The world Philip made

I am not often invited to chime in on a topic (unless it is SL Y-K-W‘s interface design, for some reason, and I still suspect those who do invite me of pulling my leg — pointing out it is abysmally bad, and getting worse instead of better, hardly makes me an expert after all), and thus I am usually happy to comply, especially when the invitation comes from a friend (yes, Grace, and by the way, you still owe me for risking snow blindness testing Dazzle). But when my friend Rick van der Wal recently invited me to comment on the discussion going on about « immersionism » versus « augmentationism » he had kicked off (or rather : rekindled) on his blog, I have been loath to comment. Particularly loath, I must say, not only because people I admire for their opinions and intelligence butted heads so hard the sparks flew (though I must admit it is a tad intimidating), but mainly because, simply, I don’t get the whole discussion. At all.

Call me stupid.

Well, actually, I prefer to be called other things (chérie, for instance, is veeery nice, though some people make my heart flutter as much when they call me vicieuse — you know who you are), but stupid will do for the time being. Because I must be missing something seeing how heated the debate gets. Which is why I decided to post my misgivings here, and hope for my peers and betters to point out what I have missed. Please be kind.

Always one for delaying the bashing by a display of good research (who said I hated dazzle ?), I’ll start by pointing out that I am indeed aware of the discussion having gone on for quite some time, as well as of its roots in the debate surrounding the advent of voice in the SL Y-K-W client. I have read Henrik Bennetsen’s Augmentation vs Immersion on the SL Y-K-W wiki ; admired Argent Bury’s manifesto, Taking a Stand and Sophrosyne Steenvag’s Open Letter To My Augmentationist Friends for their clearness and radicalness of thought — though I find myself unable, and unwilling to follow these two down the path of styling myself a fully autonomous digital being. I am aware they are considered the ultimate immersionists. I also know many of the bloggers and SL Y-K-W personalities I most admire side with them, to a different degree — Dandellion Kimban, Gwyneth Llewelyn, Grace McDunnough just to name a few… forming a camp, to quote the wiki, pitted against another one of people who, well, do what exactly — regularly use SL Y-K-W without immersing themselves into it in the least ?

I don’t get that.

Yes, yes, Continue reading

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Le rouge et le noir

Now that my Dazzle induced snow blindness has abated, I realise it is too easy to poke fun of the whole thing, and that doing so misses the point utterly. The Dazzle team’s total obliviousness to all theories of ergonomics and interface development and their utterly amateurish take on widget and icon graphics makes them such an easy target, one might easily lose sight (no pun intended this time) of the one fact that should be central to all discussions of the Second Life client interface (and which the Dazzle revamp does absolutely nothing to address) : it is about content.

Second Life You-Know-Where is content.

The client is only a toolbox to access and manipulate that. It’s main problem (all right — besides being horribly inconsistent) is to aspire at being a full fledged, self contained OS-like application, when it should be more like a browser : a window to a world outside your computer, connecting it to and integrating it into your computer. Basically, we are talking modularity and OS integration. I for one would like to know why SL does not allow the transfer into and out of the world of event data (beyond copy and paste of plain text) ; I mean, ever heard of vCalendar / iCalendar, LL ? Or why login does not make use of OS features (password store on Windows, keychain on OS X) ? Or why the client doesn’t even use OS native text editing widgets (I never noticed that before switching to a Mac, because SL Y-K-W‘s widgets are modelled on Windows’ — but in fact, SL Y-K-W is the only app on my Mac disdaining to use the system spellchecker, or stubbornly refusing to advance the cursor from word to word with Option-arrow) ? Or why we have to download a texture to edit it, then re-upload it after doing so, instead of integrating off-world editors ? I could keep going on, but I think you get my drift… I’m ready to bet client development would profit greatly from such a paradigm shift, concentrating on the logical structure of the browser and the best way to make it work with content, instead of wasting manpower on re-developing OS features. And so, of course, would we all.

I’m not naive enough to believe this is more than a pipe dream. But one is allowed to dream, don’t you think ? Especially when one sees what astonishing things content creators manage to do despite the bad state of the tools they are using. We can’t remember that often enough, because, when all is said and done, user content is one of the things that makes Second Life unique, and immersive, and addictive. The other is the range of customisations possible on our avatars. Shapes, skins, fashion ; no virtual world offers opportunities quite like these, and there is more to it than glitz — far more. Because, as my friend Rick van der Wal once rightly said, the real interface to the virtual is your avatar. The software is but the conduit.

Nothing could serve as a better memento of this in my mind than CodeBastard Redgrave‘s wonderful Boudoir Rouge photo series — and not only since I had the undeserved honour of posing for her among women smarter and more creative than I am by far (she’ll scold me for saying this — Codie isn’t just one wonderful and gifted SL Y-K-W photographer, she’s also one the most generous and kind persons I have ever met — besides being ebullient, raucously funny, and a very smart person to boot). I’ll quote her verbatim on her series :

The Boudoir Rouge series is an ode to beauty of all the great ladies of the metaverse, mostly those who influenced my Second Life You-Know-Where. This serie portrays women avatars I admire greatly because they are all smart, creative, and lovely. Boudoir Rouge is not a who’s who of Second Life’s most popular girls; it is a very intimate and personal road I’m following. Sometimes meeting with people I never met before, or sometimes they are good old friends who had a huge impact on my own second life, and some other times its people that inspires not only my own Second Life You-Know-Where but your own too.

To me, in creating such beautiful content by capturing the beauty of the real interface to our world — the avatars we have painstakingly crafted and lavished so much care and love on — Codie’s series embodies much of the double essence of Second Life You-Know-Where. Don’t take my word for it. Go take a break from interface rants, crashing woes, and resentment at Linden Lab. Let her pictures (Flickr slideshow over here, album view over here) soothe you. If nothing else, it might provide a shred of much needed aesthetic relief. And if you are lucky, they will help you renew your commitment to the one part of marketing spin Second Life You-Know-Where is truly about : Our imagination.

Don’t we bleed white like you ?

Grace McDunnough challenged me to it, and I took up the gauntlet : I downloaded and tried the Dazzle First Look viewer, just to see what I was ranting about up close.

Now, I’m not going to be a Mac fan girl again and complain about the fact it now looks even less native on OS X than it ever did. That is a fate I have made up my mind to bear with dignity. No, in fact, I published an entirely unbiased pictorial review of the interface bling revamp the Lindens are pushing on us. Head to my Flickr stream and read through my comments if you care. And forgive me for going to bed, I have acute snow blindness to cure.

Bookmark this post…

Dazzling you senseless

So it is finally out of the closet (err, I mean dark recesses of LL development. Anybody noticed how much of that stuff actually surfaces since Cory is no longer CTO ?) : Dazzle is here to improve your interface!.

Quoting the official Linden blog :

Seemingly small changes make a big difference. A simple psychological exercise: think about eating a steak in a prison cell with harsh fluorescent lights. Then, think about eating that very same steak in a posh restaurant by candlelight. Which experience would you prefer? And which would you regard as the higher quality?

In a similar way, even if actual inworld content looks the same (like the steak), if the environment you use to experience it — the user interface — looks awful, you’re likely going to feel uncomfortable and annoyed, even if you can’t describe exactly why.

I’m not going to comment on how the Lindens try to spin the fact that their take on the much needed interface rework amounts to a pretty modest skinning effort. But the two screen shots LL are publishing here did start a furious, megalomaniac itch to tell them to look at my interface rant.

Then I thought : They must be kidding, right ?

Until I read the User Interface Roadmap.

Sigh.

Second Life Guess

[I apologize for not being able to correct the title of this post so as to conform to the new trademark policy of Linden Research. A suggestion by the office of C. Linden and / or Linden Research’s censorship trademark lawyers is however pending]

Linden Lab’s ban on SL Y-K-W banks is in effect as of today, on the dot two weeks after it has been announced. Two weeks in which, in the words of Massively’s Tateru Nino :

…we’ve had protests – some assuredly genuine, some apparently staged – runs on banks (a sort of game of musical chairs, where everyone hopes not to be the one left standing when the music stops), and the usual commingled mish-mash of cheering, screaming, jesting and angry outbursts…

— much of it happening in the SL Y-K-W blogosphere (see my own round-up of it here). Now the grace period is over, the economic effect of the ban turns to have fallen somewhat short of the sky caving in, in fact seeming to be near to negligible for the SL Y-K-W economy as a whole (though I am sure that on the personal level, for people having lost money in the crash, this is an entirely different story).

Seeing that and the fact that Linden Lab seem nowhere close to reverting their decision, the discussion of the pro and con seems to have petered out somewhat. Artur Fermi stating in essence « Good riddance, and keep the hype down » on Your2ndPlace and Aldon Huffhines / Hynes arguing on SLNN that Linden Lab’s decision is ill conceived and drives needed financial services out of the official grid, and that LL should reconsider are more or less the last ones to battle it out. Prokofy Neva and Benjamin Duranske on the other hand have added most welcome shades of grey to the often black and white discussion by casting some light on the people behind the banks. So, what am I up to, besides fawning for some more pats on the back for my diligent compiling work ?

Well, there is a twist on the debate I find fascinating : Continue reading

Linden Lab en route to Hell, at last

The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. The same might be true of other destinations held akin to hell by individuals and organizations, though it is a matter of debate if these destinations would be considered such by anyone but the traveller. Take Linden Lab and governance for instance. One could argue the point that for the bunch of laid back coders and start-up entrepreneurs that constitute LL’s core, the notion of governance is by its very nature indeed hell. If it is, LL has taken a big step down that road, the biggest to date, and — of course — out of good intentions.

Hell ? Governance ? Girl, what are you gabbing about ?

Well, you will not have missed the fact that, with its New Policy Regarding In-World “Banks”, effective from January 22nd, Linden Lab has decreed what amounts to a total ban of in-world banking activities. This has been hailed, or at least acknowledged as inevitable, by observers as diverse as Benjamin Duranske, Prokofy Neva, Nobody Fugazi, Tateru Nino and Dusan Writer; dissenters have been few and in between, easily dismissed as either obvious lobbyists (for instance Arbitrage Wise, « CEO » of JT Financial) or as missing the point (see Lillie Yifu’s angry retort to Robert Bloomfield’s plea for a continuation of SL Y-K-W banking activities as a sandbox for RL studies). Not surprisingly, the decision sat far less well with depositors, who, on hearing the news, panically flocked to the ATMs to withdraw their deposits en masse before the impending closure of their « bank » (see Prokofy Neva’s superb on the spot reportage ; also the articles on Your2ndPlace and Massively), as well as being accompanied by cries of « despotism » on the comments everywhere. The whole thing simply reeks of RL déjà-vu.

Now I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of the banking ban, nor of its implementation (try aforementioned Arbitrage Wise on Your2ndPlace, or Aldon Hynes on SLNN, a man also on record for saying it needed Colgate to bring smiling to SL Y-K-W avatars, for criticism of that). There is little my gut feeling and homebrew reasoning can contribute to what brighter minds have written. Neither am I going to ponder the question what the balance between scammers and little boys playing bank might have been ; being neither a lawyer, nor a theologian, I find the degree of inherent malice pretty irrelevant to my opinion of the impact of people’s actions.

What I do find interesting is why Linden Lab felt necessary to step in — and what this means for the future of Second Life as a society, a topic I hold dear since the spectacular failure of my first and only recurrence to in-world policing.

Gwyneth Llevelyn has summarized the three current theories about LL’s motivations. In a nutshell, these are : Continue reading

Pardon me, but you lost an U back there

I recently read Hamlet Au’s Is Second Life’s User Interface Cursed by Knowledge? post on new World Notes, where he tries to put the finger on the failure of Second Life You-Know-Where’s user interface to make the world and its usage accessible to newcomers. I even commented, a quick shot and rant that failed to relieve me, instead simmering inside my mind since, eventually to take the shape of the following post.

Hamlet Au’s argument hinges on the theory of « the curse of knowledge » as propounded in a New York Times article he quotes. The gist of it seems to be that woeful interface design is the result of people deciding which features should be exposed in the interface, and how, on the basis of too much technical knowledge. He concludes :

So how do you fix the Second Life You-Know-Where user interface? In all honesty, I probably can’t say. Then again, the Lindens can’t say. Metaverse developers can’t say. Longtime Residents can’t say. And if you read this blog on a regular basis, you likely can’t say, either. Thanks to the curse of knowledge, the very people who know Second Life You-Know-Where most are also the least qualified to introduce it to a mass audience. (This is probably why the open source initiative and heads-up displays have failed to improve user retention– most of the improvements and features to come out of them are made not for new users, but for established Residents.)

Now I think there is little doubt the interface of Second Life You-Know-Where could be tremendously improved to flatten the notoriously steep learning curve of new residents. Honestly, those of us who did not have an excellent background in 3D / FPS gaming had great difficulties mastering even the most elementary parts of Second Life (moving, interacting with objects, camera controls — more about these later) on the first go — I know I had. As to more advanced functions, I’m ready to bet that even long term residents are unaware of many tweaks, tricks and minor but useful functions.

As a moderately long term SL Y-K-W resident (my first rezzday approaches fast), I am eminently not qualified to comment on the improvement of SL Y-K-W’s interface according to the « curse of knowledge » theory. I cannot help feeling, though, that hands on experience as the (mostly unwilling) user and victim of a plethora of interface concepts and implementations both in hardware and in software form does count — in your case as in mine, for that matter : just look at the small ecosystem of remotes that probably has evolved in your living room as it has in mine, never mind the applications and underlying operating system of your computer —, and that some understanding of what you actually can do with an item (be it hardware of software) is necessary to ponder the best way to use it, though, obviously, this might often not be the one chosen by the manufacturer or propounded by current thinking (anybody remember the Office Assistant ?). Which is why I will count the fact that I never designed a complex technical system (software or other) in my life, and that I am happily and utterly oblivious of all theories of interface design as a big plus.

One thing that struck me in the comments that followed Hamlet’s post is that what most people discussed was the graphical interface to SL Y-K-W. The talk was of better and more appealing graphic widgets and of adding more « intuitive » interface elements as well as introducing the web metaphor into the client (a teleport back button, for instance), besides the odd call for splitting the monolithic viewer into smaller tools (*nix geek syndrome, I think this one is called). Basically, the commenters seem to agree that what sucks about the GUI of Second Life You-Know-Where is the « G(raphical) » part.

I disagree. To me, the user interface is far more than the window system, widget set, or « skin » as it is fashionably called these days, used by an application. I don’t think the main problem of SL Y-K-W‘s interface is graphical in its nature.

Just have a short look at it Continue reading