Second Life—Interview
To further detail what Second Life is, we spoke to Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab's vice president of product development. He provided more information into the "streaming digital media" that makes up the SL world, how the application operates and where Linden Lab expects its users will take it.

nZone: Second Life is pretty hard to categorize; it's not really a game. What would you call it and can you describe it briefly?

Cory Ondrejka: You're right, Second Life is not exactly a game--although you can make it one if you want it to be in any number of ways. For example, you can compete within the in-world economy and reputation system to become the world's wealthiest or most popular resident. Or you can try your skills against other residents in any number of competitive events--everything from sports events to trivia to fashion contests. But describing Second Life as a "game" only describes a part of the experience.

We like to think of Second Life as an online society, molded by the colorful personalities, interests and imaginations of the people--or "residents"--in the world. If you want to make friends, meet new people, throw parties or attend fun events, there are many ways for you to be a social butterfly--everything from "Newbie Nights" to open houses and dance parties. If you have the urge to make something or put your stamp on the world, you can create literally anything you can imagine. Our residents design fashionable clothing; build palatial homes; make and sell working weapons, cool vehicles, funky furniture, outlandish name it. Some have even settled down together to found entire cities on the landscape, dedicated to anything from medieval Japan to the American Wild West. Our residents tell us that Second Life is more of an experience--one that allows you to flex your imagination, explore your identity and interact with others in ways you never expected.

nZone: Who would be interested in Second Life?

CO: Most obviously, players of other MMOGs and people who have experimented in other online worlds will find Second Life a truly unique online experience. But beyond PC gamers, anyone who's interested in exploring their creativity will find a place in Second Life's malleable 3-D environment. If you like to create textures or 3-D models, build your own websites, or even dabble with scripting to add interesting special effects to things, Second Life is a great place for you. You don't even have to be a graphics, modeling or scripting expert--we have residents who enjoy the purely social aspects of Second Life.

Interestingly, we have already seen a broad demographic range in our resident profile. We have men and women of all ages who have come to the world from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, from musicians to modders to anime fans. And women are very active in-world--recently they've been holding over half the positions on our leaderboards--ranking high in everything from net worth to popularity to land ownership.

nZone: Most people think of streaming digital media as referring to audio or video files, such as music, movie trailers or other similar multimedia. How does Second Life use streaming?

CO: "Streaming" means getting data to the user just in time. For audio or video files, this means that you receive the information as you need to hear or view it. In Second Life, all the content is streamed in the sense that all objects, textures, animation and audio files are delivered to your PC as you need to see or hear them. So, you don't have to wait for whole areas of the world to download. Also, Second Life uses cutting-edge, proprietary techniques to stream rich 3-D content to you over a 200kbit connection, intelligently sending you thousands of objects per second. As you fly or walk through the world, objects that are closer to you--large, in front of other things or in motion--appear first. The details and textures fill in while you're not looking, so that you'll see them as soon as you turn around.

Streaming 3-D content in this way allows that content to be completely dynamic and user-modifiable, which enables us to create a truly user-created world. In fact, not only can one person change the world in real time, but a group of users can work collaboratively to build something together--each person will see everyone else's changes as they happen. We think that this state of constant flux makes Second Life a truly exciting place to be, because the entire world is different each time you visit.

nZone: How can users create their own objects and presentations in Second Life?

CO: Second Life has powerful, flexible in-world creation tools built in, so whenever you're making something, you're doing it right in the environment. To build something, you mold geometric primitives like clay. For example, you can take a cube and stretch it, twist it, hollow it out, change its material (it will behave differently if it's made of wood, stone or metal), etc. You can affix textures to it, so it looks like fabric, tile or glass. Using this functionality, you can even create and upload your own textures and sounds--to make special clothing or audio effects. Working with shapes and objects, you can make just about anything. One group of residents has created a Venice-style city, complete with its own canal system.

You can also can upload images and display them in-world. Residents have hosted "slide shows" of real-world images, as well as screenshots taken in Second Life, and then projected them on a big screen to tell their Second Life story to an in-world audience. A couple of our more artistic residents have uploaded images of their own artwork, creating virtual art galleries in Second Life.

Finally, there's a simple but powerful scripting language that allows you to add special effects to your objects. You can add simple behaviors--require a password to unlock your front door or make a working music box, for example. Some of our residents have taken the scripting to whole new levels that surprise even us. We have seen floating balloons, super-fast rocket-assisted hoverboards and even a mysterious flying spaceship that "abducts" unsuspecting avatars with a tractor beam.

nZone: What are the coolest things that you've seen done so far?

CO: People are creating amazing things so quickly, we can barely keep up with it all! Residents have created everything from a working carousel overlooking a beautiful lake to a flying helicopter in military camouflage. In terms of communities, there's a cyberpunk-themed city with elaborate high-rise structures, as well as a network of underground tunnels (with boobytrapped fans), an ancient Japanese village and a medieval community with a huge catapult and a scripted relay system that lights fires throughout the town when it gets dark.

Events are getting more impressive as well. We've seen two elaborate in-world weddings, which included their own venue, wedding cake and catered virtual food. Recently, one resident built an ornate theater and then hosted the first in-world drama production of an original play.

Finally, Second Life's infinite avatar customization tools have given rise to cool avatars. We've seen detailed anime-type avatars, Xena-esque fantasy figures with working bow and arrows, avatars in space gear, ridiculously small avatars ("Mini Me's," if you will), countless Elvises (of course) and even a wild green-skinned cowboy on a flying dinosaur.

nZone: Similarly, are you hearing about projects that are starting using Second Life as the stage or canvas, so to speak?

CO: Well, we know of several exciting projects in the works. One group is working on an area dedicated to historical Americana--including a Route 66 root beer stand, a "Gangland" Chicago, an old Hollywood-style movie set, a baseball stadium, a biker bar, an in-world Washington Monument, a large cathedral and even an area devoted to "Area 51." Another group is building a very cool "Airship Community"--a huge floating hangar, which already has 15 spaceships and flying machines, with more to come. And one resident has a huge superstore in progress, which is turning out to be a great place to buy just about everything that's for sale, such as weapons, clothing, surfboards, vehicles, etc.

nZone: Can you give away some of the future plans for Second Life--things that may not be implemented yet, but Linden Lab is working on?

CO: Well, alongside our regular, frequent updates with small features and fixes, we are targeting two major releases later this year, in the fall and before Christmas. In broad strokes, we are working on what we call "self governance," which basically means giving residents more tools to govern parts of the world themselves, such as electing local community leaders. We are also working on improved physical dynamics and support for large parties and get-togethers; improved mapping, directory search and shopping capabilities; and a redesigned, streamlined UI. Also, we've announced that we're working on a port for Macintosh OS X, with a Linux version to follow.

nZone: Linden Lab and NVIDIA signed a strategic alliance earlier this year. How will that benefit Second Life players?

CO: Our alliance with NVIDIA will ensure that Second Life's rendering engine takes advantage of NVIDIA's most advanced features, such as vertex and pixel shaders--enabling us to include visual effects, such as blowing and moving cloth and hair, realistic water movement, complex terrain and special weather and environmental effects. Advanced NVIDIA features will also help us to improve Second Life's industry-leading customizable avatars through additional layers, realistic human skin, improved material specific effects and smoother animation blending. And, of course, Second Life users who have cutting-edge 3-D hardware, such as NVIDIA's new GeForce™ FX 5900 graphics card, will be able to experience a faster and more immersive experience overall.

nZone: Finally, did Linden Lab pursue an ESRB rating for Second Life? I would guess not, because it's not listed on the ESRB site nor does the Second Life page feature a rating logo, but I'm also not sure if it's warranted given the nature of the product. I wanted to verify, though, for the sake of the story.

CO: We haven't yet pursued an ESRB rating. Currently, we only allow in new residents who are 18 or older, so we assume that this would earn us an Mature rating. In the future, if we open Second Life to people 13–18, we would make sure our design would allow for a Teen rating, equivalent to The Sims Online.

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