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Life Squared?

Posted on 1 April 2009 at 4:09 pm in Coursework.

One of the most enduring concepts in Science Fiction is that of a computer-generated reality. We have Neal Stephenson’’s metaverse, William Gibson’s cyberspace, and the fetishistic violence of the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix. Long-running table-top roleplaying games like Shadowrun have mechanics for a hardwired online universe. The popular SciFi sub-genre of Cyberpunk trades heavily on the notion.

Of course, most of these works of speculative fiction speculate a dystopian future in which these alternate realities are worsening the human condition. Despite this, many readers of these very genres are the earliest adopters of online immersive environments such as Second Life. Second Life is an attempt to create a prototype of the metaverse: users control avatars in a three-dimensional environment that allows them to interact (via text and voice chat or IM), and visit graphically rendered indoor and outdoor environments. Without the constraints of gravity, users can fly or teleport; without the constraints of DNA, users can look like anyone or anything they want (depending on their skill manipulating sliders).

What is the practical purpose of Second Life? Vassar College has taken a stab at creating one. Amongst their various buildings — some of which resemble Vassar College campus buildings — is a near-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It was designed to prove a point: art and architecture benefit from the context of three-dimensional space, and the user gains far more from witnessing a carefully constructed replica than he or she can learn from viewing the images in a book. To an extent, I agree: it was interesting to see how each mural related to one another within the Sistine Chapel. I thought Vassar College was one of the best realized areas I witnessed in Second Life: beyond the Sistine Chapel, their tour-pod took my avatar all around their island, and I got to see their castle, their lecture areas, meeting rooms, and other carefully arranged spaces.

What I did not see was people.

Second Life is an interesting concept whose time has not yet come. While there is a for-profit market in MMO games like World of Warcraft, a less goal-oriented setting like Second Life doesn’t offer enough attractions to keep users coming back. While many people have signed up for Second Life, its persistent user base is far lower. This is apparent as you wander around: traveling through the SJSU SLIS campus and the adjacent Stanford University Library I was usually completely alone. When I returned to Vassar College after initially touring it with my classmates, I was the only “person” on the island. It felt eerie and off-putting. Even the libraries generally had ‘bots — lifeless humanoid comment drones — rather than real people.

The technology is part of what fails Second Life. The graphics are blocky and slow (especially compared to the latest video games). It can be slow to load and movement is awkward. In the various fictional versions I reference above, the flow between the real world and the computer-generated one is seamless; in the Matrix movie series, the humans aren’t even aware they are living in fiction. I suspect many people try Second Life and only a very small percentage return. The user interface has not advanced at all in the two years since I last tried Second Life — what other websites cease to advance? When will a younger, smarter company replace Linden Labs? I feel it’s only a matter of time before Second Life is ousted by somebody offering better tech, which will draw many more users.

It’s impossible to escape the fakeness of Second Life. And unlike online social networking tools like Facebook, no one uses their real name — I toured libraries with people I knew were my classmates without knowing which classmates they were! I feel this diminishes the professional potential of Second Life. Instead, Second Life can only serve as an escape valve from the “real world”, a place to be something you’re not. While that may hold some appeal, it’s at odds with what I think it should be best at: meetings and conferences, where networking and making real-life connections are paramount.

I did have the opportunity to speak with a couple librarians and that did help me gain a more positive appreciation of Second Life. The first was “Jenymn Mersand” who I first encountered while “speaking” with a fellow student on the SLIS Virtual Campus. She overheard our misgivings and filled us in on some of the aspects she likes about Second Life. She is a real-life librarian and instructor in New Mexico. For her, Second Life was a great way to attend conferences and work on projects with librarians who lived too far away to meet in person.

The second librarian I spoke with was “Liatris Tidewater” who served at the Reference Desk of the Alliance Library in Second Life. She’s a real life librarian on the staff of Florida State University’s Science Library. While she was a very enthusiastic Second Life user and volunteer librarian — logging two hours per week at the reference desk, going back two years — even she admitted that 80-85% of the reference questions pertained to Second Life, mostly from beginners unsure of how to edit their appearances or move around. More damningly, she admitted that of the “Real Life” reference questions, she had yet to handle any that she’d compare to an academic reference question — in two years! While I appreciate her enthusiasm and commitment to the medium, I think that’s strong evidence that library services are not strongly in demand in Second Life — or not in demand at all.

Of the various libraries I visited — including Stanford University’s, the Alliance Library, the “Library of Illumination Island”, Montclair State University’s, and various smaller libraries or special collections — none aside from Alliance had a live staffer. Most were elaborate shells for links to websites that launched in my regular browser. I could get to all of these resources faster — much faster — directly on the web. The only area that seemed to offer something a library website might not was the Rare Book Collection at the Stanford University Library — its oversized displays showing images from Incunabulum in the Stanford collection were quite impressive and very beautifully rendered.

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Second Life’s strength is its ability to create larger than life three-dimensional images; its weakness is the actual display of textual information. The Stanford Library Rare Books area was great, but the main Stanford Library on Second Life was a hollow hall, with twenty books on the shelf, each of which was just a link to the Google Books version on the World Wide Web. I have more books on the little set of shelves behind my desk — which is in my kitchen. And Google Books is bookmarked on my browser.

I believe that immersive environments have a future — but I’m not sure they have a present.