Monday, February 5, 2007

Voicing Concerns in Second Life

When you want to talk to another avatar in SL, you are probably going to do it either through chat, or instant messaging. If you choose chat, any avatar within range will see it, and can respond. If you choose IM, you can pick any avatar and send a message directly to them, whether they are standing next to you, or in a different area. If they are not online the message will be stored and forwarded to their email.

Before my entrance into SL, I almost never used either one of these real-time tools. Although I picked it up quickly, it seemed very flat and I wished I could just talk to people. I envisioned trying to conduct a classroom through the medium of chat, and could think of lots of drawbacks, with few advantages. There are ways of using voice in SL, but not built into the SL client, and not particularly easy to set up. I investigated, and quickly decided that between the trouble and the expense, I was not going to be trying this soon.

But then at the last Library Grads in SL group meeting, Uskala Hidayat offered to demonstrate the voice streaming he has set up. He spoke and played his bamboo flute to demonstrate it. The sound quality was good. The basic components of his system were a high quality microphone, free soft-ware (Win-amp), and use of a relay server which is not free (about $20.00 a month). His institution (UNC) is covering the cost of this so that professors can use it to give presentations in SL. He commented that they would have many fewer professors willing to do this if they had to do it through chat. The sound quality was great, but it is a one-way communication. We used chat to respond to Uskala, but our inability to talk back left us feeling hampered and muted.

Just a few days later, I had a chance to use a different tool that does create two-way conversations; Second Talk. This is a free virtual headset that lets up to ten avatars talk to each other through the VOIP program Skype. I was able to sign up for a free Skype account, and get a free headset in SL. I buddied up with friend Aleister Kronos to try it out. The steps are few and they are simple. Unfortunately they didn't work. But talk we did, through Skype, bypassing the headsets. In retrospect, I think the site we choose to try this in may have blocked the scripts of our headsets (script blocking is a security measure). We will try again with more people, and eventually get it to work. But we may not need Skype to do it, as Linden Lab has recently announced they are working on this. Once it becomes part of the SL client we can hope technical difficulties will melt (hah!).

Why wasn't this built in from the start? Sound devours bandwidth. One-way voice streaming is not as hungry, but VOIP gobbles it up.

Meanwhile over the months I have become used to chat and IM. And strangely once I had the potential to talk directly to avatars in SL, I found I was not completely sure I wanted to. Typed messaging has several advantages and special qualities.

Chat advantages

  • You don't have to worry if the other person has problems, technical or otherwise, with hearing you.
  • Chat has a distancing effect that makes it feel safer to approach and talk to strange avatars.
  • Chat is stored in history and logs. You can review the last several exchanges on your screen, as well has view it in your external chat log later. This is great for meeting transcripts, finding that name or website someone gave you, or just to review the conversation.
  • All members of the conversation are identified by name.
  • There are many tricks you can use, such as emoticons or animations to add shading and emotion to what you say.
  • You can write text in advance, and then cut and paste text into chat windows. There are even presenter tools to help you do this.
  • The conversation is paced by typing. You have time to consider before you type.
  • People who don't speak English well don't have to cope with pronunciation, yours or theirs.
  • Helpful visual cues help you know when an avatar is typing a response to you.
Chat disadvantages
  • You have to type everything you say.
  • Anyone within range can "hear" you, and you can hear them. Only distance lends privacy to conversations.
  • If many avatars are chatting at once, messages scroll by very quickly. If a person does not know about the chat history window, they will lose the conversation thread.
  • Chat without use of emoticons or other conventions can be misinterpreted.
  • Without any kind of etiquette to signal who should talk when conversations can become chaotic and unsynchronized.
The disadvantages related to privacy can be solved by using IM instead of chat. If you want to speak to someone without being overheard, you can IM them. If you wanted to conduct a private class or meeting, you can add everyone to a group, and IM the group. All group members can hear and respond. IM's are logged.

Streaming Voice Advantages
  • Sound can be heard by anyone in the area, as long as they have enabled media streaming, and have their speakers turned on.
  • It does not soak up too much band width.
  • It frees the speaker from typing. They can just talk or play.
  • It offers a high degree of control. The professor can talk without being interrupted.
Streaming Voice Disadvantages
  • It requires technical skill, and money to set up.
  • It is not logged automatically, so unless you have a scribe or a recorder, you will not have a transcript.
  • It is one way.
  • It is ephemeral.
  • The avatar just stands there. Unless other animation is used, it tends to disconnect you from the sense you are interacting with each other.
VOIP Advantages (Second Talk)
  • It frees you from typing.
  • Assuming they have Skype accounts and headsets, up to 10 avatars can converse.
  • It is free (beyond purchasing a headset for use on your computer).
  • You can hear each other's voices.
  • You can control who is included, and therefor who can hear the conversation.
VOIP Disadvantages
  • The technology does not appear to work consistently yet.
  • There are no identifiers other then the sound of the voice. If more then two people are talking it could be difficult to identify who is talking.
  • There is no logging, it is ephemeral.
  • It soaks up band-width. It could really degrade the rest of the experience.
  • It may be a more inhibiting medium. People may hesitate to voice things they would type. (This could be a plus or a minus).
What this all means to me, is that what we use will depend on the situation and people involved. Speech in groups, public places and sociable situations are likely to be dominated by chat. To talk privately to a person or group up close or at a distance, or to leave a message for someone who is not online, we'll use IM. Streaming audio will work in performances or presentations where sound is important, and the interaction is mostly one-way. And two-way sound will be best when talking to friends in settings with a limited number of people involved. I expect to use all three.


Anonymous said...

I recently read a book about privacy that talked about 2nd life and avatar abuse, e.g., when some people had their avater puppeted and forced to engage in lewd acts which then the people who the avatars had been atached to had to deal with. Check it out, I think you might dig it: Privacy Lost

He's also written a lot about Second Life in his blog you might be interested in:
Squarebobbing for Avatars
King Art
Cyber Stories
Second Sight, Second Life

Betsy Stoll said...

That does look interesting. According to Linden Lab, someone's avatar cannot be "puppeted" without their consent, but I can imagine someone being fooled into accepting an item that might allow another to take control of their avatar for awhile.
Thanks for the links and comment.

Aleister Kronos said...

There are cases of avatars being "interfered with" while camping for free money, while their RL selves go off and do, well, RL stuff. And, as you say, you can be apparently encumbered by an animation that you had not expected and cannot easily get rid of. Safest thing: if in doubt, log out. :-)

Aleister Kronos said...

Your theory about sites not allowing scripts may be correct. Last night I TP'd to the Skype phone pickup point, prior to logging out. When I logged back in there was another resident there, and the phone immediately popped up a HUD, inviting me to talk to said resident. Sounds like we need to perform another scientific experiment!

Team Mascot said...

An interesting build on my original article..... you've certainly covered all the bases in your analysis.

You must report back about the Skype experience - after your initial reservations, what was it like actualy being able to hear Aleister Kronos speak?