Second Life and the future of the operating system

Linden's Miller says search, voice in Second Life's Future

Linden Lab’s Second Life isn’t the first virtual community to spring up on the Internet — text-based MUDs (multi-user domains) date back to the mid-1970s. Nor is it the largest virtual environment. That honor likely belongs to World of Warcraft, the massive online world with more than 8 million members. But months of generally positive press attention, and growing encampments of “first life” companies such as IBM and Starwood Hotels as well as news outlets Reuters and CNET, may make Second Life the most widely known virtual world, and the first to cross over from the consumer to the enterprise space.

But as Joe Miller, Linden’s vice president of platform and technology development, explained recently, his company is convinced that Second Life has the potential to be much more: a vehicle for social interactions, commerce, and entertainment that amounts to a new kind of “operating system.” Miller spoke with IDG News Service Assistant News Editor Juan Carlos Peréz about changes that are under way at the popular, three-and-a-half-year-old virtual world.

InfoWorld: Some have called Second Life a new OS. What do you think about that?

Joe Miller: This notion of translating your presence into a space not bounded by geopolitical or other physical limitations is something ... that more and more of our customers realize can be a part of how they spend their time for work and for play. The point is we have created a true platform for all kinds of activities, and that’s what an OS is about.

IW: Does Second Life today have a critical mass of active users large enough to be worth it for ... vendors to justify having a presence there?

JM: We’re at a critical mass of active, committed users from the standpoint that our residents now create more new content, activities, and events than we can keep track of. If we were to go away tomorrow, the platform, the community, the technology would live on. But we’re at the very early stages of this. For some people, it’s not ready for prime time yet. There’s [a] fairly steep learning curve in getting into the world but we’re working hard at making it easier. We’re getting better at providing people with search capabilities that work. We’re doing things with tagging events, objects, experiences and places with metadata so people can see on a map where things are happening that might be of interest to them, based on their profile. But there are rough edges to the experience. We chose to [release] the viewer source code to an open source model to allow a much larger range of people to help us accelerate the work required to smooth that experience.

IW: Some say there are technical areas in Second Life that would benefit from improvements such as voice communication.

JM: Voice is an area we’re actively investing in now. We haven’t made any announcements of launch of an integrated voice solution but it’s something we’re very much involved with. However, our approach will be much more tightly integrated. Obviously we want voice to be an important part of the Second Life fabric, so that if you walk up to someone who is voice-enabled you’ll be able to just start a conversation. You won’t have to run anything else, or do anything else: just speak to someone or a group of people as you engage in a conversation today in a room. As you move through a large group of people, you’ll be able to hear multiple voices, each emanating from the proper place in 3D where they are, so it makes it very much like a real experience of walking through a crowded room where there’s a number of people speaking. It’s an important attribute we’ll be adding shortly.

IW: In addition to commerce, vendors use Second Life for marketing and advertising. Is it an effective platform for this?

JM: The established CPM metrics used in other advertising forms on the Internet serve one purpose. People who bring their brand to Second Life are looking for a different kind of return: to expose their product and brand to the Second Life demographic. But they’re not using traditional advertising means. The ones that do it effectively are providing a capability, service, or product in Second Life to residents that they’ll use in Second Life. Creating a message or value around your brand takes a different form when you have a place to exhibit and make it real in the virtual world of Second Life.