Second Life is a three-dimensional (3D) electronic environment where members can socialize, hold virtual meetings, or conduct economic transactions — Wan & Braman(2009)

In 2003, the Californian software company Linden Lab opened its virtual world to the public. Second Life is based on a unique concept that goes much further than all other MMORPG s (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) in that the entire content of this synthetic environment is user-generated. In addition to the option of buying and selling land, Linden Lab’s service includes complex 3D modelling tools, a powerful scripting language and the possibility to use streaming audio and video. Second life is being used for various commercial purposes. From a digital media and communications standpoint, it facilitates e-commerce and can form a platform for digital marketing activity.

Some time back, it was in December, I attended the “Getting Started with Second Life Workshop.” Organised by and held in DCU, the event opened with a brief introduction to Second Life and Virtual worlds. Some real life effects where eluded to as where some commercial applications. Following this, all participants began to set up their own, free, Second Life accounts. I opted to use my personal laptop so first off I had to install Second Life. Next, I went about creating my profile and also crafted my own avatar. I had some fun when creating my avatar, experimenting with different clothes and hair styles. Participants all began in the same location and from here where given great freedom to explore the virtual world. Most participants found it relatively easy to assimilate and found the basic commands (e.g. direction prompts) came rather naturally. Other activities included communicated with other avatars and even building objects in the various free sandpits. As all users where new, they were restricted to some extent as they had no currency (Linden Dollar).

I was presented with an excellent introduction to what Second Life is and how it works:

Basic membership is free, premium membership is (US$ 9.95) allocates land to the resident

 

Residents can explore, socialise, participate in individual / group activities, travel the world (or ‘grid’) and create & trade virtual property

 

User generated content

                   -Residents build objects using primitive 3D modelling tool

                   -Functionality can be added to objects through Linden Scripting Language

                   -Users retain ownership rights of objects they create

 

Linden Dollar (L$) – currency of second life

                -Used to trade goods, land and services with other users

                -Goods include buildings, vehicles, devices of all kinds, animations, clothing, skin, hair, jewellery, flora and fauna, and works of art

                -Land is a scarce commodity which can be bought/sold or rented

                -Services include camping, working in stores and entertainment

 

Users can exchange L$ for US$

                        -Current exchange rate of L$204 = US$1

 

A small fraction of users derive an income

Avatars

                          – Can be made to resemble real user

                          – Can fly or teleport to any location

Communication

                          -Local chat – public local conversations

                          -Global instant messaging for private conversations

                          -Voice chat now available

Land Ownership – fees

                         -Land can be purchased from Linden Lab or privately

                        -Premium membership gives 512m2 free from land use free

                        -No upper limit on land ownership – upper limit a user will pay US $195 for their first 65536m², and then US$97.50 per each additional 32768m² of land

 

Upon entering the lab, I had thought of Second Life as a Gaming platform. As a child I regularly used the game; “Sims” which has a similar look and feel to Second life.

My initial feelings towards using Second Life where not immediately positive. I held an air of scepticism, especially since I heard this has been around since 2003. My feelings where thus pessimistic, in so far as, even after eight years, this has yet to reach a critical mass. At least that’s what I thought, it was my assumption that this had not scaled particularly well. I had also heard that Google had (at least for the moment) given up on their pursuit of Virtual Worlds. Google Lively was considered a failed venture, is no longer supported and was abandoned. This fact alone, that Google, the defacto web application firm, are not involved, signalled to me a pessimistic view of their merits.

As a technology enthusiast I was aware of the platform but had rarely encountered any peers whom used it. I approached it cautiously. Highly stressed with college and personal responsibility I had an attitude of, “I have enough trouble managing my first life never mind a second life.” I also noticed early on that, with such an immersive technology lay a wide scope for addiction. I have a tendency to be distracted and feared that Second Life may offer an unwanted escape route, which could place additional strain on my college workload.

Furthermore, the servers in DCU had trouble handling the additional volumes attributed to a lab full of Second Life users. The fact that we continually found ourselves logged out made me feel not only frustrated but that the platform itself was unstable. I had also read about users experiencing difficulties in payment-process systems. I had also read about the possible wide-scale money laundering activities which may occur, due to the fact that it is difficult to trace the Linden Dollar paper trail. Also there is a treat that stolen credit card information can be used to purchase Linden Dollars.

The one user that I had known of had told me about various negative traits including; overload of cybersex predators. Second Life has taken some measures to abolishing such stigmas (which could scare away businesses and individuals alike) such as banning gambling and some especially offensive pornography. This however, angered that particular individual as, he felt Second Life where abusing their power, as Second Life users own the virtual worlds they create and thus may feel alienated by such activities. Noticing such pessimism, I sought to set it to a side in order to first gain a better understanding of what Second Life is, what it does, and how it could affect me as an e-commerce student.

I was aware that Second Life has its own currency, that of the Linden Dollar. Users can thus buy and sell to one another directly, using the Linden, which is exchangeable for real US dollars and other currencies such as the Euro based on live time currency exchange rates. I was surprised however to learn that in the year 2009, the total size of the Second Life economy grew 65% to US$567 million, about 25% of the entire U.S. virtual goods market. Furthermore, Gross Resident Earnings were at approximately $55 million US Dollars in 2009 which constituted an 11% growth year on year (wn.com).

The reason I took part in this activity is essentially down to curiosity. I am a tech enthusiast but not only this, I also seek to become a next generation marketer. I felt it my duty to investigate all arising opportunities for which could be used for commercial (especially digital marketing) purposes. I also feel that Virtual Worlds could help me towards my most immediate goal of completing my Masters, particularly where considering the concept of immersive learning.

Although the media interest in virtual worlds seems to be to be dwindling (rarely here of them on tech websites I would regularly frequent)  Second Life does hold considerable potential. As a next generation marketer, I must concern myself about where such technologies will be in the next 5 to 10 years.

Speaking of the media, the news media company; Reuters, experimented for a limited by employing a Second Life journalist. This employee reported only on news which occurred within Second Life and rather not reflecting upon real world news.

Upon further research, I learned of high adoption in virtual worlds amongst children, e.g. Disney’s Club Penguin, Barbie World, Habbo Hotel and Stardoll. With the upcoming generations already immersed in Virtual Worlds, this may indicate a higher propensity to adopt the more mature platform of Second Life in the future.

Such demographic trends coupled with technology development (e.g. potential integration with Facebook, Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google SketchUp for 3-D modelling) could facilitate future exponential growth in this area. The conclusions I can thus draw is that, as an e-commerce student with a keen interest in digital marketing, I must keep my finger on the pulse.

Another reason I sought to use Second Life was in pursuit of immersive learning. Particularly helpful to me in my bid to learn Mandarin Chinese, I could use this platform to assimilate in a virtual Chinese culture.

Furthermore, as Virtual Worlds are a social phenomenon, they oft serve as arenas for the promotion of offline political and social agendas.

Social worlds are increasingly serving as arenas for the promotion of offline political and social agendas. Reactions to the war in Iraq ranged from a “Support the Troops” promotion by Worlds.com that featured free VIP accounts for U.S. military members to protest-related activities conducted by the anti-war group “Polygons for Peace” in there.
The use of social worlds as activist arenas was ramped up in 2004, as the highly charged political climate in the U.S. during an election year has inspired several citizens to take real-world political campaigns online. Examples include in-world campaign headquarters and voter registration booths for U.S. presidential candidates in Second Life, the live streaming of the presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry and an entire “Virtual Votes” world launched in 2004, as a forum for political debate.

It could also be linked to the concept of teleworking. IBM for instance use Second life for many functions, for example, alternative to conference calling, they hold event seminars and also is used for staff training seminars. As a former IBM employee I know they use Second Life to promote interaction within its own corporate community (employees, customers, business partners) often regardless of geographic and organizational boundaries. IBM also uses it to engage in-world builders and scripters through their more recently launched IBM Codestation, which serves as a forum where users can access shared resident-created chunks of code.

One simple function IBM use Second Life for is in the hosting of business meetings and conferences, which eliminates the real expenses of physically travelling to a real world location.

In fact, when I was in India this year, I asked an IBM Bangalore employee if she uses Second Life. I thought, it could be used effectively here as they have constant communication with Western counterparts. It transpired however that this employee was unaware, perhaps because of the under optimized broadband infrastructure in India.

Many large corporations are using Second Life for various business processes. For example, a Second Life user can go to Dell world, pick and customize a laptop, and purchase it. This physical product would then be delivered to that users address. Other leading corporations using Second Life include for example; Loreal, Dior, Diagio, American Apparel, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Vodafone. There are now multiple cases of Linden Dollar millionaires in the sales of art, games and virtual land. There is even a known instance of two avatars meeting in Second Life which led to a Second Life Marriage, followed by a real life marriage. Furthermore, a second life “cyber-sex” affair has also led to a real world divorce.

It is apparent however though, that such optimism is held within societal silos. Academia in general, have been relatively slow to publish more non abstract, focused research into the area. In a 2010 interview (Komplett) with Dr._Theo_Lynn, he highlighted this.

“I think first of all it’s very difficult to do research in this area as it’s largely phenomenon which you’re looking at. You’ve a choice, if you want to write and research about it then it’s difficult to get publications to publish in because it’s all so new, you’re coming up with new hypothesise and you don’t have a lot of quantitative research behind it. So went tend to get half the class thinking this is really interesting and they like what we’re doing and then the other half is saying there’s no 20,000 surveyed on this topic so there’s no basis for what we’re doing.”

Before signing up to Second Life, I had been unaware of the real differences between Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds. I was also a little confused about how augmented reality fits in this picture. What I found was that Virtual Worlds on rely on engaging the user emotionally and mentally rather than sensorially, which is the way of virtual reality. This concept of virtual reality is similar to that of augmented reality, such as various games on the Xbox Kinect console. This concept of Augmented reality holds particular significance when used on mobile devices, as they can facilitate location awareness, e.g. daft layer application.

Upon entering the workshop, I had though of Second Life as a game. What I now know is that Second Life is in fact a Multi-user Virtual Environment (MUVE). It is like a game, but it is not technically game based. This is because it lacks pre-defined goals. All the content in Second Life is user-created, and each user makes of their experience in it what they will. Second life then would best be classified as a simulation platform.

Some of my pessimism has been overturned also. I feel that, Virtual World could be on the verge of greatness. I can now also envision Google making a future comeback into this realm. I can imagine something like Google Street View on a GPS-equipped smartphone. This could be used where standing in front of a building on a downtown urban street. The smartphone user would then look at the device and see an image of the same building. By tapping on the image, information on all the businesses that are tenants in that building, with links to their Web sites, phone numbers, reviews of retail establishment, Standard & Poor ratings, blog posts and newspaper and magazine articles about them, YouTube videos, and more could be made visible. This is similar to Augmented reality but could be adapted for a fresh virtual world platform.

A key point then is that Second life lacks interoperability. If, for instance, it was interoperable with Facebook and Twitter, this would offer excellent amplification and thus may increase adoption. Furthermore I can imagine a future laptop Facebook application with a camera visualizing my IM chat and a mobile Facebook application with the camera augmenting your reality.

I can even imagine Virtual world being used by social networks as a new means of information access/retrieval. Imagine teleporting to say, the search marketing summit in Bangalore, India, in order to ask a niche question about say a specific search engine algorithm.

There is no doubt that the proliferation of mobile web is making the internet a more immersive experience. For example, Twitter’s real time micro-blogs are already blurring the line between real world and 3g web. 3D web then has also become prominent across social network platforms with the proliferation of sites such as Facebook, e.g. Farmville is an animated virtual world.

I feel that despite the many flaws, there still exists huge potential for Virtual Worlds. The future of Virtual Worlds may be the wide scale adoption of second life or perhaps something else altogether.

The result of companies adopting a presence in second life has been discussed. I have highlighted how Second Life is being used as an advertising platform.

From a marketing perspective, a companies presence may make them appear “cutting edge”.

It also allows access to a new online society where publicity is cheap and the demographic is edgy and computer savvy. It may also offer an opportunity to have rich discussion with customers, employees and other stakeholders, in a more intimate way then email or phone communication.

This advertising platform has been applied in two main ways; 1.) Online stores and 2.) Contextual Advertising.

Evidence of companies build online stores include:

– L’Oreal – makeup for avatars

– Dell – build your own virtual PC with L$ or buy a real PC with $

– Pontiac – take a virtual test drive in a customized Pontiac

Evidence of contextual advertising is widespread. For example Volkswagen use it rather cleverly. In this case they use billboards. When the avatar chats the billboard “listens” and displays related advertising.

Also noted was the fact that many companies have promoted new products and services through SL press conferences, e.g. Sun Microsystems and Cisco. It is also commonly used for providing seminars, group meetings and employee training, e.g. IBM. I ponder whether or not there is scope to use Second Life as a credible platform for conducting research e.g. qualitative research such as focus groups.

I have spent many hours within Second Life. I travelled to Martial Arts and Boxing Gyms to discuss topics of interest with like minded individuals. I attended live concerts by real life bands. I was however also approached multiple times with lewd advances but I didn’t take too much offence. The idea of a user generated world run by the creators intrigues me. Ultimately though, I will likely spend only limited recreational time on Second Life in the future. The main purpose of these activities will be in keeping an eye on developments as I do feel Second Life as digital media tool holds hold increasing merit.

My Second Life experience had it all, from weird and wacky encounters (e.g. one of my contacts is a vampire, apparently)  to real life immersive learning.

As mentioned, I used Second Life as a means of immersive learning whilst learning Mandarin Chinese. This can be linked to an ongoing project of mine towards personal development and as such will continue to utilize Second life in this regard.

For example, one group that I joined was that of “The Chinese Chat Club.” This groups purpose is in attracting people from all walks of life interested in learning and practicing Mandarin Chinese. Every Sunday at 6pm (Second Life Time) group members meet for one hour to help improve their spoken (text) communication.

Also in Second Life, Monash University’s Chinese Island was very helpful resource and help me use the language. It also has some very interesting information regarding Chinese customs, culture and history. See below some screenshots of my Second Life activities. Note the t-shirt I was awarded after graduating from the school’s introduction programme.

My China Village will be my next in Second Life port of call. This service will further help me in acquiring a greater competency in communicating via Mandarin. Rather than merely letting learners loose in virtual China, this company have designed a pedagogically-equipped virtual environment to which they say maximizes learner experience and learning. One way they achieve this by giving native speakers monetary incentive for peer evaluation.

When I first enter MyChina Village, I will take an external assessment to measure my proficiency. MyChina Village will then provide me with language quests for my level. Each quest is then tied with a functional task called CanDo statement. Examples of CanDo statements would be “I can give directions in Chinese” or “I can express my emotions and feelings in Chinese.” These CanDo statements will thus serve as a guide for me to perform self-assessment, monitor my progress, and receive peer feedback.

 

 

 

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