Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting Above It All

The geography of Second Life is hard to describe. There are areas called "mainland," featuring "continents" of interconnected land where lots of residents (and Linden Labs, the company who runs Second Life) have "parcels," or bits of virtual real estate. Continents and spaces between them are made up of 256×256m² areas called "sims." Each sim is (I think) an application running on a Linden Labs server (whether physical or virtual probably depends on its use), and every sim has its own name. The sim where I started out in Second Life is called Ross, and it's further subdivided into several parcels, one of which is a Moroccan-themed infohub for new residents called "Memory Bazaar."

In theory, I suppose it's possible for a residents to walk through these continents like they were a coherent virtual landscape (or, more likely, fly, since every SL resident has Superman-like antigravity flight powers). But there are also "islands," which are (I think) entire sims owned by one person or group. Islands are disconnected from the mainland; to get to one, you have to teleport.

You'd think with every Second Life resident having the ability to fly and teleport anywhere they want at will, architecture and design in SL would be radically different than real life. And there are some notable differences: ceilings tend to be much higher in SL than in RL, and a room that seems small in SL would seem enormous in RL. However, this has more to do with the "camera" on the Second Life client software (users see the world from a point a few meters behind and slightly above their avatar, rather than through their avatar's eyes) than it does with any fundamental re-thinking of environmental design. Simply put, walking around SL is clumsy…particularly if you're on a slow network, have a slower computer, or just have the misfortune to be in a location with lots of other avatars.

The sad reality is that most of Second Life looks like a bad cartoon strip mall. Garish buildings clash right next to opulent ones right next to amateurish ones right next to…well, bordering-on-obscene ones. Almost all the content, buildings, and objects in Second Life are created by residents. And few are master architects.

Early on I got an idea that I would deliberately go looking for areas of Second Life that were interesting, whether they had great architecture, good ideas, or were simply unusual. It's not hard to find places like that, but sometimes you find locations that truly stand out. One of the first to blow me away is called Ode; it's a private island and sort of the home of an SL jeweler of some repute named Random Calliope. But instead of being a huge store, it's a giant mesa, just below SL's perpetual layer of clouds…and it's a gorgeous field of flowers, with trees and cliffs and a stable and…well, if you look, you can learn a lot about Random's jewelry, find a little floating showroom, and even a few pieces here and there. But, mostly, it's just a beautiful spot.

While at Ode, I noticed in SL's mini-map—a little on-screen map that shows your current location and the area around you, including other people—that there was an avatar somewhere above me. That's not unusual (after all, everyone can fly!) but I flew up to something like 500 meters and the avatar was still above me. So I kept flying up—and I hit my head on the ceiling of the world!

I didn't realize it at the time, but it turns out a common practice in Second Life is to build "sky platforms"—areas that just float in the air. Up there, land owners can work on building stuff "out of site" and out of the way. Without assistance, avatars can only fly up a few hundreds meters; to go higher, they need assistance from a script, often instantiated in-world as a "flight feather" or other flight-assist tool. Aside from a private island with a very restrictive guest list, I don't think there's any way to truly get away from it all in Second Life, but a sky platform affords some measure of privacy.

But I didn't know that, yet. :(

So, as soon as I bumped my head on the ceiling, I flew around a little bit, trying to find a way to keep flying higher. The avatar on the mini-map was still above me! I didn't find away around the ceiling, so I used a trick a friend had showed me to get through objects…and found myself in what I later learned was a workshop/behind-the-scenes area used by Ode's creators. At the time, I thought it was a game—find a way through the ceiling!—but now I realize I was trespassing in what was supposed to be a private space.

Lou trespasses where she's not supposed to be.

When I learned what I had done was (at best) impolite, I tried to apologize to the kind folks at Ode…and since they still let me hang out in the field of flowers, I assume the weren't too offended. But I still feel terrible about it.

However, some sky platforms residents are supposed to find! A friend gave me a landmark to a place called Zero Point, and it uses sky platforms as a way to create separate areas that are radically different from each other. One is like walking through an animated disco ball, or perhaps being an extra in the original Tron movie:

Another has a distinctly more sinister theme:

And those are just two of several "floors" at Zero Point. As far as I can tell, they're all open to the public.

So, while a lot of Second Life is still designed like a bad strip mall, some ambitious users are using SL's capabilities to explore and define new types of environments. And every so often I fly up into the sky…just to see what I might find.

Of course, sometimes:

Lou and Mia take a several-thousand-meter fall!

…that doesn't work out so well!

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