Feb 16, 2011

Virtual Divergence

Adding a little reality to our virtual view.

By: Will Burns


Let’s say for the most part that I’m a realist. When I’m not a raging cynicist, playing devil’s advocate, I tend to view things on their own merit as if it were to stand on its own. It’s not that I enjoy being a hard-ass or making kittens cry, but a little common sense goes a long way. Unfortunately, we all have our technology causes to rally behind despite how asinine our reasoning may become.


Virtual environment technology makes otherwise rational people lose their ability to separate virtual reality from reality. This effect is further exaggerated when we have a vested interest in said virtual environment platform, emotionally or monetarily. The cost of virtual environment usage, over time, seems to be in exchange for our common sense.


There once was a time when I was the same way, and despite countless trips to virtual Betty Ford to kick my stupidity addiction, I kept falling off the bandwagon and drinking the kool-aid. It was a time when I used ActiveWorlds technology predominantly, and despite its countless shortcomings (which I seemed to point out personally), I would still continue to believe it was the best technology in the industry. I had become an unashamed apologist for bad technology, and this behavior consumed quite a lot of years of my professional life.


I believe my epiphany came around the time when the company spent a greater deal more time making every effort to lie to its userbase, while passing off further bad updates and “advances” that were years behind what one could get from free Open Source engines, that finally gave me the dose of reality I sorely needed. I was, of course, banned “indefinitely” from speaking in their forums for pointing out how to not only make the system better, but for refusing to be lied to or allow them to lie to their customers.


For awhile I was very sore about what happened, but realized over time that I was still correct. It was simply a matter of time before they came to the same conclusion, even begrudgingly. Since 2007, ActiveWorlds has done the impossible, time and again, in that they’ve systematically implemented many of the things which they not only banned me for insisting was possible, but in some cases told me many of those things were impossible.


When it comes to Second Life, I’m not an apologist. Nor am I an apologist for any other virtual environment in the industry, past, present or future. To me, any virtual environment must stand on its own to earn merit, and when I see history repeating in implementation or a slick marketing presentation, I am quick to point out how convenient it is that they are glossing over inconvenient facts as not to tarnish their image.


Of course, this quite often leads to companies (and scores of people) questioning my “credibility” or thinking I’m just out to get them because I’m not willing to ignore facts to shower them in praise. I do not have a vested interest in whether or not a particular virtual environment succeeds or fails, which allows me to be entirely unbiased in my ability to ascertain what it is and where it may be lacking or deficient. It’s often the people who are emotionally or monetarily (usually the latter) tied to a particular virtual environment which immediately go on the attack when I make honest assessments.


To loosely base a quote from my favorite comedian, Bill Hicks (rest in peace)


“Shut that guy up! We have a vested interest in the success of our product! It can’t possibly have anything wrong with it! What will our clients think if they found out?! Of course we’re truly innovative and new! This has never been done before, it’s the future! Look at our big bank accounts, this has to be the future.”


It could be worse…


Which brings me to Second Life and subsequent knock-offs. Let’s face it, that’s what OSGrid, ReactionGrid, InWorldz, SpotOn3D and others really are in the grand scheme of things.  In the case of InWorldz, it’s a system that is cheaper for land and prims, but at the expense (or lack thereof) of the robustness of the viewer or servers it runs on. Standing in a single location is likely to have such poor collision detection that an avatar will sink into floors and eventually fall through them. Entirely empty regions have enormous lag and rubber banding issues. Even on its best day, the available content is abundant only in the aspect that what is available harkens from 2007 in Second Life, and the ability to search or find destinations listings immediately greets you with a white page and some text apologizing for a feature that does not exist, not to mention the likely corruption of the very assets themselves when rendered (which seems like a disadvantage for content creators).


What needs to be said is that these are systems that are inherently and intricately based on Second Life architecture. Set aside the insistence that these systems manage to add some bells and whistles onto the source somewhere. Underneath the paint job, and the delicately airbrushed flames, under the plush leather interior and amazing sound system, is still a beat up El Camino. I think of all of the third party grids, InWorldz manages to make this point crystal clear.


The argument that it’s an evolution, or a work in progress, is reminiscent of the blind faith attitude usually reserved for the fanatical religious types. It is exactly what it is, and that is to say they are inherently broken. Possibly more so than the originating system they are copied from, or at the very least subject to the same crippling long term flaws. Of course, Linden Lab also uses the “evolution” and “work in progress” excuse for why Second Life is still fundamentally flawed many years later, so at least in this aspect everyone is definitely on the same page. To say the Open Source apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree is a bit redundant.


While “mesh import” seems to be a big deal, something that will “revolutionize” the virtual world, I immediately check the date and realize it’s not the mid 1990s anymore. It’s not as big as people like to make it out to be. It’s the ability to upload 3D Models to a server and use them in a virtual environment as an object to build with, which for the most part has been a staple in virtual environments since… well… as far back as I can remember (but I’ll toss out ActiveWorlds in 1995 as my example here). Linden Lab (and whomever is CEO this week) like to say how much of an advancement mesh will be, which is technically true as long as we aren’t comparing it to anything else but itself.


To make matters worse, we’re at a stage in virtual environment development where we’re implementing things many years down the road that should have been a no-brainer from day one, and acting like it’s suddenly a game changer and innovative. What they are is not innovative or game changing, it’s trying to downplay the fact that we’ve seriously screwed up and are now trying to slap a band-aid on it to make up for lost time.


Take into account Marketplace for Second Life. One would think that, using common sense, a system designed from the ground up to facilitate in-world transactions, the ability to create virtual products, and sell them; somewhere in that mix it should have made perfect sense to include a built in Marketplace catalog system by which micro-transactions (and the subsequent revenue)would reign supreme. It wasn’t until a number of years later when somebody other than Linden Lab thought something like this was needed, went ahead and built it, naming it XStreetSL (or whatever it was named before that).


The point is, something that should have been common sense from day one didn’t cross anyone’s mind until years later when one of their own customers saw a need for it and made it independently. I’d wager it made quite a lot of money for the creator as well, with the daily micro-transactions and percentages they made from them.


I would imagine then that the premise of Linden Lab up until that point was to base their business model on land sales, premium accounts, and enterprise customers to make a profit. I’m not entirely certain any of that worked out for them, as they struggle to find ways to make more money on land sales, premium accounts aren’t the “must buy” of Second Life (though to be honest, I’ve always wanted a Linden Home… just so I could dismantle it and send the prims back to the main office individually), and I’ve recently received confirmation that the U.S. Army is cancelling at least one of their enterprise grids purely because it’s both (possibly) defective and doesn’t meet their needs.


It’s blatantly obvious why Linden Lab suddenly took an interest in a Marketplace and the micro-transactions, to the point where I’m assuming XStreet was bought out (during the frenzy of “buy everything in sight” fever that included Avatars United, but apparently missed the Breedable Chickens craze). I can also see clearly why there is a sudden interest in connecting to social media outside of Second Life as well, because when it comes down it, there is no better incentive than to connect with 600 million potential users with disposable income.


However, even having this mini-revelation many years later, I suspect it’ll be many more years before somebody at Linden Lab realizes another blatantly obvious epiphany: The same marketplace and virtual creation/transaction system they now utilize is going to waste in potential revenue streams, because it’s the perfect venue to introduce real world branded content within the virtual world. Linden Lab literally controls the most powerful money making system available and are seemingly only bright enough to realize a fraction of what it can do for them, especially if they are reaching out to those 600 million Facebook users.


So what does this have to do with the idea of virtual divergence?


We’re still drinking Kool-Aid


With OSGrid, Reactiongrid, SpotOn3D, InWorldz and others, we’ve essentially borrowed some of the worst aspects of the originating system from a number of years ago, technologically and mentally.


It took Linden Lab many years to realize that premium accounts, enterprise customers, and land sales alone weren’t going to give them the breakout revenue to sustain them, and only because one of their customers decided to make an independent unified online shopping portal with micro-transaction revenue did they finally understand what was needed (at least fractionally). When we put the OpenSource grids under the same scrutiny, we see both technologically and mentally they are in the same position as Linden Lab was a number of years ago, in that there is no unified shopping system with micro-transaction revenue, let alone a unified in-world currency.


It can be argued that those two things aren’t needed, but the outcome is likely the same as what Linden Lab experienced. Even your enterprise customers would rather go to virtual IKEA and buy the furniture than pay somebody to build it all from scratch. If you want rapid expansion and adoption, you really do need a unified currency and marketplace to do so. On a similar note, the unified avatar persona demands this functionality in your system. Even if there is no central authority running the show to collect this revenue stream (though to be fair, that revenue stream would certainly make for an interesting coffer in the spirit of say, the Mozilla Foundation, except with OSGrid type systems) it is still something that cannot nor should not be written off.


But the underlying problem is that these are systems still preoccupied with trying to fix a broken technology and starting at a major disadvantage in doing so. Clearly a marketplace and unified currency are very low on the list of concerns, as server upgrades and fixes are high priority. Wouldn’t it make sense to have the continued development efforts of this Open Source initiative be funded in a manner that truly accelerates the technological evolution of a virtual environment and gives content creators (and subsequent users) a bigger incentive to migrate?


I commend these systems, regardless. They are at least putting the time and resources into trying to tackle these problems while making a really good effort to improve their iterations beyond the scope of Second Life. However, it still remains that the underlying system is still broken and susceptible to the flaws of Second Life architecture, since these systems are heavily based on Second Life to begin with, and in some instances have turned the technology clock back 4-5 years as their starting point.


When it comes to innovations such as HyperGrid, I’m actually quite interested, even if a bit dismayed that it’s a system that is bolted onto the side of the vehicle half heartedly. It’s a fantastic idea, if only it weren’t so concerned with being backwards compatible with Second Life viewers. I was under the impression that the point of breaking away from Second Life and Linden Lab to make an alternative OpenSource version was to actually no longer be subject to Second Life?


Some fairly ingenious people went through an awful lot of work and trouble to break away from the constraints and limitations of Linden Lab, only to arbitrarily constrain and limit themselves by the proceedings of Linden Lab. This is the opposite of innovation.




What I’m implying, or directly saying at this point, is that in order to “evolve” we must actually be willing to cut loose and do so. We need to actually diverge from the beaten path and brave a new paradigm instead of revisiting ones that have been done countless times before with as many reiterations. We’ll need to remember the obvious lessons we should have learned along the way, and how to avoid the same traps that ensnared us previously.


I’m not an apologist for virtual environments any longer and neither should you be. I choose to demand more from the virtual environment industry and there is no reason why you shouldn’t. One day in the future, virtual environments will stop chasing their tails, they’ll do something innovative and different, and just maybe they’ll surprise us all with something truly innovative and visionary.


It won’t require a marketing team to spin, and it won’t require thousands of people willing to ignore just how broken it is. The virtual environment of the future won’t be trying to sell us something old with new packaging, or a few extra bells and whistles. The virtual environment of the future will not systematically put walls up between itself and the people most passionate or critical of the system, but instead be confident enough to meet those challenges head on and in person. It won’t need a hype machine or an article in a leading magazine to justify its existence.


It’ll simply be a killer app that you and everyone else will gladly use.