Matt's Muv601 Blog

A blog all about my MUV experience

MUVE Platform – Second Life

Second Life, an online Multi User Virtual Environment was launched on June 23rd 2003 and was developed by Linden Research Inc. aka Linden Lab.

Linden Labs was founded in 1999 by Philip Rosedale. It was there where he set about the task of bringing immersive 3D virtual environments to people. It all started with “The Rig” (http://secondlife.wikia.com/wiki/The_Rig) which was a ‘clunky steel contraption with computer monitors worn on your shoulders’ (according to the Wikipedia article here) which was the hardware that was envisioned by Linden Lab to support their immersive virtual world.  The Second Life software was developed to be used in conjunction with “The Rig” but instead it gained popularity by itself, due to this Linden Lab switched focus from hardware to the development of the Second Life software platform.

Linden Lab’s employee list is made up of a number of very talented people who have come from varying different backgrounds in the I.T industry. The company make up consists of former executives from such companies and Electronic Arts, eBay, Disney, Adobe, as well as Apple. In conjunction with this the founder Philip Rosedale was a former CTO of Real Networks and noted as one of Time’s Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2007 (Read the article here).

Now that there is some history out of the way we can look at what it is that Second Life brings to us.

As I hope we are all well aware that Second Life is an Online Multi User Virtual Environment. Second Life plays home to approx. 2.8 Million registered users and has an average user concurrency of around 65000 users (http://dwellonit.taterunino.net/sl-statistical-charts/). Second Life creates an immersive 3D environment for users to interact within, or even to not interact if they so choose. For this to happen each user is given an Avatar, this Avatar is the virtual presence of the user within Second Life. Each user’s avatar can be fully customised to represent their real life self or something that does not represent their real life image at all. This means that each user can uniquely identify their virtual presence within Second Life.

Example of a Human Avatar

Example of a Dragon Avatar

Example of a Gremlin Avatar

Built into the Second Life is the ability to ‘build’, really what this is, is a kind of 3D modelling software. It allows users to build complex things through the use of ‘primitive objects’ or ‘prims’ for short. What these are, are simple building shapes that can be manipulated in various ways as set by the Second Life developers. These prims can be linked to other prims and used to construct many complex things within Second Life. The default texture for a prim is a wooden texture, though only building things that have a wooden texture might not be considered that desirable. Because of this there is a texturing feature than enables you to place a texture on each face of the prim and with the clever use of alpha (essentially a transparency layer) textures you can turn a simple box into something that looks for more complex than what it actually is (also much more visually appealing in most cases). There is also support for the importing of textures into second life, this means that you can use a 3rd party programme like Photoshop to create these textures then use them in conjunction with your builds. Second life also has the ability to handle sculpted prims (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Sculpted_prim) which use an array of x, y, z coordinates stored as RGB values in an image file to determine its shape. Second Life has also recently allowed users to be able to import 3D meshes created within 3rd party programmes into Second Life itself (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Mesh). Things you are able to build within Second Life do not just relate to buildings or other static objects but you can also create clothes for you avatar to wear, new hair styles and really anything you can imagine.

The basic primative objects used for building in Second Life

Basic Primatives with simple textures and some manipulations applied.

More complex build breakdown incorporating a sculpted prim and textures with alphas.

Example of a complex build within Second Life

Another feature of Second Life is that is has its own scripting language known as ‘Linden Scripting Language’ or LSL for short (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/LSL_Portal). This scripting language can be used to give specific behaviours to prims, objects and avatars within the Second Life world. Some examples of this can be seen with vehicles within Second Life, each car contains a script that allows the user to move the car the way they would expect a car to move (Vehicle script example).

Second Life has its own form of currency to be used within Second Life. It can be used to purchase land or objects that come from other users on the Second Life market place (https://marketplace.secondlife.com/) or from a virtual shop located within Second Life. Linden Dollars have a real world monetary value and can be traded on the LindeX which is lindens own currency exchange (LindeX). This means that users can actually earn a living on Second Life, in fact there is potential to earn more than ‘just’ a living (http://gigaom.com/2006/11/29/anshe-chung/).

Linden Lab’s gives premium users the opportunity to purchase their own piece of private land within Second Life (http://secondlife.com/land/learn/). Essentially each parcel of land sold by Linden Lab’s relates to a portion of dedicated CPU power, so really you aren’t buying land but buying processing power. Owners of private land are also able to sell on pieces of this land to other Second Life members be they premium or non-premium members. There are different types of land parcels available for purchase (Wikipedia article here), they vary in size and also vary in prim limits (the maximum amount of prims able to be used on that parcel), and because of this they vary in price as well.

I guess what has really made Second Life what it is today is the whole community aspect within Second Life (http://secondlife.com/community/). There are so many different communities for multitudes of different things, ranging from things such as steampunk, to goth, to dragons (rawr!), to medieval, to communities dedicated to helping newbies, to basically anything else you can imagine. In conjunction with the communities that exist within Second Life users can join groups which can relate to communities in Second Life and keep you updated with various news and happenings within each community. Or the group could even just consist of you and your own little circle of friends. Or even in our case we all belong to the MUV601 group that gives us some nice little privileges to do things on our little Kowhai parcel (like build) that we like to call home and to also be able to receive key things from Isa in our weekly jaunts within Second Life.

I have to say one of the first things that I noticed when I first logged into Second Life was the way it looks. While the graphics are not as visually appealing as some of the newer leading video games they are still very nice and when coupled with being mostly fully customisable I think brings a whole new edge to Second Life. So yes, Second Life is quite easy on the eyes but to me that isn’t the only thing that counts and I feel that Second Life doesn’t quite raise the bar high enough on a couple of other things. One of these things would be that because you have to use a viewer to interact with the Second Life environment this can cause lag problems when you enter an area for the first time. Upon the first entry into an area a large amount of data needs to be downloaded and cached locally to your computer. Though if you have a nice broadband connection this doesn’t really mean much in terms of waiting time for you. Another thing is the graphics processing power needed to render all the textures (and new mesh imports) is rather high. Yes you can change the graphics settings within the viewers to get a smoother result, but then you suffer a loss in visual detail. Even when you think you have got a good balance of performance and visual detail in the settings if you enter a densely populated area you may find that you will have to drop your settings more so as to keep your frame rate up and reduce video lag. Other than these couple of things I think that Second Life runs well, their teleportation system makes it easy to get to the locations you would like and the controls are relatively simple and don’t take that much to get used to them. The area that you first rez into also has a small part dedicated to showing you how to use the controls for Second Life.

Despite what I think about the bandwidth and video requirements I have to say that I think that Second Life is a leader in its field. While there are many other multi user virtual environment platforms none really come all that close to what Second Life has. The closest would be Open Simulator (http://opensimulator.org/wiki/Main_Page) since it comes from the open source version of Second Life. Open Simulator however has a downfall in that the user base is not as large as Second Life’s so you lack the much wider range of communities, though you do gain much friendlier and tight nit communities on the Open Simulator platform. Then if you compare Second Life to Kitely (http://www.kitely.com/) you also find there are similarities but with Kitely you have to pay for the time that you spend on there, so if you like free things Second Life is better in this aspect. I think that the one thing Second Life lacks in comparison to “Sim on a stick” (http://simonastick.com/) is that “Sim on a stick” is open source and can be downloaded then set-up on your local computer. With this you can then experience customising your own parcel of land and everything else without the cost of owning land and premium membership within Second Life. Also not to mention that it is running on your local machine so you eliminate almost all of the bandwidth issues of Second Life. The only thing is you have to put up with being all alone all the timeL.

I found it hard to really classify what Second Life really is. On one hand users can use it purely for social interaction with other users, be it going out to a club and dancing or just hanging out at a café with some friends. Then on the other hand you can use it from a business perspective to house meetings for staff members to attend who are unable to get to the physical office, so then in this sense it could be used for business purposes. Then you have even more aspects on top of this, users are able to build and create basically anything they wish within Second Life, so could it be a safe haven for artists, graphic designers or perhaps even the odd casual build enthusiast like I hope to be myself. But still there is more…users can create elaborate Role Playing events and even build this more into a game where each user has a goal and can actually enter into battles of sorts where your Avatar gains a health bar and can be ‘killed’. Even then it can still be used for other things, such as an educational tool for students. I guess I could go on forever as there seems to be no end to the things that you can do within Second Life. So really what is Second Life, a virtual world, a video game, some form of social application or perhaps all of the above? For me I think Second Life becomes what you want it to be.

–Matt~

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