC Gamer. It’s a refreshing look at the platform through the eyes of someone who may well have been aware of the SL’s reputation, but may not have spent much (if any) time in-world himself – and it makes for a pleasing read.

Steven Messner

The focus – as can be gleaned from the title of the piece – is Berry’s popular unboxing videos. These are actually a clever way of offering non-SL users an alternative point-of-view on the platform simply because, as Mr. Messner points out, unboxing events do permeate modern consumer culture. Hence, it’s a neat hook on which to hang a look at Second Life as seen through the eyes of a knowledgeable, empathic ambassador for the platform, and Mr Messner wisely allows Berry’s own words frame the important aspects of the exchange – the attraction of the platform as a social medium, as a mean for personal growth, and as a powerful means of personal and creative expression.

It is in the latter regard that the article particularly frames things, with Berry correctly pointing out that the pseudonymous nature of Second Life is a powerful enabler. Not only does it provide us with a means of being fully engaged in the platform and with one another whilst keeping whatever comfortable separation we feel we need between our digital and physical lives, it also allows us to enjoy a much wider canvas for creative expression if we so wish – video, photography, etc., utilising platforms such as YouTube and Flickr. It also allows use, if we wish to present our art and creativity to the physical world through our digital personas, as the likes of Toysoldier Thor and Bryn Oh have done.

As Berry also points out, this freedom can also something of a two-edged sword; frustration can be born out of a desire of wanting to more fully reveal oneself whilst knowing circumstance, the attitude of friends, the potential reaction (which is somewhat born out by some of the comments which follow the article), do much to push one away from doing so as much as any concerns vis career, etc.

The other attractive aspect of the article is Mr. Messner’s own approach. He writes frankly and openly, without any lean towards personal bias of the subject matter or need to add any snide pokes at the platform – a trait not always apparent in pieces about Second Life, even when well-intentioned. It’s also clear he’s come aware from his conversations with Berry with a new awareness and – dare I say – respect for the platform:

My conversation with Berry has given me a rare glimpse into a world that is often negatively branded as bizarre. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a community of artists and creators who have banded together to share and celebrate each other. It’s not something you see in other massively multi-player games, but it’s something I wish there is more of. It makes me a bit sad, then, that Second Life will always be labelled by its strip joints and sex clubs. As Berry tells me, “That’s just not what Second Life is about, there’s so much more you can do here.”

All told, a nicely written piece which makes a very worthwhile read – so do please follow the link at the top of this article and see for yourself, if you haven’t already. Kudos, Berry and Steven.

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An adept look at Second Life

Virtual Ability Island, featuring in the Backchannel article
Virtual Ability Island, featuring in the Backchannel article

First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia appeared in Backchannel on February 13th, 2017. Written by Kristen French, it’s an adept examination of Second Life, with a focus on the help the platform has brought to disabled people around the globe.

The piece starts with Kristen spending time with Fran Serenade, perhaps best known through an early segment of The Drax Files World Makers in 2013 (I covered her story a few months prior to that, as a result of seeing a story about her in the San Diego Union-Tribune). Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Fran has found that her involvement in second Life has generated physical world benefits for herself, and she has been – among others – the subject of studies by Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California and Donna Z Davis, a professor at the University of Oregon (see my reports here and here).

Kristen French
Kristen French

From Fran’s story, the article broadens its canvas to explore the work of Virtual Ability Inc., touching on the story of Gentle Heron and how VAI came into being and the services it provides. Through this, the piece enfolds the fact that Second Life has been an enormous book to those with many disabilities, including illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, conditions such as autism and PTSD (See here for more on one way in which the platform has been used to help hose suffering from PTSD),  physical disabilities and more.

Much of this may not be especially new to SL users, particularly as a result of our being attuned to the likes of The Drax Files #22, which looked at Sl and health through the work of Virtual Health Adventures. However, for anyone who has not been exposed to Second Life, the piece offers a refreshing, clear-cut insight into one aspect of why the platform remains so popular and well-regarded among its users after 13 years.

It has long been shown that Second Life can have a range of benefits for all of us: it puts us in contact with people, and the ability to visit places and enjoy activities with them where otherwise we might be house bound and confined to little or no physical interaction with anyone of days at a time. It can help us stay healthy, physically and mentally;  it can help healthcare agencies reach their patients (see here and here), and it can be – as seems to very much be the case with Fran – physically and mentally therapeutic.

Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade) and her daughter Barbara Richard (Barbi Alchemi) - images courtesy of San Diego Union-Tribune / Bill Wechter
Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade) and her daughter Barbara Richard (Barbi Alchemi). Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune / Bill Wechter

This examination of Second Life and how it is used makes taking the time needed to read the article worthwhile, but there is more. Through a neatly-encapsulated piece on why Second Life perhaps isn’t as easy to update as extensively as some might believe, the piece moves on to a look at the potential of new worlds like Sansar and High Fidelity.

This is again a considered examination, laying out fairly the benefits more immerse VR environments might be for those with disabilities – and touching on some of the potential barriers. As a part of this exploration of the future, the piece offers a solid reassurance that Second Life isn’t – as yet – facing the end of the road. Instead, it underlines the point the Lab (and I) have often made: SL’s longevity lies as much with its users as it does with LL. So long as there are enough users engaged in the platform to keep it viable, there is little reason for it to be arbitrarily shut down.

There are a couple small misconceptions within the piece. For example, the origins of Radegast: while it is true it was conceived and developed by someone engaged in SL’s Adult / BDSM world, but that doesn’t actually mean it was primarily developed for that market.

However, these really are quite minor quibbles, when noticed. The fact is, First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia is an engaging, informed and informative piece adeptly written by someone who intrinsically “gets” Second Life. It’s a piece which should definitely be on your reading list if you’ve not come across it already.

In the press: Sansar, Second Life, and avatar empowerment

Via Linden Lab
Via Linden Lab

There have been a number of press reports on Sansar since the start of the year, some of which I’ve covered in these pages – such as in Road to VR (see here), Upload VR and Tom’s Hardware (see here). However, while I’ve read others, I’ve not made the time to write about them. so, in case you missed them, here’s a quick breakdown of notable coverage of the Lab, Sansar and Second Life.

On January 19th, Réalité Virtuelle, the French on-line publication for virtual and augmented reality carried a piece entitled Sansar: la vraie réalité virtuelle débarque en 2017 (“Sansar: the real virtual reality arrives in 2017″).

Penned by Farid Khedri, the piece covers familiar (to those following Sansar’s development) ground, but offers a very well-rounded overview of the Lab’s new platform – and something of a potted history of Second Life, including a look at French politics.

Farid Khedri
Farid Khedri

A nice touch with the piece is that it starts out with a 5-point summary, noting that Sansar gains the advantage of having the Lab’s long-term exposure to VR environments, thanks to Second Life, that Sansar itself is not “Second Life 2.0” (how many time do we have to emphasise that?), but it is geared towards “social VR” experiences.

The potted history of Second Life is dealt with briefly in the first two paragraphs, which offer a rounded view of the platform circa 2003 through 2007. It’s interesting to note that the platform has not only played something of a role in US politics and presidential elections, as Farid notes:

In France, many candidates in the 2007 presidential election, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, José Bové, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, opened virtual campaign offices in Linden Lab’s metaverse.

Despite the bubble bursting in 2007/8, again as Farid notes, Second Life has – all things considered – been a success in validating the idea of virtual spaces for social networking, and as a means of learning, business and more. This serves to lead into a well-written piece on Sansar and the Lab’s reasoning behind it (including touching on a return to the company’s VR roots with The Rig – although it is not mentioned by name). As such, and whether you opt to read the original piece, or opt to use something like Google Translate, Sansar: la vraie réalité virtuelle débarque en 2017 is worth taking the time to sit down and run through.

Rachel Metz
Rachel Metz

January 27th saw Rachel Metz delve into similar Sansar territory for the MIT Technology Review.

While somewhat misleadingly entitled Second Life Is Back for a Third Life, This Time in Virtual Reality (Second Life is still very much on its first life, and  – as already noted, Sansar isn’t “SL 2.0”, much less some kind of “Second Life Three”), the article offers a further general overview of Sansar and the Lab’s hopes for it.

Although there is nothing particularly “new” in the piece vis-à-vis Sansar, what I do like about it is that rather than being gung-ho about VR’s future, Rachel offers a measure of caution about how and where the brave new (VR) world might actually go:

Consumer virtual reality is still in its infancy—over two million headsets were shipped worldwide in 2016, according to an estimate from market researcher Canalys. That’s tiny compared to the several hundred million smartphones that ship each quarter, and we’re still figuring out what the heck to do with virtual reality.

And therein lies the rub. As I’ve stated elsewhere, while I believe VR definitely has a future – we just need the technology to mature in ease-of-use (size) and cost – I remain sceptical that it will be as all-pervasive as VR evangelists state – particularly when AR and MR would seem to have much broader practical applications which can impact our daily lives. Thus, Sansar is something of a gamble for the Lab, although Second Life is a long way down the road in demonstrating that if done right, and allowing for the potential for Sansar to fit a lot of suitable use-cases far more easily and affordably than SL has managed, the Lab’s new platform could have a comfortable future.

Going back to earlier in January – but offering a nice pivot away from Sansar and to Second Life, on January 8th, 2017, Alex Burnham examined how Virtual reality opens new doors in education for Florida State University (FSU) News. In particular, he looked at how the university has  successfully leveraged Second Life in undergraduate programmes.

Alex Burnham discussing FSU's use of Second Life for education
Alex Burnham discussing FSU’s use of Second Life for education

The work involving Second Life has been spearheaded by professors William Landing and Stephanie Dillon. Working with Chant Newall Development Group, CNDG,  they have developed  environments within Second Life to help students studying environmental science (under Prof. Landing) and chemistry (under Prof. Dillon).

The article highlights some of the challenges of virtual teaching, as noted by undergraduate student Chris Ortiz, but it also underlines the broad range of opportunities that virtual environments offer for achieving goals and allowing greater understand of, and involvement with, the subjects being taught – something I have little doubt will increase as the likes of Sansar come on stream and which also – equally importantly – demonstrates that far from being a thing of the past, as some pundits would have people believe, education is still a source of involvement and experimentation within Second Life.

Nadika Nadja
Nadika Nadja

In Gender Binary: Second Life, First Loves (January 30th), we are presented within an exploration of gender and identity – two topics which have been much explored in the past through Second Life.

Here, the discussion and exploration – which also in passing touches on archaeological and historical recreation – is presented in a very personal form: the thoughts of Nadika Nadja. It’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece, one of a series written for GenderIT.org, poignant for their outright honesty and directness.

Given all that is going on in the world today, with so many fundamental human rights under threat and with so many living in the world who are unable to give expression to their inner selves, Nadika’s article is a powerful reminder of the freedoms inherent in spaces like Second Life we can personally experience – and how they can help us to grow and better understand ourselves and those around us.

This is an article I was tempted to write at length about – but anything I have to say is actually superfluous; Nadika’s own words need no filter; they are beautifully honest and open, and should be read directly.  Instead, I’ll leave you with her closing comment – one which, I think it fair to say, will resonate in all of use who are engaged in Second Life, no matter what our backgrounds, beliefs, feelings or desires.

In turn, Second Life took all my love and gave me something else in return: a community I could depend on, a world I could belong to, an identity I could own.

The final article I’m turning to is Samantha Cole’s piece in Motherboard, Second Life Users Are Protesting With Their Avatars (February 4th, and later picked up by Glixel), a piece looking at Avatars Against Trump moment, established by Strawberry Singh and Cajsa Lilliehook in the wake of the increasingly divisive and negative Trump regime in the United States, and which also reference’s the Lab’s own statement on Trump’s immigration policy (which I reported here).

As noted earlier, politics are not uncommon in Second Life – we are, after all, all flesh and blood behind the screens, so it is only natural the line between physical and virtual worlds is naturally blurred. But as explored within the Motherboard article, Second Life offers a unique ability for people from all backgrounds, religious, geographic, political, social, etc., to come together in a virtual melting pot and – for the most part explore views, understand positions and even form bonds. And which it is required, the platform can also be as much a voice of social conscience as any other medium or activity.

Links to Articles

Engadget and VentureBeat visit Sansar

The new Sansar logo (courtesy of Linden Lab)
The new Sansar logo (courtesy of Linden Lab)

There have been a couple of articles on Sansar in December, each of which touch upon Second Life. While both retread ground already familiar to those of us who have been following Sansar’s development. However, hidden within them are some interesting little nuggets.

Appearing in the December 17th edition of VentureBeat, Dean Takahashi’s Linden Lab’s Sansar will take virtual worlds far beyond Second Life, caused umbrage with at least one pundit, leading as it did with the statement “Second Life is by far the most successful virtual world ever created”, resulting in some kind of kindergarten like comparison of “who has the most”.

Dean Takahashi, lead writer, GamesBeat
Dean Takahashi, lead writer for VentureBeat’s, GamesBeat

Yes, there are other virtual / game environments out their with a larger cache of active users; but then, do any of them present the kinds of opportunity  for revenue generation on a scale achieved by Second Life? Does it really matter which has the most of what?

No, not really. Of far more interest to me is what Takahashi has to say about Second Life – the fact that it is still going strong – and about Sansar.

Foremost in this – although easily unnoticed – is the reference the Sansar opening its gates to the public at large in “early” 2017.

Over the last few months the Lab has talked in terms of “Q1 2017” as the time frame for Sansar’s opening out. It’s a precise time frame, indicating a period between the start of January and the end of March. “Early 2017” is somewhat less precise, and while Takahashi may be using the phrase as a different means of stating “Q1 2017”, it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps his wording is indicative that the Lab is now looking a little beyond Q1 2017 for opening Sansar to the public.

If so, it wouldn’t be surprising. Slippages happen with big projects, and shouldn’t be unexpected or seen as sign that something is “wrong”; it’s simply the nature of the beast. And we have already seen it at least once with Sansar, when the opening of the Creator Preview slipped from the target of June 2016 to August 2016.

Elsewhere in his piece, Takahashi pulls out the WordPress analogy. This is something we’re all probably tired of hearing, given it’s been raised in just about every interview / report on Sansar during the course of 2016. However, that doesn’t make it any the less important, because it is one of the central reasons why Sansar could reach a much, much broader audience than Second Life has managed to achieve, and Takahashi observes:

Rather than one continuous world, Sansar is a set of virtual spaces that will be a lot more accessible than Second Life. You could, for instance, share the link to your virtual space on social media and invite people to visit it that way. With Second Life, you typically visit the site, download the client, create your avatar, and then join it.

Second Life users looking unfavourably on Sansar has made much of this lack of it being a “continuous world”. but while we, as Second Life users are undoubtedly conditioned by the presence of the map, the same isn’t automatically true for a broader audience of the kind Sansar is being aimed towards. They’re liable to be far more interested in finding and accessing the experiences they want to enjoy and then having the means to possibly jump to other points of interest, regardless of whether or not they are in any way “geographically defined” one to another – perhaps via teleporting, something Ebbe Altberg hinted might be the case when talking to Occipital’s Mark Piszczor back in June.

Nick Summers, associate editor, Engagdet UK
Nick Summers, associate editor, Engagdet UK

In writing Second Life’s creator is building a ‘WordPress for social VR’ for Endgadget on December 21st,  Nick Summers also examines how people will move between Sansar experiences, referencing the use of an “Atlas” search directory (something we’ve also previously seen demonstrated). This appears to be akin to the SL Destination Guide, presenting a means for Sansar users to hop between connected experiences much as we hop around Second Life.

A further point of interest between the two pieces – which cover a lot of common ground in terms of what the reports are shown within Sanasar – is the manner in which the one article raises a question and the other answers it.

Take object manipulation. Up until now, the vast majority of object manipulation in Sansar has been sown in the Edit Mode, although it has been indicated that some basic manipulation will be possible in the run-time environment (and we’ll certainly need to interact with objects in the run-time environment if we are to sit on them, drive them, fly them, etc). However, Takahashi refers to moving a palm tree around and bouncing rubber balls about. So is object manipulation not more accessible in the run-time space?

Summers’ article suggests not, noting that manipulation in the run-time environment is still “limited”, and referencing the edit more more directly when discussing moving and placing things.  Both offer interesting tidbits which perhaps also help people who may not quite see the “point” or “audience” for Sansar.

Ebbe Altberg moving virtual furniture around in Sansar, demonstrating some of the platform's capabilities at the WSJ.D Live conference, October 24th-26th
So far, object manipulation in Sansar has only been shown in the platform’s edit mode, such as when being demonstrated at events like the WSJ.D Live conference, October 24th-26th. How much of this might be possible in the runtime environment? How will personal object manipulation be handled within spaces you don’t necessarily own, such as a role-play environment where you are a “player”?

Takahashi, for example, references Altberg’s comments that Sansar offers the kind of defined, manageable environment in which a school or architectural might comfortably develop (and have hosted) an immersive educational or design experience without the need to necessarily being in external design talent or partake of an entire MMO / virtual world experience.

Elsewhere, Summers shines a little bit more light on the potential for revenue generation through Sansar for both the Lab and content creators:

It’s unclear how much Sansar will cost for people who want to design their own VR world. Linden Lab envisions a low, monthly fee that will grant creators access to a virtual plot of land. They can build whatever they want on top, and then choose whether to charge an entry fee for visitors. Designers will, of course, also have the option to sell their individual items on the in-game marketplace. Sansar is therefore like a canvas. Linden Lab will provide some basic paintbrushes, but the hope is that artists will bring their own. They’ll pay the company to store and display their work — similar to an art gallery — and then earn some cash when someone requests a viewing or permission to rework it as part of something new.

Taken together, both of these articles complement one another nicely. Yes, they do re-tread familiar ground, but they also – possibly – give us a few new pointers and insights into Sansar which raise the interest level a notch or two.