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Gods and Monsters: The Technology Gap and The Service Triangle in Second Life

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"Cheap, fast, good. Pick two."

The number of times I've said that in my career is uncountable. It's true of design, architecture, catering, contracting, and all other industries as well. It's called the Service Triangle and it's something very close to an immutable law of the universe. Pick two, because you only get two at once. In an industry where each individual job can have different parameters (like interior design), this is not a very difficult prospect, because while client A might want cheap and good, client b might want fast and good, and both clients can be accommodated. However when things are hard wired into a system, such as the case with a virtual environment like Second Life, you start to have problems and need creative solutions to solve them.

Multiple Triangles

SL has a problem, because in reality it's comprised of not one, but two service triangles, and (in you really want to get technical, a linear spectrum as well.) These are all important and need to be understood.

One triangle has to do with what the platform is capable of doing (good), how fast it can do it (fast), and what the costs are to the residents, and to the Lab itself (cheap). But the other is on the end that Linden Lab cannot control, and that has to do with the hardware the resident is using to access the platform. Computer hardware has its own triangle- how powerful the system is and how little maintenance it may need- and if you add in the case of laptops, how portable it is (good), vs. how much the system costs, both outright and to maintain (cheap), vs, how fast the system can perform (fast). Competing with all of this is another thing that Linden Lab cannot control- that is how technologically savvy the users are. They will fall along a spectrum of being very comfortable with computer technology, to not comfortable at all. For those whose eyes just glazed over here's my lo-fi infographic showing these relationships:

SLtriangle.jpg

If we were to speak about what Linden Lab *can* control, that being the demands and potentials of their own platform, catering to one end alienates potential users. If Second Life becomes to complicated for most people to grasp and understand (which has been a problem for them in the past (see: the viewer issue), people simply won't use it. If they make the hardware demands too great for most computers to handle, the same thing will happen (see: Skylight) . But catering to the other end hampers the entire platform and makes it lag behind in technological advances that not only keep it current, but could potentially be very profitable (see: mesh support and integration with other existing social networks- basically, see the Tinfoil Hat Theory.)

Unfortunately, attempts to go straight up the middle have resulted in confusion and disarray, creating situations where not everyone is on the same page. For example, currently there's a number of third party viewers still based firmly in viewer 1 code, and there will be a gap of several months before any of them are able to successfully strip v2 code and put it in a v1 user interface. Also, for years the building system has languished and lagged behind major available technological advances (mesh being one of them, but there's others as well), in part simply to avoid alienating people who currently build and create in Second Life but don't have the technological comfort, expertise or hardware needed in order to take advantage of them, hobbling what is possible with the platform.

Created In Your Own Image.

There's a school of thought that believes that people create gods in their own image. Basically, or so it goes, people envision their god as agreeing with whatever it is they feel should be true. Since people draw upon their own experiences to draw conclusions about the world around them, it's not surprising that no matter where you fall on the technology/hardware spectrum, you tend to think that most people are just like you. Anyone who has less is a luddite. Anyone who has more is a technogeek. If they spent less on their system than you did, they were cheap, but if they spent more, they were a wealthy elitist (btw this theory holds true whilst driving on the highway and in politics. It's kind of a universal system.)

But this way of thinking is flawed. As an example, I need to look no farther than Apple Computer. Macs have a significantly higher price point than PCs, and yet, a large part of their marketing has been geared toward people who know nothing whatsoever about computers. The higher price you pay for a Mac is in part due to the fact that they are so simple they require little to no computer expertise in order to use one. People who would otherwise be apprehensive about using computer technology are reassured by the Mac's simplicity, and are willing to pay quite a bit to not have to worry about needing to "know about computers."

As another example, let's talk about laptops. Laptop computers (of any stripe) are more expensive by far than similarly powered desktop models. Again, it's about the service triangle. What you gain in portability, you lose in computing power. A 700 dollar laptop may be okay, but for $700 you can build a PC desktop with significantly greater capabilities. What you buy, like anything else has to do with a balance between how much you can afford (cheap), how powerful it is (fast) and how much maintenance it might need and how portable it is (good.) Service triangle- just like everything else.

Which brings me back to Second Life.

"The Times, They Are a-Changin'"

Recently it seems that Linden Lab has recognized that this is a problem, and has begun testing Skylight, a web based viewer for Second Life that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. While easily accessible and requiring a lesser hardware investment than a fully invested Second Life experience (see: cheap), and can be accessed via any browser at any time without an additional download (see: fast) it has some problems- notably bandwidth. An hour using Skylight (granted this is only in testing and may change) uses a whopping 1080mb of bandwidth (for those who don't metric, that's a gig of bandwidth). For people who are on internet packages with a cap, that's a huge expenditure for only an hour's worth of time. Also, there's a larger question- one of "good". Currently, the test allows the user to only visit a small list of pre-selected destinations. You have no inventory, and cannot buy or sell things. In fact, during this test, there is no search, either, which makes sense since everything is essentially being spoonfed to you anyway. The experience may be fast, and it may (depending on your internet package) be cheap- but good is iffy at best. To date, Skylight remains a lowest common denominator solution. This may not be so bad for people who are functioning with low end technology, and it certainly will bring them a larger audience via the Tinfoil Hat Theory if it is able to link up with existing social networks like Facebook. But as of now (and granted, it's still just in testing), it's a limited experience and not much of a comparison to what you get with the stand-alone Second Life program.

Skylight - 3D Chat Zones 2.png

Exponential vs. Linear

Though people's income (in a decent economy- let's pretend a second, shall we?) increases in a linear fashion, technological advancements don't work that way. Technology increases and expands on an exponential basis. What this means in this case is that the computer hardware people have at their disposal becomes rapidly stripped by the demands of the types of things they would like to do with it. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that console gaming took the lead away from PC gaming years ago- because replacing computer systems would always be far more expensive and with a shorter gaming lifespan than buying a console- even an expensive one. In the case of Second Life, this becomes more complex when you divide the userbase into broad categories like consumers and content creators.

The Capital Investment

One of the best things about being a content creator in Second Life is that you can go into business with a very small to nonexistent capital investment and make a profit. This is one of the ways that SL is superior to RL. However, though the average user can go for a lowest common denominator experience (such as that currently offered by the beta test of Skylight), for content creators, it's a little different. You need to recognize that the technological advances to the platform are going to keep moving, and though you may not have much of a capital investment in-world, where you do in fact have one is in real life, in terms of your computer hardware. While you *can* operate Second Life on a middle of the road to low end laptop (I know- I have one in addition to my desktop system), I also know it's not an easy, fast or fun experience. Creating content on such a device is even worse. Why? Because midrange and low end laptops do not contain the graphics capabilities to run immersive 3d environments well. Period. Full stop. This is not news, and it should come as a shock to no one. Laptops which are devoted to 3d gaming are expensive. Desktop systems provide far more power at a significantly lower price point and are much more upgradeable.

Here we have an example of the technology gap. Content creators who years ago, when Second Life was much simpler and less technologically advanced could get by with using one of these systems to create and sell products are finding that with each leap forward, they are falling further and further behind. This is because the tech is exponential, while the ability to afford hardware is linear. It's also what's currently being addressed by things like Skylight. But Skylight won't solve the problem for content creators- it will at best create a low end, but accessible experience for consumers of content.

Content creators must understand that there is a capital investment that must be addressed here- and that is one of RL computer hardware, and one of time, in order to learn how to maximize potential with these new advancements. Though the SL viewer 2 is unpopular, it will be many months before a third party viewer is able to successfully strip the code and shove it into a viewer 1 UI. By that time, creators who are capable of adopting the new changes will have a huge headstart on those who weren't able to do that.

Though it is not necessary to be a computer geek, or independently wealthy in order to keep up (though both of course provide additional advantages), the real winners in this game are those who understand the fundamental power of the service triangle and accept that it is an immutable law which cannot be circumvented. Just like any other industry, one has to keep up with the latest technology in order to prosper, and though the costs of doing business in SL are less than in RL, they are not completely nonexistent and to ignore them as a content creator comes at your own peril.

Potential advances such as Skylight might offer a fast, easy, fun consumer experience. But in Second Life where all content is user created, advancing technologies like mesh are the wave of the future for virtual goods. At this point a different kind of investment is needed by content creators. More time. More money. Better hardware. In order to take advantage of a 10 billion dollar virtual goods market, you need to invest a little bit yourself, and to think otherwise is setting yourself up for failure and frustration.

Creators and Adaptation

At this point, it seems clear that Linden Lab has decided that they must advance the platform. Frankly, this is long overdue. While consumers of content may be able to take advantage of a low end, low tech solution, content creators have become quite used to getting something for essentially nothing in terms of hard costs vs. the cost of a RL business and that has to change. Though creators may gripe about the additional expense, it is simply a cost of doing business and the choices are either to keep up, or be left behind.


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