an exploration of the Secondlife platform as an immersive environment, a poltical space, and as a generative medium for architectural design.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


i know in just this short time many of you are already feeling withdrawal. i apologize for the delay. i've been playing a lot of RL lately. my analog self has a job. while freelancing has been lucrative and flexible, i'm looking forward to this new challenge.

right now, in the works, are my views on what defines professional quality content and immersion in SL. i don't know if i can put it into words yet. maybe it will just be a visual blog.

Friday, November 18, 2005

from levittown to blumfield

levittown is a controversial town from north american history. it is at once a fine example of mass production and and 5% down mortgages being brought together to provide affordable housing to the working class of north america and the worst example of free expression and individuality. i could write for pages about my disdain for levittown, suburban sprawl, and institutionally engendered erosion of democracy in north america but this blog is about second life, a medium where we can leave behind the mundanity and anonymity of our every day existence. second life is my world. my imagination. i can be an astronaut, a millionaire playboy, or a cute little bunny.

to help new players along the way to realize the freedom of expression the second life allows, to get their first taste of fantasy, Linden Lab created a wonderful community for noobies, a first land oppurtunity that comes with a house. a wonderful gesture and an inspiration to us all! welcome to blumfield, also known as linden town.
if this is a boardman inspired project, it missed all the important feautures. instead of homes that evoke bourgeois modern living, these are the working class homes of factory and office drones, nostalgic of simple and boring times. instead of a few winding streets for residents to wander in, it is an relentless and uncaring grid that informs players that they are just as much a number in SL as they are in RL. finally, rather than using high quality prefabs as advertised in the bidding process, what we see is mediocrity and less then mediocrity.

white band flicker unaligned, mismatching scales, and stretched camera collision questionable texture quality

i mean no slight to the builders, who offered way more value than one would be expected to risk for a shot at a 5000 L$ reward (one of them quite impressively was only a month old and when he entered his winning entry). LL got quite a deal. im sure that the inworld market would have given some of these designers much better returns for their work over time from sales that are now less likely as noobies will be getting these houses for free from LL.

unless the nature of this pilot project is to impress new residents with flicker full, camera colliding low ceilings, awkwardly small doorways, and poor texturing (most houses did not have all deficiencies though each had at least one glaring one) LL really missed the boat with setting up conditions for high quality submissions. the train station competition, which had much simpler requirements, had double the pay off. my personal view is that the best way to retain players is by impressing them with amazing content. if LL wants to unload some of that content creation work on the community that is an excellent and welcomed oppurtunity for the player community. but LL must recognize, and very much like their own staff, at the end of the day quality costs money, and many of the represented builders cut their work short because of the risk to reward ratio, while countless others didn't even submit an entry.

“The long straight streets and avenues of a gridiron city do not permit the buildings to cluster like sheep and protect one against the sense of space. They are not sober little walks closed in between houses, but national highways. The moment you set foot on one of them, you understand it must go on.”
Jean-Paul Sartres on Manhattan, 1811

how immersed will a players from another virtual worlds feel as they step out from their homes on to an oppressive grid? a grid does not end. in the abstract conception of our minds it continues forever. a grid is not only easy to build, but easy to scale. layered geometrically on the SL grid, it can be extended infinitely to accomodate the explosive growth that second life is experiencing. if this pilot project succeeds, tens of thousands of new players in the coming year could be beginning their second life in a vast unrelenting grid of poorly fabricated dwellings as LL attempts to technocratically manage the population by throwing them into these noobie ghettos.

lordfly digerdoo made a post today identifying 3 popular reasons why people log into sl: sex, money and socializing.

A mature sim kinda helps those along. Nothing says "howdy neighbor!" like a BDSM torture rack.

Lordfly Digeridoo, SL forums

As we discussed the mature angle Lordfly brought while standing on the front stoop of one of the houses, Crystalshard Foo decided to test if SL Sprawl could really support SL "socializing" .

CrystalShard Foo: Lets run a quick experiment.
(Crystalshard walks across the street to the front door of the opposing house)
CrystalShard Foo: Kyrah, can you read me?
Kyrah Abattoir: yus
CrystalShard Foo: I've rest my case.
Jauani Wu: hehe
Jauani Wu: what is the range?
Jauani Wu: 20m?
CrystalShard Foo: Yes

the positive aspect to this is that LL has realized they need to actively address influx of new players. many players need a place to tie themselves to to immerse themselves into a new game world. my confusion is why LL didn't pursue the very succesful (200 L$/m2 kind of succesful) boardman sim to emulate. infact, why not hire skilled craftsman like ingrid or barnesworth or others who made boardman such a desirable location as consultants or work for hire? why instead emulate a technocratic dystopia like levittown? if this model is indeed intended to be scaled up, wouldn't it be more fruitful to invest the necessary resources to make it as compelling and immersive as possible? finally, wouldn't it be more fruitful for noobies to more easily acclimatize into their second life if they weren't segregated into dehumanizing ghetto? was the old method of mixing noobie plots unsuccesful or was it discarded to downsize the LL side land management in the full sim sales? will this kind of sim, if found to be succesful, be mixed in with the regular grid or will the be extended infinitely as their morphology suggests?

my concern is that unlike communist china or post ww2 north america, players do have a real choice when faced with institutionalized forces that homogenize and compartmentalize human lives. they don't have to remain indentured to this ghetto. they can leave lindentown and build there own dreams elsewhere in the gridsverse. but they can also log off.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

the sustainability of an SL architecture practice

(file under long and boring)

last week lordfly digeridoo raised the topic of players charging real life wages for second life work in the second life forum (link). this was a few days after i privately gave him some friendly advice to not cut off his own nose by publically undervaluing his abilities when the market is ready to support more (link). he asked how much he should charge and whether this was fair. while many supported the idea, there were also many that thought it was a ridiculous proprosition. the truth in this matter is that real life wages for virtual world work has been a part of SL since 1.2. however, architects, a content creation industry to which lordfly belongs, just happen to be as incredibly undervalued in second life as they are in everyday life. moreso.

players do indeed make real life wages from SL if they are not architects, fashion designers like nephilain protagonist, skin texturers like munchlower zauis, land traders such as anshe chung, and certainly vehicle and weapon makers like francis chung, make tremendous returns for the time spent tinkering in a game. these players invest a lot of time and energy into their SL products and services and often at risk, to provide 3rd party content and services to the player community. surprisingly though, in a 3d virtual world, those that arbiter the environment of SL with the 3d virtual architecture are unacclaimed as succesful content creators.

1. the avatar is just a packet of pixels

one reason for this is that in everyday life our physical bodies make shelter a necessity while in second life architecture is but a mere stage set. while north americans by and large live in uninspiring shoe box apartments and carbon copied tract housing and mcmansions, work in just as ininspiring office towers, shop at warehouses like costco and walmart, and fine dine at lovely chain restaurants like denny's and pizza hut in the sea of parking lots due to some unexplicable cultural aversion to good architecture and urban planning, physical necessity requires the services of the professionals that oversee the development of our built environment. in secondlife, a consequenceless game slash visual chatroom that it still is, our avatar has no such needs. shelter is so unnecessary to the enjoyment of sl that the majority of players do not even own any land to build on.

2. i need new clothes to go to the club

a second reason for the virtual architects marginalization in SL is its relatively small market. for a player that does choose to have a home or a store, like in everyday life this player needs but a single instance which can provide a wonderful stage set for quite some time. so house shopping is not a frequent activity amongst players. meanwhile, avatar accessories, such as clothing and hairstlye, dynamic content such as vehicles and weapons, and emotive content such as cuddling couches and sex beds are the kind of things that relate directly to the activities that are the essence of SL, those being communicative and interrelative in nature. av accessories in particular, are much more useful in personal expression in SL as they are directly upon the avatar. a house is an indirect expression that is only in play when players playing upon that stage.

due to frequent per capita purchases, fashion designers in sl are able to leverage the mass market to support their income, while architects are not. for this reason it is no surprise that there are dozens of professional quality avatar accessory makers while arguably not yet a single professional quality prefab designer to my knowledge (except perhaps one - neil protagonist -who makes single room sky boxes which just barely qualify as architecture by insightfully recognizing the stage set role of virtual space in SL at the moment).

another thing to consider in the comparision of fashion and accessory design with architectural design is that owing to the av mesh and skeleton, all avs are essentially equal, while housing size demands also vary with the players teir.

3. building is fun and therapeutic

a third aspect of SL that i believe prevents skilled builders from finding success is that unlike scripting or texturing, at the beginners level, building is by far the easiest and most accessible. manipulating the basic geomotries is relatively easy, and there is no need for outside support. scripting, meanwhile, for those without any exposure to programming, is like learning a new language. that's great for the kids on the teen grid, but at age 30, unless you can sign me up for a structured course, i'll pass. texturing in photoshop not only has a similarly steep learning curve, there is a 600$ price tag on photoshop to contend with. when a player has to chose between dressing like a noob and living in a nice prefab or having a sexy av and living in the self made baby blue box with seams and with nice cylindrical stone textured tower with a cone on the top in the corner, they will choose the later. not only will they choose it, they will be over joyed with their creation and the feeling of satisfaction, as their childhood imagination takes hold and that baby blue castle is the same one prince charming lived in in cinderella.

after having recieved dozens of tours in the last few years of baby blue light prim castles, shiney retexture gnu sloped roof siggy romulus freebies (you know what i'm talking about, you all lived in it once), and sprawling flickerful three story peach coloured mansions from proud and jubilant builders nobody could ever convince them to give up their fun and sense of accomplishment in exchange for a technically superior prefab, nor should anyone ever want to.

4. zomg i won't pay a lot of money for something fake

and the final reason i believe that virtual architects are undervalued in secondlife is because it's still a world of hobbiests. custom 3d design is a time consuming process and if it is a custom project it is consequently very expensive. given the choice of buying a mediocre 3000 L$ prefab, building it themselves, or hiring someone with actual 3d skills at a rate of 3000 L$/hr right up to 10-15 thousand L$/hr, a player will choose the former two options. this drives builders on the lower end of skill level to work for pittances to enjoy their hobby, and higher end builders to refuse commissions. it's like the internet in 1992. who was hiring professional web designers then for their website?

what does this mean for frank llyod avatar?

is all lost for virtual architects then? will sl simply be unable to support a vibrant market for architecture? i certainly don't feel that is the case. i think the market still hasn't been tested with high quality and critical architectural design geared for SL. we have not yet seen the architectural equivalent to the dominus shadow. we are waiting for someone to spend weeks or months on a line of houses that will just blow our minds with their beautiful textures and mindnumbing primiliciousness.

in the mean time, the handfull of top end builders interested in working in SL quitely organize themselves for the next Wells Fargo or some more hand offs of welcome and orientation areas from the chronically understaffed LL art department.

Friday, November 04, 2005

what is j-wu up to?

to speak of my interest in Second Life, i have many. i have come to enjoy the instant socialization SL presents, and have made many friends, associates, and even a few entertaining rivalries. early on SL provided an amazing model in helping me digest a lot of the readings i was doing on technology, specifically information technology, questions of public space and the challenge of the spaceless network upon spatially bound architecture, the cyborg and post human metaphor, and other topics dealing with politics and agency in the information age. along the way this game economy became a USD economy, and i found my self become fascinated and involved in it, learning a lot about business and entrepreneurialism along the way from my own experiences and those of my friends in SL. and finally, i am one of those that believe SL is a precursor to the 3D interface to the internet, much like HTML provides the basis of 2D support. i feel like the current community of players fiddling around with the SL toolset scripting cars and planes, modelling houses and furniture, or baking avatar clothing for fun to create their fantasy hobby world are tomorrows 3D developers making large sums of money making sims for offline businesses, big and small (very much like the recent Wells Fargo project, which i wasn't at all surprised to learn about).

my favorite example that i give my friends when i show them this hobby of mine is my diverse car collection in SL. the inworld economy for selling these things is great but as this kind of game evolves into a platform or protocol, i ask them to imagine a much more sophisticated model of a fully customizable Ford Mustang in a virtual showroom, with a sales rep logged in world to provide any support you need. you click your colour, your engine, your accessories and you see it in 3D, quite possible with polarized goggles or some gadget for the full effect. you might even take your virtual car for a test drive in a smartly programmed virtual environment before authorizing payment through your paypal account to have the physical analog delivered to you in 5-6 days.

another is of branding cyberspace. this is already happening on the internet at large, and is not recent revelation in virtual worlds either. in my brief time exploring the VWs such as the Sims Online and There i very quickly encountered prominent brands such as McDonald's and Nike. There is no reason why the shopping malls of SL could not one day be selling or giving away these brands for virtual consumption and similarly to my automobile example, also using SL as a venue to sell physical products.

i feel like SL is the at that cutting edge. and as a recent architecture school grad, i can see even more immediately practical applications of this environment that i've experienced first hand. the SL toolset is incredibly primitive in relation to the modelling and drafting programs i'm accustomed to, but it has some advantages as well. the first is the immersive experience the avatar provides for which i am still trying to articulate why it is so compelling and the second is the shared space SL provides.

although the architects contemporary practice is a virtual one, one of conceiving of a vision, and then providing images to communicate it to others, and not of actually building, CAD software is bringing architects closer and closer to reasserting control over every minute detail of a project, much like the master builders of a former age. sl provides a different twist, not yet capable of the kind of detail other toolsets provide. the avatar becomes a human reference to the design, constantly walking, climbing, falling, jumping, and bumping in, out, through, over, under, and around the interventions we place in the virtual world. whether this immersion is providing a step away from virtuality and towards the embodied, or if it is a deeper layer of virtuality is something i am still reflecting on and trying to get a grip on. i wonder whther this sense of embodiment serve as something generative of degenerative to a critical design process. i plan to make a serious RL linked experiment with this idea with the firt possible opportunity to explore this idea further.

the sharedness of the SL environment is also very liberating to me relative to other CAD mediums. when i make a physical model or drawing, my colleagues can simply manipulate the same model with me or draw right on top of my drawing. in CAD it is the struggle of who is in control of the pointer and keyboard. it is a very awkward situation. in SL, the sharedness returns. a colleague can log in and start manipulating the same object or adding to it. they can tear away a copy immediately to make a divergent iteration. at this point, the SL toolset is probably too primitive to truly be able to draw the ideas of major architecture projects beyond the most early conceptual ones, but nevertheless, that possiblity is apparent to me, as i have experienced it in the back and forths between many of my SL friends while we build, and particularly on a recent project i completed with nicola escher.

this is what i see in SL. these are the reasons i'm so passionate about this game. this should give an idea of the kinds of discussions i want to engender with this blog :)

wu-had is upon you

the day many secondlifers feared is here. j-wu has a blog. what can we look forward to?

the return of negratings
the end of LL and alt-barons' conspiracy to deflate the L$
less seams, less flicker
more blingers - more money - more gun talk
an increase in literacy on a global scale
sparing use of capitals