SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009

CARTOON  OR SUPER-REALISM

Do the graphics really matter

in virtual worlds?

… and is Blue Mars really the third generation?

Blue Mars 2050 … does super-realism matter?

I have always wondered just how much the graphics matter in virtual worlds: I know my personal preference falls into the super-realism category when it comes to graphics but I’m well over the age of 30 and even as a youngster never had much time for cartoons or comics.

I ‘ve been enamored with World of Warcraft for years as well as the latest Grand Theft Auto offering. The CryENGINE (R)2 graphics,  when proposed for Entropia  Universe, really turned me on. I’m also intrigued  with the possibilities of Lenova elounge, by Nortel, and the  latest offering from  the MellaniuM stable,  the Furnace, and love  today’s graphics in Second Life, especially when seen through some of the better viewers on a high-end computer. I also felt  the failure of Google’s Lively to get any traction with any age group was due to the cartoony style of its graphics.

However, the digital generation, unlike the digital migrants or my generation, the digital dinosaurs, seem to have no problem with cartoon characters or environments: Look at Habbo Hotel (135,000 m users). Although accurate figures are notoriously hard to come by the best estimates from the industry-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds, British-based Kzero, suggest that 57 percent of the estimated 579 million people who are registered users of MUVEs around the world, are children.

Virtual Worlds ‘not a passing fad’

As Victor Keegan reported in the UK Guardian almost  all of the 39 percent growth in MUVE usage reported by Kzero for the second quarter this year came from children.

“Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars,” he said. In this largely unreported cartoony VW  flood poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – had 76 million registered users; among 10- to 15-year-olds, Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million). The numbers start tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million), underlining the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds, he  said, arguing that virtual worlds “are not a passing fad”.

Do those digital generation figures mean, however, that Second Life,  described by  Larry Johnson, CEO New Media Consortium, as “the most currently evolved of the virtual world platforms … the seminal first instance of what the 3D web might look like”,   could  be beaten to a pulp in the marketplace, either by  virtual world  offerings which have even more realistic  graphics  or  over the long term, as the current generation of teens and tweens become adults,   by cartoon worlds like Habbo Hotel.

But, although, we’ve also seen the growth of  the Second Life software-based, opensource OpenSimulator environments, such as OpenLife, OsGrid and ONGENS among others, the arrival of behind-the-firewall applications such as Nebraska and offerings from other stables such as OLIVE Forterra, Twinity, Wonderland, Kaneva and peer-to-peer offerings such as Vastpark , Second Life at the moment, like Microsoft before it, seems to have the critical mass, the content  and the graphics to carry the game among adult MUVE users for at least the next five years.

That doesn’t mean to say that Second Life  wont have competitors in the  short or the long run.  It currently  seems to be moving  to ensure that it can beat this competition by  again emphasising  real life applications;  in some ways it is moving away from its core  user-base, of mainly nerdy, older (as compared to the popular teen and  tween worlds)  fantasists, first movers, former lounge potatoes, weather-bound, shut-ins  and others who delight in interacting with each other around the world, but at a distance.

Mainstreaming Second Life

Although apprehensive about some of the future plans the Lindens have for Second Life, which I feel will, in many ways, destroy the things which contribute to its attractive game/play/art/on-the-edge  feel,  I think the Linden move  to promote training and education uses of virtual worlds and its expressed goal of mainstreaming  through “extending the value of Second Life beyond the virtual world (through) helping Residents more closely integrate Second Life with their daily lives” are  correct moves in  an economic sense.

As Larry Johnson, summing up the growing momentum of Second Life and virtual learning, said in April this year, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.”

For many users, however, that is probably the “boring’ direction. And it probably means that many  early Second Life adopters are already moving or will move on to other more edgy worlds taking their creativity – if not their content – with them.

One of those worlds just might be Blue Mars 2150 which  is scheduled to launch into its open Beta phase tomorrow, September 2. Or, of course, it too might join the virtual world scrap heap which is already littered with virtual worlds which have been created, promoted, and sometimes marketed,  and then faded away over the last few years. Remember Outback?

From the preview above – and remember it is a promotional video –  Blue Mars’ graphics are stunning, as are its partners.  It to obviously wants to cash in on the fact that the average social website user today spends $US148 each year, a figure that can only rise.

Blue Mars 2150, which  describes itself as the third generation of virtual worlds (also here) and like Linden Labs is based in San Francisco,  has already secured joint ventures with numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the National Association of College Stores, with its 30,000 plus members, TERC, the National Geographic Society Alan Watts, NOVA and Smithsonian Institution.

It remains to be seen just how successful  Blue Mars 2150 will be. My belief is that unless someone comes up with something like “interactive, shared, controllable, lucid dreaming”  the Lindens are going to be very difficult to knock off their perch.

The SLENZ Update – No 121, July 31, 2009

VIRTUAL WORLDS “BOOMING” despite doomsters

“Twitter makes the noise while

Second Life makes the money”

-Victor Keegan, The Guardian UK

Second Life can do his … Tribute to Lachlan Campbell from the
Second Life Relay for Life benefit event – July 11, 2009.
LabGraal: Vocal, Rosalba Nattero

While Facebook and Twitter are lauded to the skies,  neither has found a way to make money – whereas virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, Entropia Universe, Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin and Second Life are all profitable because their business models are based on the digital elixir of subscriptions and micropayments,  according to Victor Keegan (pictured) in the UK  Guardian.

It’s a formula that other websites, including newspapers, would die for,” he says. ” Twitter makes the noise, Second Life makes the money … actually, they are booming.

In a message which will have the virtual world doomsayers frothing at the mouth Keegan quotes the UK consultancy kzero.co.uk,  the world-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds,  as reporting that membership of virtual worlds grew by 39 percent in the second quarter of 2009 to an estimated 579 million, although not all are active.

“If you think virtual worlds are a passing fad, look at the figures,” Keegan says “Almost all of the 39 percent growth came from children. Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars. This goes largely unreported because the users don’t read newspapers, but as Kzero reports, poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – has 76 million registered users.keegan, victor

“If you move up to 10- to 15-year-olds, users rival the populations of countries – led by Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million).

“It starts tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million) – but it underlines the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds. The telephone was a one-to-one experience; email linked friends and colleagues; Facebook extended this to friends of friends but virtual worlds offer – as Twitter does in a more constrained context – the opportunity to link with anyone on the planet sharing similar interests.”

Keegan, noting that Second Life  is consolidating as it tries to make the experience easier and less crash-prone,  says it is still the creative laboratory of the genre even though it may not end up as the preferred platform as new business models take advantage of the rapidly improving technological developments elsewhere.

“In order to get a more streamlined experience, most of the new virtual worlds don’t allow users to make their own content,”  he says. ” Twinity, which has just raised €4.5m in new funding, has a virtual version of Berlin and Singapore (with London still in the pipeline): you buy existing apartments or rent shops but can’t build yourself. Bluemarsonline.com – still in testing mode – promises much better graphics and more realistic avatars at the expense of not allowing members (as opposed to developers) to create their own content.”

“With technology moving so fast and a whole generation growing up for whom having an avatar is second nature, virtual worlds have nowhere to go but up.

“Only they won’t be virtual worlds – just a part of normal life,” he concludes.

Kzerochart

For the full kzero reports go here and here and here

The SLENZ Update – No 76 , May 1, 2009

TEXT TO VOICE’

So you  think you know who you are speaking to?

voices_dallas_wflag

Virtual World users  will soon be able to  have their avatars speak in the voice of their choosing, by typing what they want the avatar to say.

This will result from of a “strategic” partnership  announced Wednesday between leading Text-to-Speech (TTS) vendo Cepstral LLC, of Pittsburg, PA, USA, and  virtual world entrpreneurial pioneerAnshe Chung Studios Ltd. (ACS), today a leading developer and distributor of virtual goods in 3D online environments. voices_marta_wflag

The deal will enable Cepstral to distribute the audio into the required virtual world from its hosted (SaaS) platform at VoiceForge.com.

VoiceForge currently offers the world’s largest catalog of more than 50 unique English voices, allowing users to  choose the personality their avatar speaks with.  Voices range from novelty accents like Evil-Genius, Dallas, Top- Hat, Belle, and Vixen to classic young adults, American and British (pictures at right).

Initially, ACS will use the technology in the 3D virtual chat environment IMVU, and probably later into  such virtual worlds as Second Life, Twinity, SMeet and Entropia Universe. voices_katrin_wflag

ACS has sold more than 1.2 million pieces of flash-enabled furniture in use in IMVU. Users of that furniture will be able access stre aming TTS immediately. Users who have not purchased furniture from ACS can still demo the VoiceForge TTS service provided they are in a room with flash-enabled ACS furniture. This opens up the TTS service to all 20 million current IMVU users.

“Cepstral’s VoiceForge service provides real-time surrogate voices for users,” said Guntram Graef, current CEO of ACS, founded by first virtual world, real-dollar “millionaire,” Anshe Chung (RL: Ailin Graef),  and based in Wuhan, China. “Their expansive voice variety is consistent with our mission to provide users with quality digital goods and online personality. Their elegant hosted solution made it a snap to integrate with our products. In looking for a voices_evilgenius_wflaglong-term partner, it was also important to us that Cepstral owns all their speech technology (demo) and drives innovation in th e speech technology field,”  he said .

“ACS approached us to provide this capability to their users,” Cepstral CEO Craig Campbell said. “They recognise that in a Virtual World, many users don’t want to use their real world voice when chatting. VoiceForge allows the user to match a voice to their avatar. A proper lady avatar can use the Southern Belle voice, while a more whimsical avatar might use the French-Fry voice.”

I find that the voices, although realistic, leave something to be desired when it comes to emphasis, intonation and timing and unable to fully get emotional content across. However, with the right spelling  – no typonese – and punctuation they are surprisingly good.

The SLENZ Update – No 40, January 20, 2009

Birth Centre takes shape

birth1_001The beginning …

The SLENZ project’s “ideal birthing unit” is taking shape quickly with the  basic walls constructed on the  floor plan and already trialed for ease of  avatar use (movement, camera views etc).

The trials were done by  Aaron Griffiths (SL: Isa Goodman), the Lead Developer for the SLENZ Project,  Deborah Davis (Aastra Apfelbaum) of the birthing unit design team and Sarah Stewart (Petal Stransky) (midwifery lead educator).

Griffiths, announcing progress on the build, said, “Consideration has been given to the fact that many of the users will be new to the SL environment. Therefore the overall plans have been scaled up to accommodate this in terms of  ‘room to move around’.

“Doorways have been made wider than they would be normally and the ceiling height extended for the same reason,” he said. “The central corridor, which contacts almost all the rooms has been given semi-transparent walls to allow users to view their surroundings and better orientate themselves, especially on occasions their camera crosses a wall boundary (the “my camera is here but where’s my  avatar” syndrome).

The build is taking place on Kowhai [the sim situated next to Koru(http://slurl.com/secondlife/Koru/156/122/27) ] which has been dedicated to the SLENZ project for both the midwifery and the foundation studies units

Believing the basic layout is now satisfactory the team has started  to “flesh out” the the detailed physical aspects of the build; cupboarding, mantels, furnishings, shelving etc., and the relationship of each object to the design in terms of its assistance of the  birthing process.

birthx_001Progress…

It’s not Google but …

What is claimed to be an unique virtual world search engine has  been developed by a team at the University of Teesside, UK. (http://www.tees.ac.uk/sections/news/pressreleases_story.cfm?story_id=2903&this_issue_title=January%202009&this_issue=188)

Although not yet live Meta-Mole.com (http://www.meta-mole.com/Default.aspx), the Meta-Mole, created by the Centre for Design in the Digital Economy (D-LAB) based within the University’s Institute of Digital Innovation, will ultimately be a dedicated searchable online resource for the 350 plus virtual worlds currently existing on the Internet.mole

‘We were analysing virtual world platforms and realised that there doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive service offering to list and compare key data for major 2D and 3D environments,” Philip McClenaghan, deputy director of D-LAB said. “This surprised us considering the current popularity of virtual worlds. We intend to fill the gap with the Meta-Mole.”

The Meta-Mole has been designed to help both new and experienced users looking for virtual world environments as well as platform developers who want to gauge competition through providing a searchable directory of available platforms, “easily definable according to the need of the user”, according to Dan Riley, a Metaverse Architect at D-LAB. All data contained within the Meta-Mole will be  provided by the platform developers themselves along with official images and videos. The Meta-Mole allows for the sharing and comparing of information and provides access to the latest core, technical and specialist features on current virtual worlds, as well as those in development.

The Meta-Mole will initially be released as a Beta version focusing on 3D virtual world platforms. Forterra, Blink 3D and Twinity are among those who have already uploaded their details.

Watch out for

Watch out for  Virtual World developments at the Uni of Auckland’s, Architecture and Planning School.  Judy Cockeram (JudyArx Scribe), a senior design tutor at the school,  is doing the ground work for a proposed  100-student  virtual world course in and about Architectural Media.

Recipe for success?

forterra-whitepaper

To prepare for the coming hard times in the real world  its worth reading a white paper authored by Chris Badger,VP Marketing, Forterra Systems Inc, entitled “Recipe for Success with Enterprise Virtual Worlds.” http://www.forterrainc.com/images/stories/pdf/recipe_for_success_10509.pdf

He notes that with the slashing of budgets for travel and gabfests, virtual world applications are significantly cheaper than video conferencing, telepresence, and travel, yet represent a more engaging and enjoyable learning medium than Web or audio conferencing and most Web-based learning content.

The study is based on a Masie Center Learning Consortium’s (a think-tank focused on enterprise learning and knowledge)  exploration of   learning use cases in a virtual world through the use of  a virtual world sandbox provided by Forterra and using  Forterra’s On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment(OLIVETM) software platform.

The balance of the white paper describes the use cases for Accenture and ACS Learning Services, the results of their efforts, the lessons learned, and the “recipe for success” going forward for new organisations considering how to convert their interest in virtual worlds to tangible field pilot programs that deliver business results.

Useful links

Links to transcripts of the weekly meeting of the SL Education Roundtable as well as transcripts of the annual EDUCAUSE Virtual Worlds sessions. All transcripts open in a new tab or window. http://homepage.mac.com/jessid/slroundtable/

Good free skins, shapes, hair, clothes etc for the newbies amongst us –

The Free Dove: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Gallii/113/54/33

The Changing Room for Women-Ladies at Noob Island: http://slurl.com/secondlife/NOOBISLAND/245/13/22

FREEBIES STORE of Free Union: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Thinktank/33/23/24

Free clothes etc – men and women in cubes: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Richmond/42/142/23

The SLENZ Update – No 20, October 30, 2008

From the top of my head!


It might be simplistic but it appears to me that Virtual Worlds, although attracting a claimed 160 million users around the world, need someone to recreate something like the virtual world equivalent of Tim Berners-Lee (Pictured -From Wikipedia) and Robert Cailliau’s 1990 WorldWideWeb browser for multi-user virtual environments to really take off.

I have an eerie sense of déjà vu when I look at Virtual Worlds today  and I think of the time when full text-database retrieval systems were taking off in the early 1980s and the dead-end pre-Web application, Videotex, was being promoted in competition with them.

There is no doubt that Videotex, developed to download data within the blanking interval on a television screen, but later used for online share trading and news services among other things, was easy to use with a box and a TV set but no one really had any idea how to make comprehensive text pages attractive and easy-to-use by everyman and woman, until the WorldWideWeb came along.

This was despite the fact that scads were spent around the world on travel, conferences, promotions and fact-finding for both online text retrieval and Videotex and other  retrieval systems.

The WorldWideWeb gave the world the information revolution it needed. It had a graphical user interface (GUI) but it could not display web pages with embedded graphics until the creation of NCSA Mosaic 2.0  by Marc Andreessen and Jamie Zawinski. NCSA Mosaic for Microsoft Windows, the Macintosh, and the Unix X Window System, enabled the average person to use the web.

I believe that MUVEs are currently in the same space that the Web was before Berners-Lee created his prototype. Today there is a need for an “universal VW browser and teleportation pad” to make sense of all the worlds and to link them all – or the majority of them – transparently, as Berners-Lee linked the pages on the web.

In education MUVEs could provide an enlightening learning environment for distance students but in countries like New Zealand this is problematic  because of  the lack of a generic  VW “browser”, bandwidth problems, inconsistent broadband line speeds that are often  little more than dial-up speeds  and spurious line speed claims and promotions by the two major ISPs -TelstraClear and Telecom – who have failed to keep up with the rest of the developed world although charging like wounded bulls for bandwidth usage (I believe because of their tardiness similar problems will face those who want to endulge in “cloud” computing in the New Zealand environment).

New Zealand’s ability to move into the 21st Century of Virtual Worlds  will probably be compromised until either the Kiwi telecommunications providers lift their game – or the Government takes over their game from them – and/or  a major part of any Virtual World content is able to  be held on the user’s desktop as it currently is on some of the more popular MMORPGs, which already provide  a better experience than most online virtual worlds.

Another solution could be provided by  the advent of Kiwi or other OpenSims and  the development of the ability to teleport with assets between virtual worlds,  the possibility of which has been demonstrated by Zha Ewry of IBM and Second Life

If trans world teleportation can be mastered one could  enter virtual world’s like Second Life or Twinity or Entropia to socialise with the world and  then via an inworld teleport point move backwards and forwards between your own inexpensive OpenSim “home” and the VW: it would be a “home” where you could do the same things one does in commercial virtual worlds and it would be home where you could invite guests at little cost.

SL not only English

Peak concurrent users of SL

Residents from non-English speaking nations make up almost 40 percent  of Second Life’s users, according to the latest metrics made available  by Linden Labs (http://secondlife.com/whatis/economy_stats.php).

The United States with almost 14 million residents or 40.13 percent, however, still makes up the bulk of residents, with Germany in second place a long way behind with 3.5 million users or 9.99 percent.

The United Kingdom has 2.3 million holds thrid place with 6.82 percent ahead of Japan, 6.1 percent, and France, 4.9 percent. Brazil, Canada, Netherlands and Italy each have well over a million users.

Australia is still in 11th place with 694,580 users or 2.01 percent.

Interestingly males have moved to the forefront of user hours, accounting for almost 60 percent of the time spent in SL.
On the age front the over 35s account for 48 percent of the usage hours and the 24-35 age group for almost 35 percent.

Total hours in SL

SL in our backyard?

Although it might not help Kiwi’s frame rates, access speeds or lag problems given  the paucity of our overseas internet pipes to Asia it appears we are about to get two Virtual World server farms almost in our backyard.

Second Life’s  Linden Lab has announced plans to locate servers in Singapore within the next six months in what might be seen as a ploy to upstage that other virtual world, the new Berlin-based  Twinity Beta,  which has also announced plans for a server farm in Singapore (http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_294972.html

Meanwhile Metaversum‘s Twinity Beta, which entered public beta a little more than one month ago appears to be moving ahead  and now already is claiming 50,000 real users.(http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2008/10/quick-stat-over-50000-users-in-twinity-beta.html)

With a virtual Berlin, Twinity already plans to launch a virtual London and Singapore later this year. Metaversum is also working with the government of Singapore on a mirror world project, Co-Space.

NASA selects three

The US space agency NASA has selected three teams to present proposals for its learning virtual world.

The teams being considered are MindArk, presenting Entropia Universe; Saber Astronautics, Nocturnal Entertainment, and Big World; and Project Whitecard and Virtual Heroes, according to Virtual World News (http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2008/10/nasa-selects-3-proposal-for-learning-virtual-world.html).

The teams are scheduled to give live presentations at the Goddard Space Flight Center on November 7.

The groups were selected from more than 100 which attended a workshop held in April to discuss needs and opportunities for the virtual world.

The project aims to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in colleges and high schools. Citing the longevity and adaptability  in addition to the ability to form communities as advantages for an MMO over a simpler educational game, NASA has said the selected team will fund the project internally, working on a licensing model from NASA, which will supply personnel and expertise.

VWN quoted MindArk director of special projects, Christian Björkman,  as saying “This opportunity to build the NASA MMO is very much in line with our strategy to enhance the learning aspects of the Entropia Universe Platform. It is a perfect way for us to work in collaboration with top academics and scholars to create a stimulating, challenging and educational experience.