Citizens of Second Life, the online virtual world, have until now communicated silently via instant messaging and chat. They will soon be given the power of speech. Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, announced Tuesday it will add voice capabilities to the Second Life grid. The new feature is “part of an ongoing drive toward creating a richer, more immersive virtual environment,” according to the company.
“The addition of voice marks a natural progression in the ongoing evolution of Second Life,” said Joe Miller, vice president, platform and technology development at Linden Lab. “We believe voice is a transformative technology that will change the way residents communicate, and will lend more immediacy and dynamism to their interaction with others.
“For example, academic institutions could use the voice feature of Second Life to carry out lectures, corporations could use it for customer training and friends can simply catch up with each other,” he added.
Next week, the company will roll out a limited beta for 1,000 users. That will be followed by a “grid-wide” beta test, which will allow all Second Lifers to try the voice communication feature. Linden Lab plans to unveil the final version during the second quarter of 2007.
The Game of Life
More than simply an online game, Second Life is a 3D virtual world built and owned by its residents. More than 4 million people inhabit the virtual playground and interact with one another using avatars — digital representations of themselves — at the basic level. However, less than 200,000 residents are paying users, Michael Cai, principal analyst at Parks Associates, told TechNewsWorld.
Using a variety of tools, Second Lifers can express themselves creatively by doing such things as building a mansion, designing clothes, and inventing tools and weapons. Since money is a necessity even in a virtual environment, residents can build amusement parks and shopping malls, charge for admission or rent, respectively, and amass a virtual fortune and make money in the real world.
Many online game players spend a lot of time in the virtual world — buying and selling items and creating a strong economic component to what for many is much more than a game, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.
“It is the place to go to see virtual worlds work,” Enderle said. “It has received a lot of coverage and seems targeted at a more mature audience than most of the alternatives, which primarily target kids.”
A spate of media attention has increased the popularity of Second Life and other virtual realities. However, the attraction of virtual environments, said Cai, stems from the fact that they are more than just a fun alternative reality for many inhabitants.
“Second Life is definitely becoming popular with all the mainstream media attention,” he said. “Virtual world games are getting a lot of attention because they are not ‘games.’ In fact, they may not be regarded as games by many.”
Several universities hold classes in the virtual world, bringing together students from around the globe. In addition, well-known businesses, including American Apparel, Sire Records and singer Regina Spektor, as well as smaller businesses and nonprofits such as Neo-Realms Entertainment, Crescendo Design and Global Kids, have set up shop in Second Life.
“[Virtual worlds] are also advertising and [promotional] platforms, collaboration platforms, software development environments, online communication platforms, environments for testing new ideas for the real world, virtual sex playgrounds and potentially new content distribution platforms,” Cai continued.
In that context, Cai explained, having voice is very important. Although people who see Second Life as simply a game may not be keen to use their voice because it might “ruin the virtual aspect of the game” for those looking for an alter-ego experience, people who use it as a collaboration and communications platform will definitely value voice.
“Suddenly, Second Life is poised to become a potential upcoming competitor for (VoIP providers) Skype and Webex,” Cai said. “The bigger question is whether the addition of voice support will attract new users to Second Life or its just new value added for existing users,” he added.
Integrated voice will be available to all Second Life residents; however, the function will only be available under the auspices of landowners. Owners of private islands and mainland property owners will be able to choose whether to enable voice on their land.
Second Lifers can use the voice chat function in group mode, which allows them to automatically start speaking and enables up to 100 users within their immediate surroundings to hear them. Also available are group conference calls, which give two or more residents the ability to communicate with large groups across “geographical boundaries.” Users who want to engage in a private one-on-one chat can also do so. Initiated by instant message, the private calls can take place on any land, whether it is voice-enabled or not.
The new form of communication will be a boon for those who find texting arduous, Enderle noted. However, he sees problems for others who rely on text messages for relative anonymity and for group communications.
“Personally, I hate having to write everything I’m saying, but some folks like to gender-change, and voice has been a problem for them,” he said. “Also, you can get a lot of people typing and kind of follow along. You get a lot of folks trying to talk at once and both the noise and the latency can drive you nuts.”
Overall, however, integrated voice will add realism to the virtual world and increase the popularity of such sites as more and more businesses and schools take up residence, Enderle stated. Users will also benefit as the number of virtual worlds expands.
“This is all part of evolving the virtual world into something that better mirrors the real one,” he concluded. “We already are seeing other properties pop up and they are derivatives of gaming based MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) without the game part, like ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘City of Heroes.’ Another of these is www.there.com and there is also Entropia, where they actually allow you to earn real money.”