Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween in the USA, and Second Life!

Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year (even though it isn't really a holiday, but I'd love to have the day off every year, for future reference... it is too bad my boss doesn't read this blog).

More than any other American tradition, Halloween is a day where imagination and fantasy is celebrated. I was posting to the SLUniverse forums earlier today, trying to explain the phenomenon to someone across the pond, and it hit me; Halloween in first life is much like every day in Second Life. That combination of imagination and creativity is not nearly prevalent enough in our real lives.

Adults get to act like kids again, more so in the past decade than ever before, when Halloween has become a holiday for everyone, not just those still in junior high and younger. Halloween is now the second biggest economic windfall to Christmas in the United States for spending on an holiday event. Too often in the United States, we repress our fantasies and dreams, but Halloween is an excuse to live them out... maybe we need more of that? Of course, it is the children who make it so much fun, but the adults are now having as much fun alongside them.

Boys dress as girls.

Girls dress as boys.

People dress as animals.

I even saw someone this year who incorporated a Roomba from iRobot into their outfit, and someone dressed as a Philadelphia downtown skyscraper.

Every other day of the year, I only get to see this kind of creativity within Second Life itself, and that creativity amongst our residents is what keeps me coming back. The avatar is a daily expression for many of the spirit that makes Halloween such a special day. Peoples' avatars in Second Life on Halloween are almost an exponential expression of creativity and imagination!

Additionally, I think Halloween allows us to appreciate one another's differences. How often do most men get to appreciate the joy of a runner in a stocking, or navigating a pair of high heels? How often do people get a chance not just to pretend they're a professional athlete, but appreciate just how heavy a pair of American football pads weigh, or how much work a clown does on a daily basis on their real life avatars?

How often do people get a chance to pour their creativity into an artistic project, who are no longer making macaroni drawings in kindergarten? Outside of Burning Man and the SLCC, Halloween is often the only chance we get.

The best parties of the year are also around Halloween, just because of the general freakiness of it. It is America's Carnivale, Guy Fawkes night, or Mardi Gras. The same spirit that highlights Halloween also highlights Second Life. Appreciate our differences; allow yourself to be a dreamer for a night; live out that wild fantasy. An old Native American adage tells us to, "Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins." Perhaps Halloween is a chance for us to do that in real life, an exercise we should do a lot more often to try to understand those who differ from us.

I will proudly continue to allow my inner child out every chance I get, and Halloween is a day when our entire country celebrates that pure, simply joy.

Eyetracking Second Life.

This is a promotional video by Enquiro Research which shows how their eyetracking software works, one of the examples is in Second Life. It is a just a short bit, but it is interresting to see where we focus our eyes while navigating through SL.

I do have some questions about the heat map they show at the end. The heat map looks 2D, and would only be useable from one fixed point of view. In reality people would be all looking from different positions and that will influence where we look.

What would be interresting if there was a 3D overlay in SL of the eyetracked data, that showed what object was looked at, but also from which position looked. Maybe something like that could be created in combination of the several sim visitors tracking services that are out there.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Save yourself a lot of trouble: use the right channels to get in touch with Linden Lab

Recently, a lot of my friends contacted me because they couldn't get Linden Lab to deliver their newly bought islands; or, in some instances, LL did deliver the islands, but they configured them wrongly (like disregarding their relative positions, or names, etc.) and there was no way to get in touch with them.

In the past, this meant getting in touch with the Concierges. Several options were available: emailing them (there were even two different addresses for that), or IMing the Concierges directly (there are about 10 Concierges for 11,000 private islands, or thereabouts), or patiently waiting a few hours at the Linden Estate Services (I did that with several friends), or using the message gateway set there (it shows who is available and on duty), or, well, trying to get hold of them on the phone.

Lately, however, doing any (or all) of the above did not have any results whatsoever. Not after a few days; not even after a few weeks. Furious, my friends complained to me, and 'demanded' a solution — in most of those cases, I was directly or indirectly the reason why they came to SL and started to invest time and money in it. I was helpless. Nobody seemed to give a good reason for not delivering/configuring the islands properly. Why the sudden lack of support? Why were they ignoring all channels of communication?

I first apologised for LL. With the huge demand in islands for CSI:NY, they might have been temporarily swamped with requests. Well, around 300 islands were "dropped" a couple of days after the episode was aired, so this couldn't be the reason. After another round of protests, growing to "I'll go to the media with this!" and "LL can only afford to treat their customers like s**t because they have no competitions" or "my boss threatens to fire me because I told him we'd have an island in a month" and similar frustrated comments, I decided to investigate. Something was simply not right.

A few IMs later on some groups, some tweets, and a long conversation with a friendly Linden, who clearly confirmed that there was not a single request on file from my friends, the mystery was finally solved.

Simply put, there is just one entry point into LL's new support system: the Support Portal and filing a ticket there. Besides that, you can try Live Chat (if you're entitled to it; only Concierge-level customers can use it, and I'm not qualified as such so I've never tried it out). And, if you're lucky, phone support. But all are tied together into the new support request tracking system. This is the only way in; the only way that Linden Lab knows about your requests. Forget emails (they're discarded and never read), don't attempt IMs (they get lost way too easily), don't drop notecards on Concierges (they get way too many stuff dropped on them), don't waste your time clicking on the Linden Estate Services request board (it often fails to send the message) or even waiting for Lindens there (they have way more to do, on at least 20 IM sessions, so they won't be looking at your request).

Instead, use exclusively the Support Portal.

Linden Lab should very likely make this even more clear on all their documentation, namely, on all pages requiring confirmation on an island purchase (both the Land Store and the Special Orders page), and probably on all emails sent to customers. Or on Lindens' profiles. Sure their home page for SL says "Extended support: Visit our support page" but it's not clear. A big image saying: "Need Technical Support? Click here!" is way more helpful, since people might think they don't want "extended" support, just regular support, using the old email addresses...

Yes, the new Support Portal is daunting. You need a double PhD in Computer Science to click all the options and figure out what you need to activate in order to send a ticket. But at least it means that the ticket gets to the right person and you'll get an answer — usually quickly — from them. (And the Support Portal is way easier to use than the JIRA Bug Tracking system, which you need to be a Physics Nobel Prize candidate to learn to operate)

Thanks to Eloise Pasteur to point it out on a Second Life Insider article too. We need the message to be widespread. Quick support is to be had from LL, if we only go to the right place for it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

CSI:SL — The Dawn of the Mainstream Second Life

A page gets turned, and Second Life is now mainstream.

For us residents what this means is that from now on, we're not "early adopters" any more. We just happened to "be around" when SL became mainstream and started hitting regular TV shows as if it were the most common thing on the planet.

Oh sure, we might say that just a tiny fraction of the planet's population has ever joined Second Life. That's ok. Not everybody drives a Rolls Royce or wears an excluive outfit designed by Giorgio Armani. In fact, I seriously suspect that more than 10 million people in the whole world drive Rolls Royce's or wear Armani's exclusively designed dresses and suits — indeed, the point is that a few billion recognise the brands and have heard about it, but they might never in their lives buy a product of those brands. Many hundreds of millions, in fact, will never see them in their lives.

But they've seen them on TV and read about in on magazines and newspapers. They're part of our collective, mainstream culture, even if they're not actually used by everybody — yet.

The distinction is not so subtle. A cellular phone, for instance, was a mainstream product in the late 1980s — but only a few millions could afford it. Today, it's used everywhere in the world, even on very poor countries (in fact, even more so than "regular" phones). Similarly, a personal computer in the early 1980s was "known" and "recognised" by anyone who had a TV, but only a small number of geeks and early adopters had them at their homes. You can add a lot of examples to this list if you wish — from technological gadgets (who doesn't know what an iPod is?... compare its success and acceptance to the Sony Walkman from the last decade), to magazines and newspapers, to products, services, and the whole Internet (itself also an early-adopter-thingy from 1969-1990, but definitely mainstream in 1995) with its myriad services (you expect 2 billion people to recognise an email address).

All these usually go through two stages — becoming mainstream, and then mass-market products. Sometimes simultaneously, but not always at the same time. Most "gadgets" go through the "early adopter stage" (only geeks and nerds use it, and it's a close-knit group that knows about them), following through the mainstream stage (everybody has heard about it, although only a few have ever used it or even seen it), and finally becoming mass market (everybody has one).

Second Life is going through all these stages at a neck-breaking speed. Well, perhaps not as fast as, say, MySpace or Facebook. The "Internet generation" has given us lots of these services that pop up one day, and after a year have a hundred million users. Many are hard to estimate for how long they'll survive. People have predicted the downfall of Yahoo after the emergence of Google as the "search engine leader", but Yahoo is still around, solid as a rock, and leads the way in attracting page hits. Microsoft's lead in the OS market — and several other areas, like Microsoft Live — is frowned upon by millions of nerds who "predict" that their Golden Age — like IBM before them — is soon over. Steve Jobs is regularly the scorn of the industry when he launches something else and critics will come and say: "this time, he's gone too far, and this will be the doom of Apple". Nobody believed that he could pull off the iPod, iTunes, or even Apple TV, but all three are here to stay, and we'll see about the iPhone (which everybody is so keen on scorning with a loud: "hah! I told you so!").

Interestingly, it's not the "high exponential curve" that always leads to high-profile products and services on the technological market. Amazon, eBay, and PayPal are good examples — they took a decade until they became the services we now have, and we all take them for granted. Amazon went from the "ludicrous — nobody will ever buy books over the Web!" stage to the "cute idea, but financially unsound, they'll soon disappear from the market" to the effective leader of e-commerce sales of books, selling way more than many major bookshop retailers and their brick-and-mortar physical shops.

So this is what the CSI:NY episode (and, to an extent, "The Office" episode last week) brought to us: a Second Life that the mainstream cannot ignore. Sure, most people will never use it (at least not in the next years). Many will just see the "underculture" depicted on SL, and say "it's not for me" (interestingly enough, as I have briefly mentioned on my own blog, this underculture does, in fact, exist, and is not so different than what is actually shown, even if we all dismiss it as unimportant or worthy only of anthropological studies), or likely people will try it (as certainly 100 thousand users did in the past 48 hours, as the Second Life Insider reports) but then quickly give up. This will be very likely the case, ie. people will not start to use Second Life more because of the CSI:NY episode. Neither do I expect that the number of regular users (1.5 million or so) will increase exponentially, but very likely follow the same patterns of all residents that have signed up so far (85% leaving SL in less than 2 months). No, I'm not expecting miracles — just a higher registration rate for a while, peaking again when the second episode of CSI:NY is broadcasted in February, and as it rolls out world-wide.

What the world-at-large cannot ignore any more is the simple fact that Second Life is now a mainstream product.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bye Bye Megaprims

As Second Life goes on to boast more than 10 million accounts, a shadow of doubt on the future of the megaprims has descended on the hearts of eager SL residents.

Linden Lab has requested "comments" on the use of megaprims — a useful hack, once created by Gene Replacement, allowing prims larger than 10x10x10 m (as well as nanoprims, smaller than 0.1x0.1x0.1) to exist and be integrated into buildings just like "normal" prims. Gene's popular package of oversized prims have been copied over and over again, and after several months of being around, they're now regular features of Second Life.

It's major advantage, of course, is to allow to build with far lesser prims. If you need to create, say, a 50x50m bit of ground, instead of using 25 10x10 prims, all it takes is a single megaprim. Megaprims can also be tortured, and this allows things like giant staircases made of a single prim that are seamless, or doing racing tracks with a handful of prims instead of hundreds. Megaprims can also be sculpted and thus create fascinating and amazing statues, or very large, organic structures, or even smooth landscaping, by economically saving prims.

Less prims does obviously mean less viewer lag, but there is even another hidden advantage: it also means far less textures to manipulate. Even if a stretch of wall or ground has always the same texture — thus requiring a single download, and a single texture on video RAM — using a 50x50 megaprim means that the rendering engine only needs to track down 6 textures, instead of 150 using normal prims.

We are all aware of the huge consequences of using megaprims as the ultimate building tool — it means faster and better building (less tweaking of unaligned prims and textures), it means faster rendering of the scenes, it means less prims (less work for the sim server to do; less client lag), and, well, ultimately, it leads to a far better Second Life experience.

Linden Lab is getting rid of all this. Why?

There is a social reason, and a technical one. As is sadly more and more common with Linden Lab, they get the social consequences all wrong, and throw sand in our eyes with the technical reasons.

Megaprims are one of the uncountable thousands of ways used for griefing on the mainland. It has several uses: fast encroachment of whole plots, huge megarotating prims, but more important than that, since many of these prims with unusual sizes are complexly sheared/cut shapes of far huger prims, they create weird oddities when rendered — namely, bounding boxes get miscalculated (making avatars and vehicles collide with what seems to be empty space), or you can effectively place prims on other people's land which cannot be returned (megaprims, like linked prims, can be rezzed on "your" place nearby — sometimes a sim or two across, and overlap everybody else's prims).

So Linden Lab is cleverly capitalising on the few people that have been griefed on the mainland — but who are pretty vocal about it! — to gather a strong "moral" support to remove all megaprims.

The issue, obviously, is that the mainland is collapsing under its own anarchy, as less and less Liaisons are able to do their duties there. Because of LL's lack of policing, and no real enforcement on the mainland, they're removing features from the whole grid?

Not likely. After all, there are hundreds of known (and possibly thousands of lesser known) ways to grief people, and we haven't seen any announcement on the removal of particles, llRezObject, or, well, scripting altogether. So the argument that LL's is removing megaprims just because of griefing doesn't stick to the wall.

The second reason is more important one, and it's the technical one. Apparently, Havok 4.0 is not much better (or might even be worse) at dealing with megaprims than Havok 1.0, and LL seems to be pressing very hard to get Havok 4.0 on the main grid quickly (who knows, perhaps they're preparing for October 24). A quick fix is simply to delete all megaprims from the 1 billion asset database, launch Havok 4, get CBS and IBM very happy, and then deal with the horde of furious residents later.

It's not just the residents that are going to be furious this time. From one day to the other, Linden Lab is going to hurt the ten thousand RL companies in SL, too; one might believe that whole virtual presences (hopefully not CBS's own!) will be left with gaping holes where truly amazing content once sat. And the companies will demand from their outsourced builders to replace all the prims as quickly as possible, or threaten with a lawsuit. In some cases (like the Greenies sim, which uses sculpties on megaprims) this might not even be possible — on others, there might not be enough prims left to suddenly redo everything with the regular prims any more, thus forcing content to be remade from scratch — all unpaid work, of course, just to keep the corporations happy.

Needless to say that this is a major catastrophe. But knowing very well Linden Lab's modus operandi, it seems that this post on their blog is yet another one of their a posteriori discussions, well after the decision has been made.

I eagerly await the first company that will sue LL in Europe, where their ToS doesn't hold, and demands compensation for getting all their content destroyed.

What Linden Lab needs to do in these cases is to give people options. And there are many: like enabling/disabling megaprims on demand, say from the Estate Tools (or, in another word, turn Havok 1 or 4 on, depending if you wish megaprims to work on your estate or not). Since megaprims are forbidden on the mainland anyway, it'll be a matter of disabling them all on Governor Linden's estate; but LL has to keep in mind that the griefers' utopia on the mainland is not any more the place where most people live and spend their time.

Getting rid of them is no short-term solution; it's just wasting people's time, energy, and patience as they go through yet another ordeal, and hope that their RL customers understand that the content creators have no leverage on the tyranny of Linden Lab, who still behaves as if they're allowed to do what they please with our content. Again, forget what the ToS says — it has more holes than an Emmental cheese anyway — but what the world will look like after the ultimate griefer attack: Linden Lab's removal of a lot of content based on their technical inability to deliver Havok 4 quickly.

[UPDATE 20071017] Andrew Linden apparently is listening to us, and only the megaprims over 256 m on a side are going to be removed (or "clamped" down to 256 m, as he describes it).

More info here:

And here: