Second Life is an online virtual world that has been around for a bit over 5 years now. It is something of a giant sprawling mess full of all kinds of strangeness. I've ventured into it a couple of times in the past and had come away feeling very underwhelmed. It seemed buggy, laggy, and with an interface that was years behind many of the MMROPGs I play.
However since I'm pursuing a degree dealing with using technology in education I decided to investigate Second Life a little more since there seems to be a lot educational initiatives taking place in Linden Labs virtual world.
This time I actually bought a book about it. That's right, I'm actually reading documentation on something. It was a hard decision, but I wanted to come up to speed on it quickly and the learning curve for SL is pretty steep. I have to say I'm mildly impressed with how far its come and some of the possibilities I'm seeing. My initial negative observations still hold true, however there are some qualifications to consider.
Games like World of Warcraft have far superior graphics and performance. There are some technical reasons for this though. WoW is a controlled environment with limited users. WoW may have over 11 million subscribers, however they are spread over many replicated servers. I don't know what the actual numbers are, but each “realm” only holds a few thousand simultaneous users. Users on one realm cannot interact with players on another. SL by contrast is one huge world. It is divided into regions called Sims, each one run by its own server, but movement between them is seamless. There are regularly 64,000+ users online simultaneously, all inhabiting the same virtual world.
WoW also has total control over textures and objects in the game. When you are roaming around a virtual world, your computer has to load all the textures and shapes of objects, buildings, avatars, and the environment into memory so the graphics card can render them. WoW controls and carefully designs its textures to minimize the amount of memory they take up and allow them to quickly load. Almost everything in SL is user created content. Users can upload their own textures and create their own objects. So you end up with orders of magnitude ore textures to deal with. This creates lag. When moving into new areas in SL you often have the experience of the world slowly appearing and coming into focus around you. It kind of sucks, by I understand why it happens. Luckily if you stay in an area for awhile it seems to do fairly good predictive loading of textures and common places you visit seem to work better and better.
SL has a fairly basic 3D interface for building objects, and it is absolutely amazing the things people have been able to create within the world. I'm still in the process of learning everything that is possible within the interface, but I'm seeing tons of applications that I want to experiment with.
I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine where I tried to explain to him how SL could be used for holding meetings and giving presentations. He never really got it, and in many ways he was right not to. In some ways it doesn't offer capabilities significantly beyond what you could accomplish with a combination of instant messaging, Skype, and some kind of groupware suite like Sharepoint. However for people that play a lot of online games and are use to working in virtual environments I think it offers an interesting platform to support telepresence for things like telecommuting and meetings.
Not sure if this will turn out to be a passing fad or something with real staying power. Right now I'm kind of excited by it because I'm seeing lots of things starting to happen there. The technology still has a long way to go, but if people find it interesting and useful that will come.
If you are in SL, you can find me here.
I currently have two avatars, my main one is Tully McLeod, the other is Beltane Bookmite, my more respectable alt that is used for exploring the educational sections of the world.