Yesterday, Linden Lab's interim CEO Philip Rosedale and CFO/COO Bob Komin did a talk and Q&A session in Second Life focused on where things were at, and where things were going. This week, on The Virtual Whirl, we're going to take a look at that session and see if some sense can't be made of it all.
The user interfaces for general-purpose virtual environments get a pretty bad rap. It's not surprising, actually. They've generally been pretty awful. Not that they are actually hard to learn, but they've been far from comfortable to use.
That's not really very surprising. Those virtual environments don't really fit any of the accreted body of knowledge of user-interaction models, and building comfortable user-interfaces is no easy task.
Virtual environments have a generally poor reputation in many quarters, particularly in the mass-media. Much of that reputation is ill-deserved, and some of it is entirely fabricated (eg: by the mass-media).
I have to ask, what's the big deal?
This week, we cover the final installment of our summarized history of Second Life and Linden Lab (check out the first installment or the second, if you missed them). It's only possible to cover a tiny fraction of the events that took place in the space we have here, but the highlights paint an interesting picture.
We'll be working our way from 2008 to June 2010, and looking at what future directions we expect from there.
This week, we cover the second installment of our summarized history of Second Life and Linden Lab (or check out part one, if you missed it). From 2005, there's an impossible amount of material to cover, but there are some interesting stories lurking among it all.
Join us as we work our way through some of the interesting highlights from 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Second Life has just seen its seventh anniversary (called its seventh birthday, only it technically isn't -- the original birthday is in March, but the anniversary is in June. There's history there). It's also traditionally a time when Linden Lab and Second Life users most often treat each other as enemies and obstacles; and it is a time for retrospectives and for considering the future.
With the departure of Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon (the press release release says "stepping down," but the day prior to the release many Linden staffers were saying that Kingdon was fired) Linden Lab has hit a turning point -- or the end of another era.
Accordingly, over the next couple of weeks, we're going to look at the history of Second Life, starting back in 1999 and continuing to the present day. Or at least as much as we can cover the ten-year history of something so rich and diverse in the available space.
Second Life is quite legitimately a phenomenon (and even won an Emmy award). It was also something of an accident, since it wasn't what Linden Lab started out to make.
Most things in the world operate on faith. Governments, currencies, intellectual property, human rights and brands all require certain minimum levels of belief and confidence in order to function.
When it comes to virtual environments, as I've maintained in the past, faith is critical.
Hot topic of the week would be the Linden Lab layoffs. 30% of the staff (roughly 110 or so individuals) were laid off this week in a round of layoffs that we spotted ahead of the official announcements. Additional staff have been shed since the beginning of the year.
Staff have been dropped from market-development, business development, engineering, quality assurance, human resources, community and executive management. Hardest hit this week are community and customer-advocacy roles and quality-assurance/testing.
What isn't hard to see is why these cuts were made, and in fact, why they are vital to Linden Lab as a going concern. At least it isn't hard to see when you're looking in the right place.
It has long been a matter of considerable debate among virtual-environment pundits about what constitutes an 'active user'. In some ways, subscription MMOGs have it a lot easier than many other kinds of virtual environment. You can always count paying subscribers, and that's all that matters.
In a general-purpose virtual environment, free-to-play or 'freemium' model, though, counting active users is important. Trends in active users measure the health of your user communities, as well as allowing you to credibly measure your virtual-world's e-peen compared to that of the competition.
In just a few more days, the winner of the second annual Linden Prize is going to be revealed, and the ten finalists have been announced. The stated criteria for the Linden prize are projects that "[elevate] the human condition through using Second Life," and "that improve the way people work, learn, and communicate in their daily lives outside of the virtual world."
Therefore, I feel it only natural that I was rather astonished to see sionChicken/sionCorn in among the finalists, since it apparently does neither of these things.
Virtual environments evince a significant lack of mainstream adoption. Relatively tiny percentages of the world population are involved in them in any way online. There's something clearly missing.
At the present time, virtual environments simply lack any compelling reason to exist that motivates mainstream users and might drive mainstream adoption. There's no killer app, or secret sauce that gets large numbers of people thinking "I want to get me some of that!"
Second Life is an immersive virtual environment. That is, it fosters attention and a quality of focus. You might subscribe to alternative definitions of the word "immersion", but focus and attention are the sense being used when developer/operators talk about an "immersive environment". They might intend one of the other meanings at other times – the word is a pretty slippery one.
The problem is that for most general-purpose virtual environments (eg: Second Life), that immersivity – that quality of attention and focus – kicks in pretty late. Only after you understand the basics of the context in which your actions, activities and experiences are taking place, do you have the satisfying sort of immersion that comes so easily to flat spaces like the Web and Facebook.
A change is as good as a holiday, they say. Seriously, I don't actually know anyone who says this other than myself; though I'm assured that there are some folks out there who do.
With that tragically underutilized platitude in mind, then, last week I posed a question to a spread of well-known virtual environment users (at least to those that I felt would actually respond) and collected the responses.
The question put to the respondents was "What's the single thing that the operators/developers could do to make you feel more satisfied with their virtual environment offering; what thing would help an operator keep you as a customer, or that would make some other operator more appealing than the one or ones you already have?"
"Nothing is certain but death and taxes"; a rather sardonic and bleak proverb, quoted and paraphrased by a number of famous figures over the years. The earliest on record was Daniel Defoe, in The Political History of the Devil in 1726.
Well, this week the death part doesn't concern us so much as the taxes.
Many Americans have spent this month scrambling to get their taxes filed, and for many of the rest of us our own turn comes due in just a couple of months. With that in mind, I thought I'd talk about the taxation status of virtual assets.
It's certainly taking time for people, organizations and businesses to learn how to obtain benefits from virtual environments, and it will take quite some time yet to figure out how to optimize those results. On the plus side, there are many hundreds of thousands of people working on that.
Working out how to effectively operate and manage virtual environments for large numbers of people, well, that's actually taking a lot longer. There are far fewer people actually involved in the process, and the same wheels are being reinvented over and over – and quite often, they seem to be square ones.
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