I just got out of testing out the new voice feature in Second Life, and I'm extremely impressed. It's now only available in the beta area of Second Life, and I can't wait for Linden Lab to deploy it throughout the entire service, which is due to happen one week from today.
The signal is clean, clear, and high-fidelity, much more so than a standard phone call. It's like having the person standing next to you. If you've used Skype, you expect that quality of service (when it's working -- the problem with Skype and other VoIP services is they tend to be more unreliable than plain old copper-wire phone service).
But voice in Second Life is better than Skype: The sound is three-dimensional. You hear the sound directionally. The avatar's voice seems to be coming from the direction the avatar is in relation to your avatar. If the speaker's avatar is coming from your left, you hear the voice from your left. If the speaker's avatar is coming from the right, you hear the voice from the right. If the avatar is far away, their voice is softer, if it's closer, it's louder. As you walk or otherwise move around, the sound seems to change direction appropriately.
Did I mention that the whole effect is excellent? I just love it.
Linden Lab expects voice in Second Life to be buggy at launch, currently scheduled for May 23, said Cory Ondrejka, CTO of Linden lab, in a telephone interview last week. "With anything that's cutting edge and anything that involves a mix of operating system issues, drivers, different microphones, and different headsets, and especially people who haven't used those things before, I think it's safe to say that there may be quirks," he said.
Linden Lab took Second Life down for regularly scheduled maintenance this morning, and announced that it would instead have a party on the voice beta grid, and was asking anybody and everybody to log in during to stress-test the application.
I tested out the voice beta in conjunction with Kim Smith, a Seattle-based Second Life marketing consultant who goes by the name "Rissa Maidstone." We weren't able to get it to work then. Performance was extraordinarily slow, probably because the test grid was so crowded. We finally logged off and then tried again later in the afternoon, when everything worked great -- eventually.
I had some difficulty getting started at first. I couldn't get my headset and microphone to work. Eventually, I discovered the problem: I was running Gizmo, an Internet telephony client, and the headset and microphone worked after I shut down Gizmo. Probably Gizmo had grabbed control of the headset and mike and wouldn't let Second Life use it. That kind of behavior is standard for a PC but I use a Mac, and I expect better behavior from the Mac. Harrumph.
Soon after I logged in, a IBMer who goes by the in-world name "Nigel Paravane" joined us, and two other people wandered by, and pretty soon we had a pleasant and informative five-way conversation going on.
I expect voice to take over Second Life. It's much more appropriate for business, certainly. What I'm starting to get a hint of is that the voice implementation in Second Life can be useful even without the visual elements of the world. What I'm saying here is that even people who think Second Life is for losers might find the audio in Second Life to be a great option for conference calling, better than Skype or Google Talk or WebEx or phone-company or PBX-based conference calling systems. Imagine walking through a virtual conference hall, sticking your head in the door to discreetly listen to a presentation a bit before deciding whether to join in.
Linden Lab described a list of features when announcing voice in Second Life in February:
Voice will be a standard part of Second Life, with no additional software needed. The only hardware you'll need is a headset with microphone.
Content providers -- known as "land owners" in Second Life jargon -- will be able to optionally enable or disable voice.
Users -- known in Second Life jargon as "residents" -- will be able to communicate across land parcels, with up to 100 users on a single conference. This is important because Second Life is currently limited to about 50 users on a single parcel of land.
Residents will be able to have one-on-one conversations over instant message.
I wonder if you'll be able to create ad-hoc groups-within-groups? Say you're on a meeting with 11 other people and you want to have a sidebar conversation with two of them, the equivalent of huddling together and whispering in a real-life meeting -- will there be an easy way to do that?
Voice in Second Life won't replace text chat, nor will it be for everyone.
Text chat can provide a useful backchannel for discussion of things going on in voice. A speaker can give a presentation and the audience can discuss it, or just pose questions, in text chat. That may sound rude to some -- but it's not rude if everybody, including the speaker, is comfortable with it.
Moreover, for many of the recreational aspects of Second Life, voice could well be jarring. One obvious example, which we all love to smirk about like 12-year-olds, is transgender avatars -- real-life men who pretend to be women, and vice-versa. I expect some of the men in Second Life will find out that their beautiful SL girlfriend is, in fact, tragically deaf and can't use voice.
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