Monday, April 4, 2011

Tits and Ass

So I'll just put the bits up front: Linden Lab is going to be adding "avatar physics" to Viewer 2.x, giving users the ability to configure their avatars to have their butts, bellies, and (of course) breasts bounce around when they move. Here's a peek.

Click through for the full jiggle on YouTube.
No, that's not me. If you're wondering whether it's common for female Second Life avatars to dress and walk around like this, the sad answer is yes.

Avatar physics is already present in development builds of "SnowStorm," Linden Lab's main viewer development project, and should be reaching everyday avatars fairly soon. It will also (very likely) be adopted by third party viewers (like the Phoenix folks' "FireStorm" and Imprudence's Kokua) that are based on Linden Lab's Viewer 2 code base. They will essentially get the feature for free, and will likely come up with ways to "innovate" it beyond Linden Lab's default features.

The feature is being implemented as a wearable clothing layer for avatars, so avatars can put on "Physics" in much the same way they wear skins or tattoo layers. Presumably, users will be able to create multiple physics layers they can switch in and out to go along with different looks. Similarly, folks who have in-world businesses built around avatar accessories will probably be able to pack physics "layers" along with their skins, shapes, and other products. Unlike Viewer 2 alpha and tattoo layers that get "baked" into an avatar's overall appearance and are thus visible to users of older viewers, Linden Lab's avatar physics will only be visible to viewers that specifically support the technology. So if you stick with an older viewer, you're not in the game.

Do You Like to Watch?

Over a year ago I bemoaned Linden Lab's then-forthcoming Viewer 2, and tried to place it in the context of third party viewer development at the time. I primarily focused on privacy and security issues with Viewer 2, deigning not to comment on its design, interface, or usability. (Lou's take on viewer design: Viewer 1.x sucks, Viewer 2.x is worse.)

In the last year, major privacy and security issues have twice rocked Second Life's tiny little boat on the rough seas of the Internet. First, Linden Lab had little choice but to draw-and-quarter Emerald, the most widely-used third-party viewer application, for abuses and privacy violations. That fiasco gave birth to the Phoenix project, which has tried to pick up where Emerald left off, offering Second Life power users a more tweak-tastic viewer while at the same time trying to come up with a third-party viewer based on Linden Lab's Viewer 2.x code base. (That project is called FireStorm, and I gather it's in limited testing now.) Converting to a Viewer 2 code base is important for viewer developers because, slowly but surely, Linden Lab is breaking features in earlier 1.x viewers and, one day, those old viewers won't be able to connect to Second Life at all.

Linden Lab's second test on privacy and security came in the last two months from a product called RedZone, which purported to be a tool that enabled land owners to identify users of copybot viewers—illegal viewers that essentially exist only to steal content in SL. However, RedZone went several steps further than Skills Hak's Gemini CDS, which purports to do the same thing. RedZone used SL media streams and other tools to gather IP address info on Second Life users in areas "protected" by RedZone. That information was sent to an external site, where it was correlated and made accessible to RedZone customers: one of the features was an alt banner, which assumed that all connections to Second Life from a particular IP address must be the same person. RedZone would show its customers which avatars had connected to SL from a particular IP address, and offer to let users take action against them all en masse. In addition, RedZone logged failed logins to its Web site, and stored those failed passwords as "possible SL passwords" associated with a particular account—statements from its creator imply that the information would be used to try to log into SL using those credentials, and delete their accounts using Second Life's Web-based administration tools.

RedZone's creator was eventually identified as a convicted felon with convictions for fraud. Shortly after RedZone's servers were hacked (which is how some of these in-house details came to light), Linden Lab removed RedZone from the grid, along with nuking the creator's accounts, groups, and known alts.

OK, Why Did You Prattle On About That?

While it was operating, RedZone publicized bits of aggregate data about the Second Life avatars they scanned. One of those aggregate bits was the viewer versions in use by scanned avatars. There's no reason to suspect those numbers served any purpose other than pleasing RedZone's creators, but one of the figures was interesting:

Scanning more than 9 million avatars, RedZone found that about 40 percent were using Linden Lab's Viewer 2.x.

Yep, that's right: after more than a year of flogging Viewer 2.x, roughly two in five SL avatars are using it. A considerable majority of Second Life users are not using Linden Lab's primary viewer software.

If that percentage is accurate, it represents a significant challenge for Linden Lab. Linden Lab wants to advance their platform. They want to make Second Life more accessible and fun to everyday Internet users. They want to roll out new technologies that support inworld businesses and the content-creation community. They want to see concurrency and their user base grow, not stay comparatively stagnant. But they don't want to alienate the majority of their users in the process.

What's Linden Lab Going to Do About That?

Linden Lab has taken some steps to try to make Viewer 2 easier for new users. The biggest change, implemented under the watch of new CEO Rod Humble, is a Basic Mode for Viewer 2. Basic Mode is now the default when users start Second Life, and tries to sweep away a lot of the interface clutter and confusion in favor of a paradigm that lets people get inworld quickly, not look like a total dork, find something fun to do (via preset places to visit), and have happy positive thoughts about SL. If they want to go further—customize their avatar, use voice chat, buy virtual goods or Linden dollars, create their own objects, etc.—they can log back in using Advanced Mode via a toggle at the bottom of the screen and tap into all features.

However, Basic Mode is not going to convince any of the folks who are not currently using Viewer 2 to get on the bandwagon. What might?

Tits and ass.

Oh You're Kidding

No, I'm not. A year and a half ago, Emerald was already established as the dominant third-party viewer on the grid. But if there was one feature that pushed it over the edge to massive adoption by mainstream SL users, it wasn't client-side animation overriders, avatar keys in profiles, improved radar, or the ability to set draw distance on the chat line. It was "breast physics."

The cynic in me is definitely talking, but I see Linden Lab's "avatar physics" as a similar "grope" to get users to embrace the Viewer 2.x platform, whether that be in Linden Lab's official viewers or in third-party viewers based on Linden Lab code.

To the Lab's credit, their implementation of "avatar physics" is more comprehensive than that originally incorporated into Emerald (and since propagated to third-party viewers like Phoenix and Imprudence). For one—erm, two—things, it also includes butt and belly waggle, so las chicas con culo can do all the jiggling they want and Santa avatars can have their own bowl full of jelly. And unlike the existing breast physics feature, which is client side and applies to all avatars equally whether they want it to or no, Linden Lab's physics layers will be opt-in. Don't want your bits jiggling? Don't wear the physics layer. It also means that, if users do choose to use physics layers, other avatars will see the effect they're intended to see: each avatar can have their own unique jiggles, including no jiggle at all.

Unfortunately, I also think avatar physics will have a negative effect on Second Life's image. SL already has a reputation as the red light district of virtual worlds—heck, Linden Lab has created a whole adults-only continent where users effectively need to show their ID to enter. Avatar physics caters almost purely to prurient interests…and that may not be the kind of "fast easy fun" with which Linden Lab wants to continue to be associated.

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