Avatar: The film, the idea and the word

James Cameron’s new film, Avatar, teaches us nothing about avatars.

Why? Well, let’s take a step back and look at the basic idea that already exists.

Most people are members of one of the 20 or so major religions, pretty much all of which have the concept of the avatar in common. Throughout religious philosophy and doctrine, your body and brain are considered to be your avatar, a vehicle for the actual you that continues on. The body is the avatar of the spirit (and in a couple of religions, the spirit itself is in turn an avatar of something outside).

Throughout our religious education and observations, the point is hammered home again and again – your body is your avatar in this world. This idea has now persisted for millennia, even though it is not widely associated with the word used to describe it.

And after thousands of years, it still hasn’t actually sunk in, even among many of the most devout.

From that perspective, virtual environments and avatars are a natural extension of our beliefs about the universe and our place in it. We’re just not really ‘getting’ that whole avatar thing, even though it is one of the central tenets of our varied religious beliefs.

Do I really think that James Cameron is going to be more successful with a US$237 million film budget where our most deeply held and treasured faiths about life and the nature of the universe have failed?

Not so much, no.

If you are already comfortable with the notion of an avatar, Cameron’s film doesn’t really add anything to your understanding. For those who are not, I put it to you that the concepts those people end up attaching to the word, based on the film, will not be the same ideas that you already hold from experience.

Either way, we’ve gained nothing in our understanding of the concept of the ‘avatar’, and sometimes I wonder if we ever really will, as a culture.

Alter Ego on SBS, and thoughts on vocabulary, identity, truth and perspective

wolfie-alterego-smlSo, here I am, watching the Alter Ego documentary on SBS. Indeed, it is still running at the time I am writing this. I’m not really quite sure what I expected. Not the usual sense of regretful chagrin that I’d expect at a documentary on Second Life, because Writer/Director Shelley Matulick is basically a good sort.

Nevertheless, the emotion that most comes to the surface right now is one of frustration.

“Real world”, “virtual world”, “real”, “fake”, “virtual” terms and prefixes are thrown around with little consistency, and make me wince or cringe.

It’s not really anyone’s fault, exactly. The users presented on the program lack the vocabulary to clearly express their experience. They obviously have a firm emotional and instinctual grasp of it, but not the conceptual vocabulary to clearly explain it to others.

For the part of the viewer, the average non-virtual-environment-user, well, without enough first-hand experience or a few doctorates in philosophy it’s really hard to absorb the concepts. Until we take our lives online in a decisive sort of way, we don’t really give much thought to core issues like identity or the fundamental nature of humanity – issues that remain relatively intractable after thousands of years of thought by the best minds that our species has to offer.

With such vast conceptual gulfs, how do you convey the obvious?

Good luck trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t have the common experience of a different perspective. Remember in Sesame Street, they had a number of animations that explained communication? One figure with a series of coloured shapes in their head, and as they spoke, the other person wound up with similar coloured shapes in their own head.

What we lack is a vocabulary to express the colours and the shapes. I tell you that there’s no difference between virtual identity and non-virtual identity.

In interviews with the BBC, I was often asked “What is the difference between virtual identity and real identity?”

The obvious and correct answer is that there isn’t any difference. If that doesn’t make sense, then it’s because you’ve misunderstood the nature of identity itself, rather than the nature of virtual identity.

It’s simple, it’s obvious, and if it doesn’t convey the proper concepts to you, then as a message it’s wrong, even if it’s the truth.

This is why the parable (παραβολή) was originally developed – sometimes a fictitious story can convey more truth than the factual one. If simpler truths cannot be grasped, metaphors, analogies and parables need to be employed. Rectitude is not only in possessing the truth, but in effectively sharing it.

Virtual environments, somewhat paradoxically, tell us more about the nature of our ordinary mundane world and selves than actually living it, because in order to grasp the nature of something very large or very close, you need perspective.

If you’re paying attention, a year of using a virtual environment will teach you more about humanity, identity and gender than 30 years of actually experiencing those things first-hand. If you’re not paying attention, though, it may teach you nothing at all.

Surfing the virtual world hype

Riding the hype wave of a new technology with a “world-first” isn’t exactly unusual. We’ve seen this a lot with Second Life, right?

But there’s actually other, more interesting lessons to be learned.

Firstly, the newspapers and magazines don’t really check if you’re first, so if you want you can just copy what someone else is doing. This happened a whole heck of a lot. If anyone actually does ask, you just slice it more finely. “First by a Fortune 500 company”, “First by a West-coast marketing firm run by octogenarian teachers”. Slice it finely enough and you can pretty much always claim a world first – and by golly, they do.

There were, from memory, four national embassies that opened in Second Life. Each claimed to be the first one (presumably using the slicing technique above, or just not doing the research). That brings us to the second technique, the one that gives you the most PR bang for the least buck:

Don’t actually do it. Seriously, this is a proven strategy.

Write and issue your press-release, outlining what amazing world-first you’ll be performing – then don’t follow through. By the time that peak of the hype cycle wore off, nobody noticed that you actually didn’t. Instead it became a fait accompli. Everyone more or less assumes that you did do it.

Assorted media pieces still refer to pizza-deliveries, programmes and concerts by famed celebrities that never actually happened, but the writers just assume that they did.

There’s your return-on-investment right there. All the hype, and none of the work. All you have to do is hit the timing right on the cyclical hype.

There’s a whole lot of businesses and organizations using Second Life in various ways. Many of the ones that you can name from media-coverage though, never actually did. However it didn’t apparently actually harm their PR efforts at all.

Anyone want to bet that this won’t happen with future virtual environments?

Linden Lab launches Second Life Enterprise beta today

enterprise_secondlife Linden Lab will announce today that their second “work offering”, Second Life Enterprise, is entering an open beta period, prior to release. The preliminary beta for the Second Life Enterprise has been running since April this year; the open beta program will run through Q4 this year, and general availability will be announced during the first half of 2010.

The associated service, the Second Life Work Marketplace, which is currently in development, will go into closed alpha at the end of Q1 2010.

The Second Life Enterprise bundle is priced from US$55,000, and this price will cover both hardware and software sides of the solution; two servers will be provided, one for spatial voice (VOIP) and one for virtual environment simulation of up to 8 regions, supporting a maximum of 800 users (though 800 users with spatialised voice seems like a recipe for chaos).

There is no indication yet as to whether the Second Life Enterprise product will replace Immersive Workspaces, the Lab’s first and, to our knowledge, only other, “work offering”, or whether the two will exist in parallel.

Organisations already participating in the beta program include IBM, Northrop Grumman, Naval Undersea Warfare Centre, DefenseWeb Technologies, Case Western Reserve University, and The New Media Consortium.

Intriguingly, Linden Lab has announced that “content owned by the company can be moved from the main Second Life environment into the Second Life Enterprise Beta environment”.

This, of course, raises many questions. Technically, by the Second Life Terms Of Service, Linden Lab has the right to distribute other people’s content for any purpose related to the operation of the service without explicit permission from creators.

Will any and/or all content on a simulator owned by a company be able to be sucked up and spat out again in the Enterprise environment belonging to that company? How will content ownership be determined?

What will happen with third party content, given these circumstances – especially given that a lot of enterprise presences on the main Second Life grid are composed of a reasonable percentage of third-party content already, under wildly different permissions.

Of course the Lab can bundle that up and copy it all off-grid. They have that right, so long as it continues to be “a part of the service.”

These issues aside, though, Second Life Enterprise looks to be a solid business product, particularly for virtual meetings, prototyping and data visualization – three areas where Second Life technology does well.

Class action lawsuit leveled against Second Life’s Linden Lab

strokerzKevin Alderman’s Eros LLC, a Florida company devoted to mature content which started operating in Second Life way back when, has been the star attraction before. Alderman, also known as Stroker Serpentine in Second Life, has been well-known for his successful, adult business ventures, as well as two successful legal actions for virtual environment based copyright/trademark infringement (one vs Rase Kenzo AKA Thomas Simon, and one vs Volkov Cattaneo AKA Robert Leatherwood).

Alderman, in conjunction with Shannon Grei (known as Munchflower Zaius in Second Life) is now launching a class-action lawsuit against Linden Lab itself, alleging that (among other things) it profits from negligence and delay in dealing with trademark and copyright infringement issues, and that it also knowingly does so.

The plaintiffs’ case for willful infringement might seem a bit weaker in spots, but one area where it is on relatively certain ground is where Linden Lab is duly informed, and then fails to act or acts with egregious delay. In those circumstances, the Lab would be aware of the infringement, but continues to profit from it (directly or indirectly) until action is taken.

The complaint outlines four classes who may benefit from the suit:

  • The Trademark Owner Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights to goods and services bearing trademarks or service marks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and who engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such registered trademark or service marks.
  • The Trademark Infringement Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who (1) own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights to goods and services bearing trademarks or service marks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, (2) engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such registered trademark or service marks, and (3) whose trademarks and/or service marks were infringed in Second Life.
  • The Copyright Owner Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights in connection with a copyright registered with the U.S. Register of Copyrights and who engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such copyrighted works.
  • The Copyright Infringement Class: All individuals and entities in the United States who (1) own, have owned, or otherwise have the right to enforce licensing rights in connection with a copyright registered with the U.S. Register of Copyrights (2) engage or have engaged in commercial transactions in Second Life associated with such copyrighted works, and (3) whose copyrights were infringed in Second Life.

(Obviously, participation in the suit appears to be limited to entities within the United States of America. The 430KB complaint document is available in PDF format.)

Overall, the plaintiffs assert that Linden Lab has not done all that is reasonable and expeditious to deal with infringement, and that it has profited from and continues to profit from its failure to do so.

While so-called ‘Safe-Harbor’ (or, in the USA ‘Common Carrier’) protections might generally apply to (for example) Web-site operators, Linden Lab has chosen to abrogate those protections by taking affirmative (and some might say editorial) action on content in Second Life and on Xstreet SL.

Linden Lab declined to comment, but Alderman was willing to discuss the complaint with us, “The complaint eloquently expresses the frustration of the ‘whack-a-mole’ situation many of us are faced with every day. It is very difficult to convey the disappointment you get when you work for weeks to release something you have poured your heart and soul into, only to have it ripped and placed into grid-wide vending systems within moments by an anonymous and expendable account.”

“You cannot effectively address the level of infringement and theft that takes place within a platform that does 1.2 million dollars a day in transactions with an amended TOS and an expanded Abuse Reporting System. The problem is systemic. Our hope is to initiate fundamental and effectual change in the way the Lab addresses the issue of rampant content theft, copyright and trademark infringement in Second Life.”

Finally, Alderman asserts his support of the platform, “We do not need ‘Nannies’. We need effective support. If we didn’t believe in the future of Second Life, we would have been gone years ago. Maybe, some of our disillusioned brethren (sisteren?) will return if they feel that their content once again has value. We’re all in this together. It is still our world and our imagination.”

Even if the suit is only partially successful, the implications stand to significantly change the way virtual world developers and operators deal with rights, trademarks and copyrights in every collaborative virtual environment, as well as raise both social and legal expectations of the behavior and conduct of those operators. This case is one to watch.

Book Review: Dark Siren

Author Clifford Wycliffe Australian author Clifford Wycliffe’s new novel, Dark Siren, has an undeniably provocative cover. Coupled with quotes from Lord Byron and David Vaile, the Executive Director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at UNSW Sydney, Australia, I approached this virtual world novel with some trepidation.

The action commences with the attempted apprehension, in Sydney, of a Ukranian fugitive and criminal Kyrylo. Things get a whole lot more complicated than that, as the chase and plot extends across the cities and wilds of Australia, and through the virtual world of Avataria, involving the Australian Federal Police, the AHTCC, the NSA and the FBI.

If you’re a Second Life user, you’ll recognize Avataria right away. Wycliffe’s representation of Avataria is almost perfectly identical to Second Life. Indeed, I got the feeling that the name was changed from Second Life to Avataria fairly late in the writing. In Chapter three, we have this brief exchange:

“You’ve obviously never played Avataria.”
Deborah smiled.“My first life’s complicated enough, thank you.”

A time-worn half-gag that doesn’t make as much sense with Avataria in place of Second Life.

With only a couple of relatively minor exceptions, very little happens in Avataria that cannot happen in Second Life, yet Wycliffe has spun quite a solid yarn around and through those elements. Enough that I started reflexively considering other Second Life users as the model for some of the novel’s characters as I went along.

Character portrayals are fairly solid, though one or two moments of interaction between our protagonists and other Avataria users might give you cause to wince, either with awkwardness or familiarity (or both). I once worked on a sting-operation with an AFP division that would later be spun out into the AHTCC, and the material on that side holds enough verisimilitude to carry the show.

It’s an adult book for sure. There’s strong sexual references, homosexuality and the BDSM scene – though none of it for gimmicks or shocks. It’s all well-integrated into the characters and the story.

I must confess, I very much liked it. By the third or fourth chapter, my skepticism had evaporated. By about three in the morning, I’d finished the novel, feeling a sense of closure and entertainment. A lot of it would make for good television, though users typing earnestly via Avataria might not make for a great screen spectacle.

It’s a pretty solid Australian crime-detective novel, involving a very realistic portrayal of Second Life, with a solid blend of high-tech crime, political skullduggery and human weakness. On the whole, I’d heartily recommend it to fans of the genre.

Note: we’ll be serialising a significant proportion of Dark Siren here at the Metaverse Journal over coming weeks – stay tuned.

HTTP-in: a worthy addition to Second Life communications

Since HTTP-in was deployed in the recent Second Life server update, I’ve had a chance to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate it extensively. Essentially to use and misuse it in pretty much every way I could think of. And you know what? It’s nice, but it isn’t that big a deal.

HTTP-in allows an external application to send data to an object in Second Life, just as is done via email and via XML-RPC. About the only thing that HTTP-in seems to really bring to the table is simplicity and reliability. XML-RPC and email communications to in-world objects are highly centralized, slow, and not actually all that reliable. When you combine that with the setup and teardown requirements (both for you, and for the grid itself), things get pretty ugly.

HTTP-in is busting to its veriest seams with caveats, cautions and conditions, but it actually works and it keeps working, which by this stage – six years in now – must seem like a minor miracle at  the very least. Frankly, though, the single most effective use is signaling.

Unless you’re intending to pull data out of Second Life, you’re best off retrofitting your code to wait for you to poke it via HTTP-in and have it call your Web-server back to retrieve the data. It’s simple, efficient, faster than pushing data through, generally, and pretty much in 90% of cases that’s actually what you’re doing anyway.

Almost every scripted object using HTTP is pushing or polling – and HTTP-in doesn’t seem to offer enough advantages on its own to make sitting down and turning that model on its head worthwhile. Using the system as an external trigger to tell your in-world objects when to poll? Now that works a treat.

What you definitely need, whatever you do with HTTP-in, is you need some external repository that your in-world object can push its URL to, because HTTP-in URLs are darned ephemeral.

Region restarted? The URL becomes invalid and you have to get a new one. Script reset? Invalid. Teleported? Invalid. On rez? Invalid. Jump to the default state? Invalid. Detached or attached? Well, you get the idea.

Putting in everything to take care of that is wordy, but reusable, and almost all of us who have been using the other communications methods already have an HTTP-accessible registry where our in-world objects can store data like this, so it isn’t that huge a deal.

The number of potential incoming URLs is somewhat limited (limits operate in the same basic allocation fashion as prim-limits, and objects attached to an avatar have a pool of 38 possible URLs available to them). There’s also caps and throttles, but if you’re doing generally sensible communications coding, you won’t run into any of them at present – though there are hints that they may be adjusted in future.

All in all, the primary benefit of HTTP-in seems to be faster and simpler signaling to in-world objects, and that goes a long way towards reducing the level of incoming traffic at your HTTP server – and depending on the strictures of your hosting service, that can be a very good thing indeed. It doesn’t make choirs of angels sing, but it’s still a very useful replacement for email and XML-RPC communications.

Book Review: My Avatar, My Self


Firstly, it’s fair to warn you that I’m breaking one of my own reviewing rules here. I generally never write a review of something that I haven’t purchased. That’s a rule that I’m not in the habit of breaking, but it’s worth noting that I’m making an exception here today.

If you want the short version, you should go and buy Waggoner’s book if you have a serious interest in identity, identification, the interaction of people with diegetic and liminal spaces, and/or the core philosophies of human involvement, interactions and identity in virtual spaces and gameplay.

For those of you that are still here, Waggoner has put together a book that doubles as something of a thesis. Littered with references and notes, My Avatar, My Self is a dense and thoughtful read both on the nature of ourselves as well as on the nature of our virtual interactions and extensions.

I say dense, because virtually every paragraph gave me pause for consideration, sparking numerous, lengthy discussions, and causing my editor to wait and wait and wait, and wait some more for me to actually get back to him.

That’s the very definition of thought-provoking, right there. There’s a lot of meat within these covers.

Waggoner discusses the models of modernist identity theorists (who, alas, still aren’t really sure what Identity actually is), as well as contrasting that with the models of post-modern identity theorists (who also still aren’t sure what Identity).

Identity and the nature and definition of it is far from a done-deal, but practical interaction with avatars sheds a whole lot more light on things, and seems to support the post-modern theories rather better.

Debates between modern and postmodern identity theories continue. However, most theorists regardless of their camp seem to agree that communication media impact human identity construction. Even modern identity theorists such as Giddens recognize the importance of these external stimuli: “Mediated experience has long influenced both self-identity and the basic organization of social relations.” This statement is echoed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin almost a decade later: “[People] employ media as vehicles for defining personal identity”

Throughout, Waggoner focuses on single-user role-playing games primarily (Fallout 2/3, Morrowind, Oblivion), but this is no weakness in his approach. In doing so, Waggoner manages to test and demonstrate his points without considerable, intrusive or distracting noise or complications, as he monitors the interactions and reactions of four diverse subjects as they approach various games.

Throughout, Waggoner examines the motivations, identification, and responses of his four subjects, occasionally highlighting responses that a subject is seemingly unaware of, or unwilling to admit.

If you’re not afraid of some deep ideas about identity, expression, avatars, narrative, genres and spaces, nor of the language required to express these compactly, Waggoner’s My Avatar, My Self should find a place on your reading list.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go back and read it again.

(You can purchase this book from TMJ’s online bookstore, Amazon or direct from the publisher).

Proposed ISP filtering allows surveillance of journalists, citizens, politicians

Should Senator Conroy’s proposed ISP filtering come to fruition, it concentrates extraordinary powers on whoever is to actually run it. It allows the surveillance of the Internet activities of Kevin Rudd’s children, the journalists at News Limited, or the government’s perceived political opponents (or its own members), or of anyone.

At will. Without cause. Without warrant. Without oversight.

Whether or not you agree with the filtering plan’s goals, this one thing should give you pause: your web-browsing history, and the web-browsing history of every Australian is available to some as-yet-unknown party, from the moment mandatory ISP filtering is switched on.

Sure, the contractor who provides the filtering service, and who maintains the systems will doubtless have all sorts of NDAs. But if someone in Rudd’s family browses porn from The Lodge, for example, then there’s considerable potential for leverage and extortion, because the contractor could obtain that data at will, even if government officials themselves could not, by law, obtain it.

Because filtering systems are logged. Filtering providers are, in fact, very keen on logging. Whether a request is blocked or allowed, the fact of it is recorded. Filtering providers use it to assess how well the system is performing. Individual user addresses are at times monitored from the logs, and some of that data is processed by humans to identify new things that should be blocked, or to see how people are attempting to defeat the filtering.

Whoever is providing and controlling the filtering gains unprecedented political power. Want to know what the journalists at a particular newspaper are up to? Scan the logs for their network addresses and check out what they’re reading on the Web. Ditto for other politicians. Or for anyone of interest, from parliamentarians to cleaners.

The potential for abuse here is absolutely appalling.

All you have is the word of people that these secrets won’t leak or be abused. Won’t they? The preliminary filter lists have already leaked, and contain quite a number of things that are far beyond what we’ve been told would be there. Our trust has already been violated even during the trial phase.

It’s only a matter of time before someone uses this data for their personal or political advantage.

And we, as a nation, are making it all too easy for that to happen.

Metaplace impressions

At The Metaverse Journal, we’ve followed Metaplace closely and covered its beta phase previously. Senior contributor Tateru Nino was asked to put Metaplace through its paces to ensure we haven’t been too starry-eyed about its potential – Editor.

Still in beta, Metaplace still has some rough edges and glitches, but it is certainly coming along very nicely.  The look and feel of Metaplace mostly calls to mind the isometric 2D games of the mid 1990s. That’s very much the look and feel of much of it, though it is in a considerably higher resolution than the game titles of yesteryear.

You could be forgiven for thinking its areas as strikingly similar in some ways to the tactical maps of the old X-Com game series. It runs conveniently in a browser, and is entirely Flash-based, downloading what it needs, when it needs it.


Metaplace is divided into worlds. Each world being more or less a variably-sized map, viewed in a variety of ways and interconnected into a larger, multidimensional abstract geometry. There’s no broader landscape, and no particularly enormous spaces. Like – say – Richard Garriott’s Ultima VII, there’s an internal sense of the three-dimensionality of objects, but it is primarily a two-dimensional experience. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


Metaplace’s strengths appear to be largely organized around social and gaming. Metaplace strongly supports the creation of spaces, particularly gaming spaces. Objects are almost trivially easy to create within metaplace, and the system actively supports a variety of relatively painless ways to get content into the system.

If you want, for example, a boat, the system will offer to take your search to Google 3D Warehouse, where you can simply select one of the available models, and Metaplace will do all the heavy lifting to import it for you. A useful variety of behaviours can be added to objects with just a few clicks, and no-scripting, and there’s support for more intricate systems as well.

tmj-tan-metaplace3 Views of spaces can be customized, UI widgets can be added. There’s a great deal of support for building game-spaces, and if I were able to spare the time for making a game, Metaplace is definitely where I’d want to be doing it.

Metaplace tracks experience (‘metacred’, actually) and assigns levels, keeping track of the basic types of activities you indulge in. People can tell at a glance if you’re a socializer, explorer or builder by nature – though hardly anyone actually seems to pay attention to that. You gain metacred and presently also coins (for the economy prototype) by, well, socializing, exploring and building, basically.

Some issues still present themselves, of course.

The economy and monetisation of the platform is still in the early stages. It’s “soft-launched”, if you like, and users are still in the early days of getting to grips with the potential of the platform. Much of the content you’ll see is still under construction.


The urge to right-click – for context menus and the like – is almost overwhelming, but of course that just brings up the options for Adobe’s Flash Player. Some of your basic tools can be a little erratic. Sometimes your mouse scroll-wheel will function to zoom in or out of a scene, and sometimes – well – it just won’t. Even left-clicking on things can be somewhat erratic.

tmj-tan-metaplace5 Likewise, we’ve had a few issues with setting properties on objects and getting those to actually stick. The further you are from Metaplace in network terms, the more erratically it seems to behave.

That said, Metaplace is still early in the beta stage, and we’ve got every confidence that its various teething problems will continue to sort themselves out. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing how the platform, the economy and the user-generated content all develop.

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