Is this the beginning of an AOL-ized Second Life? After CBS gave them $7 million last February for projects like this, SL metaverse developer Electric Sheep Company are now launching OnRez, an alternate SL viewer built on the Lindens' open source initiative. Their PR team at Lewis (which also represents the Lindens) just sent along these screenshots of the viewer in action. While I haven't tried it out yet-- it's publicly unveiled tomorrow at the Virtual Worlds Conference in San Jose-- I think it's safe to say it's "more user friendly" than the official Second Life viewer. (If only because it's difficult to even conceive of an unfriendlier UI than what Residents have had to contend with these last four years.) The Sheep's stated goal is to create a viewer that resembles a web browser-- note the Home icon, and the reassuring browser-ish "<" and ">" arrows, next to the Google toolbar-flavored search slot.
Will it work? Given the Sheep's stellar technical credentials, almost certainly. But at first glance, perhaps the real question should be, "Will it work too well?"
I say this, because the viewer will have a mass market release in conjunction with an upcoming episode of CBS' hit police procedural CSI: NY, in which the hero searches for a murderer in Second Life. A customized version of OnRez is being branded with the show (see left), and very cleverly, CSI watchers who download this version will get to track the murderer through Second Life themselves. If done right, this could be a great scavenger hunt-style introduction to the world. (Then again, it may just be confined to CBS branded locations in-world.)
But one thing seems missing from these screenshots, and that's what concerns me:
Where is the Build button in OnRez?
Shopping and currency are in easy reach, as is communication. But there's no readily obvious Build button. (Perhaps it's that small, unlabeled gear-shaped icon between "Nearby" and "IM History".) I entirely understand this as a design decision on the Sheep's part-- you don't necessarily want confused CSI fans unleashing unexpected prims into the world.
At the same time, it's part of my concern that this is the first move to truly fork the Second Life experience. "Forking" is the term to describe multiple variations of programming code which develop in ultimately incompatible directions. OnRez may become the first ontological fork in Second Life, creating a filtered perception of SL that it is so constrained and specifically defined, it threatens to segregate users even further, just as voice technology seems to be doing now. Perhaps even against the Sheep's intentions, OnRez will become the AOL of Second Life, and just as AOL subscribers are still considered a distinct, inferior, partly walled off class of Internet users, this interface hints at a similar phenomenon.
Again, I say this is a "first glance", and if it's an unfair inference, I'll mea culpa in an update. Then again, during this year's Second Life Community Convention, Electric Sheep CEO Sibley Hathor voiced his desire to "AOL-ify" the SL experience.
I've argued that the social circles of Second Life users are defined according to activity. OnRez may presage a new era of Second Life in which Residents-- and their reality-- are defined according to the software they choose.
Update, 11:15pm: In Comments, the Sheep's Giff Constable says all SL's functionality is retained in OnRez, it's just that the Build functions have been consolidated into a menu offscreen. As has Fly, another interesting move I didn't notice until he pointed it out. Read his explanation for these decisions here.