Tuesday, May 16, 2006




... even a talk at Harvard Law School hosted by public radio personality Christopher Lydon.  I mean, you could just sit there in Ames Courtroom and watch Lydon in person, but why not log into Second Life and catch the video simulcast as it's streamed into Berkman Island, and watch it with a Dalek, instead?  Or if you're really hardcore, like this dude, you can do both at the same time.  "If you are putting together a slide presentation and want to illustrate 'mixed reality' events," Pathfinder Linden (who passed along the photo) tells me, "I believe this image is what they call a 'money shot'." 

Photo credit (and metaphysical props) to Steve Garfield.


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I was doing the same thing a few rows back at the same meeting. My brain started to hurt when I realized I was watching my avatar watching a webcast of the person who was speaking right in front of me.

Thanks for the link.

As I was sitting there I just had to take that shot.

Looking forward to attending a conference in SL that I'm not at in real life. ;-)

Ok, I confess, I don't get the second life thing at all, but particularly in this context. What does SL add to an ordinary webcast in exchange for the massive bandwidth and computing resources it eats up?

Paul - in this case, SL provides an immersive environment where the people who are interested in the webcast can communicate with other people who listen in...and more than that, they feel like part of a coherent audience.

A few individuals from the virtual group gave up paying the conference fee and attended the meet in SL. By having people connect from the real conference, the virtual-only team still had an opportunity to network. Moreover, the web-based question tool available both in real life and SL allowed both audience groups to participate/share their input.

You can think of SL and the beyond broadcast experience as a multi-dimensional wiki :)

I guess. Do participants in SL really experience themselves as being part of a coherent audience?

I tried SL once. It wasn't pretty. I downloaded the software onto my little ibook all night over cable over wifi, created a character, and got on. I then found that it ran so hopelessly slow even on my bottleneck-busting 1.25 gigs of ram that I couldn't do anything with it. I started off in some kind of training area, and managed to fall off some kind of cliff from blundering around aimlessly impatiently hammering keys to try and get my avatar (which I never did figure out how to customize) to get off its rusty dusty and walk into the little instruction signs. Unable to get back up the cliff, I exercised the only command I'd learned, which was (I gather) supposed to teleport you "home." Imagine my surprise when it took me out of the tutorial area and in the middle of nowhere. I logged off and deleted the software. Finis.

Perhaps that experience is the source of my extreme skepticism toward the community-building potential of SL. (Well, that and the bizarre fact that people seem to be selling virtual goods for real money, notwithstanding the fact that SL can devalue those goods at will by creating more, or terminate the accounts of the "property owners" per Marc Woebegone. But that's more my virtual skepticism in general.) How could people possibly experience crawling through cyber-molasses as being part of a coherent audience? And given that individual-individual communication on SL is in text (Isn't it generally? Do people hook up microphones and transmit voice over SL? Talk about bandwidth crunch.), the same kind of networking could happen over a designated IRC room, no?

I guess my question is more what advantage does SL have over webcast + designated IRC room?

I think if you manage to surpass the technical demands needed to run SL well -- top notch video card, performant system, and stable ethernet connection, you may begin to see why this world inspires people to believe it has incredible potential.

That being said, one of the big differences here is that in SL you are situated in an environment. You aren't remote and aloof, on the web and in irc, trying to integrate the two modalities on your own. They are part of an environment that delivers information to thsm and to the group of people around them, *directly*. And being in a medium that reminds you of real life, but is still based on the net, gives you the added benefits of things such as...interacting with a person you've never met, because of their profile (saying they are X in real life) or because of an interesting way in which they define their avatar and their social interactions. It all happens in one place.

I'm a big fan of small, efficient applications, and I'll have to agree that the SL client is far from being close to what it could be. However, beyond what IRC and individual webcasts can offer, virtual worlds are the next step in bringing people together. They are the stuff out of which a "participatory culture" generation is made of.

Why else would BBC set up a complex of islands here, or why would Google be interested in mapping these new worlds? It's a new way to reach people in a meaningul way while allowing them to react to the content and ideas you bring forth.

Huh. Maybe I'm turning into a luddite in my dotage. ("When I was your age, our virtual environments were held over gopher! And we had to walk uphill both ways carrying spools of wire to connect to a shared 2400 baud...")

Still, I hope the rush forward doesn't create whole new versions of good old fashioned digital divide problems. I suppose I'll point a friendly-questioning finger at the Berkman Center on this one, to start. Do talks featured on the Berkman Island also have old-fashioned webcast + IRC for the less wired? Is there a way for the people who are limited to webcast + IRC to interact with the people on SL? (Perhaps by programming dummy avatars linked to IRC handles?) I see that the Beyond Broadcast thing is on podcasts and the like, so that alleviates some of my concerns, but it seems a shame to create a "community" that most users can't access.

The technical requirements of SL slices the demographic pie terrible thin. It's not just the people who can't afford souped up video cards, the latest pentium flavor, 2 gigs of ram, and a t1 line (I still think of cable over wifi as high speed, myself. It never ceases to amaze me that I can download a [cough - legal] mp3 in less than a minute.), but the people like me who could theoretically afford them but see no good reason to do so.

Who buys "performance" computers? Gamers, the high-techer sort of artist who does 3d rendering, video, etc., various kinds of hobbyists, people who compile things for fun or profit, and people with too much money who wander into Best Buy and purchase the most fancy computer they can afford with no regard to utility. That's already a fairly thin slice.

Then who sits on a T1? College students and people who work in the computer industry (and whose employers presumably don't mind them logging on to SL from work). The slice just got thinner. (Or would a wired cable/dsl do the trick? Still, that's squarely middle-class.)

I think it's dangerous to take "early adopter" technology and use it to distribute stuff that really ought to be before the non "early adopters."

I'll offer a suggestion. (Well, apart from the IRC-to-dummy-avatar thing, which I think has potential. To preserve the experience of moving around, perhaps it could be structred like a text MUD/MOO, and the "conference room" on SL could be divided into a number of even-more-virtual sub-rooms presented to text-based users such that when they move from one sub-room to another, their avatar moves from one part of the SL room to another and finds new people to interact with. The luxury of not being a coder is that I get to suggest wild stuff like that with no idea of how hard it would be to implement.) At the next live + SL Berkman event, take a survey of the participants' income, occupations, etc. It might produce some interesting data.

sl works fine over middle class american dsl or cable. it works even better on first world home lans such as in japan, korea, finland, etc. the hit comes in getting a box that runs it well, as paul gowder mentioned above, especially if you're a laptopper.

as to the utility of sl, that's another matter.

people regularly and successfully hold private meetings in sl. in my experience, like telco bridges, they work much better when the folk already know eachother. whether sl facilitates socialization with new conference peers is open to debate.

public conferences still confine the environment to primitve and low bandwidth metaphors, i.e. heavy use of text. it is a text chat room with some slides, not much better than a jabber chat group. multicast vat and vic still own this space, despite their lack of use and deployment ease.

as a lecture environment, it is mediocre. the electronic social context encourages fools to take even more class time being cute than in real life. and the textual chat context is very restrictive. i miss voice, laser pointers, ...

but sl's claim to fame is the ability to build. in fact, that is why i entered it, having never played a computer game in my 40+ years in computing. i have a particular engineering model that i wish to build for teaching.

i am far from expert in gui and pseudo-physical realization, so all i can say is that i can kind of get that part done.

but, as an ex compiler and language jock, i think i am qualified to say that the scripting language plain sucks, especially data structures or lack thereof. no arrays (but has iterators). no lists of lists to get around the previous. i could rant on and on.

Paul is right to question the benefits of virtual environments versus other internet-based conferencing solutions. There should be clearly defined advantages to these 3D worlds to justify the significant effort it takes to put on events there.

I've done a good bit of "e-conferencing" over the years, from the early days of gopher and IRC, to discussion boards, to Second Life. I could speak at length on the potential advantages of 3D virtual conferencing, but at its root its that you feel more like you are actually there.

In a lot of the simulcast webcasts and parallel discussion boards set up for conferences I have participated in you often find yourself looking on the outside in, feeling left out of the real action. You can't meaningfully chat with any other participants, can't wander around the venue, can't meaningfully engage with the panelists.

In a 3D virtual environment all of those real world advantages of conferencing can be at some level brought into a virtual space. I CAN chat with other participants, I can wander around the virtual venue, I can pose questions and have side discussions with panelists. In fact I am more able to do that at SL events than at a lot of RL events I attend.

In the real world, you can't right click on someone and see what their interests are, or what groups they are members of. In SL you can. In the real world, you can't teleport over to another meeting for a few minutes during a lull in the conference and then beam right back. Etc.

I don't want to be a SL utopianist. It's far from perfect and many SL events are frustrating and poor simulations of a RL event. But people are learning more and more how to effectively run these "multi-verse" events. My small contribution is create a wiki page where some of the best ideas can filter up.

To answer a couple of Paul's questions posed above:

* Do talks featured on the Berkman Island also have old-fashioned webcast + IRC for the less wired?

Yes. I would note, however, that IRC itself causes a divide between those with enough time and competence to figure out how IRC works and those who would much rather use AIM or another more widespread and user-friendly chat solution. We have briefly pondered moving to a web-based chat setup, but haven't seen anything very exciting that interfaces with IRC, and aren't thrilled about pushing people to something like Campfire that does not have an IRC bridge.

* Is there a way for the people who are limited to webcast + IRC to interact with the people on SL?

Not yet, but soon, sort of. SL is implementing a system that allows web pages to appear as textures in-game. I suspect this will lead to many fascinating developments, especially if the setup they choose allows two-way interaction with JavaScript or Flash. Not at all the same as having an avatar in-world, of course. I'd be worried about every IRC user appearing as a "dummy" avatar, it seems like very few of the advantages of being in SL with many of the disadvantages. I'd also point out that, while the SL client is very disappointing, especially on Mac and Linux, we have been able to get it to run, albeit slowly, on hardware that is a few years old, and we were able to have many participants on SL simultaneously (again, albeit with some lag) over the 802.11b wireless at the Beyond Broadcast conference. For optimal experience you want new hardware and high bandwidth connections, but SL is tolerable on older platforms at lower speeds. Admittedly, the Linden folks could do a lot more to optimize the game, both for people on slower links and in general.

- Danny Silverman aka Zeno Berkman aka the Dalek

I attended part of this conference as an SL-only attendee - I am in Australia in RL - and I must say I found it a really valuable experience. I am not sure whether SL offers any advantages in terms of the quality of information transfer against more traditional webcast / irc combinations, but for me, the presence of my avatar gives a much greater sense of immersion that just watching a video on a web page.

The sensation was much closer to actually attending an RL lecture, albeit with a little more back-row chatter than you might get in a real lecture theatre. I have done quite a bit of study, both by traditional delivery and exclusively online, and I think there is a place for something that helps bridge the divide between the two.

SL requires a fair bit more development but I am not convinced that the digital divide argument really holds water. I have seen the developments from the first online study I did in the mid '90s to the online course I am doing now and the developments have been, as you might expect, quite substantial.

Having said all this, I don't see that SL would necessarily replace other delivery methods anyway. It is more likely to act as an adjunct to these methods, where appropriate.

As a final comment though, I think it might be important to look beyond SL simply as a new delivery model for traditional education and to examine its value as a truly novel way of communication and information transfer. The modelling classes on TeaZer Isle are a good example of something that would be difficult to replicate in RL. What I am thinking of here is the ability to bring people from all over the world to a common venue and allow them to learn, interact and practice modelling relatively seamlessly. Not only can the instructor easily observe their creations, but they can assist each other and collaborate on co-operative building projects. I think that the innovative applications are more likely to have a lasting impact than the extention applications.

I run Second Life over DSL with a machine that barely meets the minimum requirements. I have to admit that I'm addicted. You do run into the molasses problem whenever there are more than a few people at a meeting, and slow texture loading can be frustrating. However, the limitless possibilites of Second Life make it a wonderful venue for businesses and charitable organizations. What holds it back is the steep learning curve and the muscle machine required for entry. I guess we'll just have to wait until all the retirement homes install XPS 750s and cable connections before we see the real potential of the place.

So what is it about SL that confers these advantages? Is it the bare presence of avatars and a "space" in which they travel? Is it the graphical quality of the avatars, their semi-lifelike presentation and the "textures" of the world? Is it the opportunity for private coding?

As cyber-worlds move into greater public currency, it would seem to behoove those who would use and promote them to isolate the necessary features from the frills. Perhaps less robust "texturing" and less lifelike avatars would provide just as much of a sense of community without the ornerous technical requirements.

Perhaps there would be a market (whether monetized or not) for a Second Life Light, a system that could interact with the SL servers but would strip out some of the frills before they reached the user. Perhaps.

A true "when I was your age" story. In 1996 or so, I spent a lot of time in a particular, long-dead, special interest webchat room. It was, of course, pure text, and very clunky. You got new text by reloading the web page, or by waiting for the meta tags to kick in and do it. I don't think it even used javascript at first. There was a very strong sense of community, and I count at least three of the people I hung out with there as friends today, ten years later, having never met them in person.

Paul -- you raise very interesting questions that require some thinking and insight into the true nature of SL communities, behind the pixels.

I can't pretend to know the ultimate answers to those very good questions, but I'll venture an opinion -- it's an issue of designing a tool as a complete package. Taken apart, each feature of SL (the text-based communication, the graphics that raise the technical bar, etc.) is probably replicated or achieved by another web tool out there (see, IRC and old school chat systems like the one you described). The key question is...are IRC-like programs the best we can do with the current technical abilities? And why was something like IRC, yahoo, AIM, etc. preferable over the old webchat rooms? They took advantage of new technology and improved upon it.

I think this is where SL and virtual worlds enter the picture. I dont know if SL will live through or if LL will be profitable, but as a platform, something *like* SL leverages the technology out there (not too successfully yet, but working on it...) and brings all the capabilities of all these communication tools we have been using into a new dimension -- a highly visual and interactive one. And it makes sense to play on the visual aspect, if you were to design an ideal communication tool. Human beings are very visual and like to think of other entities on the internet as a symbol, that's why we have yahoo/aim/etc avatars, even in the shape of small images.

But perhaps more than being a tool for communication, SL has the advantage of being a beautiful world. It's a universe that encourages creativity and will, as soon as more real-world companies get involved in linking the virtual economy to the real, bring about many unique and interesting challenges to how we think about property, intellectual rights, and even about jobs and interacting with people. The technology that is nowadays expensive will go down in price eventually, like every new technology does, I'm not too worried about that. Whether or not SL can retain its generative culture (in terms of media and other user-created content) and forge reliable links to the real world, will be the real piece de resistance, and it's one of the attributes that definitely places SL above all other more tech-friendly tools/platforms out there.

That being said, perhaps my evidence exhibition here can use a bit of shaping up. I'm hoping Prof. Nesson's cyberlaw course will help me there and I hope to return with a more thoughtful and organized answer after this fall semester. I should be better equipped then to take on a debate with one of his "old and favorite students" :)

Warning, you may have to log into SL to see my argument ;)

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