The Coral Reef: It’s Alive

Sunday, November 7, 2010 Sunday, November 07, 2010

I don’t know why I haven’t written about this, but I guess I should tell you about something special I’ve worked on a few months ago. My team and I have completed construction of a lifelike virtual coral reef on contract from well-known SL entrepreneur Veritas Raymaker. Veritas, if you don’t know him, is perhaps the most polite person in the known universe. He’s been putting together a rather interesting series of educational displays on Praxis island.

Our build is actually hidden underwater in an air-tight platform from which you can observe the coral reef. But it’s more than that - the display is organized into several interactive displays, each describing and showing you how coral reefs can be damaged. The displays take you through a short sequence explaining the issue in chat, as well as demonstrating the effect for you to observe directly.

The build illustrates several real environmental factors that can affect the health of the world’s coral reefs: climate change, pollution, eutrophication, over fishing and sedimentation. Each of these effects are actually in play today in our planet’s coral reefs, and from the platform you’ll be able to see exactly how they affect coral ecosystems.

There is a separate station for each of the environmental factors, each with a dedicated observation bubble through which you can see a lively coral reef, complete with colorful corals, algae, bubbles and some of the most amazingly realistic fish you’ll ever see in SL.

To visit the underwater platform, you’ll have to teleport to Praxis, a truly beautiful sim where Raymaker has organized a variety of environmental displays. Follow the paths down to the dock - you won’t see the reef or the platform, as they are completely submerged. A the end of the dock, you’ll see a teleporter that takes you underneath the waves directly to the platform where you can engage the interactive displays. Start at station one by touching the display and reading the text. Be sure to look out the observation bubbles to see the coral reef die as the effects take hold.

The reef build was a team effort, made by the new Construction Division of Electric Pixels. Scripting and Sculpting was done by the very capable Thickbrick Sleaford, who by the way is available for complex contract scripting work through Vermont Enterprises;  Design, storyline, signage and particles was done by myself; Quality control and testing by Haley Salomon. If you’re looking for someone to help you produce an amazing display, please consider Electric Pixels - Construction Division.

One catch: in order to receive the full immersive experience, you should turn on particles in your graphics settings and also turn up your sound. Give it a moment to load, especially if you have a less-than-new PC. Here's a direct link to the start of the display at a dock near the underwater platform. Enjoy!

It’s Halloween Again

Sunday, October 3, 2010 Sunday, October 03, 2010

Each year at this time in SL everyone does something special to celebrate Halloween. I’m not sure if it’s a secret urge to get back to childhood, or a way to take your virtual appearance to the ultimate level, but nevertheless everyone will be costumed up. Things will soon be a lot scarier. 

I make several scary items you might find appropriate to spook up your SL Halloween. Why not drop by Electric Pixels? Here are some of my gadgets that are most appropriate for Halloween:
Blood Spurter - an absolutely gross effect that intermittently spurts a realistic stream of blood from your carotid artery! Use this one only if you’re not squeamish.
The CandyGiver - lets you select a nearby avatar and throw streams of calorie-laden chocolate bars at them.
Blood Dripper - You just finished sawing up your most recent victim, and your arms and chest are dripping blood. These drippers can be placed anywhere you like to make your axe-murdering persona just a bit more real. 
Bat Hair Day - Tiny bats swarm around your head, making you look spooky. Well, maybe not spooky but it’s cool anyway! It’s not hair, just bats. Only bats!
Cloud Vampire - Look up! You’ll see a vast menacing cloud, colored blood red. 
Demon Breath - You exhale a very demonic red breath every seven seconds. Shiver!
Demon Haze - Be surrounded by a very subtle reddish haze; set the mood to EVIL. 
FloorFog Vampire - Equip your dark castle with a very creepy black and blood red ground fog that makes things seem seven times more scary!
VampireFog - Take your Vampire-like red and black fog with you to the dance floor with this scary effect!

BatMaker Thick - Just a touch from you creates a massive cloud of dangerous bats for 60m nearby. Watch out!

OnFire - Brighten up your Halloween event by Lighting Yourself On Fire! 
And that’s not all; there's many more of these very different and well-behaved particle effects. Be sure to try out the demonstrations at Electric Pixels when you visit. Hint: they’re near the coffin.  

Viewers, Viewers, Viewers: A Way Out of This Mess

Sunday, September 5, 2010 Sunday, September 05, 2010

Readers may have noticed controversies and discussions over Second Life viewer software in recent weeks and months. In some cases scandal, in others too much change, still others are simply inoperable in many situations. A constant question is, "which viewer should I use". There have been many answers - as many as there are viewers. Clearly there's lots of opinions and few are satisfied.

Meanwhile, new users continue to have challenges learning the environment. Let's face it: SL and 3D worlds are quite a different experience and it takes time for people to get accustomed to using them. Linden Lab knows this, since we've observed them trying to address that problem by deploying the controversial Viewer 2.0.

Viewer 2.0 seems to work for some, and yet not for others. Why is this so?

I've thought this for a long time now, and I'll say it again: there are two different audiences making use of viewers. First there's the new residents, who are frequently confused by the complexity of the interface, give up and never return, and the experienced existing residents, who yearn for more function to customize or simplify their sophisticated virtual existence.

Here's the problem we've been having all along: we're trying to service two entirely different audiences with a single viewer. Hence, Linden Lab creates Viewer 2.0, which includes features designed to simplify life for new residents, while still trying to address the needs of experienced residents. In my opinion, it didn't go nearly far enough in the simplicity direction for new residents. In the opinion of many long-time residents, Viewer 2.0 confused their operations and made their complex virtual lives more difficult. Viewer 2.0 missed the mark for both audiences.

While Viewer 2.0 marginally improved the experience for new residents, it was rejected by a great many experienced residents, a vast number of whom fled to use a variety of third party viewers. Unfortunately, one of the major third party viewers ran into issues and many residents now scramble to find an alternate viewer - and many of them wouldn't consider Linden Lab's Viewer 2.0.

I've seen situations like this before many times in real life, and a good solution approach is to realize the root cause and directly address it. In this case the root cause of viewer difficulties is that there are two audiences that have very different requirements. Thus, the answer is quite simple: we need Two Viewers, one greatly simplified suitable for stark newbies devoid of advanced and confusing features, and the other a more complex viewer filled with all the features one could imagine.

Of course, the challenge will be that Linden Lab is able to muster resources only sufficient to support one viewer. Right now, their efforts try to do it all for everyone, addressing both audiences but in fact doing so in a less than optimal manner.

Here's my proposal to make life a lot easier for everyone: Linden Lab should abandon development of the advanced viewer entirely and leave it to evolve independently by third parties through open source approaches. Publish and maintain a secure specification for accessing the grid and the underlying open source code, and let others do the job of building advanced viewers. This has worked in the world of web browsers and many other environments; why not here too? To some extent, we've already seen this happening, albeit somewhat placed in shadow by Linden Lab's highly visible Viewer 2.0, often selected by residents simply because Linden Lab made it. But imagine how well these third party viewers could advance if they weren't competing against Linden Lab's viewers?

Meanwhile, Linden Lab could then focus efforts on a truly simplified viewer specifically designed for new residents, one that could actually achieve the vision of "five minutes and you're in" that really has no chance of happening in Viewer 2.0. Consider how well they might do if they didn't have to worry about including all the features required by existing residents. New users could "graduate" to one of the more advanced viewers when they feel confident enough to do so.

Let's make things simpler for everyone. Linden Lab desperately needs a simplified viewer; Residents want (and have proven they can make) an advanced viewer. For me, two viewers is the obvious solution. What do you think?

The Emerald Implosion

Monday, August 23, 2010 Monday, August 23, 2010

If you’ve been reading any SL blogs lately, you’ve probably come across the incredible events surrounding the famous (or infamous) Emerald Viewer. Resignations, reformations, scandals, possible criminal acts and other mayhem ensued throughout the week. I’m not going to detail any of that stuff; it’s been well-covered elsewhere.

Instead, I am going to bring forward my thoughts on how it came to this. There’s definitely reasons why this week’s implosion occurred, and why it may not happen again. All these events are connected at a very high level.

But let’s start at the beginning.

We have a certain company, Linden Lab, who market a very unusual product: Second Life. This product is amazing, but it is also a very complex thing to deal with. In fact, it’s so complex that no one really knows how it should be set up.

The product, SL, is so complex that while it is amazing, relatively few people from the public are able to manage to successfully use it and stay using it. Everyone uses the standard viewer through which everyone experiences the product.

Advanced SL residents grow to want more from the viewer, as they’ve managed to learn many things about the environment, well beyond the basics. But they’re frustrated because they have only one option.

The Lab recognizes this need and responds by open sourcing the viewer code. They hope that the community will adopt the freely available viewer code to develop the advanced features that it wants, while leaving the Lab to put their limited resources against other problems and ventures.

The Lab focuses on growth. They believe that to attract more residents, they need to somehow simplify the experience so that it doesn’t scare people away. Indeed, the survival rate for new signups is abysmally low, perhaps as low as 1%. One of their simplification strategies is a less complex viewer. They begin a project to develop this new simplified viewer.

Several groups adopt the open sourced viewer code and begin tinkering. Some happen to be professional or near-professional developers, but others are not. Hackers and griefers also take a stab at making their own viewers - sometimes for nefarious purposes. A variety of viewer options emerge, all with differing features, support, release schedules and reliability. Some residents try them and begin to have opinions on their favorites, usually based on their particular needs.

One third party viewer (TPV), Emerald, becomes somewhat more popular than others, perhaps based on its frequent release of interesting and unusual features. This viewer is in fact the opposite of the Lab’s work: it’s a complex viewer including *more* features, not fewer. But these features are well-received by many long time residents in the community.

With popularity, more information comes to the surface about Emerald and the folks behind it. It turns out that several of them have known histories as griefers, some being suspended from SL in the past. It is further discovered that mysterious encrypted information is being sent from the viewer to Emerald’s server. The Emerald team does not reveal their real identities, thus making it very difficult to ascertain their level of responsibility.

Aside: it was at this point I concluded it was too risky (at least for me) to continue to use Emerald. Code written by anonymous former griefers, known to be sending unknown information to parts unknown, was simply too suspicious. I, and several others, deleted Emerald from our systems and changed our passwords in case they had been somehow recorded by Emerald. I feared an incident of some kind would occur at some point in the future and didn’t want to be part of it.

The Lab releases their new, simplified viewer: Viewer 2.0. Amidst fanfare, V2.0 included features intended to simplify things for new residents, but for existing residents it was too different, too simple and worse, beset with annoying bugs.

Viewer 2.0 becomes the default viewer - but because it doesn’t match resident’s needs, they flock to alternatives. Which one should they choose? Emerald was the most popular of the TPVs, and it’s usage grew significantly. Legitimate developers join the Emerald team, and it continued to be improved with additional features. Emerald gained many supporters as residents tune into its unique features.

Suddenly, there’s an incident.
The Emerald home screen was modified by one of its developers to perform an attack on a rival site, thus using the computers of all Emerald users for this activity. Poor judgement? Yes, indeed! Just as I had lost trust in Emerald months earlier, this incident resulted in a loss of trust by many former Emerald supporters. In fact, Linden Lab removed Emerald from its official list of TPVs.

The Emerald team breaks apart due to the incident and its aftermath, but reforms under new, hopefully more professional management. Time will tell if this is so, as trust is easy to lose but very hard to gain. Good luck to the new team!

But both problems still remain: existing residents need an advanced viewer and new residents need a basic, simplified viewer. Neither group is adequately served today, and Linden Lab needs to develop a strategy to address this critical issue before they will begin growing again.

SLCC 2010: The Resurrection

Thursday, August 19, 2010 Thursday, August 19, 2010

It was with great nervousness did I watch the unfolding of 2010’s Second Life Community Convention earlier this year. I had attended two previous instances of this famous event, 2008 in Tampa and 2009 in San Francisco. The 2009 event was announced rather late in the cycle, leaving little time for presenters and attendees to get organized. It nevertheless took place, fun was had by attendees, but the convention’s sessions and organization were not exactly optimal.

Meanwhile, this year’s event almost never happened.

Weeks passed, with no announcements of any kind regarding the 2010 event. Like those who attended previous events, I was looking forward to attending and meeting up with virtual friends. But no announcements. Was there even going to be an event at all?

By March I had personally concluded that it must be over. There is no way a major convention can be organized in such a short time, particularly by SLCC’s previous organizational track record. Saddened, I wondered how this would play out. How would the SL community go forward without a foundational event around which we can come together?

Worse news: Linden Lab suddenly revealed massive staff layoffs and a vague change in direction. The Linden Dollar significantly slipped in value for the first time in eons. Both the annual convention and Linden Lab itself appeared vulnerable and perhaps even in jeopardy.

Amazingly, SLCC 2010’s date and location were announced only weeks before the actual event. This is incomprehensible as far as event planning goes; there is no way you can expect to have a successful convention with only a few weeks notice. Nevertheless, to support the community I registered immediately, not knowing what would happen.

I arrived in Boston a day early and learned the dramatic sequence of events: The previous SLCC’s were run by “The Future United”, a group which earlier this year folded when the last board member admitted they could not put on the convention. It was at that moment that concerned and leading residents put together a plan to save SLCC: the new body, AvaCon, formed and then began lengthy negotiations with the Lindens to secure the licenses to put on the official convention. Only after these documents were signed could AvaCon announce dates and location - and then they had only eight weeks to put it all together for real.

And they did, truly magnificently. I’ve attended many conferences and this one was run as well as any. The sessions were interesting and well planned; the hotel was near-perfect for this event (especially the blazing fast and free WiFi network); the off-hours events were terrific; the logistics, program, badges were better than any previous SLCC I’d attended. I give my highest compliments to the New SLCC organizing team, led by she-of-no-rest uberorganizer Fleep Tuque, for doing an impossible job in an impossible time.

As for SLCC 2010 itself, I remember it as a series of moments:

Gwampu Lomu singing with the totally awesome Tamra Sands. Well, at least he sung the last note of the song, anyway. Tamra is a far better singer than Gwampa.

Listening to the endless puns from master comedian Lauren Weyland, whose distinctive voice could be heard almost everywhere. Example heard in the extraordinarily elaborate main ballroom: “This room must have been built when America was China!” Have you found your shoes yet, Lauren?

Having an impromptu iPhone FaceTime party in the executive lounge, where several of us FaceTime virgins realized we could video call each other! So we did across a coffee table - a true NerdOut.

The discussions and arguments taking place every evening in the lobby, bar, restaurants or suites that ranged over any conceivable SL-related issue. For certain, we all had the answers to every problem, or so it seemed.

Meeting the notorious Prokofy Neva in person, who is actually more reasonable than many blog readers may think.

Spending time with the IBM virtual reality team, including the brilliant Zha Ewry, the delightful Dale Innis, Oura Scribe and the lovely Ahuva Heliosense, whose incredibly sultry outfit was seemingly ruined by the absence of a single rhinestone on her rather complex shoes. Or so she thought. But I didn’t.

Meeting a most amazing person: Pooky Amsterdam, whose dramatic presence simply took over every room she entered. If you’ve heard her voice on one of her shows, let me say that her personage matches her distinctive voice in every way.

Taking over the famous Cheers bar in Boston, with perhaps thirty avatars occupying the entire section. Fortunately, Cheers did not know our real names.

Meeting the SL-banned Woodbury group, who surprised everyone by showing up to register for the conference. After initial fears of RL griefing subsided, they were an interesting group to speak with in the dark hours of the night.

Observing once again the astonishing real-life charisma of Philip Linden, who simply bent over backwards to meet and talk with everyone and anyone. Philip spent considerable time talking to the grumbly educators after the surprise announcement of the denouement of the languishing Teen Grid. It was also fascinating to watch certain women simply melt in his presence. One unnamed melting individual kept saying, “I want one of those”, while gazing dreamily at Philip. No, it wasn't Pooky!

Discussing the surprising outcomes of permitting intergrid teleports between SL and Other Grids with Philip, who has evidently thought quite deeply about the subject. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the future.

The never-ending post convention “secret” party, which was not so secret because it was being broadcast live over UStream. As soon as the stream went up, missing attendee Eshi Otawara videoed in and joined us virtually. Miss you, Eshi!

Spending time with Noona and Noele, who were perhaps the most unique attendees: they were simply residents! They did not own virtual businesses, perform any artistic works or organize anything. They simply enjoyed SL shopping and decided to come to SLCC for fun. While there were few sessions directed to them, their perspective on things was quite different from the ultra-creative types who normally inhabit the convention.

The continual exhaustion and exhilaration caused by endless hours of meeting new avatars and discussing everything. Some were totally spent, yet could not leave the party - like Dirk McKeenan who fell asleep on the lobby floor at 4AM. Dirk was an unstoppable force. Until he fell asleep.

A windup dinner involving all who assisted the convention at the longest possible restaurant table. I squeezed in beside Filthy Fluno, Prokofy Neva and Fleep Tuque, and had delightful conversations on a wide variety of topics.

Appreciating the several exLindens who still came to the event, even though they were no longer employed by Linden Lab, including Kate exLinden, Joppa exLinden, Teagan exLinden and Pathfinder exLinden. They are those who truly support SL. Yes, that is Joppa stuck on the window. Don't ask.

Watching the full-length documentary “Life 2.0” with many other avatars, and discussing it afterwards. Indeed, I found myself in the middle of a debate on the merits of the piece with Prokofy Neva, Tuna Oddfellow and Zha Ewry, a highly unlikely combination of avatars to be seen. I liked the film immensely, as it accurately portrayed (and made you feel and experience) the confusing emotional transformations that are so common in SL. This film is unlike any other SL-related piece I’ve seen, and if you are in SL, you must see it. How? You will be able to see it next year on the Oprah Winfrey network.

Catching up with old friends (well, they’re not old, the friendship is) such as Feline Slade, Daphne Abernathy, Roland Legrand, Loki Clifton, Ham Rambler, Beyers Sellers, Sloan Skjellerup, Apple & Nasus, Katydid Something, Rhiannon Chatnoir, Tuna & Shava and of course Dirk McKeenan and many others.

Meeting wonderful new friends, such as Explorer Dastardly, Spiral Theas, Anastasios Aurotharius, Landau Shippe, Tamra Sands, Fleep Tuque, Filthy Fluno, Winter Nightfire, Maggie Marat and so many others I cannot remember them all.

But by far the most special moment for me was also a special moment for two others: Chestnut Rau and Zha Ewry, long-time partners in SL who had never before met each other in real life. In fact, Chestnut had not met ANY avatars in real life before this event and was quite nervous about doing so. I am happy to say that I had a tiny role in their meeting.

Fortunately Chestnut had reluctantly posted a rather obscure RL photograph of herself some weeks earlier, and based on that image I was able to identify her standing in the hotel lobby. I approached her and introduced myself, but she seemed a little awkward as those were her first moments meeting avatars. We had a brief discussion, when suddenly over her shoulder I observed someone entering the lobby pulling a suitcase: Zha Ewry.

I immediately held up my hands to beckon Chestnut to stop talking and said in a totally calm voice, “Turn. Around. Right. Now.” She looked at me quizzically and rotated. In less than a picosecond she recognized Zha, who did not notice her. I will never forget the look on Chestnut’s face at that moment, as her emotions radiated brilliantly in all directions. After a moment she strode forward cautiously and began speaking to Zha, who still did not yet understand who this strange woman was talking to him in the lobby. But suddenly he realized it was Chestnut, and the rest I cannot say.

One memory I will definitely not cherish was the loss of my camera, which somehow became separated from me during the convention. I did not notice its absence until I returned home - having used my iPhone for most pictures. If anyone has seen a stray Canon SD980, give me a shout!

There was one more important impression I observed: the announcements from Linden Lab. We’ve all heard the new mantra: Fast, Easy and Fun, which appears simplistic is in fact what’s needed, if it can be pulled off. Philip’s announcements told a story of how they are going to do it by reorganizing their development process and focusing on critical bits first.

For sure, Philip didn’t mention a number of things that people really want fixed (search, for example), but that’s not fixable within this year - search is an extremely complex topic that will take time to sort out. I checked later on with Tiggs Linden, who is in charge of server development. He confirmed that the list of items shown by Philip was indeed achievable, although it will be tough. I’d rather have a shorter list of things that will actually get done than a longer list that won’t. Remember, the list shown was only the 2010 list. There will be more lists in the future, and that’s the nature of the new development process: fast iterations focused on specific features. The impression I got was that the Lab is very serious about fixing these things - and fixing SL overall.

SL is not dead. SLCC is not dead. One was resurrected this August, and the other is underway.

Avoiding The Spiral Of Death

Sunday, August 1, 2010 Sunday, August 01, 2010

Fast, Easy and Fun. How has it come to this?

Fast, Easy and Fun is the new direction of Linden Lab for their product, Second Life. It’s a reaction to the troubles they’ve gotten themselves into in the past year or so. Here’s how I see the sequence of events:

  • A company discovers and builds a service around an amazing concept
  • The concept, while breathtaking, is so new it’s not fully understood by anyone yet, even its makers
  • The service is implemented in the only way possible, given everyone's limited experience with the concept: it’s difficult to use
  • Reasonably large numbers of early adopter users, who are tolerant of difficulties, begin using the new service
  • Beyond the early adopters, few people use the service because its difficult interfaces are forever past their capabilities and tolerance
  • Company notices growth stalling as the pool of early adopters is exhausted 
  • Company seeks ways to break into the mainstream market by simplifying the system
  • The simplification attempt fails because the system is still not fully understood
  • A few early adopters begin to leave for alternative services
  • Management panics and makes big changes. New approach: Fast, Easy & Fun.

When I say “not fully understood”, I mean that while we may fully understand the use of the existing tools and interface, we really don’t understand the *right* way to do the interface. For example, the permissions system is simply unable to deal with many day-to-day situations. How should someone be introduced to the service such that they don’t immediately give up? No one really knows the true answers to these any many other key questions yet. This is a system still figuring itself out. It’s still an experiment.

Experiments are for early adopters.

I’ve written of this before, but it is a phase all companies must endure: the transition from initial “early adopter” mode to a more mainstream “easy to use” mode. Some tech companies don’t survive, others are utterly transformed and some are overtaken by alternatives that have a better approach.

But that doesn’t answer the question of the panic. Why panic so much? Why layoff huge numbers of people? I suspect it has to do with what I call “the Spiral of Death”.

Consider the situation myself and many SL shopkeepers find themselves in: we spend huge amounts of time setting up a shop in SL, making products, doing promotions, etc. and just barely make a living. Suddenly, some users panic and move away to other grids. They say “it’s wonderful, please join us over here!” It may be wonderful if you are, for example, an educator or business person who simply needs to build some type of installation. But if you’re a seller, it’s quite a different situation.

A seller needs a market, and right now SL is still by far the biggest grid with the largest number of potential buyers on it. Yes, there are OpenSim grids all over, but all of them are tiny compared to SL. It’s hard enough to make a living in SL even with its giant user base, let alone grids one one-thousandth the size. It’s even worse because in order to gain any significant amount of OpenSim market, you’d have to set up separate shops in multiple grids (thus spending time building multiple shops and paying multiple tiers. OpenSim grids may be cheaper per square meter compared to SL, but when you need several parcels on several grids, it probably costs more). It just doesn’t make economic sense to move virtual businesses to other grids.

But it would make sense if large numbers of users begin to bail from SL and move to a single popular alternative grid. If that happened, then SL would lose something very critical: its size. When the market moves, so will the sellers. And with them will go even more buyers. And so on, developing into “The Spiral of Death”. Once the user base starts shrinking, it will inevitably go down, faster and faster.

I suspect this is what Linden Lab fears the most. And it’s certainly worth a panic, because they risk their entire business. It could happen: more and more OpenSim grids are appearing, each with some type of innovation or another, but none with massive market share. Yet. Eventually, one of these grids will accidentally or on purpose hit on the right combination of services and interface and they’ll begin to win users over. Linden Lab, if they are to survive, must prevent the Spiral of Death at all costs.

That’s why there’s an “all hands on deck” mode and a focus on the basics. Fast, Easy and Fun are indeed the basic keys to success. If these are achievable, then existing early adopters will stay and newcomers will not abandon the service nearly as much as now. That should result in a growing service once again.

But only if it works. I’m terribly interested to hear how “Fast, Easy and Fun” will be achieved. Perhaps Philip will enlighten us at SLCC 2010?


Saturday, July 17, 2010 Saturday, July 17, 2010

Above you'll see my new business cards, specially printed up for me by MOO cards. They exist in real life, but are for my virtual identity. Why, you ask, would one need real life business cards for an avatar? Because I intend on using them at the upcoming Second Life Community Convention, taking place this year in Boston from August 13-15th.

I've attended two previous conventions, 2008 in Tampa and 2009 in San Francisco. Both were tremendously awesome experiences, and I expect similar from this year's in Boston. Some might find the idea of meeting other avatars strange or even a bit creepy, but it is nothing like that at all. It's perhaps one of the deepest experiences an avatar can have.

SLCC is how you can become your avatar for a weekend.

That's right - everyone refers to each other by their avatar name, and real names are pretty much never heard. People act like their avatar, and sometimes they even dress like their avatar, even if it involves a tail or wings. People sit and chat, listen to music, have adventures - all just like you would in Second Life. But this time it's avatars doing such things in Real Life. The fidelity of the experience is far better, but the teleportation sucks.

If you're still doubting the value of attending, please read my account of Tampa in 2008 and San Francisco in 2009. Both events meant a great deal to me.

Back to the business cards. When I return home I usually have a small collection of fascinating business cards from avatars I knew from before or those I just met at the convention. I keep the cards in a small pile beside my computer, a tiny physical reminder that those pixelated avatars on my screen are in fact very real people.

I hope to see you there.

The Memorial

Saturday, July 10, 2010 Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tonight I visited Codebastard Redgrave's Linden Memorial, located in Bowness. This is a relocation of the original memorial she constructed at her own sim, Rouge. It's a brilliant idea that leverages the magic of Second Life into a very moving experience.

The layout is simple: gravestones on a hillside, each representing a recently-departed Linden. (No, they're not dead, they were simply let go from Linden Lab employment.) Nevertheless, I found myself strolling among the rather long rows of headstones, searching for people I know. Knew.

The feeling I had was eerily similar to similar real-life experiences in actual graveyards. Reading unfamiliar names; wondering why there are so many flowers on this stone, and none on another; unexpectedly finding someone's name whom you thought was still alive, er, employed. Just like RL.

The gravestones may be "paid" to produce a flower, and many indeed have flowers. There were many on the graves of Data, Jeska, Minerva, Matthew, Aimee, Babbage, Mia, Harmony, Tofu and my friend Joppa Linden (above), who I spent time with at SLCC. The most flowers by quite a margin were found on Blue and Teagan's headstones.

Interestingly, there were no flowers on T Linden's stone, and I could not locate a stone for M. Perhaps it just hasn't been done yet?

The property is group owned, and they would appreciate any donations you can provide, either through flower purchases or direct donations as indicated on their welcome board. Be sure to visit - and note the ominous "Unknown Linden" headstones at the back awaiting additional announcements.

I Am Canadian!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Yes, if you didn't know, I am indeed Canadian - and tomorrow, July 1st, is Canada Day. I'm off work and celebrating, but I want to remind everyone that I do offer several Canadian-oriented particle products at Electric Pixels. Pictured above is the very beautiful "I Am Canadian" effect. I really should post a video of it, since the still image doesn't really show the subtle motion and fading of the maple leaves. When you wear it, there's no doubt where you're from.

If you're interested in this and related Canadian products, why not drop by Electric Pixels and take a look? Not Canadian? I have similar products for many other countries - and if yours isn't there, drop me a line and I'll make it if there's sufficient demand.

Chasing the Bar: The Linden Lab Layoffs

Thursday, June 10, 2010 Thursday, June 10, 2010

I read the latest news from Linden Lab, where they abruptly announced they were letting go approximately 30% of the staff, closing and consolidating distant offices and changing strategy. On the surface, and indeed for the unfortunate 30%, this seems to be very bad news. Is Linden Lab on the ropes? Are they desperately cutting expenses in a last ditch effort to buy a few more months of life before the inevitable cash crunch?

Maybe, but I don't think so.They're profitable, but not growing fast enough.

As a business, Linden Lab's role is to provide a good return to the shareholders for their considerable investment. As business managers, they do this by executing strategies that hopefully will accomplish that goal. Like any business, strategies sometimes don't work out and alternative strategies must be developed and deployed. If it doesn't work, try something else. I think this is the case here.

From his beginning at The Lab, CEO Mark Kingdon has spoken about simplifying the user interface, improving the first hour experience and growing the user base substantially. I even seem to recall seven-digit numbers being bantered about.

Over the past year we've seen some moves that theoretically should have supported those goals: viewer 2.0, Linden Homes, policy changes and several others. However, we are now in mid-2010, and we just haven't seen any significant growth in the user base. We also haven't seen growth of the business client base, in spite of the release of the Second Life Enterprise private grid server. These strategies, while good intentioned and reasonably executed, haven't done the job.

For me, the main problem that still exists is the incredibly difficult user experience. Yes, viewer 2.0 did simplify some things for new users (although complicating things for some existing users), but it's no where near the level of simplification required. Let's face it: users who can have a good time in minutes on innumerable other simpler systems just won't spend the time to learn the mysterious intricacies of the SL viewer and the virtual culture.

The Lab has been spending efforts trying to simplify their total experience, moving towards an invisible goal of easiness. But the bar has just been moved.

This spring the iPad was introduced and it is a monstrous hit, so much so that it's expected to be in the hands of tens of millions of people a year from now and many more after that. I'm not saying we should run SL on an iPad, but there's an interesting phenomenon taking place: the iPad has revealed that many people want ultra-simplified computing. Its amazing to watch seniors, very young children and those unfamiliar with computers to immediately use an iPad. It turns out that many people (but probably not you) just want instant on, touch and a reliable simple interface. They don't want software versions, graphics cards, DLLs, viruses, upgrades and all the nonsense you have to put up with to use a PC. Sure, techies will still want and use PCs, but who among us hasn't found ourselves helping a baffled relative with a PC problem - and you just know they have no business owning a PC as they have no chance of ever properly operating it. Those are the new majority of computing users, the folks who will be using very simple interfaces on simple devices - and not just the iPad, but many similar devices that will inevitably follow. The bar of simplicity has just been raised.

Back to The Lab. Their new strategy involves creating a new web browser based interface. You know, something that would run easily on all these new simple devices? The ones to be owned by tens or even hundreds of millions of people?

Does this mean we'll all have to use it? I think not. I think we'll see existing and sophisticated users keep the main downloadable viewer to create SL content: the content needed by the (hopefully) huge numbers of new simplified users. Perhaps some of them will like SL so much that they'll take the time to download the "full" viewer and become content creators themselves.

Meanwhile, there should be a great many new users seeking content - from the content creators, property owners and service providers who could enjoy a new boom. At least I'd imagine that's the theory; we'll see if it comes to pass.

One more thing: this post was entirely created on an iPad.

We of the White Suits

Monday, May 24, 2010 Monday, May 24, 2010

I'm not saying we are or should wear white suits, Hamlet Au aside. I'm referring to the 1951 comedy/science fiction flick, "The Man in the White Suit" starring Alec Guinness, who would later on become Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star wars series.

The premise of this 60 year old film is straightforward: a nerdy chemist working at a textile factory produces an amazing invention: a fabric that is virtually indestructible and automatically repels dirt, staying clean forever. Even better, the suit slightly glows white due to its "radioactive content". Well, perhaps that isn't so good.

Nevertheless, the story unfolds and the protagonist, Sidney Stratton, attempts to convince his textile factory to produce clothing with the new miracle fabric. Initially interested, the factory owners soon realize that if they were to produce clothing with the new fabric, they'd be out of business because people would never need to buy clothes again! Even the workers found the possibility to their detriment, and they united with management (unprecedented in the 1950's) to force Stratton's idea out.

It's a fun movie and an interesting premise. But could it be true? I believe we're living this science fiction story out in Second Life today. Consider the clothing our avatars wear: it never wears out; it never gets dirty; and, if you are so inclined, it can slightly glow. Our clothing doesn't have to be white, however.

And thus we'd never need to buy any more clothes, and the virtual clothing factories would close?

Apparently not. An inspection of anyone's inventories shows at least hundreds, if not tens of thousands of clothing items that don't soil, never wear out. The virtual clothing factories are not closing. They are thriving, mostly.

Why is this so? What is the difference in attitude between the 1951 movie and 2010 virtual life? I think it's that people think differently about life today - we are accustomed to living in a universe of creativity and options, whereas the people of 1950 were less well off, with far fewer options for creative outlets. They were satisfied with less, while we are never satisfied because we know something new is merely as distant as the next imaginative thought. Sure, there were no doubt 1950s fashion hounds, but none of them had 17,000 items of clothing as our avatars do.

I believe this attitude is one of the success factors for virtual reality. People want to create. They want to consume new things. In fact, many proceed through their virtual lives almost with the sole purpose to acquire new (indestructible) clothing designs.

With the exception of Hamlet, of course, who has only one white suit.

Virtual Peace

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Yesterday I caught a tweet from Friend Joshua Fouts (@josholalia) who had retweeted Yoko Ono’s tweet from eariier in the day:

@yokoono: Join us when IMAGINE PEACE TOWER lights at #SecondLife sunsets 3:20 7:20 & 11:20SLT (SLT=PT)

I attended this event last year, and I returned this year to the 7:20PM SLT lighting.

The display is simple and beautiful: luminescent blue beams, reach far into the sky from a pleasant, meadow-like island. The beams are a soft blue, but when placed together in symphony towards the sky, something wonderful happens. The tower is a reproduction of a real life exhibit in Reykjavik, Iceland, first unveiled last year.

The Imagine Peace Tower inspires people to think of peace, consider our world as one and just maybe, take some action to make it a better place. From Yoko’s manifesto:

So let’s work together to save this planet. Since destiny is created by first imaging what destiny we want for ourselves, we should IMAGINE PEACE in a big way with total conviction. In the old days, gurus sat and meditated day and night. That was pretty powerful. But we live in a different world. Time is so precious to us now. A million kids can be killed in one second as we are wondering what to do. So we can’t just sit and meditate. We should IMAGINE PEACE day and night, as we go about our daily lives.
There were not very many people there, that night on Yoko’s island. Haley and I sat quietly and awaited the lighting. As I looked at the unlit platform, I recalled the song that began the movement, Lennon’s “Imagine”, that I first heard long ago. While some may argue with its ideals, I believe it influenced me throughout my life by making me perhaps a little bit more peaceful than some, striving for something better - for everyone.

Suddenly, the lighting ceremony began as I heard Yoko’s voice. She welcomed us, and explained why the tower was made, calling it the “Light of Wisdom”. Then the familiar piano strokes of the famous song began to play as the tower lit up and it all came together for me. Amidst the peaceful scene, the towering lights, the song did its magic. As it continued, both John and Yoko spoke of their immense ideals, and challenged everyone to join their movement.

For me the experience was brief and wonderful, because it reminded me of our obligations in this troubled world. Each day we see, read or even participate in conflicts large or small, many of which are unnecessary, distracting or hurtful. Of how we must pause our conflicts and try our best to make life better not only for ourselves, but everyone. In my immersed state on that lonely island, the light of wisdom shone brightly.

Thank you John, and thank you, Yoko, for leaving us this place and these ideals, where anyone in the world can visit, and Imagine.

A Volcanic Eruption!

Saturday, April 10, 2010 Saturday, April 10, 2010

It’s been a while since I released a new product, so I wanted to make sure it was something big. And indeed, this one is huge! It’s called “Volcanic Eruption”, and it does just that.

Volcanic Eruption provides more realism to Second Life volcanoes. Most volcanoes are simply a dead mountain with a cone-shaped depression at the top, and the odd one might have smoke percolating out of it. However, I wanted to do something better.

Originally a custom build for a private estate owner but now available to all, the new Volcanic Eruption particle emitter provides a realistic twist to your virtual volcano. Simply place the emitter into your volcano’s cone and it does all the rest for you. And what, exactly, does it do?

It erupts!

To be more precise, it follows a sequence typical of real volcanoes:

  • It remains idle for a time. (You can specify how long you’d like it to remain dormant)
  • The eruption commences with a stream of smoke flowing skyward
  • Suddenly an explosion occurs, releasing flying ejecta in all directions!
  • A column of fire rises from the volcano’s cone
  • The fire collapses, resulting in a deadly pyroclastic flow that runs down the sides of the mountain
In real life, the most dangerous part of a volcanic eruption is the pyroclastic flow. It’s a superheated mix of toxic gases and dust that speeds downward at velocities far faster than you can run, cooking and choking everything in its path. That’s what kills people during eruptions.

And now you can have it for your volcano too. Just drop by Electric Pixels, where you can find the new Volcanic Eruption in the Garden and Weather departments

ArminasX has a Sexual Encounter!

Saturday, April 3, 2010 Saturday, April 03, 2010

No, it's not what you think. But it does involve sex. This week I visited a place where Second Life's virtual capabilities were used to the extreme: The Tour of the Testis.

It's one of those amazing automated tours, where you board a vehicle that takes you through interesting and usually educational displays. This tour is definitely educational, as you actually fly through a truly gigantic testis and observe the entire biological process from the inside.

The tour is presented by The Ohio State University, Second Life Campus. Specifically, it's for their Medical Center, and was built by DrDoug Pennell.

Strangely, your vehicle has a wiggly tail and is shaped like something familiar. It seats four, so bring your friends. You choose between an audio or text tour. I chose text.

The tour takes you inside the relevant body structures, as if you are cell-sized, where you can actually see cells being generated and swimming through tubules. The sperm particles are represented as fluorescent green particles! They're pretty easy to notice as you can see in this image.

The biological explanations in text are well beyond my meager medical knowledge, but they seem quite comprehensive. Here's an example:

Normally these spaces would be filled with sperm in various stages of development.
However in patients with Sertoli Cell Only Syndrome, they only have ....
Sertoli Cells :-).  They are azoospermic (have no sperm) and as you might expect, are infertile.
We are now outside the tubule.  However, we would still be INSIDE the testis.
Note that the blood vessels as well as some cell types such as the Leydig Cells (orange/brown) are OUTSIDE the tubule.
I suspect medical students would benefit from the explanations more than casual visitors such as myself. 

The display shows incredible biological detail in a massive and intricately built model. Key structures are highlighted and animated to show you precisely how things work.

The tour ends at a dramatic platform where you can examine a breathtaking overview of the tubule. Don't leave yet, because there are additional animations you can access from the platform by clicking on the signs.

This tour is very well done and provides some great educational value. But here's the key question: is this a good place to take a date? Heh, it depends. Why don't you find out? Here's the SLURL.

Another SL Blogger's Party!

Saturday, March 27, 2010 Saturday, March 27, 2010

This afternoon I attended yet another SL Blogger's party, this one being hosted by Nika Dreamscape at media baron Stuart Warf's Rezzed TV Island. By the way, if you haven't been to Rezzed TV Island, you should drop in for a visit, it's a wonderful build. 

Unlike past parties, there was no specific theme. Usually there's a theme like Mardi Gras or Steampunk and everyone dresses up to match. But this one was wide open and everyone came in great, yet unsynchronized outfits. For me, I simply showed off my chest with a high-quality open green shirt.

Nika and Stuart hosted this event, which is always held by a volunteer blogger. Will you be the next host? 

Keeme Brown appeared wearing the unfortunate Lobster outfit. Somehow I can't imagine having a big bug like that on my ...

Several events took place during party, including an exhibition house XWA Wrestling card, and a fishing tournament. Of course, those ubiquitous breeding bunnies were on sale, too.

Quite a few bloggers were in attendance, although many of the old-time bloggers did not show up this time. Lalo Telling and Snickers Snook dance together here.

The infamous parody Tweeter SecondLie made an appearance, here with Crap Mariner. I wonder who's under there? Time for an up-bag shot?

The lovely Tymmerie Thorne is in charge of events for the Blogger's group, and she's been doing a wonderful job organizing things. Since she's been on the case, we've had very regular meetups, and they're fun, too.

UberFashionista Callie Cline showed up, but for some reason wore a "Happy New Year" hat. Had a late night, Callie?

NWN events reporter Chestnut Rau made an appearance. Why not, it's a big event!

SuperBuilder Anhalya Lycia somehow snuck into the event! There were at least 40 others in attendance, far too many to mention. Please come to the next event!

A Retail Experiment Concludes

Sunday, March 21, 2010 Sunday, March 21, 2010

Some weeks ago I attempted to improve the in-store experience for my customers by reducing the number of visible textures. The theory was this: visitors appear at the teleport landing point, but their viewers are instantly overloaded by texture loads and their world is gray. You see, my store’s design concept is an open one that makes all items very easy to find because it’s mostly open to view.

The open concept worked at first, because I perceived an issue I had when shopping: some shops have far too many rooms, hallways and areas in which to look for items. It makes shopping nearly impossible for those in a rush, although some may find difficult shopping experiences fun. I wanted to avoid that situation, especially where customers don’t even see your products because they were in a room the customer never encountered. So I simply laid out all my items in easy to view locations. My first store had no ceiling and very few walls.

However, as the store grew and more products were added, the requirement for more textures (mainly on product boxes) continued to grow. It came to a point where a visitor would be faced with loading (albeit automatically) over 150 textures in order to see the store. Tracking software indicated some visitors would appear and then quickly leave. The obvious conclusion was that they were overwhelmed by the gray view and simply went somewhere else without shopping. Not good!

The experimental solution was to block off each of the store’s areas from general view, requiring shoppers to enter them before they could see the products and require texture loads. This way the store would become visible much faster and this should be a better experience for shoppers. I even placed helpful signs and arrows indicating where people should enter each area.

After weeks of running in this mode, I now conclude the texture load theory was wrong. While the store did come into view much faster when teleporting in, sales dropped off significantly. At first I took this to indicate a continuation of the degraded economy in general, but several friends (Amber, Haley and Marlee) suggested the visibly blocked store sections conveyed a different impression to shoppers - hidden products must be creepy! Since shopping is a very psychological matter, especially in SL, I thought there’s probably something to this theory.

Ten days ago I took down the obscuring walls to once again reveal the entire store to view. As expected, long texture load is now quite evident when teleporting in, but what would happen to sales? After ten days of “open” operation, I can safely say that sales are up significantly!

The conclusion? While texture rezzing performance is always important, the psychological factors that develop from the store’s visual appearance trump performance when it comes to shopping.

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