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Why are businesses moving out to other platforms?

2010, the second year of the financial crisis1, has brought a sudden increase in projects using virtual worlds. Speaking from the perspective of my company — and from conversations with other similar companies developing content for Second Life® — this seems to be gathering new momentum. It’s true that a huge part of development in virtual worlds now come from universities and research institutes, but that doesn’t mean that companies are “asleep” or ignoring virtual worlds. They’re not. They just have completely different expectations than they had in 2006/7.

During the “hype years” of 2006/7, and as has been extensively written and explained elsewhere, almost all companies came to Second Life for the “media splash”. They met with serious criticism by the SLogosphere, as residents pointed out that SL was “all about community” and the notion of “build it and people will come” was a complete fallacy. This proved to be correct, as almost all experiments in “media splash” had little impact or result, with some minor exceptions (which have, since then, become case studies) that were lead by teams with a lot of expertise in SL.

A few experiments lasted several years after the “hype era”, and many were targeted to the community (Orange Island comes to mind). But slowly they also disappeared. Serious community management takes a lot of time and a lot of money (if you’re a company employee working full-time on managing communities), and the returns are questionable. Marketers love numbers — especially big numbers — and even a long-term community in SL will reach “thousands” of people, not “millions”. While the use of ads on Facebook is also questionable, marketeers have this cosy feeling that for a few US$ they’re able to reach “millions” (even if I’m prepared to claim that 99.99% of them never see any ads — this number is based on three times the effectiveness of email spam, so it might even be lower than that). Thus, I claim that an ad displayed “to a million Facebook users” is actually only seen by around 100 users; while a series of events in SL reaching thousands will, effectively, get those thousands to acknowledge your brand (or product). And you will know who they are (well, at least their avatar names). Of course, an ad on Facebook is much, much cheaper…

The SL residents have this feeling that businesses have completely gone out of SL, and that even universities are “not doing much”. This feeling is based on simple observation. Few businesses announce their presence. Universities don’t seem to have open islands any longer. The media hardly reports anything being done in SL. Somehow, the residents just think that the hype was gone.

Nothing could be further from the reality. There are now ten times more companies in SL than at the peak of the hype era, and probably a hundred times more universities and research institutes.

So… where are they?

There was a huge shift in focus: these projects are now all internal. Instead of a media splash, community management, events-for-a-general-audience, or any kind of public approach to a virtual presence, all the organisations are now turning to the usage of virtual worlds to address very specific tasks that are hard (or expensive) to do elsewhere — be it on the physical world or on other online technologies (like the Web). While e-learning comes to mind as one of the major uses, some other areas are simulation training (it’s easier to train employees to deal with crisis and emergencies in, say, a virtually recreated hospital in SL, than to shut down a physical hospital to do drills — and way more effective than putting employees in a room with some paper-based maps of the hospital and have them move chits around and tell others what they’re doing) or prototyping. A lot of pedagogical material that is intended for a limited, specialised audience is also placed on privately accessed spaces; thus, the military (to quote a typical example) might not be so interested to describe to a general audience how they train their soldiers in SL.

What this means is that all these projects are “invisible”. Nobody talks about them. They might pop up on internal newsletters or on the corporate/campus intranet, but not beyond that. They might get a two-line mention on a general-audience newspaper saying “Company X is using SL for Y”, but since residents cannot even look up X’s island, this news is quickly forgotten. Also, the scale of the projects has increased. During the “media splash” era, companies would set up their virtual presences in a month, sometimes less; universities quickly opened their campuses in about the same time. Any project much longer than 1-3 months was very rare (CEOs would fear they’d be too late if they took so long in the fast-paced environment of SL!). It was not uncommon to announce the intention to come to SL, followed by a press release a few weeks later when the virtual presence was formally opened to the public.

These days, however, projects in SL are medium-to-long term. From my own experience, they take, on average, 6-18 months to decide, and often 3-5 years to complete. Most of the readers of this blog will not even be around in SL to see any of those projects (the average user loses interest in new technology after 3 years). There are, of course, exceptions. Research projects, for instance, might go ahead indefinitely — they might have started in the 1990s when virtual worlds were brand new, and are now migrating to Second Life and OpenSimulator, and continue to be around for another decade or so (eventually adopting new technologies in the process). Government, military, or huge megacorps might have similar time scales. In the fast-and-furious environment of SL, these projects are so vast in the time they take that it is as if they didn’t exist. They might just publish some “progress reports” every other year or so, which will remain mostly unnoticed by the media, as no public space is ever presented.

Nevertheless, in the past months, I have encountered an intriguing trend. It is generally assumed (and one can just point at the SL Educators mailing list for a reference) that Second Life has only one valid competitor: OpenSimulator, which is basically the same thing, but in full control of the organisation which deploys it internally to create their own grid, since it’s free and open source. Full control in this context does not only mean access (because for that Linden Lab provides the SL Enterprise boxes as an alternative to the main grid) but the ability to change the simulation software to tailor it to specific uses, which Linden Lab obviously doesn’t allow with their own code. OpenSimulator is a natural choice for academics researching virtual worlds since it allows them to change the code at will as part of their research.

OpenSimulator’s main advantage is, thus, the ability to run your own grid, in no matter what hardware you have available. A humble, retired PC, connected to one’s internal Ethernet will be more than adequate to do a reasonable project — assuming, of course, that there will be not many simultaneous users in it. That’s a reasonable assumption for a ‘small’ project. For a larger-scale project — say, a campus grid for thousands of users — the hardware and network requirements increase by several orders of magnitude; and if the organisation wants to additionally give widespread access to “their” grid on the Internet, well, then that means designing a completely new systems architecture to handle the load. In fact, except for some very specific situations (such as for certain military projects, which have to remain confidential for obvious reasons), the actual costs of managing an OpenSimulator infrastructure can go up — even if you can “crowdsource” volunteer work from the students of your university campus — to a point where Second Life becomes an attractive alternative again! There is some middle-ground, too — as Hypergrid Business constantly reports, there are plenty of commercial OpenSimulator grid operators to choose from. Their prices vary — always cheaper than Second Life — but so does the quality of their infrastructure. Also, those commercial grid operators fight for financial stability: a small setback for a tiny start-up may be too much to keep afloat financially, and when that happens, either they are lucky enough to sell their service to another (hopefully more financially stable) grid operator or they will be forced to shut down their grid.

This is not so dramatic as it sounds, because (unlike SL) you can very easily do full backups of all your uploaded content — aye, that includes prims, sculpties, meshes, textures, sounds, animations, scripts and avatars — and move it easily to a different grid (or even temporarily store it on your personal computer — from where you can even run the simulator(s)!), just uploading the content again. There is a pretty standard content archiving format, OAR (OpenSimulator Archives), as well as its companion file format for archiving inventory items, IAR. Both have been around for a long, long time and are very reasonably stable; that means that they will work across all OpenSimulator grids, no matter what hardware it runs on, or whatever database backend it uses.

While OpenSimulator strives for full compatibility with Second Life (until Linden Lab started to include commercial libraries directly on its viewer — such as the Havoc physics engine — you could even use Linden Lab’s own viewer to easily connect to an OpenSimulator grid; these days, however, third-party viewer developers, unable to sublicense those commercial libraries for use in OpenSimulator, have to replace them with FOSS alternatives), it lags behind Second Life in a few aspects — but not that many. After all, most changes in the last years appear on the viewer side; while the Linden Lab system administrators might be tinkering on the servers as well, such changes are mostly “invisible”, in the sense that the communications protocol between server and viewers doesn’t change dramatically. Sometimes it does (such as the change from UDP as the underlying protocol for many assets, which became optionally HTTP over TCP/IP, and later almost mandatory, since LL wants to leverage on the ability to keep HTTP objects inside reverse-proxy caches, to ease the load on their “core” simulator servers — this was something that OpenSimulator needed to change as well, and change it did!), but, more than often, the “changes” in the communications protocol are small and insignificant. OpenSimulator developers are paying close attention to whatever goes on Linden Lab’s Beta Grid, which gives them plenty of time to support any future changes, at about the same time that Linden Lab pushes their efforts from the Beta Grid to the “main” grid. This has been true for most of the things in the recent past. Additionally, of course, because OpenSimulator is free and open-source software, the core developers have added lots of nifty cool features that Second Life does not have — such as extra scripting functions allowing a much closer interaction with the underlying simulator, or, well, NPCs (non-playing characters), behaving just like any other regular avatar, that can be very easily automated with a handful of lines of code. Oh, and OpenSimulator grids are not “isolated” from each other: thanks to Hypergrid Teleport, avatars from a grid can jump to a completely different one, often bringing their inventory with them (content developers can optionally flag their own content as being allowed to jump between grids — which is the default setting). This has been around for a long while as well and is also quite stable these days; originally, it was even possible to “hyperjump” from the Second Life Beta Grid to a few OpenSimulator grids, albeit with lots of limitations; unfortunately, Linden Lab dropped that amazing feature æons ago and has not the least intention of bringing it back.

But OpenSimulator is not “perfect”. Besides the hardware and the cost of networking infrastructure, there is the need to keep a maintenance team with long experience of systems and network administration just to have a reasonably-sized grid to be operational at all times, with enough performance to make users happy. You can get the same performance on OpenSimulator as you get on Second Life — sometimes even far better! — but it requires a decent amount of knowledge about tweaking operating systems, database management, distributed systems, and network optimisation. That’s not for the faint of heart. OpenSimulator has some documentation on its wiki, and there are a few mailing lists as well as IRC channels to go for help, but, in general, it’s not that easy to figure out how everything is put together. Old-time veterans from OpenSimulator will of course easily adapt to changes over time — the basics are still similar — but newcomers will be astonished at the vast array of parameters that need to be tinkered with in order to get OpenSimulator to do what you need it to do (thus the reasonable success of many commercial grids, which have that kind of knowledge, and, for a reasonable fee — much more reasonable to what Linden Lab would charge you — will provide you with a simulator connected to “their” grid, possibly offering you even far more capabilities that you’d get as Estate Owner in Linden Lab’s Second Life grid).

No, the biggest issue with OpenSimulator is… lack of people.

This is naturally common to all so-called social virtual worlds, and the reason why every time I predict that a new company entering this interesting market will fail, my predictions usually are right. In fact, I predicted that even Linden Lab’s second virtual world — the much more sophisticated Samsar — would, ultimately, fail; and so it did. Not even Philip Rosedale, co-inventor and co-founder of Second Life, was able to keep his own “new” world afloat, High Fidelity (his company turned to a different market). The reason for the very-long-time “survival” of Second Life is simply because it has a critical mass of content developers, which, in turn, means a critical mass of content. No other platform has ever come close to the sheer amount of content that exists in Second Life — and while “having content” is not necessarily the only reason for SL’s ongoing success (because the company running the virtual world also needs to have a valid business model — one that guarantees them a long-lasting cashflow; other business models, so far, have all failed, no matter how interesting and promising they sounded, such as Philip Rosedale’s own High Fidelity virtual world, which was “free” in many senses of the word, but the company would get a tiny fee on the monetary transactions made through the system — which they hoped to be enough to pay for their ongoing development costs; it wasn’t), as it turns out, is definitely a big issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the second-largest social virtual world out there is… well, OpenSimulator as a whole, even if it is not technically a virtual world, but rather “islands on the net”, many of which can be bridged via hyperjump (but not all!). The main reasons are that OpenSimulator attracts the same kind of people that are keen loyalists of Second Life — including content creators — and the main mode of interacting with the virtual world is exactly the same (using the same viewer). Thus, there is no need for “adapting” to a completely different way to interact with the virtual world, using new viewing software, learning a new interface, etc. and so forth. Whatever skills one has in Second Life will be used precisely in the same way in OpenSimulator. But another main reason is that the business model of those commercial OpenSimulator grid operators is exactly the same as Linden Lab’s — at a much smaller scale, of course. The business model of land ownership is a battle-tested model; it has proven to survive for almost two decades, and we know all the pitfalls (but naturally also the advantages!) of such a model.

Most importantly, from the perspective of the user, moving from Second Life to OpenSimulator is not really an effort — with the sole exception that you will have to abandon all content you owned in Second Life. The rest is basically “the same”. Even the argument that there is more or less lag in OpenSimulator, or that the regions look horrible… well, that’s true for Second Life as well, no two regions are at the same level of content quality and simulator performance. There are many reasons for that, some that are more or less under the control of the region owners, some that are more or less under the control of Linden Lab (or, for OpenSimulator, the commercial grid operator), but there are also many reasons where you can basically do nothing about it. This is true for both platforms: the difference is that in Second Life, being much bigger (by at least one order of magnitude — even if some statistics show that the total land area in OpenSimulator grids if all were connected together, rivals Second Life, the truth is that there are just a small fraction of residents…), and therefore hosting way more content, has far more choices. Because OpenSimulator grids are seen by professional 3D content creators as “less secure” (this was true in 2007… as it was true on Second Life around 2003, before we even had a permissions system!), many are very reluctant to face the Brave New World(s) out there, simply because they are not confident that their content cannot be freely copied without payment. Strictly speaking, this is not true — although, naturally, grids are prone to hacking, especially on those where the grid moderators/maintainers might not be so knowledgeable as Linden Lab’s own system/network administrators, and thus leave their grids less protected from server-level hacking attacks — but, as far as I know, this is a rare event. In fact, it’s much more “myth” than “fact”. But it is true that early OpenSimulator grids accrued some bad reputation precisely because they weren’t well managed and prone to attacks — a few of which did, indeed, succeed (bringing grids down, stealing in-world money, getting access to user data, and so forth). Alas — it’s tough to live at the frontier!

But the years have passed, the OpenSimulator software is more robust to overall attacks, it is far more stable, and grid operators are more serious about their business ventures. This did, in fact, attract some content creators — perhaps not the “top tier” creators of Second Life, but a few from the tier below the top, who found a community of users eager to buy high-quality content, just like in Second Life, but having a much harder time to get it…

Now, it’s worth pointing out that all the above is of little relevance to some companies and especially to most university research teams. For them, “nice content” is a bonus, not a requirement. They have special purposes in mind, some of which require a much deeper level of access that Linden Lab does not permit on their Second Life grid, but which is fully accessible under OpenSimulator — you can simply change whatever code you wish at the simulator level, recompile it, and enjoy the results. The amount of flexibility — the mere ability to develop at the core of the simulator, and not merely on an abstract layer provided by scripts written in Linden Scripting Language (LSL) and running on virtual machines, is an advantage that OpenSimulator provides “out of the box”, so to speak, since it was designed to work that way. OpenSimulator is also quite modular — you can add or remove components as well as create your own modules, and stay away from the core code. And, of course, having full access to the simulator, it’s far easier to integrate it with whatever technology the company/university/institution has in mind. LSL gives quite a lot of possibilities (and people are creating amazing things with what it can do), but it only goes that far; to get the extra edge, you need to dig deeper in the simulator code. And possibly even on the viewer, too…

What these companies and institutions are presently doing is, of course, unknown. We can speculate based what they are willing to share, once in a while, sometimes giving interviews to the above-mentioned Hypergrid Business — if they happen to know about its existence and have any interest in sharing their projects with the community. This might be the case with some universities — and these sometimes even have “visitor areas” on their grids which can be accessed via a Hypergrid jump — but it is safe to assume that most are “closed”, they’re “hidden projects”, with a specific timeline and a restricted audience, and possibly we will only learn about those once they have finished and reports are published. Projects, in the institutional and corporative world, have a beginning and an end.

Naturally enough, those kinds of projects may not use OpenSimulator at all. There are plenty of alternatives out there, from more obscure solutions to the ubiquitous Unreal Engine, or the commercially very successful Unity development platform. These require far more programming and high-end content creators, but, naturally enough, the results can be exactly what you’ve got in mind. OpenSimulator is, compared to those, the most successful low-end “tinkerer” platform for developing virtual worlds: true, it requires some knowledge to set up, but it will work “out of the box”, ready to start working on it, even if all you have is a handful of items in your inventory and a flat, green, 256x256m bit of a world to walk around in solitude.

But compare it to the alternatives: you start with a ready-to-build environment, where you only need to add content. You have a viewer — which you did not need to develop on your own — ready to display anything you create. You have several tools available, all already included in the viewer, which allows you to immediately place content in-world. That means that a new project can start in the morning, struggling through configuration parameters, while in the afternoon you can already walk around your freshly installed virtual world and start your project by adding interactive content — even if the first attempts might be crude, and visually/æstethically unsatisfactory, the truth is that they will work.

Contrast that with weeks, nay, months of development by a team of professional programmers working on a popular engine/development platform. Months until you can finally launch an application and “enter” your virtual world. And if it’s not what you had in mind… there will be more months of programming ahead. Sure, the results may be visually far more impressive than anything built on Second Life or OpenSimulator. But the trade-off is the very lengthy and complex development time, which takes ages to complete until you can finally interact with the most basic items.

Second Life and OpenSimulator give you that sense of instant gratification, allowing you to experiment with the virtual world environment immediately — and do it on your own. You don’t need a whole staff of professional programmers, proficient in developing virtual worlds for gaming engines; you don’t need a group of high-end, professional 3D content creators, that have the kind of know-how required by the AAA league of console/computerhttps://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-aaa-game-1393920 games. No, you only need yourself, a bit of curiosity, a bit of imagination, a bit of time to learn a new tool — and that’s it, your project has started and is instantly available for your first experiments. And while the environment will not look like a AAA console game or a flight simulator for training commercial airline pilots, the basic concepts will all be there.

No other existing platform can provide that kind of results from the very first day you install it. And that’s why Second Life or OpenSimulator are still being used for these kinds of projects.

Oh, and as a bonus, you immediately get access to a ton of content — if you need it — as well as a vast community of hundreds of thousands of users, all in the same virtual environment. Again, no other 3D development platform can offer the same. And while it’s true that most of these institutional projects are never meant to be seen or visited by the public at large, it’s still nice to know that you can show them off to a considerable audience by merely tipping a checkbox (or possibly adding a configuration line). All your potential audience will use the same tools, the same viewer, see the same environment, and all of that comes straight out of the box. Contrast that with the way most virtual worlds are delivered today — as full-blown applications, to be downloaded and installed, each with its own peculiar interface.

There is still a lot that Second Life and/or OpenSimulator have to offer that nothing else can.

  1. Note from the author: This article was originally written in 2010 — but I left it unfinished back then. There was really not much to add, but some references needed to be edited, and there were a few paragraphs missing, but I knew what I wanted to write back then. It feels weird to finish it over a decade later, in the middle of a pandemic; but several of the “truths” stated above still hold today (if not all!), so I finished it and decided to publish it. Take everything with a pinch of salt: some things might not be 100% true any more or are simply oversimplified and overstated in the text. But Second Life is most definitely still around and thriving; OpenSimulator grids may come and go, but a few have been around for far more than a decade, with a steady stream of users (and revenue for their grid operators!), and OpenSimulator development is ongoing — it hasn’t stopped, and it has continued to follow its goal to keep a decent amount of compatibility with Second Life (adding new things as Linden Lab develops them) while providing some extra functionality that Linden Lab simply cannot allow on their own platform. So, in a sense, the article essentially continues to apply today, even though I suspect that there are far fewer institutional projects being done in 3D environments these days — but they are not zero. ↩︎

Perhaps I should blog a bit more here…

There seems to be so much I have to do these days, that blogging has been really on the backburner…

I’ve decided to post here a new article just to make sure people know that we’re alive and kicking 🙂 “We”, in this case, being Beta Technologies and using Facebook marketing software, of course.

Aye, it’s another year with a financial crisis going on. But, surprisingly, so far, 2011 has been our best year so far — even better than the glorious “Golden Era” days of 2007! This might come as a surprise for many, who thought that Metaverse Development Companies working in Second Life have been wiped out of the face of the earth. Not so. There is a big focus switch, though —This guy who gave me projects that are long-term, not the kind of ultra-short ones that marketeers, journalists, and PR people love: I can now start them on one week, finish the next, put some pictures and information about it on the website, go on to the next project, show what we’re doing! Security is a must there, check these guys out – SecurityInfo for more security inquiries.

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WordPress 3.0 and playing with CSS

*Yawn*

One thing that bothered me was that the little-updated Beta Technologies pages were hard to navigate and had a different theme from the blogs which really put a cramp on my marketing (where I managed to be a little more creative…). There was good reason to do some minor tweaks and unify the themes…

Last week I got an email from WordPress.org to say that 3.0 was now on its second Beta. Well, I usually don’t try the betas out — Automattic, the company behind WordPress, tends to innovate little, making sure that as most backwards compatibility is preserved — and just do a “blind update”, crossing my fingers, when the new version comes out.

This time, however, I was a bit bolder. I’ve been frustrated like crazy with WordPress’ lack of proper menu navigation. While I consider myself a fangirl of WP (like I am of Second Life®!), I’m also the first to know its limitations. Menu navigation was at the top of my worries. Oh, yes, the lack of that is so serious that some companies sell plugins to deal with menus — because the free ones, frankly, are pretty much a waste of time. There are a lot of other things that frustrate me, like the lack of areas for “registered users” — you can password-protect articles (I keep forgetting how) and some plugins allow you to force users to log in first to be able to see some areas, but that’s really not the best way. CMS like Joomla deal with that easily and without much configuration: just click on a checkbox.

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jet cloud landing aircraft

When planes don’t fly: teleconferencing in Second Life

The recent crash of the world-wide airplane network across northern Europe and the United States showed how simple natural events, like a volcano eruption, can disturb our already fragilised economy by simply preventing business meetings and conferences to happen. This means that besides the usual costs of airplane tickets and hotel accommodations, there is also the cost that the conference/meeting has to be postponed because, well, lack of flights or closed airports simply prevent those from happening. It’s true that we don’t see volcanos erupting so dramatically every day; on the other hand, the bad weather during severe winters will prevent planes from flying, and that is something that happens every year…

So it’s not just about increased costs: it’s the very real possibility that external conditions, climatic or otherwise, simply force a conference, meeting, or even a concert, to be postponed.

Not so with virtual worlds. MakeMyWorlds, a German/French Second Life Gold Solution Provider, recently sponsored a meeting in Second Life with a group of people coming from all over Europe — during the period where all flights were cancelled. Unlike the other dozens of thousands of similar meetings that happen every day, this one was not cancelled. This was a pretext for the French TV show La Matinale Canal+ to cover briefly the event and explain how virtual worlds like Second Life can, indeed, successfully be used for business to be accomplished, without fear of disruption, at a much lower cost, and with the convenience of not requiring any physical travel at all, thus reducing the wasted time, as well, of course, as being more ecologically sound.

You’ll need to be fluent in French to follow the 5-minute extract of the show:

Thanks to Clara Young for the heads-up!

L$ as a currency in the real world – a step closer?

Linden Lab has just revealed a nifty feature implemented on XStreetSL, the web-based shopping site for Second Life that they acquired a year ago. Following the downtime on March 3, two things were immediately apparent: firstly, a slight tweak on the design elements allows now XStreetSL to have a “fluid” layout, getting rid of the ugly, nasty horizontal scroll bars that were a hallmark of XStreetSL from the very beginning. Now this will look urban and streamlined on the best 4k gaming monitors.

The much more interesting announcement, of course, was the ability to directly use your L$ stored in your avatar’s account on XStreetSL, and vice-versa, immediately transferring L$ from XStreetSL to your avatar. It might not seem much (it had been promised since last year), but there is some dramatic magic going on beneath this apparenly simple, yet useful, feature.

Most services that have L$ transactions associated with it — and this is not just XStreetSL; think about web-based rental systems or the many audio/video streaming providers that accept payments in L$, or, of course, the alternate currency exchanges (which offer a far wider range of payment systems beyond LL’s offer of PayPal and credit cards) — have a rather difficult time in swiftly moving L$ between avatars. The main issue is that, although Second Life is by far and large the vastest digital marketplace for virtual goods in the world (yes, it beats Apple’s App Store!), it has a very primitive programming interface to deal with money transactions.

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Not There Any More

Launched at about the same time as Second Life, There.com used to be seen as “SL’s little brother”. For a long time it used to be compared with Second Life as one of the few serious competitors out there, in the sense that it was a long runner, that outlasted the period of venture capital funding. While the avatars and overall scenario was of inferior quality compared to SL — even in 2004-6 — it had at least three major advantages over SL: vehicles worked quite well; you could have a tighter control over your environment and friends (e.g. “the grieferless utopia”) which made MTV select it over SL for its Virtual Laguna Beach project, alleging that Linden Lab didn’t give MTV the kind of tools to enforce a rigid control over users and content; and it was stupidly simple to use. It also had a way for users to engage with the community and get “ratings” and “goals” to follow doing social activity (something which recently was brought up for SL as well).

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Second Life 2.0: The Revolution

Here it is: the much-awaited Second Life 2.0 Beta viewer!

To the best of my knowledge, this viewer was the result of over a year and a half of coding and testing. The overall layout was designed by Big Spaceship, the company that Linden Lab has outsourced their Web redesign — and the in-world viewer too. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the new viewer looks slightly like a web browser 🙂

As with all changes released by Linden Lab, this will split users in the usual two groups: the ones that are immediately fascinated by the new look, and the ones that will hate it with bitterness to the point of despair. There is no accounting for taste; expect many old-timers to write long posts about all the things they hate about SL 2.0. And, of course, for many, the hype and expectation was so great that they will feel disappointed. They might expect much more and blame LL for falling short on expectations. Again, this kind of reaction is unavoidable.

There will be hordes loving the new viewer, and furiously attacking the nay-sayers and the old-timers publicly on forums, blogs, and in-world events. There will be Emerald die-hard fanatics that will simply refuse to even consider downloading the new viewer. Even though the 1.X generation of viewers will be discontinued when 2.1 comes out (due in the summer), a large proportion of residents will simply refuse to learn how to use the new viewer and continue to use the old ones. I’m quite sure that the next few months will introduce heavy flame wars all over the SLogosphere, and we ought to be ready for it.

Why? Just because the new SL 2.0 viewer is so different. All the features of 1.X are there, and a lot of new ones have been scattered around the new user interface, but it requires relearning. It’s like someone finally switching from Windows to Mac OS X: it works pretty much in the same way, and you can do everything on a Mac that you can do on Windows, but the interface is utterly different. Even the argument that “it is much more logical, rational, and user-friendly” has failed to move more people to Mac OS X, so it’s naive to think that these very same arguments will convince every die-hard SL 1.X lover to switch to 2.0.

Ultimately, however, they won’t have a choice (at least until the released open source code gets incorporated on the third-party viewers, something that will take some time). And here’s why.
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Skin magic

Warning: eventually very shocking images below!

The year was mid-2004. For anyone who had just registered and joined, it looked like a wonderful, pretty world. Avatars were less cartoonish than, say, on There.com, and with some tweaking they would even look minimally decent.

Well… honestly, that’s how I looked like back then:

All right, I know — you’re not impressed! But this picture shows my own shape, created on my very first day, and the standard, ugly, Linden-created rubber skin. We all were ugly back then, so although this picture gives me the creeps these days, we thought it was actually pretty good, compared to other virtual worlds!

Then in early 2004, people like Namssor Daguerre thought about this very seriously and wondered if there was no way to change the default skin. At that time, remember, all they had to work with was a 2D “clothes template”. If you have seen the ones that Linden Lab publishes, you will quickly see that it’s not obvious where exactly each pixel will ultimately appear. And even if you figure it out, it’s not easy to do a whole skin. Back in 2004, we all thought that it would be “easy” to get some RL pictures of someone and just “distort” them properly so tha they “fit” on the 2D template somehow. Believe me, I’ve tried that; it simply is impossible to do it correctly. In real life, 3D artists would probably project a 2D picture on top of a 3D mesh, and then extract the appropriate 2D map (also called an “UV map”). But, alas, in 2004, Linden Lab did not release the 3D avatar mesh, so this approach was out.

Instead, 3D skin designers would have to do all the work manually. Yes, that’s right: the whole skin had to be carefully painted, pixel by pixel, on top of the template, taking into account that the avatar mesh has a lot more polygons on the face than, say, on hands and feet — which would have “stretched” bits if this wasn’t correctly done. Hand-painting a realistic texture was not for the faint of heart!

This is the result, one month after that other picture, when I bought Namssor Daguerre’s first-generation skin:

Wow, what an improvement! Well, I know this is not an image good enough for 2010 (you can just look at the low quality of the top I’m wearing!) But you can see how the shape did not change. SL didn’t change either, it wasn’t some sudden feature improvement overnight (you can see that on the background). Notice, however, how the face doesn’t look like “rubber” any more. It looks like skin, as it should! There is some detail lacking (specially on the arms) but far, far better than the Linden skin… even for 2005!

Of course we all know that Second Life has improved fantastically (yes, really!) over the years. So the last picture, which is quite recent (from today!), shows Namssor Daguerre’s third and latest generation skin.

Well, of course this is five years later… so no wonder it looks much better 🙂 It is, after all, a new renderer; a new lighting system; and, of course — far better accessories (like prim hair!!) which have been designed for realism…

Now the surprising revelation: I’m wearing the exact shape I had in early August 2004 on all these pictures! Oh yes! Well, there have been two tweaks — a very minor one on my nose, and, after tons of complains, I reduced my, mmh, bra size… lol. But the rest is pretty much the same! Specially when you compare with the first picture, you’ll see the amazing difference, which is almost unbelievable…

That’s the kind of magic that a skin makes in Second Life. And you’re welcome to look at Namssor Daguerre’s current offerings at his shop on the Beta Business Park, which launches today with a Grand Opening which will last several hours, with models showing off the many choices on the catwalk, nice music, and a friendly environment 🙂

"How do I make money?"

Gwyneth Llewelyn in Colonia NovaLet’s face it: we all were newbies once. While some of us might have immediately plunged into a creative spree like never before, and just remembered after two months that our avatar was in its newbie clothes that they started with, this is hardly the case of the majority of new users…

Sooner or later — often sooner! — a new user will know that they need money. Well, my explanation is that they might have read magazine ads telling them how successful business loans was. They might have browsed through blogs and forums, catching numbers here and there, on how much money is being transacted in SL, and how some content creators and live music performers make a living here. They might even have come to a conference or two at the Beta Business Park and listened to people talking about their business experience in SL. Or they just looked up on the top of the screen where it says “L$0” and wondered how to get more.

No matter what the reason was, usually rather early in the process of getting acquainted with Second Life, one of the very, very first questions asked is how to make money in SL (often seconded by “will you give me some L$?”). Unless, of course, you just came in for the dating 🙂

Traditionally, the usual answer you give to an intelligent new user is that it’s “as hard as to make money in the real world”, and follow that up with a comparison with making money from Web design. Some helpers just take the trouble to describe what you can create, from buildings to clothes, from scripting to animations, and patiently explain how you develop a brand in SL, make it a successful, and retire on a Caribbean island (even a virtual one!).

The casual user, however, is not interested in how to make money that way. They want to make money fast. They know they’re unskilled, so they hardly expect to become the next super-architect or boots designer in SL, but they still want money. Quickly. Painlessly. Without an effort.

At this point, most helpers just shake their heads and sigh.
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Second Life Registration Page 2021

The First-Hour Experience

Public Orientation Area; image by Nock Forager (2008)

The Christmas season is over and Second Life®’s shops were teeming with happy new clients and making the Second Life economy rock’n’roll! Or… were they?

I guess that we will only have a definitive answer to that when Linden Lab reveals the transaction data for December 2009, and compares it to last year. My guess is that the difference will be small — enough for Linden Lab to tell everybody that the economy is growing as usual (or as predicted), but it won’t be growing 900% a year, like it did from 2006 to 2007. If it grew 9% this year, it would already be quite nice.

There is, however, something that seems not to be growing at all: the number of residents that remain in Second Life. We are still getting the usual number of signups, close to 10.000 per day. It’s not exactly zero growth! But… none of them stay long enough to make a difference in the number of active users. Linden Lab, for the past few months, have dropped the number of registered users from the statistics and just announce the number of active ones: around a million these days, although I have seen lower figures quoted. The number of users on the login database, however, probably reach 17 million or so, but that’s just my guesstimate.

Second Life Registration Page 2021

Where do all those 10.000 users-per-day go? Why don’t we see them around? Why do they leave, often merely minutes after they’ve registered? What’s so fundamentally wrong with Second Life that scares so many users away?

In my previous line of business, I used to manage an Internet Service Provider. In the mid-1990s, it was routinely accepted that around 6-9% of all new users would leave before the month’s end. It was the acceptable rate. When that number rose to 10%, something was seriously wrong, and we would all try to figure out what was going on. Was our connection too slow? The setup was too hard? The prices too high? Something would have to be very wrong for losing a customer out of ten; and there is always the old adage that says that a happy customer will tell five others about their good experience, but an unhappy one will tell 50…

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Business and Technology in Second Life

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