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Month: June 2007

Voice in Second Life

Voice in Second Life

Second Life is moving toward integrated voice capability. This isn’t news at this point; it’s moved onto the main grid now, and it’s only a matter of time (less rather than more) before it becomes an everyday, standard feature. There has been much discussion about what voice will do to interactions within SL; some people believe it will be so revolutionary that it will fundamentally change the way this particular virtual environment functions, and some others believe that voice is the path toward ultimate destruction.

Personally, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

I mean, technically, it is a big deal; it’s an amazing thing. If you try it out, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not internet audio like I remember it back when I used AIM to talk to people overseas. Press the button, talk, release, listen: it’s like talking on CB radios. Second Life voice is not like that. It’s not tinny and distant like skype can be, either. Voice in Second Life is more like voice in real life than anything else I’ve ever seen. Everyone can talk at once; you get overlapping voices when many people are talking to each other, not cancelling each other out, but competing with each other. The people who are closer to you are louder, while people who are walking away from you get progressively quieter. I had the interesting experience of standing in a valley by a river with a friend on the beta grid and hearing conversations floating past as others walking near our location; it’s an amazingly rich way to process information, giving Second Life a depth that’s difficult to fully quantify. It has always had its three dimensions in terms of movement, but the flexibility of the voice features highlights them in ways that are incredibly powerful. The idea of this was already buried in the system; people’s text greys out as they’e farther away from you. But the audio factor is so much clearer in defining and describing distance and space. I’ve always found audio cues particularly powerful, so the voice features appeal to me.

But I don’t think voice chat is going to destroy anything. Not really.

There are a variety of arguments for why voice is destructive. The obvious: people whose avatars don’t reflect their physical realities are on their way to becoming exposed. Female avatars belonging to real-life men, for instance; possibly age will be reabable though voice (unlikely, in my opinion). Those with hearing challenges will be left out, as will people who are shy or don’t have a mic, who will disappear into the wallpaper. Wired noted that voice destroys the kind of level playing field that the text-based world provides by hiding age/culture distinctions that might otherwise keep users in their respective silos. It brings in a level of the real world that, in the case of World of Warcraft in particular, apparently isn’t very welcome. Having our preconceptions about others challenged is uncomfortable. Going along with other people preconceptions of us can sometimes be useful, and voice might endanger that.

You could make the same arguments for text, in many ways. Lots of us are pretty good at working out who’s probably male and who’s probably female in text anyway. (And I’m not talking about the gender genie, but that’s a post for another time.) And it’s not as if we can really hide our age and experience from people with whom we spend significant time. Educational level, etc. becomes clear fairly quickly in text. Pure text conversation excludes a significant number of people as well; it’s not as if text is more pure and predjudice-free than voice.

But I’m primarily convinced that voice won’t alter much because I don’t think voice is going to supplant text in Second Life.

I was talking to Catspaw last night about voice in WoW, and the way she described it pretty much matched up with what I expect we’ll see; voice takes its place as one element in the mix, an authoritative feature used in very specific circumstances with requirements that can make use of its advantages. In her case, she said the voice channel is what you use when the leader of a group needs to get information to everyone else really fast. In the case of Second Life, it might be a short bit of instruction or a story that everyone in a place wants to hear. I will likely be immediate, intimate, ephemeral, and short. In the case of Second Life, it’s not private by any means (your “ears” in Second Life are attached to your camera, not your avatar; you can zoom in on people and listen to a conversation even if you’re not that close to them). You can’t walk away from a voice chat (though, Catspaw says you can, you just need to crank the volume, but that crack aside). Voice chat ties you to a window in ways that text doesn’t. If someone hears you talking in response, you can’t very well be multi-tasking and catching up at intervals (which, I suspect, is how many people manage text chats…at least, that’s how I manage them). Voice chat is more like a real life conversation; if you don’t answer immediately, people will think you’re not paying attention (which you aren’t) and will be offended. For spurts of information, I think voice will be very useful, but I don’t think it will really push out those who doesn’t want to use it. Most people will use text for chatter because it requires less effort and allows for the ability to read up. (Even if they added a “listen to the last 5 minutes you missed” feature, you’d still get dragged out of the immediacy of the voice chat moment.)

And some people don’t have mics, that’s just reality. They can still listen in, though, and respond. If someone really didn’t want to use their voices, they could just say that they don’t have a mic and don’t really like talking into one anyway. I can’t imagine too many people would find that odd. Even I found it a bit daunting to experiment with the voice feature on the beta grid, and it’s hard to find someone more gregarious than I am. Voice is sort of like stepping up on stage in middle school to give your speech in front of all your peers; even for the pathologically un-shy, it’s a bit unnerving.

I expect the full introduction of voice in Second Life will go something like this: voice comes in, there’s a flurry of activity around it for a while, people talking to old friends for the first time, listening to people’s accents and luxuriating in the quality of their voices, feeling, possibly, distance because the tenor of the voices is different than expected, and then eventually things settling down and returning to normal, and returning, primarily, to text. Voice will probably get used, but only in specific circumstances that call for it. I think this is very literally about the addition of a feature rather than the replacement of another.

From an Ed Tech perspective, I think the introduction of voice is going to be amazing; it means we don’t need to set up live streaming to bring talks into Second Life. Audio chat comes with a certain amount of built-in authority; we used to run into problems with getting a message out to everyone in a class through text, because the set up of text is democratic in nature and doesn’t specially highlight the teacher’s words over everyone else’s. I’m in favour of that breakdown of authority on most levels and in most circumstances, but providing an authoritative channel like voice means we can acknowledge that the authority that exists, alows us to use it thoughtfully and meaningfully when we need it, and let us deliberately distribute it among the students when it’s required. For instance, we could have students take turns presenting via voice chat, and allow others to type their reactions and questions and feedback as text. It allows for a kind of visible backchannel that doesn’t need to take away from the presentation itself. It means many people can “talk” at once without interrupting each other; that was always been the beauty of text. (Me and Jason sometimes tell each other stories at the same time in text, stories that get twisted together but both get across at the same time.) Personally, I can’t sit through presentations anymore without talking back; at the moment I’m restricted to the number of questions I can ask before I feel like I’m dominating the group, and my various text-based backchannel options (which drag me out of the immediate room rather than keeping me in it). Voice brings to Second Life the function that conferencing software already has; text from the peanut gallery and voice from the presenter, and then the option of voice for the peanut gallery, who generally prefer to stick to text. If anything, the introduction of voice to Second Life is a challenge to conference software packages; there’s no sense of presence in those as it stands. Second Life would be a much more fun place to hold a conference once it gets easy voice chat.

But I guess we’ll soon see.

xkcd and the shhing librarians

xkcd and the shhing librarians

This morning I saw today’s xkcd strip, “Librarians“. My reaction went like this: oooo yay some librarian love, yippeee….oh, it’s the “librarians love books more than anything” meme again…boo. He’s clearly never dated an actual librarian, because this is so clearly the perspective of a person who doesn’t know what librarians actually do, and man, now I’m all disappointed. I was going to write something about it this morning, but the words kind of trickled out of my head and pooled together into nonsense, so I didn’t bother.

But Kathleen Houlihan hit the nail squarely on the head (link via Steven):

Images/stereotypes are viral. There’s very little we can do to change the way the public views us. Badgering publishers or authors into printing retractions for their portrayal of librarians is defensive and not particularly productive or flattering, as it goes a long way towards perpetuating the myth that we’re a bunch of control-freak biddies running around in packs trying to maintain order. The only way to change the perception of librarians (and I’d guess that the Shh! variety of librarian stereotype will be around for a long time because of movies, cartoons and books) is to get people to come into the library. See that we have more than books. See that many of us don’t care how you treat our books as long as you use them. See that we can help you tame the torrent of information that’s available on the web and find real and useful sources of information for you. That many libraries have “quiet floors” instead of the whole library being off-limits for chatter. That we even encourage noisiness with some of our programming. Get people in the door and their perception of us might change.

This is something we’ve been wrestling with at my place of work, as well; there is a stereotype of librarians out there in the world, for good and/or for ill. While Kathleen thinks it’s okay either way, from my perspective as an academic librarian, it’s not okay and we really do need to change perceptions, at least locally. That strip demonstrates the idea that a librarian is so closely tied to the collection that hurting a book is torture to her; libraries are primarily understood as houses for their collections. The distinction between the library as a structure and the librarian as a thinking person and a professional is getting blurry. Librarians are far more than merely their collections, and we need to challenge that perception if we’re going to be taken seriously.

As I’ve heard it expressed at a couple of different institutions now, librarians need to better express the business that we’re in. The number of times we encounter people who don’t know the difference between a public library and an academic library is staggering enough; why don’t we better express what it is we do? What sort of resource we are to the universities in which we’re ensconced? We need to better articulate our expertise, as well. We are not a little-league version of an academic; we are the people who watch the flow of publication and information distribution, keep tabs on the different entry ways into a discipline. We are the people who know how to find sources of information when you know nothing about a discipline, because we know how to read its tea leaves. We fight to make sure information is available to the people who need it; we haven’t done very well so far at expressing that battle to the faculty who’s work is the fodder for it.

I’m not saying we should ask for a retraction; it’s not xkcd’s fault that we have a shhh-ing reputation. It’s ours. And it’s our job to get out there and make a new reputation for ourselves, not as bespeckled, cardigan-wearing biddies, but as loud-mouthed, politically-savvy, compassionate brainacs with a pendant for the rare and obscure. With a talent for divination, of course.

B612 in Second Life

B612 in Second Life

“I am a fox,” said the fox.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince.

“I am so unhappy.” “I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince. But, after some thought, he added: “What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”

“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean, ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

My attempt to build my own B612. (Click the image to see it bigger.)


Welcome to the World

Welcome to the World

My sister (Melissa) was due with her second child last Friday. Last Friday was also the fifth birthday of her first child (Max). Now, Max himself was a week overdue when he made his entrance into the world, so no one was entirely expecting the sequel to arrive when expected. And so he didn’t! Last night when I spoke to my brother-in-law (Peter), he said they weren’t planning to induce Melissa today, but maybe next Monday or Tuesday.

This morning at 6:30am my phone rang, and I was so dead asleep at the time I didn’t quite register what it was until it had stopped. Got up, checked the messages…it was my dad, sounding very pleased. My new nephew was born at 1:50pm this morning. Yay!

So now I’m trying desperately to get back to Guelph to hang out with the family, but I gotta tell you: for a city that is a lean hour drive from my condo in Clarkson, getting to Guelph is hard. There is no transit link between Mississauga and Guelph at all, so the only way to manage it is to get into Toronto (due east) in order to turn around and go to Guelph (due west). And then, of course, the arrival/departure times don’t match up at all; I took a commuter train into Toronto, and then walked twenty minutes up to the greyhound station, and now I’m parked there waiting for the next bus (2pm). For a 6:30am wake up, you’d think I’d be able to do this a little faster, but there you have it.

Apparently Max has already been in to meet his brother, held him, and sang to him. I’m sure this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. My mother, minus a great deal of sleep because of the 1am phone call, is currently out sleeping on her patio in the sunshine. My sister, apparently, went into labour so fast there wasn’t time for painkillers. I can’t wait to see her, but word on the street is that she’s doing really well.

I haven’t been officially told the new one’s name yet, but last I heard the frontrunner was Leo. My mom says he’s a very beautiful baby, and that he already looks just like his brother. My mom said, over and over on the phone, “he’s so sweet, so sweet,” which I’m sure makes him a very unique and special less-than-a-day old! He’s nursing already and everything.

On the travel upside: I got on the Toronto wireless network. If only Guelph had one. Hopefully I’ll have some pictures to post, once I get an internet connection again after the big auntie-nephew introductions.



If one becomes a librarian the day one starts one’s first professional library job (debatable: possibly one becomes a librarian the moment one completes a library school degree, or the day one graduates from library school, or some other key date I’m not considering), then today is my two year anniversary of being a librarian.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been two years. It’s really zipped by.

I feel like the luckest person in the world.