Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Growing Depth of Second Life

It is now well over a year since I came to Second Life (Thank you, Doctor, for the not-so-gentle nudging). This world has grown tremendously in that time. I don't have the exact numbers ready, but I am sure that the number of residents more than quadrupled; and so will have the area of land available. But Second Life has not only grown in area or number of residents. It has grown in depth, too.

Lately, when I was feeling bored a little, I went visiting some of the old spots I remembered from my first weeks inworld. Many do not exist anymore; SL changes fast. Others were nearly unchanged. And others had "grown". The had not grown in size but in depth. It is a little hard to describe, what I mean with that. But I will try.

An interesting example is the Celestial shop by Starley Thereian. I admit, that she does not carry a lot of items that would fit my size and taste, but I liked the architecture when I visited it first, maybe some 10 or 11 months ago. It was a kind of temple in white, very "clean" with a clear focus on the presented products, which were shown as pictures along the sides of long hallways. The shop was moved once during the last year (without changing shape) and got accompanied by another shop of a friend of Starley's. But when I visited this week everything had changed: no temple anymore. It had been replaced by a few large stores at the side of a street connecting Celestial with shops of her friends.

The new Celestial Store. No, you can't see in this picture, what I am describing in this article. It has to be "felt" ...

The outsides of the buildings show the rather realistic textures like you find them in Midnight City or Amsterdam, too. The interior design was dominated by stone, polished wood, "precious" materials. Light effects and shadows have been "baked into" the textures, like it is now the standard with many of the better builds. The goods are presented along the walls of the main floor. Some items had additional presentation space on little emporiums throughout the building. If it weren't for the fact that nearly all the goods were presented as "pictures only", this shop would not feel alien in the better parts of a downtown shopping area of a larger western city. (The Mischief shop on Illusion island goes a little further even, with "packaged" clothing on the shelves. It does not "feel" so deep and real, though, for some reason.)

A more famous example of realism in SL: the streets of Midnight City

Celestial was not the only example of growing depths I witnessed during that sentimental journey, of course. Many still existing sites had grown in a similar way. I did not "like" some of the results - and I don't want to single out Celestial as a glowing example of SL architecture. I am sure there are many more and possibly more artful examples out there. Still ... there is a trend.

The Amsterdam sim, maybe the finest reproduction of a "First-Life-City" theme so far in SL

And I like this trend. The added depth makes it possible to emerge even deeper into the experience we call "Second Life" (which actually is part of one whole indivisible Life).

When I told an SL friend about it and showed the Celestial shop to her, she raised her eyebrows and told me "Nawww, I don't like it. It is so much mimicking RL. Why can't builders try and create something really new and innovative, creative ...?" I considered that for a while and realized that Tina was right; especially with regard to those sites where I "felt" that added depths. Most or them were trying to re-create something or a style already existing in First Life. And I asked myself what might be the reason for that. I found two possible causes:
  • The human brain is a highly associative mechanism. It is trained with many patterns from First Life. Give it some clues and it fills out a lot of missing details from experience leading to a high "perceived realism" in a virtual experience. (Read True Names by Vernor Vinge or Otherland by Tad Williams if you want a nicely packaged explanation for that mechanism.) Anything truly new and creative, that does not trigger those associations, has to work just wit the impressions provided.
  • If a builder recreates something that is existing in First Life, he or she knows about a lot of details and just (?) has to add them to the creation. If it is something completely new, all the little details have to be created out of the blue. If you consider how much background, how much unconscious references to a long human history actually is behind every piece of architecture, you realize that this is a gargantuan task. It took Tolkien 20 years to build the background for Lord Of The Rings. That's why you "feel" a deep and wide world behind every sentence in these books.
But that should not be taken as discouragement for fantasy (or fantastic) buildings in SL. It just seems a plausible explanation for the "feeling of depth" I often encounter at the First-Life-mimicking sites - and not as often near fantastic designs, no matter how creative, innovative or even esthetically pleasing I find them.

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