Painting big pictures with small stories – what the VR tech industry can learn from Second Life residents

Left to Right: Robert Morgan, game writer, narrative designer and voice director; Dan O'Hara, Senior Lecturer in English, New College of the Humanities, London; Zillah Watson, Editor, BBC Research & Development and Luciana Haill, a 'neurofeedback' artist.
Left to Right: Robert Morgan, game writer, narrative designer and voice director; Dan O’Hara, Senior Lecturer in English, New College of the Humanities, London; Zillah Watson, Editor, BBC Research & Development and Luciana Haill, a ‘neurofeedback’ artist. Photo by @rowlsmanthorpe (Rowland Manthorpe)

London Technology Week kicked off yesterday, and today I attended a panel presentation called “Ready Player Two? Bringing virtual reality dreams to life“. Generally, the speakers talked about the possibilities of virtual reality from their perspectives: entertainment, philosophical, journalistic, and artistic.

One of the presenters talked about how virtual reality might affect gamers and game narrative. Another talked about the possible ethical considerations of interacting with others in virtual worlds. Another talked about newscasters reading the news in 3-dimensional space.

Really? is this the cutting edge of virtual reality that we should be getting excited about?

I left somewhat underwhelmed, despite the free wine, the discussion being about something I’m really interested in, and the subject itself that is just ripe for intellectually challenging discussion. There was something missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve used Second Life for as long as I have. Or, maybe the DraxFiles Radio Hour has spoiled me – with its weekly injection of thought-provoking guest perspectives from the exciting world of VR. With all due respect to the presenters at Ready Player Two, the talk just didn’t have the ooomph I was looking for.

Demoing the Samsung Gear
Demoing the Samsung Gear

When I got home, I was tweeting the above pic when I found Draxtor’s retweets of a new series of videos called “What Second Life Means to Me”, just released by Linden Lab, featuring both Xiola and Torley Linden, Strawberry Singh, Kaya Angel, Gentle Heron, and Draxtor Despres.

As I read the blog post and watched the videos (below), it dawned on me what was missing from the event I had just attended. Emotion! Stories! Actual cases of people using virtual reality to make the world (even their own) a better place!

I couldn’t help but reimagine the evening. I honestly wondered: Wouldn’t a dozen back-to-back episodes of the DraxFiles World Makers videos have done a better job at exciting the audience about what virtual reality can offer – today?

Perhaps the sponsors wouldn’t have been too happy with that idea. And of course, the world of VR extends well beyond the walls of Second Life.

Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: Putting aside the headsets, the motion controllers and the VR demos for a moment – isn’t all this excitement about real people actually using virtual reality? Wouldn’t seeing how people use the tools at our disposal for communicating, for creating, and for healing help sell the future of what virtual reality might be about? Doesn’t what we’ve been doing – for over nearly 12 years now – have the potential to teach the world at large about this incredibly exciting new world of possibilities? Talk about really bringing virtual reality dreams to life!

As I considered the enormous job of spreading that message – I became a little daunted by the prospect. How can a few people make these great ideas stick, in the overwhelming cacophony of the peripheral – mainly dominated by large corporates intent on narrating our perception of what virtual reality is supposed to be about?

Of course, there’s plenty more to discuss about VR than just a few people’s positive experiences with this weird thing called Second Life. There are start-ups to run, markets to be penetrated, and worlds to be changed. But perhaps – and in this I think Draxtor has it right – it starts locally – right here, right now.

As the tech industry imagines what virtual reality can be, it would massively benefit from understanding the experiences of those who’ve made excellent use of virtual reality already – in its current form.

11 thoughts on “Painting big pictures with small stories – what the VR tech industry can learn from Second Life residents

  1. I get the feeling sometimes that the general public is afraid to come out and talk about what immersive VR in a SL (living our wildest dreams) means. Just because we can dream about it, see it, maybe even feel it, should we? Maybe there is a need for an ethical think tank of some sort? Some open discussion to ease a transition into what is commonly acceptable in a first layer of VR simulation?

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    1. No one has to share any or all of their virtual reality experiences. However, if we want any say in what we want future virtual reality experiences to be like, then keeping quiet about what they are now isn’t going to contribute to that discourse. The other thing to consider is people don’t have to share *everything* to share something. What we’re seeing here (in the “DraxFiles World Makers” series and in “What Second Life Means to Me” series) are carefully presented slices of what virtual reality is like for some people.

      I’ve heard criticisms from people that what Draxtor presents is elitist – only featuring (good looking in RL) creators that represent a tiny proportion of what Second Life residents tend to do on a regular basis. Justified or not, this new series – “What Second Life Means to Me” – levels the playing field by enabling *anyone*, and encouraging everyone to share their story – as they themselves want to present it. I don’t think we need a external organising body to tell us what we should and shouldn’t share and discuss – I’d much rather have it in the hands of the people that make up the world we currently live in, telling their stories with only the filters they themselves choose to apply.

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    1. It’s a very fast moving field and we’re already over 12 months since Facebook bought Oculus Rift for 2 billion dollars, making everyone with even the most tangential interest in VR wake up and take notice. It amazes me how people in tech are either ignorant of – or choose to ignore – Second Life as a jumping off point for where VR has been, and can go. I suppose if Linden Lab ever went public, or sold out to famous buyer for ridiculous sums of money, then we’d see that change very quickly.

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  2. very thought provoking post Becky!! I suppose as was mentioned my interest might also be how we can use the virtual platform to make the real world a better place as opposed to just an escape (which is sometimes good) or as an alternate universe to in which to live. That raised a few red flags for me in the past. The artistic aspect of SL is immense. I of course think the “ethical” question one of your colleagues put forth as important. I as of yet don’t have the “emotional” connections of many who have been here consistently through the years ( I took a few years away) but what does excite me is the story aspect always. People’s real stories and perceptions- no holds barred, imaginative stories, stories with a twist, Basilique plays- feed me stories!! 😀 I think the virtual world is perfect for that.

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    1. Robert Morgan (on the panel) addressed the importance of story and how important it was in order to keep people engaged – even when interfaces and graphics lagged behind. As I considered that argument from a game designer, I did imagine how cool it would be for new registrants to Second Life to be offered a limited-time story mode, where they are encouraged to make up a character that engages in a planned story with others for at least a little while. Of course, I’m not suggesting *all* of SL be like this, but for those for whom narrative is important, it would be an excellent way to keep people engaged as they began to explore our world.

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        1. Oh! I remember Myst and Riven! They were very fun! I went and had a look at the graphics of those games just now on their wikipedia pages, and they look remarkably like what good SL builds look like today! We’ve caught up to mid-90’s console games – woohoo! In all seriousness though, gamification and narrative would go a long way towards getting people who come into SL asking themselves “what’s the point?” over the stickyness hump. It might be of limited interest afterwards (once people find out more about SL and what else can be done with it beyond gaming), but it would work wonders for initiation.

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          1. PS: Becky I forgot to tell you. Cyan and Rand Miller are putting out a new game this year “Obduction” in the same flavour as the old stories. Which brings me to one other thing I personally find missing in SL – Quests!! Strain the brain! Most of my creativity is done outside of SL as I dont do Machinima ( which is wonderful) or building. But when I was here before I created a quest ( yes! with scripting- arghh) on an Irish theme that was written up in Prim perfect mag. fun stuff and my only claim to SL fame. 😀

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