Examples of Research in Second Life

Sometimes we're the ones under the microscope

Second Life can provide a rich resource for study. Since it is a ‘second’ life, it can provide a laboratory for developing or testing theories about ‘first life’. Since it also is a one of the new ways technology is changing our sociocultural landscape, we can also study that.

I came across the proceedings for a conference on weblogs and social media sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. While this kind of reading may be a bit wonky if you are not a researcher, it can still be interesting to see what kinds of things are being studied, the methods they use, and what kinds of conclusions they draw.

For instance, if we want to study the role of social structure in economic activity, it is difficult in the real world since most of the structures are hidden from the economists and the sellers. The authors of this paper were able to use anonymized data provided by Linden Lab with snapshots of social and group affiliations, chat patterns of users, and free and paid transactions. From this they can analyze the patterns of transaction activities and the relationship to social indicators of the buyers and sellers.

There is poster paper presented by Chen-Yuen Teng and Lada Adamic of the University of Michigan, who studied user retention in Second Life. We watch Linden Lab going through a number of changes and try to decipher their motivations and vision. A study like this that looks at what keeps users active would be of interest to anyone in the business of virtual worlds – what are the most important predictors of whether users stay or leave?

There are also the many businesses and other groups that have come to set up shop in SL. Remember some of the large companies that jumped on the virtual world bandwagon, bought sims, paid for someone to build there, only to get basically no traffic? My guess was that they got excited to see hundreds of thousands of active logins and all the other indicators that SL was an exciting place, but yet they had no idea what the actual juice of that excitement was. Maybe studies like this will help give people a clue.

Of course, if you’ve been a resident of Second Life for a relatively long time, you don’t really need this study to tell you why you have stayed, or how much SL has become more or less interesting to you – you’re living it. What you might interest you in the paper is how researchers get the data to crunch to do their analysis. For instance, one of their measures of social network is to look at how often users chat with others, as well as transactions (buying/selling or giving/getting items).

Another poster presented at the conference used chatbots to record public conversations in several sims to identify social network structures and then compare the difference in those structures between the different sims.  I won’t try to comment on their conclusions because I think that the usefulness of their work may not be what they think they found, but in their learning how to set up ways to measure and analyze social interaction.

Mirror Neurons, Mirror Worlds

TED.com has become one of my favorite channels for those times like riding on the train where you can tune out the world while watching an iPod with headphones.

Below is a TED presentation by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. He describes a function of the brain using “mirror neurons”, that are a subset of the neurons that let us sense and control our body. While other neurons are doing the sensing or controling – like picking up an apple – the mirror neurons are also firing.

I bet you are wondering how this ties with Virtual Worlds. I think it does, and in a big way.  Note that I used my category tag “Identity and perception of self”. This is because I am fascinated not only with virtual worlds, but how and why the VW seem to be enabled by weaving with how our minds create identity and work with how we perceive ourselves.

So back to our brains: When our motor command neurons fire so we can control our body, the doctor says our mirror neurons are also firing. This next thing is the discovery he’s made: when we see someone else doing something, like picking up an apple, the same mirror neurons are firing in our brain as if we were picking up the apple. His theory is this is a characteristic of our brain allowed man to learn from others so well.

I think this is also why we can have so much meaning connecting through an avatar into a 3D virtual world. This brain wiring of mirror neurons can be co-opted so we can use them to better connect with another body that we can mirror in our mind.

Think how we function in VW when you watch the video.

And don’t just think of how we create and reinforce a projection of our bodies in 3D space, think about how some users go a bit further… Have you ever been talking to someone unfamiliar with Second Life, and they ask, “I have heard people have some sort of cyber sex there… how could that possibly work?”?

I have wondered about that as well. I think if there is a way understand this, we can look to mirror neurons. Perhaps you will agree when you watch the video.

Rock on Meta7

Rock Vacirca writes a cleverly named blog “Chapter and Metaverse”, where he recently published an interview with Laurent and George Meta of Magne Metaverse Reseearch.

Here’s the link.

They talk about a number of things, some of the history of starting with OpenSim, then K-Grid, then Meta7; their vision for how they want to focus their efforts; the fact that their official opening is coming up in a few days with a big party – that’s right – lot’s of live music and other fun in Meta7 on 30 January 2010 starting at 8pm UTC and continuing until 1am UTC.

Lightshare on Meta7

Meta7 has been racking up a lot of accomplishments, but  regular users like myself may not necessarily notice most of these. We just expect to be able to log in and do our thing and we don’t really notice the things that are working – we just complain when things don’t.

Recently the programmers working at Magne Metaverse Research rolled out a new capability called LightShare Technology. You may remember WindLight capabilities that was added to Second Life some time back. I remember seeing screen shots back then that gave me more reason to want a new computer, so I had a video card that could deliver such beautiful views from the virtual worlds.

LightShare takes this control over a region’s atmospheric parameters to a new level, since it allows the region owner to use scripts to make changes. This may not be a big deal if you don’t build or do any scripting. If you do, LightShare will give you more capability to control the environmental appearance in the virtual world spaces you create. By using scripts, your worlds can be even more dynamic than before. To find out more, go to their LightShare web page.

I had a lot of fun playing with this. I didn’t really do any permanent building or scripting, but I did make a couple videos. In the first, I stayed in one location, but captured views using different atmospheric settings, to demonstrate how dramatic they can be. The second video talks about how to do this yourself.  Don’t watch these on this page, pop out to see them on their youtube pages – be sure to use the “HD” option, especially in the first one.

LightShare in itself is relatively minor, but it does give us a taste of things to come from Magne Metaverse Research for Meta7 – fun innovations for their virtual world users.

Content Rights and Metaverses

Sacha and Pais doing some thinking while enjoying the copy-protected content at a sim in Second Life

There are many approaches to Content Rights

There are many ways to look at ownership and property. There are diverse philosophies, cultures and systems that have been used in various times, countries, technologies, and economies. What is interesting for citizens of the metaverse like ourselves is we can seen in our worlds several kinds of systems working simultaneously. For instance, in Second Life we can 1) create our own content for our own use, to give away, or to sell; 2) find amazing amounts of free things of all types; or 3) barter, rent, or purchase all manner of land, content, or services. Furthermore, we can experience the SL-type of virtual world through the corporately-run Second Live by Linden Labs, we can privately license it via their project Nebraska stand-alone version, or you can wade into the Opensim opensource version, and maybe roll-your-own version like Meta7.  These have elements of different types of economic systems.

Creationalist Capitalism

The nature of the economy that has evolved in Second Life based around user-created comment is no small thing, and may be an indication of larger shifts in our real world economy. This aspect of SL is what Tom Boellstorff called “creationlist capitalism” in his book Coming of Age in Second Life. This summary from The New Atlantis sums it up nicely:

Coming of Age in Second Life suggests that what it has to offer is a third way between the twin perils of modernity: the untrammeled capitalism that alienates man from his labor, and the collectivist solutions to this alienation that crush individual freedom. Drawing heavily on Henri Bergson’s depiction of the Homo faber (man the maker), Boellstorff proclaims that virtual worlds like Second Life are inaugurating a new “Age of Techne” in which the capacity to fabricate will become the defining aspect of humanity. This new age will be rooted in what Boellstorff calls “creationist capitalism … in which labor is understood in terms of creativity, so that production is understood as creation.” Production and consumption will no longer beget alienation, but rather, the creation of new worlds and better selves.

I make these points to describe and underline the importance of the ability to create and sell, because this, in turn, gets us back to Content Rights, and my conversation with Sacha.

Second Life merchants sell things like these wonderful trees and other landscape objects

The reason why I show Sacha and Pais talking under a big, beautiful tree is because we had two kinds of content rights discussions, and one of them involved content from an SL merchant, and both involved Meta7.

Copybot Contraband

Content rights are commonly violated. Music, movies, SL trees – anything that is digital can be copied and pirated. Many debates about this are unresolved. Whole industries, such as for music and movies, invest millions to protect their content rights. In my humble opinion, these particular industries have been extremely slow to adapt to the changes in technology that affect their mediums.

In terms of Meta7 and other similar OpenSim grids, people are able to use things like copybots to pirate copies of Second Life content to the other grids. The motivation to do so is easy to understand – if one is using Meta7, they will likely want some of the cool things they own in SL.  Meta7 may now have an economy engine and the ability to exchange L$ and M$, but there is yet to be any intergrid transfer of objects on the horizon. Over time, a lot of content from SL has started showing up in Meta7. Some of this was copy protected in SL. Recently Sacha was contacted by the owner of some of this pirated content – trees from a particular merchant.  When Sacha gets these kinds of complaints he needs some evidence that the complaint is founded. In the case of the trees, it was easy to see that their unique content had indeed been copied to Meta7.

From here things could have gotten ugly. Think about the horrible pains we have had to endure when the music and movie industries react to similar problems like the clumsy, greedy, dinosaurs they are. In the case of these particular trees and Meta7, the solution was amicable. First of all, Sacha provided a way to get the SL merchant in business in Meta7, providing a sim for a few months to help them get established as a retailer. In exchange, the merchant is offering amnesty to their existing pirated content – people will be able to pay a reasonable fee to upgrade the tree objects in their landscapes to legal status. I think this sets an excellent precedent to a problem created by changes in some parts of our technology outpacing others.

Opensource versus Licensed Code

Another long running debate in cyberspace that has been echoed in Meta7 is opensource code versus licensed code. We all would like things to be free, but we all want to be able to make a living. One of the wonderful things the web brings us is the ability to crowdsource problems and collaborate on development. Thus, we have opensource project like OpenSim. This was created by many people contributing and collaborating and making it all freely available on the web. This is how K-Grid, and then Meta7, got their start. The MMR programmers worked with OpenSim code. Some of their ideas, creations, and improvements where contributed back to OpenSim, but some are kept exclusively as MMR’s version that they use for Meta7. This is completely legal.  MMR is using Meta7 to provide a service – an alternative to Second Life where they can offer innovations to guests and paying customers. The income, of course, is used for the hardware, bandwidth, and support. Why would people want to pay for another type of Second Life? First is the cost, which is an order of magnitude less than the cost of owning sims in SL. The other is the types of innovations that Meta7 has been implementing – for many metaverse residents, this provides more fun than SL, which because of its size and other reasons, has a lot of inertia to overcome to try anything new.

In my opinion, there is no one way to approach content rights. Also, the way we create and exchange things of values will continually change as our technology changes. We need to balance the ability to share, collaborate, and help our creativity and innovation flower, while at the same time allowing people who bring about creativity and innovation have the ability to retain some rights of ownership and, if they desire, financial gain.

K-Grid is now Meta7

The meta7 staff (Kitto, Yuki, Koffee, Sacha, Casper, and Flo) on the meeting dias unveiling their plans and fielding questions 28 November 2009

As Yuki commented near the end of the meeting, “You have to admit, we’ve come a long way.”

Indeed. I took a look back at the posts I have done here to see that it has been a little over a year since Sacha started experimenting with Opensim and calling it “K-Grid”.  Saturday Sacha and his amazing team held a meeting in K-Grid to formally announce Meta7, the trademarked name for the virtual world services provided by the recently created Magne Metaverse Research, LCC. They’ve been beating on this for many months, fueled with the kind of ideas we all probably got from Second Life back when they said “Your World, Your Imagination”, when perhaps the Lindens meant it; but to then ask, can we have more fun, freedom, experimentation, innovation as a place to pursue our imaginations?

The meta7 meeting - well over 40 on one sim, and this is before moving to the new servers.

You can see presentation slides and text at the new site, forum.Meta7.com.  It has been really fun to watch this going from playing around and experimenting to a fully-fledged business. Here’s a recap of some of what I heard as the main points of the meeting:

  1. The Biz: Sacha and his teamed formed a Limited Liability Company,

    The Meta7 logo

    so they can operate a legitimate business called Magne Metaverse Research (MMR). “K-Grid” was a good name, but it was already legally spoken for, so the new MMR trademarked name for their virtual world will be Meta7.

  2. The Tech: Of course, it is one thing to have another virtual world that is just as good as Second Life, but what about new innovations like better meshes for avatars, better physics, scripting? Those things are in the works. The MMR priorities are stability and performance. To that end, a lot of investment of time and resources have been put into scaling up to new servers and innovations to the software to do just that. The other big change will be the ability to buy and sell in Meta7 with M$, just as we do with L$ in Second Life. This will include an intergrid exchange. They are also working on their own client, based on the Emerald one we’ve been playing with. I’ve got a test version and it has some snazzy features.
  3. The Fine Print: As in Term of Service (TOS). We always have to see the lawyer-speak with any software or service we use, and MMR wouldn’t be able to stay in business long in today’s litigious world without having a lawyer and running the issues through that filter.  Take a look through the history of my blog as my life as Pais Kidd (or the blogs of many of my friends), and you will see a lot of that is having to deal with the ignorance and intolerance that comes from people’s reactions to my having a kid avatar. It is likely that one of the motivations cause K-Grid citizens to be refugees of SL is for these kinds of reasons. Therefore, it was understandable to me to see a lot of the questions at the meeting asking what this means – as one person seemed to be asking, will Meta7 start going as crazy as Second Life? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break the laws of your country, for instance.

OK, this is just a brief overview, and I don’t speak for Sacha or MMR, so refer to their official releases and documents, or post your questions on the Meta7 forum to get the facts.

Overall, this is an exciting new step for all of those that want to carve out new directions from where we started in Second Life. If we look around, we see many others doing the same – setting out in their own direction with all kinds of virtual world technologies and business plans. I think MMR is on a good path. With each day their knowledge and capability improve, and in turn so does their hardware and software. For those who want to own sims to create and interact, Meta7 may not have the scale of Second Life, but then again, owning the most expensive sim in Meta7 is around a third of the cost, with other options being a fraction of that. Perhaps it is a better way to have Your World, Your Imagination.

K-Grid Chat on iPhone

Screen shot 2009-10-31 at 11.41.22 AMSparkle is a $4.99 iPhone app that can be used to log into a location in Second Life or OpenSim so you can chat or IM. There are rumors of a graphical version of this kind of thing, but so far, for the iPhone, chat is about as far as you can get. Which, of course, is a nice option if you want to keep in touch when away from your computer, or have a way to explain to your friends that your net connection or computer client just crashed and you can’t get back in-world for a while.

Of course, a lot of people have been hitting my blogs that talk about accessing K-Grid (with the Hippo or the Emerald clients), so I thought I would share how to connect to K-Grid with Sparkle.

First, you will need to purchase and download the app from iTunes (on the iPhone, you can search for the “sparkle im” app).

Then you need to set up info for K-Grid and your account. It is not that hard, just a matter of finding the right setting screens and then knowing a how to put in the info for K-Grid and a Landmark. I am going to show you how to get a landmark for HelpIsland.

HelpIsland in K-Grid

HelpIsland in K-Grid

Home screen for Sparkle on iPhone

Sparkle Main Screen

The first image is the home screen for Sparkle. As you can see, I have already entered information for my account, so it will look different from what you see on your phone.

For our purposes, there are two menu items to choose from – the light blue “Location:……” and the settings button that below it that looks like a gear.

Start by entering your account and grid information, starting with the gold settings button with a gear icon. That will take you to a screen like the following listing your accounts:

sparkle screens -4

Account Settings Screen

You can add a new account by hitting the plus “+” button in the upper right corner.

sparkle screens -5

The Add Account Screen

Click the “Select Service” button

sparkle screens -8

The Grid Service Selection Screen

You can see I have already created a service for K-Grid in the above screen capture. You can do so by clicking the plus “+” button.  This next part is actually the only part with info that you might not have already had.

sparkle screens -9

The Add Grid Screen

On this screen, you fill in the grid name “K-Grid” and the URL info Sparkle will need to know to find K-Grid, which as you can see from above, is “grid.k-grid.com:8002”. After you have that entered, click “Done.

Next, on the Edit Account screen for the K-Grid setting, add your account and password. Note that for your account you will need to enter both first and last name separated by a space, for example, “Pais Kidd”.

Click “Done” and now on the Grids screen, you can K-Grid listed with your name.  If you need to edit your account info, click the blue arrow on the right side of that Grid’s entry. Otherwise, select it by clicking on it.

Now get back to the Main Screen, and click the big “Location: …… ” button in the middle of the screen.

sparkle screens

The Start Location Screen

Above is the Start Locations screen. As you can see, I have already entered a location. The main thing you need to do is to go to the location you want to be, get the sim name and coordinates from the top of the client. Realize that once you log in with Sparkle, you won’t really need to move, so you can either pick a nice spot out of the way so you can IM with friends, or pick a place where your friends hang out so you they can be in chat range.

I will give you the HelpIsland location. This is a location that is also connected with the K-Grid teams IRC chat, so they can answer questions that people chat here.

On the Start Location screen, click the blue arrow on the right side of the line that says “(custom)”.

sparkle screens -2

The Custom Location Screen

Now you need to enter the region name, in this case “K-Grid_HelpIsland”, but you can copy the name of some other sim name that you’d like. On the next lines enter the X, Y, and Z coordinates (129, 181, 21), as shown, or whatever location you want.  Click “Done” and now click your new entry in the Start Location screen.

Now you should be back to the main menu, so click the “Go” button and you should be logged in. Your avatar will appear at that location. You will be able to IM friends, do search, local chat. You can view a bit of a friend or other’s profile to IM, pay, or Teleport them to your location. Not a lot, but if you want to chat with your K-Grid friends and don’t have another method to do so, then Sparkle might be fun to use.