Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Lively threat to Second Life?

The launch of Google’s virtual world sent many media hacks into a feeding frenzy as they declared Second Life dead, circling its bleeding carcass like movie critics around a Michael Bay feature. TMCnet gloated that the new application “Challenges Second Life leadership in virtual world,” a theme echoed by Smart Company’s warning, “Google launches new virtual world to rival Second Life.” Meanwhile, the folks at Hexus.gaming made themselves laugh until pee ran down their collective legs with, “‘Second Life, get a life,’ say [sic] Google.”

Google’s virtual world, called “Lively” (possibly for the same reason fat men are often called “Tiny”), does share some similarities with Second Life. For example: both have avatars, both have rooms, both have furniture, and both have chat. On the downside, those aren’t so much examples of the similarities as they are the sum total of the similarities. There is no “outside world” in Lively, there are only rooms. These rooms can be furnished to the individual’s own taste — using, of course, pre-made items offered by Google. There is no ability to create, but then there is no cost to “buying” either.

The client is remarkably simple to set up and runs in a browser window. There are less than a dozen avatars to choose from, which makes it a bit confusing when several people in a room look almost identical. The chat function is easy, but in a misguided attempt to connect speech with body language, Google has programmed the avatars to always respond to certain words with certain actions. The word, “laugh,” for instance, will cause the avatar to start laughing. The word “what” will make it scratch its head and shrug. And ROFL will literally have the avatar rolling on the floor, laughing (which, to be honest, is kind of neat). Unfortunately, there is no context recognition, so the sentence, “What I really don’t like are head lice,” would be accompanied by a vigorous head scratching, and the sentence, “Losing your job is nothing to laugh about,” would be delivered by an avatar doubled over in laughter. (Fortunately, words like “crap” do not elicit any specific avatar behavior.)

There are a number of user-directed actions available for the avatars, most of which seem to have come from focus groups comprised of 10-year-old boys. Aside from various leaps and squats, you can also punch other avatars, kick them in the stomach, or drop very large anvils on them.

As the Silicon Valley Insider points out, one of the major differences difference between Google’s Lively and Linden Lab’s Second Life is that Lively doesn’t have sex. “Google has a pretty strong reputation,” says Mel Guymon, head of Google’s 3D operations. “They know we’re not going to be putting porn in there — and they’re looking at it and thinking it’s a safe place to enter.” And so it is.

Sure, there’s flirting. You can’t have people getting together and expect them not to do some innocent flirting. A number of rooms cater to this gentle activity including the Flirt Café, the Flirt Lounge, the German Flirt Room, and FlirtMe.

And of course there’s dating. Anyone interested in some online dating can go to Bangalor Dating, Flirt and Dating, Speed Dating, Colloc Dating, and the Dating Café, among many others.

But sex? No. Zilch. Nada. None.

Well, aside from the Adult Only Sex room.

And then there’s Sex on the Beach.

Also the Sex Room. And the Porn Place. And Sexy and Hot Girl. German Gay Boys. Bears. Club Pride. BDSM for gays.

In all, one day after its official opening, there are 38 rooms for general sex, five for BDSM, and 91 for gays.

Of course, there’s no way to strip your avatar naked, and while you may be able to drop kick another avatar, there are no actions directly relating to sex. But if parents are hoping for a place completely devoid of any sexual content, they’d be better off sending their kids to one of Disney’s virtual worlds (although I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Tinkerbell is kind of hot).

None of this means that Lively isn’t a good idea; merely that it’s no “Second Life-killer,” as the Insider claimed.

Lively is primarily another in a long line of 3D chat worlds, like IMVU. Although there is no “outside” in Lively, some of the “room” templates look like they’re outside, such as the Winter Wonderland room. And being that it comes from Google, it’s easy, fairly intuitive, and requires far less computing power than fully-realized worlds like Second Life. On the other hand, despite its simplified graphics and limited range, the lag is often surprisingly bad and it can take a while for things to rez.

It also includes an excellent search feature, through which I discovered the Linden Room, created by Pathfinder Linden.

Aside from its name, there seems little obvious connection to Linden Lab, and it certainly isn’t a recreation of their facilities — unless they’re located at the bottom of the sea surrounded by some dangerous-looking depth mines. (One visitor said, “It reminds me of Sea Quest,” a reasonable comparison.) But it’s still early days yet and we’ll have to see what Pathfinder does with it.

All in all, there’s nothing wrong with Lively. The publicity surrounding its launch, while apparently favorable, may actually do it more harm than good through the persistent comparison with Second Life. It’s not Second Life, and it’s not about to become Second Life in any foreseeable future. Yes, Google may use Lively as a stepping stone, but in the time it takes them to move ahead towards a truly immersive virtual world, Second Life will have also moved ahead (and with any luck, they’ll do so in a way that actually improves it).

I can’t see it lasting. Lively offers nothing for enterprise. There is no ability to share documents, or even to show a printed page in graphical form. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than a good place for young people to get together and chat.

And, of course, to have cybersex.

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Post Publication Note:

Call me prescient — or just someone with a bit of common sense. Lively closed shop in 2009.

Originally published in Ad Nauseam: Online, 2008
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