May 3, 2010

A (truly) Unbiased Look at Second Life Viewer 2.0

If you listen carefully, you can hear the echoes of contention and disgust filtering from the masses. Pitchforks raised and torches lit, they march upon the stronghold, chanting against the abomination inside.

"It is an unholy creation!" some yell.

"Surely it will be the downfall of us all!" others scream.

With all of this commotion, you would think I were speaking about a scene from Frankenstein. But alas, this is not the case. This is an unbiased look, (for once), at the Second Life Viewer 2.0 from Linden Lab. What could possibly make me capable of giving an accurate and unbiased look at what is supposedly the most hated viewer in SecondLife today?

Well, for starters, I'm a real virtual environment veteran. My experience with virtual environments does not start and end with SecondLife alone, but instead spans from the early 1990s when VRML reigned supreme and SecondLife wasn't even a gleam in Phil Rosedale's eye. Back in a time when people like Jaron Lanier coined the term Virtual Reality itself, and back when the closest thing to the Metaverse we knew came from Cyberpunk fiction like Snow Crash and Neuromancer.

Many people reading this will begin with an unadulterated and rabid misguided hatred of Second Life Viewer 2.0, and many may not even make it past the first few paragraphs because they are intent on being biased against a viewer they barely understand. For those readers, I will simply say that you are doing a grave disservice to the entire industry as a whole with your petty and unfortunate bias. For those who wish to read on, I will tell you that while Viewer 2.0 isn't a holy grail, it is not the Frankenstein abomination many make it out to be.

We'll begin this journey with a flashback to the beginning of virtual environments, or as far back as the length of this article may allow. We'll begin with services like Lucasfilm's Habitat on the QuantumLink Internet Service between 1986 - 1988.

Not exactly the most glamorous virtual environment, Habitat was a beginning and utilized now archaic modems with very limited graphics and bandwidth on a Commodore computer to create a world in which many residents could interact. Many parallels exist between Habitat and Second Life, and the social interactions are by and large the same today as they were back then. There was a virtual currency called Tokens for which users could buy items and different looks. There was an inventory. There was text chat between the users, and of course there were many areas to explore and play games.

In this aspect, we can say that the idea of the virtual environment as a whole is not a new idea, and we can even say that it reaches back further with Multi-User Dungeons (MUD) which were entirely text based on early BBS systems. The most popular types of venues back then are still the most popular past times today in virtual environments - Bars, Clubs, Games, Personal Homes, Selling things, and making things.

In the early 1990s, these environments got a face lift with the introduction of services like Worlds Inc, Blaxxun Contact, and even ActiveWorlds where the user experience was now in 3D.

Worlds Inc

Blaxxun Contact


For many residents of Second Life, the history involved with virtual environments is completely lost on them. Their first introduction to the idea of a 3D environment online came in the form of gaming such as World of Warcraft. As far as many are concerned, Second Life is revolutionary and has never been done before. This belief is completely incorrect, and only the real veterans of virtual environments actually know the history involved.

Companies such as Intel, IBM, Cisco, and computer retailers were on the bandwagon in the early days of virtual environments. Seeing a store in a virtual environment trying to sell computers is not a new idea, though it may make headlines when Dell decided to open Dell Island in Second Life, or that IBM and Intel have a presence... but they always had a presence in virtual environments from the beginning (except Habitat, I believe). What we see today in Second Life is just a continuation to those companies from virtual environments they took part in twenty years ago or longer.

For example, take the later contenders in the virtual environment industry - Kaneva,, Entropia, and Anarchy Online.



Anarchy Online

We know that recently closed its doors, leaving many people to take on the life of virtual nomads. Of course we see Kaneva which tends to be a low resolution contender to more powerful systems like Second Life, but Kaneva isn't exactly taking off and gaining much attention. If we look at Entropia Universe, however, there seems to be a community using it - despite the overly complex amount of options involved, which brings me to Anarchy Online...

If you look at the screenshots of these systems, dating back to 1988, you'll notice there is a familiarity with the interfaces. Some chose to take up massive amounts of screen real estate in order to convey the information, while others chose a minimalistic approach that had no baring on whether the company succeeded or not.

Today, places like Worlds Inc are struggling to survive, and more up to date systems like have completely folded into oblivion. ActiveWorlds has added more complexity to its interface which, if we compare to SL Viewer 2.0, is truly the Frankenstein abomination making SL Viewer 2.0 the equivalent of a wide open utopia of space.

ActiveWorlds With All Options

With chat windows at the bottom, a Web Browser that slides into view or can be pinned open, Tabs for VoIP, Contacts, World List, and Messaging, this is what a space hog looks like on an interface. I find it amusing the hear people complain about how the side dock in SL Viewer 2.0 takes up an entire 25% of the screen when opened, but never mention that when closed it takes up the equivalent of 32 pixels for the icons to remain available on the side.

A dock that slides open to reveal additional content and options is not a space hog. Not unless it was intentionally left open all the time, which is essentially defeating the point of having the side dock to begin with. That is why each of those side dock options has the ability to be opened in a new window, and those new windows can be minimized.

Of course there is the standing issue that one cannot hide the entire interface like in previous versions, and I do agree that this is a major oversight that should be dealt with. I would also go so far to say that Viewer 2 should also allow the option to switch between Advanced and Basic modes, where Advanced would revert the viewer to 1.23 style and behaviors (taking into account new options and additional functionality) and Basic mode would be the current style of Viewer 2.0 and the default on installation.

Barring those things, though... It's not a bad viewer by any stretch of the imagination. It's a work in progress. There are, of course, many glitches and usability issues which need to be dealt with in order to get the viewer up to speed with the needs of both advanced users and new users. This means that the overall look and feel of Viewer 2.0 will not be scrapped and reverted to 1.23 simply because the long time SL residents cry foul. That portion of the looks will remain, with changes to better facilitate older users, but don't expect any major overhauls. In the best case scenario, you may expect the Basic and Advanced mode option I have described here, but I wouldn't promise that you will see it.

I want each reader of this blog post to take a long look at this screenshot of SL Viewer 2.0, and then scroll up and see the interface designs of virtual environments past and present. Then I want you to look at the following screenshot:

I dare you to tell me it's too cluttered, takes up too much space, and somehow detracts from the virtual environment immersion. This is a message to the supposed 80% of SL users who have dragged this viewer through the mud at every chance they had: You're full of it.

The purpose of Viewer 2.0 is not to cater to the advanced users who have been in the Second Life platform for years. It is not somehow geared to add more complexity and options to the system in order to make the experience more powerful to the long time user. The User Interface is not twenty more menus added to the drop-down nightmare that is Viewer 1.23.

Viewer 2.0 is designed with one goal in mind: Cater to the first time user, the user who has never stepped foot in a virtual environment like this before. The design of the UI mimics a familiar layout that truly new users would be comfortable with: Their Web Browser. The number one cited reason for high turnover in user accounts during the 1.23 viewer phase was over complexity. New users would log in for the very first time, and find unwieldy menus and buttons to navigate, options buried deep in nested menus to do even the simplest things, and do you know what those new users did?

They left.

So here is a question: What is the point of being an advanced content creator in SecondLife if the audience doesn't expand much? If our audience is too afraid to deal with the complexity that we've grown used to and mastered, then we're only creating things for a community of like minded individuals with no chance to reach a wider audience as a result.

In short, the community stagnates.

Of course, the realization would be apparent that Linden Lab would rather lose 80,000 residents and appeal to 3 billion common broadband Internet users around the world as a trade off. I'll stick with appealing to the masses and not catering to a paltry 80,000 users any day. The numbers are in greater favor that way.

So, all of the half hearted threats of developers leaving Second Life because Linden Lab won't give in to their demands is nothing more than a bunch of hot air. All of the developers and long time users who spend more time bashing Viewer 2.0, sabotaging it for others with nothing but negativity, than trying to make it better through actually using it and reporting where it may be deficient, suggestions on how to make it better (which, I remind you, is not the same as demanding that it be reverted to 1.23), and overall taking the time to get used to it.

And why wouldn't you take the time to get used to the new viewer? That same proposed 80% of long time users would rather keep the overly complex viewer from prior and tell the rest of the Internet using world to "get used to it" or "tough luck, this is all you get". Funny how after all of these years, it's the long time users who are now being told that very same thing.

Of course you don't like it. You don't like suddenly eating crow and being on the receiving end of that elitist argument. But you sure as hell enjoyed being elitist to the new users for the past number of years. Made you feel good to treat "n00bs" like crap, didn't it?

Here, have a Friendship Bracelet!

So, what now? There are other options than all or nothing, you must realize. For one, the viewer is GPL so there is always the option of grabbing the source code and making the viewer the way you want. I suppose that's why there is a Third Party Viewer Directory which does, indeed, cater to more than the first time user. Seeing as there are features in viewer 2.0 that I foresee will never be removed such as Shared Media, Alpha Layers for the Avatar, and other useful things, I can also tell you that it is simply a matter of time before those features are available in the Third Party Viewers.

I hear a lot of talk about how Linden Lab should port these new features to Viewer 1.23, but those people clearly miss the point. Emerald viewer uses the 1.23 interface and I can imagine they, like other Third Party Viewers, will be incorporating the new features of Viewer 2.0 soon. So why should Linden Lab focus on back-porting the new features to 1.23 when they will be dropping support for it when Viewer 2.1 is available? Why should Linden Lab duplicate the efforts of Emerald viewer?

The reality is, Linden Lab will not be back-porting those features to 1.23. It just doesn't make economical sense. Maybe I'm wrong and Linden Lab will, indeed, do that... but my business mind says they won't.

Which brings us to the hear and now...

As it stands, until Third Party Viewers incorporate the new features of 2.0, SL Viewer 2.0 is your only access to those new features - to create with them and to experience them. I'm not telling you that you should use Viewer 2.0 if you don't like it, or if it doesn't work for you. I'm asking that you remain neutral and get a clear perspective concerning it.

Yes, viewer 2.0 has bugs and UI issues. I will not deny that claim. No, those issues aren't worth abandoning the viewer altogether, because the benefits introduced outweigh the petty (and sometimes legitimate) gripes against the viewer overall.

As a representative of the 20% who like Second Life 2.0, I'm going to tell you exactly why I like it:

I like Viewer 2.0 because it allows me to develop things that the other 80% of residents can't and won't because of their own stupidity and stubbornness. By all means, continue to boycott Viewer 2.0 and refuse to use it. You're making this way too easy for the other 20% to get a head start.

And for that, I actually thank you.


  1. Actually your final coment about Third Party VIewers incorporating Viewer @ features is a little behind the cruve. Krsten's S20 viewer already has Viewer 2 features and corrects many of the complaints the old hands have with Viewer 2.

    That said, my biggest complaint about Viewer 2 is not about its features, it is about its guts. In rushing to market and using a new consultant firm (from Odessa Russia I think) LInden produced a semi-archaic code core for Viewer 2 that is simply unwieldy for anythign but an optimum featured super-PC. If you are worried about drawing in new customers, you had better make you client software amenable to newbie level computers. If you question my point, simply access Secondlife via a computer with basic (i.e. minimally approved) memory and graphic capability via Viewer 1.23 or Emerald and then compare the results with the same computer under Viewer 2. VIewer 2 is slow, ponderous, laggy and has a predisposition to collect unnecessary cache junk and overlaod itself. Linden did not keep VIewer 2 in Beta long enough to debug its bad qualities. I think this inherent clunkiness is the catalust for much of the vitriol about Viewer 2.

    On the positivew side, I am excited about streaming media. I am working on serving SL USers with "cloud" services via linked web screens onworld.

    HeidiHo Halberstadt

  2. I have an entry level Laptop. An HP DV-7 with a Dualcore processor. SecondLife runs just fine for me and I bought the laptop last year. I can also run Viewer 2 at Ultra settings as well as 1.23. So if you're talking about entry level computers, you may be a bit mistaken as to what that means. A three year old computer would have trouble with SL, and I know this for a fact since my prior laptop was 3 years old and nearly dropped dead on Viewer 1.23

  3. I know this is extremely old, but this was written less than 10 days before my SL birthday and it is so interesting to read about the adventures people had migrating from one viewer to the next because, like Viewer 1 users had to do, I had to migrate to Viewer 3 from 2 at one point.

    I guess the difference, today, between the Viewer 2 and the Viewer 1 fans is that third party developers are still keeping Viewer 1 alive for them, while I have yet to see a third party Viewer 2 that I can go back to. I was using Exodus's last version of it, but it loads so many meshes before it gives up and it won't be any good when Project Sunshine goes live on all grids.

    I remember having received criticism when I was new, for trying a third party viewer 1 and greatly disliking it. Some of them were 'born' in viewer 1, but I've always liked cleanliness and simplicity and I think Viewer 2 hit the nail on the head and even more-so than Viewer 3. The sidebar was an admirable feature because, in Viewer 3, the chiclets don't slide over when opening inventory, etc and I also greatly dislike that clicking another button to go back to that window closes that window instead of refocusing it. The sliding sidebar didn't have that mechanic, at least not in its last days.

    Since the disappearance of 2.0 I've not felt at home with any viewer I've tried. At times I feel close to it but with every viewer is a feature I love, but also many that it doesn't have, that another viewer would. For the most part, the viewers are mastering mesh issues but now it's SSA we're facing and the experience, no matter how hard I try to see past it, has been negative. I know it's for the ultimate best and that we just have to grow with it, but I just wish I could feel at home with a viewer to begin with, to make all the other sufferings feel more worth it.

    This is just my very late opinion on 2.0 and my small way of telling it to rest in peace lol. The day I find a third party viewer 2 that is kept up-to-date with the latest features, however, will be one of my best and most memorable SL days!