When I first started demonstrating Second Life to Telstra’s Enterprise & Government customers, I usually got either blank stares, and that look you get when people think you are crazy.
But demonstrate Second Life showing its use for collaboration or rapid prototyping of floor layouts… and people get it; Internet based virtual reality has a significant role to play in online experiences.
What is Second Life?
Second Life is an internet based virtual world. It has many parallels to the way you use the web:
- You download the free Second Life client – think of it like a browser
- You set up a free account and logon – like many social networking sites
- You can customise your look – also like many social networking sites
- You move from island to island – just like moving between pages on the web
- You can see when your friends are online and chat – both voice and text – like many IM services
- You can see, experience and move around content – like Quicktime, Flash, Java and many other Virtual Reality environments
- You can create your own island / content – just like you can on the web
Second Life is not really that different from many other Internet services; but its the way it integrates all these elements in an immersive environment that really gets your attention.
The most significant difference about Second Life is the avatar (you) walks, flies, drives… through virtual space, experiences content, and interacts with other avatars (other users) often all at the same time. Whereas a regular website is a very lonely place (even Facebook and Twitter) - you may be one of thousands / millions looking at the same page at the same time, but you would never know it.
Second Life is not the only Internet based Virtual World. There are a number of worlds with different attributes and intents (see wikipedia). But Second Life was revolutionary in recognising and protecting the copyright of content developed by Second Life users (also referred to as Second Life residents).
Second Life has also been very good at promoting itself – an exploding number of users – now over 12 million users  who are spending increasing number of hours online, buying and selling content and services developed by each other – 16 million transactions a month.
You know something is going mainstream when its covered on the ABC’s Four Corners (March 19 2007), and becomes part of the plot of popular TV dramas like Law & Order SVU, and Dame Edna starts espousing Second Life in her act.
But you would be excused for thinking you have seen this all before – the hype surrounding Second Life has a very similar feel to hype surrounding the dot-com bubble in 2001. Its no wonder that many companies are circling Second Life – trying to figure out if its an opportunity or a risk – being motivated by greed or fear (see Wired).
A Web 2.0 technology that you can see, hear and “feel”
Second Life makes much more sense when you think of it as a tool for rich interaction and communications with other users. You can get a glimpse of this phenomena most nights (or days) sitting by the BBQ outside the Billabong Bar - an authentic outback pub at THE POND, part of Big Ponds presence (island) on Second Life.
Much like your real life local pub, numerous characters gather at this virtual pub after 5pm for a chat (voice and text), a dance, and who knows what else!
The “locals” tend to be logged on from all parts of Australia – city and regional. You also get a quick sense of the international nature of Second Life with many users logging in from Europe and North America; I recently met someone from Vietnam!
The propensity for users to stay online is amazing, spending hours chatting away to others and genuinely helping one another. On Second Life you get a tangible sense that the Internet is a true global community with multiple languages and time zones – just as your European friends start logging off, your North American friends start coming online. I always feel very inadequate struggling with English – while many SL users are multilingual.
Second Life is a an excellent example of a Web 2.0 application – its quite easy to develop and sustain relationships with users around the world you may never physically meet.
From fantasy living to realistic applications: collaboration
In August 2007 I “attended” my first IT symposium conducted inside Second Life; hosted by the AIIA (Australian Information Industry Association) on their island.
In an imaginary / fantasy world, the thing that first struck me about this meeting was how normal it felt. Here was a virtual room full of people sitting at a computer somewhere on the net, like me. “In world” avatars were seated, listening to the presenter, and watching powerpoint slides on the screen.
In a virtual world where avatars never tire and can fly, why would they all be seated? Why were they all sitting at the back of the room?
Attendees could ask questions – by text or voice, and hear the moderator’s answers. You could have confidential side chats with others sitting next to you.
Once you get beyond the “cartoon” nature of Second Life you start to realise that this environment shares many characteristics of dedicated collaboration environments.
Internet tools such as Webex, Live Meeting and Click to Meet (amongst others) provide very similar outcomes – enabling users located anywhere on the Internet to come together, see and hear a presentation, and then ask questions… collaborating on a document.
But all these professional tools are applications designed around publishing and conferencing. You don’t really get the sense of sharing an experience like you do in Second Life.
Now I am not unique in recognising this possibility. Organisations like Cisco, IBM, NASA, ABC and others regularly host similar sessions.
Often its about the convenience of attending a meeting while sitting at your desk, but in a post September 11 world it also about running sessions without the security hassles. It marks an interesting change on Second Life as some users eschew the fantasy aspects of this virtual world and blatantly provide details of their real life identity.
From fantasy living to realistic applications: prototyping & stakeholder management
Another application we stumbled across was using Second Life to test out new floor plans for our updated Telstra Experience Centres in Sydney and Melbourne. Architects have many tools that allow you render 2D designs into 3D animations, but they tend to be expensive to use, and only provide a fixed path with which to navigate through a building.
With little effort we were able build life like versions of both centres in only a few days, and update the textures with images of the real materials within a week (floors, walls, ceilings…). Plus we had the flexibility of walking through the layout with others while they were sitting at their desks in remote locations.
Its certainly changed the minds of our architects and building services people. It also greatly sped up decision making on all those little things people get passionate about when it comes to building. Its so much easier agreeing on something when you can see it in front of you together – whether its the real world or a virtual world
The possibilities here are endless. Especially prototyping fitouts of new environments and showing stakeholders various scenarios on the flow of customers and staff. Suddenly all kinds of customers I brief start making notes and requesting followup meetings.
The above short video was filmed “in-world” in Second Life, showing the prototype of the Telstra Experience Centre now in operation at 400 George Street Sydney. This virtual reality version of the Telstra Experience Centre was built using the same plans as the real facility with only minor tweaks (like no ceiling, so you can see the layout from overhead).
Is Second Life the answer?
Getting established on Second Life is quite time consuming. Assuming you dont have firewall issues and you are a complete beginner it may take a few hours to get started on Second Life (downloading the client, establishing an account, choosing your avatar, navigating the orientation island, finding where you need to go…). Users have to be patient and persistent.
Second Life is moving towards having an open source model; which hopefully will open up all kinds of possibilities for embedding virtual reality environments in more convenient formats. Perhaps built into regular websites, where you can deal with other users and support staff to get a better experience of what you are after.
Either way you are going to see a lot more virtual reality when you get online.
This blog was first published on Telstra Research Insights, 19 March 2008.
Popularity in Second Life has rapidly waned; a combination of numerous moral crises, and fashion the “flares” and “shoulder pads” of the Internet Age.
However in 2012 the concept of virtual worlds in business and their immersive environments are still in play; but from within a browser and without much of the “friction” in getting started on Second Life.