Long Distance Call

Thursday, June 4, 2009 Thursday, June 04, 2009

Long ago I watched a particularly frightening (at the time) episode of the classic TV series, “The Twilight Zone”. In the episode “Long Distance Call”, child actor Billy Mumy uses a toy telephone to call his newly dead grandmother. The situation seemed normal from the child’s viewpoint, but when the father picks up the toy phone and speaks to the dead grandmother over some unimaginable series of wires and switches, the situation becomes infinitely not normal. And pretty scary, too.

I had the same feeling as that TV father last week.

I had that feeling while testing the new AvaLine voice service just introduced for testing by Linden Lab. It’s a service that permits people (not necessarily avatars) to use their familiar telephone to call directly into Second Life and speak with a logged-in avatar. Or if they’re not logged in, you can leave an audio voice message, which shows up as an MP3 file in the avatar’s email.
AvaLine is pretty straightforward to use. After signing up and getting your AvaLine "ID", you exchange it with your avatar friends. Then you pick up a normal telephone and dial one of several strategically located telephone "portals". The portal asks you for the avatar ID, and upon receiving it, connects you to the selected avatar in voice. 
I thought it wise to give AvaLine a try. Here are my findings so far:
  • The audio quality is inconsistent and typically worse than normal avatar-to-avatar in-world voice (assuming all are using headsets with reasonable quality mics). My goodness, it sounds like they’re on the telephone! D'oh!
  • The avatar sees the incoming call as coming from the phone number. For example, you might get a call from 2125551234. This does seem strange, since voice users expect to see a name, not a number. Worse, if your avatar buddy is actually calling, you might not recognize their phone number
  • That’s another major problem: the actual real-life telephone number is shown. For those who wish to be anonymous, this could be a big issue. I don’t know if it’s possible to block the caller ID, but the truth is that many people wouldn’t realize they could do so and thus mistakenly reveal their True Phone Number.
  • You must have a good memory for telephone numbers because a given person might call in from multiple telephones (imagine a cell phone, home land line, work phone, etc.) It’s the same person calling, but they show up in Second Life as different faceless numbers
  • If the avatar is offline, then the message goes straight to voice mail. But this also occurs if the avatar has set the “Only accept voice calls from people on My Friends list” option. You must turn this off to receive calls from your friends, because the system doesn’t know your friends' telephone numbers. Yet.
  • At this early stage only certain major cities have telephone “portals”. If you happen to live elsewhere, then you’ll have to call the nearest portal number long distance. This is an issue if you don’t have a flat-rate LD plan
  • Real life telephone calls seem to have an “I talk, You Talk, I talk” protocol. But SL conversations seem different, and involve more passive listening and pauses. Pauses, though normal in SL voice, are very unnerving when you have a handset to your ear.

Problems aside, the service is interesting, although I am still not certain of the expected usage situation. Basically, this must occur:
  • Two avatars wish to communicate
  • The avatars are familiar with voice
  • One avatar is online
  • The other avatar is offline, but has access to a regular telephone

I’m not sure this is a situation many would find themselves in, but I suppose it does occur. I’ve used it a few times and it is fun, but I am not sure it would survive past the novelty stage for me. There would be more use, I think, if avatars could call out to any outside telephone number, but that feature does not currently exist.

But back to the Twilight Zone.

In the course of testing AvaLine, I found myself in my real-life office, looking out the window at real trees, real buildings and real people walking by. I saw my hand pick up the telephone and dial a sequence of digits. Soon, ringing. Suddenly a voice answered.

A voice from another world.

And it really was from another world. My mind swam as real and virtual contexts violently collided, leaving me quite uncomfortable. I thought of the boy speaking to his dead grandmother and realized that was no boy; it was, and is, me.
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author said...

Like your blog post. It made me smile. Good style and connection with the Twilight Zone. I wanted to comment though because I felt you left something out:
The whole idea with Avaline is that you share your extension number with your "friends" so that they can call you. Friend calls the portal, enters the extension number and reaches you - the avatar. You are the one in the first place giving out your avatar’s extension number to a friend so that he/she can call you. Given yes, you can see your friend’s phone number as the call comes through, but then that is your "friend", right? There doesn't seem to be anything leading into an “issue” here since you have already agreed to have your friend call and he/she wants to call. You could even tell your friend when you give him/her your extension number that if they don’t feel comfortable with their number displaying in-world – don’t call! Be a good friend!

Jenny Wakefield (RL)

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