Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Holy Moley

Linden Lab likes to make much of the fact that the vast majority of Second Life is designed and built by its residents. A typical video game (like say the Halo or Modern Warfare franchises) or mainstream virtual world (like Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft) provides all the content for the players: participants are essentially just consumers of content doled out by the games' developers. Sure, they can interact with the world and each other—and presumably have fun doing that—but for the most part, players don't get to create their own content, adventures, environments, or games, and have them exist in the virtual world for other people to find, interact with, or…uh, buy. Second Life is different: the vast majority of the "world" is created and built by residents. Some of these folks are stunningly creative and do phenomenal things with the tools at their disposal…but the reliance on resident content also goes a long way towards explaining why so much of Second Life is a boxy, garish, tacky, and amateurish.

However, not all of Second Life is built by residents: a surprising (and growing) amount is built by Linden Lab themselves and folks working for Linden Lab on contract. Some builds are purely to support the functioning of the virtual world, like in-world offices for Lindens along with welcome areas, infohubs, and tutorials for new residents. However, the Lindens also engage in some large-scale construction, including the prefabbed Bay City, the sentient-dolphin-themed continent of Nautilus, I guess some infrastructure on the adults-only continent of Zinda, and things like the all-new Linden Homes, which are essentially houses that residents can get as an option with a paid subscription to Second Life.

A lot of these things are built by contractors working for Linden Lab, known collectively as Moles. Any avatar with the last name Mole isn't a Linden employee, but they work on stuff for the Lindens and, often, public spaces in the virtual world. Some of these Moles do stuff for the Linden Department of Public Works, an inworld Linden-run group that's responsible for building roads, railroads, dams, and other bits of virtual infrastructure in Second Life's mainland areas. Until recently, the biggest Mole-constructed area I knew about was the Blake Sea, a large area of mostly ocean sims that represents a partnership between the Lindens and SL's inworld boating community. (I wrote a bit about it last year; the area sports a bunch of islands and above-and-below water builds.)

Now I've found the Moles hard at work, but it's not in some area of Linden land that's just appeared on the world map. Instead they're in the heart of very old mainland, including an area which has just been renamed the Sea of Fables.

The Sea of Fables on the Second Life world map
the island at the upper left is in the sims Celebes and Bohol.

The center of the area is a sim/island called Baffin, which is mainly notable for being the starting point/infohub for avatars transferring off Second Life's Teen Grid onto the main grid when they turn 18. However, to the northeast of Baffin is an island in the sims Bohol and Celebes. For as long as I've been in Second Life, the island has been empty of everything but trees: no buildings or other items around. But it hasn't exactly been empty: it allowed folks to rez things for a few minutes, which made it a frequent semi-private stopping point for folks trying out new items or just looking to play with a new vehicle or toy in an out-of-the-way place. (It's also the island a Zak Mohr's phantom horseman used to haunt for days on end.)

One day I popped into Celebes for a little bit of script experimenting…and the island had totally changed! The basic coastline is the same, but rezzing was no longer allowed, the terrain had been terraformed. and buildings and half-finished structures apparently based on the famous blue-and-white architecture of Paros were popping up everywhere!

The island in Celebes and Bohol getting a seemingly Grecian redo.

A quick glance revealed the Moles were responsible: the Lindens have apparently decided to turn an empty island into some sort of prefab Greek island. But then I thought: what if it's not just Celebes and Bohol? A quick fly over to Baffin revealed the Teen Grid transfer point was so far unchanged…but, wow, a ton of other things are changing. A new set of islands popped up in the ocean to the south in a sim called Mirtoon: not exactly Greek, but definitely tropical.

Taking in the sunset in a brand-new tropical island in Mirtoon

But just south of Celebes, I noticed a seemingly empty ocean sim called Baltic had an enormously high number of prims used. At first I thought maybe the moles were building something in the sky and would drop it down when it was read, but a quick look found the build was under the sea! Under the ocean floor, in fact! And it's not just any build: it's a genuine labyrinth under the sea floor that takes up the entire sim, and it's awesome! (Here's the entrance!) It's solvable (without cheating!), but you can grab a ball of twine at the entrance that'll help you out.

The center of the labyrinth under the sea floor in Baltic

Scouting around the neighboring sims, I found the Moles have been hard at work—although a lot of the work isn't done yet. I found an enormous treasure chest under the waves in the sim Ligurian:

Pandora's Box…quite possibly Second Life's most out-of-scale treasure chest.

Other new Mole-made discoveries in the Lindens' ocean sims appear to hark back to the Nautilus continent and Blake Sea, although the mythology might be a little different. Here are four undersea goddesses who are half human and half sea snake and, uh…may be muses? They seem to be carrying musical instruments, including—very weirdly—a banjo.

Four underwater goddesses in Sidra: one apparently carries a banjo.

Plenty of other things can be found: underwater coral caves, ship wrecks, bits of golden monuments, schools of fish, other scripted sea creatures akin to those in the Blake Sea, and more. Not all the new things are in the Sea of Fables tho: other Linden ocean sims seem to be getting attention. I found an amusing underwater Hippo monument elsewhere in mainland ocean.

Not in the Sea of Fables: the underwater hippo god.

I initially found all these in-progress builds before the recent turmoil in which the Lindens tossed 30 percent of their employees and brought Philip Rosedale back as "interim" CEO. The layoffs may not have impacted the Moles: I've seen work underway on the labyrinth in Baltic since the layoffs and the CEO changeover, so at least some Moles are still around.

I am puzzled what the Lindens plan to do with the island at Celebes and Bohol: it's littered with small apartment-like homes, which have (wrong-shaped) working doors and a few of which sport furniture. Are they just for show, or is Linden Lab planning to get into the rentals business with small units where people can set out a few bits of furniture and TP home to change clothes, without the commitment of paying for an actual Second Life premium account?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another One Bites The Dust

Barely two weeks after announcing Linden Lab was cutting 30 percent of its workforce and launching a new effort to create a Web browser-based entryway into Second Life, there's been another reduction in headcount: Linden Labs' CEO Mark Kingdon has stepped down, the Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale coming back on board as "interim" CEO.

Perhaps this has something to do with the "emergency" that prevented Kingdon from making his scheduled address at the SL7B events yesterday, apparently forcing Rosedale to step in on short notice.

During Kingdon's tenure, Linden Lab launched a number of initiatives designed to bring Second Life to a wider audience and solidify the company's financial situation. Among these was a long effort to revamp the Second Life client software to make it more browser-like and friendlier to new residents: the result was Viewer 2.0, which—in addition to some serious faults and major privacy issues—seems to have rubbed most existing residents the wrong way. Linden Lab also corralled explicitly adult content off into its own continent in an effort to make the main grid more palatable to new residents and corporations, and reached out to enterprises with a costly and apparently ill-fated "behind the firewall" project designed to let corporations set up their own little virtual worlds for in-house purposes. Under Kingdon's direction Linden Lab also worked on improving the "first hour" experience to better retain people trying Second Life for the first time (it seems most people who try out SL never come back), and bought out an almost completely inscrutable Web-based virtual goods store, which it only now is getting around to integrating with Second Life proper.

Philip Rosedale originally stepped down as CEO in favor of Mark Kingdon back in April 2008, so my entire existence in Second Life has been under Kingdon's oversight. (I started back in August 2008.) I can't say what made him stand aside: maybe burnout played a role (as Philip noted this week, Second Life has effectively consumed over a decade of his life), maybe just a desire to do other thinks (like Love Machine?), maybe a sense from Second Life's investors that the virtual world had to grow up and move from being a world of glamazon barbies and virtual dildos to a place where people could Conduct Important Business. Kingdon came to Linden Lab as the CEO of digital advertising agency; before that, he spent over a decade with global auditing giant PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Many long-time residents of Second Life seem to be welcoming Rosedale's return as a leader who fundamentally understands Second Life and will be able to steer it in the "right" direction…although there doesn't seem to be a ton of agreement on what "right" might be.

From my perspective, Rosedale's return to day-to-day management might be a technical boon for Second Life. Unlike a lot of CEOs, Rosedale has a coding background: way-back-when he developed the video compression technology that was originally at the heart of RealNetworks' RealVideo—Rosedale was Real's CTO before launching Linden Lab in 1999—and after stepping aside as CEO he was actively involved in Linden Lab's own open source Second Life viewer, SnowGlobe, focusing on the world map and (I think) HTTP texture loading. He's a geek. Second Life might be celebrating its seventh anniversary but the service and the platform still require heaps of technical know-how and tweaking once you get beyond the level of casual visits, and having a technically-savvy person in the top seat can't hurt.

I think it's important to note that while Mark Kingdon will likely now be pilloried and made a scapegoat for all that is wrong, awkward, and annoying about Second Life, the man cannot have worked in a vacuum. Rosedale may not have been CEO, but he remained chairman of Linden Lab's board and, until comparatively recently, was a regular in the Linden Lab offices. Linden Lab is privately held: although Kingdon did not have to answer to stockholder, he certainly had to answer to its investors…and Rosedale will have to do the same. I guess it's an open question whether those investors are content to continue to support, essentially, a giant virtual world inspired by Burning Man, or whether their desire to see Second Life finally go mainstream and become "the next big thing" will override other considerations.

Linden Lab has carefully not yet defined how long Rosedale's "interim" stint as CEO might last, or what steps the board is taking to find a permanent chief.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What If You Threw a Party and Locked People Out?

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Second Life, which truly does serve to illustrate its place as a successful virtual world (rather than "online game")—seven years for anything like SL is pretty remarkable. To note the occasion, Linden Lab has rolled out a number of sims where residents can show off stuff and hold events on the theme "unexpected collaborations," which I guess is intended to highlight how SL can bring people together to create new things who otherwise might never have crossed paths.

Linden Lab Chairman Philip Linden aka Philip Rosedale
(not) speaking at Second Life's seventh birthday kickoff.

To start the festivities, Linden Lab held a kickoff event at a "four corners" amphitheater build they set up: sims are 256m&exp2; squares, so a four corners is an attempt to great a large meeting space with the center of the stage being at the corners where all the sims meet, with the hope of spreading the load of all the avatars across multiple sims. The featured speaker was to be Philip Rosedale, aka Philip Linden, the founder and former CEO of Linden Lab. He's still the chairman of the company's board and apparently still has a hand in how Linden Lab operates, but toodled off last year to work on a new project called Love Machine, kind of a whuffie application for businesses, I guess.

So. I've always shied away from Second Life's official events. I figure I'm not a paying customer so I have no business being there. But, dammit, I do rent virtual land, I am responsible for some small amount of virtual currency changing hands, and I've been mulling whether it would be irresponsible of me to consider taking on actual paying work in Second Life, so I figured—what the heck. The the timing for this event kinda works out, so I'll try to go. I was particularly curious what Philip might have to say in the wake of Linden Labs' recent announcement of a 30 percent cut in staff, the poor response to Viewer 2.0 from existing residents and power users, and persistent reports that Second Life was getting ready to move into 21st century 3D technology by enabling meshes, a more organic way of handling 3D rendering and object creation than the standard geometric prims that can be created in the Second Life client.

So, I got to the event site 25 minutes before the keynote was scheduled to start. Mind you, that was after repeatedly being unable to get into the four-corners area for some time because the sims were at capacity. Once I got in, it took me over 30 minutes to traverse about 40m to get into the amphitheater area, at which point Philip's presentation was already apparently underway. However, from comments of avatars around me, I picked up that he was attempting to give the talk using Second Life's in-world voice system, which is sort of a VoIP solution powered by Vivox. Or, at least, it would have been, if anybody had been able to connect to the voice system. I've almost never been able to get Second Life voice running even just to listen to things, but apparently other people around me weren't able to connect to the service at all. Since Philip's avatar was typing, I struggled to get within 20 meters of him, figuring maybe he was entering the text of prepared remarks as open chat. We trivia folks do that kind of multitasking all the time.

Philip wasn't. By the time I got within 20 meters, this is the chat I picked up:

[2010/06/21 11:21] Philip Linden: Thank you all!


By this time, I had been there nearly an hour and the amphitheater hadn't rezzed. The screenshot above is taken from after Philip concluded his remarks; the "Away" avatar hover-sleeping in the background is the famous Torley Linden.

Linden Lab has posted a transcript of Philip's remarks for anyone who wasn't able to attend or hear them. And I'm guessing that's pretty much everybody.

Philip Linden did address the layoffs, essentially saying that jettisoning some 30 percent of the Lab's employees is cost containment that puts Linden Lab solidly in the black. According to Philip, the Lab's focus going forward will be one shoring up Second Life's usability and operational fundamentals: getting the core of the Second Life experience to operate smoothly and very well.

Philip made another seemingly impromptu speech at SL7B today, stepping in for Linden Lab CEO M Linden who was dealing with an "emergency" of some sort. I was not able to be in-world. A transcript can be found at the same page above, including an explanation of his avatar's technicolor crotch.

All I can say is that if the SL7B "celebration" is any indicator, Second Life has a long way to go to get its fundamentals in order. I was able to connect to SL for the event using a (very) high bandwidth Internet connection. (I didn't have "more bandwidth than God" but I for darn sure had more than most Internet users.) I used nearly every trick in the book to reduce lag on the client and my avatar's load on the server. I arrived early. I made every effort to attend and participate, and went to lengths that non-technical Second Life users would not be able to do.

And for all intents and purposes, I was completely shut out of the event. It was a waste of my time, and a glaring illustration of the failures and limitations of the Second Life platform.

Happy birthday.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Everything Ode is New Again

One of the first truly impressive sims I found way back when I first started exploring in Second Life was a place called Ode. I'd seen some neat builds and found fun things to do, but Ode was the first sim that really impressed me as an attempt to push past the limits of what most people did with Second Life and truly make an environment. Gorgeous fields of flowers elegant trees, a few simple understated buildings…and a massive cliff that dropped precipitously off into a crashing sea.

Ode served as at the home and showroom for Second Life jeweler Random Calliope; his WorthWhile jewelry gallery was down at the base of the cliff, if you want to go look for it…but in the sim itself you didn't see glossy high-fashion photoshopped ads, models, exhortations to buy-buy-buy, join groups, get updates, participate in hunts, or any of that. Just a fields, trees, a simple house. If you wandered you'd find some stables, a gazebo, and a fountain.

Across the (new) fields of Ode

You could just to to Ode to chill out or cavort through the fields—plenty of people did, and the sim is a popular spot amongst SL photographers. If you looked around, though, there were lots of details like an in-world book detailing some of Random Calliope's jewelry pieces, commissions, and design approach. There are also free pieces to be had: butterflies around the sim sometimes give you bits of his "Ode" set if you catch them, and sometimes a shooting star also bears gifts.

Ode has recently received a substantial makeover, apparently at the hands of the very talented Saiyge Lotus. All the signature elements are still there—the poplar trees, the butterfly house, the fields, the stable, the cliff, the gazebo…the butterflies and shooting stars. Collaborators Elizabeth Tinsley and Saiyge (and others? I don't know) are apparently planning to keep Ode around: they've moved their sim Oubliette next door, so the stores Evie's Closet, Balderdash, Frippery, and No Strings Attached are now part of a coherent two-sim landscape. It's gorgeous, and deserves your attention.

But WorthWhile Jewelry is gone; if you look around, you'll find a note saying due to "changes in both life and the his ability to create his art within the Second Life environment," Random Calliope has moved on. Not left SL, apparently, but put the jewelry thing behind him.

So here's a little backstory: The occasion of my second or third trip to Ode was also the instance in which I did one of the rudest things I've ever done in SL, albeit unintentionally: I busted into private areas of the sim, thinking it was some kind of puzzle or game. A brief account of my adventure appears in an old entry in this blog, along with some screenshots of a very young Lou Netizen.

What I never really told anybody about that excursion was that I found Random Calliope's workshop, kilometers above the "public" level of the sim. Random Calliope makes virtual jewelry, but he does it within some rather unusual parameters, perhaps inherited from very early days of Second Life—after all, his account dates to 2005. He uses pure prims. No textures, no sculpts: just the plain-and-simple Euclidian shapes, coloring, transparency, and prim properties you can create with Second Life's built-in creation tools. And the results are absolutely stunning: these aren't the block squared-off shapes slammed together that seems to make up so much of Second Life's architecture and prim-based builds: these pieces are organic, balanced, swirling, living, and elegant, and also seemingly simple while encompassing a heap of complexity and technique.

Most people, presented with a Random Calliope piece and told it's "just" pure prims that anyone in Second Life can make, will be intimidated and potentially put off even trying to build jewelry. (I know; I've done this very thing to many of my friends.) But being able to peer into Random Calliope's workshop that day back in 2008, see a piece in process and partially assembled…it inspired me. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but I thought "I could do that!" And so began my fascination with happy little tiny prims.

I visited Ode many times since then, often bringing friends to hang out or just to show them the big cliff (it eventually got a path you could walk down all the way to the sea). But I never went trespassing again. Maybe a year later, sometime last in the autumn or winter of 2009, Ode changed a bit. I was just sitting on the cliff, I think writing trivia questions for Lou's Clues, when I noticed something had changed at the bottom. I cammed down there…and nestled under a stream at the base of the cliff were a pair of hidden rooms. And one of them looked like it might be a workshop.

Of course, I immediately flew down there, and while there was no explicit security set up, I didn't go inside. Instead, I move my Second Life camera through the workspace and zoomed in on what I found. Although I'd since racked up a bit of experience with my own tiny prims, seeing bits of Random's work laid out, in process…well, it's humbling. Since he's apparently set SL jewelry behind him, here are a few glimpses of what I saw:

In-process pieces by Random Calliope

Check out the gem being built in the top right of that first image: most SL jewelers make gems by slapping a texture on a prim or a sculpt. In that gem, every facet is a precisely crafted prim with each face's shine, transparency, and color carefully set. I've tried building like that; trust me, it's not easy. Other pieces—and remember these are not finished—are distinguished not just by the elegance of the prim work but by the complexity of their design. Anyone who has used SL's built-in building tools knows that achieving curves and twists like that running through such a large group of objects is not simple.

I only met Random Calliope once, very briefly, well over a year ago one time when I teleported to Ode for a little quiet time. He was speaking with another avatar, apparently a long-time friend, but he was very gracious and welcoming to me…and I suppose had forgotten or didn't care that I'd inadvertently busted into his workshop not very long before. I mentioned his work had kind of inspired me to start building in Second Life, and he said that was perhaps the best compliment he could receive.

Older and maybe wiser, at the bench in Ode where I took my first profile pic

So, all my best, Random. I hope Ode continues to be a beautiful place for some time to come.

If you go to check out Ode, you owe it to yourself to check out Frippery and Balderdash—Elizabeth and Saiyge aren't slouches with the jewelry thing themselves, and some of Random's work is still available via Frippery.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"History is the Ship…"

Buccaneer Bowl XVIII

In June, the monthly Buccaneer Bowl team based trivia contest followed only a few week's after May's event, but as always was fabulously run by Lillian Shippe, Lette Ponnier, and Thornton Writer, and had $10,000L up for grabs for Second Life's trivia all-stars. Although the Buccaneer Bowl has its own momentum in the SL trivia community and is well established, please excuse me a brief description: where most trivia events in Second Life are every-avatar-for-themselves, the Buccaneer Bowl is based on teams of three or four avatars working together to get the highest scores…and the biggest share of the $10,000L prize pot on the line every month.

Frivolous Corsairs in June: Lebn Bucyk, Rain Ninetails, and Your Humble Author

The Buccaneer Bowl is divided into five rounds of five questions each: these are free-for-alls: the host asks a question, and all players try to get their answers in ahead of everyone else…oh, and they also try to get those answers right. The first three correct respondents score points (and money!) for their teams, and the team with the highest accumulated score at the end of each round gets to compete alone in a tougher type of bonus question that can add even more money to their collective total. The total prize money onhand for the Bowls is $10,000L, and the way the rules work out a single team could lock down as much as $4,000L of that: on a four-person team, that's $1,000L each, which isn't bad for an hour-and-a-half's trivia-playing in Second Life! However, more important than the Lindens is the bragging rights: you win the Buccaneer Bowl, you've got some serious mojo in the SL trivia community for a month!

Since the inception of the Buccaneer Bowl, I've been playing with the Frivolous Corsairs as much as possible: we're one of the founding teams of the Bowl and are very pleased to continue supporting it. Our original members are me, Rain Ninetails, Nia Jinx—we can't always pull the whole original team together, but we have always been very pleased to have Special Guest Star Corsairs™ on our side on several occasions! And for June, we managed to field three of our four original players…and we did great! The Corsairs managed a second place finish (yow!), with the many-times Buccaneer Bowl champs Triviators earning another well-deserved victory overall. The Triviators aren't unstoppable—although they did manage to win even when I was there to hinder them from within—but they sure set a high standard, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Following up on last month's adorable shot of Rain and Shale Nightfire as...the most underfoot avatars at the Buccaneer Bowl, I offer another shot of Shale and Rain from this month:

Small is cute: Shale Nightfire and Rain Ninetails at Buccaneer Bowl XVIII

Shale and Rain can run around my ankles anytime. I wish I'd managed to get a screengrab of the now-rarely-seen Maelstrom Janus (an original member of the Trumpton Trivials) with them: he was running around as a bear for the Bowl, and was right next to Rain and Shale for a minute: I just didn't get my camera in gear.

Just Married

I gather folks have been forming online romantic relationships in Second Life since about 10 minutes after the grid first came online. Although it's not part of my personal Second Life, I think I can understand how it happens: SL is full of smart, interesting people, and there can be something strangly compelling about being in the same virtual space with other avatars: rather than just being names on a screen, the can express themselves through actions, dress, and their environments. So it's not surprising some folks make very personal connections in SL.

The happy couple: December MacIntyre and Piaget Hax

Last week I was pleased to be able to help celebrate the virtual wedding of my friend Piaget Hax to December MacIntyre. Pia is one of those folks I probably would never have met in real life, but who I've greatly enjoyed getting to know in SL. His experience of Second Life is almost entirely different than mine: he participates in an ongoing role-playing group with apparently very-elaborate stories and events, makes and exhibits fractal art (which—oddly enough—is narrative, rather than merely collections of pretty pixels), participates in other virtual worlds (like EVE), and shares music with me that I probably wouldn't stumble across on my own. I actually met Pia at a music event—an inworld performance duo called Alchemy Unplugged, if I remember—and we've talked and pal'd about a little bit: I recently TP'd him to see a sky-maze a friend is building for fun.

Although I've yet to make it to an actual Second Life wedding ceremony—either they happen when I can't be there or take place in areas I cannot go—I was thrilled to be able to share in a little of Pia and December's celebration. I know their relationship has extended beyond SL—Internet technologies let things like that happen!—and I've never seen Pia happier. It says an awful lot that Second Life can have that kind of positive impact on peoples' real lives.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

…and Still With the Virtual Music

Second Life (and real life) have been keeping my busy lately, so I haven't had a chance to catch as many in-world music events and performances as I would like. My list of acts and artists I'd like to mention is still long, and the list of performers and venues I'm still trying to get to seems to grow longer every week. But I thought I'd step back from sort of the singers, songwriters, and guitar-pickers I normally enjoy to highlight things that aren't normally on my radar: classical music and (yup) big band dancing.

Young Zeid and Izabela Jawrower

There are plenty of classically trained musicians in Second Life, but few try to bring a classical concert experience to the virtual world. A notable exception are violinists Young Zeid and Izabella Jawrower, who perform challenging and very high-quality live classical music in Second Life. In real life, the avatars are driven by Xi Yang and (I believe) Izabela Spiewak, who perform and teach in the real world. Izabella plays violin and sometimes accompanies Young Zeid on piano; Young primarily plays violin and viola, and sometimes accompanies Izabela on piano. I've seen two performances, and while I'm no expert on classical music, I do know a little about technique, tone, and musical performance and I gotta say both shows were exquisite.

Young Zeid and Izabela Jaworower at Music Island

The material Young and Izabela isn't quite the old saws of the classical repertoire: sure, there's some Beethoven and Bach and Mozart, but programs I've heard have included Gorecki, Kresler, Bartok, Elgar, and chinese folk tunes, and introduced me to Astor Piazzolla, a fabulous Argentinian composer who is the current man in my musical world that's the best thing since sliced bread. Aside from the audio quality—the duo have obviously put a lot of thought and equipement into creating a performance space, properly micing their instruments, and getting a good sound—the selection of material and the performances are just superb. Both Izabela and Young have wonderful tone and fluid control of their playing, and truly put their hearts into the music. I admit thinking one of the pieces they selected was going to be a tired old bit of repertoire, but they surprised with their interpretation—it wasn't jarring or unusual, but stunning in its simplicity and overall sincerity. They found the original beauty in it and set it out gorgeously. These two who aren't just phoning in a rehearsal session: they're top flight performers giving intimate recitals. Highly recommended.

The War May Be Over, But The Music Lives On

So how's this for unusual? I'm going to write up a dance club…but I don't dance. And the club is set in an era before my time, in fact in a time when my parents weren't even glints in their parents' eyes. And the club is dedicated to an organization in a country where I'm not a citizen.

And sadly, it isn't even around in Second Life anymore.

Last dance at Second Life's USO Club

One of the sad facts of the Second Life DJ'd music scene is that tons of DJs play current hits, classic rock, and dive into lots of electronica and blues and hiphop and house and party music and rock and metal and alternative and novelty and whatnot, very few people do jazz or big band any justice. The USO Club in Second Life was one of the few places where you could count on an era-appropriate set of tunes from the 30s and 40s plus an audience that knew the music. Set in a reproduction of a WWII aircraft hanger, the USO Club held regular events were folks would put on their 1940s duds and swing to the oldies. The USO Club recently shut down in SL—and I, for one, think the grid is poorer for it.

Fellow trivia fiend Starla Gurbux has given the USO Club a touching sendoff in her blog. I'm sad to say I only made it to a few events at the club, and, not being a dancer, a lot of the focus of the events was lost on me. But every time I went the music was fabulous, the people were great&mdashI never failed to have several fun conversations with music nuts—and the vibe unlike anything else in SL. (In fact, I don't think I was ever hit on at the USO Club, which is unusual for any dance event where I'm busily holding up a wall.)

I hope the 40s music fans who supported the USO Club can find a way to get a new venue going and some events happening—I'll definitely try to be there.

Changing Tone for a Moment…

I apologize that this is yet another in what seems to be an endless series of catch-up posts. I think I'm going to have to change course a little with the Lou's Clues blog, and try to write shorter, contained pieces rather than the more developed bits I seem to prefer. One of my pet peeves about the Internet is that so much of the content available online is so shallow. That's particularly true for Second Life: it's rare to get any real analysis, background, or depth to content: most of the time it's "Hey, look, here's a picture of my avatar, aren't I great! Whoot!"

I'll still try to do longer pieces when I can, but in the interests of keeping the blog active, I'll be trying to pepper in some shorter things too.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Heads Roll at Linden Lab

Linden Lab, the company that develops and operates Second Life, has announced a significant restructuring that will see the firm jettisoning about 30 percent of its employees and shift focus towards making Second Life a browser-based, social-networking-aware experience that does not require dedicated client software. Here's the official statement.

A few Second Life watchers have begun collecting lists of Linden Lab employees known or believed to have been given their walking papers today. (Crap Mariner has a thread on Plurk; New World Notes also has a piece collecting information on the layoffs.) I'm not deeply familiar with Linden Lab's internal structure, nor am I on chatting terms with any Linden Lab employees; however, it appears the layoffs include several long-time employees well-known in the user community (though not necessarily well-loved) and some executive-level folks. Reports also have Linden Lab closing their Singapore office (this just a couple months after opening an office in Amsterdam to some horn-blowing).

Linden Lab reportedly has about 300 employees; a 30 percent reduction in force therefore translates to about 90 people. Some lists of layed off Lindens circulating at the moment have over 100 names.

Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon—aka M Linden—positions the restructuring as a way to "generate efficiencies:" focus the Lab on things Second Lifers care most about, cutting away distractions that crept in during a "two-year investment period" in which the Lab tried to solidify the platform and improve the "overall user experience."

Here are the things Kingdon believes the Second Life needs to be focusing on:
  • A Web browser-based interface with Second Life that will enable users to tap into the virtual world without dedicated client software;

  • Increased integration with social networking services (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, etc.);

  • Second Life Marketplace, it's virtual goods market that Linden Lab is set to roll out any day now (actually, I think the big inventory migration was today) from XstreetSL;

  • Mobile applications so users can interact with the virtual world.

That's all very buzzword-compliant. About the only things missing are "tablet" and "cloud."

Kingdon notes that these changes are being made while Linden Lab is making bank on Second Life: in his own words, the company has "a strong balance sheet, and our revenue will reach record levels this year." We're to believe this isn't about money, but about change, and the employee reductions will come from software development and customer support through consolidation.

SL in a Browser?

I think a browser-based gateway to Second Life is a great idea, and, honestly, when I signed into SL for the first time almost two years ago I was stunned there was not a Web-based interface to portions of the SL universe.

So far, the Lindens have said nothing about the scope of this new browser-based initiative: they might be viewing access to Second Life via a Web browser as a kind of "SL Lite" that lets people "see" the virtual world and perform basic tasks like, say, dressing their avatar, buying and spending Linden dollars, and getting to concerts and in-world events (like trivia games). Or (I doubt it) they might be looking at converting SL to a Web-only virtual world. We don't know yet.

Either way, a browser-based version of SL is almost certainly going to rely on WebGL, an emerging 3D technology based on OpenGL (upon which Second Life is based). In theory, WebGL—in conjunction with a n HTML5-savvy browser—could be used to put something like Second Life inside a Web page: avatars could appear, prims could be rendered, textured could be painted on the prims, and to a degree those items can be made to move and respond to events. However, the idea of replicating the entirety of a Second Life viewer application using WebGL and, say, JavaScript and Ajax is beyond daunting: I'm not a OpenGL developer, but my read of the specification and technical capabilities of the standard—which is still being birthed—is that it's quite a lot less sophisticated than SL's existing technology. I think it's safe to assume that a Web-based version of Second Life will not be as rich as the experience offered by current client software: I imagine it will be like taking Second Life back to 2007 on a slow computer.

Why would someone want to access SL from a browser? Because you don't always have a computer. Just this week I didn't have the bandwidth or computing resources to log into SL for a few days. Without the client software, I can't receive inventory items (folks were sending me messages in notecards), pay my rent (can't click a rental box or send Linden dollars to an avatar!), or communicate with folks I only know in-world. (Linden Lab used to make something called SLim, an instant messaging-only client developed reportedly developed by the company that provides SL's in-world voice service. I never tried and heard horrible things; Linden Lab killed it off in March.) Being able to use a modern Web browser (say, a guest account at a library or a friend's house or whatever) to attend a meeting or take care of a quick bit of business would be great.

A lightweight browser-based interface to Second Life already exists: Ajax Life. It's not an official viewer, and you get to decide if you trust it (or someone in the loop) not to steal your password. You can't move around or see the world in Ajaxlife, but you can talk to people, manage inventory, and spend money. Ajaxlife was originally written by Katherine Berry when she was 15; it was defunct for a while Berry is now 18 and Ajaxlife is back. Berry starts at MIT soon, and is also apparently an Emerald developer as well as the creator of the Web service.

If I were to guess, I'd say we're at least 18 months away from an initial version of Second Life using WebGL.

Mobile? Social networking?

How does a virtual world extend to social networking and folks' mobile Internet experience? Through messages, updates, and transactions. These can go both ways: from Second Life to the rest of the world, or from mobile and social networking users to Second Life.

Folks who are comfortable having their avatars act as public ambassadors for the platform could link up their social networking profiles and pump their in-world activity to the world via social networks like Twitter, Plurk, Google Buzz, or (if they're OK with associating their real-life identity with their avatar) Facebook. Linden Lab would love to have tens of thousands of avatars out there posting public messages like "I just bought a dragon in Second Life!" or "Everyone come visit my Second Life flying island!"

The other way around, a Second Life application for (say) Facebook could let folks keep up with their in-world friends, and maybe engage in some actions that can only happen in-world at the moment: sending instant messages, managing inventory, making payments, or perhaps deciding to buy that dragon as a gift for your friend with the flying island.

Mobile applications could work the same way: it might be neat to use your Android phone to message with Second Life avatars, or participate in a virtual meeting via text or voice. Similarly, it might be fun you use your iPhone or iPad to shop for stuff for your avatar while you're riding the train home.

I think these are all fine ideas. However, services and applications like this must give residents total control over their privacy and how information is shared.

Linden Lab has been riffing on people hooking up their avatars with their real-life identities lately: Linden Lab's banner ads on the Internet feature side-by-side portraits of Second Life users and their avatars; these stem from "A Few Good Avatars" contest (on Facebook!) that invited residents to post portraits of themselves next to their avatars. A one-off marketing ploy, or a deeper sense of the RL/SL integration Linden Labs wants to focus on? After all, the main reason Facebook has a "no avatars" policy is because advertisers and "partners" don't want to track information about assumed identities: they want information about real people with credit cards. So does Linden Lab.

Some months ago Linden Lab redid the Second Life Web site to include a "dashboard" for residents. I've never understood this dashboard, but every Second Life resident has a Web-accessible profile—here's mine—and Linden Lab already has forums and a currency exchange system and an online marketplace (which, again, I've never been able to figure out). Linden Lab recently bought Avatars United, a social networking service supposedly designed explicitly for avatars rather than real people. (Not just SL avatars: avies from other systems were welcome too.) Nothing much seems to have happened with that; I know of no one actively using it, and a few who tried were griefed.

And How Is This Going to Happen?

So here's my take on the Great Linden Layoff of June 2010:

The idea of a browser-based "SL Lite," along with mobile and Web-based applications that let folks manage and keep track of their Second Lives without a full-blown client application seem like good ideas.

However. Linden Lab has rolled out a new Viewer with key features that have remained fundamentally broken for over two months and is widely reviled by its existing user base. Linden Lab bought XStreetSL almost a year and a half ago and is just now starting to launch its Second Life Marketplace. Linden Lab relaunched the Second Life Web site and has failed to address major usability issues. The Second Life grid has not been stable—in addition to, oh, let's call it a major meltdown back in April—public status reports are rife with outages and my own and admittedly non-representative experience of my friends is that getting into and around the world is getting more and more unreliable. Content theft remains a huge issue to many in-world businesses, and Linden Lab hasn't outlined any ways its planning to make the world a safer place for the folks who are, um, actually building it.

How is Linden Lab going to keep Second Life running, address all these issues, evangelize and advance their platform (mesh imports are supposedly coming any second now)—and take on these bold new initiatives—with 30 percent fewer hands on deck?

My bet? They aren't.