In this entry, I'm going to be talking about barriers to entry into Second Life, and some ways we can get around them. As observed by a variety of blogs, we seem to have leveled off at about 42,000 concurrent users, and we have a very high (90%) attrition rate of new users to Second Life. Judging by the raw account numbers, it seems signups have slowed down from their break-neck 20% per month pace, as well.
It would seem obvious to me that there are some barriers to usage in place that are preventing even more people from accessing and enjoying Second Life. These are things we need to address if we want Second Life to become a ubiquitous Metaworld platform.
But first, something really cool.
Thanks to Mark Wallace at 3pointD for alerting me to this:
3-D input device created as small as a ring
The reasons I love this:
- It's student-made.
- The device is lightweight and fits on your finger
- This is the first thing I've seen that has a potential to be inexpensive 3-D input device that isn't clunky.
Also, the students are going to have to miniaturize the receiver device. I can imagine something like the Wii's IR-bar clipping to the edge of a monitor.
This sort of device could pave the way to doing much more elaborate 3-D interfaces in ways that are still intuitive for user navigation. Case in point: Amazon.
What I'd Do With Amazon.com
During Virtual Worlds 2007, Millions of Us CEO and former Linden Labber, Reuben Steiger, stated, to paraphrase, that 2-D interfaces will never be replaced by 3-D in some cases. While I agree on principle, I disagree with his example: Amazon.com
I shop Amazon for stuff like books or DVDs, and it's useful for when I know what I'm looking for, or at least the artist / author I'm looking for. However, I just can't browse Amazon worth a dang. Where Reuben can't imagine Amazon.com in 3-D, to me it's obvious that just because we may not be able to visualize technology, doesn't mean it won't exist. That to me is a signal that we're getting closer to a technological singularity, not that we're saturating our interface technology to a point of perfection.
First and foremost, Amazon in 3-D will likely try and recreate a real shopping experience. I say this for a few reasons:
- It's easy to imagine
- People are going to malls less, but missing the experience of shopping at stores
- There has been hundreds of years of experience and research into how shoppers shop in 3-D meatspace. That knowledge will transfer (though not 1:1) to 3-D Virtual space.
- Think about X-Y-Z. (in SL coordinates, where X is forward, Z is up, Y is lateral) Perhaps the Y-axis is books by the same author. Perhaps the Z-Axis is books similar in topic / genre. The X-Axis could be older versions of the book, or other languages, or different formats. (Audio, large-text, paperback, hardcover, etc).
- Keep book covers as thumbnails, but think 3-D "book covers". As you hover your mouse / click on book covers, they could expand into 3-D dioramas, using basic holo-rezzer technology. (Reminds me, tonight I need to document my Mutable Spaces holo-rezzer and open source it.)
- Allow users to customize their own portal using a dynamic HUD device to have access to the traditional website, 3-D, 2-D and text based information, and sort their 3-D visualization in any number of ways.
- Populating a local shopping cart and then pushing all data to a web-interface all at once. Once SL gets HTML, this becomes seamless.
What makes Second Life popular?
It's a combination of a 3-D immersive environment, protection of individuals' IP rights and ability to assert them through a virtual, yet stable in-world economy, and interfaces to real-world applications and data. 4 things: 3-D, money, IP, connections. Got that?
I mention this because while Second Life has a lot of the right stuff to be a popular platform, it has barriers to entry. And this is precisely how topic #1 relates to topic #2.
One major barrier to entry is the interface, and the associated learning curve. Lightweight, intuitive controllers like the prototype 3-D ring mouse will make new users able to more quickly jump into a 3-D environment. This is really important because while 3-D is a very intuitive space to reside in and understand from a conceptual, human point of view, it isn't necessarily an easy space to navigate. New users literally have to be taught how to walk, talk, and fly.
Playing with better hardware interfaces are part of a solution, but only one side of the equation. At the same time, we need to work on improving our software interface, i.e. the SL browser.
It's a Browser, Not a Game
Most centrally, I think the crux of what needs to improve with the SL interface is that SL, right now, works like a game interface. You act always through an avatar proxy who walks, flies, touches, rides vehicles, etc. This is great for an immersive SL, but the Metaverse is something more. Since SL derives so much from connecting to the real Internet, and since SL is eventually supposed to supplement the Internet, it seems appropriate that our interface ought to behave much more like an Internet browser.
This has a variety of facets, which off the top of my head, I'd include HTML, a customizable interface, built-in Jabber compatible chat, etc. Many of these things are in works, so I'd like to touch upon one aspect that I have not yet in my blog: Passive Browsing.
Passive Browsing as Emergent Behavior
Also known as "ghost mode", Passive Browsing would let SL browsers (clients) access content in Second Life without rendering any avatars. "Ghost Mode" is a misnomer, really, because it assumes that "You can see other people, and they can't see you". This is not what I'm suggesting. What I'm suggesting is catering to emergent behavior of the real Internet and incorporate those aspects into SL.
Interaction with avatars is something I focus on with my professional builds, but at the same time, not everything requires having an avatar. Going back to the Amazon.com idea, I really don't need an avatar to browse through Amazon's wares. Having it in 3-D would be a boon, as I've pointed out, but the avatar only gets in the way.
So the point is this - we have this huge Internet with billions of pages, and we have a way that people like to surf it. While there are definitely new ways to explore data that Second Life is providing, why would we force the public to abandon all of that existing behavior? We've spent over 15 years figuring out just how to best tailor the Internet to make usage easy. Why would we throw away that wisdom?
It seems obvious to me that we should be able to incorporate that knowledge into Second Life, and make our 3-D platform a much more robust, comprehensive tool.
Barrier Lowered: Easier Learning Curve
Why not, instead, let people set to avatarless, Passive Browsing mode? Suddenly, there's no inventory, no instant message window, no friend list, no build tool. What remains is a much simpler, intuitive interface. New users intimidated by all the features of Second Life now have much less to deal with, starting off, and have a much lower technological barrier of entry.
Barrier Lowered: Easier on Network and Graphics Requirements
Better yet, a Passive Browsing mode would mean much lighter hardware and bandwidth requirements, since avatars add both a significant amount of network lag as well as complexity to render. Without having to worry about what avatars are showing up to their land, owners would have complete control over all things on their parcel, and could tailor content to be much less graphics and network intensive.
While computers have dropped in price since SL has started, there graphics and CPU requirements of SL are still above a great deal of computer users. This becomes an even larger issue as we leave the Western world and into countries with less wealth. Bandwidth has the same issue, and is a problem in the US, as well, where rural areas have trouble getting high-speed Internet access. Alleviating both of these by lowering requirements means a far greater number of people will have access to Second Life.
(Thanks celebrity for reminding me about this part.) Remember Network is also about load on the servers. If a server isn't having to manage all of the cross-connects between users to see one another, then we're also looking at an increase in the number of people who can simultaneously view content. I couldn't guess to the amount this will be true, but even a 2-fold increase would be beneficial.
Barrier Lowered: Psychological Resistance, aka "I don't play online games!"
Another significant barrier to entry is the fact that many, if not most people consider virtual worlds to be games. People won't touch Second Life because when they think of it, the closest thing in their mind that they understand would be World of Warcraft. To them, Second Life is silly, trivial, and/or just not interesting. Instead, having the SL be able to act more like a browser, people could come in, not feel super intimidated, and when they are ready, then go ahead and start up their avatar.
Barrier Lowered: "I don't want my kid interacting with people online unsupervised."
Along the lines of the last advantage, there will be responsible parents who may feel their child is too young to interact with strangers over the Internet. While age verification is one good step, we have to realize that the real Internet isn't PG-13, it's intended for everyone. So while an 8-year old in Second Life would definitely need to be restricted to G-Rated content, they additionally may need to have their avatars turned off. This is a concern I've heard raised by many people, who are interested in providing virtual world content for young people as a rich learning environment, but who don't want to expose them to the risks of interacting with people on the Internet.
Passive Browsing, or "Ghost Mode" raises red flags with people. Many people I've discussed this with are highly resistant to the idea because they see it as a privacy issue. I think the easiest and most obvious way to assuage these concerns are adding a parcel flag that could restrict users by whether they have avatar mode on or off.
I might add that with the open source client, it's inevitable that people will develop ways to go around this anyway, so this is a larger security issue that will have to be addressed regardless of whether there is Passive Browsing mode, or not.
Others don't like how this breaks the immersive element of Second Life. This is the same stubborn rejection of Second Life interacting with the Internet. This should not be seen as restricting ability in SL; instead, this is adding new functionality to use SL in new ways. It should be viewed as augmenting SL's capabilities for people who would use it other than specifically in an immersive way. (Going back to the Amazon example to prove there are major, legit ways where this can be true.)
Passive Browsing Summary
So we have a list of reasons why passive browsing would be beneficial:
- Lighter hardware and bandwidth requirements for some users
- Removing some psychological barriers for some potential users
- Adding abilities to better control your 3-D environment
- Simplifying the interface for instances that don't need a full avatar browser
- Extending Second Life to younger audiences