Getting a Second Life

Getting a Second Life

Imagine a world where you could create literally anything you could imagine, and explore it in 3D. What would you make?

If your answer was “strip malls and casinos”, I know a place you’ll love.

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A while back I had the unusual experience of having my employer suggest that I spend some time trying out Second Life. IBM is quite interested in the commercial possibilities of 3D shared environments, and has even set up some experimental conference spaces.

I managed to get into Second Life via the experimental Linux client build. It was slow, but did the job. It was also very good at making ATI’s buggy video drivers crash. But between crashes and bouts of net lag, I managed to explore a little.

What I found was mostly depressing.

When Linden Labs set up Second Life, they had a vision of a William Gibson style cyberspace, with people flying around in 3D conducting business. So they set up their digital world as a free market, with its own currency, exchangeable for real money. Unlike the real world, however, land in Second Life isn’t purchasable; instead, you have to rent it.

This has had an unfortunate effect on the virtual world. If you want to build any kind of building, you need land. If you want land, you need to pay for it with Linden dollars. So you need an ongoing source of Linden dollars, or you need to spend real money. Hence, about half the buildings in Second Life seem to be either strip malls or casinos.

The strip malls mostly sell clothing and other accoutrements for your virtual body. If you buy a building you need land to put it on, and most people don’t have land, so there’s not much point selling buildings.

The space not taken up by casinos and strip malls is taken up by nightclubs. My guess is that they’re mostly owned by the same people who own the adjacent strip malls, and are used as a tool to stimulate the sale of fashionable clothing.

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I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s all commercial trash, though. There are some great places in Second Life. My favorite is the International Spaceflight Museum, which has scale models of an enormous selection of real life spacecraft. There are some nice Zen Gardens in Achemon. Braunworth has a reimplementation of the town of the first Silent Hill video game which I quite like wandering around.

Sadly, the quality of 3D objects is additionally limited by the fact that everything has to be built inside the game; there are no proper 3D tools, and you can’t (say) construct something with Google’s SketchUp and import it into Second Life.

So, if 95% of the population can’t afford land, can’t work out how to make things, and eventually get bored with watching pixels dance in a nightclub, what does everyone do? Well, mostly Second Life is a giant chat system. It’s IRC with 3D graphics. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it seems such a waste of a 3D rendering engine. And in practice, the 3D doesn’t really add much to the IRC experience.

There are also technical issues. Each patch of land has a limit on how many people can be in it, and the limit gets hit fairly regularly. IBM has resorted to buying a square of 4 patches of land, and building the conference hall where the corners meet. The client is also slow and chews CPU. Even on my brand new MacBook Pro, the frame rate drops rapidly as soon as ten people turn up in the same place.

So, is Second Life the future of the Internet? I’m going to say no, not without some pretty radical improvements. It’s an amusing place to spend a few minutes every now and again, but so far, that’s about all.