Second Life: What is the fuss?

After a week's sojourn, our virtual traveler isn't so sure.

TUESDAY: Square 1.01

My colleague couldn't help me with the tutorial. "Second Life's user interface sucks sometimes," he explained, not to my surprise, and he advised me to just move on. I decided to quit trying so hard to learn how to do everything and just chat with the people I met. Maybe they could teach me things.

I moved rather easily from Orientation Island to Help Island, where I found no help and from which I could not escape. I ran into a fellow newbie there, and I asked her if she knew how I could get to a more interesting place, like a big city.

She said she had read somewhere that newbies had to wait for "greeters" to take them off the island. She was waiting for a greeter, and I was welcome to wait with her. We waited, but nothing happened. I logged off and immediately ordered "A Beginner's Guide to Second Life" from Amazon.com, paying extra for one-day shipping.

WEDNESDAY: Dawn

Advice to readers: Buy a book on SL or get some tutoring from an experienced user. With the help of the book and sheer persistence, I painfully -- but, it must be said, with some fun -- guided my avatar down the learning curve. I discovered how to get from place to place (yes, you can fly in SL), how to change my appearance (most residents of SL, both men and women, are young and gorgeous), how to search for things, how to read maps and so on.

But now that I had mastered the basics and had overcome much of my initial frustration, some important questions moved from the back burner to the front of the stove: Just why am I here, and what will I do here? What are my definitions of "success" or "happiness" in SL, and how will I find them?

Knowing my editor would ask me about practical IT applications, I sought out a virtual island owned by IBM. To get an idea of how exciting this place is, imagine a 1950s-era IBMer in a starched white shirt and tie with a "THINK" sign hanging on his wall.

I walked into a huge, round auditorium called IBM Theatre I. The seats were all empty, and the stage was bare save for a big white board with some semi-interesting techno-items written on it, each followed by an ordinary Web address. Problem was, the addresses were grayed out, and when I clicked on them, nothing happened. Advice to vendors: If you are going to play this game, make sure it works.

Undaunted, I made my way to a Sears store, where I found crude images of Sears appliances. It was possible to click on them and go to Sears' regular Web site. Wow! And it was possible to get and save a "card" with appliance product specs written on it in plain text. Double wow! I saw no other visitors at the IBM or Sears sites.

THURSDAY: Deja vu

While booting up, I remembered buying the pioneering PC game King's Quest for my daughter in 1987. It ran under DOS, and of course my PC had no mouse, so we had to navigate Sir Graham by tedious and clumsy taps on the four arrow keys. Now, 20 years later, SL is barely better. The images are still crude and flat, and the arrow keys no easier to use.

There's a reason for that. There are usually tens of thousands of users on SL at any given time, and Linden's servers deliver a dynamic and unique view to each one. (Although some of it does come from the local client software and images.)

Rendering 3-D images realistically in real time is incredibly compute- and bandwidth-intensive, more than we have a right to expect from SL. Still, scenes download painfully slowly, often taking more than a minute on my PC, a high-end, dual-core model that has 3GB of memory and is attached to the Internet at 15Mbit/sec. I worried about the life of my disk, which made little I/O noises nonstop whenever I was logged on.

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Gary Anthes

Computerworld
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