A Second Look At Voice In Second Life

Linden Lab shared some rough target dates this afternoon for deploying voice on the main grid -- it's coming up soon. Also: I've had an opportunity to play with voice some more over the past week, and I continue to be extremely impressed.

Linden Lab shared some rough target dates this afternoon for deploying voice on the main grid -- it's coming up soon. Also: I've had an opportunity to play with voice some more over the past week, and I continue to be extremely impressed.

I talked this afternoon with Joe Miller, vice president for platforms and technology development for Linden Lab. He told me that June 6 is when Linden Lab will start its first, beta deployment of voice on a small part of the main area of Second Life -- called the "main grid." At that point, voice in Second Life will be feature-complete. They're still rolling out features for the beta.

Right now, voice is available on the "beta grid" -- a portion of Second Life where Linden Lab does its first-stage beta of new features.

Beginning with the deployment that starts June 6, voice users will need to run a beta version of the Second Life client, called a "First Look" client.

The grid will be lit up for voice in the order that the sims came online -- oldest areas first, newest areas last. The plan is for the entire grid to be lit up for voice in 30 days.

Miller and I talked over voice while on the on the beta grid. It was the third time I've tried voice in Second Life, and I continued to find it impressive.

Voice in Second Life isn't merely an excellent enhancement to Second Life. It's also a vastly superior alternative to other means of doing conference calls among groups of people.

The voice is three-dimensional and directional. People with avatars standing near yours sound louder, people whose avatars are further away sound quieter and more attenuated. The sound changes appropriately as your avatars move closer together and further apart. Likewise, the voices of people whose avatars are standing to your left or right sound like they're coming from the appropriate direction.

While Miller and I were talking, I turned my avatar around in a circle while standing in one place. His voice moved appropriately from my left earpiece to my right, and back again. We walked along a virtual roadside together so he could point out a particularly interesting feature of the "sim," or area of Second Life, that we were in; he got ahead of me and his voice got softer, but I hurried to catch up and his voice got louder as I did.

By the way, the sim was Tableau. I've been there before and it's really well-done -- check it out if you haven't already.

Voice has volume controls for each of the speakers you're listening to. If someone is breathing too hard into their microphone -- which seems to be a feature of any conference call involving more than six people -- you can mute them out. Likewise, if someone has a very small voice, you can turn up the volume on their speaking. That's all set up with a control panel that shows you the names of active speakers around you.

"It gives you the ability to tailor your audio stream for your needs and desires," Miller said.

Moreover, icons to one side of the names of the avatars speaking will light up to indicate who's speaking. Likewise, a green icon above the speaker's head pulsates to show who's speaking, with the icon growing larger to indicate greater volume, and turning red if the speaker's microphone is overheating. Some of the avatars, including Miller's, have animations so they move their bodies and gesture realistically as they speak; my avatar doesn't have any speech animations.

The voice is handled on a completely separate network and set of servers from the main Second Life grid. So voice won't have any effect on performance for non-voice parts of Second Life, and vice-versa.

You can set up voice chat with people who are nowhere near you, all the way on the other side of the grid. And you can set up group calls. The moderator of group calls has the option of muting all microphones of participants, or muting or activating mikes on an individual basis.

Future versions of the voice client, to roll out on the beta grid in the next couple of weeks, will give you the ability to control the sound system on your computer, managing whether input and output are handled by a headset, and internal microphone and speakers.

Voice gives you an opportunity to sidestep the scalability limits of Second Life. There's no theoretical limit to the number of people who can be tuned in to a voice discussion in Second Life.

The ability to set up voice events of theoretically unlimited size will be a huge benefit for businesses in Second Life. Right now, you can only get 50 avatars on one sim at one time. You can hack that a bit by holding events on the corners of sims, and get a couple of hundred attendees at a big event. But that's still a microscopic number compared with the millions of people you can reach over the 2D Internet, television, radio or newspapers.

The 3D quality of voice allows you to hold multiple conversations at the same time, in the same way that you can do so in real life. In an earlier conversation I had with Linden Lab CTO Cory Ondrejka, he described the "cocktail party" situation, where you're participating in in a conversation with one group of people while listening to another group of people talking a short distance away. You can see people move from one conversational group to another. And, said Miller, if you want to have a small breakout meeting during a larger discussion, you can move 30 or 40 meters away and have your little talk while still keeping an ear on the larger group. Just like you can do in real life.

I asked about the large contingent of Second Life users who hate voice. "Confuscious" said in a response to an earlier post on this blog that voice is "is hugely unpopular by the majority of the Second Life populace." "Minerva Enoch" describes her objections in some detail:

A big THUMBS DOWN for voice in SL. I am shy. I like remaining anonymous. Voice can reveal much about gender, age, ethnicity, regionality, disabilities, etc. A person's voice does not always fit the avatar they are portraying, and thus ruins the magic of the illusion. SL allows you to experiment with being whoever and whatever you want. Voice will destroy that. It will be noisy. I don't want hear voices everywhere all around me. I already hate that in RL. I try to avoid public places as a result, because I find them too overwhelming. For people with emotional/mental health issues, SL can be a lifeline to the outside world. But if you force them to talk, and to be surrounded by voices, in many instances it it not something they can handle. I know I cannot handle it.

My $0.02: We don't have to choose here. This is not going to be a winner-takes-all election. Voice is appropriate for some people and uses, not appropriate for others. Landowners will have the option of enabling or disabling voice on their land; I expect we'll see a huge no-voice section of Second Life emerge to cater to people who like it that way.

And some of us like it both ways. I'd rather use voice for a business discussion, but I'd rather use text for group chats. I'm sure that'll all change as we all get used to voice in Second Life.

Ideally, I'd like to see dual-mode conversation become the norm in group discussions in Second Life. If a half-dozen people or more are discussing something, have the discussion go on simultaneously in voice and text.

I said to Miller that I expect voice will be most common in Second Life business applications, while text is most common in recreation and social apps. He disagreed strongly, saying he expects to see the emergence of Second Life comedy club s, collaborative poetry readings, singing groups and choirs.

He also said that he expects people will change their voices to suit the appearance of their avatars, either through technological filters or by voice-acting, changing their accents or tone of voice to suit their circumstances.

"I think some of the emergent behavior around performance, around using this to share a skill or talent you have that you can't share with text chat, will be fun to watch," he said.

Musical theater in Second Life, anyone?