Saturday, 13 September 2014

The continuation of division

How Second Life and everything else internet has failed us – or we have failed it.

Those of us old enough, wise enough or, essentially, unhinged enough to have seen between the cracks of this big brick wall we call ‘society’ will likely long ago have worked out that there’s no such thing as the new product that will make everything better; nor will there ever be.  The next new iPhone, we’ve realised, will not cure the world of ill and it won’t do a single thing for an individual that even the most ardent of Apple fanbois would select to look back upon fondly in his very last moment of life.  Likewise the next Xbox and the next PlayStation and whatever it is that Nintendo does next.  Likewise, in all probability, the Oculus Rift.  Likewise Second Life 2.

All of these next-big-thing bandwagons, we’ve realised, are essentially just the dressed-up treadmill of capitalism, the soap opera gift-wrap to the requirement that we endlessly buy things in order to keep everything (and everyone) working.  This is no big revelation anymore.  Even the machinery of capitalism itself no longer tries to conceal it from us; there is no need.  It turns out that most of us are no more turned off from buying things when the inner guts of consumerism are exposed than we are from eating bacon when we learn it comes from pigs.

How we love looking forward to our next big tech, just the same.  The rumours.  The anticipation.  The debates.  The reviews.  That we know (in the same way that know the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round) that this is all just an endless loop and that this time next year it’ll be something else we’re looking forward to diminishes our enjoyment of it not one jot.  I’m not being cynical here: I enjoy it all as much as the next moderately IT-informed human being.  And I’m not saying either that no things created are transformational, just that they’re not really transformational enough.

The computer, for example, has been transformational; I still marvel at word processing.  The Internet has been transformational and I still marvel at email and the speed with which I can pull information from the web on just about any topic in a matter of seconds.  Perhaps the most transformational thing of all about the Internet, however, is the communication it opens up with other people.  It was inconceivable when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties that we would in the not-to-distant future be able to speak with people all over the world for as long as we wanted and for free – let alone video chat with them.  Even throughout most of the nineties this seemed unlikely.  Today, it is more-or-less taken for granted.

Second Life, in its admittedly rather clunky fashion – although I have no doubt this will be improved upon in its next incarnation – takes this one step further: In SL, we can actually do things alongside people who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from us.  We can create together.  We can perform together.  We can watch things together.  We can shop together.  We can just sit together if we want to in a café or a living room or a town square or an open field and talk.  It is astonishing the boundaries that the metaverse enables us to transcend.

In theory.

If I could travel back in time to make a visit to my teenaged self and describe to him the world’s technology today, I wonder what he would say?  Let’s suppose I arrived in early November 1983 when, unbeknownst to most of us at the time, the world came within a button’s press of World War III.  Nuclear annihilation was something I thought about a great deal in those days and it sobers me to think that there are in all likelihood a great many parallel universes in which Soviet nerve did not hold out and the world really did end that week.  On 7 November 1983, Uptown Girl by Billy Joel was at number one in the UK music charts (incidentally, the first seven inch single I ever bought) and Islands in the stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton topped the US Billboard Hot 100.  In the news, a bomb was exploded by a terrorist group at the United States Senate (no-one was killed).  It was a Monday.  I would likely have spent the evening playing on my ZX Spectrum computer.  Can you remember what you were doing that day?

In truth, right then I was only just becoming aware of the nuclear threat and the likelihood is I was far more preoccupied with what was happening in Doctor Who than I was with world affairs (after all, the twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, was just a couple of weeks away).  If the button had been pushed, I would likely not have understood what was going on (not that I would have had all that much time to digest it), which is probably how it should be for a twelve year old boy.  Even so, if a forty-something me from the future had turned up to talk about the internet and things like Second Life, I like to think that I would have worked out pretty quickly that a consequence of all that incredible communication potential had to be that people were finally managing to get along together.  Well, wouldn’t it?

But, in 2014, despite all these transformational advances well beyond the scope of what most of us who were around 30 years ago could have dreamed of, we’re still about as far away from that dream, it seems, as perhaps we’ve ever been.  As nationalism sweeps across Europe (the rise of the UK Independence Party in the UK is only one example of this), as Russia takes what many feel to be the first of many calculated steps to come in rebuilding the former Soviet Union, as the US is slowly torn in two by increasing political polarisation, as Islamic State – arguably the love-child of the Blair-Bush legacy – bring unspeakable brutality to the middle east, I’m waiting for the moment when people on big stages start asking the question, Why?  How has it come to this?  How have we not yet moved on from here?  Why have we not made some sort of progress when we have all this incredible technology?

It’s too easy to blame just the politicians.  As an inclusive humanist, I have long been waiting for the world leader who has the courage to explicitly make decisions based on the world’s interests rather than “this country’s interests” (whatever that country might be), but I’m not so naïve as to believe that such a person wouldn’t be voted out of power at the very next chance his or her electorate got.  It’s too easy to blame the people of the press, who sicken me on a weekly basis with their seeming quest to make us angrier and angrier and angrier; it is us, at the end of the day, who buy their newspapers and sustain this.  It’s too easy to blame parents.  It’s too easy to blame schools.  It’s too easy to blame capitalism.  It is all of these things together – and more – and the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet, it’s really not so complicated.  All we have to do – all of us – is be better at empathising with others and exercising compassion.  That’s it.  That’s all we have to do.  Pretty much every single disagreement I’ve ever been witness to has involved one or both sides being unable to understand how the other is thinking and feeling. 

In recent months, I’ve become excited in my anticipation of yet another potentially transformational moment to be brought about by technology.  Over the last couple of decades, our knowledge of planets beyond the solar system has exploded: as of 1 September 2014, we know of over 1,800 worlds, with new ones being discovered at an astonishing rate.  We have the Keplar telescope to thank for much of this, a $500m NASA spacecraft that enables astronomers to identify planets when they move between us and their native star.  Like so many NASA missions, its operational life has already far exceeded its planned life expectancy and the data being returned has enabled estimates on the number of potentially life-supporting worlds in our galaxy (calculated from the percentage of solar systems which have planets of a certain size orbiting their sun at a distance which would expose them to a comparable amount of solar radiation to Earth – it turns out this is about 20%); currently, this number is thought to be in the billions.  This analysis has become increasingly refined and new techniques are being devised which will allow analysis of the atmospheres of these planets.  One such technique will enable astronomers to detect the presence of chemicals known not to exist naturally in the universe.  When the day comes that a world with these chemicals in its atmosphere is identified, we will have discovered proof of intelligent life on another planet.  There is a growing confidence amongst scientists that we will have this proof within the next twenty years.

Perhaps this discovery will be the catalyst that changes human thinking from ‘me’ to ‘us’.  For many years – perhaps decades; perhaps centuries – we won’t know anything about these civilisations other than that they exist.  We won’t be able to communicate with them (the distance will be far too great); we won’t know what the people of these planets look like or what they eat or how their homes are or what their art is like: we will only know that they are there.  We will only know that we are not all that there is any more.  We will only know that all of us on this planet are one thing – human – and that there are now other beings we know of who are not this thing.  We might finally start to identify with the people we previously hated.

And yet it’s so terribly lazy to pin all one’s hopes to a magic solution from a far-away place; as a writer, I can’t help but feel I’m just hoping for a deus ex machine to pop out of thin air and rescue us all, and that I should be shamed for the very thought by having my pencils taken away.  And even if it happens, it might in any case turn out to be no more transformational a moment in the long term than was the release of the Nintendo Wii; humans are incredibly wedded to their prejudices.

But something has to happen if we’re going to survive.  We can’t just continue with our them-and-us mindsets indefinitely and expect things to all work out somehow.  Every single time we call someone a jerk or take sides or add to the polarisation of a debate; every time we make it harder for people to rethink their positions and meet us (or others) in the middle ground, every time we collude with the idea that one side is right and the other is wrong, we only end up digging ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper.  It isn’t easy, but neither is it complicated.  I don’t really know how Second Life could help us build some of these bridges, but I still believe that it has the potential.  It’s not going to be a menu option, however, or a HUD you can buy on the Marketplace.  All SL can do is provide the opportunity. 

Whilst I’ve been writing this article, the former Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley has passed away.  Dr Paisley was a big man who, for many years, placed himself in an entrenched position over the future of Northern Ireland.  His later decision to fight for peace and share power with his former bitter enemies was a turning point for the Northern Ireland peace process and the key moment for which he is being celebrated now in the media.  Peace is never without pain, and Northern Ireland remains a stark example of this.  But peace is peace, and we have to fight for it.  If we don’t, the eventual alternative will be so much worse than whatever wounds we have right now. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Two places at once

I've written a third short story featuring my 'Avatar Dining Club'.  It's called 'Two places at once' and considers an avatar who appears to be in two different places in SL at exactly the same time.  But how...?

This one has been published at Virtual Writers' World and you can read it here.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Ten facts about early Second Life

Following a signpost from Ziki Questi's blog, I spent some time yesterday at 'Second Life History', an LEA (Linden Endowment for the Arts) installation by Sniper Siemens which presents a walk through SL's history, from 2001 right up to 2014 (where a set of steps leads towards SL2).

It's a fascinating virtual stroll and it's particularly easy to linger on some of the photographs along the way, snapshots of a world that looks very different from the metaverse today.  My only real complaint, in fact, would be that there weren't enough of these.  This got me thinking: personal snapshots are amongst the few inventory items not bound eventually to perish so long as they get saved out onto a hard disk before SL gets switched off; wouldn't it be great if someone created a year-by-year collection of these, contributed to by as many different residents as possible?

Around the exhibit, information is also presented through a series of sculptures depicting key SL events in the order that they occurred.  Personally, I'm most interested in the period before I joined (although it was still interesting to revisit some of the headlines from my own time in SL).  Here are ten facts you may or may not know about that period:
  1. SL started out as 'LindenWorld' in 2001. 
  2. 'Da Boom' was the first SL sim (and it still exists today). 
  3. Stellar Sunshine was the first SL resident.  She joined in March 2002 and is now aged 12 years and four months old.
  4. Linden Dollars were introduced in December 2003.
  5. The full range of basic prim shapes we have for building inworld today wasn't complete until 2004.
  6. Teleporting was introduced in 2004, but it was only from one 'telehub' to another and you had to pay to use it. Free point-to-point teleporting as we know it today wasn't introduced until December 2005.
  7. The free basic account wasn't introduced until October 2005.  Free accounts used to pay a L$50 stipend every week, but this stopped in May 2006.
  8. The first 'gateway' for the first hour experience was opened in November 2005 (Orientation Island).
  9. Megaprims were created by Gene Replacement aka Plastic Duck in 2006.
  10. A hack in September 2006 allowed access to residents' real names, contact information and passwords.

The installation is only open until 30 July, so hurry over to take a look if you can.  It's an immersive reminder of what a fascinating story the tale of SL is, and one I count myself privileged to have witnessed unfolding.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Could an office in Second Life 2 be the killer app that virtual reality is looking for?

Screenshot from 'Quantum of Solace' created by

Now that everyone’s panicking about the atomic bomb dropped by Linden last month when they announced their successor to Second Life (which, I’m now given to understand, has nothing whatsoever to do with competing in a suddenly rapidly expanding market and is just the next step in the company’s mission to screw residents in every last way achievable), I thought it might be a good moment to start thinking about the ways in which a ‘next generation’ virtual world could differ from the present one.

A new metaverse which works in broadly the same way as the present one – albeit with better graphics, less lag, and full immersion via the Oculus Rift – might sound like a good thing, but would it really capture the imagination of the masses?  A lot of us thought that 3D cinema was a new and amazing thing when Avatar was released a few years back, but when it came to buying a 3D TV, few people could really be bothered and Nintendo’s 3DS handheld games console – complete with its built-in 3D camera that would enable us all to record our moments in stereoscopy – completely failed to capture the public’s imagination (though, admittedly, not as much as the Wii U did).  If SL2 really is going to capture the attention of hundreds of millions of people rather than just millions of people, as Linden CEO Ebbe Altberg has recently claimed as its objective, it will need to bring with it something genuinely new.  The same is true of VR more generally.  In my mind, one such thing is objects with function.

Many objects in SL do already have function, but it’s an extremely limited function.  You can sit on a chair.  You can lie on a lounger.  You can open a door.  You can close your blinds.  Perhaps the most sophisticated functional object I’ve seen so far is one of those fancy television screens that links to channels showing old movies or which can play YouTube videos: it’s a method for watching something with someone, for sure, but it’s hardly bringing into being something that can’t be done outworld.  No.  The sort of function I’m thinking of is far more complex.

Just over a year ago, I was fortunate enough to get a short tour of future concepts being developed by IBM.  These included a facial recognition system for use in commercial environments (remember those billboards in Minority Report that changed when Tom Cruise walked past them to show him personalised adverts?  - that technology exists right now) and a remote control toy car that you can drive with your mind.  But centre stage for me was the big black table in the room with a surface that acted like a giant iPad.  If it had actually just been a giant iPad it wouldn’t really have impressed me all that much; what blew my mind was the way in which it was possible to manipulate documents on this thing: you could spread them all around you like pieces of paper, you could tap one to bring up a localised keyboard alongside it for editing; when you were done with it you just pushed it to one side for filing.  We’ve seen similar fictional systems to this in movies like Quantum of Solace and, more recently, The Amazing Spider-man 2; what I saw at IBM was nowhere near as whizz-bang as either of these, but it was real and – by God – it worked.

I’m particularly excited by technology such as this because for years I‘ve struggled with the concept of the ‘paperless office’.  I’ve been interested in computers for over thirty years now, but my enjoyment and knowledge of them hasn’t stretched so far to any acceptance on my part for replacing paper in my everyday work.  Sure, I use a PC to write reports and emails like everyone else, but the moment two documents are required for any particular job, I start reaching for the print button.  To give you an example, when I’m marking an essay I need to see both the essay itself and the marking grid I use: I could switch between them on my PC screen, but I dislike doing so intensely.  I want to see them side by side, so I end up printing both essay and grid, completing the latter by hand and then later typing it up.  It’s an inefficient way of working, I know, but it’s the best fit there is for the way in which I need to think.  For people like me, then, the interactive surface I saw at IBM represents a way in which the paperless office could actually happen.

But do I see such technology turning up in regular office spaces such as mine in the near future?  I do not.  The cost is likely to be prohibitive without a mass market to sell to and a mass market is likely going to be very difficult to establish when – quite apart from anything else – people are living in smaller and smaller spaces.    If 3D TVs costing hundreds of pounds were a difficult sell, I hardly imagine interactive tables costing thousands or tens of thousands of pounds are going to walk their way into people’s dining rooms.

But virtual reality might just be the way through which people like me could access this way of working, and at a fraction of the price.  I sit at my regular table or desk and put on my Oculus Rift and activate/teleport to my office in the virtual world: there I’m sitting at an interactive desk where I can spread all my electronic documents around me and work on them in the manner that suits me.  So what I feel through my fingers is the surface of my real life desk, but what I see is my interactive desk with all its documents and applications.  The system would of course be linked to a cloud storage account so that I can access outside of the metaverse the work I do inside it: swiping a document into a particular folder on my desk would store it in – let’s say – my Dropbox account, so I would then be able to bring it up in the real world on a PC or tablet.

There would be other benefits to working this way.  Rather than being an isolated room, my office in virtual reality could be connected to the virtual offices of all my co-workers so that we could use the interactive desks for meetings or joint working.  Whole buildings could be constructed in the metaverse for individual companies or organisations: buildings where people actually work rather than the business-themed dolls’ houses we see in SL composed of empty room after empty room.  Working from home would never have to be the solitary thing that it is now, where contact with other people comes in the form of emails and the occasional phone call.

Is current technology up to this?  I don’t know.  I’ve not had any experience so far of using a virtual reality headset, so it might be that my expectations don’t quite match the reality of this technology as it stands at the moment.  It might be, for example, that the graphics resolution isn’t quite so good that I’d be able to read the text on documents comfortably without enlarging it significantly or bending over to see it.  Also, in addition to the headset, some sort of device would be required for reading my hand and finger movements.  I know that the Microsoft Kinect is capable of reading body movement, but I don’t know whether it’s fine-tuned enough to do so sufficiently well to distinguish between different virtual key presses or to be able to keep up with my typing speed.  A system that constantly produced typing errors because it was only 99 per cent accurate would be infuriating.

Then there’s the creation of the document management software itself.  Whilst not beyond the scope of technology today (as I saw at IBM), this would be no small issue: it would effectively be the creation of a whole new operating system, the sort of thing it takes Microsoft, Apple and Google years to develop (and, in the case of Windows, still get wrong).  I say it wouldn’t be beyond the scope of technology today, but there I’m thinking of a system for use in real life: implementing such a thing in a virtual world would require an inworld scripting system light years ahead of what’s achievable with something like Linden Scripting Language.  And it would require lots and lots of processing power.

But this is future-gazing, and from the vantage-point of a period in time that’s not even yet the beginning of the virtual reality era.  Whatever does start to emerge next year, it will be certain to be improved upon quickly.  And it’s been acknowledged by the current architects of virtual reality that VR as yet has no ‘killer application’ concept that might make it a must-have rather than a novelty or niche interest.  The first ever killer app, incidentally, was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program (for the Apple II computer).  Can you imagine working life now without spreadsheets or any other the other killer apps that succeeded them, such as word processing software or email?

I realise you were probably hoping for something a little more exciting from the metaverse than yet another reworking of the way you use a word processor, but it might just be that one day you can’t imagine working life as possible without your virtual reality office.

Friday, 4 July 2014

The impossible snapshots

As a treat on Independence Day, here's a new story featuring The Avatar Dining Club.  You can read the first of these, by the way, here.

For the second meeting of the Avatar Dining Club, our host Edward set up a laptop at the far end of the table.  For some reason, perhaps because we were all still relative strangers and perhaps because we were using the same restaurant in Basingstoke (and, at that, the same table), the other six of us had taken the positions we'd more or less randomly chosen at the first meal. Mary-Anne Middlemarch, a fashion blogger, was to my right, Raw Concrete, a builder, was to my left, the man who called himself Jennifer Bit in the metaverse sat opposite me and to his/her respective left and right were Rainy September, a clubber and explorer, and Indigo Williams, a club owner and skin designer.

That meant Edward sat at the head, as before, and the laptop was positioned opposite him.  On its screen was a plump man in his early thirties with a week’s growth of beard and neatly parted hair.  As Edward took his seat, the man tucked a napkin into his collar.  "Everybody, this is Takin," Edward announced.  "He is to be our guest for the evening."  We all said slightly uncomfortable hellos and Takin returned the gesture in a strong Welsh accent, adding "Well, Takin's not my real name, of course.  I feel a little uncomfortable introducing myself with that name in the flesh."

"Not exactly the flesh," Raw commented, as he eyed up the menu.

"Now now, Takin," Edward said.  "Remember the rules: here we all assume the character we adopt in the virtual world.  There's to be no real life information shared at this table."

"I'm Jennifer, by the way," said Jennifer, somewhat underlining that point.  We took that as our prompt to introduce ourselves in turn.  And then the starters came.

It was a little odd, to say the least, to be tucking into food prepared for us by a chef whilst Takin went to get his supper from the microwave.  Edward enquired politely about the distant meal and our distant diner guest obliged us all by holding up the box in front of his webcam.  Beef lasagne for one, with slices of white bread on the side.  I tried not to make too much noise when I cracked open my crusty roll and took my first sip of a delicious chicken and asparagus soup.  An uncomfortable silence settled and, after a minute or so, even Edward started to look distinctly restless, perhaps worried that he'd tampered with the format to our meeting too quickly.

"Anyway," said Raw, though a mouthful of garlic bread, "you were right about the whole spelling thing, Edward.  I asked her.  She thought it was hilarious it took seven people to work it out."

"Work what out?" asked Takin, his personal volume not quite right.

"Raw got spotted as an alt by his girl," Indigo said to the screen.  "He couldn't work how she knew, and it turned out it was his diabolical spelling."

Raw growled.  "She's not my 'girl'."

"So you say," said Rainy.

"And,” he added, “I'm dyslexic."

"Which means nothing more complicated than 'problems with words'," Indigo stated.  She had smoked salmon for her starter.  I detest smoked salmon and the smell was turning my stomach a little.

Raw growled, "Why don't you try, 'problems with words despite years and years of trying to read and spell better.'?"

"Do you get that thing where the letters jump about?" Mary-Anne asked, leaning forward so she could see around me.

"No," he replied.

"So what is it like?" asked Rainy.

"Remember when you were learning to drive and it was really hard because you had to keep everything in your head?"  We all nodded.  "Like that," he said, "only for reading instead of driving."

“In any case,” I commented, “it didn’t take seven people to work it out: six people failed and Edward succeeded.”

“Oh my dear fellow,” said Edward, brushing my compliment away like it was a crumb fallen from the broken breadstick he held in his hand, “don’t be so dismissive of the initial questioning: I couldn’t have seen the answer without all of your very helpful enquiries.”

"So you say," said Rainy.

“Tell everyone here about your online identity, Takin,” said Edward, directing our attention back towards the computer.  Takin paused to wipe tomato sauce from the corner of his mouth (I was desperately relieved that he had noticed it) then said with a shrug, “I make cars in the metaverse.”

“What sort of cars?” Raw asked, with interest.

“The cars I grew up with, mostly.  I just finished a beige Austin Maestro today - the first car I ever went in.”

“Keeping up with the orders must be a challenge for you,” said Indigo, dryly.

Takin chuckled.  “Well, I don’t only build piles of British junk.  I have a whole range of 70s and 80s cars: Citroen, Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Volvo, Peugeot 205 - my 205 is quite a seller, actually.”

Jennifer sighed suddenly, happily.  “I had a lot of fun in my old 205,” s/he said.

“There you go, see?” said Takin with satisfaction.  “People like the memories they get from messing about in old cars they used to own.  It’s not just the exteriors I do either: I spend a lot of time in research to make sure I get the fittings and fabrics right too.”

“A new metaversian application,” said Indigo.  “Re-own all the stuff you once had to get rid of.”

“I have memories of the back seat of a Ford Orion I’d prefer stayed firmly in my forgotten past,” commented Rainy.  Which led to a few moments of a slightly awkward silence.

“Why the Maestro, then?” asked Mary-Anne.  “Have you done all the good cars?”

“Oh, that was just for me, see?” Takin replied.  “I needed a bit of cheering up.”

“Really?” said Edward.  “What’s wrong, old friend?”

Takin reddened slightly.  “Well, me and Sophie split up, Edward.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.  You two were the perfect couple.”

“I take it this is an online relationship we’re talking about?” queried Indigo.

Takin nodded.  “Don’t be sorry for me, Edward,” he said quietly.  “Actually, I’m surprised you hadn’t already heard.”

“My connections to the community gossip - nor, indeed, my energy for it - aren’t quite what they used to be, I’m afraid.”  Edward rubbed his chin for a moment, massaging the short growth of white beard there, then wagged his finger at the laptop.  “Have you been a bad boy?”

Now Takin reddened much more fiercely.  He started to speak, but Edward cut him off abruptly.  “Don’t answer that; I shouldn’t have asked.  This is a conversation you and I need to have privately, not out in public.”

Takin sat up straight.  “It’s not exactly public here though is it, Edward?  In any case, the pictures are all over her facebook for everyone to see.  And they do say confession is good for the soul.”

“Though not necessarily good for my appetite,” said Indigo.

“There’s pictures?” said Jennifer.

“Lots of pictures,” said Takin miserably.  “Though how they got taken I’ll never know"

“Generally speaking,” said Raw, as he accepted his pizza from the waiter, “it involves a camera of some sort.”

“Well I know that, of course,” Takin snapped.  “But they got taken at my skyhouse, see?  The only person who could have taken them was the lady I was with at the time - and she swears blind it wasn’t her.”

“She’s lying,” said Indigo straight away, waving a forked carrot dismissively.  “She set you up.  She’s a detective.  She’s probably not even a she.  No offense,” she added, looking at Jennifer.

Jennifer sat up straight.  “Why would I take offence?”

“But I’ve known her for years,” argued Takin.  “Mellia and I have always been mates, but when she was unattached I wasn’t and vice versa.  Why would she set me up?”

“Well then it’s obvious what happened,” said Raw.  “Whoever it was that took the pictures zoomed in on you from far away.  That’s hardly difficult in the metaverse.”

“But I told you I was at my skyhouse,” said Takin firmly.  “I own the land down below it and I’ve set my parcel’s settings to private so no one looking in from the outside can see avatars on the inside.  Anyone who zoomed in on the place would have seen it empty.  Only I can change the settings.”

“You might have changed them once and forgot about it,” Raw suggested.

“Well of course it was the first thing I checked once the photos got sent to me the next day,” said Takin.  “But they were still set to private.”

"These photos," I said, "I take it they're-"

"Of my indiscretion, yes," Takin finished, bristling slightly.  "Well, one of them."

"Oh, Takin!" Edward said, despairingly.

"Serves you right," said Rainy, firmly.  "Serves you right.  No sympathy here."

"If I wanted sympathy, I'd tell you about the endless arguments Sophie and I had gotten into," Takin said.  "Or I'd tell you some of the names she called me."

"Then you should have ended it with her," Rainy replied.  "Simple."

"I know that, and I'm absolutely not trying to defend myself.  All I really want to know is how she did it."

"Just out of interest," said Raw, as he sprinkled yet more parmesan over his four cheese supreme, "what names did she call you."

Takin reddened again.  "I'd rather not say."

"Are you certain there wasn't anyone else hidden away in your house when you were... indiscretioning?" Jennifer asked.

"Not only would my security system have ejected them, but I'd have seen them on my personal radar," Takin replied.

"So what about Mellia?" I asked.  "Did you have to add her to the system?"

"Every time," Takin said.  "And afterwards, I'd take her off the list so Sophie didn't see her name there."

"Men are such deceitful pigs," muttered Rainy, glaring into her wine glass.

Takin frowned.  "Though now that you come to mention it, I didn't have to add her that night."

"The first clue!" Declared Mary-Anne.

"Can't you tell us at least one of the names she called you?" Raw pleaded.

Takin hesitated for a brief moment, then leaned in towards his camera.  "She called me a pervert!" he whispered.  "She told me one of her fantasies and asked me about mine, and when I told her, she called me a pervert!"

Edward coughed and studied his broccoli intently.  Indigo giggled into her napkin..

Raw said, "What was the fan-"

"Perhaps you should tell us," said Edward, loudly, "what happened that evening.  I don't mean the details of the indiscretion," he added.  "Think 'storyboard'."

"Well I knew Sophie was early to bed that night, see?"  Takin paused to open a new can of lager.  "Just before she logged out, she messaged me to say she wanted a goodnight hug.  I was getting the knobs right on the air vents for a Vauxhall Cavalier at the time, but also messaging Mellia, because we'd agreed to meet up that evening once Sophie was off.  So I took the teleport Sophie sent me back to our skyhouse, gave her the hug and wished her sweet dreams."

"How many seconds elapsed between her logging off and you teleporting over your mistress?" Rainy asked, acidly.

"Actually, it was at least ten minutes, but that was because I was waiting for everything to rezz."

"It was laggy?" Raw asked.

"That's what I thought at first.  In the end, I realised it had to be one of those glitchy evenings where only half your stuff appears and I so gave up waiting."

"So long as the bed was there, right?" Rainy commented.

"And the settee," Takin replied, levelly.  "And the hat stand.  And the, um, fridge."  He cleared his throat.  "Sophie has an eye for... functionality.  So I teleported Mellia over and, well, I suppose there's not much else to tell, really. The next evening I logged on and there were all these impossible snapshots sent to me plus a very long and very vitriolic letter."

"What if," said Mary-Anne, "they dressed two other avatars up like you and Mellia and staged the whole thing?"

"Who's 'they'?" Raw asked.

"Even if they'd gone to all the trouble of finding out our body shapes and our skins and our hairstyles, not to mention makeups and tattoos and Lord knows what else," said Takin, "How could they possibly know what we were wearing that evening?"

"Isn't it part of the deal that you weren't wearing anything at all?" asked Indigo.

"Oh, we were wearing stuff," Takin assured us.  "And using stuff."

"Storyboard, Takin," Edward repeated.

"Well I'm stumped," I said.  "Unless Sophie had somehow managed to disable your security and someone was hiding in there."

"She might have disabled my system," Takin said, "though I've no idea how; but there's no way she could have  disabled my radar.  I'm telling you, there was no-one within at least 200 metres of us.  And even if the security system was turned off, my land settings were still set to private, so no-one could have seen what we were doing."

"Do you have any ideas, Edward?" Indigo asked.  "After all, you solved the puzzle last time."

"Possibly, my dear," Edward said, thoughtfully.  "Nothing really definite, but maybe..."

"I'm all ears," said Takin.

"Perhaps if I could ask a couple of questions," our host said.  "Would I be correct in assuming that the house itself belonged to Sophie?"

"You would indeed," Takin replied.  "I pay the rent on the land and Sophie picked out the house."

"And the furnishings?"

"Not all of them," he said.  "She does have a better eye than me, though.  Well, did."

"She's not dead just because she stopped going out with you," Rainy pointed out.  “You are allowed to use the present tense.”

Edward continued.  "Would I also be correct then in assuming that the items you couldn't see when you teleported there were all your items?"

Takin frowned.  "Now that you mention it, I think you might be right."

"Well then," Edward said, "it seems fairly clear to me."

"It seems fairly unclear to me!" Raw declared.

"It's a simple matter of logic, my boy: if was impossible for someone to take pictures of Takin at his home, then he could not have been at his home."

"I don't understand," said Takin.

"I imagine it happened something like this: Sophie linked up her house and all the furnishings she bought for it, and took the whole lot into her inventory, leaving all your bits and pieces floating in mid-air.  Then she teleported to a different location where there were no security or privacy restrictions and re-rezzed it all at the same altitude as you were used to.  Then she messaged you for that goodnight hug: I take it she did send you a teleport to her location rather than just asking you to come home?"

"Yeah," Takin said.  "She did."

"So in the end, all the photographer had to do - whoever he or she was - was keep a respectable distance away and zoom in to get the pictures.  By the time you logged in to your home spot the following evening, Sophie had moved everything back to its original location."

"I'll be damned," said Indigo.  "Edward, you did it again."

“Just a theory, my dear.  Though if you log your system messages, Takin, then it should be recorded the name of the region you actually teleported to that night: if it’s not your home location then that’s the proof.”

Takin’s gaze changed as he did some typing and some mouse-pointer moving, bringing up the log to check there and then.  Finally, he sighed and nodded.

"So she suspected me all along," he said.  “Bloody hell.”

"Cheats are never as good at lying as they think they are," Rainy said, not without a touch of satisfaction.

“And there is nothing quite so ingenious as a suspicious partner,” Edward added.  “Inside the metaverse or out of it.”

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Linden Lab announce a successor to Second Life

My thoughts on this announcement.

The breaking news yesterday on Wagner James Au’s always excellent New World Notes was that Linden Lab were first rumoured and then confirmed to be working on a successor virtual world to Second Life.  In a statement sent to the site, Linden said that the new, ‘next generation’ world will be “an open world where users have incredible power to create anything they can imagine and content creators are king.  [It] will go far beyond what is possible with Second Life, and we don't want to constrain our development by setting backward compatibility with Second Life as an absolute requirement from the start”  - meaning it likely will not be compatible with SL and any inventory you have will not transfer over (see my recent post on the finite life of virtual inventory here).  They do go on to add, however, that this “doesn’t mean you necessarily won’t be able to bring parts of your Second Life over, just that our priority in building the next generation platform is to create an incredible experience and enable stunningly high-quality creativity, rather than ensuring that everything could work seamlessly with everything created over Second Life’s 11 year history.”

Big surprise?  Not really.  I speculated earlier in the year about the coming age of virtual reality – which, let’s all take a deep breath and remind ourselves, could yet turn out to be as actually popular as 3D TV – and how this might give SL a boost in popularity because it’s essentially a free product out of the Oculus Rift box; part of my speculation was that whatever the take-up is, however, it will probably only be short-lived: Whilst SL’s various bolt-on upgrades over the years have undoubtedly improved its graphical appeal hugely, these are finicky things that require skill and experience to organise, and many newbie VR explorers, therefore, just won’t get the experience we know is possible.  Something better – and a great deal simpler – is needed, and SL will only endure as a popular VR virtual world experience so long as that alternative doesn’t exist.  If Linden don’t supply this then someone else will.

Other than reporting that the new world is only in its “very early” stages and that the company is “actively hiring”, Linden doesn’t give much information about the status of this project.  Potentially, it’s entirely conceptual right now (although it’s tempting to wonder if there is any flow of information between Linden and High Fidelity via Philip Rosedale). Whilst this likely means that the new world is potentially years away at this stage, getting the word out to SL’s core user base that something new is on the horizon might just help keep them loyal whilst other tempting products start to appear.  It’s ultimately a much wider user-base than this that Linden will want to attract, but long-term SL residents will include the skin-makers and the clothes designers and the furniture builders and the landscapers without whom any serious attempt at a user-content driven world will fail.

What I find most interesting about the statement are two things.  First, the use of the phrase ‘next generation’ suggests a new reframing of business at Linden.  Former CEO Rod Humble previously reframed the company’s work as making ‘creative spaces’, an ethos which resulted in a veritable tumble of products into the marketplace which were thought to fit this brief – dio, Versu and Blocksworld to name but a few.  Any of those that failed to turn a profit got swept away quickly and brutally when current CEO Ebbe Altberg took up the reigns (although Versu got a new lease of life recently following an outcry from fans of Emily Short when it emerged that her Magnus Opus for the interactive fiction platform, Blood and Laurels, was complete and unreleased) and with this new announcement we’re seeing Altberg stamp his mark firmly on what many of us have been feeling of late is a somewhat ailing franchise.  ‘Next generation’ is a phrase we’re used to seeing in connection with such markets as mobile phones and games consoles and mobile data networks, business areas we also associate with a large range of products.  The use of this phrase, therefore, signifies not just a step forward in technology but also Linden’s acknowledgement that we’re now moving into an era where they will face something they have never previously encountered: serious competition.  Over the eleven years of its existence, there have of course been a few alternatives to SL crop up here and there, but none have attracted anything like SL’s numbers.  This time, however, it’s different, and Linden’s experience in this field will not necessarily give it any more advantage in the approaching market than Nokia’s experience did when Apple popularised the Smartphone.  The question has to be, are Linden acting fast enough, or will they become yet another market leader that failed to respond in time to the developments in its own field?

Second, I find the phrase ‘content creators are king’ especially meaningful, and it gives me hope that Linden have actually tuned in to what has made SL, in its own words, “the most successful user-created virtual world ever.”  In a fractured metaverse of competing virtual worlds, content will become the new apps of this market.  As we have seen, time and time again – VHS versus Betamax, Blu-ray versus HDDVD, Windows Phone versus Android and iOS, to name but the headliners – content is what wins format battles.  I can think of no better combination for developing rapidly an attractive content base than straight-forward tools and an open system for user-generated content, and the means to make money out of it.  User-generated content has made SL what it is and any new virtual world product which fails to take into account this tremendous success – and which fails to put it at the very heart of its philosophy – is unlikely to make any long-term impact.  When you stop to think about it, user-generated content is what gave MySpace the edge over social networking pioneers such as Friends Reunited (anyone remember them?) and then Facebook over MySpace.

But what excites me most of all about this announcement is the sense of new energy it communicates.  Has Altberg managed to shake Linden out of its fatigue and re-inject some of the pioneering spirit we all miss from the old days?  I sincerely hope so.  Now needs to be a time of group huddles and fist-bumps and air punches and battle cries at Linden HQ.  If it all comes to pass as the pundits are predicting and VR really does become the Next Big Thing in the IT world (again – deep breaths – it might not), we will be faced with a whole range of competing worlds and experiences; the very notion that Linden wouldn’t be there with its sleeves rolled up and slugging it out confidently with the newcomers is alarming.  Second Life is an amazing product and its architects should be diving in to whatever is approaching: they have earned their place there.

I’ll reiterate now my (previously expressed) belief that the company has to rethink its policy on land if it’s going to achieve a mass-market appeal in its future ventures: content is great, but you need somewhere to display it and nothing roots you to a world more than having a home there.  Hopefully, these early days of the construction of ‘Second Life 2’ will include a period of reflection on what’s been learned from SL that will include such issues.

There is, after all, so much that has been learned.  SL always was a product ahead of its time, but that time is now approaching.  In years to come, we might look back on our current world as ultimately the testbed pilot that led to a metaverse as pervasive as Facebook, as inspiring as nature, as unifying as sport and music.  Get in there, Linden: no-one knows this business better than you do; make us the place we have all been dreaming of.