Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Avatars and Inspiration?

Written 20 January, 2010

Avatars and Inspiration?

On 28 December, Philip Linden posted a short blog on the Second Life blogsite. The name was the same as this post (minus the question mark).

Philip wrote about seeing James Cameron's film Avatar, and how inspired he was by the idea of an evolving digital forest, and how, in ten years, perhaps, we might have something very like the intense graphics of the planet Pandora on our home computers.

The responses to Philip's post were illuminating. Many, and perhaps most writers felt Philip's vision was unrealistic. How are we going to have evolving digital forests, they argued, when we can't even get additional attachment points and mesh and better animations?

I've little doubt the power of home computers will, within ten to fifteen years, allow the level of graphics that astonishes us today in Avatar. I'm quite sure we will see them in virtual worlds. I'm not so sure we'll be seeing them in a future version of Second Life.

These days, I'm seriously bothered by a couple of things. First is a perceived change in direction of Second Life's parent company, Linden Lab. Many residents see the bean counters now in charge and predict abandonment of long-term vision in search of short-term profits.

Companies must make a profit, to be sure, but the Second Life in which we spend so much of our time didn't come about because of bean counters. It happened because of the vision and magnficent obsession of Philip Linden, who did what no one thought could be done.

Today Second Life prospers despite a plethora of alternate virtual worlds, despite graphics that are falling further and further behind the curve, despite the horrible networking problems inherent in making tens of thousands of servers talk to tens of thousands of computers across tends of thousands of mile.

Second Life sometimes reminds me of the guy who used to spin the plates on the Ed Sullivan show. He kept spinning new plates, but the ones he put up first would be wobbling and he would have to rush back and give them a spin to forestall disaster. Plates were forever wobbling and threatening to fall to the floor and shatter.

And so it seems with the grid. A new server release fixes a dozen problems, but a dozen previously repaired problems are broken again (anyone else have to click three or four times on an avatar to see his or her profile?). We keep getting new features, and promises of yet more new features, but one gets the feeling the entire grid is held together with spit and shoestring. When will it finally and forever crash and burn?

A few years ago Linden Lab opened the source code for its viewers. The servers remain locked-- however, people are busily reverse engineering the server code on the OS Grid, and doing their best to build it correctly, with modules, so their software removes some of the limitations build into the Second Life servers. They're working on increased avi counts on a sim, for instance, and on allowing choices of physics and scripting engines on their servers, and on making regions larger than Second Life's 256 x 256 meter squares. The OS Grid is still clunky, and the lack of a monetary system makes the whole thing shaky, but it's clear there's a long-term plan there. I'm not so sure about Linden Labs' long-term plan.

One of these days, perhaps, one of the brush fires that constantly plague Second Life may prove to be unfixable. Or one of these days Linden Labs' shortsightedness will sink the ship.

When Linden Lab opensourced its viewer, I thought it a good idea. Now I'm not so sure.

The first alternate viewers offered small advantages over the official Second Life viewer. I remember how happy I was when Nicholaz Beresford's viewer stopped my hair from being shoved up my butt whenever I teleported-- and how nice it was to be able to double-click on an object in inventory to wear it.

Now, however, there are viewers which completely bypass Second Life's content system, allowing easy theft of objects and even complete avatars. The Crylife viewer, for instance, will let you duplicate any avatar and show yourself as the creator.

Some viewers are even more scary. Avatars running them can unban themselves, set themselves up as estate managers, and trash entire sims by raising the land to great heights and returning all the owners' prims. They can even rename other avatars.

Second Life's content creators have been screaming about this problem since the days of Copybot. Now the problem is a hundred times worse; people are passing these viewers around. Creators are having their entire inventories copied, sim owners are losing control of land which costs them hundreds of dollars a month, and ordinary people are in danger of having their avatars copied.

And what has Linden Lab had to say about this theft?

Maybe I've missed, something, but so far as I know, nothing. And even if I missed a Linden comment or two, certainly we've heard no assurances they're on top of things.

Nor is Linden Lab doing a good job of enforcing copyrights. If a content creator makes a complaint under the Digitial Media Copyright Act and Linden Lab removes the content, the thief just recreates the content. If the avatar is banned, the thief just makes an alt. And if the thief's is banned by MAC address (which rarely happens), he or she gets another computer, or otherwise gets around the ban.

If there's one thing that sets Second Life apart from other virtual worlds, it's the fact that we can all, each of us, create things, using in-world tools. And, having made them, we can sell them. If we lose control of our creations and of the lands for which we pay the big bucks-- and I believe we are on the verge of this-- then Second Life will lose that which makes it special. And, having lost this, it will become irrelevant. And, having become irrelevant, it will be doomed.

I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that if Linden Lab doesn't close this hole in the fabric of Second Life there will soon be widespread disillusionment, panic, and downsizing. Content creators will remove their products and won't bother making new things. Sim owners will pack it in and abandon their land. OS Grid, or goddess forbid, Blue Mars, will look better and better. And whither go the content creators, so, eventually, go everybody else.

1 comment:

Melissa Yeuxdoux said...

Long ago, a linguist and cryptographer named Auguste Kerckhoffs set forth some requirements for a good encryption system that remain valid to this day. One of them is nowadays stated as "security must reside solely in the keys". That is, the system must remain secure even if the enemy knows how the cipher/code works, because eventually he will, through his own efforts or by betrayal.

That's a specific case of the argument against "security by obscurity".

The protocol between SL client and server shouldn't give the client the power to rename other avatars period. Ditto for unbanning and so forth. If that's possible, it's a bug whether there are open source clients or not.

As for copying data--that's going to be possible no matter what; it will always be possible to capture the data going between client and server, and capture the textures on their way to the graphics card. The nature of SL lets one set up the equivalent of "known plaintext attacks", i.e. you can create objects and then see what data comes through to represent them.