Virtual worlds as lawn mowing

lowell_mowingthelawnAlthough it’s mostly a throwback to the mid to late 20th Century, there’s still a significant cohort of Australians who associate mowing the lawn with the ‘Aussie lifestyle’ (I hate generalisations, but bear with me). There’s no shortage of people who still dream of owning their own land, on which they can inflict the weekly spring and summer routine of mowing the lawn. Last weekend I had the opportunity to do some lawn mowing, and it occurred to me that for widepsread adoption of virtual environments to occur, the in-world experience needs to be a lot more like mowing the lawn. Keep reading to see a metaphor beaten within an inch of its life.


Lawn mowing, like any experience, is for most people a combination of sensory input that creates a memory. For the person cutting the grass, it’s everything from the smell of the mower fuel, the noise of the mower, the physicality of starting it up and pushing it, the visuals of the enviroment you’re partially decimating and finally the odour of cut grass.

It’s no surprise there’s heavy research into the development of interfaces that integrate the senses as part of the virtual world experience – it may not be a must-have for effective interaction but it will ensure it gets as real as possible for those wanting the richest in-world experiences. The day I can smell petrol fumes as an avatar is when I know the revolution has occurred. Whether that’s a good thing is another lengthy argument.


Ask any devoted mower of lawns and they’ll confirm one of the big rewards for their activity is seeing the chaos of long grass turned into a controlled, neat expanse. Yes, it’s a maddening perspective for a lot of people and there’s a lot of fence-sitters (like me) who enjoy seeing the neat results but like the unruly option as well. What underlies the mowing fetish is the sense of achievement of physically pushing a machine around that makes a difference to the look of your abode (and no, I will not divert to vaccuum cleaner metaphors as well). Gaming worlds have had this nailed down beautifully for years, and I can vouch for the fact World of Warcraft have polished that nail to a dazzling sheen. Social-oriented worlds like Metaplace and Farmville also have some pretty well fleshed out achievement systems. This is one aspect where the lawn mowing analogy comes into its own: we’re quite happy to push or ride the mower around the same circuit week after week, year after year if there’s a reward. Ring a bell, MMO grinders?


Unless I have no choice, I don’t want someone else mowing my lawn. Sure, I’m happy to do someone else’s if they need me to, but it’s my lawn I’m passionate about and I want everyone to respect that and to also enjoy their green patch in their own way.

Virtual environments are struggling to come to grips with how best to achieve harmony with content ownership – you only need to look at this week’s Burning Life content theft issue in Second Life to see the ongoing challenges. There are still a lot of individuals quite happy to bring their plough over univited and rip a large channel through your prize turf. Part of the answer is governance and law enforcement, but the larger challenge is inculcating an acceptance of content ownership and rights across the entire virtual worlds sphere. Sure, the majority of us have that respect, but I’d wager there’s more plough-toting avatars than real-world equivalents.


If you’re lucky enough to own a lawn mower manufactured in the last 10 years or so, you’ll know how well they work now. Startup tends to be a breeze, they’re lighter to push around, emptying the catcher is easier and the days of choking on exhaust fumes are pretty much over. Most virtual environments are better than a 1954 Victa but most are still essentially 1988 models. They work fairly well but are heavy on the resources and make for a frustrating experience if used for long periods of time. To flog the analogy to death, there are still people who collect or even use old mowers, and the same applies to virtual worlds. Niches are good but the better model is always going to attract the bigger support.

The Last Word

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably had enough of the lawn mowing analaogy. But whether it’s that or another human experience like first love, the smell of freshly baked bread or the birth of a child, the point remains the same. We all want a lot more out of virtual environments and we’re likely to get it eventually. The trouble is, by that time I may be old enough that I’m yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

The Big Spaceship lands

If you’ve been following Second Life, you’ll know usability issues have been key. As we’ve repeatedly rehashed here, 2008 was cited by Linden Lab as the year for improving the Second Life experience. There’s quite rightly been criticism of the number of issues outstanding with the user experience.

The tide may be turning on that front, with Linden Lab announcing the engagement of ‘interactive design agency’ Big Spaceship to improve Second Life’s ‘first hour’ experience.

Big Spaceship do have some form in the sphere, having played a pivotal role with the 30 Days of Night immersive game. There’s no firm timeframes for when we’ll see the improvements. Like any user interface changes, the challenge will be the get a balance between simplicity for new users and the more complex needs of longer term Second Life residents. Hopefully they’ve already had a browse of some great innovations already created by Second Life residents.

If you’ve got your own suggestions – add them on the Second Life forum thread devoted to the topic.

Reducing your Second Life lag

Tateru Nino has written a very useful guide on minimising lag in Second life – you can read it in full here.

Try saying ‘Sim Ping’ five times really quickly 😉

Whilst talking Linden Lab, CEO Mark Kingdon has provided a heads-up on progress toward a more usable Second Life. Lots more improvements are promised, the biggest one being the development of a new Second Life browser. Vint Falken has some interesting insights on what wasn’t mentioned.

Ups and downs for Linden Lab

It’s been a big week for Linden Lab. They’ve recorded their highest ever level of concurrent users (more than 68 thousand online at one time) – positive growth albeit with some intermittent login issues at the same time. We’re looking forward to the next lot of metrics from Linden Lab to see what impact the growth has had on active Australian resident numbers.

In the past 24 hours another significant event occurred with the launch of the SLim client – basically it’s an instant messaging application that allows you to see which SL friends are online. Tateru Nino gives an excellent overview of SLim on Massively and it’s fair to say she wasn’t impressed. As of a few hours ago, you can no longer download SLim. Apparently the link for downloading wasn’t meant to be public. It’s an unfortunate saga in the context of increased growth of residents and the support for applications that allow greater interaction without firing up the full browser. Here’s hoping an improved version appears soon.

Second Life – on the wane for aussies?

Asher Moses from the Sydney Morning Herald has run a story titled ‘Few lives left for Second Life’. It’s based on research undertaken by the Queensland University of Technology’s Kim MacKenzie, who’s completing her honours thesis on Second Life and business.

The research findings aren’t surprising in a lot of respects – there are significant areas of Second Life that are ghost towns and yes the numbers of people on one sim are usually very low at any given time (something I’m quoted on in the article).

A point I did make that didn’t make the final cut was that businesses like Telstra and the ABC had been successful in Second Life because they were aware of the experimental nature of Second Life, particularly where business is involved. The notable failures occur when the business jumps in boots and all expecting true return on investment in the short to medium term. Telstra’s sucess in particular has been its ability to leverage its large presence to provide a breadth of activities including residential options.

The story overall is quite pessimistic but does accurately cite the challenges Linden Lab face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now – 2008 is meant to be the year of bedding down stability for Second Life. Some gains have been made, but time and patience is running out for a lot of people.

What are your views – does Second Life have a few more lives left?

Beware the bling in Second Life

Linden Lab’s Pastrami Linden has flagged a new feature in the current Release Candidate viewer. The ‘Avatar Rendering Cost’ option will show a number that equates to the cumulative graphics generation impact of that avatar – the more non-standard avatar features you’ve added the higher the number.

It’s a useful tool to determine what may be behind some of the lag experienced in the busier locations but it also risks being a distraction from some of the more serious software and hardware bottlenecks (Australian SL servers anyone?). It cold also be used as a means of excluding people or the imposition of ‘base avatar’ rules in the more popular areas. What do you think – is bling the target here?

Linden Lab’s Communication Manager commences

Katt Linden is the new Communications Manager and she’s announced a review of the current communications mechanisms like the blog and Second Life forums.

Katt is claiming a brief of monitoring the blogosphere and getting some changes happening but is also forthright on patience being needed. I’m not sure how much patience is left in some spheres but a dedicated resource at Linden Lab on Communications should surely bring some further improvements.

And they wonder why people leave Second Life

I understand that the logistics of running the Second Life grid must be one hell of a task. That said, the announcement by Linden Lab that in peak usage times they’ll be disabling some of the in-world services to cope seems farcical to me. It’s the equivalent of shutting off the lights on a passenger airliner to maximise power for take-off, except in this case the lights are off for around four hours.

The services affected are:

“* Avatar profile information will not be trasmitted to the viewer. This affects both floating and embedded profile windows.

* General group information (name, charter, etc.) will not display in floating or group embedded group info windows.

* Groups will not show their member lists.

* Group owners and officers will not be able to eject group members.

* Group proposals will open the UI, but will fail to create.

* About Land will show 0 for traffic.”

Some will argue these aren’t show-stopper services but I know some people heavily use the avatar profile and group services. Furthermore, it’s the principle of the issue – I’d go as far as to say I’d rather a couple of thousand people less be permitted on the grid with full functionality than the ‘solution’ proposed.

Linden Lab are claiming a fix is on the way – you’d want to hope so because a plane full of passengers sitting in the dark doesn’t make for an experience people want to pay for again.

Linden Lab’s I-World island: window-dressing or real help?

Linden Lab have announced an enhancement of their in-world support through the creation of I-World Island, which will launch on the 5th April. It’s fair to say that Linden Lab have made progress in their in-world support, although it’s still hard not to agree with one commenter on the Linden blog where the announcement was made:

“While that is a nice idea just how do you expect someone who crashes 10 times a day to find your island, and if they did, how do you expect them to get there without crashing?”

Linden Lab have widely proclaimed 2008 as the year of usability – hopefully I-World Island is another weapon in what needs to be a much larger armoury.

Linden Lab give glimpse of Dazzle

There’s some welcome improvements on the way with the vanilla Second Life browser interface. They’re cosmetic improvements, but a much needed step toward making in-world navigation that little bit more pleasant.

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