The Pitfall of Early Adoption

Anyone who reads this blog has probably figured out that I have a great deal of respect and admiration (as well as a bit of envy) for the Oldbies of Second Life. It’s a prime reason why I jumped into InWorldz with both pixel feet, too: to be a pioneer in a new world, and leave my mark on it… and yes, to sit back in my rocker a few years from now, boring the young’ns with stories of byegone days and basking in the senescent glow of Oldbiedom.

The history I’ve uncovered, however, isn’t all about pioneers in a new land… it’s also about first users/customers of a service that’s — often painfully — in beta. Second Life made a lot of blunders down blind alleys in its earliest days, mostly while trying to “monetize”… and each time they said “Oops, that didn’t work, let’s try this instead,” someone was trying to hang them for being social engineers as well as money-grubbers.

So, while I envy the Oldbies for blazing the social trails and building the first “layer” of cultural artifacts on the Grid, at the same time I’m content to have not lived through the upheaval of Linden Lab’s early experiments in overseeing the world. You might also recall that I tried out another closed-beta virtual world scheme with the unfortunate handle of “Project X”… compared to that bunch, the first crop of Lindens were social and marketing geniuses.

What I’m getting to is this: if a service of any kind (not just a virtual world) tells you it’s in beta, take them at their word. Expect stumbles and false starts; expect one hand not necessarily to know what the other is doing; expect policy development to lag behind features; expect more bugs in the administration than the code.

Google+ Beta has been live for… what, a week now? And already, there’s a problem. With apologies to Opensource Obscure, the problem is superficially about his account being suspended because Google says it violates their community standards, without clearly saying how (perhaps it’s the use of “Opensource”?). Peel back a layer, and the problem seems to stem from a certain (intentional?) ambiguity in those standards, as they apply to account names. In my opinion, the problem’s true taproot is in unrealistic expectations in the minds of the early adopters.

“Here, finally,” it was widely said a mere few days ago, “is the Facebook killer! Surely they will respect our chosen identities, which hundreds of us have used within, and integrated through, other Google services (Gmail, Blogger, Picasa, Reader, etc.) for years!” And, without paying much heed to the failures of both Wave and Buzz, they — including me — jumped into Google+ with both pixel feet.

Who promised us that Google would be any more indulgent of avatarian identity than Facebook has been? Or, did we delude ourselves with our own early adopter enthusiasm? Who expected a beta product to work — and be administered — right out of the box like a final rollout? Or, did we only see the good half of Google’s reputation for product development, and rely on what has been reported as a full year of in-house alpha testing — while forgetting that the in-house environment had no conception whatsoever of the kind of alternate identity we avatars live by?

No one should need to be reminded of this, but, for the record: Google is a business. It makes money selling advertising space crammed into the “free” services we sign up for. Advertisers want the biggest bang for their buck, which they get with narrowly-targeted placement matched to the aggregated online behaviors of individual users: what they search for, and where from (using Google); which blogs and webpages they read regularly (using Google Analytics, Reader, and Friend Connect); what geolocation and names are tagged in photographs (uploaded to Picasa)…

Get the picture? We all railed loud and long about Facebook’s data-mining, and how since avatarian identities foil their plans to aggregate users with purchasing information, they want nothing to do with us. Google is the 800-kiloton gorilla, the originator of the practice, the main reason it’s what everyone does now… why did we early adopters of Google+ expect anything different from them?

~

Meanwhile… from inside Google+, it’s beginning to look a little like the spamathon when SL bought Avatars United. I’m being added to circles by genuine friends and acquaintances, of course, but also by complete strangers, and at least one who I deliberately ignore… and there are 500 people in the “suggested” category!  Some of them I know by name and reputation alone, most I’ve never heard of, and many aren’t even avatars!

~

While I’ve been slogging through the draft of this post, Honour McMillan has already trumped me, in her usual brilliant tongue-in-cheek style. Go read this, right now: Don’t Panic! Avatars do not carry the Plague, Cooties or even the Swine Flu.

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Alpha-Beta Soup

This post was intended to be Part 3 of a look at Micazook’s closed-beta Project X. But, the feedback I got from Mikey (both in the comments to Part 2, and by email) made me realize something: it’s too early to be engaging in any sort of meaningful evaluation of that project, and any more speculation is fruitless. There are too few facts on the virtual ground from which to extrapolate.

This is my first time beta-testing anything, so maybe the bar of my expectations was set too high. It was, after all, based on archived reportage and reminiscences of Second Life’s beta phases, plus a few blogs about the first days of Blue Mars. Those two examples could define a pair of scales upon which to compare other virtual world startups: one of graphic content, and one of activity available to the user. Graphic content is probably an unfair comparison anyway; Second Life and Blue Mars use entirely different engines to render their content, and their beta phases were separated by 7 years’ worth of technological advancement in hardware and software. Even so, the initial consensus about Blue Mars’ closed-beta was, “It’s gorgeous, but there’s nothing to do besides look at it.” Second Life, on the other hand, developed plenty to do while in its alpha “Linden World” phase before moving to closed beta, though the graphics were less than stellar, even for their time.

OpenSimulator should also be mentioned, while taking care not to concatenate it with the many virtual worlds that use it — a mistake made all too often. OpenSim is the server software; not the grid, and not the viewer. On their main (wiki) page, they state clearly that “OpenSimulator is still considered alpha software…” and yet in many ways it operates as well as the Second Life server code upon which it is based, and is accessed through many of the latest versions of SL-compatible viewers.

All of the above can be summarized simply: “alpha” and “beta” phases of software development are arbitrary labels assigned by the developers. There is no independent standard by which one offering can be compared to another from a different project. All such comparisons, therefore, are in the “eye of the beholder”, are necessarily as arbitrary as the labels themselves, and perhaps inherently unfair.

As has been emphasized often, Micazook are four guys coding in their spare time, whose other work has been in game design for mobile phones. Project X began its “alpha” some time in 2004. Samples of its graphic quality can be found here, and in my previous two posts. At present, in its closed-beta phase, you can do the following in it: stand, walk, run, chat, customize your avatar’s look to an extent, and play “Texas Hold ’em”. You can also use a clever function in the menu to submit suggestions for improvements and added features, and to vote in favor of others’ suggestions, while in-world — a feature other VW’s should think about adopting.

Plans for Project X’s future are in the minds of its developers. I will be asking them directly, and reporting their answers here. Speculation, on the other hand, is not worth the writing time.


"Project X": First Impressions, Part 2

In Part 1, I referenced an interview granted by Micazook’s co-founder/managing director Michael Fotoohi (“Mikey” in-world) to Victor Keegan of The Guardian in October of last year. Here’s some more from it:

Buildings further away become 3D shells as his team hasn’t the resources to fill in details.

Bryant Park, 6th Ave. at 41st St., with the NY Public Library beyond
[source: Google Maps street view]
6th Ave. @ 41st, Project X

How can he get around this? Simple. Anyone, anywhere can build on the 3D foundations of any mapped house [sic] in the world. He wants it to be the Wikipedia of a 3D internet with a revenue stream to finance expansion which their own company, micazook.com, can’t afford. When those who build houses get to a trusted level they can become moderators, just as happens with Wikipedia.

This is where I begin to have difficulty understanding the purpose of Project X. Obviously, one purpose is to turn Micazook into a major player in the virtual world business, so they can leave their day jobs and devote all of their time to Project X (or whatever its final name becomes)… but what’s the motive for a participant?  “[T]he Wikipedia of a 3D internet” isn’t much to hang a speculation on, but I’m going to try anyway, with the initial assumption that all of the creation tools needed are in place:

You, the user, lay claim to one of those “3D shells” (no idea yet how that process will work). Then you locate exterior views of the real building, from which to create textures for the exterior faces, as the Micazook guys have done with some of Times Square. Then, by way of the Map Editor (currently, another of those “Coming Soon!” features), you can annotate the building with Wikipedia-like information, accessible by clicking on it (where’s the first iteration of that information most likely to come from?  The current 2D Wikipedia, of course).

I can see the appeal, in a theoretical sort of way. As of this writing, there are 12,356,270 named (registered) accounts at Wikipedia, which doesn’t count the anonymous unregistered contributors. The fraction of those who concentrate on places on Earth is unavailable, but 1/12 still yields a million potential users: the particular sort of nerd* who enjoys that sort of knowledge-sharing activity.  One can imagine that many of those might not be as interested in creating an “entry” in the 3D wiki — i.e., a replica place in Project X — as much as they would contributing to its metacontent later, but one can also imagine a cadre of people who would, by natural proclivity, focus on the creation and leave the annotation to others.

I’m tempted to stake out Bryant Park [see above] as my first project. For one thing: as every urban planner knows, people need green spaces. The psychological benefits are not lessened by virtue of the space being virtual. For another thing: the results, if successful, will permit avatars to walk around inside it. Those “3D shells” which currently delineate building locations in mirror-Manhattan are not shells, they’re solids. Mathematically, they have interiors, but they are not surrounded volumes, they’re filled ones. In short, you can’t get in; there’s no “in” to get to.

At the very end of the most-recent entry on the Micazook/ProjectX blog (posted April 24, before the beginning of closed beta), there are some screenshots taken during the modeling of the Empire State Building. They seem to indicate that, eventually, it will be possible for anyone with skill to reproduce 3-dimensional detail on a building’s exterior.  Here are two of them:

It’s impressive-looking work, and will look great on the skyline once it’s brought into Project X, but it’s not a building containing 102 floors of usable space — it’s a stack of solid boxes with fancy textures.

In a conversation “on the street” — unfortunately unrecordable at the time — Mikey mentioned that we (the users) could make the interiors of our claimed buildings look however we wanted. At this point, I’m not convinced that the “interior space” he was talking about is anything like the interior of a real building, or of a 3D simulation in Second Life or an OpenSim world — that is, one which your avatar can enter and move around in. So far, Project X has two examples of what might be called interior spaces:

  • The “dressing room” for avatar customization materializes around your POV whenever and wherever you happen to be when you invoke it, and you are frozen in a pose… meanwhile, to anyone else who can see it, your avatar goes into a stance which resembles “Edit Appearance” in SL, while also slowly rotating.
  • The “poker room” does the same thing, and your avatar is shown (from behind) sitting in a chair from which you cannot get up… meanwhile, it also remains standing wherever it was when you clicked the Games button — visible to anyone else, but completely cut off from interaction.

In other words — in addition to being in two places at once — the phenomenon more closely resembles the “rooms” of a text-based MUD than a virtual world as we have come to know them.  It’s possible to infer from this that whatever you might claim as your avatar’s home in Project X will be yet another static view (with the option to add textures to the background, by way of customization) that takes over your POV when invoked… and that your avatar, in everyone else’s view, will also remain standing inertly at whatever location it had when you clicked the “Go Home” button. For what appear on the surface to be genuine reasons, Project X is a world that claims to be founded on geolocation, yet this lack of locational continuity between “outside” and “inside” — a place’s essential placeness, if you will — breaks that concept.

I will continue speculating on where Project X is headed in Part 3. Also, at this juncture, Mikey has agreed to participate (via email) in an interview about the aspirations and eventual goals of Project X. I anticipate the results to become Part 4 of this blog.

Meanwhile, I am slowly realizing that not all virtual worlds are equally immersive. Perhaps that’s as it should be, depending on their intended purpose… but as someone who is accustomed to total immersion, I find myself vaguely unsettled about, and by, a world where the cognitive connection between avatar and self is so difficult to establish, let alone maintain.


* – Being a nerd myself, I use the term exclusively as a compliment.