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Linden Lab Details Plans For Voice In Second Life

The new feature, allowing users of the virtual world to talk to each other, is scheduled to go live around May. It will require complex technology to deliver a unique audio stream to each of the thousands of users who log into the world simultaneously.

Kim Smith, director of business development and marketing for QTLabs, a marketing firm which consults with businesses seeking to establish a presence in Second Life, welcomed the decision.

"They need to enhance communication in business for sure," said Smith, adding that voice communications will help companies provide help for customers.

Smith goes by the name Riss Maidstone in Second Life. Residents in Second Life use nicknames rather than their real names, as a rule.

"The only downside is that there's going to be some things people don't want to hear," said Jonathan Irvin, who's involved in several businesses in Second Life under the nickname Jon Desmoulins. Some people in Second Life are underage. And hackers -- known as "griefers" in Second Life -- will likely find ways to exploit voice to make the world unpleasant for other people.

The new feature comes as Second Life is experiencing growing pains, with servers groaning under the influx of new users.

Premium accounts, which people have to pay $9.95 per month to get, were up 16% month-over-month in January, to 57,700. Linden Lab also offers free accounts; the total number of those topped 4 million this past weekend, up from 2 million in December. Individual users often have multiple accounts, and the sign-up numbers from free accounts include many that have been abandoned.

Response times for activities in Second Life are often slow -- residents describe that as "laggy."

But the voice feature will not hurt Second Life's performance, because it runs on completely different servers. Bandwidth requirements on the user's PC are very small, Miller said. "It doesn't hit the server infrastructure at all, it doesn't hit our database system at all, it'll have no direct impact on performance," he said.