Sunday, February 22, 2009

Second Life - An Alternate Reality?

I watched a TED talk last night by Philip Rosedale, who is one of the founding fathers of the Internet Virtual Reality called Second Life.  

Firstly, let me say that I could easily write a 20,000 word essay on what Second Life is, rather than this 1600 word one the topic so interests me.  I am fully expecting that over the next decade or so these virtual realities will become a place where we go – much like the weekend cottagers – for a change of pace away from our day to day concerns and for a dose of wonder and delight.  But I will not.  Let me just whet your appetite to know more and maybe experience SL yourself.

What is Second Life?

The simple answer is that it is a virtual reality internet game which you can download and play on your computer.  It isn't a game in the true sense of the word - there is no end and no winners or losers.  It is more just a place to entertain, like a visit to a foreign country.  It is really though, just a game.  But that is like saying that a month in Tuscany is a holiday.  It doesn’t nearly describe the experience that awaits those that travel to that destination.
From the SL website:

Second Life is a free online virtual world imagined and created by its Residents. From the moment you enter Second Life, you'll discover a fast-growing digital world filled with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity.

The owners of the SL site make available empty grid space.  It is up to the purchasers of that grid space to build (by buying or writing themselves) computer instructions which brings their imaginings into being – at least virtual being.  So, SL becomes what its residents want it to become.  Not to say it is without rules and an economy – it has both, but it is more like the Wild West of the 1800s than a developed society.

My Visits to SL

I have visited Second Life a few times and created an avatar who can travel about in that world and went to the area they have for folks to use as a training area.  An avatar is a visual representation of yourself that is only limited by what you can imagine.  In the few times I visited SL I guess I clocked about 4-8 hours there.  When you are a newbie you start at a place called Orientation Island and here you learn the basics about how to move and how to interact with both other avatars and objects.  You even learn to drive cars and to fly!  From here you can choose to go out and explore or you can go to another place to practice and learn stuff first.  The nice thing about SL is that you can teletransport to anywhere
in SL – as long as you know the SLURL (Second Life Uniform Resource Locator) – it is like a url but for SL locations.

I just went again this morning to visit Second Life and to remind myself about it before writing this blog.  On the sign in screen it said that there has been 1,444,530 logins in the last 60 days.  That is a lot of visitors.  There were, on this Sunday morning at 8:16 a.m., 56,592 real people present in this alternate reality.  WOW!  

What do you find when you go to SL?

Second Life is an amazing place.  If you could take the most incredible imaginings you might have about a place  you might go and remove normal limits about what you can do – but still maintain the concept of a land which is organized as a society with rules and economy and people to interact with – you have this place.   It is a place without limits of what you can physically do, be or experience.  It is a place for explorers and adventurers.  

It is like a board game taken to the maximum extent of imagination – like the game of Life, Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders all rolled into one and turned into an actual world you can live in.   If you think about a Star Wars movie you could actually experience, you might have something close to SL.

There is a currency – the Linden Dollar – and you can both run businesses for profit , on land you have purchased, or be employed to earn money and spend this money – buy items other people have for sale – for instance –on the things you might want to have.  You can even “cash out” and take your money out of the virtual reality, via the LindeX.

This is the currency exchange market operated in SL and as of today 1 US dollar was worth 260 LD.  The LindeX™ is a free market Linden dollar exchange offering residents of Second Life the ability to either buy or sell Linden dollars. Charges are for purchasing Linden dollars and are placed on the same form of payment you have setup in your account settings for your Second Life account.  Prices at this site are set by the market price - I.E. the best price offered by the different sellers of Linden dollars.  This of course means that if the bottom fell out of the LindeX market your Linden Dollars would be worthless.

There are museums (created and maintained by real life ones) and public buildings to explore, concerts to attend (presented by real life bands) and even classes to take (either affiliated with known institutions such as Harvard or Princeton or informal classes organized by SL entrepreneurs as a way to make a living).  CNN has a presence there!    There are even a few real life country embassies there – I guess as a PR exercise, because I can’t see that they could actually help your avatar escape if civil war erupted in that part of SL – not that it could.  

Information from Philip Rosedale's TED Talk

From Philip’s TED talk I learned that the area of land which is included in SL is about 10x the size of the Greater San Francisco area and growing at about 5% per month.  There are 20,000 CPUs joined together to support this virtual world.  There are 250,000 visitors per day and there is 100 million objects of content stored on 100 million terabytes of storage space.  To give some context to this, one might think about a computer game you can buy which might take 4 CDs.  SL is 25,000 times larger than that.  

From what I gather, the demographic is a pretty standard curve from age 18 (the minimum age for residents allowed in SL – there is a teen version available for the younger set) peaking at age 32 and tapering off at age 60.  The hours of use per week actually peak with age 60 and these residents spend 40% more time online than the 32 year olds.   There are 55% of residents which live in Great Britian and Europe, 35% from the US and almost all countries are represented.  45% of the residents are women, but women spend 35% more time in SL.

Is SL for nerds?  Not at all.  According to Philip, the folks who are on SL are early adopters of technology for sure, but they are the most creative, innovative, intelligent and entrepreneurial folks around.   The sort of folks who were the first to buy on EBAY.

Why I want to find time for SL

I spent enough time in SL to know that it is a place I would really like to explore and spend a good long time visiting – just like Tuscany.  However, unlike Tuscany I can visit SL any time I want and it does not cost a cent to visit – I can come home after each visit and sleep in my own bed, so I don’t need to rent any living quarters there.  So why do I not spend more time there?  It is simple – I don’t have enough time as it stands.  There are too many things which need attention in my real life.  

I think that what you get out of SL is as much as you have time to spend there.  The more time you spend there the more you will get out of it.  Being totally immersed in a new culture requires time.  You need to spend enough time at SL to become proficient with the things there to get the most out of the experience.  I do have wanderlust and would like to explore - but there are only so many hours.  Sadly, I have no time, so I am adding it to my life list – to spend a month or more in SL exploring and getting to know the place.

I am hoping that at some point in my real life I will have a period of boredom, a time when other life goals are not so all consuming.  That would be the time to devote to SL. 

How will this virtual reality affect our society?  
Is it a viable alternate reality?
Is it a bona fide reality?

I want to leave you today with something which is both a peculiar thing and also provides food for thought – and perhaps comment (gee, it would be nice if this evolved into a little bit of a dialog – Note to Self: got to figure out how to display comments for all to see under the day’s blog)

Some time ago, there was a news item which I heard which presented the mock worthy item that there was a person on SL who was being sued for divorce.  Yes, you can marry – have a “partner” on SL and even have a baby.  The reason was that he, that is his avatar, started fooling around with another avatar.  At the time, I remember thinking God, people, “get a life” – no “get a real life” and dismissed this as a ridiculous item because I had imagined it within the context of a game which had as its objective an “end game” – something that SL does not.   If you imagine SL as a real vacation spot where you interact with real people, participate in a real economy and social life you then view this divorce as a different animal.  

It is a unnerving  that this virtual world could be so real as to bring together people who actually develop feelings toward one another in this environment and even feel hurt when they were cheated upon. Some folks might even come to prefer their digital doppelganger!  Philip Rosedale’s talk touches upon this theme, if you want more thoughts on the topic.

It may be as our society evolves more of these virtual realities and even relationships become “real” to those we are acquainted with.   I can’t imagine a love relationship physically unconsummated, but perhaps for some the physical aspect of a relationship is less important.   Makes our reaction to the virtual reality divorce a little bit different than it otherwise might be.    What would you say to your friend if she/he confided in you that she/he had a SL Partner?

Where is this is all heading?  It is a bit frightening isn’t it?

Want to find out more?:>>

Want to try SL?
Go here: it covers “How do I begin?”

Philip Rosedale's TED Talk covers much more than I have touched upon above.   If you are at all intrigued with SL, virtual realities and the notions I have discussed above, I would recommend listening to his talk.  

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