Thursday, August 09, 2007

Second Chances for Second Life

Yesterday's panel on user-generated programmable worlds at SIGGRAPH attempted to respond to the current controversy about the viability of Second Life as a 3D virtual environment with sufficiently vibrant online communities. Although my Facebook friend Mark Bell of Indiana University has argued against these recent critics in "Second Life is Not Empty," panelist Paul Hemp of The Harvard Business Review pointed to the emptiness he experienced in his visits to a Sears store in Second Life and one that showcases Dell Products.

The session began with an overview of the topic by Amy Bruckman of Georgia Tech, who pointed out how far virtual pets have come since her first experiences with her virtual puppy Pumpernickel in a MOO in 1995 to her present-day swanky, animated 3D dragon. She also argued that "cyberspace is not Disneyland" and that rather it more resembles a giant "fingerpainting party" in which participants will be deeply engaged although many of the artifacts will prove to be ephemeral. (And here I'll insert the obligatory disclaimer that I knew Amy before her digital life began in earnest, since we were in the same residential house as undergraduates in college.) Like me, Bruckman isn't convinced that 3D worlds are always the most appropriate choice for every communication purpose, and that synchronous, spatially oriented discourse may not be as effective at building online communities as user-friendly tools like blogs and social networking sites. She argued that there were really two definitions of cyberspace: 1) 3D graphical environments with avatars and 2) face-to-face interactions augmented by mobile devices that offer ubiquitous computing.

Next up was Asi Lang, who -- according to Business Week -- apparently launched his campus start-up from the same university that Amy and I graduated from. Lang is now affiliated with Linden Labs, which runs Second Life, where he goes by the name Pastrami Linden. Lang offered a breezy tour that emphasized commerce in online stores like the Dell virtual factory and the Scion in-world car lot and distance learning initiatives at Drexel and Vassar that included a virtual Sistine Chapel. He promised that eventually in SL would be possible to import 3D meshes from professional graphics programs like Maya. Finally, he showed the atmospheric effects that would be possible in-world now that technology from his former company, Windward Mark Interactive, a onetime dormroom enterprise that had been acquired by Linden labs.

A considerably less rosy picture was presented by business journalist Paul Hemp, who opened his talk with a slide of the closed American Apparel storefront in Second Life. By arguing in Advertising Age that companies should market to people's avatars, Hemp has generated a lot of online debate. Hemp argues that ad people have always pitched their products to a consumer's alter-ego, who was younger and thinner anyway. He also claims that virtual worlds will still be important for e-commerce in two ways: 1) as an entertainment medium, and 2) as a communications medium. He even went as far as to claim that these worlds could "restore the social and recreational experience of shopping" that had been lost in the online retail boom.

Influential science fiction author and pedagogue Vernor Vinge was also on the panel. In comparison to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, who gave relative neologisms like "avatar," "metaverse," and "cyberspace" a permanent place in the language, Vinge is sometimes overlooked, despite the contributions to our imagined future in books like True Names and Rainbow's End. Vinge argued that noncompatibility engineered by competing corporate conglomerates was a central problem for these digital environments and that future historians might well look back to our present era as a time of "dark ages." Furthermore he argued that if surveillance of digital activities was encouraged in the name of the interests of the state, its cost and futility would make "the drug wars look like a picnic." He hypothesized that the only way that this control strategy could be effectively enforced would be to "keep general purpose computational knowledge" entirely out of the hands of the general public. Ving also agreed with Bruckman that mobility was more important than mimetic verisimilitude and suggested that eyeglasses might be the best model when constructing the cyborg of the future.

(Yet another disclaimer: the holographic image above is from the SIGGRAPH floor and shows a zoetrope effect that doesn't represent the Second Life user experience.)

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