Category Archives: Opinion

Second Life new user experience now with Experience Keys


Experience Keys are being used as a part of the new user experience

Experience Keys are being used as a part of the new user experience – click for full size (note viewer UI is intentionally turned off)

As a part of my periodic poking at things in Second Life, I recently logged-in using the avatar I keep “parked” at one of the Social  Islands which are the initial arrival points for new users, and  noticed that the Lab has added Experience Keys capabilities to the first-time log-in experience for new users as part of continuing efforts to improve the experience new arrivals have when arriving in-world for the first time.

For those not already in the know, and keeping things to their briefest, Experience Key (also referred to as Experience Tools) are a relatively new (and at the time of writing, yet to be fully deployed) feature that allow users to opt-in to an “experience”  – which could be a game, a tour, an educational activity, and so on – just once, rather than having to repeatedly grant specific permission each time something wants to act upon their avatar – such as a teleport offer, attaching an object, etc.  This means that the experience can be enjoyed much more fluidly and without the distraction of multiple dialogue boxes constantly popping-up. when the user leaves the experience area, their status in the experience is saved (e.g. their progress and items collected), all permissions are revoked, and all attachments removed.

Experience Keys in use as a part of the New User Experience

Experience Keys in use as a part of the New User Experience

Within the first-time log-in environment, Experience Keys are being used to help guide new users through the basic steps of using the viewer. The focus (at least at the time when i noticed the use of Experience Keys) is specifically on avatar movement. However, there is no reason why the approach couldn’t be expanded in the future to cover other aspects of viewer use, and other aspects of gaining familiarity with SL.

A key difference between the use of Experience Keys in the new user experience is that the HUD system is attached seamlessly when logging-in for the first time; there’s no initial pop-up dialogue box for the users to accept as they log in.

This is a good idea, as it avoids potential concern which might otherwise occur for a new user in having a potentially confusing / worrying dialogue box displayed as soon as they log-in, stating it wants to take control of this and that. Instead, the HUD attaches, and a couple of seconds later, the first pop-up displayed, providing a brief, basic overview of walking and turning.

In all, there are four pop-up hints given as the user progresses around Social island, each one appearing at an appropriate point in their travels. The hint on flying, for example, comes just ahead of the user reaching a broken bridge which should otherwise span a chasm.

The four pop-up helpers which appear as a part of the experience as the new user progresses around Social Island

The four pop-up helpers which appear as a part of the experience as the new user progresses around Social Island – click for full size

The process stops when the user passes through the portal leading to one of the Learning Islands, with the experience HUD detaching automatically as they do. Once at the Learning Island, things become more of the familiar mix (to those of us familiar with the new user experience, at least!) of potential confusion, wandering and poking at things in order to work out what to do, even with the help from established users, who have for a while now been able to access the Learning Islands (and some of whom can themselves be somewhat unhelpful, and do act as an illustration of the Lab’s misgivings on this area).

However, to stick with the use of Experience Keys, the current deployment is pretty basic, but it does offer a rough foundation on which more might be built. As such, I asked Peter Gray, the Lab’s Director of Global Communications about the use of the Experience Keys capability, and whether it might be extended within the new user experience.

“We’ve been using Experience Keys for some time with the new user experience,” Peter confirmed, before continuing, “We plan to continue to test and improve the new user experience, but at this time, we’re not able to share a pipeline for planned changes.”

The How To guide provide a range of information on movement, communications and other basic aspects of using the viewer - yet seems oddly overlooked; it is not opened by default on a first time log-in, nor are new users directed to it

The How To guide provide a range of information on movement, communications and other basic aspects of using the viewer – yet seems oddly overlooked; it is not opened by default on a first time log-in, nor are new users directed to it

How this might be done is a matter of speculation; Experience Keys certainly offer a raft of opportunities for easy learning activities along the lines of the old Orientation Islands of yesteryear, but with a potentially greater level of engagement and interaction.

As it is, the viewer does have a reasonably good introduction to the basics of using the viewer in the form of the How To guide (which has never seemed to really form a part of the various attempts to tweak the on-boarding process). It would be interesting to see the information this contains put to far better use, possibly as part and parcel of a more immersive, interactive means of guiding new users through the basics of the viewer utilising Experience Keys.

Getting to grips with the viewer is, of course, only one aspect of bringing new users into SL and getting them to stick – and it is one perhaps we focus on a little too much. The key to getting people to stay is to get them engaged in the platform – and that comes through positive interaction with others, preferably by helping them to find people within environments and activities which interest the incoming users.

This is perhaps a harder aspect of the problem to solve. However, as write Beau Hindman demonstrates in his recent video on the new user experience; there are options which might be considered. One in particular could be to direct incoming users more towards Experience Keys-led activities within SL, as more and more come on-stream, as it is likely these will tend to be something of a focus of established users as well, thus providing a potential mix of activity and interaction with others. It also fits with the Lab’s vision for on-boarding people in their Next Generation Platform.

As noted above, what is currently employed at the Social Islands is rudimentary; but it is also a start. Experience Keys will hopefully be fully deployed across the grid in the near future. Once that’s the case, it’ll also be interesting to see how the various mentor groups might leverage them to help new users as well.

A skewed perspective on Second Life

There are probably very few of us active within the blogsphere, either as writers or readers, who are not aware of the brouhaha which boiled-up over the course of the last week in response to Hamlet Au’s take on a recent article published in Atlas Obscura.

The latter offers a broadly positive look at Second Life, and drew praise from many SL users, including myself. However, Mr. Au’s take on the matter was to largely dismiss the Atlas Obscura piece as a “distorted” piece of journalism because it didn’t delve into the more pornographic aspects of Second Life sufficiently enough to be to his liking. Understandably, his view drew a considerable amount of flak by those actively engaged with the platform.

Wagner James

Wagner James “Hamlet” Au: a stereotypical view of the SL outsider

As a consequence of this, Mr. Au was invited to participate in an interview on show #68 of The Drax Files Radio Hour, to discuss his point of view. What’s interesting about his original article and the subsequent Radio Hour podcast is the way in which Mr. Au appears content to perpetuate a number of misconceptions about Second Life.

The first of these misconceptions is that the Adult rating equates to a region having “pornographic” content.

However, as Honour McMillan correctly states, “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.”

The second fallacy evident in Mr. Au’s argument comes at the 14:27 mark in the Drax Files Interview, in his suggestion that anyone can be unwittingly re-directed to an Adult environment and encounter avatars engaged in sex – and thus, the world needs to be told this is the case.

Yet by default, the viewer is set to display / allow access only to material that is rated General or Moderate in nature. Therefore, the only way for anyone to access an Adult rated region under any circumstance whatsoever, would be because they took the conscious decision to set their viewer to access Adult material. And let’s be honest here; while all Adult rated regions may not be pornographic in nature, the label on the setting itself makes it fairly obvious as to the type of content one might encounter as a result of enabling it.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that Mr. Au’s presentation that anyone can somehow inadvertently finish-up in an Adult rated area and catch people in flagrante delicto, as a matter of pure happenstance and through no direct action of their own, borders on the nonsensical, and he does himself a disservice in presenting the matter in this way.

Contrary to believe in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content - the default is General and Moderate only

Contrary to belief in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content – the default is General and Moderate only

A further fallacy voiced is the idea that because the “main assumption” among people at large is that Second Life is all about “weird sex”, then articles providing insight into Second Life must include an exploration of that “weird sex”.

However, while many who have heard about SL do perhaps think of it as a place for “weird sex”, the huge volume and diversity of content, pursuits, interests, activities and events available in Second Life would suggest that it is in fact a misconception.

Misconceptions aren’t dealt with through reinforcement – which is essentially what Mr. Au is advocating.

Misconceptions are dealt with by presenting reasoned counterpoints which encourage those holding them to re-evaluate their position / attitude. This is precisely what the Atlas Obscura article does, intentionally or otherwise; while acknowledging there are sexual activities and content in SL, it seeks to offer a broader view of Second Life that doesn’t play to, or reinforce, the stereotypical view. This isn’t in any way being “dishonest” or “misleading” as Mr. Au states – and again, he does himself a disservice by suggesting it is.

Tyche Shepherds Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures in this piece are taken

Tyche Shepherd’s Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures below are taken

And just how prevalent is all this “weird sex” anyway? On May 10th, 2015, there were 7,031 Mainland regions in SL, of which 346 were rated Adult. Given these are all located on the Adult continent of Zindra, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the larger portion of them is devoted to sexual content to one degree or another. Even so, that still amounts to less than 5% of the total Mainland content; hardly a preponderance. When the grid as a whole is considered, the figures are 25,460 region, of which 4986 are rated adult – that’s just 19.6%  – or to put it in Mr. Au’s parlance: “less than one-fifth”.

And (again) leave us not forget Honour McMillan’s sage words: “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.” Therefore, the actual number of pornographic regions accessible to those who have chosen to view adult content is liable to be somewhat lower than that “one-fifth”.

So where, really, does all this leave us?

The bottom line is actually pretty straightforward:  yes, there is a fair degree of sexual content and activity in Second Life. Just as there is on the Internet as a whole and in the physical world. However, the degree to which anyone coming into Second Life might be exposed to it is really hard to judge; unlike a wander through the streets of San Francisco (a parallel Mr. Au draws), where it is possible to accidentally and unwittingly stumble upon the seedier side of life, the degree to which one chooses to be exposed to the more sexual side of Second Life can be  controlled, greatly reducing the risk of any accidental or unwanted exposure to it.

This being the case, the suggestion that an article such as Eric Grundhauser’s piece in Atlas Obscura is either “distorted” in its presentation of Second Life or somehow “misleading” simply because it doesn’t delve into the sexual side of SL or play to the stereotype that SL is “all about the sex”, is itself a skewed perspective on Second Life.

With due respect to Hamlet Au, the approach he advocates is not good journalistic practice – but it could easily be interpreted as encouraging continued salacious titillation.

Related Reading

I’ve added the two links above, as they also had an impact on my thinking during the gestation of this article.

Altas Obsura offers a clear-eyed image of Second Life

Second Life has been enjoying something of a positive resurgence in the media in recent months, and with May now passing us by, and June and SL’s 12th anniversary  sitting just over the horizon, it is inevitable that there will be more media coverage forthcoming on SL as the Lab’s media team crank things up.

Eric Grundhauser: touring Second Life with Ziki Questi

Eric Grundhauser: touring Second Life with Ziki Questi

One of the first out of the gate in this regard is an article in Altas Obscura, which describes itself as the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places. Penned by Eric Grundhauser, Forgotten Wonders of the Digital World offers a positive insight on SL with a novel twist.

Rather than asking a few questions of the Lab or relying on images grabbed from Flickr and cobbled together with a little staggering around in-world, Eric Grundhauser is, with the assistance of the Lab, able to gain none other than Ziki Questi, photographer and blogger (together with her partner Kinn), to act as his guide to all that is, and can be found, in-world.

The result is an engaging and informed piece which neatly encapsulates SL’s history, presents an assured view of the platform devoid of the usual clichés and asides, and which focuses on the rich tapestry of content which can be found in-world – role-play, art, personal spaces, with even the broader uses of the platform touched upon, such as the US Army’s use of SL (and OpenSim) to help service personnel deal with PTSD. What’s more, with some of the images supplied by Ziki, the article looks good as well (Mr. Grundhauser’s own snaps aren’t too bad, and kudos to him for taking them, rather than seeking to raid an archive from 2008 or so!).

Ziki and I are a lot alike in terms of taste, so for me it was good to see RocheA Petrovsky Flux and Haveit Neox’s City Inside Out referenced in the article, with Insilico, Kowloon and The Far Away – which Ziki herself rescued from oblivion and now curates – also getting a mention (and photographs).

Roche, a favourite of mine, and featured in the Atlas Obscura article

Roche, a favourite of mine, and featured in the Atlas Obscura article

Such is the impact of his time in Second Life exploring with Ziki and Kinn, Mr. Grundhauser willingly re-evaluates his thinking about the world, while remaining open and honest:

To be honest, when I decided to delve into Second Life, I half-expected to find a dying world of outsiders and bronies gleefully recreating pornographic impossibilities. But that simply doesn’t seem to be true. What I found, and mind you, I was only able to visit a strikingly miniscule portion of the available spaces, was that Second Life is still a fascinating and vital world that is constantly changing and pushing the boundaries of what a virtual space can be…

More telling I think, is the somewhat widespread perception that Second Life is no longer an active digital playground. The Grid is still a vital and evolving space that hundreds of thousands of users create and evolve each day.

Nor is “the sex thing” shied away from – kudos again to Ziki for being open on that subject as well, and the fact that – just as in the physical world and the Internet as a whole – there is an awful lot of it in SL. But as Eric Grundhauser demonstrates very ably – with or without established guides – just because there is a lot of sex in-world, it doesn’t bean it’s the be-all and end-all of the platform. As he notes when describing the diversity of activities and those using SL:

Doctors, universities, hobbyists, sci-fi fans, artists, and inexplicable curiosities can all be found operating in SL, by those willing to look.

Well done to him for making the effort to delve into SL and spend time exploring and getting to know at least a couple of residents, rather than simply taking the hoary old trail of slapping a few outdated headlines (and images) together in an attempt to underline a preconception.

All told, a good, light read.

Related Links

With thanks to Ziki Questi for the advanced notification that this article was upcoming.

Oculus VR confirm: consumer headset to ship Q1 2016

On Wednesday, May 6th, Oculus VR confirmed the consumer version of their headset will commencing shipping in the first quarter of 2016, with pre-ordering due to start later in 2015.

  The news broke via a press release from Oculus VR, and Tweets from Oculus VR, Palmer Luckey, and the company’s Vice President of Product  Nate Mitchell (shown on the right).

The announcement ends months of speculation on when the consumer version of the headset might be available, with many originally predicting it would be ready for Christmas 2014 and then Christmas 2015. Despite such speculation, Oculus VR has always carefully avoided mentioning any approximate idea release dates. As I reported in these pages, even as recently as November 2014, Oculus VR Brendan Iribe was playing down any idea of any (then) near-term release of the headset:

We want to get it right. We really do. We’ve gone out there and we’ve set this bar and said, “we are going to get it right, and we’re not going to ship until we get it right” … We’re getting very close … We want it to be a beautiful product; there’s no reason it can’t be a beautiful product … so we still have a way to go, and we’re still working on a number of things, but we’re getting much closer. We like to say it’s months, not necessarily years, away [but] it’s many months, not a few months.

Click for full size

That something might be afoot by way of announcements was initially hinted at in a May 5th Tweet in which Palmer Luckey commented I love it when a plan comes together!

This brought an inevitable run of replies, many seeing it as a hint about the Oculus CV1 (as the consumer version of the headset has sometimes been referred to), including the humorous response seen on the right regarding the headset’s form factor.

Details of the headset are rather scant in the announcement and the images a little on the dark side (I’ve lightened the contrast on them below), with the release merely stating:

The Oculus Rift builds on the presence, immersion, and comfort of the Crescent Bay prototype with an improved tracking system that supports both seated and standing experiences, as well as a highly refined industrial design, and updated ergonomics for a more natural fit.

No details on pricing or quite when in 2015 people will be able to start pre-ordering the headset, and there are certainly no details on the technical aspects of the headset. However, one potentially interesting aspect of the announcement has already sparked some speculation, as it refers to the upcoming release as, “a fully-integrated hardware/software tech stack designed specifically for virtual reality”. This has prompted Techcrunch to comment:

There’s no mention of a third-party computer necessary to power the Rift, which previous Oculus developer kits required. That means the Rift might ship with a game console-esque device to handle computing for the headset. An all-in-one box could make virtual reality much more accessible to consumers, especially those who don’t own a high-grade gaming PC.

A front view of the Oculus consumer version (courtesy of Oculus VR)

A front view of the Oculus consumer version (courtesy of Oculus VR)

In terms of specification, the announcement was equally enigmatic, stating, “we’ll be revealing the details around hardware, software, input, and many of our unannounced made-for-VR games and experiences coming to the Rift”, with the last part of this statement leading Techcrunch to also speculate whether Oculus VR might also announce a line of in-house developed games to go with the launch.

Given the backgrounds of many of those involved in the company, such an idea might not be wild speculation. As it is, it is already known that Oculus VR is helping to develop immersive movie experiences. Furthermore, in February 2015 it was confirmed that Facebook is developing VR apps, with Chief Product Officer Chris Cox saying that experiences as varied as flying a fighter jet to sitting in a Mongolian yurt would serve as inspiration, and describing the technology as “sending a fuller picture … You’ll do it, Beyoncé will do it”. Ergo, Oculus VR-branded games are not beyond the realm of possibly.

What the announcement does more-or-less mean is that unless something unexpected happens, the Oculus Rift will definitely be available after HTC / Valve have started shipping their own Vive headset, which looks set to hit the market around the same time as Samsung’s  (Oculus-enabled) Gear VR2, towards the end of 2015.

A view from under the Oculus consumer version (courtesy of Oculus VR)

A view from under the Oculus consumer version (courtesy of Oculus VR)

While there has been a lot of hype about the possible demand for what is effectively a first generation headset from Oculus VR, there have also been some notes of caution sounded in some quarters. As notes, Ben Schachter, a Macquarie Research analyst wrote to Facebook investors, stating:

While there is not yet any info on pricing or available units, we expect relatively small number of units and think that the initial device will be supply constrained. We think that the early versions of the device will be more about showing what is possible from gaming and other entertainment genres, and build demand for later versions of the device.

Mr. Schachter isn’t alone. While price may no longer be a limiting factor in obtaining a headset, Jacki Morie, herself a VR pioneer (and whose work has been featured in this blog a number of times) recently warned that care should be taken in how the potential for VR is promoted, in particular pointing to things like an Oculus VR sponsored art contest as a means to send out completely the wrong message about VR to a wider mass market audience and potentially damaging the technology’s credibility as a useful tool.

I actually doubt the wheels will seriously come off the cart with VR this time around, bad marketing campaigns and the like notwithstanding, although Jacki clearly has a point about getting the right message out there in the first place. However, I do tend to think that Mr. Schachter’s comment about the build-up of demand is well put. VR will profoundly alter many ways of doing things for all of us in time; but the the speculation and hype that will not follow Oculus VR’s announcement aside, it’s still going to be a few years or so before we see VR as being as ubiquitous a piece of technology in our daily lives as we do the mobile ‘phone today.