Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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Second Life's Best (Perhaps Only) Killer App: An Immersive, Open-Ended Social Platform for the Disabled

Fran Serenade Parkinsons Second Life

One point stood out strongly for me in last week's post about Fran, the 85 year old woman who believes using Second Life has helped recover some physical ability despite her Parksinon's. This from her daughter, Barbi, who built a place in SL for her mother and their family (her brother, like her, also plays Second Life) to share and support others with Parkinson's and their caregivers:

She feels and thinks young, so it is thrilling for her to watch her avatar run and dance again (very much like the movie Avatar). She loves meeting fascinating people from all over the world. Fortunately she is a basically happy person and has never been depressed, but SL increases the joy in her life.

This is the case even if Fran's physical recovery experience is only unique to her, and it's a theme repeated by many other SL users who are disabled in real life in some way or another, be it a support group for people with cerebral palsy or military veterans suffering from PTSD (often in addition to physical wounds that confine them physically as well). Many other examples abound, with the commonality being the immersiveness from Second Life's realistic 3D graphics creating a "you are there"-ness which gives them a context for person-to-person socialization, and individual exploration in a simulated "outdoors" environment. This is great in itself, and it also suggests something that SL has searched fruitlessly for, in the ten years it's existed: A killer application that's unique and important and in many ways indispensable.

Second Life could have been (or might still be) a killer app in other categories, but so far, that hasn't obtained. Consider:

  • Second Life is pretty good at making machinima, but has poor frame rate and lip sync options, compared to a platform like, say, Source Filmmaker.
  • Second Life is pretty good at 3D building and modeling, but not compared to more powerful and more popular platforms like, say, Maya or Google SketchUp.
  • Second Life is pretty good as a social game or roleplaying game, but is much less popular than, say, IMVU on the one hand, and World of Warcraft on the other.
  • Second Life is pretty good as a sandbox building game/toy, but, Minecraft, say, is much more popular and easier to play.

And so on. I've long wondered what Second Life's killer app is supposed to be, but over the years, every time I think one candidate is emerging, a competitor shows up and usually beats it on some level. Except in this one application, of providing a meaningful online place for the real life disabled. Consider:

  • Second Life is immersive and open-ended: While MMOs are also immersive, the traditional game structure constrains the immersion, and limits user options and creativity.
  • Second Life is flexible: The flexibility leads to a wide diversity of content and social experiences, while as a system with an open source viewer, makes it possible to create versions of Second Life intended to work well for people with particular disabilities. (Including versions of Second Life controlled by thought.)
  • Second Life is social: While many disabled people use Second Life, it also has a relatively large, general active userbase of 600,000 or so, making it possible for them to connect with others from many places and backgrounds, giving them a robust online community not defined by disability, but by shared interests beyond it. (This came out in my discussion with Barbi, who mentioned that Fran loves to attend live jazz performances in Second Life.)

I can't think of an alternative platform which is superior in all these things at the same time. And here's the true irony: Because Second Life is pretty good as a social game and a content creation tool, it's great as a platform for the disabled. Perhaps greater by far than anything else on the market. 

And maybe this is the best future of Second Life as a commercial product: A platform that doesn't have to be great for everyone, but good enough for a large enough number -- who in turn, can help create an excellent place for the smaller number who consistently benefit from it so much.

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Dartagan Shepherd

If the research ends up bearing this out, yes it's a beautiful thing.

I've said elsewhere that its only redeeming value has been to change lives by providing incomes and creating jobs.

Something it has managed to do quite well for some people for some years now, although less so as it declines.

Cube Republic

I suffer from trigeminal neuralgia. It's a debilitating pain disorder. I really like SL as an escape from this. x

Arcadia Codesmith

A broad virtual world won't be as efficient at a particular task as a tool narrowly dedicated to that task. There are always trade-offs between specialization and generalization.

That's no excuse not to strive for excellence in every aspect of your virtual world. SL should always have the goal of being just as good as the best specialized tools, even if that goal is ultimately impractical. "Good enough" never is.

Push hard enough, and you might find that although the best specialized tools are more powerful, your less-powerful tools are much more widely used because they're easier to access.

Shockwave Yareach

Arcadia: you have to accept "Good enough" as a stepping stone to "better and better". Because perfection, like Shangrila, can never be reached -- only pursued. If you never deploy anything until it's perfect, you'll never deploy anything.

And I know a number of disabled folks in SL. They are land owners and creators there, and are able to enjoy their lives with others in SL by throwing off the limitations of Distance and disability. By simply turning on a program, they have a good body again, their friends aren't a thousand miles away like in RL, and they can make some income using their skills.

Such a shame LL has driven these folks out too, with their overpricing and their attitude that "none of you really own anything in SL anymore" that started last year. You know, if I buy a car, I expect to own it. If I lease a car then I know I don't own it and don't expect to own it. But you can't sell me a car and then tell me I was leasing -- that's crooked. Either I own the sim and the stuff I create, or I do not. And a simple solution to the CYA worries of the lawyers is to just say that we own our property in SL, and that said property can only exist in SL -- if SL ceases to exist then so does the property within it.

Arcadia Codesmith

Shockwave, I'm seeing more and more virtual worlds release "good enough" systems that, with just a little more development time, could have been great systems. To be honest, I'm at the point where I rejoice whenever an announced feature is held back for further work, because it shows the dev team is more concerned about the quality of the release than meeting an arbitrary schedule.

Some of the "good enough" systems do eventually evolve into great systems, but others fade into the background because the players are indifferent to them... they only see what the system is, not what it has the potential to become.

There's a balance, of course. Features that sit in development limbo for months or years are almost as bad. But it's the opposite problem I'm seeing most often in the field.

Shockwave Yareach

I first came into SL in 2006 knowing that the problems were just the sort of problems one expects with first generation solutions. I fully expected that as hardware power increased and LL redesigned a number of critical things (a single asset cluster and the simcrossing faults come to mind) that SL would become an incredible system allowing people all over the world to be able to throw off the shackles of distance and infirmity. A brave new world was about to be born.

It's 7 years later. We are still waiting...

Good enough is not the stopping point. Better and Better is supposed to be how things work. But LL has no reason to fix the bugs in the architecture, so Good enough is all we will get until the cash cow is dried up and LL pulls the plug.

Ceiling Cat is watching you

No, just no, please, no. It is enough that SL has a rep for being a delusional refuge for the socially awkward, lonely and biggest losers. So please, LL, don't even think about marketing SL as a tool for the disabled and socially unable to find a "way to communicate". That is awful. Just no! But since LL doesn't bother to market SL at all, I am only a little worried.

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