Monday, August 06, 2007

Need a Second Life, anyone?

If you pay much attention to what's happening online these days, you've probably seen mention of something called “Second Life.” Second Life is a virtual world created and run by Linden Labs (aka, Linden Research, Inc.). It has received a fair amount of press over the past year, no doubt partly as a result of an aggressive PR campaign by the Lindens.

Having heard or read about it somewhere in the media, I first gave SL a spin last fall, on my little Mac iBook. I played around with it for a while, and even became a paying Resident for a bit, but then grew weary of it and pulled the plug. Frankly, the iBook was a bit underpowered for such a resource-hungry pursuit, and performance was not optimal. This and an all-engrossing "first life" put SL on the backburner.

This Spring, the little iBook was replaced with my shiny new Linux box. At the time, there was no SL client for Linux as far as I knew, so I figured that was the end of that little experiment. But, for better or worse, there is now an “alpha” test version of the SL client for Linux, which I have downloaded and am currently “testing.”

So, back down the rabbit hole. And really, this is more than an empty metaphor. It really is like Alice in Wonderland!

What follows is my story of exploring Second Life, with observations and reflections on what its all about.

This virtual world called Second Life requires a rather substantial outlay of equipment. One needs a fairly new and up-to-date PC, Mac or Linux box, with a substantial amount of RAM, high processing speed, top-knotch graphics card, and, of course, broadband internet access. With those items in place, all one then needs to do is download the client software, freely available on the Second Life website. One should also be 18 or older. There is also a Teen Second Life for the minors.

The Linux alpha client worked surprisingly well, and more or less just like its Mac and PC counterparts. For my part, I had to download it, and then unzip it into a folder of my choosing. The downloaded archive unpacks into a whole slew of items, one of which is the actual viewer application "secondlife." On Linux, all I have to do is open a terminal window, navigate to the appropriate directory and type in "./secondlife," and a new window with the SL interface is launched. One types their username and password in the appropriate boxes, clicks on "connect," and if all goes smoothly, wonderland is yours.

Its a bumpy ride on entry with the Linux client, but I needn't bore you with those details here. Once in, I was good to go. Since I had played around with SL before, I re-acclimated to the environment pretty quickly. Even after an eight month lapse, I quickly recalled the basics of moving around, controlling the camera, etc. Anyone who has spent any time playing video games or going into other online virtual worlds (Everquest, World of Warcraft, or something like that) will find it pretty straightforward. When you are a complete newbie, you start in a place called "help island." This a training ground where you can get used to the basics of controlling your appearance, building stuff, movement, chatting with others and so forth. I wasn't a complete newbie, and had previously set my "home" location elsewhere.

The SL virtual world is based on a physics simulator which controls how various objects, including your own online presence (called an 'avatar') interact. In this artificial world, objects have solidity and mass of varying amounts (although come to think of it, I can't recall a control for setting the "mass" of something, although it may be in there). These objects accelerate, attain velocities, interact with another, and in general replicate a somewhat realistic environment.

I emphasize "somewhat."

"Lag" is a major issue. It makes it difficult to accurately predict how your keystrokes will play out in the simulation. When you press the forward arrow key, you expect to move forward. However, how quickly the system responds to your keystroke is not a constant. It is not so much that there is a delay (oftentimes there is very little or even no delay), but rather that you can never predict how much of a delay there may or may not be. Just moving around your avatar is not too bad, but anything more demanding becomes a real challenge. On my third day of "testing," I bought a virtual automobile. Driving is not easy in this landscape. The vehicle travels fast and is very hard to steer, owing to the variable lag issue. I've also discovered that high velocity impacts with other objects or with restricted access barriers can produce some startling effects. More on that later.

During my first go 'round in SL, last fall, I was fascinated with building stuff. One of the coolest things about SL is that each "Resident" has the capability to build just about anything. Not only has Linden Labs constructed a virtual world for one to enter, but they have also given each user the tools to alter certain aspects of that world. I could write at length about building, but during my latest involvement with SL, building has not been my focus. Instead, I've been eager to see if there is anything to the social aspect to Second Life, and if there is really anything interesting to do or see in this world. But before I could venture out to explore the world around me, I needed to make my virtual self presentable.

Playing with Dolls

You probably remember how as a kid you enjoyed playing with dolls (or “action figures,” if you are or were a boy). Now, in Second Life, you can relive those good times! Configuring one's avatar is just like playing with a doll, but with a level of control unknown in my childhood. The avatar is your visual representation in the simulated world. You could think of it as an extension of yourself, or maybe as just a puppet that you control. It is your character in this virtual fairy tale.

There are quite a few parameters that control the physical features of your doll--er--avatar. Gender, how tall, how fat, love handles or not, saddlebags or not, bug-eyes or not and asymmetrical controls -- if, for example, you want one eye to be a little bigger than the other. You can push all these various settings (and I've only mentioned a very few of them) to extremes, or try to hone them in to produce a nearly realistic, more or less attractive humanoid appearance. It's not easy to achieve a balance. It's certainly quicker to buy or find a free preset look. But that would take most of the fun out of the experience. I spent what seemed like hours (and probably was) the first night just playing with these controls.

Next are the clothes. You can make your own, and the various parameters for these are also legion. There are undergarments, pants, shirts, jackets, skirts, shoes. You can also buy more elaborate clothes and various attachments. You can even buy details like tattoos, body hair, nipples, and other, more private, parts. Yes, your doll does not have to remain neutered! This is, as you have guessed by now, a very adult game.

Many hours of dressing and undressing, tweaking, buffing and primping may finally result in a satisfactory likeness of your virtual puppet. Then, of course, one can't resist every opportunity to see how your creation appears in various settings. Is this how God feels? Is he always watching, not out of some divine concern or purpose, but just for pure vanity's sake? More time is wasted playing with the camera controls to get various viewpoints of -- what else? -- yourself. Narcissism is taken to a new level! And you can take snapshots, of course.

So you're in Second Life and you're all dressed up (or undressed, if that's your fancy). Now, where to go?

To be continued.

No comments: