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How much does it cost to play Second Life?

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Few online social networking sites get as much attention as Second Life (SL), the three-dimensional virtual world where users, called residents, can preten­d to be whomever — or whatever — they want to be. Although it’s an online environment, its influence reaches into the real world — including a virtual economy that’s dependent upon actual money. In reality, or perhaps virtual reality, Second Life is a complex environment filled with potential risks and rewards.

At its most basic level, Second Life is an online environment created by Linden Lab, a company based in San Francisco. Second Life is an online world in which residents create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, and interact with other avatars, places or objects. Second Life isn’t just a fancy chat room — residents can do much more than communicate with one another. For one thing, they can contribute to the world around them, creating buildings, objects or even animations. Resident additions to the virtual world are called user-generated content, and this content is one of the factors that makes Second Life such a unique online environment. User-generated content also explains why Second Life is for adults only — Linden Lab places few restrictions on residents, meaning that you can see some pretty raunchy creations while you’re exploring the environment.

In Second Life, residents can go to social gatherings, live concerts, press conferences and even college classes. They can do a lot of things you can do in real life — buy land, shop for clothes and gadgets or just visit with friends. They can also do things that are impossible in the real world — avatars can fly or teleport to almost any location. Some residents design short programs, called scripts, which give avatars or objects new abilities, including special animations or the ability to generate copies of other objects.

In many ways, Second Life is similar to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). Like an MMORPG, users represent themselves with a customizable, three-dimensional figure that acts like a computer-generated puppet. Users navigate through an online world, encountering strange landscapes and new people. Unlike MMORPGs, residents in Second Life aren’t in a game, though there are games inside Second Life’s virtual environment. They inhabit a virtual world free of pre-determined goals or tasks, just like the real world.

In the next section, we’ll become a little more oriented with the way Second Life’s world is organized.

Membership Has Its Privileges
If you just want to explore Second Life, you can do it for free. A basic membership costs nothing and allows you to create an avatar and look around the world. If you want to buy land, you’ll need to upgrade to a premium membership, which costs $9.95 a month. Concierge members are those who spend more than $125 a month on land-use fees. These users have access to an extensive support network.

The Geography of Second Life

Second Life’s controls can be a little intimidating for new users. Its interface includes several menus, buttons and keyboard shortcuts. Many users find the learning curve too steep and quickly give up — only about 10 percent of all users who make accounts ever bother to return after their first visit [source: New Scientist].

Avatars can get around Second Life by walking, flying or teleporting to their destination. Residents make their avatars walk around by using the arrow keys. Pushing the up arrow key makes the avatar walk forward, for example. Moving the mouse changes the position of the avatar’s head, making it look around.

At the bottom of the resident’s screen are several buttons, including the fly button. Clicking on this button will launch the resident’s avatar into the air, allowing him or her to fly around like Superman. Flying lets avatars navigate over water or avoid other obstacles they might encounter on the ground.

Teleporting is the fastest method of travel in Second Life. Residents can teleport their avatars by opening up the map function. A window appears with the Map of Second Life, and the resident simply double-clicks on a destination to teleport there. Some locations may have restrictions, such as an island reserved for private use by another resident. In these cases, the avatar teleports as close to the location as possible without violating access restrictions. Without permission, the avatar can’t enter restricted areas — the resident would have to ask the area’s owner for an invitation.

Residents can also choose a few different ways to communicate with other users. They can opt to use the Voice feature, which allows residents with microphones to talk to one another live. Residents can also use a chat box, which opens a window in which users can type messages. Chat box conversations are broadcast to everyone in the immediate area, so for more private conversations, residents can instant message another user.

Pie-shaped menus include options that allow residents to interact with other users or objects. Right clicking on objects pulls up the menu, displaying a list of things the resident can do. Another way you can interact is to use gestures. Gestures are animations that can convey a mood or simulate an action. Second Life includes a tool that lets you design your own gestures, or you can get them by buying them or trading with another resident.

In the next section, we’ll learn about the engine running Second Life and what kind of computer equipment you’ll need to explore the community.

Hurry Up and Wait

One reason some users give up on Second Life is lag. Lag is a delay between the time you give your avatar a command and the time it actually responds. Lag happens when servers are overworked or when the connection between your computer and the servers is weak. Longtime residents accept lag as part of the Second Life experience, but for many new visitors it is off-putting.

Second Life’s Tech Specs

As of October 2007, Second Life uses the Havok 1physics engine. This software simulates real physics within a virtual environment. The physics engine determines how avatars and objects behave within the virtual world, including collision detection (the engine tells the software when two items are touching and how each should react), vehicle dynamics and what animations look like.

The more sophisticated the physics engine, the more realistic simulations using it will be. Linden Lab announced that it is upgrading Second Life to the Havok 4 physics engine. Games that use the Havok 4 engine include Halo 2 and Halo 3, BioShock, Medal of Honor Heroes and Full Spectrum Warrior. As of October 2007, the Havok 4 Second Life engine was still in the beta testing stage.

Residents can hear and view streaming audio and video inside Second Life. Second Life supports audio in MPEG and Ogg Vorbis formats. Streaming video requires the user to install Quicktime. Residents can choose to display video on specific surfaces in the land they own. To do this, they designate the surface’s texture as a media surface. If any other surface within that resident’s land has the same texture, it will also display the streaming video. Since this can cause confusion, residents should make sure the surface they choose has a unique texture within their land.

­Second Life requires a fairly hefty setup on the user’s end. It’s compatible both with PCs and Mac computers. Technical requirements for the PC include:

A Cable or DSL connection
Windows 2000, XP or Vista operating system (Linden Lab recommends XP or Vista)
An 800 MHz Pentium III processor or better (at least 1.5 GHz recommended)
512 MB of computer memory (1 GB recommended)
An nVidia GeForce 2, ATI Radeon 8500 or Intel 945GM graphics card or better
The Mac requirements include the cable or DSL connection, the same amount of computer memory and graphics card requirements as the PC, and:

Mac OS X 10.3.9 or better
1 GHz G4 or better processor
Next, we’ll take an even closer look at creating objects in Second Life.

Textures
Residents can apply textures to the surface of objects. A texture is just an image file designed to give a surface a particular look. Examples of textures include wood grain, brick patterns and metallic finishes. Many residents create textures in graphics programs like Photoshop or Paint Pro and then import the files into Second Life.

Creating Things in Second Life
With a little practice, you can build your resident a pretty sweet ride.
With a little practice, you can build your resident a pretty sweet ride.
SECOND LIFE
Absolutely every object, building and flying car you see in Second Life was created by a Resident. The basics of object creation are easy, but it takes a lot of practice and some serious scripting capabilities to make the really impressive stuff. Fortunately, there’s a designated place in Second Life for you to practice these skills: the sandbox. The sandbox is a public space where residents practice building different objects.

You can open the object creation tool three ways:

Click the “build” button at the bottom of the screen
Right-click on the ground or any empty space and choose “create” from the options wheel
Press cmd-4 (ctrl-4 on Mac)
When you open the object creation tool, the default window is “create,” indicated by a magic wand symbol. At the top of the window is a list of the 15 prims — basic shapes like cubes, cones and tubes — available to Second Life users. A seasoned builder knows how to stretch, cut, link and multiply these prims to create everything from a hotel to a Ferrari.

Here are some of the basic building options:

Create an object by choosing a prim shape and clicking on the ground or any open space.
In the “edit” window, you can move, rotate, stretch or change the texture of the object. (The default texture is wood.)
Use the “object” tab in the edit window to enter precise measurements, rotation angles and more advanced features like tapering and twisting.
In the “texture” tab, you can choose from existing textures in your Inventory and edit their color and shading.
You can link objects together by selecting multiple shapes and pressing ctrl-L.
Copy objects by simply selecting an object, holding down the Shift key and dragging the object.
Check the “use grid” box in the edit menu to see helpful on-screen rulers as you stretch, move and rotate your objects.
With just these simple tools and key controls, you can make almost any stationary object in Second Life. But if you want to bring your creations to life — give them movement and interactivity — you’ll have to learn the Linden Scripting Language (LSL). LSL is most similar to the C programming language. There are many Web sites and online tutorials for learning basic and advanced LSL scripts. You can even find a few at the Second Life forums.

To attach a script to a Second Life object, click on the “scripts” tab in the edit menu and click “new script.” Within the script editor is a pull-down menu with dozens of common scripting commands. Although, without a basic understanding of LSL, you can’t just piece together a working script with those commands.

One of the cool things about Second Life is that you retain intellectual property rights for every object you create in-world. With those rights, you can choose to allow other people to edit your objects or not. You can also assign a price tag to an object and sell it on the Second Life marketplace, which we’ll learn more about later.

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at Second Life residents.

Second Life Population and Rules

ronments and engines. Filmmakers can create avatars in Second Life and use them like digital puppets to create stories, then upload the films to Web pages like machinima.com. Some traditional shows have featured action in Second Life as well, including an episode of “The Office” and a plotline in “CSI: New York.”

Second Life Population and Rules
Teen Second Life
Teen Second Life’s home page is where teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 can create an account.
Teen Second Life’s home page is where teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 can create an account.
HOWSTUFFWORKS
Because Second Life places age restrictions on its residents, teenagers can’t participate in the virtual world. It’s not that Second Life is exclusive — it’s that Linden Lab wants to protect teens from the sometimes bawdy content that residents stumble across. But there’s a separate virtual world altogether for users between the ages of 13 and 17: Teen Second Life.

Teen Second Life is a completely separate three-dimensionalvirtual world exclusively for people between the ages of 13 and 17. Teen Second Life operates on the Teen Second Life grid, which is inaccessible from the regular Second Life Grid.

Teen Second Life shares nearly all of the same features as regular Second Life. A basic account is free, but a premium account allows you to buy land. Teens can customize their avatars, build an endless variety of objects, and buy and sell in Linden dollars. They can also chat and send in-world instant messages, just like the older residents.

Safety is obviously a big priority whenever a teen community is concerned. Linden Lab staffs the teen world with liaisons who are there to help teens find their way around and to keep an eye out for potential problems. Here are some of Linden Lab’s safety tips for Teen Second Life:

Never reveal real-world personal information to anyone
Never agree to meet someone in the real world
Keep passwords a secret
Log off immediately if you feel uncomfortable or harassed at any time
Report any strange or inappropriate behavior by going to the “help” menu and clicking “report abuse”
Share your Second Life experience with your parents
The virtual world of Teen Second Life is tiny compared to regular Second Life. According to Linden Lab statistics, Teen grid avatars make up less than one percent of active Second Life users. Teen Second Life receives heavy competition from similar teen virtual worlds like Virtual MTV and Habbo. But no matter the returning rates of these young residents, they at least have a virtual world outlet provided by the Teen Second Life community.

Part of belonging to the virtual world of Second Life includes participating in its economy. Next, we’ll learn how users make a buck in the virtual world and how some make real world money, too.

Second Life Economy

Some people believe that the future of the Internet is in three-dimensionalvirtual worlds like Second Life, where users will navigate through creative landscapes in search of information and entertainment. As a result, some organizations have jumped into Second Life with hopes that they can get in on the ground floor before the community’s popularity explodes. More than 100 companies and organizations have an online presence in Second Life. Many own islands and host events like press conferences or concerts. Others use Second Life to promote charitable organizations or political philosophies. Some companies create a space in Second Life with no clear strategy on what to do with it, which usually backfires — no one wants to go to a location that’s just a big advertisement.

Other companies try to avoid that mistake. Coca-Cola, for example, held a competition in which residents submitted designs for a virtual vending machine. The winner of the competition will star in a video about designing a Second Life object. By creating interactive content, Coke avoided the pitfall of jumping into Second Life without contributing to the world’s content.

Other companies use similar strategies. Reebok let users design shoes for their avatars, then order a custom-made copy of the shoes for themselves to wear in real life [source: New York Times]. Starwood Hotels used Second Life to test building and room designs, taking suggestions from residents and incorporating them into real building plans [source: Business Week]. Some companies have even used Second Life as a recruitment tool, seeking out residents who are particularly adept at creating user-generated content [source: CNN Money].

While companies continue to experiment with an online presence in Second Life, a few Internet security experts caution that the virtual world isn’t the safest environment in which to conduct business. They point out that griefers can find ways to listen in on confidential conversations or sabotage a company’s Second Life location. Most companies only use Second Life as a marketing tool rather than for remote meetings. Some companies are creating virtual environments of their own in order to avoid the security dangers in Second Life.

Some colleges even have a presence in Second Life, holding classes and studying human psychology and sociology in the virtual world. In 2006, Harvard University held a class called CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion. It was open to the general public of Second Life, where residents could view lectures and participate in discussions [source: Harvard]. Other colleges have experimented with holding classes in the virtual world with varying degrees of success.

Second Life might seem strange and foreign to those of us who are only used to the real world but to residents, it’s an important community that’s just as valid as any physical environment. Still, whether Second Life marks the future of the Internet or just a passing fad remains to be seen.

To learn more about Second Life and other topics, explore the links that follow.

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