January 30, 2010

Avatars United - where is the beef?

In a surprising move Linden Lab has bought the web portal "Avatars United". In April 2008 now retired blogger Vint Falken presented Avatars United (AU) as "Facebook for virtual personas". While I never was much of a fan of Facebook - and the current (and repeating) controversies about privacy concerns prove me right - I do use the social business networks Xing and LinkedIn with good success. A social network for avatars that bridges te gap between purely in-world presence, blogs and email was an intriguing thought so I signed up.

Avatars United never really fulfilled my vision and expectations. There were certainly a lot of good ideas, but at the same time they fell short in many aspects. The site used to be slow, features were not intuitive or buggy. Also - despite Vint's call for action to SL avatars to become the largest group in AU - it never reached a critical mass.

Other services stepped in. Flickr holds now the largest community of SL avatars for photo sharing, despite efforts of Koinup and Snapzilla to offer more SL centric services. Blogger and Wordpress hosts the majority of SL centric blogs, Twitter and Plurk have huge communities of SL avatars despite more specialized latforms like Ning or even SL centric platforms like rezzed.net (defunct), moolto (a Ning site) or ProfilesLive (aka SLProfiles) offering better tailored services. There are avatars on Xing, LinkedIn and even on Facebook, who is currently undergoing the second wave of ethnic cleansing regarding digital personas.

Avatars United - forgotten by many and dwarfed in usage compared to any of the other sites above - now got the huge boost from Linden Lab. The cards have been reshuffled, the game is open again.

What does Avatars United offer today:
  1. Microblogging
    The "Shoutbox" allows you to publish short blurps of thoughts which can be seen by your contacts or everybody else seeing your public page.
    Who else offers it: Twitter and Plurk are the platforms used most by SL avatars, but also avatar forums on Ning, rezzed.net, moolto and others offer this.
    AU implementation: Solid, but lacks cross-connectivity into other services like ping.fm
    Killer feature: no
  2. Photo Sharing
    You can create albums and upload photos to it. Other users can comment on the photos and "like" them.
    Who else offers it: Flickr is the "mother of photo sharing services", Google has Picasa as probably #2 in the market. Koinup offers specialized services for SL avatars and has a nice followership. Snapzilla is specialized on SL avatars as well and is widely used.
    AU implementation: slow and offering no advantage I can see compared to other sites.
    Killer feature: no
  3. Blog
    AU allows you to create your own blog entries, as well as to subscribe to other's blogs and to comment and "star" posts.
    Who else offers it: Wordpress and Blogger as the most popular services, but also communities like Ning.
    AU implementation: straightforward and spartanic, but missing again important connectivity features.
    Killer feature: no
  4. Feed Reader
    The opposite of the AU-blogs is the function to aggregate blog sources you read in a web based feed reader. With the idea of AU as dashboard, you could read all your favourite blogs from within the AU page.
    Who else offers it: ther eis a plethora of standalone feed readers - as web service Google Reader is probably the largest one
    AU implementation: extremely slow and buggy, claiming perfectly validating feeds as not being proper ones
    Killer feature: no
  5. Plugins and Gadgets
    AU offers the functionality to include 3rd party plugins into your page, adding more functionality. Right now the number of plugins is small, but since AO offers support for Google's OpenSocial standard, there will soon be more.
    Who else offers it: Facebook, LinkedIn and Xing all offer plugins, there is also a number of plugins available for the iGoogle homepage. Ning offers plugins to a certain extent.
    AU implementation: I have not tested this yet
    Killer feature: maybe - no other SL/avatar centric platform offers this functionality. It depends on how this feature gets adopted by the community, but this could be a winner.
  6. Currency model
    While the basic functionality is free, certain features need to purchased with AU "coins", where 500 coins equal roughly 5 US$ or about 1500 L$. It seems that 3rd party plugin developers can charge "coins" for these too.
    Who else offers it: Google Apps offers commercial widgets for one time or repeat charges. No SL oriented site I know offers this.
    Killer feature: maybe - for social websites it is the clearest revenue model I saw so far, and it depends on the attractiveness of the offered features. And of course with the new owner Linden Lab, an integration of the "coins" with L$ would facilitate the success.
Bottom line

Where is the beef? Right now I don't see it. While I definitely will continue to use AU, right now I see no compelling reason to prefer it over my usage of iGoogle, Blogger, Plurk, Twitter and Flickr. However AU is in a great starting position now. With a more responsive server platform, and with essential cross-connectivity features added, it might become a true dashboard for avatars. Let us pipe in our photos from Flickr and Koinup. Let us mirror our blogposts from Wordpress and Blogger. Let us Tweet and Plurk from the AU interface or get support for ping.fm. Let us rate XStreetSL items within AU and create wishlists. Let us mirror our in-world friendship relations in AU and see who's online. Add a landmark sharing service.

The opportunities are exciting for sure. Now it comes to show the SL residents the beef.

January 18, 2010

Watch your avatar name with Google Alerts

Everybody has "googled" their avatar name before, and the more vocal ones of us have certainly found a mentioning here and there. But did you know you can automate this process? Google Alerts is a nifty little gadget that allows you to store Google queries within the search engine itself, and get an email report (or a personalized feed) as soon as one of your searches gets a new result.

I am using Google Alerts both for my SL avatar as well as for my RL person, and it has become an essential tool for me. However the other day I read an article by metaverse consultant Ener Hax and realized that probably not everybody knows about Google Alerts. You might notice that against my usual practice I did not link to Ener's article. The reason is that Ener writes she has - just like me - set up extensive Google Alerts "so if someone mentions me, i wanna say hello back". I hope Ener Hax shows up in the comment then to prove the effectiveness :-)

As you can see from the screenshot I have set up Google Alerts for my name and the name of my businesses and the projects I am involved in. In my particular case I have also set up Alerts for the common misspellings - some people never get my name right. Basically you can set up Alerts for every valid Google query. The "link:" queries you see in the image for example fire if someone links to my blog.

Admittedly I have edited the screenshot. I have also set up Alerts for my avatar name in conjunction with my real name - I want to know right away should they ever appear in the same context. I have also set up Alerts for my competitors so I can keep an eye on them.

I hope this helps you keep a better eye on your online persona - and of course these things apply to your RL identity too.

January 17, 2010

Winning a photo/story contest

A few weeks ago my dear friend Zippora Zabelin contacted me with the suggestion to cooperate on a contest for a "Royal Photograph" for the Companion sim. The contest was aimed to create portraits of "missing relatives" of a royal bloodline, to be displayed in a gallery in the castle. Zippora sent me the draft of her story describing the sad fate of the King's firstborn daughter - the Ice Princess.

My task was to come up with the visual interpretation of her story. Thankfully there were still some wintery sims around, among others Oubliette in which I took a similar themed photo of my friend Quaintly some time ago.

The photoshoot proved difficult with extreme slow sim performance and both me and Zippora crashing. Post processing of the images took several days, with drafts going back and forth between Zippora and me many times until we were both happy.

Last night we got contacted by the contests organizer Frigg Ragu with the great news that we are in fact one of the winners and our contribution will be exhibited in the castle. This was actually the first time I won a contest in SL (except from some "Best in ..." party contests), and it was an extremely pleasing experience.

Make sure you read Zippora's wonderful story as well - the image and the story really go hand in hand with each other.

January 15, 2010

The many faces of Peter Stindberg across the grids

Beauty is only skin deep - and nowhere this saying is more true than in virtual worlds. The appearance of our digital identity - the avatar - consists of a handful of sliders for the shape and the skin that is pulled across it.

I recently spent more time again on OpenSim based grids, and you will likely see more posts about that topic in the future. A year ago I took my first glimpse into opensim grids - and was quickly sobered due to the quickness and bad performance of those alternatives. But things have changed over the past year. Stability has become much better. Newer viewers offer features addressing the issue of accessing various grids. And so exploring new frontiers outside of SL becomes a less frustrating and more exciting endeavour.

Over the three years I have spent in SL, I have subtly tweaked my avatar many times. I am quite happy with the (preliminary) end result. Peter Stindberg is a male, without doubt, but not one of the stereotype males featuring a barrel chest, no neck and ridiculous proportions that more remind of the incredible hulk than a human being. I am rather short for a guy (still transformed to atomic world sizes my avatar is 2.15m tall), slender with a hint of adrogynity. Above all, my avatar is proportioned, with legs and arms and torso in the right lengths and widths. The slight unshaven look, the curious eyes and the not-too-toned look comes from Hart Larssons wonderful PXL Jude skin. And my signature haircut is Luth from ETD - an older style but I like the messy look.

It's only natural that I want to take this appearance with me into other grids. Of those I tested only Reaction Grid gives you a halfway decent avatar (with halfway decent prim hair and AO) to start with - the other grids give you the standard Ruth female avatar.

Transferring my shape was the easiest task. The Imprudence viewer allows you to export your shape into a XML file (provided you have the necessary rights to the shape), and reimport it again. This was a quick task, and after a few minutes my 4 personas in other grids had the same body like my SL avatar.

Skin and hair however proved to be difficult. Except for the Rezzable grid (which is basically only a playground/testing-grid) I found some freebie shops in all the other grids, usually providing me with Eloh Eliot skins which - in doubt - I could upload myself too since Eloh hands out the Photoshop files. However, while Eloh's skins are nice, it is not what I wanted. And it is even sadder with hair, because what you find in the freebie boxes in terms of male hair is rather pitiful.

So I contacted Hart Larsson of PXL Creations and Elikapeka Tiramisu of ETD and explained my situation and asked for a license to use their creations in another grid:
Lately I am exploring more and more 3rd party grids, and of course I want to have a consistent appearance across grids. Therefore I would like to ask you for the terms and conditions of a license that would allow me to use .... in other grids too.

I know from a content creator perspective this is a touchy issue. What I am asking for is a license tied to my person only - I operate by the same name in all other grids. I don't expect to get this license for free either. In terms of security I can only offer you my public reputation though.

[... Explanation how it could be done from a technical point of view ...]

I understand fully that this might be quite a tough request for you, but I ask you to think about it with an open mind. Please let me know if there are any additional questions you might have, I am more than willing to answer them.

Hart Larsson got back to me a day later. He has already investigated a bit into 3rd party grids but is rather reluctant. The surprising argument was that he fears more theft in these grids compared to the Second Life grid. His argumentation was along the lines that in those 3rd party grids good content is rare, so someone who comes there wearing a good skin is more likely to get copybotted than in SL. I personally think that a copybotter would rather go into SL to "harvest" and then upload the items into a 3rd party grid, but I have to accept Hart's concerns. He promised me to think about it - I have not yet contacted him again.

ETD's store assistant contacted me a little later. She thanked me for the notecard and the extensive explanation, and was glad I liked the ETD hair so much. However she said that a request like mine is out of her room for decision, and that Elikapeka is on an extended hiatus from SL. She promised me to pass my request along, but also mentioned I should not set too high hopes into a positive answer.

A look into the future

When I look into my crystal ball, I see that some time in the next 18 to 24 months we will be able to freely travel with our Second Life avatars into 3rd party grids. Probably only a few at first - most likely the academical Reaction Grid - but it will become more and more. Initially we will be able to travel into those grids with our appearance only - shape, skin and the items we wear. Eventually the rest of our inventory will follow and we will be able to change clothing or rez furniture in a foreign grid. It is inevitable, and content creators will not be able to prevent this.

I expect there are more people like me who want to explore 3rd party grids already today, and who want to do so in style using an as close as possible replica of their SL avatars. And who are honest enough to want to do this officially.

There is a window of opportunity here for content creators to branch out. The opensim based grid InWorldz has a currency model and an inworld economy already, where 500 IZ$ equal 1 US$. Other opensim grids plan to introduce an economy in the near future. Those content creators who will adopt grids outside of SL first, will be the ones who become successful there.

My advice for content creators is:
  • Grant your customers licenses to use your creations in other grids
  • Open stores in the more prominent 3rd party grids to establish a presence
  • Team up with other designers and buy a sim in the more popular other grids
  • For grids without an economy, offer your customers to pay you inside SL with L$ and deliver your items to them in the other grids
There is a market out there you are missing out on. Adopt the diversity and branch out to have success in the future.

A look into the even further future

In 5-7 years from now, Second Life will be the backbone of the Metaverse, providing an infrastructure with protocols, storage databases and API's. Individuals and corporations host their own sims on their servers. Similar to renting webspace today, you can rent simspace in the future, in datacenters connected to the SL backbone. But if you so desire you can also host your sim on your home machine and connect it to the SL grid. The currency of the Metaverse is the L$ - the money transactions handled by Linden Lab which acts as the bank of the metaverse. Linden Lab offers a credit card that taps into your L$ balance and with which you can make purchases in the atomic world. For these services, Linden Lab asks the usual charges banks ask for transaction. However the L$ will become the first truly globally accepted micropayment system, obsoleting PayPal. Not only will you be able to load books on your ebook reader and pay for them with L$, you will also be able to download video on demand or music with L$ and you can seamlessly watch them either on your internet enabled TV or your sim in the Metaverse.

January 10, 2010

Web based Megaprim Search Engine

A few days ago I was talking with Katharine Berry and a person whose name I forgot about Megaprims and the SALT HUD when I mentioned that a web based solution to "order" megaprims would be nice since it could offer a graphical preview. Katharine liked the idea and started to code and in only two days finished megaprim.sl - a full featured graphical web based megaprim search engine.
On the first screen you enter the desired dimensions for the megaprim with the option to search for prims with exact matching dimensions, or megas that are smaller or larger. You can also account for a certain flexibility in the results. The permutation setting allows you to search for prims that match the query by means of rotating it - this is useful in some cases but needs to be switched off in cases where you want to convert the prim type to e.g. cylinder or where the center of the prim would be outside your parcel.

After submitting your query the website displays a list of matching prims. Via "get it" you can have the prim delivered to you. In order to prevent spamming/abuse, the in-world server sends you a confirmation link first - once per session (i.e. as long as you don't close your browser session).

Megaprim.sl is a fast and efficient way to get megaprims delivered, and has many advantages over the SALT HUD. For feedback and suggestions please comment on Katharines blogpost.