The Drax Files Radio Hour 100: of gateways and Bento

tdfrh-100The 100th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour  went out on Christmas Day 2015, the last new podcast for the show for the year.

To make it special, the show was a live recording featuring members of the Firestorm Team and MadPea, discussing the Firestorm Gateway and the Lab’s trial gateway programme, and Oz and Vir Linden talking Project Bento.

The first part of the show focuses on the Firestorm gateway regions. These from a part of the Lab’s new gateway programme,  which in a nutshell is a revamp of he community gateway programme which was operated up until September 2010. The idea is to allow groups and communities to build their own in-world and web presence, which they can use to bring new users into Second Life (including taking them through the account sign-up process), and then when they are in-world, help them with gaining familiarity with the viewer and accessing guidance and support from established users, etc.

The re-vamped programme is currently running on a trail basis, involving a number of communities and groups beside Firestorm, although they are perhaps the most visible. Their offering is quite expansive, folding-in their existing new user orientation island and their in-world support presence, both of which have been on-line since 2012, as well as providing a range of activities typical of those newcomers can find in SL, and free-to-play games, all designed to engage the new user and encourage them to return to Second Life and explore the grid as a whole.

Drax talks gateways with (l-to-r) Kiana Writer and Kess Crystal from MadPea and Jessica Lyon and Ed Merryman from Firestorm
Drax talks gateways with (l-to-r) Kiana Writer and Kess Crystal from MadPea and Jessica Lyon and Ed Merryman from Firestorm

Marketing such gateways isn’t easy; it requires a budget, and that’s something most communities don’t have. Firestorm is trying to address this by leveraging their existing user base and getting them to promote Second Life to family and friends. There is actually nothing wrote with this approach – I’ve frequently said myself that are no better ambassadors for the platform than those of us actively engaged within it. However, there are potential limits to how effective this can be over the longer periods of time, so broader-based approaches may be required down the road, but it is a good place to start.

That said, one particular advantage in leveraging existing users is that it might help further boost retention rates simply because it could led to some of those coming into SL receiving the direct support of family and friends already using the platform (although I would perhaps suggest they wait on the other side of the orientation island, and let people complete this under their own steam).

 The Ghost Town is the first in a series of free-to-play games provided by MadPea expressly for the Firstorm Gateway and intended to further orient new users in using the viewer and HUDs, etc., while demonstrating some of what they might find by way of activities in SL
Kiana and Kess from MadPea provide a good overview of The Ghost Town, the first in a series of free-to-play games provided by MadPea expressly for the Firstorm Gateway and intended to further orient new users in using the viewer and HUDs, etc., while demonstrating some of what they might find by way of activities in SL – and reward them for doing so

A crucial part in assessing the project will be the data that demonstrates things like throughput rates and, more importantly, retention levels; particularly when compared to the Lab’s own new user experience. The Lab, via Oz Linden, indicates this is the kind of data they’ll be presenting to gateway operators. Oz also indicates there have been some technical elements to be fully ironed-out, particularly in matters of compliance and data security, which might not have been so prevalent during the time of the “old” gateway programme.

Continue reading “The Drax Files Radio Hour 100: of gateways and Bento”


Attend the 100th Drax Files Radio Hour in Second Life

radio-hourThe Drax Files Radio Hour is celebrating its 100th (ish!) episode during Christmas week 2015, and to celebrate, they’re holding a special live recording session, and inviting people to attend as part of the audience.

The podcast series first launched back in January 2014, although the initial idea for such a series goes back as far as the latter half of 2013. Hosted by Draxtor Despres and Jo Yardley, the show generally presents an hour long segment each week, focus on news, opinion, interviews and reports on all things virtual – virtual worlds, virtual reality, virtual living.

If I’m totally honest, the show was, early on, far too infatuated with all the hype surrounding the Oculus Rift, which led to a certain slant becoming increasingly (and sometimes painfully) apparent. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that overall, the series has presented some pretty thought-provoking and also very informative podcasts. Virtual harassment, virtual identity, examinations of the Lab and Second Life, digging into the Terms of Service, looking at virtual worlds and education – all these and more have been covered, while interviews with folk from the Lab, from education, the worlds of VR, AR, and interactive fiction,  and (again) more have offered many defining moments for the show.

For the 100th show recording. Drax and Jo will be talking with Oz and Vir Linden, Jessica Lyon and Ed Merryman from Firestorm, and Kiana Writer and Kess Crystal from MadPea Games, in a far-reaching discussion encompassing a look back over 2015, a look ahead to 2016, and embracing the upcoming Gateway trial programme, the recently announced Project Bento, and maybe a little more besides.

Drax tells me that those attending the recording get a free 100th episode celebratory cap
Drax tells me that those attending the recording get a free Drax Files cap

The show will be recorded at the Firestorm Amphitheatre on Wednesday, December 23rd, starting a 12:00 noon SLT. however, those wishing to be a part of the audience as advised to get there a little ahead of time to both secure a seat and help ensure the recording can start relatively promptly.

The Drax Files Radio Hour: giving it the HiFi!

radio-hourOne of the big use-cases is going to be kids maybe doing an extra, like instead of doing their homework in the normal way in the evening, they go on-line where they join a study group where they join a teacher..

So opens segment #75 of the with some thoughts from Philip Rosedale, co-founder of Second Life, and more particularly now the CEO of start-up virtual worlds company, High Fidelity.

At just over 89 minutes in length, this is a special show, exploring High Fidelity from the inside, so to speak, complete with conversations with Mr. Rosedale, Ryan Karpf (HiFi’s co-founder and ex-Linden), Chris Collins and Ozan Serim, while David Rowe (perhaps more familiarly known to SL users as Strachan Ofarrel creator of the Oculus Rift compatible CtrlAltStudio viewer), who has been working with the HiFi team, becoming a guest host for the segment.

Since its founding, High Fidelity has made remarkable strides in developing its next generation, open-source virtual world environment, both technically and financially. Since April 2013, the company has undergone three rounds of funding, attracting around US $16 million, most of which has come from True Ventures, Google Ventures and, most recently, Paul Allan’s Vulcan Capital (which also participated in the October 2014 US $542 million investment round for Magic Leap). In addition, HiFi has attracted a number of high-profile advisers, including VR veteran Tony Parisi and, most recently, professors Ken Perlin and Jeremy Bailenson.

As well as Philip Rosedale, Drax talks with Chris Collins (l), Ryan Kampf and Ozan Serim from high Fidelity
As well as Philip Rosedale, Drax talks with Chris Collins (l), Ryan Karpf and Ozan Serim from high Fidelity

The interviews themselves are quite wide-ranging. With Dave Rowe, (known in HiFi as CtrlAltDavid) the open-source nature of the platform is explored, from the ability to download and run your owner HiFi server (aka “Stack Manager“) and client (aka “Interface“), through to the concept of the worklist, which allows contributors to bid for work on offer and get paid based on results.In Dave’s case, this has led him to working on various aspects of the platform such as integrating Leap Motion capabilities to improving eye tracking within HiFi’s avatars, so they track the movements of other avatars, just as our own eyes track other people’s facial and other movements as they interact with us.

In terms of general looks, the avatars – which have in the past been critiqued for being “cartoony” (despite it is still very early days for HiFi) –  are still very much under development. In particular, Ozan Serim has been working to raise –  and no pun intended here – the overall fidelity of the avatars in terms of looks and capabilities. He’s well-placed to do so, being an ex-Pixar animator.

One of the problems here is that the more real in appearance and capabilities they get, the closer the avatars come to the Uncanny Valley, which has led HiFi and Ozan to look at a number of avatar styles, from those which are very human in appearance through to those that are more “cartoonish” in looks.

A 2014 video showing Ozan’s work in improving the rigging around a more “realistic” HiFi avatar to more actually reflect mouth forms and facial movement when singing. High Fidelity now use Faceshift for real-time facial expression capture, rigging and animation, using either 3D or standard webcams

In discussing the Uncanny Valley, and particularly people’s reactions to avatars that are somewhat less-than-real (and we can include SL avatars in this, given their inability to naturally reflect facial expressions), Ozan raises the interesting question of whether people who critique the look of such avatars actually want to have a “realistic” looking avatar, or whether it is more a case of people wanting an avatar look that is appealing to their aesthetics which they can they identify with.

This is and interesting train of thought, as it is certainly true that – limitations of the avatar skeleton aside – most of us in Second Life are probably more driven to develop our avatars to a point where they have a personal aesthetic appeal, rather than in wanted them to be specifically “more realistic”.

Currently, HiFi is leaning towards a somewhat stylised avatar as seen in Team Fortress 2, which is allowing them to develop a natural-looking avatar look that doesn’t come too close to the Uncanny Valley. They use Adobe Maximo as their avatar creation tool, which Ozan views as a capable workflow package, but which may have some creative limitations. However, as an open-source environment, HiFi does offer the potential for someone to script in “in-world” character modelling tools, or at least to offer upload capabilities for avatar model generated in tools such as Blender. Avatars can also, if wanted, by uploaded as a complete package with all required / defined animations, such as walks, etc, included.

Chris Collins has very much become the voice of High Fidelity on You Tube, producing a wide range of videos demonstrating features of the platform, together with short tutorial pieces. The video above is one of his, demonstrating how to code interactive 3D content, using the Planky game as an example

While Ozan and his team work on avatar animations and rigging using real-time capture, Ryan Karpf reveals that by default, an avatar’s facial expressions are driven via the audio more than by direct capture: the mouth movement, for example, comprises 3 positions based on the audio, while a rising of voice or tone can result in the avatar’s eyebrows rising and falling. Ryan also touches on the Uncanny Valley issue of people’s increasingly discomfiture the closer avatars become to looking “photo-realistic”.

In talking to Chris Collins, an ex-Linden Lab alumni who headed the former SL Enterprise division, who now wears a number of hats at HiFi, Drax discusses how HiFi deals with the ever-changing face of the emerging VR hardware market, where headsets, input, tracking, and so on, is in something of a state of flux. Chris points out that while open-source, HiFi does have a set of strict coding standards and licensing, and offer external libraries to help support third-party SDK integration.

One of the powerful elements of High Fidelity is the ability you to have full agency over your environment, if you so wish; using the Stack Manager, you can create your own server / world / space, and control who might access it.  The scripting tools similarly allow users to download and tweak elements – such as walking animations, a basic avatar appearance, etc., quickly and easily.

Continue reading “The Drax Files Radio Hour: giving it the HiFi!”

A skewed perspective on Second Life

There are probably very few of us active within the blogsphere, either as writers or readers, who are not aware of the brouhaha which boiled-up over the course of the last week in response to Hamlet Au’s take on a recent article published in Atlas Obscura.

The latter offers a broadly positive look at Second Life, and drew praise from many SL users, including myself. However, Mr. Au’s take on the matter was to largely dismiss the Atlas Obscura piece as a “distorted” piece of journalism because it didn’t delve into the more pornographic aspects of Second Life sufficiently enough to be to his liking. Understandably, his view drew a considerable amount of flak by those actively engaged with the platform.

Wagner James
Wagner James “Hamlet” Au: a stereotypical view of the SL outsider

As a consequence of this, Mr. Au was invited to participate in an interview on show #68 of The Drax Files Radio Hour, to discuss his point of view. What’s interesting about his original article and the subsequent Radio Hour podcast is the way in which Mr. Au appears content to perpetuate a number of misconceptions about Second Life.

The first of these misconceptions is that the Adult rating equates to a region having “pornographic” content.

However, as Honour McMillan correctly states, “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.”

The second fallacy evident in Mr. Au’s argument comes at the 14:27 mark in the Drax Files Interview, in his suggestion that anyone can be unwittingly re-directed to an Adult environment and encounter avatars engaged in sex – and thus, the world needs to be told this is the case.

Yet by default, the viewer is set to display / allow access only to material that is rated General or Moderate in nature. Therefore, the only way for anyone to access an Adult rated region under any circumstance whatsoever, would be because they took the conscious decision to set their viewer to access Adult material. And let’s be honest here; while all Adult rated regions may not be pornographic in nature, the label on the setting itself makes it fairly obvious as to the type of content one might encounter as a result of enabling it.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that Mr. Au’s presentation that anyone can somehow inadvertently finish-up in an Adult rated area and catch people in flagrante delicto, as a matter of pure happenstance and through no direct action of their own, borders on the nonsensical, and he does himself a disservice in presenting the matter in this way.

Contrary to believe in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content - the default is General and Moderate only
Contrary to belief in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content – the default is General and Moderate only

A further fallacy voiced is the idea that because the “main assumption” among people at large is that Second Life is all about “weird sex”, then articles providing insight into Second Life must include an exploration of that “weird sex”.

However, while many who have heard about SL do perhaps think of it as a place for “weird sex”, the huge volume and diversity of content, pursuits, interests, activities and events available in Second Life would suggest that it is in fact a misconception.

Misconceptions aren’t dealt with through reinforcement – which is essentially what Mr. Au is advocating.

Misconceptions are dealt with by presenting reasoned counterpoints which encourage those holding them to re-evaluate their position / attitude. This is precisely what the Atlas Obscura article does, intentionally or otherwise; while acknowledging there are sexual activities and content in SL, it seeks to offer a broader view of Second Life that doesn’t play to, or reinforce, the stereotypical view. This isn’t in any way being “dishonest” or “misleading” as Mr. Au states – and again, he does himself a disservice by suggesting it is.

Tyche Shepherds Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures in this piece are taken
Tyche Shepherd’s Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures below are taken

And just how prevalent is all this “weird sex” anyway? On May 10th, 2015, there were 7,031 Mainland regions in SL, of which 346 were rated Adult. Given these are all located on the Adult continent of Zindra, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the larger portion of them is devoted to sexual content to one degree or another. Even so, that still amounts to less than 5% of the total Mainland content; hardly a preponderance. When the grid as a whole is considered, the figures are 25,460 region, of which 4986 are rated adult – that’s just 19.6%  – or to put it in Mr. Au’s parlance: “less than one-fifth”.

And (again) leave us not forget Honour McMillan’s sage words: “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.” Therefore, the actual number of pornographic regions accessible to those who have chosen to view adult content is liable to be somewhat lower than that “one-fifth”.

So where, really, does all this leave us?

The bottom line is actually pretty straightforward:  yes, there is a fair degree of sexual content and activity in Second Life. Just as there is on the Internet as a whole and in the physical world. However, the degree to which anyone coming into Second Life might be exposed to it is really hard to judge; unlike a wander through the streets of San Francisco (a parallel Mr. Au draws), where it is possible to accidentally and unwittingly stumble upon the seedier side of life, the degree to which one chooses to be exposed to the more sexual side of Second Life can be  controlled, greatly reducing the risk of any accidental or unwanted exposure to it.

This being the case, the suggestion that an article such as Eric Grundhauser’s piece in Atlas Obscura is either “distorted” in its presentation of Second Life or somehow “misleading” simply because it doesn’t delve into the sexual side of SL or play to the stereotype that SL is “all about the sex”, is itself a skewed perspective on Second Life.

With due respect to Hamlet Au, the approach he advocates is not good journalistic practice – but it could easily be interpreted as encouraging continued salacious titillation.

Related Reading

I’ve added the two links above, as they also had an impact on my thinking during the gestation of this article.