A whole new (virtual) world


Linden Research Inc. is hard at work to enhance the voice capabilities, search features and navigation interface of Second Life. The company is convinced that this popular, three-and-a-half-year-old virtual world isn’t a flash in the pan but rather a credible vehicle for social interactions, commerce and entertainment, Joe Miller, Linden’s vice president of platform and technology development, told the IDG News Service in a recent interview.

He candidly acknowledged that Second Life isn’t for everyone and that much needs to be improved about the service. It combines features from social networks, multiplayer online games and e-tailers, and lets people adopt new personas called avatars in its 3D world, where they can mingle, shop and party. Enhancements will also come from external software developers, now that Linden released as open source the code of Second Life’s viewer application, he said.

But to the naysayers who predict the demise of Second Life, Miller points to the millions of dollars exchanging hands every week in member-to-member commerce and to vendors like IBM Corp., Dell Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and American Apparel Inc. which, responding to the buzz, have also joined.

An edited version of the interview follows:

IDGNS: Some say there are technical areas in Second Life that would benefit from improvements, like voice communication.

Miller: Voice is an area in which we’re actively investing in now. We haven’t made any announcements of launch of an integrated voice solution but it’s something we’re very much involved with. Many of our customers today who need voice for what they do in Second Life use other solutions alongside of Second Life. However, our approach will be much more tightly integrated. Obviously we want voice to be an important part of the Second Life fabric, so that if you walk up to someone who is voice-enabled you’ll be able to just start a conversation. You wont have to run anything else, or do anything else: just speak to someone or a group of people as you engage in a conversation today in a room. As you move through a large group of people, you’ll be able to hear multiple voices, each emanating from the proper place in 3D where they are, so it makes it very much like a real experience of walking through a crowded room where there’s a number of people speaking. It’s an important attribute we’ll be adding shortly.

IDGNS: Are there any other technical areas Linden is looking to expand, enhance or add in Second Life?

Miller: We have a significant initiative to make search more natural and visual than it is today. When you come in as a casual user, it’s tough to find the interesting things that are happening. We want to significantly improve the search capabilities. We also created an API to let our business customers create their own front porches into Second Life.

IDGNS: What’s Linden’s take on the commerce that’s happening on Second Life?

Miller: Many Second Life residents have created vibrant marketplaces for their goods and services. The amount of economic activity that occurs in Second Life has grown dramatically. Our goal all along was to create a platform that allowed our residents to create experiences to match their imaginations. We consider it to be a platform for possibility bounded only by the collective creativity of the people who join.

IDGNS: In addition to commerce, vendors also use Second Life for marketing and advertising. Is it an effective platform for this?

The established CPM metrics used in other more traditional advertising forms on the Internet serve one purpose. People who bring their brand to Second Life are looking for a different kind of return: to expose their product and brand to the Second Life demographic. But they’re not using traditional advertising means. The ones that do it effectively are providing a capability, service or product in Second Life to residents that they’ll use while in Second Life. The actual proposition of creating a message or value around your brand takes quite a different form when you have a place to exhibit and make it real in the virtual world of Second Life.

IDGNS: People are spending money on virtual real estate in Second Life. What happens to that type of investment if Second Life ever closes permanently?

Miller: For a long time, that question was a valid one in the minds of a lot of people who were watching what Linden Lab was doing with Second Life. But this has been around for three and a half years now, and the company isn’t a startup. The realization now is that this notion of persistent places in a virtual world is a part of what the Internet is going to offer now and in the future. We believe that multiple-user virtual environments like Second Life are just in the beginning stages of their existence … to create communities, commerce and a permanent place for ourselves.

IDGNS: Some have called Second Life a new operating system. What do you think about that?

Miller: This notion of translating your presence into a space not bounded by geopolitical or other physical limitations is something … that more and more of our customers realize can be a part of how they spend their time for work and for play. The point is we have created a true platform for all kinds of activities, and that’s what an OS is about. Unlike a game company, we don’t guide the user on a mission, on a quest or a particular application. We provide a blank slate and our residents create many reasons for our customers to stick around and enjoy the experience.

IDGNS: Does Second Life today have a critical mass of active users for it to be worth it for people to spend their time and money there and for vendors to justify the effort and expense of having a presence there?

Miller: We’re at a critical mass of active, committed users from the standpoint that our residents now create more new content, activities and events than we can keep track of. If we were to go away tomorrow, the platform, the community, the technology would live on. We don’t need to be the catalyst for the community to continue to use the platform in interesting and transformative ways. That continues every day without us having to inject new content, systems or capabilities into the world.

But we’re at the very early stages of this. For some people, it’s not ready for prime time yet. Certainly, it does require a fairly modern computer, a fairly capable graphics card, a broadband connection. It’s not something that everyone can just put to use. There’s also a fairly steep learning curve in getting into the world but we’re working hard at making it easier … for people to find that context for staying, for finding a driving reason for them to say: ‘Well, this is more than just an interesting experience to sample once. This is something I can come back to and know there’s something here that’s tailored to my interests.’

So we’re getting better at providing people with search capabilities that work. We’re doing some things with tagging events, objects, experiences and places with metadata to give people visualization tools so they can see on a map where things are happening that might be of interest to them, based on their profile. We’re doing a number of things to make it easier to engage with the experience.

But there are rough edges to the experience. We chose to [release] the viewer source code to an open-source model to allow a much larger range of people to help us accelerate the work

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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