Posts Tagged ‘ virtual worlds ’

Death in Second Life

Virtual environments have long been defined by limitations.

Facebook has a restricted design and interface that creates uniformity of content among all users.  Online role-playing games saddle each character with constraints and stunted abilities until they’re able to build up experience and wealth. Twitter has achieved rapid popularity on the strength of its rather severe limitation on use.

Yet in the world of Second Life, limitations are immediately tossed aside. From the start each user navigates the space through flying. A seemingly endless array of islands are instantly accessible through teleportation. Users have an ever-growing selection of objects to customize their appearance and put their stamp on unclaimed property, with countless ways to build elaborate structures using designs  limited only by imagination

All these reasons are how my classmates managed to build an excellent virtual space for learning.

They’re also why I may never set foot in Second Life again.

Today was the final piece in the project I blogged about a couple of months back. With the virtual classroom built, we tested it as the site of our actual Public Opinion and New Media course. Check out the tutorial YouTube video we made if you’re curious as to how it all came together in the end.

By all accounts, the test worked well. While virtual class was far less engaging than the real thing, it sure beat the  message boards that substitute for discussion in online courses. The building looks great. Everything is functional. I managed to go to school and learn in my pajamas.

But there has to be an easier way.

The seemingly limitless options, so much fun to play with at first, proved maddening when it came time to get things done. Without a sense of law, a respected ethical code or even reliable rules of physics, making productive use of time in Second Life resembled chasing an ever-moving target. Designs were adopted and scrapped. Debates grew heated. Plans abandoned. The workflow grossly inefficient.

And then there were those hostile users trying to sabotage the construction effort.

I don’t in any way blame my classmates for these setbacks. I blame a program that scoffs at constraints and in doing so undermines productivity.

The best tools on the web save us time with an interface and design built to accomplish specific tasks. They’re limited in their options, yes, but they enable us to do what needs to get done as quickly and professionally as possible. Amid the endless choices of the online age, these sorts of programs become more valuable, offering a little bit of security and reliability to make sense of all the clutter.

Second Life does not have these attributes, and its popularity could wane as specialty programs make it easier to accomplish particular goals online. The next time a group of students needs to build a virtual classroom, several programs will have an interface designed specifically with that in mind, minus the chaos that ultimately rules a virtual world without limits.


I am Columbus Mint: beginning a second life

second_lifePictured above is the digital me, standing in front of the administrative building for the digital replica of my old college campus.

That’s one way to look at the shot. The other way would be seeing it as nothing more than a blocky computer image, no more a personal reflection than a doodle of me drawn in class.

Somewhere in-between lies the “reality” of Second Life, which I dove into last night for the first time. For an upcoming assignment, I’ll be designing a virtual classroom within Second Life for my Public Opinion and New Media course, so I’ve got a steep learning curve to figure out the possibilities of a world where many have already made small fortunes developing and selling property. CNN has a Second Life newsroom, and everyone from mega corporations to starving artists are looking to hype their brand in the virtual space. Wondering how this is possible? The first PR company to establish a major presence in Second Life would love to show you.

But this commercialization has alienated some of the original users, including my chance first encounter with another person in Second Life. After christening my character Columbus Mint (city where I was born + favorite flavor = Brook’s avatar name) I struck up a conversation from someone claiming to be a former Second Life regular dating back to 2005 who now laments what it has become. Back in the beginning, Second Life was a much tighter community, but free access and rising publicity have opened the flood gates to unsightly ads, lack of creative focus and obnoxious jerks logged on only to harass. I encountered all of these in my first hour-long session.

But there were some practical purposes as well, such as the replica UNC campus with a librarian you could contact for help and a spiffy classroom with stadium-style seating for virtual seminars. If professionals can network in these kind of spaces to share ideas, or folks can get virtual tours of far off lands to decide where to visit then there’s a real practical use for this kind of world without sacrificing our first lives in the process.

If it doesn’t get done in Second Life, (which is still pretty clunky and full of jerks and perverts) some virtual program will harness the technology for a better experience. It was amazing how diverse an array of experiences my fellow classmates had in their Second Life forays this week. Some met people from other countries and were guided to special events and locations by friendly avatars, while others had their clothes stolen, got stuck in a certain world or only encountered lewd avatars.

Hollywood is catching onto the trend and emphasizing some of the ethical dangers of this form of interaction with a slew of movies coming out related to virtual worlds. There are some scary possibilities out there as the virtual reality not only flawlessly reproduces physical reality, but actually enhances the real-world experience. We already have systems that show images and play sounds better than they look and sound in real life. Touch and smell are much harder to replicate, and for now make the Second Life experience a pale imitation of the real world. But as one of my professors, Ken Calhoun, pointed out on the first day of class: “we’re working on that.”