Avatars play starring role at virtual seminar


Many of those attending a recent conference about 3D were scattered across cyberspace, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

THE PROGRAMME for the recent Metameets conference at Dublin Institute of Technology – flagged as Europe’s Premier 3D Internet and Developer Conference – carried an unusual little note after each speaker’s name: “live” or “virtual”.

For a conference about 3D and virtual worlds, perhaps it isn’t odd at all that about a third of the presentations were given not by someone standing before the audience, but by their avatars in some online virtual world like Second Life. That a good proportion of the audience was scattered across cyberspace too is the norm for this international event, now in its second year (it debuted in Amsterdam last year).

Add to that the oddity of having the conference organisers listed by both their real-life and their avatar names, and you get the picture.

These are people passionate about the virtual, who do not consider it just an amusing pastime, or a hobby, but a significant element of daily life and for many, their chosen area of entrepreneurship and business.

The business panel at the event had virtual keynotes from two of the very biggest fish in the virtual space: one by Philip Rosedale, the founder and chairman of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, and one by Mark Kingdon, Linden Lab’s chief executive.

For a while, Second Life seemed to be everywhere in the news and became one of the most overhyped online developments of the past decade. The intense media interest has waned but the community continues as a strong business with millions of users. Linden Lab is profitable and employs about 300 people.

At Metameets, Kingdon (in avatar-form) outlined new directions for Second Life, from the comfort of a virtual armchair inside that virtual world. Current plans include adding new social networking capabilities, bringing in more third-party developers and putting in European-based servers to improve the virtual experience for European users.

“To some it seems like we’re investing in new shiny things rather than things that are broken – and to some extent that is true,” he said. But he noted that the company would be “tuning the performance of Second Life in some really important ways”.

The company did major upgrades to the sprawling site earlier this year, he said, and now was focused on increasingly integrating networking technologies.

“My goal is not to make Second Life like Facebook, but I want to take some of those simple tools and bring them into Second Life,” he said. “We want to create more links to these social applications to make it easier to connect and share.”

For example, he feels that users of Second Life want to be able to share photos easily with other users, and Second Life will incorporate a button that will make this possible.

Asked by an audience member where Second Life might be going in the future, he said: “I think Second Life will be this incredibly powerful construct that permeates the web at large, accessed through many devices.”

His company chairman, Philip Rosedale, also thinks virtual worlds are here to stay and will be accessed on the move, increasingly through mobile devices.

Also interviewed in avatar form in Second Life, he said that, as a child, he’d had a love of building things with Lego and erector sets. With Second Life, he had “the chance to build sort of the craziest Lego kit you could imagine”.

Second Life has been built and developed at the same pace as its parent company Linden Lab. “The company has been a parallel path of building Second Life and building the company that was building Second Life,” he noted.

Now, he is launching another company, LoveMachine, which – if you thought Second Life was a bit off the wall – is set to seriously trump it in the eccentricity stakes. It has been hard for most people visiting the Lovemachine.com website to figure out what exactly LoveMachine is but, as Rosedale explains it, it is “a radical extension” of Second Life, “a kind of clean room opportunity to extend and play” with some of the ideas worked into Second Life.

In practice so far, that has meant building a set of tools for companies “for helping people to work together” which includes a tool to let workers thank each other (called LoveMachine), as well as tools for creating worklists, tracking what people are working on and awarding bonuses for hitting targets.

But that’s not all. The company is also trying to develop the equivalent of the human brain online, a working, thinking piece of artificial intelligence. Second Life’s servers already process and store as much data as the brain, he says. Somehow, it should be possible to imbue that collective knowledge with intelligence.

“We’re at a tipping point. We have enough processing power and storage to build something akin to a human intelligence.” To do what? He wasn’t clear on that point.

It’s certainly not a normal business model, nor is the way LoveMachine operates – basically, anyone can apply to work “there” though there’s no “there”, there. Instead, the workforce, or those based in San Francisco, settle into any one of the city’s many coffee shops that might serve as that day’s “office”.

Which is about as virtual as a virtual company can get. What happens next? Wait for next year’s Metameets and you might get an answer – probably from an avatar.


ATTENDING A conference virtually has its advantages. There’s the low carbon footprint for a start, once travel is removed from the picture.

Then there’s the undeniable attraction that, officially, you are off in a virtual space like Second Life with your well-dressed, younger-looking avatar showing your slides, while in RL (real life) you are unshowered and slumped on the sofa in flannel pyjamas, drinking tea.

Being at a real life conference in which you are watching those virtual presenters, however, has its ups and downs.

At the Metameets event at Dublin Institute of Technology recently, where many presentations were made in Second Life by avatars, my real self found it slightly disconcerting to look at an avatar with gravity-defying spiky hair, or a drifting feather-like sleeve, without focusing more on the avatar’s distracting attributes than what they were saying.

But on consideration, that is not unlike trying to focus on an oddly dressed or mannered real-life conference presenter. It was admittedly stranger to watch speakers levitate out of their seats and vanish once their talk was done (as in Second Life, you often fly away).

The real negatives were the occasionally glitchy sound, and the fact that someone could easily hit the wrong button and lose the connection midtalk for all of us in the real audience for several minutes.

Then, there’s a temptation for some in the real audience to carry on a private conversation with a neighbour while the avatar, happily oblivious halfway across the world, chats on.

On the other hand, I found I often forgot I was watching an avatar.

The visual presentation made a Second Life conference format much nicer than, say, watching a jerky satellite video connection or simply listening in to a conference call.

Still, as a format it has a way to go before I’d consider it virtually the equal of being there.