Second Life Delays Adding Voice Features

It's an unfortunate turn of events since high-quality sound could make the virtual world a better place to do business.
Second Life's avatars were supposed to start talking last week, but Linden Lab, the virtual reality world's creator, abruptly delayed launching the voice capabilities that it previously said would go live on May 23. The company now says it will continue testing voice in its beta grid for a few more weeks and then may make it available in some parts of the main grid. The current plan is to add voice to regions in the main grid over time "until the entire grid is 'lit up' for voice," a spokesman says.

So Second Lifers will continue to rely on instant-message-like text messages to communicate--if you want to hear someone's voice, you have to use an out-of-band service like Skype or the regular phone system. That's unfortunate, since my avatar, Ziggy Figaro, and I beta tested the voice option two weeks ago and loved it. It's a feature that will make this virtual world far more practical for businesses.

The voice quality has a conversational feel that will make Second Life a better option for many kinds of meetings than existing conferencing services. The signal is clean and clear, providing a much more high-fidelity sound than a standard phone call, more like having a person standing next to you. The quality is something like Skype (when it's working), but even better because the sound is 3-D. The avatar's voice seems to be coming from the direction of the avatar in relation to your avatar--left or right, and near or far. As you walk or otherwise move around, the sound changes direction in a realistic way.

I had some difficulties getting my headset and microphone to work, which turned out to be a conflict with my Internet telephony client, Gizmo. But I soon logged on and had a pleasant conversation with five people, including an IBMer who goes by the in-world name "Nigel Paravane."


Voice in Second Life is much more appropriate for business than the text messaging we've been using. I suspect that voice could be useful in the virtual setting even without the visual elements of the world, providing a great option for conference calling. Imagine walking through a virtual conference hall and sticking your head in the door to discreetly listen to a presentation a bit before deciding whether to join in. Second Life lets you do that.

Second Lifers chat

Second Lifers chat
Voice will be a standard part of Second Life, requiring no additional software, Linden Lab said earlier this year. The only hardware you need to add to your PC is a headset with a microphone.

Linden Lab hasn't provided a way yet to create ad hoc groups within groups. Say you're in a meeting with 11 other people and you want to have a sidebar conversation with two of them--the equivalent of huddling and whispering in a real-life meeting--it would be useful to have an easy way to do this.

Another issue is that an extreme disconnect between an avatar's voice and appearance can be jarring. That was apparent in my test--one of the people who joined us was wearing a metallic dragon avatar, but spoke with a normal, middle-American accent. That seemed wrong; A dragon should sound, well, like a dragon, and not like a database administrator from Pittsburgh. Eventually, software filters probably will be developed that will let people make their voices sound the way they want them to sound.

Just from this early trial, it's clear that voice is going to be big in Second Life, but it won't entirely replace text chat. Text will probably continue to provide a useful back channel for discussion of what's going on in voice or a way for an audience to pose questions to a speaker. But I expect voice will take over Second Life and be a killer feature that draws in more businesses.