party like it’s 1993

April 26, 2007

Raise your hand if you remember the web in 1993-94. Did you know anybody with a web page? If you did, was it bug-ugly? Based on a flat text file? Full of large irrelevant photos? Rings a bell, doesn’t it. The web had been around for a while by then, but it wasn’t in popular use (I’m talking about the web, not the internet). A few people were beginning to experiment with web pages, but most of us had no idea what to do with them. The most common uses were “Hello, world!” and résumés and pages that talked about our pets (guilty! you can still find mine in the Internet Archive). The web was sort of a place to list flat files. Companies that had a web presence — and there were not many — had a “virtual storefront” where the most useful thing was usually a phone number so you could call and talk to a person without having to lug out that big, inconvenient phone book under your desk. The metaphor we all understood was the paper page, so web pages started as paper pages.

Flash forward 15 or so years, and the situation is totally different. Instead of “You have a web page? Are you a geek?” you hear “You don’t have a web page? Have you been living under a rock?” You can do all kinds of useful and fun things online, like banking and gaming and shopping and keeping in touch with faraway people. But 15 years ago, we were still trying to work out what the heck to use this web thing for.

Right now is the 1993 of virtual worlds. They’ve been around for a while, but people are now beginning to notice them. A lot of people have a presence in a virtual world, but it’s still (for many) the equivalent of “Hello, world!” or a pet page (some people ARE their pets in virtual worlds; who am I to throw stones?). Companies that have a presence there are in the virtual storefront stage: they maybe build a replica of their building or campus, maybe duplicate their existing online shopping experience, maybe staff an in-world help desk. The metaphor we all understand right now is comprised of two parts: we understand buildings, and we understand the dynamic 2.0 web, so that’s what virtual worlds look like at the moment, mostly.

That’s not the end of the road. Just like the web right now is a completely different space than it was in 1993, virtual worlds will be completely different in 5, 10, 15 years. People are starting to experiment with what makes virtual worlds different from physical spaces and different from the flat web. When I talk about virtual worlds, I almost always get the question, “What can you do on a virtual campus that you can’t do just as well on a physical one?” My answer — still — is I don’t know.

I don’t know what all you can do there, but I know that what you can do there now isn’t the whole answer. I don’t know what it will look like. All I know is it won’t look like it does now, and it will make now look like flatland in 1993. But the only way for us to get there (and find out if there is a place we want to be) is to play around, experiment, try it out, learn new things. Fail a little, succeed a little more. Connect with educators, students, coders, librarians, museums, designers. Start with what you know: make an avatar, fiddle around until you are pleased with the look. (How many times did you redesign your first web page in the first week you had it? Identity is important.) Make a building. Make a cup of coffee. Discover scripting and create an object that does something. As more people do this, and as our expectations of what is possible expand, so will the technology.

So party on: it’s early days, and we’re inventing as we go.

okay, but I’m not calling it third life

February 26, 2007

This post started out as a comment to Bryan Alexander’s post, “Towards Third Life,” but it got way long so it’s here instead. I recommend reading his post, and the comments there, before you read this one.

Holy cow, what a great conversation. I’ll just leap right in the middle, shall I? As Mike points out, the griefing issue is a big deal in virtual worlds, and it will always be there, as it always is in any social gathering other than a private party. That’s just people; if you don’t take tickets at the door, you’ll get all kinds of folks, and some of them have the agenda of messing up whatever you are trying to do. In the real world we use laws and police and peer pressure to limit this, but those tactics are less effective in virtual worlds, where laws don’t work and no one can afford to pay the policemen. The peer pressure angle doesn’t work for at least two reasons: first, too many people feel that their avatar is somehow a wholly other entity who can adhere to any moral code (or lack thereof) without consequence; and second, because it’s hard to figure out what exactly constitutes appropriate behavior in a world where you can drop in on a conversation out of the sky, copy and paste other people’s words without their knowing, or represent yourself as something entirely other than what you are. Note that I’m not saying any of these acts are necessarily bad; just that the moral code is still under development, and peer pressure depends on having a lot of people who all agree on the basics of interaction.

I don’t think you can have an unwalled garden without any weeds. It’s true that some MMOGs have gone a long way toward solving that problem, but they are not unwalled by any means, and they have access to tactics similar to the real world ones. In World of Warcraft, for instance, the game is built in such a way as to prevent most griefing from being possible, but that goes hand in hand with the fact that the players can’t fundamentally change the world in any way. For the situations where it is still possible to get in someone’s way, they have police: there are invisible game masters who could be anywhere, and who can take away your account permanently (think of it as being incarcerated, it’s basically the same; you have to start from scratch to rebuild yourself if you still want to play). Second Life, and the Third Life vision we’re talking about here, can’t resort to those methods. It’s too limiting and restrictive to forbid people from changing the world, and it goes against the purpose of the world in the first place.

This is one of the tougher problems that will need to be worked out. If we create invitation-only spaces, we are missing out on one of the best features of massively multiplayer worlds: the masses of players (or people, if you object to the term “player”). If you have a world where only 30 people have the keys to the door, you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for people to show up, and the serendipitous aspect of discovering what’s happened in your absence will be greatly diminished. You can’t lock out the griefers without also locking out a whole lot of smart, creative people who would contribute to the world in meaningful ways.

With respect to Bryan’s comparisons between virtual worlds and text-based social spaces, I want to point out that the difference between meeting people on a wiki and meeting them in a virtual world is a lot like the difference between seeing fox tracks in the snow and seeing the actual fox. The tracks are great—someone’s been here, they were here a few minutes ago, maybe they are still somewhere nearby—but it’s a different experience to be right there with the fox, see how it behaves, maybe chat with it a little and feel the connection of being in the same place at the same time. (Okay, I transmogrified the fox into the online person there, but you get the point.) I’m not sure yet whether there is direct benefit for education in the second kind of interaction, but I think there is. I think it might turn out to justify the effort.

Owen’s comment about the incongruity of holding a professional conversation with someone representing as Flighty Moonsparks or something similar is right on the money. I think LL made an error in assigning a limited number of surnames, and I think our Third Life will have to be a little more flexible. There’s a very real feeling of identity that comes from customizing one’s online presence—from name to appearance—and if virtual worlds are to be successful, that needs to be as flexible as possible. On the other hand, we also need to be willing to accept that someone may choose to be (to pick an entirely random example) Ninmah while online even if her real name is, say, Rachel. Names are just convention, after all.

I have to disagree with Alan a little about how easy it was to make web pages in the beginning. It was technically simple to create a web page, yes, but it was conceptually incredibly difficult for many people, much in the way that it’s really easy to set up a Second Life account but it’s conceptually very hard to work out what to do next. I do think that virtual worlds are going to become easier to access, prettier to look at, and more common to be in. I think there are huge obstacles to work out before they are everything we want them to be, but I think that we’re on the road to get there, just by playing around with the ones that we have now, and by having conversations like these.

The name’s gotta go, though. “Second Life” is bad enough—you only get one life, period. Spend it online, offline, or both, it’s the same life.

tiny prims

February 23, 2007

Ninmah wearing the new jewelryI’ve been working and playing in Second Life, and wanted to learn more about building with prims (primitives, the basic building block shapes of the virtual world), so I set myself a little project. I wanted to make some jewelry. To that end, I tried to make a gem-shaped prim and shrink it to an appropriate size for a ring, but I ended up with a diamond the size of a teacup: every girl’s dream, maybe, but not exactly wearable. Lucky for me, my co-worker Ravenelle Z. came to the rescue, and sent me a link to this video explaining how to make tiny prims.

Talk about a revelation! There are a dozen little numbers you can play with, and if I had paid more attention in geometry I might have glommed on earlier. In any event, after examining some very well-made prim jewelry, I made my first set. Well, my first wearable set, anyway. Here’s a picture of me in my new gold and pearl jewelry.

The earrings came out very well. The necklace needs a little tweaking — I’m not entirely happy with the chain, and if your avatar is taller than mine (very likely, since my avi’s height mimics my RL height) the necklace will rez invisibly inside your chest. I made a “tall” version, but I need to find out how to attach a necklace so that it automatically finds the avatar’s neck. The earrings work on any height.

What do you think? The birth of a new jewelry line? Do I have that kind of time?

like a religious experience for artists

August 8, 2006

is this video of Robbie Dingo creating a guitar for Suzanne Vega for her upcoming performance in Second Life. Wow.

worlds collide

May 22, 2006

The BBC has an island:

And the RL (that’s “real life”) conference BarCamp now has a SL analog; here’s a write-up on Laughing Squid:

Granted, BarCamp’s pretty geeky to begin with. But the BBC? A delightful surprise.

NMC Campus in the New York Times!

April 3, 2006

Well, the article’s about Electric Sheep, but NMC Campus (our Second Life space) is mentioned and there’s even a picture on C|Net.

I want a whiteboard in Second Life.

March 29, 2006

The NMC’s island in Second Life, NMC Campus, is nearly finished. It’s being built by Electric Sheep, who do absolutely fantastic work, and it’s as pleasant and inspiring a space as you could want. One of the buildings in particular would be amazing to actually walk through in the physical world. But the really neat thing, the thing that I’m most excited about, is not the space itself. What I’m really interested in is figuring out what kinds of activities we can offer in the space, and planning them, and participating in them.

It’s important to me that for the activities that we choose, it actually makes a difference to have them in SL versus, say, having them on the phone, or using Writely, or Learning Times. I realize that at first we will spend a lot of time getting people used to the space, but we do that with every online tool that we use, so that doesn’t bug me. I’m puzzling about what happens next, and whether there are advantages to having an avatar, and what those advantages might be.

One of the things that I do at face-to-face meetings is graphic facilitation. Maybe you’ve seen this; there’s a giant sheet of paper, 4′ high by 8 or 14 or 16 feet long, mounted on a whiteboard or a wall or foamcore boards or whatever, and while the meeting goes on, someone (me in many cases) records the discussion visually using colored markers on the large paper. It’s really impressive to watch — I can say this because I’ve seen other people do it — and it’s also fun to do. I want to be able to do this in Second Life.

It shouldn’t be that hard, right? Imagine I’m sitting at my desk, logged in to SL, and I’ve got a graphics tablet with a pen. I’ve got my headset on and I’m connected via Skype or phone bridge or whatever audio technology, so I can hear what people are saying. My avatar is standing in front of a whiteboard in SL, and when I move my pen on my tablet, the marks appear on the whiteboard. (My avatar doesn’t have to look like she’s drawing; I’m not asking for the moon here.) The other avatars in the room can see what I’m writing as I write it, just as if we were doing it face to face. Then when I’m done, I can save the contents of the whiteboard as a jpg (or whatever, I’m not picky) so we have a record of the visuals.

I’d need to be able to switch “pens” — choose a different color — quickly and easily, maybe by tapping a square on a palette. The pens all have the same tip, so I don’t need a huge variety of Photoshoplike brushes. It would be nice to have a softer tip to emulate the chalks I use for emphasis, but I can wait for that.

So, who’s bored? Someone want to write me one of these? I’ll help with the requirements and testing.