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Posted 2006-10-06 by Tony Walsh
My Avatar Soils Local Paper
Brent Lawson of the Hamilton Spectator has written a 1-pager on virtual world Second Life, featuring myself and 3pointD's Mark Wallace in our own mixed-reality vignettes. I've only had my face appear in a newspaper a few times--this time, it's my avatar, which I designed to mirror (well, "mimic," maybe) my own features. It's pretty strange to see my own homonculus plastered on the printed page.

Lawson's article introduces Second Life to the uninitiated fairly well, although it does contain a few minor factual errors and a hilarious take on the virtual world by McMaster University professor Robert Hamilton. While Hamilton is correct that Second Life "fails miserably" on several levels, his opinion seems exceedingly uninformed.

I'm by no means a cheerleader for Second Life, but I think it's worth addressing Professor Hamilton's complaints as printed in the Spectator article. They are summarized (in boldface as follows:

Second Life "fails miserably" on several levels
It sure does fail miserably, primarily in the performance and security areas. But not so much in the areas Hamilton complains about, as you will soon discover...

Second Life doesn't suspend my disbelief or draw me into the experience
There are basically two groups of users: Those looking for immersion (a game- or story-based world) and those looking for augmentation (a world that supplements, supports or facilitates real-life activities). Second Life, by the nature of its architecture, isn't an immersive world, and isn't trying to be. Early on it was positioned as an alternative to real life from an immersive perspective, but it has been repositioned by its maker, Linden Lab as an open platform--much in the way that the World Wide Web is not story-based by nature, but is instead an open platform where immersion and augmentation co-exist. One problem is that Second Life's immersive experiences aren't easy to find, but another is that its engine is constantly reminding us we are in a constructed virtual world (not a "real" fictional world).

"The graphics are really low quality, and that’s really important."
It's true that Second Life's graphics are low quality compared to contemporary video games. The software that runs the client "viewer" is outdated. I'm not sure what Hamilton means about the importance of low quality graphics. I think he might be saying that high-quality graphics are a necessary part of an immersive experience--if so, he's dead wrong in my opinion. Just look at the entire history of video games and virtual worlds--graphics have improved steadily over the years, but has our feeling of immersion increased directly in proportion to the graphics? Many fans of text-based worlds will tell you that graphics aren't even necessary for an immersive experience. I was just as immersed in Bungie's Marathon series (1994) as I was playing Half-Life2 (2004).

"It's like a Fisher Price-level entrance into this kind of stuff"
No explanation for "this kind of stuff" was offered, so it's hard to respond here. If Hamilton's talking about virtual worlds, Second Life is one of the main contenders in the space, along with its competitor, There. And Fisher Price actually makes really excellent toys, so I'm not sure what he's on about. But as far as "entry level" goes, we are starting to see many large corporations turn an interested eye towards Second Life--the list is now growing too long to publish here, but the virtual world is being seen (however incorrectly) as a place to stake one's corporate claim, much like the early adoption of the World Wide Web before it was a household phrase. It's a virtual gold-rush (except there's very little gold to be had, unless you consider publicity stunts gold).

Since Second Life relies on text for conversations, your typing skills determine your social skills and value.
Second Life is a visual, 3D virtual world. While it's true that text is the main method of communication (just like text-based virtual worlds before it, and just like instant messaging), there are plenty of other ways to express oneself. Not only does Second Life facilitate human-style body language--capable of expressing more than words with a single emote--but even one's proximity and facing relative to another avatar can communicate something. So can the appearance, actions, or facial expressions of avatars. Social value in Second Life is as often gauged by appearance and actions as it is by one's textual communication.

It's questionable that Second Life provides a blueprint for efficient online collaboration.
Many real-world groups are already using Second Life to collaborate efficiently online. Aside from the collaborative building of 3D props and structures, lots of people use Second Life as a meeting place--like videoconferencing in 3D. It is regularly used in a professional context for training, education, mental therapy, office-work, and other collaborative purposes. I wouldn't recommend it in all cases, but for many purposes it's quite suitable. Just as a couple of examples, The Electric Sheep Company has done work for large real-world corporations using Second Life as a teleworkspace, collaborative creation environment, and project deployment platform; just today, a public library initiative was announced that will offer virtual library services to teens through a private, virtual island: "The project hopes to build teen developmental assets, encourage collaboration and promote active learning that will prepare teens for future learning." Hell, even I was able to have a client fly into the virtual space to review 3D concepts I was working on.

I'm not an evangelist for Second Life, but I think it's due a lot more credit than Robert Hamilton gives it, despite all its flaws.
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Comment posted by Michael Maitland
October 6, 2006 @ 12:53 pm
"I was just as immersed in Bungie's Marathon series (1994) as I was playing Half-Life2 (2004)."

The graphics certainly aren't competing with HL2, but they look pretty darn good to me (as long as the scene is fully rezzed).

I guess this guy never tried any of the old Infocom adventures.
Comment posted by csven
October 6, 2006 @ 12:56 pm
I'm curious. From his bio, Hamilton sounds like some of my former art school classmates: MFA's, multi-media experience, professors etc. Only I'm relatively certain none of them are even remotely qualified to discuss this topic, so why is he qualified? Why was he interviewed? Does he have some experience about which I've not read? When I look at the program at McMasters, it sounds irrelevant to me (i.e. limited to "digital images, digital audio, and digital video" with one class apparently still teaching vrml). I'm just wondering.
Comment posted by Torley
October 6, 2006 @ 1:10 pm
What's intriguing to me is that I see "bad graphics" often mentioned as a criticism of Second Life in news articles, but "bad sound" doesn't come up more.

AS George Lucas is popularly quoted, "Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience." I think the same applies in SL and I don't hear a lot of questions about the obscure sliders in Preferences > Audio & Video, nor the bigger issue of why don't we have things like smooth crossfading of music streams across parcels (would make for a more *immersive* environment than a herky, jerky start-'n'-stop), and did you know we have footstep sounds? Turn them up... oh wait, now you know why that slider's usually kept on the low. ;)

I mean this sort of cheekily, but really -- I don't think it gets brought up enough. We have impressive builds using baked textures, and there are lots of Animation Overriders, but what about Sonic Overriders? What about walking down a long marble hall of a museum and hearing your shoes subtlely reverbate far into the distance?

And why are so many upsampled (played at the wrong pitch) and cliched water loops used when there's currently *such* a void, a great market for sound designers to step in and come up with better sonic atmospheres. It'd be the aural counterpart of prefab homes in some cases.

While things like MIDI hooks are decidedly geeky, I hope someone will be able to craft them someday they'd require a low-latency environment to really groove on, but I must say the experiments I've seen in creating inworld grooveboxes have been promising.
Comment posted by Torley
October 6, 2006 @ 1:11 pm
And for the record, I was a YUGE fan of Marathon too. Anyone who wants to catch up on the latest or doesn't know what it is and wants to play it, should check out the open-source Aleph One:
Comment posted by Jerry Paffendorf
October 6, 2006 @ 1:36 pm
Csven > I'm curious. From his bio, Hamilton sounds like some of my former art school classmates: MFA's, multi-media experience, professors etc.

Careful, dude! He's got two, count 'em *two* MFAs! Double snooze button! And he's triple-threat: US, Canada, Europe. See:

"He holds a diploma from the Alberta College of Art & Design, a MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and a second MFA from the Jan Van Eyck Academie in The Netherlands."

jk ;) I can't resist art credential jokes because I did the art school experience too. Looking good in that pic, Tony! If there's an SL avatar calendar for 2007 you can be January!
Comment posted by csven
October 6, 2006 @ 5:48 pm
Actually, the one person I know whose qualifications might come closest went to the Art Institute of Chicago for her masters. She's also received some acclaim for her remixing of old public domain media. Only when we last talked about this sort of thing, she was only aware of it... nothing more.

I'd honestly like to know what Hamilton's credentials are; even if it boiled down to being a professor plus being a WoW fanatic.
Comment posted by Ordinal Malaprop
October 7, 2006 @ 9:24 am
Good point, Torley. I know that when I'm designing things I love to use as many sound effects as possible, clunks, clicks, whirrs and so on. In terms of ambient sound, though, unless the sound in question is looping background noise, the time to load the sound can ruin immersion. An attachment can preload sounds when attached so that at least the wearer will hear what's going on (and the wearer is the paying customer, after all) but if one sees a door open and then hears it open three seconds later, it is not terribly effective.

The scripted solution would be to have a sensor or similar which activated whenever someone was close enough to hear the sound, preloading it, but for more than a handful of sounds that is quite a few scripts.

Another possibility would be to have just one, wide, sensor, which upon detecting someone new sent out a drone prim to their location, which sat there preloading all of the required sounds to their client and then disappeared. This might be a good idea for large builds; it could be put at a telehub as well.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
October 7, 2006 @ 9:41 am
Zero, I'm nominating you for "avatar of the year" at the Herald, pronto. Looking good!

Yes, you're not only right about the dude's triple threat stuff, Jerry, the thing is, these days, "digital arts" covers a multitude of sins. You can't spit in Second Life these days without finding somebody teaching a "digital arts" course, and they can wring almost anything they want out of it, from feminism to psychology to actual art art. It's the new Ph.D. in Education.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
October 9, 2006 @ 10:41 am
I spent the weekend nursing an ear infection, so I sort of gapped out on the replies here, sorry. I think y'all are harshing a bit much on Prof. Hamilton. I think he was chosen to comment on this piece because he is a local source--he lives in the city the paper is published in. Either he is uninformed about Second Life, or the writer chose to print the most uninformed quotes.

As an occasional media commentator, I had to learn to decline public commentary in cases where I am not knowledgeable about the topic (although I'm sure I still say at least one daft thing every time I appear in the media).
Comment posted by Brace
October 9, 2006 @ 11:24 am
mmmmmm T-Dawg you are Teh HAWT!

but we all KNEW that already :D

its those flowing locks that get me every time

Comment posted by Tony Walsh
October 10, 2006 @ 12:24 pm
Silly Brace, locks are for kids!
All this fuss about my avtar makes me want to update the skin. The face is pretty atypical (read "deformed"), so it seems to take more futzing around with than most avatars. But I kind of want my beard-stubble back. The last revision I did smoothed over the stubble. I am rarely that clean-shaven. Annnnnyway, enuff about me...
Comment posted by Brace
October 13, 2006 @ 11:28 pm
"Silly Brace, locks are for kids!"


I've seen some rough-neck type of skinz out there, so you should be able to find some cool stubble - get that marlboro man lookin thing goin on ;)

Show uz pics!
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