Definitions of the Metaverse – Second Life, Open Simulator, et al.. Part 1!

Continuations on my blog and rant series regarding my varied and sundry metaverse experiences…

I will preface the post to say the intent here is to provide some basic concepts or understanding as I view things, since many of my friends know I was engaged in Second Life (aka SL) rather heavily in the past, yet didn’t speak much about it on my blog.

I have chimed-in some related blog posts, but never went into much detail explaining what it was, why I thought it was interesting, how this experience evolves or changes for people, etc., or why I don’t spend much time in there today (even though I run my own sim, LOL!)

First, for those who have been sleeping under a plywood box the past 10 or so years, let me explain in my own words what SecondLife is:

–Second Life–
Second Life, like other virtual “grids”, is an online community, a social network, a digital environment powered by the Open Simulator server software. In extremely simple terms, think of it as a much glorified chatroom or forum.

That definition may offend some veterans of SL, so let me add that more details are required for those who are interested to know, and that’s the point of this post, to define some common terms and functions for the novice to get a sense for what this is all about and how it works..

I wouldn’t call this an exhaustive guide, though, hope this series of posts will be a useful reference for those that wanted to know..

Okay, so let’s begin by talking about the inner workings of the virtual world, these virtual squares of cyberspace, and what makes them tick, technically — the SL server itself, that is, the thing in the background that runs the whole ball of wax, is called a Simulator (or “sim” for short.) This simulator is a program running on a computer, and it in turn runs one or more sections of virtual cyberspace (since computers can multitask and run several simulators at the same time). These sections, basically square plots of virtual land (for reasons I will explain soon) are called “Regions”

–Regions–
The Open Simulator server (which is the sever that SL essentially “runs”) has a standard “structure” per se for these square plots of virtual land, which come in a few sizes, but to keep it simple let’s use a full-size one as an example. A full-size region has real-world metric equivalents of scale, which are calculated in meters. A given region may be 65,536 square meters, or in other words 256 meters long by 256 meters wide. The regions themselves (for reasons unknown to me) are presented essentially as islands surrounded by calm seas. Sea level around the region is set at 20 meters height, though the region itself has variable levels for both sea and terrain– your square of land may be terraformed into mountains, beaches, lakes, hills, desert, or practically any topographic shape imaginable, thus giving the land whatever appearance is aesthetically pleasing to the region’s owner. As well, certain facets of the environment are configurable, for example: the sky may reveal the passage of time using a virtual sun for daylight, or the earth moon and stars as night, varying cloud cover, and so forth.

–Parcels–
Regions are often so big that they may be sliced into smaller pieces, which are commonly referred to as “parcels” of land. You can make these about any size you wish, in square, rectangular, or other cubic shapes, for whatever purpose you see fit; Generally, (in SL and some other grids, though certainly not all) when a person or group of people buy a full region, they will slice it up into equally-sized blocks, then, loan or rent out said peices to others. When you create a full regions for the purpose of renting out to others, these are commonly referred to as “Estates” and, as you are the “Owner” of the whole thing, you are called “Estate Owner.” If you want to set up certain rules or criteria, that those who rent from you must obey, this agreement is often written out in the land’s description pages, and termed a “covenant.” Both estate owners and parcel owners have certain powers to control their spot of land, such as determining which movie or music plays somewhere in the background, if people can fly or use voice or any number of environmental settings.  Before we bore you to death with the particulars, let’s get back to Regions and how the world organizes them as the interconnected whole virtual world, or “grid.”

–The World Grid-Map–
So that created simulator regions don’t overlap or otherwise crash into each other, each region’s location is placed into a coordinated grid, like a giant sheet of graph paper, thus each region is given a specific X and Y position on said grid. For example, one region may be located at the 1000,1000 position, and a neighbooring region placed next to it at 1000,1001 on the grid. This accounts for the grid’s idea of latitude and longitude, but not altitude. A region’s data may have a bank of clouds 250 meters up, or other information thousands of meters in the sky, it’s all up to the designers where limits (if any) may be put into place. The programatic altitude is virtually unlimited, though, like earth’s atmosphere, there’s only so high that people may want to put things or float around at until the idea of going higher seems impractical. So what can you do with regions, other than put them into a grid and have people look at them? Well, you can build objects and things on them.

–Objects–
Thus far, we have people (more on this later, too..) we have a grid, and we have regions of land in our grid’s metaverse. Far from being a static creation, SL has a system of user-definable “objects” too. These in-world objects are the same building blocks common to 3D modeling programs like Blender, Maya, 3D Studio Max, etc., and are the proverbial elements of every created thing you may see in the metaverse. These primative objects, or “prims” for short, are generally in the form of cubes, cylinders, spheres, rings, etc., so, if someone wants to make a box, you can create (or “rezz”) a cube, and viola, you have a box. That’s pretty cool of itself, not many MMORPG games let you create your own buildings and form land and stuff like that right out of the box, but, the OpenSimulator engine does! So, if you want to make a hat, a chair, a house, or any number of simple to complex objects, these can be made with many prims linked together to form a larger whole. Objects may be painted different colors, given textures, made to glow, light up, react to gravity and wind, and even scripted with program code to do more elaborate things like spin, follow things, just about whatever you can imagine, within limits.

I’ll touch on some basic limits so you can get an idea what we’re working with here. The standard Open Simulator code allows you to make objects as large as 256m x 256m x 256m, often referred to as “megaprims” — this early idea was made so that you can do giant builds like bridges or houses, yet only using a single prim. Because the issue of gigantic prims floating about was distressing to some newbies, the Lindens decided that their SL viewer (also created by Linden Labs) should only allow one to create objects as large as 10m x 10m x 10m, a much more manageable size, though, of course to build a 30×30 square platform, you now require 9 10×10 prims instead of just one, but that’s not the point (is it?) Your prims can be locked in space, solid, transparent, shiny, bumpy, even self-destructing.

But enough of that for now, let’s move on to the client side software, or “viewer” itself. This is what most people know as SL, as most people don’t really know much about the server component, having never installed or seen one, and just assume it all should work without their knowledge or contribution to that end of it.. and a lot of people never tried to build anything themselves, they just purchase or copy stuff others have made previously, so okay, on to the viewer.

–Viewer Analogy–
Back in the day of early computer chat, for a person to join the conversation channel of a given topic within an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server system, they need some form of IRC client, which ran on their computer or other connected device. The client’s features or complexity may vary wildly depending on how savvy a chatter you may become.

Likewise, people login to SecondLife with a variety of “chat clients” referred to as “viewer” software, and if it isn’t obvious by now, the “chat rooms” of SL are based upon an interconnected “grid” of themed locations, rendered in 3D, using textured polygon meshes, and, to view these 3D environments requires some form of graphical display engine.

Well, since everyone isn’t running a current model dual-processor PC running Windows and an nVidia graphics accelerator, several platform-agnostic “viewers” were created, all having a similiar basic code structure, so that everyone logged in, regardless of their client’s OS, computer setup, and graphics capibility, will relatively see the same thing on their screen, and be able to interact with each other, visually and audibly, more-or-less unencumbered and in real time.

Sure, allowing this type of open-architecture presents certain challenges, as all multi-OS, multi-platform implementing often does, but we’ll get into that at a later post in this fine series 😉 It’s worth noting that several other virtual worlds (like VWW and IMVU) just don’t make clients for Mac OS X, Unix or Linux users, insisting that the Windows market share is sufficient excuse to support Microsoft alone or for whatever lame reasons ignore everyone else. Ok I digress, IMVU has a alpha version for Mac OS X finally (yay!) though requires you to have Leopard 10.5 or Snow Leopard 10.6, a Intel GMA 950 GPU and 2 Gb of RAM. (I guess my 17″ MacBook Pro with DuoCore CPU and 4 Gb RAM would work then..)

Yes, for the visually impaired or graphically-challenged (or those who despise GUI and prefer using command-line for everything) you can login to SL with a plain text client, however, those doing so are simply missing the point what virtual worlds were created for in the first place.

Ready to login and give it a try? Great, first thing you will need is a name. You don’t want to use your real life name, after all, this is the virtual world so you are creating a new identity anyway… you get to pick a suitable Pseudo Name!

–Your Pseudo-Name–
In online chat (for example, instant messaging, AOL rooms or IRC channels) people generally type to each other via short lines of text, and, for fun, anonymity, or other reasons, most everyone uses a pseudo-name or alias when signing into said chat service.

This alias (aka your “call-sign” or “handle” in radio terms) may be 100% chosen by you, randomly generated by the service, or in SL’s case, uses a combination of the two.

On most amateur radio or computer chat rooms, when deciding upon a “handle” to use, it is created with the idea that the name will in some way represent yourself digitally, for example, a pilot may choose the name “Flyboy2000” or a swimmer may use the name “WetGirl4U” though, you need to be careful you don’t give the wrong connotation when selecting your name, since these things are open to one’s own interpretation as to their intended meaning 😉

Similarly, while in the virtual world (or worlds!) of Second Life, SL gives you a name for you to use everywhere online..Regardless of the locations you may chat with or otherwise attend, your name stays consistent and travels with you wherever you may roam. That is, you don’t need to come up with a rally name if you go to a car area, or pick a sci-fi name when going to a sci-fi area, or medieval name if you decide to become a princess– nope, you can use the same name across the entire metaverse and nobody will mind if you are a 16th-century pirate with the name Superbot Megazapper.

So, you can use your SL name in world, on the website for your account stuff, and on the shopping marketplace to order stuff for yourself to use in-world. Any groups you join in world, friends you make, that sort of thing, that is all associated with your pseudo-name, it’s your profile in-world, unique as you and nobody else can have a similar name (well, not exactly, character for character anyway).

In SL, you get to pick what surname you would like from a generated list of choices, as well manually type in what you would like for your first or given name. From that point forward, your online name is born and avatar created to use “in-world” whilst chatting or interacting with others. Yay! Let’s talk about avatars for a minute, then.

–Avatars–
Taking the idea of CB handles and ficticious personas one step further, most chat rooms, blogs, forums, or social networking sites allow you to choose a photo or illustrative icon to represent yourself. This icon is displayed along side your posts or chats so that people may visually identify with some facet of your personality or likeness.

SL (as well most of today’s online games or virtual worlds) takes this idea one step further, and employs the creation of an animated digital representation of yourself. In the rendered 3D worlds of SecondLife, your form is fully customizable, so, however you wish to make yourself appear, within the confines of certain parameters of course, you may become.

You may appear as a pretty 20’s or 30’s human, a child, beastie, robot, cardboard box, potted flower, or almost anything you can dream up. The program gives you a few base examples to build upon, or you may create your own from scratch.

–Voice–
Also, like most other online videogames (e.g., Xbox Live), you may connect a microphone and headset to your computer, and then talk to people using your voice– in lieu of typing. You may voice privately one-on-one, or publicly in groups, just like using WebEx or other teleconference, people can hold online gatherings or discussions in this fashion. Frankly, the voice in SL is still at a rather beta/experimental state and has its problems (especially instability or crashing for some people), so, many people just end up using something like Skype for more important voice chat sessions.

–Gestures–
Just as chat rooms have emoticons like 🙂 for smile and 🙁 for sadness, so too may your avatar. In fact, just like real life, in the virtual environment, your avatar may type, talk, or gesture much like any MMORPG character would be able to do in a modern online videogame (such as World of Warcraft or Pirates of the Carribbean Online). It can wave, smile, laugh, dance, or do any number of programmable gestures the creative imagination may invent. Combine that with your voice, and you have a virtual puppet of yourself interacting in real-time with others and their avatars. Now imagine a virtual world filled with 10 to 50 people, all at the same location, typing, talking, gesturing with each other. That would be a bit hard to follow, so the gestures, typing, and talking are location-based, that is, they center from you and fall off or fade away at predetermined distances of a whisper, normal conversation, or shouting.

Still, this can be a bit chaotic when there are that many people standing around, on a virtual square of cyberspace, but hey this is a big metaverse, and as people soon lose the novelty of this otherways fantastic marvel of technology and experience, they will seek to do more than type and chat within the confines of the environment — and so, we now move on to pushing the limits of programming to make it a better place (albeit a virtualized fantasy world).

People being people, or shall I say adults being adults, we are going to get a bit salty in speech from this point on, so if you are tender, prude, modest, or have certain restrictions against some explicit language, you may want to turn away where appropriate.

I’ll go over some common scenarios that occur in SL, to answer the question of why do people go into the virtual world, when a perfectly fine real world exists all about us?

–Scenerios–

1- Live the pretend life of luxury.. can’t afford your own private island, mansion, vehicles, pets, or other things  in real life? No problem, you can create this in your own little virtual world at pennies to the dollar, imagine it’s real, and go play there whenever you like; escape the harsh realities of life for a few hours of fun and find respite in a pixelated fantasy of your making.

2- Be more mobile (virtually, anyway..) Disabled or house-bound and can’t go everwhere or do everything you used to do, or imagine you would want to do? Not a problem. Your avatar can have fully fuctioning limbs, wings, whatever, as well the appearance of any age, ethnicity, sex, build, skin tone, eyes, hair, clothing, etc. to your heart’s desire, with the freedom to be whoever and do whatever with whomever (or at least their avatar likeness) you please.

3- As art, you can showcase polygonal digital art, or create a virtual gallery from your real-world photos, paintings, videos, etc. People even make movies and machinina using SL (or other similar grids) as their creative canvas.

4- If you are socially outcast or challenged in public situations? Not a problem. You are safer behind the guise of your avatar, you can practice social interactions with people vitually and build confidence before having to interact with people in physical, real life.

5- Career and Education .. Practice interviewing for a job, attend a virtual classroom, visit virtual representations of famous landmarks, cities, cultural and philisophical centers.

6- Entertainment .. Do things you didn’t (or wouldnt dare to) try in real life. attend a virtual night club, go for a virtual flight, drive a virtual motorcycle or car, even dance, hug, kiss, or have virtual pixelsex with someone if you like. Anything is possible. No, really, anything, you sick puppy 🙂

7- Like role-playing games? You can immerse yourself in themed virtual worlds and gameplay of all sorts. You may become a superhero, pirate, warrior, slave girl, vampire, cyborg, scientist, angel, or (here we go again with the sex..) try out the most bizarre BDSM fetishes, all from the detatched safety of your computer viewing screen.

8- Like to shop? Oh yes! Fun fun fun, you can buy all the skins, hair, eye, clothes, bodies, whatever you like, and shop and shop and change your look as often as you want, and again for pennies on the dollar. Satisfy your craving for shopping therapy, by virtually going mall-crazy.

People generally go through an evolutionary cycle in SL surrounding all of these things, but I will go into that in a later post..

What about the people? Well, yes, on that note, like any hobby, shopping mall or other community gathering place, you WILL find people from all walks of life; There are benevolent, educated, intelligent, creative, sane people in SL, and there are stupid people (either by choice or no apparent fault of their own). There are also criminals, predators, scammers, and generally malevolent people (just as you may meet or hear second-hand from others in real life). In fact, SL even has a term for people who login to Second Life for the purposes of intentionally harassing people, causing other residents grief — they are called, “griefers” funny enough. You will generally want to avoid these type of people or learn to shield your avatar and account from them. Griefers generally go against the SL terms of service and will get their account banned, of course, this doesn’t stop them from logging in with another new account, however, the SL admins are fairly savvy and can block people by IP address and what not to try and keep these losers at bay.

Ah, that’s about all a person can absorb in one sitting, so we will get into more SL in the next blog write-up of this series… I’m not an official voice or advocate by any means, just a casual user. If you want the official word, you are more than welcome to get it from the sources mentioned around this article (just by googling them, or any other words you don’t know, which may interest you).

Cheers…

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