Dibyajyoti Sarma attempts to understand the growing phenomenon of the virtual reality world called “Second Life”
Imagine you are alone, or say, rather lonely. Your family is busy with their own lives. Your friends are chasing their own dreams (or probably you don’t have any friends any more), your girlfriends (or vice versa) has recently dumped you, or you did not have one in the first place. In short, the world as such is too much for you. You don’t belong here. Don’t worry, mate. All is not lost. There’s still a second life for you!
Welcome to Second Life, a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents, like you. In this world, you are not what you are but you are what you want to be. You enter the world and choose your Avatar, your virtual alter-ego and be want you want to be, and most importantly do what you always wanted to do.
From the moment you enter into Second Life, you’ll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Once you’ve explored a bit, perhaps you’ll find a perfect haven for yourself to build your house or a business for yourself.
And you are not alone here. Never. You’ll also be surrounded by the creations of your fellow residents, and mind you, it can be anything. So better be prepared.
And the most exciting thing about this place is that it is constantly changing, simply because thousands of new residents join each day and create an Avatar. These avatars explore the world and meet people, and these people discover the thousands of ways to have fun.
And if you are still doubtful, check out this data: Since opening to the public in 2003, today, Second Life is inhabited by a total of 6,148,531 people from around the globe. And that’s saying enough!
Here, we take you to a virtual journey to the world of Second Life.
To begin with Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world. Developed by Linden Lab, a downloadable client program enables its users, called “Residents,” to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialise, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another.
Second Life is one of several virtual worlds that have been inspired by the cyberpunk literary movement, and particularly by Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. The stated goal of Linden Lab is to create a world like the Metaverse described by Stephenson, a user-defined world of general use in which people can interact, play, do business, and otherwise communicate. Second Life’s virtual currency is the Linden Dollar (Linden, or L$) and is exchangeable for US Dollars in a marketplace consisting of residents, Linden Lab and real life companies.
While Second Life is sometimes referred to as a game, it does not have points, scores, winners or losers, levels, an end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of games. In all, more than five million accounts have been registered, though many are not active, and some Residents have multiple accounts. Despite its prominence, Second Life has notable competitors, including Active Worlds, There, and newcomers such as Entropia Universe, Dotsoul Cyberpark, Red Light Centre, and Kaneva.
How it began
Second Life was founded by former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale through Linden Lab. The initial alpha test version, named LindenWorld, was made available in 2002 and the beta version was made publicly available in 2003. The beta versions had a different economic focus from that of Second Life’s current version; Linden Dollars were far more freely obtainable, and could not be exchanged for real money, and so on.
A visit to the virtual world
Residents are the users of Second Life, and their appearance is their avatar. The basic avatar is human in appearance. A single person may have multiple accounts, and thus appear to be multiple Residents. A single Resident’s appearance in Second Life can vary dramatically at will, as avatars are easily modified.
Within Second Life, there are two main methods of text-based communication: local chat, and global “instant messaging.” Chatting is used for public localised conversations between two or more avatars. IM is used for private conversations, either between two avatars, or between the members of a group. Voice communication is currently being developed.
The most basic method of moving around is by foot. To travel more rapidly, avatars can also fly up to about 170 m over the terrain. Avatars can also ride in vehicles. For instantaneous travel, avatars can teleport directly to a specific location.
Second Life has its own economy and a currency referred to as Linden Dollars (L$). Though the exchange rate fluctuates, as of February 2007 it is reasonably stable at around L$ 270 to one US dollar. Residents create new goods and services, and buy and sell them in the Second Life virtual world. There are also currency exchanges where Residents can exchange US$ or other real world currencies for L$.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Second Life is that the Residents, not Linden Lab, create most of the content of the world. The Resident avatars are one example of such user-generated content. There is a 3D modeling tool in Second Life that allows any Resident with the right skills to build virtual buildings, landscape, vehicles, furniture, and machines to use, trade, or sell. This is a primary source of activity in the economy. Outside Second Life, Residents can use various graphics, animation, and sound tools to create more elaborate items, and upload them into the world.
Life beyond virtual reality
Many of the (initial) residents of Second Life have a creative background. There is a large virtual community of artists and designers. They use Second Life not only as platform to demonstrate their art from real life, but also to express themselves and create new (virtual) art. The virtual arts are visible for example in the Second Life Louvre, a virtual representation of the Louvre Museum.
Talking about business a combination of Linden Lab granting Second Life Residents the copyright over their content, and legal trading of the in-world currency “Linden Dollars” has encouraged the creation of solely in-world businesses, the creation of legally registered companies that were previously solely in-world, and the in-world participation of previously unrelated companies and organisations. If you were wondering how far could it go, in early 2007 the Swedish Institute stated it was about to set up an Embassy in Second Life.
Second Life has recently emerged as one of the cutting-edge virtual classrooms for major colleges and universities, including Harvard, Vassar, Pepperdine, Elon University, Ohio University, Ball State, New York University, Stanford University, Delft University of Technology and AFEKA Tel-Aviv Academic College of Engineering. Second Life fosters a welcoming atmosphere for administrators to host lectures and projects online, selling more than 100 islands for educational purposes, according to a New York Times article.
Among the more active educators in Second Life are librarians. The Illinois’ Alliance Library System and OPAL have teamed up to extend the programs currently offered online to librarians and library users within Second Life.
Getting a second life
It is possible, and quite common, to join Second Life for free. Many activities in Second Life are free, but others cost money, payable in Linden dollars. For example, goods and services may be charged for by other Residents — these charges are not set by Linden Lab, and so are not included under membership pricing, but are simply part of the economy of Second Life. There are two types of accounts in Second Life: “basic accounts” and “premium accounts.” Basic accounts have no recurring fee, but lack the right to own land within Second Life. As of February 2007, the premium account fee is set at $9.95 per month, although this reduces to $6.00 per month if the fee is paid annually.
Real life issues
Because it is under constant development, and is an open environment that can be used by almost anyone with broadband internet access, Second Life has encountered a number of challenges. These range from the technical (Budgeting of server resources) and moral (pornography) to legal (legal position of the Linden Dollar, Linden Lab lawsuit).
Prior to June 6, 2006, all Residents were required to verify their identities by providing Linden Lab with a valid credit card or PayPal account number, or by responding to a cell phone SMS text message. After that date, it became possible to create an account with only an e-mail address; even standard verification methods such as e-mail reply verification are not used. Linden Lab has the ability to ban Residents from Second Life based on a hardware hash of their local PC, preventing them from returning with other accounts.
Early 2007 brought significant criticism of Linden Lab for hosting alleged pedophilia-concepts commonly referred to as “ageplay.” Along with this came criticism of potential legalities in regard to online casinos and real life wealth lost by people at those casinos. Host company Linden Lab has continued to present their Terms of Service deniability of activity within the Second Life world as their primary defense. However, critics of Linden Lab hold that no disclaimer totally absolves the company of potentially illegal activities on their system.
Real technology for a virtual world
The flat, Earth-like world of Second Life is simulated on a large array of Debian servers, referred to as the Grid. The world is divided into 256 x 256m areas of land, called Regions. Each Region is simulated by a single server, and is given a unique name and content rating (either PG or Mature).
The Second Life software comprises the viewer (also known as the client) executing on the Resident’s computer, and several thousand servers operated by Linden Lab. Linden Lab pursues the use of open standards technologies, and uses free/open source software such as Apache and Squid. Linden Lab provides viewers for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and most distributions of Linux.
Understanding the virtual world
A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. This habitation usually is represented in the form of two or three-dimensional graphical representations of humanoids (or other graphical or text-based avatars).
The world being computer-simulated typically appears similar to the real world, with real world rules such as gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication has, until recently, been in the form of text, but now real-time voice communication using VOIP is available. This type of virtual world is now most common in massively multiplayer online games (Second Life, Entropia Universe, The Sims Online, There, Red Light Center), particularly massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, Lineage, World of Warcraft, or Guild Wars.
The first virtual worlds presented on the Internet were communities and chat rooms, some of which evolved into MUDs and MUSHes. They attempted to create sets of avatars for virtual interaction. Credit for the first online virtual world usually goes to Habitat, developed in 1987 by LucasFilm Games for the Commodore 64 computer.
One perception of virtual worlds requires an online persistent world, active and available 24x7. to qualify as a true virtual world. While the interaction with other participants is done in real-time, time consistency is not always maintained in online virtual worlds.
The next step from Second Life
Remember the Hollywood flick called The Matrix, where the protagonist Neo is introduced to the virtual reality world by Morpheus called the Matrix? According to the film’s logic, the matrix is a virtual reality world which actually don’t exists, but it simulates the brain in such a way that you feel it exists. And as the film progresses you meet people who chooses to live in this world of simulated reality than the ‘true’ reality because reality as such is bleak.
Simulated reality is the idea that reality could be simulated — usually computer-simulated — to a degree indistinguishable from ‘true’ reality. It could contain conscious minds which may or may not know that they are living inside a simulation. In its strongest form, the “Simulation Hypothesis” claims we actually are living in such a simulation.
This is different from the current, technologically achievable concept of virtual reality. Virtual reality is easily distinguished from the experience of ‘true’ reality; participants are never in doubt about the nature of what they experience. Simulated reality, by contrast, would be hard or impossible to distinguish from ‘true’ reality.
The idea of a simulated reality raises several questions: Is it possible, even in principle, to tell whether we are in a simulated reality? Is there any difference between a simulated reality and a ‘real’ one? How should we behave if we knew that we were living in a simulated reality?
More on Second Life
Gartner sees 80 % virtual world penetration by 2011
Tech consultancy Gartner, whose “Hype Cycle” has been used to gauge Second Life adoption, thinks that 80 percent of active Internet users will be in non-gaming virtual worlds like Second Life by the end of 2011 — a huge increase from current levels. “By the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a ’second life,’ but not necessarily in Second Life,” the company said.
According to Nielsen//NetRatings, there were about 330 million active Internet home users in March, 2007.
Gartner analysts see virtual world adoption as a mixed blessing for major companies, predicting that major revenue streams “will be limited to niche areas, which have yet to be clearly identified.”
“There is significant probability that, over time, market pressures will lead to a merging of current virtual worlds into a smaller number of open-sourced environments that support the free transfer of assets and avatars from one to another with the use of a single, universal client,” the company added.
Linden to outsource Second Life orientation
Linden Lab plans to revamp the way it processes new residents by offering users their choice of several privately-owned orientation islands, in an attempt to flatten Second Life’s notoriously steep learning curve.
A list of alternate starting points and privately developed orientations is scheduled to be available for new users within the next month, said Ryan Downe, director of product development at Linden Lab. “Years down the road, if Linden Lab is still the primary supplier of OI’s [Orientation Islands], we have failed,” he said.
The move comes as Linden Lab is increasingly ceding control over Second Life’s infrastructure, making the software client open-source and laying the groundwork to open-source Second Life servers as well. Customised orientation islands may bolster Linden Lab’s ability to convert culture-shocked and inexperienced users into regular visitors.
The virtual world’s current retention rate is only about 12 percent, according to Linden Lab estimates.
Europeans prefer “Second Life” more: Study
Virtual reality world Second Life was born in the United States, but 61 percent of its active residents are Europeans, a study by research firm comScore said last week. The number of active German residents exceeds the number of active residents in the United States, although growth rates in the US are the highest worldwide, said comScore, which specializes in measuring various kinds of Internet usage.
Created by Linden Lab in San Francisco, Second Life is a virtual world where users create characters known as avatars, buy property and interact with other players. The world also has its own virtual currency, which can be exchanged for US dollars.
More than 6 million user accounts have been created in Second Life, up from about 1 million at the end of 2006, but the number of active users is far lower.
The comScore study said users totaled 1.3 million in March, up 46 percent from January. More than 60 percent of users were male. Germany had 209,000 active residents in Second Life, or 16 percent, compared with 207,000 from the United States, 104,000 from France and 72,000 from Britain.
The study, based on a research panel of more than 2 million computer users, excluded public computers such as those in Internet cafes. Linden Lab’s own March statistics showed 26.8 percent of active residents were from the United States, 13.5 percent from Germany, 8.2 percent from France and 6.7 percent from Britain.
“It is little wonder that bricks and mortar businesses are seeing Second Life as a virtual-world way of accessing a global, real-world customer base,” comScore’s Europe head, Bob Ivins, said in a statement.
Many global corporations including carmaker Toyota, music label Sony BMG, news and information group Reuters Plc, computer maker Sun Microsystems and technology news company Cnet are some of the companies with a presence in Second Life.
(For more news about Second Life, where Reuters has opened a virtual bureau, visit http://secondlife.reuters.com/)
(With inputs from Reuters, wikipedia.org)