Category Archives: Opinion

USA Today’s further look at Project Sansar and Social VR

Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab

Project Sansar promotional image via Linden Lab

On July 4th, I noted USA Today’s video short on Project Sansar and the Lab. At the time, I indicated that there didn’t appear to be a related article to go with the video. However, that’s now changed, and Ed Baig, USA Today’s tech reporter, has indeed written an article to sit alongside the video, which appeared on July 6th under the title Second Life’s creators try for a third — in virtual reality.

“Third”? You may wonder. “What third?” The answer is something of a play on words – Linden Lab’s “first life” is (like the rest of us) firmly rooted in the physical world, where it sits as a corporate entity employing over 200 staff, 75-ish of whom are focused on Project Sansar (the rest doubtless made up of those managing Second Life, running Blocksworld, taking care of the company’s administration and management and (potentially) working with Tilia Inc.). Their “second life” is, obviously, Second Life itself, thus leaving Project Sansar as the company’s nascent “third life”.

Ed Baig: looking further inside Sansar and Social VR for USA Today

Ed Baig: looking further inside Sansar and Social VR for USA Today

As with the video, the article doesn’t reveal much that is new about Project Sansar itself per se, however, it does delve more into the concept of “social VR” – the term that Linden Lab and the likes of High Fidelity,AltSpace VR (both of whom are also mentioned in the article) and Facebook are increasingly using to define their new platforms.

In the case of Sansar, this “social” element is not just about people together who are already engaged in the virtual domain, but in allowing the creators of the environments hosted by Project Sansar to directly attract their own audiences to the experiences they build.

At this point, it’s probably worth diverting slightly and stating something that by now I would hope would be straight out of the British Guide to Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious, particularly for those who have been following Project Sansar’s development, but is worthwhile repeating just in case.

And it’s this: as with various other aspects of discussing Project Sansar, “creator” actually has a wider context than perhaps it does within Second Life. In the latter, by-and-large, we tend to regard “creators” as the folk who design and make the goods we use to dress our avatars and furnish our land. Outside of lip service, it’s perhaps not a term closely linked with those who obtain land and regions in SL and use these goods to create and environment. However, with Project Sansar, it is pretty clear “creator” is intended to encompass both: it applies to both those who can build and model with the tools supported by the platform, and those with the desire to “build” an environment they can share with others, even if “build” refers more to shaping the land and obtaining content designed, made and supplied by others.

Ed Baig was able to explore Mars within Sansar, using one of the Lab's early experience set pieces

Ed Baig was able to explore Mars within Sansar, using one of the Lab’s early experience set pieces

In his article, Ed Baig illustrates this, together with the concept of “social VR” and the ability for experience creators to be able to attract their own audience by quoting the idea of learning the French language:

If you search Google for “I want to learn French” you might find in the search results a virtual reality experience in Sansar where you can actually “go to virtual places in France, meet French people and have French dialogue at the boulangerie,” Altberg says.

This actually brings up another point – and one I really must remember to ask the Lab about next time I have the opportunity to do so. And that’s the idea of Project Sansar as a “white label” environment. This was first mentioned back in early 2015, and hinted at in interviews since. If it is still a central aim for the platform, then it could be a powerful aspect to Project Sansar, allowing experience creatorsattract audiences through gateways they define and in a manner such that the audience isn’t even aware they are entering an environment hosted by Linden Lab or is something of a relative of Second Life.

But I digress; Sansar as a white label platform is a topic for another article (and one long overdue to appear in these pages!). In terms of the USA Today piece, the social aspect is further touched upon with the idea that in the future, people from geographically disparate locations will be able to meet and work together far more easily in virtual spaces than up to now has been possible (thanks largely to the work in facial and body tracking, which allow avatars to be a lot more nuanced and expression in their reactions to others).

Elsewhere, the idea of the potential “cannibalisation” of Second Life by Project Sansar is touched upon.  This has been a controversial statement when raised in the past. However, while it is true that Second life thus far in its history faced serious competition, the times really are now changing, and just because SL hasn’t yet faced a competitor capable of luring its user base away doesn’t mean that at some point in the medium-term future it won’t.  As such, references to the risk of “cannibalisation” shouldn’t be taken as a sign the Lab is in any way willing to “sacrifice” Second Life on the alter of Sansar, but rather that it is a pragmatic acknowledgement that the risk actually now does exist for Second Life to be supplanted in people’s hearts and minds, and thus, for the sake of the Lab’s own survival, better it came from within than from without.

Like the video before it – which is included at the head of the article,  there’s nothing here that’s particularly revelatory about Project Sansar for anyone who has been keeping abreast with developments on that platform. However, the overview of the “social VR” approach is worth a read in and of itself. While for anyone who has not thus far dipped a toe into the waters of Project Sansar, Ed’s piece offers a pretty good starting point in understanding what it is about.

Grandfathered buy-down contributing to Lindex fluctuations?

The Lindex has been in a state of flux of late, something that has been the subject of discussion and speculation on a number of fronts. Reader Ample Clarity first pointed things out to me earlier last week via IM (I’ve been rather focused on other things of late, so haven’t been watching the broader news as much as I should), and I’ve been dipping in-and-out of conversations and reports on things since then.

The fluctuations started towards the end of 2015, and were perhaps first discussed on the pages of SL Universe. The discussion resumed in April, when further swings were noted,  causing additional concern among those looking to cash-out L$ balances, while sparking some of the more widespread discussion.

Lindex fluctuations (with thanks to Eku Zhong for the screen capture)

Lindex fluctuations (with thanks to Eku Zhong for the screen capture)

Various theories (and not a few conspiracies) have been put forward to explain what has been happening – although determining precisely what the cause is, is pretty much anyone’s guess. But purely in terms of the more recent fluctuations, New Worlds Notes (NWN) is promoting a theory which might just be plausible: that one (or more) large land estates have been liquidating L$ stocks in order to realise additional US dollar funds to take advantage of the Lab’s grandfathered buy-down offer.

The theory actually comes from Plurker T-Kesserex, who is quoted by NWN as saying:

I think it’s people cashing out to get capital for the $600 dollar sim price reduction … If you own 10 sims you need $6000, so that’s not easy without some cashing out.

At the start of the buy-down offer, Tyche Shepherd, of Grid Survey fame, estimated that around 85% of Homestead regions were already grandfathered, but only around 11% of full-priced regions of all types, leaving enormous potential in the market. During the first month, this figure increased to almost 21%, with the number of grandfathered full-priced regions rising from around 1,039 to 1960, demonstrating a thirst for conversion. Thus, the idea that one or more large estates might be liquidating L$ stocks to cover the cost of further conversions isn’t an unreasonable speculation.

But even if it is a fair assessment of the situation, it doesn’t offer any hint as to what  – market forces or otherwise – has been pushing at the Lindex since late 2015. Nor does it offer any comfort to those concerned about cashing out at a reasonable – or at least stable – rate. All that can be said for certain is that, if you have the need for L$ in your account, buying them hasn’t been this attractive in a good while.

A journalist’s voyage of discovery in Second Life

Second Life has again been getting some fair press coverage, both directly and directly, of late. I’ve already written about the platform either being the focus of, or looked at as part of, two interesting articles published in Motherboard. Also during the week, Second Life was written about on this side of the Atlantic, as first reported by Ciaran Laval.

On April 28th the on-line edition of France’s Le Monde carried an article focused on Second Life, written by  Morgane Tual.  Carrying the delightfully French title Absurde, créatif et débauché : dix ans après, « Second Life » est toujours bien vivant (Absurd, creative and debauched: ten years later, “Second Life” is still alive), it weaves a wonderful introduction to the platform which cannot fail to have those of us immersed in this digital world smiling and / or nodding in agreement.

Morgane Taul: an engaging article on Second Life

Morgane Tual: an engaging article on Second Life

 

This is very much a hands-on, through-the-eyes look at Second Life, good and bad, written with an unabashed honesty and wonderment. Opening with a description of her initial time in Second Life and a (first?) encounter with another resident, Ms. Tual quickly informs her readers where she is and why she is there – and hints that what she has to say might come as a surprise for who might have heard of the platform at some point:

Like me, some haggard and clumsy beginners landed on this strange beach to discover what remains of this game that occupied the headlines there about ten years. I expected to find, a decade later, a deserted world, ageing technology and a few cobwebs in the corners. It was exactly the opposite.

From this set-up we are lead on what is very much a personal voyage of discovery through Second Life. In it we encounter the realities of the platform – good and bad in equal measure,  each presented to us as they are encountered.

So it is we share in her wonder as she hops from place-to-place; her confusion (and that of others newcomers) in finding herself unceremoniously dumped at an infohub; the embarrassment that can occur simply as a result of clicking the wrong button, or in awkwardly accepting the help of another. We share in her delight in her discoveries of the music scene and in finding a place were she makes a new friend, Patti, a fellow French woman. From here we join her on a whirlwind tour of Second Life which take her to Hogwarts and thence via Star Wars, 221B Baker Street and a nightclub, to the Petit Trianon, Tatiana Dokuchic’s wonderful build in the Duché de Coeur, and a conversation with Tatiana herself.

Petit Trianon by Tatiana Dokuchic, featured in Absurde, créatif et débauché : dix ans après, « Second Life » est toujours bien vivant

Petit Trianon by Tatiana Dokuchic, featured in the Le Monde article by Morgane Tual

Interspersed with this are the assorted facts and figures from the Lab – the 900,000 monthly log-ins, the broad demographic, the economics of the platform, and so on, together with the usual potted history of the platform, all of which paints one of the clearest pictures of Second Life I’ve had the good fortune to read; one with a personal narrative free from the need to fall back on cliché or dogged by mocking observation.

Such is the narrative, we’re drawn directly into Ms. Tual’s experiences, all of which are related without judgement, but often with a real sense of joy and / or wonder. Of course, the sex is also there, but so too is the discovery that contrary to belief, Second life isn’t necessarily “all about the sex”, a point of view Ms. Tual fully embraces.

The breadth of possible engagement in Second Life is touched upon in other ways as well. Through the conversation with Tatiana, readers are introduced to the richness of opportunity for creativity in Second life. Art and entertainment are referred to – the latter supported by the inclusion of some hand-picked videos.

We also witness the tales of others, such as the guy who initially mocked the activities of SL users, regarding them as “losers”, only to himself become engrossed in the platform and all it offers. We are also – movingly – introduced to the way in which Second life bridges the physical / digital divide, very genuinely bringing people together when entire continents might otherwise separate them.

With videos and in-world images, personal tales, a frank narrative, Absurde, créatif et débauché : dix ans après, « Second Life » est toujours bien vivant is one of the most engaging pieces on second Life it has been my pleasure to read. Recommended.

 

Motherboard looks at Second Life

There have been a couple of interesting articles which have appeared in Motherboard over the last couple of days which make interesting reading.

In the first, Men Are Working Out Their Issues By Playing As Their Lovers and Exes in RPGs, published on April 28th, Cecilia D’Anastasio looks at a little researched aspect of avatar use within Second Life and MMORPGs: using their capabilities to create avatars in the likeness of a ex- or current partner or spouse.

Cecilia D'Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age

Cecilia D’Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age

I’ve always enjoyed reading Ms. D’Anastasio’s pieces on matter of digital identity, and have previously written about her excellent Avatar IRL, which appeared almost exactly a year ago.

This new article examines a number of ways in which people – notably, but not exclusively, young male gamers – have created representations of current or past Significant Others in the virtual environments they use.

Some of the related stories are pretty innocent. From Second Life, for example, we learn that well-known boat designer Jacqueline Trudeau  uses an avatar “minutely resembling” her husband to help promote her designs, even though he seemingly has no interest in either the platform or his wife’s ability to generate an income through it.  Similarly,  Kevin D. Kramer, a Second Life DJ in his 50s, has designed an avatar modelled on his wife which they both use, candidly admitting it offers him the opportunity to buy gowns, dresses and outfits to surprise her with in ways he cannot easily replicate in the physical world.

However, some are much more disturbing in tone, notably the examples drawn from Skyrim and XCOM-2 where the motivation for creating likenesses of ex-partners be 20-something gamers as a means to exert greater (and not entirely positive) control over them, even to the point of subjugation, or to increase their own self-image as a “protector” of the women formerly in their lives.

The piece is certainly an interesting read, going by way of Nick Yee’s research into matters  of gender-bending as covered by his Daedalus Project (you can also learn more about his work on matters of avatar identity here and via Draxtor’s excellent interview with him), and including feedback from Dr. Jamie Banks of Department of Communication Studies, West Virginia University. However, it is not without potential fault.

There is an acknowledged lack of research in why people might create avatars in the likeness of former or current partners; as such, there is perhaps a bias present in the piece, which I did find undermined it in places.

For example, while it is hard to reconcile Dr. Banks’ view of creating avatars in the image of a former partner as a means of coping with the Skrim and XCOM2 examples cited (they are far too calculated in their creation and use), it doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have merit in other possible cases. Unfortunately, any potential credence it might have is more-or-less directly thrown under the bus in the paragraph of the article following Dr. Banks’ comments.

There are other flaws evident in the writing as well. It is noted, for example, that one of the people who created a female avatar based on his ex-girlfriend has since been banned from an unrelated game. The reason for that ban isn’t specified and could be entirely unrelated to the issues being discussed in the article. Thus, the inclusion of this statement seems to serve no other purpose than to enhance the reader’s negative view they may already have of the individual.

However, given this is an aspect of the use of avatar-driven environments and MMOs that hasn’t really been deeply researched, the article does open the door to discussions on the subject, and may encourage a greater academic study of the issue.

In Why Is Second Life Still a Thing?, which appeared on April 29th, Emanuel Maiberg poses a question I suspect might be asked by a lot of journalists who have perhaps been previously familiar with the platform and are suddenly exposed to it once more.

In asking the question, Mr. Maiberg also does a fair job in answering it as well, and in doing so, takes the reader on a no hold barred tour of the platform, commencing with what has been it’s crucial differentiator over other, “prettier” platforms and games:

A crucial difference between Second Life and MMOs like World of Warcraft is that the latter are mostly fixed worlds. Once in awhile, developer Blizzard will introduce a new continent or reconfigure an existing location, but all players are guests in the world that Blizzard created. Second Life, by contrast, allows users to not only create their own avatars, but also to shape and create the world they’re in, importing their own 3D assets and modifying the world with the Linden Scripting Language.  

Emanuel Maiberg - a frank look at Second Life

Emanuel Maiberg – a frank look at Second Life

A potted history of the platform follows, together with an examination of much of what goes on in-world being referenced: art, education, user-generated transactions, and so on, together with the highs and lows the platform has seen. Of course, sex gets a fair mention within the piece; no surprises there, as it does both act as a draw for at least some of those coming into the platform (although equally, they may find their interests moving elsewhere once they are engaged in the platform), and it does contribute fairly to the platform’s economy.

Project Sansar is also touched upon – as is one of the core reasons why the Lab is keen to emphasise it is a platform designed to run alongside, rather than replace, Second Life. The very success of the latter and the level of investment users have within the system mean that displacing them anywhere else is at best exceptionally difficult; no other platform or service as thus far managed to achieve what Second Life invented in terms of environment, capabilities, user numbers and economical viability.

Those of us familiar with Second Life may not find much that is new in Mr. Maiberg’s piece, but that’s beside the point. What he offers is a frank look at the platform, free from bias or agenda but which fairly addresses many of the reasons which have made the platform a success in and of itself.

Overall, both pieces made for interesting reading.