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  Connecting Real Voices Through Virtual Worlds  
Posted 2006-04-11 by Tony Walsh
Given Second Life's overabundance of objects such as 3D castles, functional cars and "deadly" ray-guns, finding a traditional British phone box inside that virtual world seems unremarkable at first glance. Users logged into Second Life are accustomed to inhabiting castles, driving cars, and firing ray-guns in its game-like environment, even though none of these actions impact the real world in any meaningful way. The phone box, however, contains a secret. Inside is a device capable of making outgoing calls to the real world. Dial it in virtual reality, get a call in actuality. Hear that ringing? It's the future calling.

No longer mere play-spaces, videogames and virtual worlds are becoming pop-culture institutions, workplaces, and social systems. The once-rigid borders between synthetic worlds and the so-called "real" world are evolving into permeable meshes, allowing information and culture to pass back and forth with increasing frequency. Vivox is the only communications company bridging these spaces as a main line of business. Its integration of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology into the fabric of online worlds is a unique development that will allow users not only to engage in real-time voice conversations while immersed in virtual environments, but directly control their communications from within, and even dial up the outside world.

Boston-based Vivox emerged from Pulver Media last summer, and by September, 2005 announced an initial round of VC funding in the amount of six million dollars. The company was co-founded by current CEO Robert Seaver and VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver. Seaver, along with Vivox's VP of Product Management and Marketing Monty Sharma, joined me in a phone and virtual-world discussion about the company and its cutting-edge efforts.

"As part of our Pulver legacy, we've been offering complex communications services such as IM, voice, video, and RSS feeds to large numbers of users for a number of years," Seaver explained. "We've taken all of that experience and are applying it to virtual world integration." The Vivox philosophy is not just to layer functionality onto places like the game-like Second Life, but, Seaver said, to "augment the immersive experience of existing in these virtual worlds." Vivox hopes to give Second Life residents new and different interaction opportunities. Its integrated voice technology is a huge step in that direction, expanding communication from text chat and animated gestures to natural conversations.

Vivox first discovered Second Life as part of a working relationship with Language Lab, a company operating a language school inside Second Life's multi-user environment. Previous to Vivox's involvement, Second Life's chief communication method consisted of a built-in text chat system and animated gestures. "If you think about the best way to learn a language, it's obviously to go to a foreign country and do all your day to day activities in that language," Seaver said. "Unfortunately most people don't have that opportunity, so Language Lab is recreating that experience inside Second Life, where you'll be able to move around a virtual town and conduct day to day experiences in a foreign language." Seaver said that Vivox aims to bring the nuance and intelligence of real-world communication to new spaces, adding that a virtual world is a near-perfect locale "because someone has already created an immersive representation of reality online."

Monty Sharma, one of several gamers at Vivox, saw promise in Second Life's user-created objects, locales, and costumes. "We discovered really interesting things going on. I'm somebody who tends to blow things up, so I hadn't previously spent a lot of time in Second Life. When we got in we actually saw what user-created content was capable of." Vivox bought a plot of virtual land in Second Life, where the company installed a user-created house and contracted residents of the virtual world to build a phone booth, interface, and other items critical to demonstrating its technology. Vivox's Dave Verratti used Second Life's building tools and his technical know-how to make the demo's functions operational. Equipped with the Vivox Phone client software and a temporary Vivox account, I logged into Second Life to meet Verratti, Seaver, and Sharma in avatar form.

Entering the Vivox house, Second Life hiccupped slightly as messages were transferred back and forth behind the scenes, adding me to an audio channel representing the area around the virtual Vivox bar. The audio quality was approximately that of an average mobile phone call, and was comparable to any real-time voice communication software I've ever used. Verratti explained how areas in Second Life can be set up with proximity sensors to establish discrete communications zones. We moved to a couch across from the bar, and entered an entirely new channel. Seaver and Sharma were still at the bar, unable to hear Verratti and I in conversation.

Transitions between zones are currently abrupt and prone to slight lag, and while Vivox could fade one zone out before fading in another, the server-side demands are too great to justify the effect. Vivox servers currently connect with the Second Life servers via email (a current limitation of Second Life) but Vivox has been working with the maker of Second Life, Linden Lab, to implement an HTTP-based solution to reduce lag. Verratti said that Linden Lab is currently working on a robust XML/RPC solution, which will facilitate much smoother communication.

Verratti soon (virtually) handed me a custom-built addition to Second Life's interface. This "heads up display" (HUD) took the form of tiny cell-phone-like buttons and controls. Five communication channels were available, as well as a dial-pad and address-book button. Clicking on this last HUD item brought up a list of quick-dial contacts. Vivox's interface addition allows residents of Second Life to engage in person-to-person calling as well as group voice chat.

Remember those scenes in the Matrix where Neo and his pals dial a virtual phone to access the real world? I re-enacted a similar scene in Second Life by using a Vivox phone booth. Resembling a pay phone (and capable of accepting in-world currency as payment), I used the interface to punch in Monty Sharma's personal cell number. Within several seconds I was connected from Second Life's virtual world to Sharma's real-world cellular phone. Seaver explained that these types of calls are made using SIPp (an open standards system). IP traffic is handed over to Vivox's termination partners who deliver it to the PSPN (prepaid service processing node) number.

Rob Seaver sees Second Life as a significant business opportunity. "A lot of business models need real-time communication--in particular voice communication--to be possible," he said, pointing out that "it's much harder to teach a language if you can't talk to people." Roughly thirty percent of Second Life's user-created businesses involve sexual themes, and although Seaver is a little leery of the adult market, he said that some of Vivox's work in the online dating space might prove useful in the virtual world. "One of the dating sites we've been talking to for a long time is interested in opening branded lounges in virtual worlds like Second Life or There. They see the opportunity to apply some of the extensive experience they've got with social interaction from the online sites into these virtual worlds and get people mixing there." But, added Seaver, "with dating in particular, it's very clear that more communication isn't better communication." People want to communicate at their own pace and in their own way, he said. "Just throwing a bunch of communication either at a dating community or a virtual world isn't anywhere near as useful as channeling it and giving both the service provider, portal owner, or the game developer, and the end-users the controls to make it really useful."

The massively-multiplayer game world of EVE Online was home to another Vivox demo, this time involving deep integration of the company's communication technology into EVE's client software. Although no formal partnership exists, Vivox worked directly with game code provided by EVE-maker CCP, and was able to demonstrate a robust voice solution in only two weeks. Monty Sharma said that if CCP had done the integration itself, "it would have been probably a little faster. We have only about a half-dozen APIs that need to get woven into the programming." The technology demonstration was made available to me as a short video clip, wherein Monty Sharma and David Verratti connected for voice chat through an augmented EVE interface. Contact is made by right-clicking anyone in your EVE buddy-list, and forming a "Gang" (an invite-only group). The Gang tab is right-clicked, "Join Audio" is selected. Those in the audio chat are made aware through simple indicators which Gang members are available for voice chat. The administrator of the Gang is able to kick or ban members from the audio channel.

In games like EVE Online, Vivox aims not only to improve players' tactical command and control abilities, but, as with Second Life, to expand socialization options. Other worlds are definitely on the horizon, and although Vivox is keen on exploring the business potential of these places, its approach respects established cultures and social norms. In assessing business opportunities, said Seaver, "Vivox usually looks for both high volume communication and for high value communication," said Seaver. "We're really at the starting point of voice," added Monty Sharma. "We need to be able to talk to people, to manage groups like guild and parties, and to bring in some of the behavior controls to address misbehavior. The number of griefers and 14 year-olds who just learned a new word online is larger than the number of intelligent people."

Identity in online games and virtual worlds is far more fluid than in the real world, and Vivox intends to help players maintain the illusion of alternate personas with "voice font" technology, planned for deployment this fall. "We've looked at a couple different solutions," Seaver said, "but the reality is that voice font technology doesn't work all that well, so you often end up with something like Battlestar Galactica's Cylons. You have to do a better job if you want a woman to sound like a man, and there is technology out there that will help us do that, but we're still in the evaluation stages. You need very sophisticated voice-morphing technology if you want to maintain that immersive characteristic of the game rather than destroy the immersion with people that are supposed to be an elf talking to people who are supposed to be an ogre."

"Vivox is keen to work with all virtual worlds and online communities," said Monty Sharma, noting that while the company doesn't offer its software directly to consumers, its technology can be made available through participating game developers. "By using our simple tools to integrate, world designers can deliver high quality and massive scale to build an appropriate experience for their world." With its impressive proof-of-concept efforts in Second Life and EVE Online, there can be little doubt the company's technology is up to the task of not only giving virtual worlds a voice, but bringing real and synthetic worlds closer together for the purposes of play, social networking, and even productivity.

This article was graciously edited by Mark Wallace of The Second Life Herald and 3pointD.
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