Voice integration in Second Life – why I think it’s important

There’s already been a lot of discussion lately about the news that Linden Lab will be introducing integrated voice into Second Life by June.

I’m excited. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this news. This is one of two features I’ve been hanging out to see included in Second Life (the other is HTML-on-a-prim).

To me this is one of the most important developments that has happened to Second Life for a while. It’s important for me personally, and I think it also important for Second Life.

However, a lot of residents aren’t happy about it, particularly those who like their anonymity for one reason or another, and those who see Second Life as an alternative to their first life – an escape from reality – rather than an adjunct to or extension of first life (as I do).

Those negatively affected by voice include the shy and the introverted, roleplayers (the 50 year old male truck driver who is pretending to be tinkerbell!), gender-swappers, furries, people speaking different languages, those with hearing difficulties and those with visual learning and communication styles who prefer writing and reading over talking and listening (more on that later).

Protecting diversity

What is important is that we have choice to use voice or not, and to turn it off on our land if we want to. It appears we will be provided with these options. (Hopefully we will be able to mute voice like we can mute text chat, both as individuals and as land owners.)

At the end of the day, no matter what the technological solutions are, many of the solutions on how to work with voice will be social, like the etiquette that has developed around when to use public chat and when to use private IM.

I know there are fears that there could develop a cultural split between texters and talkers, and that those who choose not to use voice will be ostracised, even treated with mistrust. Hopefully this won’t be the case. Everyone should be able to engage in SL using whichever medium they prefer, without prejudice or disadvantage.

So why is voice so important for me?

I’m not a text-chatter. I find text chat slow, laborious and frustrating. It’s not suited to the type of in-depth conversations I like. I use regular (not in Second Life) IM a lot, but only for quick exchanges. When I want to have a decent conversation, I talk.

In Second Life all that tippity, tappity of typing drives me crazy! And sometimes when I’m in Second Life I have to turn the radio on so I’ve got something to listen to.

I find text chatting so uncomfortable and alien to me that I’ve actually been spending less and less time in Second Life. I’m hoping that the addition of voice will make spending time in Second Life a more attractive experience.

Learning and communication style

I believe the reason I’m not really into chatting is that I’m auditory/verbal in my learning and communication style. This means that I prefer talking and listening to communicate, learn and process information. Just ask my friends who I’m constantly on the phone or Skype to!

Reading and writing are not my preferred style. I would much rather attend a discussion group, presentation or conference than read an article, paper or website. I even prefer to watch a video.

I suspect a lot of those who are complaining about the introduction of voice have a learning style which gives them a preference for reading and writing.

In fact, you could argue that not only does text chat favour those with a reading/writing style, but it actively discriminates against those with the other learning and communication styles.

Broader implications of voice

In general, voice will be a huge advantage for business, non-profits and education.

One of the issues that has been stopping many in the business world from entering Second Life is the issue of trust. How do you know if who you are talking to is who they say they are? Integrated voice will go – some way at least – to solving this problem.

And the more businesses that enter Second Life, the more money will flow in and the number of users will grow. In the same way that this turned out to be a boon for the Web – since it boosted underlying web architecture (e.g. bandwidth) – it will also be a boon for Second Life that will benefit all. (Although those who prefer Second Life the way it was before it started going mainstream and more commercial may not agree!)

A lot of residents are saying they are not going to use voice and are claiming that only a small proportion of the population is going to use voice. This may be so amongst the existing residents, but what this doesn’t recognise is that voice will be a huge selling point for many in the business and education worlds, and that we could see an influx of new residents (whole businesses like IBM and whole classes of students from the education sector) that could tip the balance towards people using voice as their preferred medium.

A viable alternative for online education and distance education

I think the real benefactors of integrated voice will be educators. Voice will make teaching and training in Second Life so much easier. It will make running tours and helping newbies out a lot easier too!

Second Life will begin to offer a viable alternative to existing web conferencing tools such as Elluminate and Breeze. The lack of voice has been one of the main things holding Second Life back as a viable online learning and distance learning platform. Of course it was possible to use third party voice solutions such as Teamspeak, Ventrilo, Skypecasts and audio streaming, but the extra effort required was not really a seller.

The other thing holding Second Life back as a platform for online learning is the limited tools for sharing information. Notecards and photoshopped text on a prim are very limited. Yes, we can do video and audio streaming, give slideshows and presentations and there is even a whiteboard, but these are all a bit clunky to set up and use.

I’m hoping this will all change when we get the other feature I am eagerly anticipating – HTML-on-a-prim. Then we will be able to import all of our favourite Web 2.0 tools – YouTube videos, flickr slideshows, Slideshare presentations, gliffy diagrams, online calendars etc. – into Second Life and create easy-to-use, media rich 3D learning environments.

Once we have these two issues sorted out I think we will have an Elluminate/Breeze killer, because we will have Elluminate and Breeze’s functionality plus the unique qualities that make 3D virtual worlds so compelling as social and learning environments – shared presence and shared experience.

But is it open?

One question/concern that I do have is – as Glyn Moody notes at open… – whether the integrated voice will be open source or not, as it is being provided by third party developers Vivox and DiamondWare. It seems unlikely. Linden Lab did great job of open-sourcing the client, and plan to do the same with the server software. It would be a shame to see what will probably become an integral part of the Second Life experience not be open source.

Disruption and transformation

I think this will work itself out in the long run, but there will be a lot of cultural adjustment, even upheaval, in the meantime. The ability of integrated voice to completely disrupt and transform the culture of Second Life cannot be underestimated.

(Image by Very Good with Computers)

4 responses to “Voice integration in Second Life – why I think it’s important

  1. As my main interest in SL is to asses its potential for foreign language learning I fully support your arguments. For some activities in the MFL curriculum (e.g. language production, intercultural learning) virutal environments can definitely bring added value, real time voice would be most welcome in this respect! Possibly the SL parallel endeavours in LanguageLab.com will provide this feature as default. So far, however, things are not operational so we do not know.

  2. I think your analysis of the impact of voice in SL is correct – you actually took the words out of my mouth.

    The question of html on a prim is one of my favorite visions. We are a small group trying to develop mindmapping in SL – the native means will be either something with notes or a solution using pre uploaded textures (posters with words) – but mindmapping should be spontane, so we have to produce the words on the fly. But html on a prim would certainly do the trick. If we get html on a prim, Linden Lab has lost a lot of 10 Linden $ payments for texture up-loads.

    I agree 100 % – let’s have html-on-a-prim

  3. Not knowing too much about LSL or any development in SL at this time, but I think i saw Pathfinder Linden “talk” about XML integration, and if you can do XML-on-a-prim, well is it not a question of using the XML integration already present ?

    Again, excuse me if i’m totally off beat here…

  4. Core… I’m afraid XML is a bit beyond me. All I know is that HTML-on-a prim is due out sometime this year.