May 19, 2010

Why Diaspora Will Win

There has been considerable news in the technology area concerning a new initiative for social networking named (aptly) diaspora. From the site, diaspora is explained as:

The privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.
Why would this early start-up have a fighting chance in the 21st century? Simply because these individuals are young enough to understand the nature of accelerating returns, open source tactics, empowerment to the individuals, and also (more importantly) that they understand that your information in the future should not be centralized or controlled by a single entity for which you have no say.

A conversation very recently between myself and Kat2 Kit in SecondLife raised the issue that places like Facebook have no regard for personal information or privacy, as their means of income is based entirely from the exploitation of that information to the highest bidder. It is this reason that initiatives like diaspora will quickly prevail over Facebook and other social network services as the defacto standard for personal zeitgeist.

Introducing diaspora. Power to the people.

Whether this revolution includes diaspora or another like it is irrelevant at this point. Diaspora is the tipping point that will usher in the new age.

May 18, 2010

State of Affairs 2010

As I gaze outside my window, I see the many droplets of rain grazing the leaves of the forest and trickling down to the ground. Through the cold and gentle cleansing, I am reflective and find wisdom in what I see.

At first glance, the rain seems like it is merely random and without purpose, but upon deeper consideration, that very randomness results in a greater purpose overall. It is with this observation today that I begin the State of Affairs address for 2010.

Another year has passed, and the Andromeda Underground has continued to push ahead. While the membership herein has fluctuated with the loss of some and the introduction of others, we remain around the same membership count as we began with two years ago. Programmers have come and gone in these two years, as the complexity of the task at hand was severely misunderstood. Those that began here as programmers have moved on to other things, while those who were not explicitly programmers have taken on parts of the component structures inherent with the over all system.

Of note, the Crossroads FTP system was started and continues to evolve over the course of the past year and going forward. With nwasells and on occasion Epsilion at the helm of development on this front, some progress continues to be made despite real life concerns and interruptions.

Also in the past year, we have seen the rise of Pixel Labs in Second Life. With members of Andromeda Media Group participating in virtual environment projects which are changing the nature of application within a virtual environment. Pixel Labs also serves as a virtual environment front for Andromeda Media Group and the Andromeda Underground, in that members who participate here also participate in Pixel Labs and Andromeda Media Group within Second Life (or are encouraged to).

From that occurrence, Pixel Labs has evolved under Andromeda Media Group as a holding, and now has financial backers in the form of Directors in order to oversee the continued progress of the group while removing the potential poison from the well which existed prior. On the Pixel Labs island in Second Life, there exists Pulse Point Marketing, a real life marketing company with Second Life experience for large universities and corporate interests. Also on the island is artwork from one of our Directors (a cast member from the show 1st Question). Pixel Labs also contains a custom designed building for Pixel Labs members themselves to act as a showroom and meeting area.

What would we do with a showroom, you may ask? Well, in the past few months, Pixel Labs has created and released a number of in-world products; some of which are highly sought after and have attracted the attention of large corporate interests and smaller business alike. For example, the book Tablet (as designed and created by nwasells and myself) continues to leave people in awe at the usefulness and modular design it encompasses. The koios Presentation system left an audience at ViO business center completely ecstatic when we used a prototype for our presentation.

But the news isn't entirely good, as the past year has also seen the severe degradation of health for one of our most intelligent individuals, Strapples (Alin). Unfortunately his medical condition continues to worsen, and doctors are unable to truly understand the cause of it. It is disheartening to see his body continue to worsen over such short periods of time, but we continue to send our thoughts and prayers to him - and revel in the courage he has to continue unabated despite his condition. He continues to be an inspiration to all, and if anything, should give us hope to face the biggest challenges in life.

Over the fall of 2009, I have contributed to an academic book to be released this July, entitled Virtual Worlds and E-commerce: Technologies and Applications for Building Customer Relationships in which I had the honor of writing the final chapter entitled The Future of Virtual Worlds and E-Commerce.

All of this adds up to a very busy year for Andromeda Underground and Andromeda Media Group.

Over the past year, Andromeda Underground has made a number of predictions about the state of virtual environments - many of which are beginning to come true today. From discussions concerning how best to integrate the web with virtual environments, down to how Andromeda3D as an interface should be designed, those ideas and discussions have been mimicked outside of our domain here in the virtual environment industry. In that we were discussing and designing them well before the mainstream industry mimicked them only shows us today that we are still well ahead of the entire industry with what we know and can see as the future.

Time and again, over the past few years and even reaching back to 2005, those associated with either VR5 Online, Nidus and later Andromeda Media Group have made countless predictions on the state of virtual environments and where they will be going. There have also been predictions on the nature of Social Media in that services such as Facebook would eventually fall to the wayside in much the same manner as what caused the collapse of Myspace.

These are incredibly important observations in the industry, simply because we see a trend that the industry has yet to understand. What we see happening today with virtual environments and social media tend to be things we have discussed in depth a year or more ago before these steps were taken by those companies. As a result, one may wonder what that actually means in terms of Andromeda3D and related projects, and I would like to make that connection for you today in the State of Affairs 2010 address.

Despite being starved for time and resources, as a group we remain years ahead of the industry overall.

This doesn't mean, however, that our accomplishments are directly visible overall or that they can directly translate to a finished product known as Andromeda3D no more than we can point to a single drop of rain and know exactly what plant it helps to grow. We do, however, understand that many drops of rain lead to growth of the forest, even if each drop of rain seemed to fall on something unrelated to the plants we wish to focus on. In the end, it all trickles back and makes the overall forest stronger and more vibrant as a result.

One thing I had noticed after our first year was that we had spent a great deal of time focused entirely on Andromeda3D to the exception of the metaphorical forest around it. As a result, it should have been no surprise that doing such would have been the equivalent to growing a flower in the desert. While it is possible, the odds of successfully doing so are much lower than dropping a seed in a forest and knowing it will sprout with ease even if ignored.

In the second year of Andromeda Media Group and Andromeda Underground, I decided to focus on the forest around our plant, by nurturing the network, respect and visibility of our project and related abilities, thereby creating an environment whereby the plant that is Andromeda3D could indeed flourish even if left alone.

It is by this reasoning that it may seem that we are neglecting this project, while in reality we are doing so much more to allow it to truly flourish. It's the ability to see the forest for the trees, and know how everything relates to each other in an ecosystem.

With this, I bring you the state of affairs for 2010, and I look forward to many years to come filled with reward and respect for all.

Will Burns
Project Leader

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.