Not Quite the Matrix

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

Real-world companies such as American Apparel, IBM, Starwood Hotels and Toyota are exploring whether 3D virtual communities can be adapted to serve business—and whether they are an effective place to do market research and collaborate on projects, an

Not Quite the Matrix

Entering Second Life today is not quite the immersive virtual reality experience of science fiction books or movies like The Matrix, where the computer plugs directly into the human nervous system. Instead, Second Life users watch over their avatar's shoulder on a PC screen, direct its movements with the keyboard and mouse, and generally talk to each other via text chat (although a version of the client that includes integrated voice chat was expected to be made available soon).

And yet, with a little imagination, users do get the sense of "being there," in the same space with other users. That's why the Town Hall attendees cared about being there "in person" to see and be seen even though they could have listened in and submitted questions by text chat from anywhere in the virtual world.

Second Life is the brainchild of Linden Lab. The company was founded in 1999 by chief executive officer Philip Rosedale, formerly the chief technology officer of Real Networks, a vendor of Internet audio and video software and services. An early Second Life prototype called Linden World was shown to attendees at Demo 2002, a conference that showcases information-technology startups. In October of that year, Linden announced a beta of the system, now renamed Second Life. The official release of Second Life took place in June 2003.

Originally, Rosedale was looking for a way to apply his experience pioneering streaming media technologies such as RealVideo to virtual reality. The advantage of watching a movie over a streaming media system, rather than downloading the entire video file, is that your computer can begin displaying the first frames of the video almost as soon as they are received over the Internet. Streaming video also makes it possible to broadcast a live event. Similarly, for Second Life, the advantage of streaming 3D graphics is that it makes it possible to depict an ever-changing world.

That's in contrast to the experience delivered by the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) conducted over the Internet, a category currently dominated by World of Warcraft. Those worlds are created by professional game designers, and much of the graphical content comes into the user's home on a CD-ROM. Internet servers track the position and actions of players in the fantasy world and enforce the rules of the game, but the amount of graphical content they must transmit is limited because most of the background scenery is stored locally on the player's desktop computer.

In Second Life, users create everything, including the background scenery. Land owners "terraform" their properties, sculpting hills, planting trees and creating animated waterfalls, and then they fill in tree houses, shops, beach bars and bordellos. And since these scenes can change at any time, the Second Life desktop software must download and re-create each area the user enters at every visit.

The software uses OpenGL, a standard originally defined by Silicon Graphics, to represent geometric shapes, and bitmapped images to represent textures (wood, stone, metal, skin) that wrap around those objects. The viewer requires a high-end PC graphics card to accelerate 3D rendering.

Even with a fast Internet connection, however, the display of the world around you at log-in, or upon arrival at a new location, can be reminiscent of accessing a Web page with heavy graphics using a slow dial-up modem. That is, the volume of data to be downloaded, decoded and displayed often leads to an annoying delay Second Life users call "lag." If you materialize in a nightclub, you watch the tables, bar, barstools and other customers pop into existence one by one around you, sometimes painted a ghostly gray because the bitmapped textures that should decorate them haven't yet arrived. Some avatars may even show up with the words "image not found" painted across their clothes like graffiti. So, the trade-off of streaming all content over the Internet, with the vagaries of network congestion and packet loss, is that the Second Life experience is nowhere as slick as that of World of Warcraft, let alone a PlayStation 3 game.

Second Life champions are quick to point out that it should not be compared to a game because it's not a game, not in the sense of having a clearly defined winner or built-in rules for how players advance in power or stature, as in the many fantasy role-playing games modeled after Dungeons & Dragons.

Its world started as a tiny land mass with a few thousand residents, powered by a rack of commodity Linux servers, and organically grew into a simulated area measuring about 139 square miles. That's six times the size of the island of Manhattan, or just about the size of Detroit.

To bring a new avatar into this world, all anyone has to do is sign up at the Second Life site, create a password and then download the viewer software. From there, people, with a few mouse clicks, can pick their avatar's sex, body type and clothes.

Later, users can easily change from male to female or adjust their avatar's height and hair color with the "edit my appearance" utility built into the software. But if they really want to look good, they'll want to ditch the generic look and go shopping.

A Second Life designer dress is essentially a bitmapped texture, created using a program like Photoshop, uploaded onto Linden's servers and overlaid on an abstract object in the shape of a dress. The art of it is styling the image with light, shadow and transparent regions so that the dress seems to fit naturally and attractively on its owner.

In addition to clothes, users may want to buy some sparkling eyes and (particularly if they want to look good naked) more richly textured skin. And if they want to cuddle up with a virtual sweetie, they'll need to obtain some additional animations beyond the handful that are built-in by default.

Second Life avatars have the innate ability to create all sorts of objects, using the viewer's built-in 3D modeling tools. While new users often complain about the learning curve, experienced Second Life designers can use those tools to rapidly sketch a series of objects in midair and join them together to create whatever they wish. Just click the Build button at the bottom of the screen, choose from the menu of basic geometric "primitives," or "prims," and you'll soon find yourself creating plywood cubes, spheres and cones. Through a process of stretching, cutting and twisting, you can, say, reshape your plywood cube into a flat panel, then change the default texture to fabric, and you have a carpet.

Want to make the carpet fly? With a script written in the Linden Scripting Language (LSL), an object can be made to fly, bank and turn in response to keyboard commands. LSL code looks a little like C, JavaScript or the ActionScript language used in Flash animation. Similar to the way JavaScript can detect that a user has clicked a button, and change the content of a Web page in response, LSL can detect a mouse or keyboard action as a trigger to change the buoyancy, height, speed or direction of your flying carpet. Avatar animations can also be triggered by an LSL script, although the animations themselves are created using a third-party animation software tool, Poser, from E Frontier of Santa Cruz, Calif. Developers use Poser to manipulate the movements of an abstract humanoid shape. Once uploaded into Second Life, those animations can be applied to any humanoid avatar.

Anyone can do it, but doing it well takes skill. LaRoche (a.k.a. Aimee Weber) says the best Second Life designers learn how to create buildings and scenery that look attractive but download quickly. Much like a Web page, a "build" in Second Life will take longer to display if it is too heavily loaded with image files. So, she has learned clever ways of using the same bitmapped image as a texture that's applied to many different objects in the same structure, so that it can be downloaded once and cached on the user's PC. For example, she has one generic image for a shadow falling on the floor, which she can trim and stretch to represent the shadows of different objects.

In general, the people who are having the most fun in Second Life are those who enjoy creating things to show off, share, or sell to others. But many first-time visitors never make it that far. They find themselves wandering aimlessly through what looks like a game, except that there's no way to win it. In fact, the experience is often compared to entering a foreign land and trying to explore it without knowing how to read the street signs.

That's one reason the number of "residents" in Second Life, which topped 3 million in January, isn't the best measure of the world's population, since many of those are the avatars of users who signed on once or twice before giving up. Also, since users can have multiple avatars, the resident population is about a third higher than the number of distinct users, which Linden now says is a little less than 2 million. But even that includes many inactive accounts.

The better number to watch, both in terms of the active population and the strain on Linden's servers, is the number of users exploring the world at any one time. The peak number of concurrent users hit 33,000 in mid-February, compared with 5,000 at the end of 2005. In a recent blog posting titled "Fearless Predictions," chief technology officer Cory Ondrejka projected that concurrency will top 150,000 by the end of 2007.

But to get there, the technology behind Second Life is going to have to get a whole lot more robust.

Next page: The Server Crunch

This article was originally published on 2007-03-01
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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