Second Life seeks mainstream adoption

Linden Lab, which develops and operates Second Life introduced a new beta version of its desktop viewer software on Tuesday, the first big upgrade in many years. Will the new software help bring about a renaissance of the once-trendy service?

You remember Second Life. It's a virtual world, a three-dimensional environment like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto. But it's not a game, it's a simulation of a world. You can build virtual buildings and vehicles, create virtual clothes, play live music, role-play as a vampire or cowboy, and buy and sell virtual goods for real-world money. It's the closest thing we have now to Star Trek's holodeck.

Second Life drove a huge amount of hype in 2006-2007, with many tech journalists predicting it was the future of the Internet and would be bigger than the World Wide Web. Then, like a lot of hyped things, the Second Life bubble collapsed. Now, Second Life has a reputation as a failure.

That reputation is, quite simply, wrong. Second Life continues to keep a loyal user base, which has been growing, albeit in fits and starts, since it was out of the limelight. The service is now running 680,000 active users, defined as users who spend more than an hour in-world any given month, said Tom Hale, chief product officer for Linden Lab, in an interview in Second Life on Monday. That's not competing with the Web, or even Facebook, but it's respectable.

Second Life is also profitable, Hale said. The service is free to use, Linden Lab gets revenue from people who want to lease space on the company's servers to host their own virtual islands and tracts of land.

Now, Linden Lab is looking to bring the service the mainstream appeal that eluded it. They want to make Second Life a hit, starting by increasing active users by 40%, to 1 million, by the end of 2010. The dream over the long term: Linden Lab wants Second Life to be bigger than Facebook. Much bigger.

"We have a long way to go until we reach Facebook scale, but that's a reasonable goal," Hale said. "However, I'm not going to sign up for those numbers until we have ample evidence that the market is ready to see that kind of adoption."

As a first step, Linden Lab released the new beta software today. Download Second Life Viewer 2.0 here.

I've been using the beta for a couple of weeks now, and Linden Lab has succeeded in its immediate goal of making the software much easier to use.

The previous version of the Second Life Viewer had accumulated a lot of cruft over the years, as new features and shortcuts got layered on in bits and pieces. The overall effect was to make the viewer disorganized and confusing.

Viewer 2.0 is far more organized than before, and that makes it easier to use. It brings the most important functions to the surface, while less frequently used tools are hidden in menus, available when needed but not jumping out to confuse the beginner.

The top of the viewer now looks like a Web browser, with an address bar that contains the 3D coordinates of your avatar's location, in a form resembling a URL. As with a Web browser, you can embed bookmarks ("landmarks" in Second Life jargon), in the horizontal space below the address bar.

The bottom bar is now devoted to your communications. You have a text-chat window at the left, with a button to activate SL Voice immediately next to that. On the right side of the bottom bar are notices for incoming instant messages and group notices.

The notification system was a particular focus for improving the viewer, Hale said. Previously, group notices appeared in the top-right corner, and you had to click to dismiss each one. They hung in the air, blocking part of the viewer, until you dismissed them, which was distracting if you were trying to concentrate on something else. Instant-messages got mixed in with group chat, which made it confusing whether messages were private or public.

Now, the group notices and IMs hang in the air a few seconds, and then disappear if you don't interact with them, although you'll still have a tiny icon in the bottom-right of the display letting you know they're there and waiting for you to click on them at your leisure. And IMs are displayed separately from public chat.

A new, vertical panel on the right side of the display contains tools that allow you to manage your friends' list, inventory, landmarks, and view a dashboard of information from Linden Lab. The right panel sticks out when you need it, and slides into the right edge of the viewer when you don't.

Two major features I didn't get a chance to test: You can embed Web pages and media on in-world objects. That will let you gather around your Second Life home with your friends and watch videos together on YouTube or Hulu. Or a first-life company could put its corporate Web page on a Second Life billboard. Avatars can interact with the Web page in Second Life, scrolling, clicking and filling out forms.

The second feature: A newly enhanced search. That's very important to the future of Second Life, Hale said. Second Life has a very poor retention rate for new users, the overwhelming majority of people who try it never come back. One reason for that is that the user interface is too difficult, and Linden Lab hopes Viewer 2.0 is designed to fix that. Another reason is that users can't find anything to do, or anyone to interact with, and Linden Lab hopes the new search will solve that problem as well.

All in all, the viewer is much easier to use, and that was Linden Lab's aim when designing it. The goal was to create a viewer simple enough so that newcomers to Second Life don't get scared off. Time will tell whether Linden Lab has achieved its goal, but I like the viewer.

Linden Lab is continuing its support for open source. It's updating Snowglobe, its official open-source viewer, to incorporate Viewer 2.0 upgrades, and launching a directory of sanctioned third-party Second Life viewers.

Linden Lab says it has a series of announcements over the next few months, intended to drive the service further into the mainstream.

Recently, Linden Lab made a couple of preliminary announcements to help the drive. In November, Linden Lab launched open beta for Second Life Enterprise, a private version of the service that companies can run behind their own firewalls, for meetings and training; at that time, the service was used by 1,400 organizations for training, meetings, conferences and team-building. And, on the consumer side of the service, Linden Lab launched Linden Homes, giving Premium users, who pay $9.95 per month, their own basic home in the service.

Will Second Life ever become popular? Many users think so, and spend significant time on blogs defending the service against skeptics.

I used to struggle with the issue myself.

On the one hand, I want Second Life to become ubiquitous for all sorts of reasons. It seems to be part of the nature of technology enthusiasts, like myself, to have a streak of evangelism in them. We want to share the things we love. We want everyone to love them.

On the other hand, I can't deny the evidence: After seven years, Second Life is a niche activity. Moreover, virtual worlds, of which Second Life is one, have been around for at least a quarter of a century, starting with text-based MUDs and MOOs. During that time, evangelists have predicted that virtual worlds would become universal. But they never did, they've always remained a niche activity.

A few weeks ago, I decided to let go of struggling with the issue. I don't know whether Second Life and virtual worlds will become mainstream. I expect that some elements will inevitably become standard, particularly the idea of having shared experiences over distance, simultaneously, mediated by the Internet. You can see that happening now whenever people sit down to a a Skype video conference with Grandma, or watch TV shows in separate locations while chatting about the show on AIM. But will hundreds of millions of people put on avatars and fly around in a virtual landscape?

I don't know. But I do know I've gotten a lot of value out of my Second Life experience, and that's enough for me. For now at least.

If you're in Second Life, look me up; my avatar name is "Mitch Wagner," same as my real name.

Screenshots below. The first is the new viewer, the second, for comparison, is the old one, with the name on an incoming notification redacted for privacy. Below that, a YouTube video from Linden Lab giving an overview of changes to the Viewer 2.0 software; current Second Life users will want to check it out. 

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