Friday, July 29, 2005

Prophets of SL Volume I: Gwyneth Llewelyn

Second Life means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some players, the amount of freedom offered by Linden Lab’s cyber-playground means that they might actually have something to show for the hours of free time that they’d otherwise spend playing imported Japanese RPG’s or watching reruns of Family Guy. These enthusiastic players are the ones who gain recognition within the Second Life community – builders, visionaries and inventors who enrich our world with the virtual manifestations of their creative minds – they are the ones who by and large are considered the “backbone” of the Second Life community.

For the majority of players though, Second Life is about as productive as real life. A simple glance at the in-game world map shows large numbers of players crowded together in groups at clubs and parties doing things that they could probably do in real life if they wanted to. These are the people blowing their money at the slots and boosting traffic flow so that club owners and proprietors reap can the benefits. These are also the same people who are targeted by the increasingly prominent advertisements that simulators all around Second Life have been cluttered with, making lag worse and simulators less desirable for prospective landowners or even consumers.

Second Life culture wasn’t always so shallow and self-absorbed – at least not according to the “old school” players. While they’re about as common in Second Life as Americans who listen to the President’s weekly radio address or Canadians who like baseball, there are still those who attend discussion events in-world that revolve around topics other than erotic poetry. For the most part, these people are veterans of other MMOG’s (many of them refugees from Will Wright’s precarious MMOG The Sims Online), and whether they’re builders, teachers, scripters, land barons or simply adventurers, many take a deep interest in what’s going in Second Life. There are a lot of questions that people want answered, and perhaps foremost among them all is “where is Second Life going”? What will become of our virtual para (dise/digm/dox)?

For the benefit of our readers (both of them), we pose this dangerously generalized question to various members of the Second Life community. First on the list is an officer of the vaunted and revered Thinkers group – Gwyneth Llewelyn. The Thinkers convene biannually on Mount Olympus, and if provoked will cast thunder and lightning down upon the demi-gods and mortals of Second Life. They also hold meetings on various days of the week (Tuesday is generally the most consistent meeting day) about some of Second Life’s most interesting topics. Naturally, Gwyneth Llewelyn had some interesting thoughts on the future of Second Life.

The future of Second Life is pretty clear to me - it will assimilate the current 2D World-Wide Web and replace it as the major interface to the Internet.

In the past, Internet technology was successful if it managed not only to replace and enhance older technologies, but if it assimilated them. So, the HTML/HTTP-based WWW replaced things like Gopher or proprietary client-server systems with backend databases. Using the same interface - the Web browser - it enabled all kinds of services and applications. That was one of its appealing factors. The other was, of course, the many new applications that simply did not exist before.

I believe that SL will go the same route. The first steps have already been completed - emails and limited XML-RPC that enables an interconnection with off-world servers. The next step will begin with SL 1.7, with in-world HTML, and intra-sim object communication, to be further extended towards a total integration with the current WWW.

This will allow SL to become a 3D "browser" to legacy applications, fully "absorbing" the 2D Web, and slowly replacing it as a new way to interface with back-end servers. Things like e-Commerce or remote learning (cyberlearning) will be much easier done in a 3D environment - as well as better communication.

Perhaps the biggest question is if the Internet in 2015 will be mostly based on a derivative of Second Life's technology (the "Mozilla" approach - an open-source solution that's started by a company and slowly improved by a large community), or if we'll see a "Microsoft 3D Browser" to become the unchallenged virtual world interface. It's likely that both solutions will co-exist.

As you can see, Gwyneth’s vision for Second Life’s future is strictly a technical one, and it’s for that reason that we start by examining her response to the prompt. Regardless of what you think of the future of Second Life’s culture, the existence of the game itself is an obvious requirement for any culture to exist and is therefore of paramount concern.

While she refrains from using the word itself, it is clear that by a “3D Browser” Gwyneth is referring to what most people would consider to be the Metaverse. For the uninitiated, the Metaverse is the basis for Philip Linden’s vision of Second Life. Taken from the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, the idea of a Metaverse presents a three-dimensional virtual world that is fully interactive and a perfect reflection of real life, minus the physical limitations found in the real world. Imagine a world where you could walk into a mall and look around at beautifully designed stores and furniture or go to the food court and buy fast food without worrying about how you’ll feel an hour later. That is the metaverse.

Of course, Second Life already has a plethora of malls and merchandise, not to mention food and drink available for purchase, but ultimately they are all just pixels on a viewing screen. The only connections between Second Life and real life exist through third party groups such as GOM (Gaming Open Market) or the Second Life Exchange, which merely transfer ownership of intangible goods through Second Life itself at an agreed price. There is no “interface” to speak of between Second Life and real life.

If you’ve heard this before, you probably just skipped the last two paragraphs, and if you haven’t heard this before, you probably don’t care anyway. Regardless, if you’ve ever seen The Matrix you can’t help but ask yourself just where the internet and the concept of “virtual reality” are heading.

According to Gwyneth, Second Life will be the first ship to sail across these uncharted waters. It seems reasonable to assume that Linden Lab indeed intends to pioneer in the field of virtual reality. The real question is whether or not they’ll be the ones to actually build something out of it. Second Life is a successful project, but it still only has less than 2,000 regular players, which is nothing compared to games like Dark Age of Camelot or EverQuest, the latter of which supposedly has over half a million subscribers. If these unexplored waters do indeed hold valuable treasures within their depths, what is to become of Second Life? What would stop other companies from building bigger and faster ships to explore them in?

As rich and vibrant as the community of Second Life is, its longevity is definitely unresolved (not that you can even resolve longevity to begin with). A game with an economy so focused on land could easily be sent spiraling downward into collapse, perhaps even by a single player with enough resources. Second Life’s biggest attraction is its freeform approach to online gaming and the creative flair of those who have and continue to bless the game’s environments with their creations - but that may not be enough to compete.

In addition to being a fun and refreshing escape from the tedium of other online games, Second Life happens to exist in what is probably the closest thing to the Metaverse currently in existence – so what? Second Life may be the first to venture this far off of the map, but it could easily capsize and be lost forever to the murky depths of the internet. All (or at least most) hands would surely abandon ship before something like that happened, and would once again drift aimlessly in cyberspace. Perhaps someday they’d be picked up by a new ship, this one headed for a new world, one where land is free for the taking and prims are unlimited – at least until the developers implement a prim tax.


Blogger Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

Just before you shy away most of the audience, Clarence, the Thinkers are far less "vaunted" and "revered" than you so nicely paint them :)

They're just one of the oldest discussion groups around that still meet regularly - perhaps not every day, but at least once per week. But the discussions vary a lot - from the state of SL and its future, yes, crossing into religion and philosophy - but the Thinkers also discuss sex in SL (even with a live demo!) and the current fashion in clothes :) So, don't take us too seriously, folks ;)

Interesting that you view my idea of SL's future as "strictly technical". Not wishing to disagree, of course, this is like telling that the value of the Internet is its inherently "technical" aspect. But it is not. It's an amazing communication tool, brought to its utter limits by stretching across the whole world.

This is what I also see happening with Second Life - or eventually its successor. It will become the next communication tool, absorb the 2D-WWW, and replace it with a far better environment. The technical aspects are not so important, as the idea that a "Metaverse" - a World-Wide Virtual World - will emerge from the tiny experiments we do with our 1000-simulators grid. The point is, the technology will follow the lead of the use we give to it - but if nobody uses it, it is just an "interesting experiment".

Take a look at this way old article on Linden Lab's first appearance in the news. Philip, apparently being quoted in a very humble manner, was "hoping" that he would just give people the tools to create a virtual world, and those people would naturally appear. So, instead of giving us fish to eat, he gave us a rod to catch our own fish. His "hopes" became truths in a bit over 3 years and a half. We not only grabbed the rod, we improved upon it, and now have a full-blown fishing industry :) All it took was a paradigm shift - get them rods, they'll fish for themselves :)

This is what I feel to be important in Second Life - and not necessarily if the "technical aspects" of SL are enough to sustain the forthcoming Metaverse. These are secondary - either we like LL's rods, or we will build our own. But in the Metaverse of 2015 people will still look at that February, 2002 news article and think: "wow, Philip was so right!"

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You will be one of the first to try it out.

Gone Fishin',


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