Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Depth of Information IV: Interactivity

Written 27 April, 2009

Depth of Information: IV. Interactivity

The versatility of Second Life’s building and scripting tools allows almost every sort of build. Within broad limits, residents can build almost anything they can imagine—and, having built them, can cause prims to move, interact with residents, and communicate with the world wide web. This allows creation of everything from smartass robots to elevators to surfboard rezzers and slideshows.

Some sims make wonderful use of the building tools, but ignore everything else. Indeed, much of Second Life is visually stunning three-dimensional canvases, static and unmoving. There’s no sound and little movement and no interactivity.

In some sims visitors can walk around in silence, passing quiet seas and fires that burn silently and one unmoving object after another. You can look, but you can’t hear and you can’t touch.

The beautiful Tol Eressea sim (which has, alas, been transformed into yet another boring and horribly ugly Medieval build, see the before and after photos), was once breathtakingly beautiful. It was a pleasure to walk around the Tolkienesque sim, seeing the many visual treats—but alas, there was nothing to DO there. It seemed rather like a village in which everyone suddenly rose and walked way, leaving food on the tables and fires in the hearths.

Compare this to another disappeared space—Privateer Space. Privateer was stunning in a different way, as it made extensive use of sculptured prims and effectively used vertical space all the way up to 4000 meters. But Privateer Space’s entry area was filled with interactive objects: a free spaceship, asteroids that would collide with you when you flew through them, satellites that would try to shoot you down, teleporters, sliding doors. It didn’t matter that much of the rest of the sim wasn’t particularly interactive; you were already in love with the place.

Because of its nature (vacuums abhor sound), there weren’t a lot of environmental sounds in Privateer Space, so let’s look at the use of sounds on another place: the tinies sim Raglan Commons.

If you teleport to Raglan and stand for a moment, you’ll hear bird cries, the buzzing of insects, and a variety of sounds that are difficult to identify. As you wander the sim you’ll hear the lap of waves, the cry of an owl, bells in the distance—the sort of things one EXPECTS to find in a place named Ragland Shire. The sounds add dimension and presence.

Audio and media can spruce up a sim as well. I remember once landing by happenstance (I had tumbled off the wing of a friend’s biplane as we crossed sim borders) next to a giant stairway to nowhere. Just as I realized the stairway wasn’t a stair at all, but a gangplank, the billboard beside me began the title sequence of Titanic. Ask me, was I intrigued?

And then there are particles. A bit of smoke or mist, fireflies at night, a candle flame, a random explosion all can add ambience and drama.

Some sims are by design static— for instance, an exhibition of photographs. The focus is on the pictures; too much sound or motion might distract. But too many such exhibits really fail their mission, as you don’t really learn anything about the artist or the photos because there are no notecard dispensers.

Whatever one’s intent in building a sim, whether or sound or particles or scripts are put into use, it’s a shame not to create a depth of experience for visitors-- or, if your purposes is promotion or education, not to create a depth of information.

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