Our first Geek Meet using the native Second Life voice technology exceeded expectations two-fold: Keystone Bouchard gave a fascinating presentation on architecture in virtual worlds. And the voice technology worked like gangbusters.
Bouchard, a/k/a Jon Brouchoud in real life, talked on Tuesday about the evolution of virtual architecture. Right now, Second Life architecture reproduces real-world architecture, even though the constraints of the virtual world are completely different from real-life architecture. Why do you need a roof in Second Life, for example? It doesn't rain or snow or get cold, and your avatar doesn't suffer from exposure. But the roof is helpful because it provides visual privacy, and also gives the user a sense of having an enclosed, private space.
Likewise: Why have stairs in Second Life when avatars can fly where they need to go? Bouchard explained that stairs create a visual signal that there's somewhere to go. A hole in the ceiling can be easily overlooked, but stairs send a signal that there's something important at the end of the stairs.
Virtual architecture fascinates me. It reminds me of the evolution of the Web. I watched the Web evolve since nearly the beginning (and participated, in a very small way, in its evolution). Around 1994, Web sites tried to replicate books, magazines, newspapers, and even architecture. Web sites had tables of of contents, lobbies, libraries, and chapters, all in an attempt to make this new medium look like something old that the users would be familiar with. Later on, a whole new set of design principles emerged, and we take them for granted today.
For example: Web pages have logos on the top, and if you click on that logo, you'll go back to the home page. You'll find a bunch of navigational links on the bottom of a Web page. The blog itself is an example of native Web design. It's not like a newspaper, magazine, or book, it's something unique to the Web.
Virtual worlds are far too young to evolve much native architecture, but you can see the seeds. "Skyboxes" float in the sky to keep them out of sight of people who aren't supposed to see them. Multi-chair tables can be materialized - or "rezzed" - on the spot, with as many chairs as there are avatars to sit in them, plus one more empty one for anyone who shows up. And, while stairways are common, ramps are just as common, because they're much easier to build.
Bouchard described "reflexive architecture," which evolves automatically as avatars interact with it. He demonstrated a room which changes its decorations and emits sounds as avatars move around inside.
Bouchard spoke using the native Second Life voice technology -- the Voice First Look client. I was nervous beforehand. The First Look is still in beta. It lacks many of the tools that you look for in order to hold a big meeting. I didn't see any way that a moderator could mute everybody who was not a designated speaker, and then selectively activate the mikes of audience as they were recognized to ask questions.
But we just asked everybody to mute their own microphones while the session was in session, and send questions and comments by instant message. And it worked far better than I'd hope. People were very cooperative, and the technology cooperated nicely as well. The presentation was a big success.
I was pretty jazzed about how well the presentation went Tuesday, and then I had to leave the office to do a couple of errands in the real world. As I drove around in the car, I listened to NPR news. A presentation of another sort was the big news in the real world that day: U.S. Presidential candidates debated each other in an event sponsored by CNN and YouTube, with Americans submitting questions using homemade Internet video.
Listening to NPR, I thought about how far the Internet has come since the Clinton-Gore campaign launched a Web site in 1996.. That was 11 years ago.
Then I had an insight: Eleven years from now, U.S. presidential candidates will debate each other in a 3-D social network, like Second Life. Tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans will attend the debate in avatar form.