Second Life builds the social metaverse

Graphically rich 3-D environment adds new dimension to online community

A well-known company issues a press release inviting reporters to witness its online debut. The year? Not 1994, but 2006. The company? Sun Microsystems. I had to pinch myself when I read the announcement: “Please join John Gage for a special event in Second Life.” It’s been a while since I got one of those.

Once upon a time, you only had to put up a Web page to be able to toot your online promotional horn. Now you have to build a 3-D environment in Linden Research’s metaverse and populate it with avatars and virtual tchotchkes.

Back in ‘94, not many people had mastered HTML well enough to make interesting Web pages. Likewise, few today can wield the Second Life construction tools well enough to build compelling stuff. Just as Web page authors were scarce and expensive then, Second Life builders are now. The parallels are striking.

The skills required to create “content” in the two realms, though, are very different. You write HTML markup as a linear sequence of characters that renders as a two-dimensional page. You build Second Life objects using two-dimensional gestures that render in a simulated 3-D space. I used to be handy with 3-D CAD software, and let me tell you, that third dimension is a doozy.

If you haven’t tried Second Life yet, you’ll spend your first hour just learning to walk, jump, fly, teleport, and look around. Because the camera can track your avatar or move independently of it, looking around can be quite a complex affair. The camera has a record button, by the way, so you can shoot movies of everything from any point of view.

Once you’re fairly comfortable moving around, you can try your hand at building some stuff. After you’ve conjured up a few shapes and stretched, tilted, textured, cloned, and stacked them, you’ll begin to appreciate the staggering amounts of time and effort that your fellow residents have invested in the bridges, waterfalls, castles, and richly detailed interiors they’ve built everywhere. And you’ll also begin to see how these virtual artifacts can command real-world prices.

The Linden Lab Web site features a stunning example of virtual construction and virtual cinematography. It’s a movie of a resident luthier making the guitar that Suzanne Vega played during her in-world appearance. You’ll find it eerily thrilling to watch this avatar summon a cylinder out of thin air, shape it into a tuning peg, clone five copies, and spin the set of them into place.

You may also wonder what all this virtual stuff is for. To entertain? To sell for real-world cash? To be translated into real-world things? All are possible outcomes, but if history repeats itself, we’ll find that fancy 3-D designs will ultimately prove no more compelling than fancy Web pages.

It’s no accident that such minimalist modes as e-mail, chat, blogs, and wikis capture so much of our online attention. The Web began as, and keeps proving to be, an experience that’s more about social interaction than passive entertainment.

3-D richness notwithstanding, Second Life is fundamentally social, too. I can’t wait to see what the business world will make of it, or of systems like it, after the novelty wears off. How about this for a practical application: an island where IT administrators and their clueless users trade places. Or where programmers and their business sponsors switch roles. That’d be edutaining.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.