Tuesday, October 09, 2007

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World Browsing: The Electric Sheep launch more user-friendly Second Life viewer (Updated)

Onrezviewercontrolcenter

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?"

Onrezviewerbrowser 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?

Onrezvieweravatars

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.

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Giff Constable

Hello Hamlet,
One of the things we did is reorganize the menu structures, but we did not remove any functionality. As you know, in the default SL client, build functionality was spread across the menus in a chaotic structure. We did simplify and remove the build button (and the fly button and the shout button), and we consolidated build/creative functionality into a more understandable layout. For those who *want* to build, you can turn on the Build menus and copy/paste commands emerge under the Edit menu (consistent with most applications), and the rest are consolidated under a Build menu.

As I noted on my blog, I think there will be some existing SL residents who find the changes a little strange or might find something they use regularly has moved -- because they are used to what they are used to. We tried to stay focused on the fact that we are not the customer.

Our creative team here at ESC has a wish list as a mile long on how we can make their lives easier as builders. I think there will probably need to be baseline and power user versions of Second Life -- it might be as simple as a single client with a switch to toggle UI, but there are radically different needs among the potential SL user base.

Hamlet Au

Thanks! Will point readers to your write-up. Hope you linger to discuss any further questions they bring up.

followmeimthe piedpiper

This looks good from here, if it has an undo button then my prayers are answered!

Gwyneth Llewelyn

Hmm, in-world HTML :)

Well, there will be definitely lots of discussion around this — about the same level of discussion when Netscape (the company) introduced its browser to "compete" with the free and open source Mosaic. And the rest was history — tailor-made browsers for specific aspects of Web viewing were introduced and we never looked back (surprisingly, parts of the Mosaic code allegedly still live on MS's IE; while Netscape was basically "converted" into Mozilla).

No matter how "polemic" this might be, I'd like to congratulate the Sheep for pushing things ahead, where clearly Linden Lab is swamped with work and unable to change the interface to their promised "SL 2.0 viewer" which is at least 3 years away. And three years is far too long to wait for something easier to use and more appealing to the mainstream, non-techie crowd, which is, these days, the majority of SL residents, and will only grow.

Very clever idea of launching this at the same time than CSI: NY :) since it might have an audience of half a billion viewers... I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of them would give up after downloading the ugly LL's SL viewer with its 2,000 options all on the wrong menus. Give the masses the AOLification of Second Life, and that's what will bring the masses in.

Oh, sure, there might be events in the future saying "this event is for the regular viewer only" or "you require OnRez to take advantage of the extra functionality to visit this place" (like HTML-on-a-prim :) ). I hope, though, that what ESC develops might encourage LL not to fall back too much in time, like the dynamic between IE, Opera, Safari, and Mozilla/FireFox, which consistently gives us better and more feature-rich browsers on all platforms, at the cost of having users not viewing exactly the same content on all pages.

SL viewer wars ahead? So long as all users benefit from an enhanced experience that is actually way easier to use, I'm all for it :)

Stone Semyorka

See how this initial report on the Sheep's viewer already has established it as easier to use? That's an example from the public relations textbook on how to position your product in the marketplace. It may be easier in some ways, but these first words make it seem harder for a lot of people who have a burning desire to create and innovate.

We know from recent posts here and elsewhere that a tiny proportion of accounts represent active residents. I'm pretty sure that those active people are the residents who don't want or need an idiot-proof viewer. Will they enjoy going off screen to find a build button and associated menus?

It seems a lot of non-dummies are moving into new creative arts such as machinima and other advanced skill areas. What good purpose is served by making it harder for those who are excited by more than online shopping?

Who will build the wonders of creation -- the very things that entice and draw the vast numbers of new recruits?

Hamlet, I am reminded of your list of sights: the Lost Gardens of Apollo, the Eden of Serenity Falls, the Tesseract House, Spaceport Alpha, Svarga, the hallucinations simulator, undersea evolution, Cocololo Island, the Modesta caves, Bliss Gardens, Octopia, Numbakulla, Nexus Prime, the Church of Elvis, or Octal Khan's home?

Where will we get the next generation of those folks whose labors we love? I wonder what they think about making it harder to learn how and build?

Noam Sprocket

If it's easy enough to get new users to make it out of orientation island, then kick ass! That's a big problem with a lot of first timers. They all are very interested and the make accounts, but since SL isn't a driven game they end up like "Um... what do I do? what's the point of this game?"

Noam Sprocket

If it's easy enough to get new users to make it out of orientation island, then kick ass! That's a big problem with a lot of first timers. They all are very interested and the make accounts, but since SL isn't a driven game they end up like "Um... what do I do? what's the point of this game?"

Giff / Forseti

To clarify a few things:
- this viewer is being launched with the CSI project, but it is not a "CSI viewer". We want to get to the point where it is easy to skin, and have plugins (including 3rd party plugins)

- Stone, I do not think it will impact creativity. There is no button in Firefox or IE that says "Create Website" -- and yet millions of people dabble in html and website creation. All the build tools are available in our viewer, and people who have that creative spark can easily get to them.

- on the CSI project, we definitely are not locking anyone in to a CSI experience. We want to give the newcomers from CSI something fun to engage in, yes, but we want them to stick around and explore.

Our goal, like that of many, is to increase Second Life user retention, and together we'll continue to work at this problem until we're at a much better level.

Cubey Terra

This looks pretty slick. I look forward to seeing if they cleaned up some of the hideous dialogs and windows too.

parker mcteague

i don't see a project like this as dumbing down, or catering to consumers over creators. a goal of any user interface should be to emphasize the common features, while providing the rest you need them, and not necessarily have everything out on display where you can see it all at once. i personally get by just fine right clicking to start build mode, rather than using the button at the bottom.

if the majority of residents aren't builders, then why is that button there? and why do all the buttons need to be the same size? those are just a few examples of how the LL client philosophy is "when we program a feature let's just find a place for it" rather than truly designing the experience.

only giving the screen a cursory glance, i can tell ESC is at least considering how users work with the software. i'm curious to try it out for myself, moreso than any of the other viewers.

sean percival

Way to go sheep, looking forward to seeing it in action.

Elle Pollack

At the moment, I'm more intrested in the upcomming CSI/SL crossover. (<-- *die-hard fan of the original, mixed views of the spinoffs.*) This will make two major network dramas that have taken on virtual worlds this month - Law and Order SVU did one that didn't mention SL by name, didn't look anything like it, but everyone's making the comparison anyway. What little I caught of the episode sucked, and since the show is about a unit that investigates sex crimes, you can reasonably guess the plot.

The NY times is covering the CSI crossover (link via http://www.csifiles.com/news/071007_01.shtml, actual news link therein doesn't require login "yet".) The preview video with the article doesn't pull any punches...this isn't some fictional world that looks like SL, they are calling it Second Life, they are calling it a metaverse, the SL logo is displayed big and bold on the computer monitor. With E-sheep behind it on one end and the series creator being a geek and having acutaly explored and been impressed with SL, I really want to believe that this is going to turn out well; if it does it could be the best publicity SL has got in a long time. And yet...CSI: Miami did a *horrible* episode with a Grand Theft Auto lookalike and it was awful, downright offensive if you actualy work in or near the video game industry and saw how they portrayed the exec from the game company. NY, IMO, is better written than Miami (but still not as good as the original), but they've got a long track record of media trashing games/VWs/zomg there's porn on the internet to break.

I will predict that the plot of the show will involve a romantic relationship and/or sex in some form.

Elle Pollack

Other q: I gather the CSI events will require the new client but it will be possible to go in without creating a new account through the portal right?

Tony Moxie

My first reaction - is it windows only?

Shirley Marquez

The Build menu is hidden by default in the OnRez viewer. I believe that is a serious error; by hiding it, they demote the importance of building in Second Life, and convey the message that the users they really want are consumers rather than producers. There is also no Snapshot button in the UI; you have to use the Me menu, so picture-taking has also been demoted. The File/Upload choices are hidden in the Build menu, to the dismay of people who like to take photographs by using out-world screen capture, followed by editing and uploading.

Aside from that, many of the UI changes are well thought out. Two of my favorites: the entry window at the top of the screen where you type a destination and teleport there without opening the [often very slow] map, and the fact that that chat entry window always stays open (I find the appearance and disappearance of it distracting). A few are not; ones I noted were the color choices in certain windows, and the fact that the chat history is not movable or resizable. And, contrary to the Sheep's statement, at least one bit of functionality is completely missing; there is no way to turn on "tooltips on all objects". (That might be an inadvertent omission.) They have not removed the Debug menus, though (just like LL's viewers) they are hidden by default.

To answer Tony's question, both Windows and Mac builds are available. No Linux viewer from the Sheep is available at present.

Shirley Marquez

Parker: in my experience, the vast majority of people who stay in Second Life longer than a week ARE builders. Building may not be their primary activity, but most do something that requires use of the build interface. Thus my concern about the Sheep hiding it away; some users might be slower to discover its existence, and either miss out on an important part of Second Life, or leave because of its absence in their life.

Giulio Prisco

Contrary to Shirley, I think the majority of SL users are NOT builders. Most "old-timers" are builders - like most web users in 1992 were programmers, but then in 1992 only programmers knew that the web existed.
New metaverse users will wander VR worlds for the entertainment, social, cultural and business value of what they find there - and in some cases, of course, also for the creative freedom.
In the new generation of users, I am sure many people would like to build, but few will be able to find the time to build up to the rising quality standards.
G.

Nyoko Salome

if, along with 'build/edit' functions hidden away...

if 'clear cache' is its own menu item!! ;) to more easily point it out to those unfamiliar with it... ;)

i whole-heartedly welcome a new sl gui to spark the movement. :) i've too many friends now introduced to sl to only say they 'can't figure it out'. :\

Doug Randall

Is the Electric Sheep viewer GPL licensed like the Linden Labs viewer ?

Aliasi Stonebender

If it's based on LL code, it has to be.

Pappy Enoch

One cornmint on a-makin' stuff:

If'n a po' Hillbilly like mee kin figger out how tu bild (includin' workin' Shine n' a Still) in Secund Life, it are proof o' that-thar puddin' (as sum of us in Enoch Holler say) that anybuddy kin du it tu.

Well, I did steel that-thar Shine code. I don't lie (much).

I loves sheep, 'lectric o' udderwise. Good job, ya'll! Yu kum on by fo' a drink, n' Pap and his wimmin-frends will show yu a good time.

Viajero Pugilist

Here's hoping that LL is paying close attention(!) to any improvements made in this competing viewer so as to incorporate the best elements in their next makeover. Are you listening, LL?

My own preference would also be to retain a small Snapshot icon button as well as a small Build icon button--these two functions should be one click away, I believe. The "Friends" and "IM History" buttons can be made smaller to accommodate them...

It looks simple, but remember how few people use the AOL or MSM Explorer browsers. I hope they don't dumb it down too much. If it's configurable (like Firefox) so that you the junk can be jettisoned, and the size of the icons and toolbars can be adjusted, it may get adopted by more people than just noobs.

The "My Wallet" label isn't needed. People can see how much they have without those two words staring at them all the time.

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