Last Monday I openly worried if OnRez, the new customized Second Life viewer from The Electric Sheep Company, would AOL-ize the SL experience. So last Thursday, I stopped by the spacious ESC booth at the Virtual Worlds Expo, where Forseti Svarog and Juillet Fride gave me a hands-on demo of OnRez (along with a sheep-shaped keyring.) As it turns out, not only is OnRez not a dumbed down version of Second Life, it includes a simple and elegant feature that happens to be, in my opinion, potentially revolutionary.
Why? Take a look at the first screenshot above. The OnRez viewer has an address bar; entering the name of a specific Second Life location will take you directly there, while entering a keyword will give you a selection of matching sites to choose. Very cool, but that's just the start. Watch what happens when you enter a web address (my blog, in this case) into the same search bar:
Instantly, a full-sized Mozilla browser window pops up, and displays that web page, within the OnRez viewer. Of course, it's been possible to display Mozilla pages in Second Life for some time, but doing that takes extra effort. OnRez provides instant and easy web access, and something more powerful:
By integrating HTML addresses and virtual locations into the same navigation interface, the OnRez version of Second Life effectively swallows the Web.
Consider the possibilities: there's no longer any reason to log out or even minimize the SL viewer, to run web applications. Instead, you can check your e-mail, your RSS feeds, blogging, and so on, while still in Second Life. What's more, the unified browsing experience removes any distinction between the flat Web and the 3D Internet; experientially, you can now easily flit back and forth between websites and immersive data. If OnRez and other SL viewers like it become more common, I can even see it influencing the Web itself, because it's easy to imagine a time when Google searches will take you into Second Life locations, and back again.
And in this way, Robert Scoble's prediction has come to pass: Second Life is, at last, an operating system.
Some qualifications from Forseti (Giff Constable): the browser within OnRez isn't yet fully-featured; it doesn't run Flash or some other key plug-ins, for instance. (I found that out after I entered YouTube.com into the OnRez address window, and got sound, but no video.) Giff says they're planning on incorporating those in later versions, but then, there's another catch: while the OnRez viewer is an outgrowth of Linden Lab's open source initiative, OnRez itself is close sourced, created with a special commercial license the Sheep received from Linden. Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and Giff tells me they plan to open source some of the OnRez features, but that may slow its evolution as a fully functioning operating system.
As for the Build tools, which were removed from OnRez's display (which provoked me to make the AOL analogy), those have merged into a single pulldown menu, as shown above-- probably a better solution than the Linden's existing interface.
The Sheep are improving the rest of the interface now, and it's not difficult to see all the work that remains to be done. (While the object Inventory button has been re-dubbed "My Stuff" by the Sheep, for example, the inventory UI itself remains the same aggravating mess bequeathed by the Lindens.)
So now I need to ingest some barbecued crow: OnRez isn't the AOL of Second Life, as I caviled. It's more like its Firefox. And when it's made publicly available, I'll probably be one of the first to start using it. Go to this link to sign-up for an automated notification, for when it is.