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A Second Look At Second Life

by R.E.Curtice

Recently we went back and checked on a recent story we did on Second Life (SL), an online world of a massively multiplayer game that has a multitude of adherents. What piqued our interest was a new story about Project Entropia, the fastest growing virtual world utilizing a real cash economy, that announced that a twenty-two year old Australian, Deathifier from the Dark Knights society, was the savvy winner of this historic auction for virtual real estate. Bidding ended at an astonishing amount of $26,500 US the largest amount ever spent in the massive multiplayer online gaming space.

SL met our expectations as we were amazed at the new additions. Philip Rosedale, the originator of the world, along with his staff, has really let his players go wild in creating what they wanted. There is a man in gold armor that is challenging a airborne mechanical moose, if you can believe that. The armored man has built a headquarters in the imagined world that is a spitting image of the German Reichstag. There is also a rendition of the Neverland of Peter Pan. Both beings and the building were designed and implemented by the players in the online world.

But then Second Life, since its start in 2003 has always been different. Is reality so unsatisfying that people now have to live, love and relate in virtual worlds? Evidently Philip Rosedale thought so, and was able to bring his concept to fruition. Through the in-game design tools, players (if that's the right term), can come up with clothes, buildings and even animation that allows copies of Peter Pan's London, for instance, and even allows virtual couples to dance.

This is an online world that is "imagined, created, and owned by its residents." It welcomes all who wish to live and relate, own real estate and build there. The brainchild of Philip Rosedale, Second Life the website of which is "secondlife.com," wholly exists for its participants. It has also spawned several ancillary sites that offer, among other things, clothes for one's virtual body, and virtual real estate to buy with real money. Many spend long hours in this world which evidently offers rewards and satisfactions they can't find in the real world.

Moving through the landscape certainly displays the people who craft the various buildings and vehicles. There is even an airport where one can learn skydiving. Those in the real "know" term themselves Lindens, after the parent company Linden Labs. There is some question about how to handle anti-social behavior, but that is being addressed by Rosedale and his staff.

When asked about the creation of the online game, Rosedale, who has a degree in physics and has been programming computers and writing software since he was a little kid said that he has always been interested in using computer and computer networks to connect people. When he was seventeen he started a computer software company, actually and put himself through college with it.

When he came to San Francisco in the mid-nineties and he just happened to move in next to a bunch of guys who were starting a small ISP. They gave him a great big Internet connection in'94. So he wanted to build "Second Life" but he knew pragmatically as a businessman that it wasn't going to be fun or interesting yet: 3 D wasn't there yet. Immersive 3D didn't work in the mid '90s - at that time it was just a demo. Network delays were also really bad.

So instead he worked on video compression and with another physics buddy wrote a really interesting piece of software called "Preview." This was a multi-point conferencing system and it gave really good video compression at low bit rates over modems with the Connectix Camera ball camera that had just come out. They had a lot of people get interested, and one of those was Ron Glaser. At that time he was with Progressive Networks, not RealNetworks. Rosedale joined the company as the guy who would help build Real Video. Then he went on to run a lot of product development for the company, and became the Chief Technical Officer.

In mid '99 3D capabilities dramatically improved and the much lower latencies in the broadband networks were so good that he felt he could do something like SL. SL is a set of technology advances that are designed to create an immersive 3D world that looks and feels a lot like a video game: trees that blow in the wind, structures and you can shoot guns, you can drive vehicles and you have a very real body! But the thing that is very different about it is that it uses streaming technology to make it so that all the content that surrounds you, every pixel, every sound, every piece of geometry, all these are streamed to in real time as you move around the world.

Presently there are 15,000 users online for Second Life. This is really not that big in the world of online gaming. Other games have users in the hundreds of thousand, but Rosedale thinks that it can garner some three million users by 2007, so he soldiers on. In many cases he has offered free rent (you must pay rent which is in Linden Dollars for your properties in the game) to talented individuals who have contacted him with building plans.

Rosedale concept of creative freedom allows new concept buildings to be built (there is actual replica of part of London, for instance) , created and changed, and bought and sold by the people who live in the world in real time. The technology is such that one can literally build a house while a friend is watching the walls are stretched into shape. Then it is possible to paint them arrange the furniture. This collaborative ability to be self-expressive and to manipulate the world surrounding is something enormously broad and what people want to do.

Rosedale has seen a lot of indications and social behavior that are very indicative that they've managed to create something real versus just having people playing in a space that in a very fixed way is totally designed. The "Sims" game, for instance, is very designed and while one can play with the toys that are there, you can't really fundamentally assert who you are. Second Life's technology is combination of streaming technology and grid computing: the whole world of SL is really a de-centralized mesh much like the Internet itself. Another aspect is that in SL they can really build on the land and sell it.

The participants acquire SL money as part of their membership, and who would have thought it but there third parties who sell virtual assets. As a matter of fact, there are some designers who are already making over USD$1,000 monthly selling their virtual clothes and goods. There are over 240,000 transactions taking place, generating over US$200K in sales, every month.

This means that SL creates land in a virtual world, and then it is sold like a commodity. There is also a third-party web site and that trades U.S. dollars for Linden Dollars (as we call our money). The land ownership situation is a little different. As new users come into the system, new machines are put online and literally you can imagine islands rising up out of the sea as the land mass expands out as the new machines are activated. The land is broken down into parcels and sold at auction on ther web site. Also, when you own land in SL, you have to pay us an un-improved, Prop 13, land tax. It turns out that now a majority of the revenue comes from land fees and land sales. Once someone had land they can build a house! They can hire an architect and have him build it for them. It can be as beautiful and sophisticated as a house in the real world. It's all live, so people are online all the time wandering by the house. While the house is being built, you might see an airplane fly by which is being piloted bysers can express themselves in a very rich way.

To encourage meeting other participants there is an organized calendar of events. Users also have events at their houses. There are bingo games and trivia contests or road races. Right now SL has about 3,000 people attending events, over a couple hundred events that are held -- it is quite busy. Then again is possible to meet people if you go into a shopping center and shop.

People choose how they will appear in SL. One starts out with the body of an avatar that is quite detailed. There are over two-hundred sliders that you can use to change the shape of the body. It is very detailed and sophisticated. Then again users can buy things like sunglasses, cigarettes or even wings to individualize themselves . There are all sorts of attachments to attach to your body to create an interesting character. ||